|10 September 2018
In a quarry in England an extraordinary insight into evolution of human intelligence
Archaeologists have demonstrated for the first time that a particular type of stone tool used some half a million years ago could not have been made without modern human-like hands.
The study - led by Dr Alastair Key of the university's School of Anthropology and Conservation and based on beautifully made prehistoric tools found at Boxgrove in West Sussex - reveals for the first time that early Stone Age humans had modern-style human hands, despite the fact that they belonged to a human species ancestral to our own but which became extinct more than 300,000 years ago.
The specific stone tools which were analysed as part of the study were sophisticated flint hand axes, which had required a special technique to shape them, known to prehistorians as 'platform preparation'. Ancient toolmakers employed a two-stage approach. First they would successively 'soften up' small portions of the flint's surface, so as to then be able to more accurately remove flakes from it, thus creating a much more sophisticated and effective tool with a better and more refined cutting edge.
By attaching electronic sensors to the hands of skilled modern flint knappers, archaeologists from the University of Kent were able to demonstrate that 'platform preparation' was only achievable by prehistoric people equipped with anatomically modern human-like hands.
The research demonstrates that the Boxgrove early humans probably had significantly stronger grips compared to earlier populations, revelaing that by 500,000 BCE, humans had the physical capability needed to make sophisticated hand axes. This in turn implies that they were also theoretically able to make a large range of other artefacts that required strong, dextrous hands - things made out of wood, antler and bone, as well as stone.
Another set of similarly sophisticated tools have recently been found in South Africa (also dating from around 500,000 years ago) - and there are indications that 'platform preparation' was being used for stone tool manufacture in Ethiopia as early as 850,000 years ago. So the Boxgrove, the South African and the Ethiopian evidence now helps demonstrate quite clearly that humanity developed its manual dexterity, its intelligence and its manufacturing ability as part of a long interactive process across at least two and probably three continents.
Edited from The Independent (23 August 2018)
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