IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Humanity's First Talks May Have Been About Tools, Scientists Say

Scientists say advancements in interpersonal communication may have helped ancient humans make a giant leap in toolmaking 1.8 million years ago.
Image: Communication
Researchers say spoken communication works much better than imitation or pointing when it comes to teaching others how to make stone tools - and they suggest that's what happened in ancient cultures.T. Morgan / N. Uomini et al. / Nature Communications

"You're doing it wrong," or a series of grunts to that effect, may have been among the first words used in human conversation, according to scientists studying the development of ancient tools. In a study published Tuesday by Nature Communications, researchers suggest that language co-evolved with toolmaking.

They base that conclusion on the results of an experiment that simulated what early humans had to go through in order to produce cutting tools using a technique called Oldowan stone-knapping. The process, which stuck around as the state of the art between 2.5 million and 1.8 million years ago, involves striking off flakes of rock by using a hammerstone in precise ways.

The researchers found that spoken communication worked much better than wordless imitation or gestures when it came to teaching 184 modern-day volunteers how to shape the flint tools. They said advances in communication, such as a proto-language, might have helped humans make the rapid leap 1.8 million years ago from Oldowan tool technology to more advanced Acheulean stone tools, including handaxes.



— Alan Boyle

The principal authors of "Experimental Evidence for the Co-evolution of Hominin Tool-Making Teaching and Language" are Thomas Morgan of the University of California at Berkeley and Natalie Uomini of the University of Liverpool. Other authors include L.E. Rendell, L. Chouinard-Thuly, S.E. Street, H.M. Lewis, C.P. Cross, C. Evans, R. Kearney, I. de la Torre, A. Whiten and K.N. Laland. For more information, check out Berkeley's news release.