Trends in Cultural Evolution

3.6 External Requirement

You may be required to compare trends in cultural evolution of early bipedal hominins with living hominids. These trends in cultural evolution involve:

  • Use of tools (stone, wood, bone).

  • Use of fire

  • Clothing

  • Abstract thought (communication, language, art)

  • Food-gathering (hunter-gatherer, domestication of plants and animals).

  • Shelter (caves, temporary settlement, permanent settlement).

Genetic/Biological Evolution vs. Cultural Evolution

Genetic or Biological evolution is the passing of genetic information from one generation to the next - it refers to the genetic changes that have occurred during the evolution of hominids. E.g. increased brain size, spine shape, position of knee. Occurs slowly.

Cultural evolution is the changing of ideas held and actions carried out by societies and the transmission of these ideas through social learning from one generation to the next. Occurs at a much faster rate. E.g. the use of fire, agriculture, tools, weapons, language, religion, beliefs

Cultural evolution is the process by which we are able to shape and adapt our environment. It is a much more rapid process than biological / genetic evolution. It is transmitted as learned information from generation to generation. It requires an intelligent brain and communication, preferably with speech.

Cultural evolution has spanned millions of years in three major stages:

  1. the nomadic (hunting),

  2. agricultural (settled),

  3. industrial ages.

However, we have not changed biologically in any significant way. We could take a baby from 80,000 years ago, raise it in a modern environment and it would be indistinguishable from other humans in terms of intelligence and social capabilities.

Concept 7: Use of Tools

Success Criteria & Vocabulary

Click this drop-down menu to see the Success Criteria.

  • Define ‘cultural evolution’ and contrast it with ‘biological evolution’

  • Discuss trends in stone tools (Oldowan, Acheulean, Mousterian and Upper Paleolithic)

Click this drop-down menu to see the list of Vocabulary.


Do Now:

Do Now in your books:

List 3 features that assisted with bipedal locomotion...

...AND List
3 features that assisted with tree climbing.

Do Now:

Do Now in small groups: Examine each of the tools given to you.

1) What kind of tools are they? (Oldowan, Acheulian, Mousterian, or Upper Paleolithic)

2) Name a hominin that may have made this.

3) Why do you think this?

(Here's a link to Bone Clones)

Concept 7: Evolution of Tool Culture

Concept 7: Support Notes


Anthropologists agree that tool making and meat eating were integral factors in man’s evolution and dominance. Man developed a need for protein, which meat provided. This diet allowed man to become more developed. Tool making allowed more efficiency in obtaining meat for their diets and once fire was discovered, more advanced tools were made and it was possible to cook meat and vegetables, which allowed for the body to obtain the nutrients more efficiently from the food.

It was hard for a primate with a human-like digestive system to satisfy its protein requirements from available plant resources. The HOMO HABILIS had developed a requirement for protein (to feed their larger brain) and with their digestive system, they were not able to get that from the available plant resources. Thus, in addition to plant resources available, the major new source was animal protein, which came from fatty marrow and whatever other edible leftover flesh remained in and on the bones of the dead animals.

While the early humans developed the need for meat in their diet, they lacked the teeth necessary to rip and cut the flesh of animals. Thus, it was necessary to produce tools in order to obtain and prepare the meat needed for their diet. The use of tools allowed HOMO HABILIS to change slowly to an efficient scavenger.

Evidence has shown that the larger the brain size, the more sophisticated the tools were. Throughout most of the HOMO ERECTUS geographic range, there is clear evidence of progressive improvement in tool making over time. The late Homo erectus was able to use patterns from their predecessors guiding them in the manufacture of their artifacts. In addition, the reliance on tools increased as the implements became more useful.

General trend in the design of the stone tool from HOMO HABILIS to HOMO SAPIENS is one of more refined construction requiring a greater number of precision blows. The materials used are of better quality (flint, bone and antler) in the later tools. The tools are more sophisticated and specialized for specific tasks. The increased complexity tools is related to the increasing capability of the brain to visualize designs and plans the tool being constructed. Ability to control the chipping process improved as locomotor control improved.

In summary, more complex tools would have placed a greater demand on the brain, selecting for those members with increased intelligence. This in turn would have fueled the evolutionary shift towards a larger brain. As tools became more and more complex, the ability to communicate ideas and tool making techniques would also have become more and more important. This ability to share ideas is what defines cultural evolution, and intrinsic to our cultural evolution was the development of language and the associated areas of the brain. This may help explain both the relatively rapid expansion of the brain and the rapid cultural developments observed in our most recent ancestors.

Oldowan Tools

The first unquestionable stone tools were made and used by HOMO HABILIS approximately 2.5 million years ago. Their brain size was approximately 500 - 800 cubic centimeters.

OLDOWAN tools were the most basic of the LOWER PALEOLITHIC Era (early stone age). These tools were made from river pebbles and stones that had been struck against another rock to give a few sharp flakes as well as a ‘core’ with sharp edge.

There are two main categories of Oldowan tools in the tradition.

1) Core stones

There were stone cobles with several flakes knocked off usually at one end by heavy blows from another rock used as a hammer. This produced a jagged tool that fit easily in the hand. These core tools most likely functioned as hammering, chopping or digging implements. They were probably used to dig for tubers and to smash open bones to access the nutritious bone marrow inside.

2) Sharp flakes

Probably the most important tools were sharp-edged stone flakes produced in the process of making the core tools. The simple flake tools were used without further modification as knives.

HOMO HABILIS continued to make and use stone tools in the Oldowan tradition for nearly a million years, but with gradual improvements. Since less blows were needed to make OLDOWAN tools, HOMO HABILIS could butcher carcasses as they found them so they could use the carcass before other predators or competitors came in.

Acheulean (a-shoe-lee-an) Tools

HOMO ERECTUS and ARCHAIC HOMO SAPIENS had increased their skills to the point that they were making more sophisticated tools with sharper and straighter edges. Their advanced tool making tradition was called Acheulean. HOMO HEIDELBERGENSIS also continued to make tools mostly in the Acheulean tradition.

These LOWER PALEOLITHIC (early stone age) tools were slightly more advanced, with a typical ‘tear drop’ shape, carefully crafted with a slight bulge on each broad surface (called a ‘bi-face’).

They differ markedly from earlier pebble tools in that there appears to be a standard ‘design’ and the manufacture of these tools requires many more blows to remove flakes. This standard design represents the ability of its maker to be able to ‘plan’ or ‘think through’ what the stone will become.

One of the most important of these new tools was the hand axe used by HOMO ERECTUS for hunting. They were bi-faced, elongated, oval shaped with one pointed end and longer sharp edges on the other side. This represents a shift from the scavenger lifestyle of HOMO HABILIS to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of later Hominins. It was the dominant technology for the vast majority of human history, and more than one million years ago it was Acheulean tool users (HOMO ERECTUS) who left Africa to first successfully colonize Europe and Asia.

Hand axes, however, make up only a small percentage of the artifacts found at HOMO ERECTUS sites. These early humans made a wide variety of stone tools that were used for processing various plant and animal materials. Their tools included choppers, cleavers, hammers, as well as flakes used as knives and scrapers.

Mousterian Tools

By 100,000 years ago, NEANDERTHALS and some other LATE ARCHAIC HUMANS achieved a major leap forward in tool making with the development of the MOUSTERIAN tool tradition (named for the site of le Moustier in France).

This new technology was revolutionary enough to be considered a distinct Paleolithic phase--the MIDDLE PALEOLITHIC. Mousterian-like tool industries were also used by early modern HOMO SAPIENS in some areas of Africa and Southwest Asia.

The Mousterian Tradition was marked by a decrease in the use of large core tools, such as hand axes. This was because specialized flake tools became more common. Here are some features that were distinct to Mousterian tools:

1) Levallois method

Flakes of more or less standardized shapes and sizes were often made with the LEVALLOIS prepared core technique.

Blocks or cobbles of flint and other brittle fracturing rock were percussion flaked on one side until a convex "tortoise shell" shape was formed. Then, a heavy percussion blow at one end of the core removed a large flake that was convex on one side and relatively flat on the other--i.e., a Levallois flake.

2) Use of flint

FLINT became the material of choice because of the predictable way in which it chips when struck and the incredibly sharp edges it can produce.

Other materials such as bone, antler or similar relatively soft materials may have been used to produce these tools. Striking the core with a slightly softer material such as bone (soft hammer percussion) gave more control in the final stages of shaping.

3) Composite tools (tools made of more than one material)

Finely worked sophisticated stone tools often had other materials attached for more accurate handling.

For example, LEVALLOIS flakes were shaped into crude unifacial spear points by NEANDERTHALS. This was the first time in human prehistory that stone tips were attached to wooden spears. It allowed greater penetration of the spears and, subsequently, more effective killing of large animals.

4) Wide range of tools

NEANDERTHALS also produced a much wider range of tools with tool kits included up to 40 different types, many of which appear to have had specialized functions. Many of their tools were scrapers which may have been used to scrape animal hides for clothing.

These tools required high levels of skill, forward planning, and time to learn and make (e.g spears, axes, scrapers, etc).

Upper Paleolithic Tools

During a period called the UPPER PALEOLITHIC (between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago) there was a cultural explosion. Our ancestors developed complex language, music and art.

Tool kits became extremely sophisticated, using a wider variety of raw materials such as bone and antler. There was a rapid emergence of different tools, such as projectile points, knife blades, darts, harpoons, fishing hooks and drilling and piercing tools. Each of these tools is clearly designed for a different purpose; making clothing, engraving, sculpting, etc. Finer, more sophisticated tools emerged such as threaded needles, rope and the oil lamps.

The basis of many Upper Paleolithic stone tool forms was the BLADE FLAKE. This is a thin, roughly parallel-sided flake that is at least twice as long as it is wide. The cross-section is usually either triangular or trapezoidal. They were made out of brittle-breaking rock materials such as flint, chert and obsidian. Blade flakes were preforms for the manufacture of many different kinds of tools, such as knives, hide scrapers, spear tips, drills, awls, burins, etc.




Tools made from BLADE FLAKES were far more efficient than core and flake tools made by earlier peoples when compared in terms of maximizing the use of precious brittle-flaking rock materials. This increased efficiency can be measured roughly in terms of the amount of cutting edge that can be produced from the same amount of stone.

Also, different materials such as antler and bone were used which could be drilled to make a hole and two materials could be bonded together like microliths in a harpoon.

With the discovery of fire, even more sophisticated tools were made and humans were able to obtain more nutrients from the food they ate, which allowed for better development of the human body and brain. Thus, we see that as time passed the human brain developed into larger sizes, which allowed for more advanced tool making.

Tools also started to show greater ingenuity, such as the atlatl (throwing stick) below, which greatly increases the range of a spear. Note how this tool has multiple parts and how different materials were used.

Neolithic Tools

The term Neolithic, refers to the new stone age. This period started around 12,000ya when the earth started warming up. The population of people and animals increased and therefore people could stay in one place. Homes became permanent and agriculture began (more on this later).

The identifying characteristic of Neolithic technology is the use of polished or ground stone tools, in contrast to the flaked stone tools used during the Paleolithic era.

Neolithic people were skilled farmers, manufacturing a range of tools necessary for the tending, harvesting and processing of crops (such as sickle blades and grinding stones) and food production (e.g. pottery, bone implements). They were also skilled manufacturers of a range of other types of stone tools and ornaments, including projectile points, beads, and statuettes. But what allowed forest clearance on a large scale was the polished stone axe above all other tools. Together with the adze, fashioning wood for shelter, structures and canoes for example, this enabled them to exploit their newly-won farmland.

Stone tools developed before metal tools as the stone and rocks were plentiful and widespread and the process of hitting one stone with another is a simple and relatively easily developed process. On the other hand native metal (pure metal not in an ore) is very rare and the techniques for working it are more difficult involving heating and hammering. Obtaining metal from an ore usually involves kilns and a complex process of obtaining sufficient heat to separate the metal from its ore. Even further heat was required to melt the metals for making alloys or for casting the metals. Compared to the difficulties of metallurgy the production of stone tools was a relatively straightforward process. Metal tools eventually took over from stone tools as metal tools, or at least bronze, iron and steel tools were superior to stone tools. Copper was somewhat soft and was not an ideal material for tools, so there is a stone age, bronze age and iron age but not really a copper age.

Concept 8: Use of Fire, Shelter & Clothing, and Abstract Thought

Success Criteria

  • I can explain how the controlled use of fire led to advancements in both cultural and biological evolution

  • I can discuss trends in social behaviour and abstract thought in terms of communication, art and spirituality.





Do Now:

Do Now in your books:

List ONE adaptive advantage of fire, shelter, clothing, and abstract thought.

Use of Fire, Shelter, & Clothing

The development of clothing and techniques to build shelters allowed the expansion of humans into colder climatic areas.

The controlled use of fire by early humans allowed them to eat a greater range of foods and to expand their range into darker and colder places.

Fire used by Homo erectus. Used extensively and controlled by Homo sapiens. It was important for a number of reasons:

  • Provided protection from predators

  • Promoted a home base – important for further development of social aspects

  • Light – could work, socialize, make clothing, tools, etc for longer hours. Could explore caves and use them as home bases, as well as drawing sites. Increased the time you can be active.

  • Warmth – could colonise otherwise uninhabitable regions.

  • Health – cooking meat killed bacteria, reduced illness and made digestion easier. Cooking food also released more nutrients from food.

  • Herding animals

  • Making tools – hardening points of weapons

Homo neanderthalensis used clothing.

C8 Task 1: Choose one of the resources to read.

Resource 1: Grass Level (easy level text)

3.6 C8: Fire - Grass Level

Resource 2: Sky Level (medium level text)

3.6 C8: Fire - Sky Level

Resource 3: Sun Level (hard level text)

3.6 C8: Use of Fire - Sky Level

C8 Task 2: Complete this retrieval grid.

3.6 C8: Fire Adaptive Advantages

Abstract Thought (including Language)

Increasing folding of the cerebral cortex (associated with higher cognitive abilities) and increased cranial capacity allowed development of thought; spirituality, art, clothing and tool use, planning, agriculture etc.

Spirituality was first associated with Homo neanderthalensis (burying dead, rituals). They also had jewellery and music. They also cared for their sick, old, weak.

Religion was associated with Homo sapiens (idols, burials, animal worship). Also the first art (cave paintings) was associated with Homo sapiens.

Language became possible from H. habilis on, due to:

  • Broca’s area is used in making and processing sounds and signs. It is necessary for complex language.

  • Wernicke’s area is connected to Broca’s. It developed a short time later and assists with the comprehension of spoken words.

C8 Task 3: Choose one of the resources to read.

Resource 1: Grass Level (easy level text)

3.6 C8: Abstract Thought - Grass Level

Resource 2: Sky Level (medium level text)

3.6 C8: Abstract Thought - Sky Level

Resource 3: Sun Level (hard level text)

3.6 C8: Abstract Thought - Sun Level

Concept 9: Food-Gathering & Agriculture

Success Criteria

  • I can discuss the shift from nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled lifestyle, including the advantages and disadvantages of both.





Homo sapiens began agriculture.

  • Dogs domesticated around 15,000 years ago.

  • Other animals followed and became domesticated.

  • Agriculture included artificial selection of polyploid plants, planting and harvesting of crops and domestication of livestock. It brought with it huge change for society, with advantages, as well as potential problems.

(Polyploid plants are plants with more than 2 sets of chromosomes. This increased number of chromosome sets may allow some plants to more robust in different environmental conditions).

Agriculture in Homo sapiens led to the following changes:

  • More food available that could support more people - towns developed

  • Became less nomadic

  • Increased interaction/dependence on animals

  • Increased socialising

C9 Task 1: Choose one of the resources to read.

Resource 1: Grass Level (easy level text)

3.6 C9: Farming - Grass Level

Resource 2: Sky Level (medium level text)

3.6 C9: Food Gathering - Sun Level

Resource 3: Sun Level (harder level text)

3.6 C9: Agriculture and Domestication - Sun Level

Resource 4: Cosmic Level (hard level text)

3.6 C9: The Neolithic Revolution - Cosmic Level

C9 Task 2: Complete either one of these activities:

Activity 1: Retrieval grid (From grass level up to sky level).

3.6 C9: Agriculture Advantages

Activity 2: SciPAD pages 307-308.