When prehistoric people in Africa made the first simple tools from stone millions of years ago, they could have laid the foundation for human culture at the same time. At least that was a common assumption in archaeology.

However, in the journal Science Advances, Claudio Tennie, William Snyder and Jonathan Reeves use methods from experimental archeology to show that things could have been quite different: Stone Age people could have reinvented this technique over and over again, the researchers explain at the University of Tubingen.

This theory doesn’t quite fit with the classical view that hitting a sharp stone edge to break open and dismember a dead animal is quite complicated. Once a Stone Age man discovered this technique, others in his clan, and later perhaps other groups, observed and imitated the practice. This is how a tradition called “culture” in archeology came into being, with which such sharp-edged stone tools are made.

The oldest stone tools made in this way are 2.6 million years old. Because they were discovered in the Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania today, they are referred to as an “Oldowan culture”. “To make such tools, for example, you hit two pebbles against each other in such a way that a small piece of one splinteres off and leaves a relatively sharp edge,” explains archaeologist and specialist in the manufacture of flint tools Alexander Binsteiner, who was not involved in the Tübingen study was involved.

On the unworked round or oval side, such pebbles could easily be held in the hand in order to hack off pieces of meat or split a bone with the sharp edge in order to get to the nutritious bone marrow. Such stone tools are therefore called “choppers” after the English word for “hack”. It should be possible to make such choppers with good instructions, but without it it will be difficult – so the assumption.

Tennie and his colleagues have now investigated whether this is the case with an experiment: 14 adult women and 14 men were asked to open the lid of a box, which was closed with a rope, on their own. Each person knew that there was a voucher worth ten euros in the box. Only there was no indication of how to cut the rope using a hemisphere made of painted glass, a medium-sized pebble and a block of granite that was also available in the test room.

Most women and men first tried to open the rope without cutting tools, for example by hitting the rope with the pebble or trying to unravel the fibers with their fingers. If that was unsuccessful, they usually quickly tried to make a primitive blade out of the things provided. They banged the glass hemisphere against the granite block or pebble until a splinter jumped off and a sharp edge formed, with which they then severed the rope.

In Stone Age research, four different striking techniques are known with which Oldowan tools were made in the early Stone Age. Although 25 of the subjects had never held such stone tools in their hands before, most of them reinvented at least one of these techniques in the test rooms at the University of Tübingen. By the end of the experiments, the researchers even observed all four known Paleolithic techniques of the Oldowan culture. “Obviously, these simple stone tools can be made without a model,” says Tennie.

“I’ve always thought it was a bit of an exaggeration to speak of cultures at this early stage of human development when it comes to the Oldowan stone tools,” explains Binsteiner. “Apparently, the Homo genus had the need and the ability to produce devices that make everyday life easier early on,” says the flint specialist. Therefore, such experiments are an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle when researching human nature.

If today’s people, who live in a world shaped by technology, do not reinvent the wheel, but at least simple stone tools, the question arises as to whether the primitive people living in nature also had this characteristic. Tennie suspects this and backs his reasoning with a clear indication: “The Oldowan technique has been around for 2.6 million years without any significant changes occurring,” explains the researcher. It is more unlikely that the knowledge about the production of these tools was passed on from generation to generation without an accumulation of knowledge that also changed the stone tools than that they were always reinvented.