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Bloodaxe's Realm     The Medieval World  

The development and use of tools

The first archaeological evidence of human culture is stone tools. The oldest discovered so far date back 2.5 million years and initiate the period called the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic). This period covers 99 percent of the cultural record of human activity in terms of time. Everything from the New Stone Age (Neolithic), 30,000 years ago, through the Iron Age (3000 years ago) and up to modern history takes place in the remaining 1 percent.
Although the oldest surviving tools are made of stone, it is possible that tools of organic materials were in use earlier and have not survived. Animal bones, feather quills, claws, and objects of wood or fiber could have all been used as tools before stone.

The importance of technology
The first tools represent the beginnings of technology—the application of science and the use of objects for practical purposes. The employment of technology has several important implications. It can mean increased productivity and reduced costs. For example, a forager with a hide sack can carry many more nuts than ancestor could in two hands. The worker with the sack is more productive and can carry a given amount at a reduced cost in time. Technology creates new products and services. The first stone tools may have allowed humans to butcher fresh kills instead of searching for carrion. Hides from fresh kills could be converted into clothes, whereas rotten hides from carrion were useless.

Weapons are technology. They might be the difference between survival and extinction for an individual, a tribe, or a culture. Human predecessors were clearly advanced and competing well before they developed the first tools, but the growing technological sophistication of humans has been the means of our dominance over all other species, at least so far.

Technological change
At the cusp of the twentieth century, we are adapted to rapid technological change. We expect it, embrace it, and are rarely awed by it. At the other end of the geologic spectrum of human experience, technological change was numbingly slow. If the hominids broke from the family of apes even 6 million years ago, then 3.5 million years may have passed after that event before our predecessors first made stone tools. Another 1 million years passed before evidence indicates that they could control fire. Compare those periods to the amount of technological change that has occurred in the last century.
The pace of technological change has gradually accelerated over time, although there have been periods of relative quickness and slowness, or even decline, and a few junctures where the rate of acceleration shifted into a higher gear. There have been at least two dark ages in the West when technology and knowledge declined or was lost—the first beginning around 1200 BC and the second around 400 AD. The destruction of the great library in Alexandria in 391 AD by religious zealots may alone have set back our knowledge by several hundred years.

The pace of technological change has been determined by several factors, including the size of the human population, environmental conditions, and the ability to preserve and pass on knowledge. When the world population of humans was very small, the spread of knowledge must have been limited. New ideas could have been invented and lost many times. Changing environmental conditions required a reasoned response to the problems of finding food, clothing, and shelter. The evidence of archaeology suggests that the peak of the last ice age, for example, was a period of rapid relative technological change. The people of that time needed better solutions for problems to survive in the harsh climate.
For most of the human experience, all knowledge had to be preserved in the brain and passed on orally. Only so much knowledge could be retained and passed on in this manner. Succeeding generations could build only on what was passed on to them by memory. The creation of writing was one of those junctures after which the increase of knowledge was permanently and rapidly accelerated. Writing greatly expanded the preservation, spread, and pass-through of information. Computers have increased the rate of acceleration in a similar manner.

The evolution of tools
The earliest preserved human tools are fine-grained stones that have been struck apart to create sharp edges. These edges can cut other useful materials like wood, meat, and bone. Stone edges are very sharp, but are not flexible and break easily. They are easy to replace, however. Flint is the best-known Stone Age raw material, but it is rare in many parts of the world. Also used were fine-grained lavas, volcanic glass (obsidian), quartz, and chert. Stone tools were made by striking stones, not chipping them.
Subsequent advances in tool making were the development of tool making tools, fine flaking to shape tools for specific uses, the development of micro-liths (literally small stone blades struck off a stone core to make knives, dart points, and arrowheads; the use of micro-liths distinguishes the New Stone Age [Neolithic period]), and the eventual development of metallurgy.
Metal tools were first made from raw copper, found on the Earth’s surface and hammered into useful or artistic shapes. The important step of smelting copper from ore probably took place in Asia Minor between 6000 and 4000 BC. This required the invention of bellows to raise fire temperatures sufficiently high to extract the metal. The molten metal was then cast and shaped with hammers. Copper tools were relatively weak and soft, however, and were replaced by bronze, a much stronger and harder alloy of copper.

Some copper ores also contain arsenic. When smelted together, the result was the bronze alloy of copper and arsenic. Arsenic was dangerous to work with, however. Further experimentation resulted in a superior bronze alloy of copper and tin. Bronze tools first supplanted the micro-liths and relatively rare copper tools around the Eastern Mediterranean. The Bronze Age supplanted the New Stone Age and lasted for several thousand years. Bronze and tin became the first strategic resources. Cultures without access to bronze and tin were at an industrial and military disadvantage. Some researchers believe that Mediterranean mariners sailed as far as the Great Lakes of North America in search of copper. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians grew in importance by controlling the trade of tin from Britain.
Bronze was supplanted by iron as a material for tools and weapons around 900 BC. Iron was stronger and harder than bronze, it could hold a sharp edge much longer, and it was much easier to find. It remained unsurpassed for tools and weapons until the much more recent development of steel.
Gold is the softest naturally occurring metal. It was probably worked and shaped long before copper, and experience with gold may have suggested what could be done with raw copper. Gold was of no use as a tool but was perfect for jewelry and objects of art. The relative rarity, beauty, and softness of both gold and silver made them ideal luxury items and natural choices for coins when the need for money arose.