Archaeology in Southern Africa, £5.00
Stone chopping tools
Lower Palaeolithic, about 1.8 million years
From Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
'These are amazing pieces. They have great meaning to me personally because this is how it came to be known that humans as we know them started in Africa. What I mainly like are the colours and shapes, and to acknowledge that these were used instead of today's knives, axes, shovels, and forks as cutting tools. It made me feel proud to be Afro-Caribbean.' Coleen Dowdie, of Jamaican origin
These chopping tools and others like them are the oldest objects in the British Museum. They come from an early human campsite in the bottom layer of deposits in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and represent the world's first technological invention.
Walking upright on two legs enabled our earliest ancestors to search for food throughout the day when it was too hot for other animals to hunt. For some four to five million years this ensured survival, but small body size and lack of speed, fangs and claws evened up the competition with other predators.
Tool-making began in East Africa about 2.4 million years ago. Instead of just picking up sticks or finding stones with sharp edges early humans began to shape the tools they needed. Using another hard stone as a hammer, they discovered that by knocking flakes off both sides of a pebble or large flake they could create sharp regular edges. These could be used to chop branches from trees, cut meat from large animals or smash bones for marrow fat - an essential part of the early human diet. The flakes could also be used as small knives for light duty tasks.
Tools which could also have been used as weapons gave early human ancestors a new advantage. In these early artefacts it is possible to see the first spark of creative genius that set humans apart from other animals and gradually enabled us to adapt to different, often changing conditions all over the world.
The chopping tools featured here are made from quartzite and basalt cobbles. They are sometimes referred to as Oldowan and were found by Louis Leakey on his first expedition to Olduvai Gorge in 1931.
L.S.B. Leakey, Olduvai Gorge (Cambridge, University Press, 1951)
K.D. Schick and N. Schick, Making silent stones speak. Hu (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993)