Olduvai Gorge Stone: 2 million year old product design

By Steve Martinuzzo.

It’s hard to fathom that our early ancestors date back millions of years. And even harder to comprehend the rudimentary nature of their existence. But these facts are highlighted when we discover primitive artefacts. Artefacts, that although quite crude, are great examples of early product design.

The above basalt stone, held by Sir David Attenborough, was discovered in 1931 in eastern Africa near a place called Olduvai Gorge, and now sits in the British Museum as its oldest object. It is in fact a cutting tool and one of the earliest things that was made by humans. It’s about 1.8 million years old.

As a cutting tool, the stone was used to cut meat off carcasses for food and shelter. Its heavy weight and shape perfectly fits the hand.  The person who made it, laboriously and skilfully struck it against other stones, fracturing flakes off until it formed a leading edge.

The Olduvai Gorge cutting stone is believed to be 1.8 million years old.

The Olduvai Gorge cutting stone is believed to be 1.8 million years old.

But the really remarkable thing about this otherwise ordinary stone tool, is that the person who made it kept on striking it for several more times than was necessary for it to perform its function.  The maker of the Olduvai Gorge Stone not only wanted something that did the job, they wanted to make it better.

Lots of animals use objects. But humans are the only ones that make them before they are needed, and then keep them for later use. We don’t often think about how the things around us came about; let alone how our desire to solve problems shapes us being human.  Something as ordinary as a $1.99 plastic bucket represents the latest version of another innovation that also defined and defines us. The ability to collect and carry water and food in a vessel, so that we can transport more than will fit in our hands, is another uniquely human example of creating objects from the world around us. Today’s bucket that we strive to design so that its a little bit better than the competitors’ models, would have once been a vanquished animal’s bladder, then an earthenware pot able to be heated, and then a bronze urn which represented prestige and beauty as well as utility.

The development of water vessels have come along way from  the animal bladder to a plastic moulded bucket.

The development of water vessels over 1.8 million years. Animal bladder, earthenware, bronze and plastic.

The Olduvai Gorge Stone represents the core human urge to shape and improve our world. It is a direct link to what we still do now in design and technology and, in fact throughout countless pursuits within our lives.  It represents our uniquely human urge to create, and links us to our baby-boomer parents; to enlightenment thinkers from 17th century Europe; to Aztecs and Egyptians and to peoples we don’t have names for.

Now of course we have the benefits of literally millions of years of endeavour, discovery and creativity. Our innovations are built on the foundations of countless discoveries and generations to build upon. Let’s hope we can continue to leave our creative mark on this world and that this mark leaves it in better shape for those generations who will follow.

To learn more about the Olduvai Gorge cutting stone listen to the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects podcast.


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