Doug Bonderud

Jun 24th 2020

Homo Erectus Were the First Historical Handymen


Humans have done some amazing things with tools. There’s the Aqueduct of Segovia, with its precisely cut Roman stone arches towering above and snaking below the Spanish landscape for miles. Or consider the pyramids at Giza; blocks of stone were cut using copper chisels and drills, “tumbled” using levers and pulled along wooden sledges to the building site. More than 4,500 year later these monuments still stand, with the tallest rising nearly 500 feet to dominate the desert skyline.

The origin of these handyman habits is our early hominid ancestor, Homo erectus (H.erectus). In fact, recent discoveries suggest that this prehistoric group may have broadened their building and broken horizons with the use of multiple stone age tools. Here’s how they doubled down on DIY.

Homo Same-ians?

According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, African H. erectus “are the oldest known early humans to have possessed modern human-like body proportions with relatively elongated legs and shorter arms compared to the size of the torso.” These features suggest a body adapted for life on the ground — similar to Homo sapiens (H. sapiens). In fact, these close cousins outpaced our historic span significantly — H. erectus walked the Earth for well over a million years, in contrast to H. sapiens trifling 300,000.

These prehistoric people also share a critical human characteristic: tool use. What’s more, H. erectus hand axe improvements get the nod for earliest stone age tool tweak, putting them head and shoulders above the competition when it came to conquering the landscape. As noted by Inverse, Homo erectus also enjoyed a diverse diet — recent analysis suggests these proto-people “had a varied, omnivorous diet, dining on eggs, insects, plants and more.”

But considerable commonalities come with a question: Why did H. sapiens survive as H. erectus slipped into the sunset? One popular theory posits a lack of flexibility: While our ancestors iterated and innovated, H. erectus stagnated and starved. New discoveries, however, make this suggestion suspect. These early humans may have multi-tasked — and multi-tooled — much better than previously thought.

He’s a Tool Operator

This stone age tools shake-up started with the discovery of multiple skull fragments in Ethiopia dating back 1.26 and 1.5 million years, respectively. As noted by New Scientist, the skulls were found directly alongside stone tools, which, according to research team member Michael Rogers of Southern Connecticut State University, “is good evidence that these hominins were the creators of those artefacts.” Since they probably weren’t carrying them around as keepsakes, the find offers insight into the tools these H. erectus members actually used day to day.

Of no surprise to scientists were the so-called Acheulian tools, which include the classic pear-shaped hand axe used by Homo erectus across the globe. These Acheulian tools — often symmetrical, well-shaped and sharpened on two edges — replaced earlier Oldowan tools, which were much simpler, sharp-edged stone flakes. This is where things go off the rails, since both skulls were found close to both tool types. The discovery lends credence to the notion that H. erectus was more jack-of-all-trades than one-note wonder and suggests the species may have displayed more behavioral flexibility than believed. While Acheulian tools were great for butchering meat, their Oldowan precursors were ideal for chopping and scraping. By deploying a multi-mode model, H. erectus was able to both create — and identify — the right tool for the job.

When All You Have Is a Hammer

As it turns out, even Homo erectus doesn’t have a lock on targeted tool use. According to Science News, Paranthropus boisei (P. boisei) — a distant relative of modern humans that lived between 2.3 and 1.2 million years ago — may have also made stone and bone tools. While they lacked the gripping thumbs of genus Homo, recent P. boisei hand bone discoveries suggest they had enough dexterity to create and wield simple tools. If further research and evidence bears out this theory, it follows that common problems lead to similar solutions: multi-purpose tools that made it possible to hammer down on cultural nails ranging from crafting to cutting to scraping and slicing.

Modern tools can raise buildings of steel and glass at speed and scale. Ancient implements carved out constructive marvels that still stand as testament to human ingenuity. But whatever we’ve done, however far we’ve come — our handy human history remains written in stone.