Public Release: 

Stone tools reveal modern human-like gripping capabilities 500,000 years ago

Research carried out at the University of Kent demonstrates that a technique used to produce stone tools that were first found half a million years ago is likely to have needed a modern human-like hand

University of Kent

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IMAGE: Comparison between a Handaxe and a Clovis Point view more 

Credit: Alastair Key and Metin Eren

This research is the first to link a stone tool production technique known as 'platform preparation' to the biology of human hands. Demonstrating that without the ability to perform highly forceful precision grips, our ancestors would not have been able to produce advanced types of stone tool like spear points.

The technique involves preparing a striking area on a tool to remove specific stone flakes and shape the tool into a pre-conceived design.

Platform preparation is essential for making many different types of advanced prehistoric stone tool, with the earliest known occurrence observed at the 500,000-year-old site of Boxgrove in West Sussex (UK).

The study, led by Dr Alastair Key, of the University's School of Anthropology and Conservation, and funded by the British Academy, investigated how hands are used during the production of different types of early stone technology.

Using sensors attached to the hand of skilled flint knappers (stone tool producers), the researchers were able to identify that platform preparation behaviours required the hand to exert significantly more pressure through the fingers when compared to all other stone tool activities studied.

The research demonstrates that the Boxgrove hominins (early humans) would have needed significantly stronger grips compared to earlier populations who did not perform this behaviour. It further suggests that highly modified and shaped stone tools, such as the handaxes discovered at Boxgrove and stone spear points found in later prehistory, may not have been possible to produce until humans evolved the ability to perform particularly forceful grips.

This discovery is particularly important because human hand bones rarely survive in the fossil record.

Dr Key said: 'Hand bones from before 300,000 years ago are rare, particularly when compared to other human fossils such as teeth, so the fact we can study the manipulative capabilities of our early ancestors from the stone tools they produced is incredibly exciting'.

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The findings Manual restrictions on Palaeolithic technological behaviours Key, A. and Dunmore, C.J. 2018 are published open access in PeerJ 6: e5399 and are freely available here.

https://peerj.com/articles/5399/

For further information or interview requests contact Sandy Fleming at the University of Kent Press Office.
Tel: 01227 823581
Email: S.Fleming@kent.ac.uk

News releases can also be found at http://www.kent.ac.uk/news

University of Kent on Twitter: http://twitter.com/UniKent

Established in 1965, the University of Kent - the UK's European university - now has almost 20,000 students across campuses or study centres at Canterbury, Medway, Tonbridge, Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome.

It has been ranked 22nd in the Guardian University Guide 2018 and in June 2017 was awarded a gold rating, the highest, in the UK Government's Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

In the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2015-16, it is in the top 10% of the world's leading universities for international outlook and 66th in its table of the most international universities in the world. The THE also ranked the University as 20th in its 'Table of Tables' 2016.

Kent is ranked 17th in the UK for research intensity (REF 2014). It has world-leading research in all subjects and 97% of its research is deemed by the REF to be of international quality.

In the National Student Survey 2016, Kent achieved the fourth highest score for overall student satisfaction, out of all publicly funded, multi-faculty universities.

Along with the universities of East Anglia and Essex, Kent is a member of the Eastern Arc Research Consortium (http://www.kent.ac.uk/about/partnerships/eastern-arc.html).

The University is worth £0.7 billion to the economy of the south east and supports more than 7,800 jobs in the region. Student off-campus spend contributes £293.3m and 2,532 full-time-equivalent jobs to those totals.

Kent has received two Queen's Anniversary prizes for Higher and Further Education.

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