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The Most Important Event In History (Big Brains Require An Explanation, Part VII)

Timeline of hominin evolution

Click to see the timeline again at full size.

We’re taught, as schoolchildren (usually around sixth grade) that the invention of agriculture is not only the most important event in human history…it’s when history began! Leaving aside for the moment the awkward facts that its effects on human health and lifespan were so catastrophic as to move Jared Diamond to call agriculture “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race”—and that the invention of agriculture apparently coincides with the invention of organized warfare, among other “inhuman” practices—we need to ask ourselves which milestone is more important…

…a change in technology, or the invention of technology itself?

(This is Part VII of a multi-part series. Go back to Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, or Part VI.)

The First Technology: Sharp Rocks

The most important event in history happened approximately 2.6 MYA. First, some genius-level australopithecine (probably with the Pliocene version of Asperger’s) made an amazing discovery:

“If I hit two rocks together hard enough, sometimes one of them gets sharper.”

However, this discovery is insufficient by itself, for reasons we learned in previous installments:

“Intelligence isn’t enough to create culture. In order for culture to develop, the next generation must learn behavior from their parents and conspecifics, not by discovering it themselves—and they must pass it on to their own children.”
“The developmental plasticity to learn is at least as important as the intelligence to discover. Otherwise, each generation has to make all the same discoveries all over again.”
-The Paleo Diet For Australopithecines

It’s likely that the idea of smashing rocks together to create a sharp edge occurred many times, to many different australopithecines. The real milestone was when the other, non-genius members of the tribe understood why the sharp rock their compatriot had was sharper than the ones they found lying about; learned how to make their own sharp rocks by watching their compatriot making them; and perhaps, having learned, actively attempted to teach others how it was done.

Yes, chimpanzees use sticks to fish for termites, and short, sharp branches to spear colobus monkeys in their dens. It’s likely that our ancestors did similar things—though since wood tends not to fossilize, and a termite stick looks much like any other stick, we’re unlikely to find any evidence.

Most importantly, though, and as we’ve seen in the last six installments, the archaeological record describes slow, steady changes in hominin morphology* up until the discovery of stone tools…

…after which the rate of change accelerates rapidly. So while there may have been previous hominin technologies, none of them had the impact of sharp rocks (“lithic technologies”). We’ll explore those changes in future installments.

(* Morphology = the study of physical structure and form)

What Use Is A Sharp Rock?

“And what use is a sharp rock?” we might ask.

Well, to a first approximation, human history is sharp rocks! Recall that anatomically modern humans appear between 200 KYa and 100 KYa, depending on region…so from their first use perhaps 3.4 million years ago, to their purposeful creation 2.6 MYA, and until the first use of copper perhaps 7,000 years ago (which postdates agriculture by several thousand years), the entire narrative of human evolution has been powered by sharp rocks.

The answer to this question (“What use is a sharp rock?”) shouldn’t be a surprise—especially given the Dikika evidence we explored in Part IV. And since the abstract below is a dense brick of text containing much important information, I’ll split it into pieces and discuss each one. (All emphases are mine.)

Journal of Human Evolution
Volume 48, Issue 2, February 2005, Pages 109–121
Cutmarked bones from Pliocene archaeological sites at Gona, Afar, Ethiopia: implications for the function of the world’s oldest stone tools
Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, Travis Rayne Pickering, Sileshi Semaw, Michael J. Rogers

“Newly recorded archaeological sites at Gona (Afar, Ethiopia) preserve both stone tools and faunal remains. These sites have also yielded the largest sample of cutmarked bones known from the time interval 2.58–2.1 million years ago (Ma).”

“Cutmarked bones” = bones scored by the scraping and chopping of sharp rocks.

“Most of the cutmarks on the Gona fauna possess obvious macroscopic (e.g., deep V-shaped cross-sections) and microscopic (e.g., internal microstriations, Herzian cones, shoulder effects) features that allow us to identify them confidently as instances of stone tool-imparted damage caused by hominid butchery.”

The cutmarks are not the result of any natural process. They are the result of deliberate butchery—hominids scraping meat off of bones, or smashing them for marrow.

“In addition, preliminary observations of the anatomical placement of cutmarks on several of the recovered bone specimens suggest that Gona hominids may have eviscerated carcasses and defleshed the fully muscled upper and intermediate limb bones of ungulates—activities that further suggest that Late Pliocene hominids may have gained early access to large mammal carcasses.”

Mark those words “early access”, because they’re extremely important. But what do they mean?

These observations support the hypothesis that the earliest stone artifacts functioned primarily as butchery tools and also imply that hunting and/or aggressive scavenging of large ungulate carcasses may have been part of the behavioral repertoire of hominids by c. 2.5 Ma, although a larger sample of cutmarked bone specimens is necessary to support the latter inference.”

“Early access” means that by 2.6 MYA, our ancestors didn’t always have to wait until the lions, giant hyenas, saber-toothed cats, and other predators and scavengers all ate their fill before running in and grabbing a few bones to gnaw scraps from and break for marrow. It means that we were very likely to either have killed these large animals ourselves—or to have been fearsome enough to “aggressively scavenge”, which means somehow forcing the killers away from the carcass.

Since our ancestors were much smaller than modern humans, and the predators much larger and more numerous than today’s, I believe that hunting is more likely than aggressive scavenging. For instance:

Yes, Gryka could do this.

Pachycrocuta: 1   Your head: 0
Click for an article about the skull-crushing hyenas of Dragon Bone Hill.

And a moment’s thought should convince anyone that a large dead animal wasn’t much good to our ancestors without sharp rocks to butcher it with. (Imagine trying to gnaw your way through elephant hide—or even antelope hide.)


The most important event in our ancestors’ history was learning how to make sharp rocks from another australopithecine. The technology of sharp rocks took our ancestors all the way from 2.6 million years ago to the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age, just a few thousand years ago.

Furthermore, as we learned in Part II, the Paleolithic is defined by the use of stone tools known to be made by hominins. Therefore, since the Gona tools are the earliest currently known, the Paleolithic age begins here, at 2.6 MYA…

…and so must any discussion of the “paleolithic diet”.

Live in freedom, live in beauty.


This series will continue! In future installments, we’ll look at what happens once australopithecines start regularly taking advantage of sharp rocks.

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