From Stone Age Chips to Microchips

How Tiny Tools Made Us Human

Anthropologists have long made the case that tool-making is one of the key behaviors that separated our human ancestors from other primates. A new paper, however, argues that it was not tool-making that set hominins apart — it was the miniaturization of tools.

Just as tiny transistors transformed electronics a few decades ago, and scientists are now challenged to make them even smaller, our Stone Age ancestors felt the urge to make tiny tools.

“It’s a need that we’ve been perennially faced with and driven by,” says Justin Pargeter, an anthropologist at Emory University and lead author of the paper. “Miniaturization is the thing that we do.”

Photo of Justin Pargeter.

Going small may have helped some humans survive the last period of rapid climate change, 17,000 years ago, says Justin Pargeter, shown above in Emory's Paleolithic Technology Lab.

Going small may have helped some humans survive the last period of rapid climate change, 17,000 years ago, says Justin Pargeter, shown above in Emory's Paleolithic Technology Lab.

The journal Evolutionary Anthropology is publishing the paper — the first extensive overview of prehistoric tool miniaturization. It proposes that miniaturization is a central tendency in hominin technologies going back at least 2.6 million years.

“When other apes used stone tools, they chose to go big and stayed in the forests where they evolved,” says co-author John Shea, professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University. “Hominins chose to go small, went everywhere, and transformed otherwise hostile habitats to suit our changing needs.”

Small flakes were like disposable razorblades or paperclips are today — pervasive, easy to make and easy to replace.

The paper reviews how stone flakes less than an inch in length — used for piercing, cutting and scraping — pop up in the archeological record at sites on every continent, going back to some of the earliest known stone tool assemblages. These small stone flakes, Pargeter says, were like the disposable razor blades or paperclips of today — pervasive, easy to make and easily replaced.

Justin Pargeter holding a hafted tool.

Justin Pargeter makes tools himself to better understand how our ancestors learned these skills, and how they may have used the tools.

He identifies three inflection points for miniaturization in hominin evolution. The first spike occurred around two million years ago, driven by our ancestors’ increasing dependence on stone flakes in place of nails and teeth for cutting, slicing and piercing tasks. A second spike occurred sometime after 100,000 years ago with the development of high-speed weaponry, such as the bow and arrow, which required light-weight stone inserts. A third spike in miniaturization occurred about 17,000 years ago. The last Ice Age was ending, forcing some humans to adapt to rapid climate change, rising sea levels and increased population densities. These changes increased the need to conserve resources, including the particular rocks and minerals needed to make tools.

A close up of hands using a small stone flake to cut meat

Pargeter demonstrates how our early ancestors likely used small stone flakes for cutting meat.

Pargeter demonstrates how our early ancestors likely used small stone flakes for cutting meat.

A native of South Africa, Pargeter co-directs field work in that country along its rugged and remote Indian Ocean coastline and nearby inland mountains. He is also a post-doctoral fellow in Emory’s Center for Mind, Brain and Culture and the Department of Anthropology's Paleolithic Technology Laboratory, where he collaborates on experimental archeology projects with the lab’s director, Dietrich Stout.

Eventually, our ancestors learned to haft tiny flakes, like these that Pargeter made from quartz, onto a base.

The lab members actually make stone tools to better understand how our ancestors learned these skills, and how that process shaped our evolution. Stout, assistant professor of anthropology at Emory, focuses on hand axes, dating back more than 500,000 years. These larger tools are considered a turning point in human biological and cognitive evolution, due to the complexity involved in making them.

Pargeter’s work on tiny tools adds another facet to the lab’s investigation of human evolution. “He’s exploring what may have led to the compulsion to produce these tiny instruments — essentially the relationship between the tools and the human body, brain and the probable uses of the tools,” Stout says.

Justin Pargeter holding a hafted tool.

Justin Pargeter makes tools himself to better understand how our ancestors learned these skills, and how they may have used the tools.

Justin Pargeter makes tools himself to better understand how our ancestors learned these skills, and how they may have used the tools.

Close up of Pargeter's hand holding a hafted tool.

Eventually, our ancestors learned to haft tiny flakes, like these that Pargeter made from quartz, onto a base.

Eventually, our ancestors learned to haft tiny flakes, like these that Pargeter made from quartz, onto a base.

Image of a hand axe next to tiny stone flakes.

The iconic, tear-drop shaped hand axe, which filled a human palm, required a large toolkit to produce, in contrast to a toolkit for tiny flakes.

Tiny stone flake tools.

While dwarfed by the hand axe, tiny stone flake tools played a crucial role in human evolution, Pargeter says.

Close up of tiny stone flake tools.

While dwarfed by the hand axe, tiny stone flake tools played a crucial role in human evolution, Pargeter says.

The iconic, tear-drop shaped hand axe, which filled a human palm, required a large toolkit to produce, in contrast to a toolkit for tiny flakes.

While dwarfed by the hand axe, tiny stone flake tools played a crucial role in human evolution, Pargeter says.

While dwarfed by the hand axe, tiny stone flake tools played a crucial role in human evolution, Pargeter says.

When looking for a PhD thesis topic, Pargeter first focused on collections of larger implements, considered typical of the Stone Age tool kit. He pored over artifacts from a South African site called Boomplaas that were in storage at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town. As he rummaged through a bag labelled as waste — containing small flakes thought to be left over from making larger tools — something caught his eye. A sliver of crystal quartz looked like it had been shaped using a highly technical method called pressure flaking.

“It was diminutive, about the size of a small raisin, and weighed less than half a penny,” he recalls. “You could literally blow it off your finger.”

The Boomplaas quartz flake.

The tiny crystal quartz flake that first caught Pargeter's eye. (Photos and graphic by Justin Pargeter.)

The tiny crystal quartz flake that first caught Pargeter's eye. (Photos and graphic by Justin Pargeter.)

Pargeter examined the flake under a magnifying glass. He noticed it had a distinctive, stair-step fracture on its tip that previous experimental research showed to be associated with damage caused in hunting.

“It suddenly occurred to me that archeologists may have missed a major component of our stone tool record,” Pargeter says. “In our desire to make ‘big’ discoveries we may have overlooked tiny, but important, details. A whole technology could lay hidden behind our methods, relegated to bags considered waste material.”

Crystal quartz, used in today's electronics,
was also an important Stone Age raw material.

So how to interpret the use of a hunting tool so tiny that you could easily blow it off your finger?

Pargeter began thinking of this question in terms of the age of the flake — about 17,000 years — and the environment at the time. The last Ice Age was ending and massive melting of ice at the poles caused the global sea-level to rise. In parts of South Africa, the rising oceans swallowed an area the size of Ireland. As the coastal marshes and grasslands disappeared — along with much of the game and aquatic life — the hunter-gatherers living there fled inland to sites like Boomplaas, currently located about 80 kilometers inland. The mountains around Boomplaas provided permanent springs and other dependable freshwater sources.

Watch a video interview of Pargeter explaining his research.

The climate, however, was less predictable, with sudden shifts in temperature and rainfall. Vegetation was shifting dramatically, temperatures were rising and large mammals were increasingly scarce. Archaeology from Boomplaas shows that people increasingly ate small game, like hares, that is difficult to catch and yields limited nutrition.

“These are low-reward food sources, indicating a foraging stress signal,” Pargeter says. “Boomplaas might have even served as a type of refugee camp, with groups of hunter-gatherers moving away from the coast, trying to survive in marginal environments as resources rapidly depleted and climate change ratcheted up.”

Arrow points a little less than an inch across were already in the archaeological literature, but the Boomplaas crystal quartz flake was half that size. In order to bring down an animal, Pargeter realized, the Boomplaas flake would need poison on its tip — derived either from plants or insects — and a high-speed delivery system, such as a bow and arrow.

A hafted flake.

How the Boomplaas flake may have been hafted for use in hunting.

How the Boomplaas flake may have been hafted for use in hunting.

Pargeter used his own extensive knowledge of prehistoric tool-making and archaeology to hypothesize that the tiny flake could have been hafted, using a plant-based resin, onto a link shaft, also likely made of a plant-based material, such as a reed. That link shaft, about the length of a finger, would in turn fit onto a light arrow shaft.

“The link shaft goes into the animal, sacrificing the small blade, but the arrow shaft pops out so you can retain this more costly component,” he says. “Our ancestors were masters of aerodynamics and acted like engineers, rather than what we think of as ‘cave people.’ They built redundancy into their technological systems, allowing them to easily repair their tools and to reduce the impact of errors."

A cave at Boomplaas.

Heating silica-rich rocks turned them into better material for making small tools.

Our ancestors were also connoisseurs of the type of fine-grained rocks needed for tool-making. Evidence suggests they knew how to slowly heat silcrete, a silica-rich rock, in open campfires or buried under the soil, to transform its coarse, rough grain to a finer, more malleable material better suited to making smaller tools.

“For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, these rocks were like the steel and plastic of their day,” Pargeter explains.

Crystal quartz, important to modern-day electronics, was also an important Stone Age raw material. Its prism shape allowed an expert toolmaker to quickly strike off small elongated flakes. And quartz’s piezoelectric properties — its ability to generate an electric charge — may have added to its ancient allure.

Crystal quartz lighting up.

A piece of crystal quartz lights up as a toolmaker strikes it.

A piece of crystal quartz lights up as a toolmaker strikes it.

“Hammering quartz crystal produces a tiny electrical current which releases a bolt of light,” Pargeter explains. “Imagine a toolmaker sitting in a dim rock shelter 20,000 years ago. He or she hits a piece of rock and the crystal lights up. It must have looked incredible — these toolmakers were creating galaxies of light in their hands.”

Supplies of such vital toolmaking raw materials, however, were likely diminished as the rising oceans consumed land and people became more crowded together, driving them to more carefully conserve what they could find on the landscape.

Drawing of a chimpanzee hand.

The chimpanzee hand can use a large rock as a tool to crack nuts.

Drawing of a human hand.

The human hand has evolved a precision grip that lends itself to miniaturized technology. (Drawings by John Shea)

The chimpanzee hand can use a large rock as a tool to crack nuts.

The human hand has evolved a precision grip that lends itself to miniaturized technology. (Drawings by John Shea)

As paleoanthropologists are faced with more than three million years of hominin “stuff,” one of the perennial questions they keep seeking to answer is, what makes us humans unique? “We’ve typically said that tool use makes us human, but that’s kind of buckled under,” Pargeter says, as evidence of tool use by other animals accumulates.

Macaques, for example, use rocks to smash apart oysters. Chimpanzees use rocks as hammers and anvils to crack nuts and they modify sticks to dig and fish for termites. These tools, however, are large. “The hands of other primates are not evolved for repeated fine manipulation in high-force tasks,” Pargeter says. “We’ve evolved a unique precision grip that ratchets up our ability for miniaturized technology.”

Humans are also the masters of dispersing into novel environments, unlike other primates that remained in the landscapes of their ancestors. “Smaller tools are the choice of technology for a mobile, dispersing population,” Pargeter says. “When Homo sapiens left Africa they weren’t carrying bulky hand axes, but bows and arrows and smaller stone implements.”