Truth, Inspiration, Hope.

Early Man’s Most Important Invention: The Handle

Simone Jonker
Simone Jonker worked in NTD Inspired for two years. She wrote light articles and inspiring stories.
Published: April 4, 2022
Basic stone tools, including knives, axes, a hammerstone, and a hafted (handled) hammer-ax from the Neolithic or Copper Age, The City of Prague Museum. (Image: Zde via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

A research team at the University of Liverpool is convinced that the simple handle, which early man began utilizing 500,000 years ago in tool construction, may have been even more instrumental in the development of human civilization than the wheel, which only came about 6,000 years ago. This most important invention may have had a stabilizing effect on early man’s lifestyle, and enhanced cognitive abilities.

Development of tools and weapons

Humankind is believed to have begun creating tools in the Stone Age, 2.6 million years ago, yet some researchers state that the earliest tools discovered are 3.3 million year-old stone implements found in Kenya’s Lake Turkana. 

One of the earliest examples of the Oldowan stone industry. A chopper is an archaic pebble tool with an uneven cutting edge made by removing flakes off one side of a stone. (Image: Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Oldowan tools were created by Hominins 2 million years ago. Chips were knocked off one edge of a fine-grained stone to make a sharp tool. Designed with symmetrical shapes, these implements were easy to grasp and could be used for cutting, chopping, or scraping. These ancient tools have been recovered from Africa, South Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and Europe; with similar artifacts having been found in Vértesszőlős, Hungary, and China. 

After about a million years, Oldowan tool-making gradually gave way to the Acheulean tradition of tool-making, characterized by the unique oval and pear-shaped “hand axes.” The hand axes were considerably larger and more advanced than Oldowan tools, and were flaked on both sides (bifacial), making them sharper. 


During the late Stone Age, beginning 50,000 years ago, tools with handles became widespread. Ancient tools with haftings, including spears, knives, and arrows, have been discovered at various archaeological sites. The heads of stone axes were often designed for certain types of handles—such as socketed, cleft stick, or wrap-around.

This was a significant development in the history of technology, as it was the first time that separate elements had been combined into a single tool. These compound tools consisted of three distinct elements: the point, the shaft, and the handle itself. When the spear or ax was used, the haft had to withstand significant impact forces. 

Australian Aboriginal hafted stone pick. During the Aboriginal period in Australia, stone tools were hafted using adhesives extracted from plants (resin, gums) or animal products (beeswax, dung). Bindings were made of plant fibers (bark fibers, root fibers) and/or animal products (sinews, skin). (Image: Mark Marathon via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

In order to construct an effective handle for stone tools, adhesives, fillers, and binding were essential considerations. Artifacts found in Sibudu Caves, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, date from the Howiesons Poort period, which is considered a part of the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa. The earthy pigment ochre appears to have had practical applications in tool-making. 

Microscopic examination of the Middle Stone Age Sibudu tools revealed resin or mastic mixed with ochre. Lyn Wadley, a Professor of Archaeology in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, and the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa linked the discovery of ochre with the hafting process, since ochre appears to signify sophisticated technical knowledge. 

In addition to the combination of several ingredients for the hafting paste, the application of heat to the paste implies an understanding of the properties of the individual ingredients. Furthermore, it would likely have required planning to ensure that all of the ingredients were available at the same time for the creation of the hafting pastes. 

Hafted vs unhafted tools – experiment

Volunteers were recruited to assist in a study regarding the advantages obtained by using hafted tools. Their findings were later published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Twenty-four male and sixteen female volunteers participated in simulated early-human activities, using both hafted and unhafted tools. Attached sensors recorded the participants’ movements, muscle contractions, oxygen consumption, and the speed at which the tools were moving. The volunteers were asked to chop down a simulated tree, using axes with and without handles, as well as to scrape fibers off a carpet designed to resemble an animal skin, using scrapers with and without handles.

The results showed that using hafted tools allowed for a broader range of motion, more muscle usage, and a faster impact speed, all of which resulted in a greater amount of force being produced. While hafted tools required more effort, the benefits outweighed the drawbacks by a wide margin. The authors claim that their testing revealed that the advantages derived from the use of hafted tools contributed to their widespread creation and use in early civilizations.

Impact of the introduction of handled tools

The researchers from the University of Liverpool asserted that people stabilized their lives by including handles in the design of their tools. The scientists think that the use of hafted tools and weapons improved hunting, survival, and self-defense by making sharpening tools and weapons more straightforward and effective. 

Scientists observed that hafted tools, such as scrapers and axes, enhance cognitive abilities that correlate with the “development of language and extended planning.”