Sunday 7 February 2010

Holding early human stone tools

Today I had an extraordinary experience, precipitated by my visit to the British Museum on something of a whim. Listening to the Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, my imagination had been captured by the descriptions of early stone tools - a chopper and a hand axe - featured in the first couple of programmes in the series. These tools, which were found in the Olduvai Gorge, in modern-day Tanzania, are examples of the oldest known objects made by humans. What is fascinating is that their simple design belies a capacity for mental forethought. They are tangible evidence that the humans living 2 million years ago had the intelligence to conceive of and the dexterity to manufacture tools.
I had been visiting friends in London, and before leaving I decided to pass by the museum to see these relics for myself. I found the stone tools in a dim room in the near corner of the museum, shielded by glass cases. After reading the descriptions and wandering round I noticed a lady showing some children a bunch of similar-looking objects she had in a wooden box. I asked if they were casts and could hardly believe it when she told me it was the real thing. Two stone hand axes, 1 million years old, made from basalt and quartz, and a basalt chopper, 2 million years old - the oldest items in the museum. To hold in the palm of my hand a tool fashioned 2 million years ago by a cognizant proto-human, I could imagine the heavy object fitting just as neatly into the hand of its designer, and in trying to understand the way it might have been used to butcher carcasses, pound meat and scrape flesh off bones I felt I got a brief glimpse into the intentions of its designer. The study of evolution rarely affords such vivid connections with its subject matter, and I felt privileged to stumble across such an encounter today.

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