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Treasures of the World's Cultures: The British Museum after 250 Years
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Glimpses of Morning Glory: Dawning of Human Civilizations

Since the 1930s, the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, East Africa, has been the site of excavations yielding the remains of early human ancestors (hominids). In 1959, the British archaeologist and paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey (1903-1972) and his wife made the discovery of a partial skull of a hominid that pushed back the date of the known prehistoric existence of human ancestors by hundreds of thousands of years. Louis Leakey originally named it Zinfanthropus (literally "East African Man") in recognition of the significance of this area. Typical tools used by early humans include fist-sized choppers made from rocks, their natural surface serving as the place for gripping. The curved blade part is rougher, and many were struck on both sides, but some only on one. In addition, there are also dish-shaped utensils, multi-faceted rock implements, hand axes, stone balls, large scrapers, small scrapers, and carvings. Although these stone objects are somewhat rough in appearance, they reveal conscious attempts at creating forms for specific purposes and represent the earliest hand tools created by humans.

These earliest of implements made and used by human ancestors now form one of the most important parts of the British Museum collection. Through these objects made by prehistoric human ancestors, viewers today can ponder the very beginnings of humankind.

Biface

Lower Paleolithic, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
L20.6, W9.8, D5.8 cm
P&E1934.12-14.0074
Enlargement
Biface
Biface

Lower Paleolithic, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
Quartz
L10.0, W6.1, D2.2 cm
P&E1932.04-05.0002
Enlargement
Biface

The oldest objects in the British Museum are stone chopping tools from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. They are among the oldest known artefacts in the world. The invention of stone tools in Africa just over two million years ago is an important marker in human evolution. Without this first technological breakthrough human life would have been restricted by the boundaries which environment imposes on all other creatures.

Chopping tools first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. They fulfilled many of the everyday needs of our earliest ancestors but just over 1.5 million years ago, as the brain developed in size and complexity, a new tool was invented. Known as handaxes these tear drop shaped artefacts were in use throughout most of Africa by one million years ago and indicate some of the oldest evidence of human activity in South Asia, Western Asia and Europe. The size, symmetry, quality and choice of material used for some of the handaxes suggests that the skill of making them was often an end in itself. The exhibited examples are masterpieces of the toolmaker's art. They are finished beyond simple needs and functional requirements and this may suggest that they had a role in evolving social behaviour such as courtship or bonding. This is a form of symbolic communication, the earliest indication of artistic endeavour and the status symbol.

All of the objects were found by Louis Leakey on his first expedition to Olduvai Gorge in 1931. These historically significant finds extended human culture much further back in time and in due course were discovered in association with fossils of our early human ancestors. Although Leakey was not the first to discover early human fossils in Africa, it was his energy and enthusiasm which persuaded the world of their importance and changed scientific thinking about human evolution.