- continued: The Hand was the first Tool -
Date: Sun, 27 Jul 1997 05:20:06 +0100
Reply-To: Nold Egenter
From: Nold Egenter
Subject: Re: HAND WAS THE FIRST TOOL
Comments: To: PaleoAnthro@list.pitt.edu
Thank you for your comments.
Axel Thiel's first and second
>partial reply to N.Egenter`s statement
will be commented later. Axel Thiel somehow lifted my suggestions on a
higher level of complexity. Fine! For the moment I answer to this by
outlining my own approach more clearly. This relates also to Mike Shupp,
who did just the opposite by reducing the proposed model on the hand,
without considering the materials I suggested.
>The problem is that unaided hand has changed but
>little in 5 million years and that what it produces
>by itself [h]as also changed little.
>So, personally, I don't see much advantage
>in calling hands "tools."
In contrast to this, my own focus was relational. Only if you see the 'hand
as a tool' related to its factual potential for a huge task, in addition,
closely related with non-durable fibrous materials, then only, the formula'
*the hand was the first tool* becomes dynamite!
I think that Julia Blue is right in assuming that bananas are a 'zooism'
in regard to apes. Jennie Hawcroft's answer confirms it. Maybe the cliche
was also influenced by the famous experiment where apes had to put two
parts of a stick together to reach bananas. Note: a good example how we
Brad Coon's suggestion is very important. He writes:
>There is a fascinating article in "Great Ape Societies"
>noting the use of selectively crushed vegetation
>to indicate food sources, travel directions, etc. by bonobos
This in fact implies nothing less than that the bonobos must have some sort
of a semantic system which helps them in spatial orientation. In my own
context this is very important. Such sublime observations are usually not
taken into account. Neither in culture! 'Sublime' anthropology may be a way
out! Thank you. I will read it.
Paul E. Pettennude commented Brad Coon's letter with the question:
> What about the brain? It controls the other tools.
This problem will be included in the following precisions.
In the whole I had the feeling that my message had not come through. Maybe
I was not clear enough. The topic was not focussed simply on the hand, but
on the question: if we use the concept 'the hand was the first tool' (which
implies fibroconstructive techniques and artefacts), what are the
implications on the structure of our present theories regarding hominid
evolution? Let us discuss this more in detail in the following, with two
Conventional interpretations of 'hominid evolution'
The discussions of hominid evolution show essentially three distinctive
focus points: 1) Bipedalism and hand, 2) Brain and 3) Face and teeth.
1) Bipedalism and hand
This is doubtless the most important topic. Bipedalism is the most striking
difference of the human condition. The whole organism is adapted to this
body posture, inner organs as well as outer limbs support it.
The development of the hand is closely related to bipedalism. How did it
'become free' from locomotion? Evidently the primary phase of the hand had
a strong partner: arboreal locomotion. Thus, in spite of its 'human' form,
in the arboreal domain it is still dominantly integrated into locomotion.
This changed with terrestrial locomotion. The arboreal developments of the
great apes made them very ill-adapted on the ground on which they were
increasingly forced due to climatic changes. The evolutionist would expect
that they adapted 'regressively' to quadrupedic conditions. But,
surprisingly, something quite different happened. Erected position of the
body and bipedic locomotion were favoured. Only a strong partner could have
effected this. One closely related to existential conditions. We will see
Conventional discussions of bipedalism turn around 2 conditional and 2
climatic changes forced apes from arboreal to terrestric habitat (16-11
- tall grasses in terrestric habitat led to erection of body
- carrying food
- tool use (plant foods, meat/killing, carrying weapons against predators)
2) Brain size
Brain size increases dramatically after about 2 million years ago. This
is usually related to the appearance of stone toolmaking. Others explain it
with warfare, hunting, language etc.
3) Face, teeth and jaws
Face, teeth and jaws (jawbone-regress) change considerably from the
same period, about 2 million years ago.
Most anthropologists today tend to relate points 2) and, eventually, 3) to
the development of tool-using behavior, favouring the historistic support
of finds of earliest tools. However, observations of chimpanzees, gorillas
and oranutans in the wild do not speak in favour of the tool-user
hypothesis. Tool-using was only sporadically observed, and seems to play a
rather marginal role in pongid life (ant fishing, nut cracking etc.; McGrew
and others). Do we, maybe, considerably overestimate the role of the tool
in hominid evolution because we can archaeologically document it? (And
want ourselves to appear as progressive 'toolmakers'?)
Hominid evolution and 'fibroconstructive industries'
The concept 'Hominid evolution and fibroconstructive industries' rests on
the following facts.
- Daily nestbuilding among present great apes is an undeniable fact. It is
intimately interwoven with the daily existence of chimpanzees, gorillas and
oranutans. It is much more important than tool-use. As a behavior common to
all pongids living in considerable distances (Africa, Asia), nestbuilding
must be a very old acquirement, eventually related to size and weight of
- The postulate of fibroconstructive industries related to hominid
evolution is not new. It was maintained already in 1929 by the Yerkes in
their book 'The Great Apes'. In view of primatologically observed nests,
their suggestion of an evolution of constructivity clearly implies the
assumption of fibroconstructive industries for hominids and their
- Nestbuilding behavior among pongids provides us with much more
proto-cultural data than tool-using behavior.
- Ground-nests are made in the terrestrial domain of locomotion. According
to materials (e.g. bamboo) they strongly favour bipedic posture.
- As 'buildings' or 'tectonical objects' nests can be related to human
- As part of night camps, their structural and spatial conditions can be
compared with human settlements.
- The hand acts as the main tool to 'build' an existentially important
artefact, the nest.
- Nestbuilding is to a great extent learned behavior, thus can be
considered as sub-human constructive tradition.
These are important arguments. They may support the working hypothesis that
- 'fibroconstructive industries' played an important role in proto-hominid
and hominid evolutionary processes.
Evidently this provides new models for
the interpretation of hominid evolution and early culture.
New models, new interpretations
Provokingly: is the apes' nest 'culture'? Of course not. But, there are
many lines! It may be repeated here: the life production of each animal
among great apes corresponds to a virtual tower of 14 times the height of
the Eiffel tower in Paris!
- Erection of body posture:
The erection of body-posture (one million before stone tools) might be
closely related to terrestric constructive behavior (ground nests of great
apes and their structural derivates) favoured by increasingly terrestrial
locomotion among proto-hominids and early hominids., maybe also because it
was a selective advantage in the new habitat now shared with terrestric
- Earliest tools:
Earliest tools were dominantly interpreted in the context of hunting,
consequently reduced to 'butchering' functions. If we assume prelithic
fibroconstructive industries, plausible new functions for early stone tools
appear: cutting plants as 'building materials'. In this sense earliest
tools could have greatly favoured the development of fibroconstructive
industries. Manipulatable fibrous materials were now easily dissected
from roots and disclocated. Stonetools paved the way also for increasingly
integrating non-manipulatable fibrous materials (wood) into constructive
processes. Note that pongid ground nests are constructed with rooted
materials of the same plant(s). Dissecting plants from roots implied not
only a considerably extended selection of different materials, but also
transporting materials to a different site. Materials could be mixed. The
sum of these new factors could be called the 'fibroconstructive revolution'
triggered by stonetools.
- The evolution of the hand:
It is true, the hand does not change considerably over millions of years.
But, this is itself a serious phenomenon. There is also a surprising
continuity in the relation of the hand to fibroconstructive operation from
arboreal tree nests, terrestric groundnests to highly evolved
fibroconstructive operations like basketry, matting or thatch. Operations
of bending, twisting, weaving, knotting, binding have remained practically
the same. However, striking is, that this type of operation produced maybe
99% of material culture of many traditional societies. The basic
continuity of the hand as well as its specific developments like 'precision
grip' or increased capacity for rotation fit well into this evolutionary
- Changes of face:
The stereoscopic focalisation of the face too might have to do something
with artefact producing processes localised stereotypically between one's
own hands and at arms distance.
- Increasing size of brain:
If we assume 'prelithic fibroconstructive industries, then, very likely, it
was not the tool itself, that created increased brainsize, but rather its
positive functional impacts on a much older industry which produced
fibroconstructive artefacts. What were these impacts like? Groundnests of
the great apes are built with 'rooted' materials. If we assume that this
'rooted' condition had essentially been preserved until the appearance of
earliest tools - note that it had been considerably responsible for
bipedalism - now - by means of the new tools - constructivity develops into
a new, but archaeologically invisible domain of fibroconstructive forms
(semantic and domestic architecture) used for spatial demarcation of
temporary, later fixed settlements. This is the real experimental field of
culture, which later forms the base of the 'neolithic revolution', finally
of the 'luxurious monumentality' of the earliest empires. We were not
interested in fibrous industries, because they did not show in the scanning
method of archaeologists.
- Evolution of culture:
Evolution of culture would now be reconstructed differently. If the
hypothesis of 'fibroconstructive industries' is maintained for hominid
evolution, the archaeological and paleoanthropological methods would have
to be complemented by another anthropology, which uses an 'anthropological'
concept of 'material culture' ('fibroconstructive' as a primary class) and
works systematically with it in reconstructing hominid evolution and
'cultural' object traditions.
In short: with the assumption of one single thing, we gain many new answers
in regard to hominid evolution. Fibroconstructive industries could explain
bipedalism, development as well as continuity of the hand. That
increasingly complex building- or fabrication methods imply increase of
memory makes sense. Increased capacity of construction might have been an
existential advantage. Stonetools triggered the 'fibroconstructive
revolution'. And last but not least: 'fibroconstructive industries'
survived as traditions in huge quantities in the domain of ethnology.
Unfortunately the study of this industry is only very poorly developed. But
this will change with the anthropologically founded term 'material
In fact, the nest as an artefact and spatio-structural proto-culture has
much more data to offer than the 'tool-user'. It can open new views on
processes of cultural evolution. The focus is now not so much on the
isolated object as a datable fact, but, rather, a fairly objective
environmental aspect of proto-cultural and cultural life: the settlement,
Important cultural sources for the early existence of constructivity and
corresponding developments are e. g. Henry de Lumley's paleolithic camp
'Terra Amata' (Nice, France). It shows relatively evolved house types and
settlement. Other materials are 'tectiformes' and other rockart, worldwide
(Egenter: Semiotica 100-2/4 (1994) :201-66). See also the edition on
stone-age settlements in 'Scientific American'.
See our INTERNET-Homepage: http://home.worldcom.ch/~negenter
DOFSBT, Chorgasse 19
CH-8001 Zuerich, Switzerland
Back to discussion list
Back to homepage