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Relatively speaking, the world is changing really, really, fast!

Biface de St Acheul MHNT
A hand axe from Saint Acheul.
Credit: Didier Descouen

Take a moment to think about all of the change that has taken place since you were born. Not just the technological change (from computers the size of small cars to exponentially more powerful devices weighing mere ounces), but also the social, scientific, and cultural progress that has occurred in the last several decades.

Now consider the Acheulean hand axe. The always-excellent podcast, 99% Invisible, has an insightful show looking at this primitive stone tool. 

From the show:

The Acheulean hand axe does not look like an “axe.” There’s no handle, and no metal. It could be called the “Acheulean pointy hand rock,” because it is just a rock that has been chipped and shaped, usually into the form of a tear-drop.

The term “Acheulean” refers to where the first specimens were found, on a dig site in Saint-Acheul, France. Other hand axes have been dug up in Africa, Europe and South Asia.

Early humans created these hand axes by breaking off big pieces with large rocks, and then shaping the fine edge with smaller rocks and pieces of bone. Making one of these things requires effort, skill, and time – anywhere from fifteen minutes to several hours.

The knowledge and skill required to manufacture this ancient tool was passed down from adult to child for many, many generations. In fact, the archeological evidence seems to indicate that this primitive piece of stone ‘technology’ was in use FOR A MILLION YEARS!

Wow! For 40,000 to 50,000 generations, the tools and technology didn’t change. The tools that you learned as a child were the tools that you passed along to your children — for a million years.

Granted, there is more to this story that we can know. And the ‘humans’ who crafted these tools were, themselves, evolving dramatically over this time period. But it’s safe to say that, until relatively recently, the pace of change was on a glacial — nay geological — time scale.

Things have sped up a bit in the last few years. The world barely feels the same from year to year, let alone from generation to generation. No wonder I feel dizzy sometimes (and I thought it was just the jet lag).

Originally published September 12, 2014. Update May 28, 2020

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