The handle NOT the wheel was our most revolutionary invention, study

A new study published in the Royal Society Interface Journal claimed that the greatest invention of the first men was in fact not the wheel but the handle of the tool! With an impact on transport, agriculture and industry, the wheel is often hailed as humanity’s greatest scientific revolution, but researchers at the University of Liverpool don’t necessarily agree. They posit that the invention of the hilt radically increased the energy efficiency of stone tools, particularly when chopping and crushing, and in the process greatly increasing the “strength and precision” that could be applied .

Every Stone Age tool shown here has a handle, even if it’s just a strip of leather wrapped tightly around the top of a single piece of stone. ( SpicyTruffle /Adobe Stock)

The science of grip fitting and its revolutionary impacts

The process by which a bone, stone, or metal artifact is attached to a handle or grip is called hafting. Hafting allows a single unhafted artifact to become more effective at chopping, crushing, cutting, and killing. The axe, spear and arrow, like all tools with handles, made cutting, killing and working much easier and maximized “impact”. Handled tools became increasingly common during the early Stone Age.

The first stone tools of any kind were developed by archaic hominids around 2.6 million years ago. These included rudimentary hand tools like sharpened flints and stones that acted as knives and scrapers. Fast forward about two million years and our tools had become more sophisticated and the first tools with handles began to “appear”. For reference, the wheel was only invented about 6,000 years ago!

The manufacture of tool handles led to an expansion in the size of hominid brains. Although other animal species use tools, only humans are addicted to tools.

“The transition from hand tool technology to shank tool technology marked a significant shift in the conceptualization of tool construction and function. Among other benefits, the hafting is thought to have given users a significant biomechanical and physiological advantage in undertaking basic subsistence tasks over hand-held tools. It is hypothesized that the addition of a handle improved the (bio)mechanical properties of a tool and upper limb by providing greater amounts of leverage, strength, and precision,” the researchers said. authors of the study, led by lead author Dominic Coe, a postgraduate researcher. student in the Department of Archeology at the University of Liverpool.

The latest tool handle study used modern technology to prove that a handle tool was superior and by how much.  (Royal Society Interface Journal)

The latest tool handle study used modern technology to prove that a handle tool was superior and by how much. ( Royal Society Interface Journal )

The science used for the latest hafting study

For the purposes of the study, 40 student volunteers were recruited (24 men and 16 women) and given a hatchet and a scraping tool called a “shavehook”, which is used for manual paint stripping, reports The daily mail . The study volunteers used the tools with handles and then without handles.

Cutting tools or choppers, with or without handles, were used to work on thick wooden pegs, 6 centimeters (2.4 inches) in diameter. The “paint scraper” was used to scrape fibers from a thick carpet that resembled animal skin.

Trackers were fitted to the volunteers’ forearms and upper arms, while another tracker was used to measure the speed of the tool during use.

Other participant parameters were also analyzed, including oxygen consumption and muscle contraction. This involved the technique known as electromyography or EMG, which is a diagnostic procedure performed to generally assess the health of muscles and the nerve cells that control them, i.e. motor neurons.

This Bronze Age ax looks like modern art and clearly the handle makes this tool perfect for chopping or killing.  (Patrick/Adobe Stock)

This Bronze Age ax looks like modern art and clearly the handle makes this tool perfect for chopping or killing. ( patrick /Adobe Stock)

Observations and Conclusions

“The adaptive benefits and motivations behind the invention and proliferation of handle tool technology are likely to be complex and multifaceted. This study shows that two subsistence activities, ubiquitous in the prehistoric past, are significantly enhanced at the both in tool functionality and in energy efficiency when undertaken using a shank tool versus a hand tool. [tool] equivalent,” the researchers conclude.

Finally, the benefits or advantages of tools with handles and with have been recorded. These included voluntary energy consumption in all movements and postures while using the tools without injury.

High-impact activities, especially chopping, although not visible to the naked eye, were significantly better when using a tool with a handle, which was fully supported by analytical data obtained from the study.

Moreover, fitting provided clear biomechanical and physiological benefits, even for scratching tasks, which supported the improved fitness of the individual, and thus of all groups that depend on the subsistence activities of base.

Finally, hafting helped produce a significant transition and change in hominid cognition. The increase in joint movement and muscle use resulted in a parallel increase in speed and strength, which, in scientific terms, is “more efficient per unit of energy applied to a task”, concluded the scientists.

Top image: A new study posits that tools with handles, which appeared after countless generations of archaic humans used portable rocks to cut, chop and kill, are the oldest technological invention and the most important of the hominins. Source: ExQuisine /Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey