Tools Make Us Human

One of the most important things about being human that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we use tools. From the earliest cavemen using crude hammers and axes, to the advanced iPad user of today, we have always been on a quest to make our everyday tasks easier. As our everyday tasks get more complex, so do the machines that help us along the way.
Dating back as far as 2.6 million years, stone tools were being used by hominids, for uses like hunting, cooking, foraging and even building. This did not do much to separate us from the wild though, as apes are known to use simple tools for hammering, piercing and other crude actions. Fast forward around 1 million years though, and we see a huge leap in the intricacy of tools.

Around the time when Homo Erectus emerged (somewhere between 1.3 to 1.8 million years ago), we have discovered that tools such as rough hand axes and cleavers were being used.  One of the greatest changes in the use of tools in this era was that they changed from temporary, single-use objects to possessions that one would make and keep for repeated use. Instead of dropping them after one use, they would be carried around, and therefore, clearly carried value.
Scientists are beginning to look at the earliest known examples of hominid tools to try and gain insight into the inner workings of our brains. Many expect that our ability to create tools comes from our mirror neurons – clusters of cells that seem to fire not only when we perform actions, but when we witness the same action being performed by another. These mirror neurons allow us, as humans, to pretend to be in another person’s “mental shoes”, and thereby recreate their actions with greater ease.
This ability for advanced mimicry led to millions of stone tools being created, and subsequently found by archaeologists, who point to them as indicators of our progressively larger brains as we evolved from Home Erectus to Homo Sapiens.
It may be that apes were also tool users, but what made the hominids special was the constant refining and improvement of tools. From the earliest known tools, simple stones broken to have jagged edges in the Olduvai Gorge (referred to as Oldowan tools), they became sharper by means of flaking the rock to create more specialized pointed tools that belong in what is referred to as the Mousterian industry – due to them being found in Le Moustier, France.
The refinement of tools continues to this day, and who knows what new solutions we will have in the future. After all, a new solution can only arise once we find a new problem to solve – and of these, there are many.
Jeff is a guest author for Hans Von Der Heyde, specialising in custom machine design.