Ancient Humans' Use of Small Tools Is a Huge Reason We Are Unique

Humans' love of miniaturization allowed for our global spread.

Tools have long been a centerpiece of humans’ ongoing quest to understand our own evolution. Man created tools, and so man has been judged as uniquely, cognitively complex. The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it’s increasingly obvious that toolmaking and tool use do not make humans as unique as we’d like to think: Many animals, from orangutans to crows, make tools, too.

What actually makes us special, paleoanthropologists argue in an upcoming overview, is the uniquely human practice of creating small tools. In the March/April edition of Evolutionary Anthropology, a team of researchers contends that previous researchers underestimated the extent to which prehistoric toolmakers “went small.” They reason that the creation of miniature tools was actually a central component of early technology, and the practice of making these appliances allowed us to thrive.

“The making and use of small tools was a key part of our ancestors’ adaptive suite of behaviors,” overview co-author and Emory College postdoctoral fellow Justin Pargeter, Ph.D., tells Inverse. “The ability to deploy technologies across wide geographic ranges and environments certainly contributed to our global spread.”

Humans needed a bigger, heavier tool kit to create hand axes versus small, efficient flakes.

Emory University

When Pargeter says small, he means small — tools that an adult can enclose in the palm of their hand and hold comfortably between the tips of their thumb and index finger. These small tools, he believes, have been overlooked in academia’s desire to make big discoveries.

Prior to this overview, miniaturization was considered more of a recent phenomenon — the creation of items like the microchip that are considered modern. Here, Pargeter and his team argue that the process of miniaturization is a long-term technological phenomenon, and making things like the microchip is a natural progression of what our ancestors started millions of years ago.

Pargeter and co-author John Shea, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, note previous research has demonstrated that stone flakes less than an inch in length have been found within the archaeological record on every continent. These flakes, while small, were efficient at piercing, cutting, and scraping.

Pargeter and Shea considered the introduction of the stone flake 2 million years ago as the first inflection point for miniaturization; its use was not only widespread but also essential to daily tasks. The second spike in miniaturization technology, they argue, happened around 100,000 years ago with the invention of lightweight stone inserts necessary for high-speed weaponry. Another burst of miniature tools happened about 17,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. Small quartz flakes, the size of a penny, were used to both hunt and cut, acting as a sort of Swiss Army Knife.

The size and efficiency of all these tools contributed to human survival and success. Unlike heavy, heaping items, miniatures were light to carry and easy to create. But to create something as small and as strong as a miniature tool, you need something that no other animal has: human hands.

The finding of a small crystal flake inspired Justin Pargeter to investigate Stone Age miniaturization. 

Emory University

“Miniaturized technologies require a level of manual dexterity that is a uniquely evolved trait in hominins,” Pargeter says. “This dexterity is built on the shape of our hands and especially our finger morphology. Non-human animals are creative with the tools they use, but most, if not all, lack the manual dexterity to make and use such small tools.”

A look at our modern world shows that we haven’t lost our penchant for miniatures — or our belief in their usefulness. Pargeter points out that the pursuit of microchips, nanofibers, and nanoparticles is a continuation of our natural inclination towards innovating solutions to pressing problems. Solutions, we’ve learned, can come in all sizes. There’s also a possibility that our history of going small is linked to an overall enchantment with miniatures.

“I think humans have an innate fascination with miniaturized worlds,” Pargeter reasons, “with seeing the real world as through a magnifying glass.”

Lithic miniaturization was one of our Pleistocene ancestors’ more pervasive stone tool production strategies and it marks a key difference between human and non-human tool use. Frequently equated with “microlith” production, lithic miniaturization is a more complex, variable, and evolutionarily consequential phenomenon involving small backed tool, bladelets, small retouched tools, flakes, and small cores. In this review, we evaluate lithic miniaturization’s various technological and functional elements. We examine archeological assumptions about why prehistoric stoneworkers engaged in processes of lithic miniaturization by making small stone tools, small elongated tools, and small retouched and backed tools. We point to functional differences that motivate different aspects of lithic miniaturization and several instances where archeological systematics have possibly led archaeologists to false negative findings about lithic miniaturization. Finally, we suggest productive avenues by which archaeologists can move closer to understanding the complex evolutionary forces driving variability in lithic miniaturization.
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