Archaeology

The Handle NOT the Wheel Was Our Most Revolutionary Invention, Study

A new study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface has claimed that early man’s greatest invention was actually not the wheel but the tool handle! With an impact on transport, agriculture, and industry, the wheel is often hailed as humankind’s greatest scientific revolution, but researchers from the University of Liverpool don’t necessarily agree. They posit that the invention of the handle radically increased the energy efficiency of stone tools, particularly while chopping and smashing, and in the process dramatically increasing the “force and precision” that could be applied.

Every single Stone Age tool shown here has a handle, even if it’s only a strip of leather wrapped tightly around the top of a single stone piece. (SpicyTruffel / Adobe Stock)

Every single Stone Age tool shown here has a handle, even if it’s only a strip of leather wrapped tightly around the top of a single stone piece. ( SpicyTruffel / Adobe Stock)

The Science of Handle Hafting and Its Revolutionary Impacts

The process by which a bone, stone or metal artifact is attached to a haft, or a handle, is called hafting. Hafting allows a single un-hafted artifact to become more efficient for chopping, smashing, cutting, and killing. The axe, spear, and arrow, like all tools with handles, made cutting, killing, and working much easier and maximized “impact.” Tools with handles became increasingly common during the beginning of the Stone Age .

The first stone tools of any kind were developed by archaic hominins about 2.6 million years ago. These included rudimentary handheld tools like sharpened flints and stones that acted like knives and scrapers. Fast forward about two million years and our tools had become more sophisticated and the first tools with handles began to “appear.” For reference, the wheel was only invented about 6,000 years ago!

Tool handle making led to an expansion in hominin brain size . Though other animal species use tools, only humans are tool dependent.

“The transition from hand-held to hafted tool technology marked a significant shift in conceptualizing the construction and function of tools. Among other benefits, hafting is thought to have given users a significant biomechanical and physiological advantage in undertaking basic subsistence tasks compared with hand-held tools. It is assumed that addition of a handle improved the (bio)mechanical properties of a tool and upper limb by offering greater amounts of leverage, force and precision,” said the authors of the study, led by lead author Dominic Coe , a postgraduate research student at the University of Liverpool’s Department of Archaeology.

The latest tool handle study used modern technology to prove that a hafted tool was superior and by how much. (Journal of the Royal Society Interface)

The latest tool handle study used modern technology to prove that a hafted tool was superior and by how much. ( Journal of the Royal Society Interface )

The Science Used For The Latest Hafting Study

For the purposes of the study, 40 student volunteers were recruited (24 men, and 16 women) and given a chopping hatchet and a scraping tool called a “shavehook,” which is used for manual paint stripping, reports The Daily Mail . The study volunteers used the tools with handles and then without handles.

The cutting or chopping tools, with or without handles, were used to work on thick wooden dowels, 6 centimeters (2.4 inches) in diameter. The “paint scraper” was used to scrape away fibers from a thick carpet that was made to resemble animal hide.

Trackers were installed on the forearms and upper arms of the volunteers, while another tracker was employed to measure tool velocity when in use.

Other parameters of the participants were also analyzed, including oxygen consumption and muscle contraction. This involved the technique known as electromyography or EMG, which is a diagnostic procedure performed to generally assess the health of muscles and nerve cells that control them, i.e., motor neurons.

This Bronze Age ax looks like modern art and clearly the handle makes this tool perfect for cutting or killing. (Patrick / Adobe Stock)

This Bronze Age ax looks like modern art and clearly the handle makes this tool perfect for cutting or killing. ( Patrick / Adobe Stock)

Observations and Conclusions

“The adaptive benefits and motivations behind the invention and proliferation of hafted tool technology are likely to be complex and multifaceted. This study shows that two subsistence activities, ubiquitous in the prehistoric past, are significantly improved in both tool functionality and energetic efficiency when undertaken using a hafted tool compared with the hand-held [tool] equivalent,” concluded the researchers.

Finally, the benefits or advantages of tools with handles and with were recorded. These included volunteer energy consumption in any and all motions and postures while using the tools without injuring themselves.

High impact activities, particularly chopping, though not visible to the naked eye, were dramatically better when using a tool with a handle, which was totally supported by the analytical data obtained from the study.

Moreover, hafting provided clear biomechanical and physiological advantages, even for scraping tasks , that supported the increased fitness of the individual, and thereby all groups that are reliant on basic subsistence activities.

Finally, hafting helped produce a significant transition and shift in hominin cognition. The increase in joint motions and muscle use led to a parallel increase in velocity and force, which in scientific terms is “more effective per unit of energy applied to a task” concluded the scientists.

Top image: A new study posits that tools with handles, which came after countless generation of archaic humans used handheld rocks to cut, chop, and kill, are the oldest and most important technological invention of hominins. Source: ExQuisine / Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey


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