First, a confession: This should have gone up three days ago. A recent newsflash has pushed the time of the first stone tools back 700,000 years! But until very recently the earliest known stone tools dated back to the Oldowan, 2.6 million years ago, so today is when this post is published.
We now know that tool making is not uniquely human. But Oldowan tools – including choppers (below), pounders, and scrapers — go beyond anything chimpanzees, or other animals, do. Kanzi, a bonobo (pygmy chimpanzee, who was also taught to communicate with an artificial set of symbols) learned to use sharp stone flakes for cutting, but never mastered the art of striking a stone core at the proper angle to produce useful sharp flakes. Apparently australopithecines (or maybe early Homo or Kenyanthropus) had taken a step further by 2.6 million years ago (or earlier).
Early evolutionary theory developed in tandem with the Industrial Revolution and included an appreciation for the importance of manual labor. Darwin, in The Descent of Man, argued for the central role of toolmaking in human evolution, and, not surprisingly, the same point was echoed by Friedrich Engels in 1876, in his unfinished essay “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man.” Engels was pushing back against the attitude in most traditional stratified societies that manual labor is low class and symbolic labor (and/or wielding weapons) is high class. For example the fingernails on this Chinese scholar advertized that he didn’t work with his hands.
Nowadays, a common complaint about the post-industrial economy is that so much education and employment revolves around pushing symbols around that manual labor is relatively devalued. The recent book Shopcraft as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work is a statement of this lament. Maybe today or tomorrow is a good time to celebrate the part played by labor in the transition from ape to man — by making something, or mending something.