It is a commonplace that humans are distinguished from other creatures by a technological ability, and man has often been described as a tool-using animal. The distinction is not entirely valid. Some animals do use tools. Chimpanzees are the most often quoted example, stripping a twig to plunge it into an anthill and then eating the tasty termites which cling to the end of it.
A more modern example of tool-using is that of crows living in a walnut avenue in the Japanese town of Sendai. The walnuts are too hard to crack. So the crows have taken to dropping them on a pedestrian crossing where they are crushed by the passing traffic. When it is the pedestrians’ turn, the crows fly in to bear off the fragments.
But there is a difference between using a tool which comes to hand, however improbably, and fashioning one for a purpose. Shaping a tool for cutting or scraping (two basic and useful functions) is a difficult task. Such a tool must be made of a hard material, and the hardest material easily available on the surface of the earth is stone. But how does one shape a stone without tools?
The history of human technology begins with the discovery of how to give stone a cutting edge. The type of stone found most suitable for the purpose is flint.
Stone tools: from 2.5 million years ago
The human discovery that round nodules of flint can be split and chipped to form a sharp edge is extremely ancient. Tools made in this way have been found in Africa from about 2.5 million years ago. Gradually, over the millennia, in an extremely slow version of an industrial revolution, new and improved techniques are developed for striking off slivers of stone.
Variations in the flints found with fossil remains (differing both in the method by which flakes are chipped from the core, and in the range of shapes created) are used by anthropologists as one way of assigning human skeletal remains to specific groups or Divisions of the Stone Age.