The Bone That Started a Tech Revolution

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The discovery of an ancient, hominid hand bone, a third metacarpal with styloid process, has sent a flurry of excitement through the paleoanthropological world, and could answer some important questions about the development of tool-making. Carol Ward, of the University of Missouri, published the find online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on December 16.  It’s very rare to find fossil hand or foot bones, as bodily extremities tend to get lost at the time of death, through the attentions of scavengers, or through geological activity in the succeeding eons. This find near Lake Turkana in Kenya, dated at 1.42 million years old, precedes any similar artefact by 500,000 years, and is very significant in the efforts to understand the evolution of hominid lineage. 


The third metacarpal is located down the centre of the hand and attaches to the wrist. What is particularly interesting about this example, apart from its age, is its styloid process, a small piece of bone that locks the third metacarpal into the wrist. This allows the thumb and fingers to exert increased pressure on the wrist and palm, giving much more control when making and using tools.  Up to now the only hominid species found with this adaptation were Homo sapiens and their close cousins, the Neanderthals.  This find pushes the estimated date of the evolution of the styloid process back to early Homo erectus, the undisputed predecessor of both species.

 

Whilst other primates have been observed to use, and sometimes make, simple tools, hominids exceeded them at least 2.5 million years ago with their crude and clunky flint hand axes, a technology called “Oldawan”. The hominids of that time probably also used the flakes left over from the axe fashioning process, for cutting flesh and plants. Oldawan technology continued to be used until 1.2 million years ago, but was eventually superseded by Acheulean technology, which first appeared about 1.6 million years ago. Acheulean tools are more sophisticated, more varied, and have much longer cutting edges. As anyone attempting to make such a tool knows, they require a great deal of dexterity and skill to produce. It seems likely that the adaptation of the third metacarpal bone with a styloid process, together with the increased cognitive abilities of Home erectus, made possible the revolution from Oldawan to Acheulean technology.

 

Fired with the enthusiasm for this find, Carol Ward and her colleagues hope to find even earlier examples of this third metacarpal adaptation but, given the rarity of any kind of hand bone discovery, this may be optimistic. What they have already found, however, ranks among the most important paleontological discoveries of the decade. It removes yet another “missing link”, connecting us to our evolutionary forebears.

 

Mark A Jordan graduated in Philosophy from the University of Leicester in 1982. He has worked variously as a political activist on the left, freelance journalist, creative writer, market researcher, supported housing manager and music promoter. He is currently researching the philosophy and history of science. You can reach Mark at mrkjordan61@gmail.com

Written By: Mark A Jordan
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15 COMMENTS

  1. In reply to #1 by aroundtown:

    1.4 million years old, huh. Wouldn’t hurt to point this discovery out to Mr. Ken Ham. I also wonder what Ken’s take is on Neanderthal and the other Hominid species?

    You really think anything he had to say on the matter could be worth the oxygen consumption?

  2. In reply to #1 by aroundtown:

    1.4 million years old, huh. Wouldn’t hurt to point this discovery out to Mr. Ken Ham. I also wonder what Ken’s take is on Neanderthal and the other Hominid species?

    He will say the scientists are either wrong or deliberately lying.

    So Ken, when the bone was found, were you there? And when the scientists ran their tests, were you there? And when the tests were originally devised which established this dating technique, were you there?

    No? Well until you are in a position to understand what science is, and how it works, we won’t give any weight to your opinions because that’s all they are.

  3. Something must have caused this mutation to be advantageous. It is interesting to contemplate that tool creation has selective advantage. How much do we know (or don’t know) about how cultural activities drive evolution and vice versa? Apparently the FOXP2 mutation, responsible for language development, seemed to have occurred later. It seems that making better flint axes somehow lead to more intelligence.

    • In reply to #5 by pspasov:

      Something must have caused this mutation to be advantageous. It is interesting to contemplate that tool creation has selective advantage. How much do we know (or don’t know) about how cultural activities drive evolution and vice versa? Apparently the FOXP2 mutation, responsible for language devel…

      As you say, the FOXP2 mutation enabling language certainly does appear to have come much later, but I think the Acheulian tool kit suggests quite sophisticated intelligence and, together with other indicators, points to much more complex social interactions. The only way this would be possible would be through quite well developed non-verbal communication probably backed up by primitive but, presumably effective, vocalisation. Interestingly though, there seems to have been no further revolutions in tool making until sometime in the last 200,000 years.

    • In reply to #5 by pspasov:

      Something must have caused this mutation to be advantageous.

      A mutation does not have to be adaptive to become fixed in a population. Genetic drift can also do that. On the other hand if it was maladaptive it would be very unlikely to fix in a population and would be more likely to die out.

  4. In reply to #1 by aroundtown:

    1.4 million years old, huh. Wouldn’t hurt to point this discovery out to Mr. Ken Ham. I also wonder what Ken’s take is on Neanderthal and the other Hominid species?

    Oh come now, Satan is constantly trying to confuse us; didn’t you know that?

    Fossil remains are placed where they’re found by the Devil.

  5. In reply to #8 by aroundtown:

    My facetious observation didn’t fly very well here at RDFRS on Ken Ham’s potential enlightenment. People have a tendency to think and require proof around here and that’s good. I am aware that solid refutable proofs for him would be fruitless. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it d…

    Too funny, I’ve regretted lowering the tone around-here too. KH will always do that and turn, as you point out, something wonderful into crap.

    • You’re correct! It was a poorly chosen word!In reply to #11 by Sean Holland:

      A minor quibble. That isn’t an artefact. An artefact, by definition, is something made by a human being. Or has the meaning of this word changed?

  6. Its really interesting that proto hominids had already started using tools way before they made them, probably as soon as they stopped hanging around in the trees, because we’ve been walking around the savannah for a few million years eating meat without large teeth and claws so we must have picked up sticks and stones to throw etc
    We started off by scavenging carcasses rather than cutting them open – for a few million years until Homo Habilis evolved…an example of a Habilis hand bone would be a great find and likely show an evolution of its progressive adaptation, perhaps the early hominids who first made crude Oldawan tools around 2.5 million years ago were the first Hunters (not scavengers) and had hand bones that were not as refined as the later hominids like Erectus and so, the hand capabilities dictated the level of tool that could be made and used…. and then only with regular tool use the hand bone evolved to suit the purpose that required it, enabling better dexterity and fine motor skills for crafting better tools rather than just striking off flakes…
    In the absence of carnivorous teeth and claws – Tools allowed us to emerge from our mostly vegetarian background to become pack hunting carnivore kings

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