About 1.75 million years ago, an early form of human made a stunning technological breakthrough, ushering in the prehistoric equivalent of the Industrial Revolution and possibly the evolution of the species into Homo sapiens.
After 800,000 years of using pebbles and simple flakes of stone as tools, some bright hominins discovered how to make more complicated ‘hand-axes’ and the new invention quickly spread across the world, from southern Africa to Europe and China.
Now scientists have discovered, using a process known as ‘neuroarchaeology’, that they probably did so using the same areas of the brain that are used to play the piano today.
And that, the researchers said, is thought to have marked “a turning point in the evolution of the human brain”.
Professor John Spencer, of the University of East Anglia, who took part in the study, said: “It is fascinating that these same brain networks today allow modern humans to perform such behaviours as skilfully playing a musical instrument.”
A paper in the journal Nature Human Behaviour described how the scientists monitored the brains of a group of people as they were taught how to make simple flakes of stone and then shape more complex axe-heads.
They theorised that modern Homo sapiens’ brains would react in a similar way to that of some of our early ancestors.
The simple ‘Oldowan’ tools required co-ordination of areas of the brain involved in visual attention and motor control.
But making the more complex ‘Acheulian’ tools saw the integration of areas involved in visual working memory, auditory and sensorimotor information, and complex action-planning. These are the same ones that activate when people play the piano.
It is not thought that early humans were able to speak language as we do, although they would have had communication skills that allowed them to hunt effectively in packs with their deadly stone axes.
Professor Spencer said it was possible that the more…