From hand to handle: the first industrial revolution

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Archaeology Classics and Egyptology


As humans we are all utterly dependent on technology for our survival. We rely on tools to feed and protect ourselves, but they are also deeply embedded in our everyday social lives. Just try living without your mobile phone or internet access, the espresso machine or a knife and fork and you will soon appreciate the social importance of 'things'. For more than two million years we have evolved physically and socially and tools have been an integral part of our becoming human. Even though archaeologists know a lot about how tools were made, we understand little about how and why changes in technology happened. Trial and error and necessity might be all we need to consider, plus that rare eureka moment of invention. In reality the process of technological change was likely to have been more complex, at least in the recent evolutionary past, and that complexity can be seen all around us today.

W.B. Arthur, a 'complexity theorist' (The Nature of Technology, 2009) observes that all modern technology works on the principle of 'combinatorial evolution' in which multiple parts are integrated to make a tool, and each of these parts is a tool in its own right and each component is made by other tools which involve other tools, and so on. A random selection of contemporary objects such as a pencil, iPhone, or the Large Hadron Collider illustrates the principle at work, as do basic materials, such as paper, plastic and steel which are themselves made by machinery composed of multiple interacting components. Tools beget tools in an almost self-generating process. Combinatorial evolution speeds the process of innovation with the potential for endless novel combinations of parts to emerge as creative solutions to problems. These new combinations will in turn generate supporting technologies and news fields of expertise. Our growing dependence on the internet for organising our social and economic lives typifies the revolutionary potential of combinatorial evolution as spin-offs, such as apps, emerge at an ever increasing rate. The speed of change is breathtaking, especially from an archaeologist's perspective.

The aim of this study, 'From Hand to Handle', is to trace the archaeological origins of the combinatorial principle, to find out when and where it emerged and to try and understand the social and environmental conditions that spurred its development and spread. At the moment, some of the earliest evidence for tools made from multiple working parts (cutting edges mounted on handles or shafts) comes from the period between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago in Europe, Africa and possibly Asia. This period predates the appearance of our species, Homo sapiens, and it's not clear where exactly the technology began or if it was developed independently by more than one group of early humans and then spread throughout the world. The Hand to Handle project examines the archaeological evidence from each continent to try and resolve the issue of its origin, but also looks at genetic and fossil evidence to determine when early humans had developed enough brain power to imagine new kinds of tools made from multilple parts and different materials. The kind of hierarchical thought involved in envisaging composite tools was also involved in the evolution of language, with the two processes being inextricably linked.

Once developed, composite technology diversified into new forms as illustrated by archaeological examples drawn from the period after 120,000 years ago. The project also involves the study of ethnographic collections of hafted tools held in museums in the UK and USA. These historic artefacts reveal the range of composite tools made by hunter-gatherers from the tropics to the arctic, highlighting the importance of the combinatorial principle in enabling humans to colonise the globe.

The project results will be published as a book by Oxford University Press.

Planned Impact

The concept of combinatorial evolution has been introduced to the private sector and elements of academia (engineers and economists) through the work of complexity theorist W.B. Arthur (The Nature of Technology, 2009). Its application to the human evolutionary record as offered here is new, and has the potential to reach a broader non-academic audience through a coordinated dissemination strategy involving the media (print and electronic), a dedicated website and an exhibition.
Archaeology enjoys a high public profile in part through its enduring presence on television (eg, Time Team, Horizon, Discovery Channel) and the media appetite for reporting new discoveries and ideas that challenge preconceptions about early humans. The Hand to Handle project with its interdisciplinary content will appeal to that substantial portion of the public that derives enjoyment and intellectual stimulation from the media coverage of archaeology, anthropology and natural history. The initial dissemination will be through the project monograph which will be written in a format to reach an educated but not exclusively academic audience. The book will be published in 2012 and media dissemination will follow. Media coverage of the findings will be generated through a publicity campaign organised with the help of the University of Liverpool (Corporate Communications) and Oxford University Press. Public dissemination is planned through radio, television and print media as described in more detail in the Pathways to Impact. A dedicated website presented in a non-technical style will feature on the University's publically accessible webpage, and a separate link will be available through the School of Archaeology, Classics & Egyptology 'Unearthed' news page. Discussions are underway with the Victoria Gallery & Museum, Liverpool, to host a From Hand to Handle exhibition. A linked practical handling exhibition will be available for school groups through the Gallery's learning services. Students would be given the opportunity to handle genuine artefacts and create their own composite tools to illustrate the combinatorial principle. A range of modern object will be included to underline the centrality of composite technology in our daily lives. I will present public talks on the subject through the Gallery's adult learners programme and to local archaeological and historical societies.
Title From Hand to Handle: The First Industrial Revolution 
Description Exhibition at the Victoria Gallery Museum and Gallery, Liverpool 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact No impacts at this early stage as the exhibition is just being launched. 
Description The project began as search in the archaeological record for evidence for the development of tools made of multiple parts. All modern technolgies rely on this principle of combining parts and materials to make something, and that principle had a beginning. Just where and when and how it came about were the known unknowns. The resulting book (From Hand to Handle: The First Industrial Revolution) highlighted the limitations of the archaeological evidence in Africa, in particular, for the transition from non-hafted to hafted tools. Researchers now have a clear set of research questions with which to focus future research in Africa and elsewhere where the evidence is patchy and not well-understood. The project also led to the concept of 'integrative technologies' as a label to behaviours that were precursors to hafting in that they either involved tools made from other materials in a step-like sequence or involved extended plannoing sequences. We can now identify these technologies as early as 1 million years ago in the African record. The great time depth to this whole process of technological change that culminates with hafting highlights the gradual nature of change and the range of craft knowledge (expertise) involved. change in these early small-scale societies was slow by modern standards, but the results of the 'The First Industrial Revolution' profoundly changed how our ancestors imagined and made tools. Everything we make today is based on the invention of
Exploitation Route The project research is being used by an international manufacturer of household products in the context of improving how small specialist teams can work together to solve problems and find new applications for their products. This particular manufacturer is investing heavily in artificial intelligence based production and asked me for some insights, based on the distant past, on how to increase productivity.
Sectors Chemicals

Creative Economy




Museums and Collections

Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description My findings have been used in the production of BBC series about the evolution of the human mind, and more recently they have been used by a large manufacturer of household products to consider how they might enhance the effectiveness of small project groups (integrating chemists and engineers). A museum exhibit based on the project research has opened in Liverpool.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Creative Economy,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural


Description BA/Leverhulme Small Grants
Amount £9,981 (GBP)
Funding ID SG141176 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2015 
End 01/2016
Description Doctoral studentship
Amount £90,000 (GBP)
Funding ID 200732988 
Organisation North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership (NWCDTP) 
Sector Multiple
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2016 
End 09/2019
Description General Research Grant
Amount £898,000 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/N008804/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2017 
End 08/2021
Title Biomechanics of hafting 
Description Methods of motion and energy capture drawn from biomechanics were applied in a pilot study to assess the feasibility of a larger scale research project. The pilot study arose from speculation published in from 'Hand to Handle: The First Industrial Revolution' that hafted tools might have had an impact on the evolution of the human body. 
Type Of Material Physiological assessment or outcome measure 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The pilot study has led to an application from a potential PhD student who would extend the project. 
Description Artefact function research group 
Organisation University of Liege
Country Belgium 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I contributed to the teaching of postdoctoral research students at the University of Liege through participation in a workshop where I delivered two lectures based on my research linked to the book 'From Hand to Handle: The First Industrial Revolution'. The Liege team participates in the Deep Roots Project with a Co-I and a post-doctoral student analysing artefacts excavated in 2019 in Zambia. One Liverpool PhD student (AHRC funded) has completed training in use-wear analysis at Liege and more recently a new Liverpool PhD student (AHRC funded) has begun trainig in Liege (starting January 2022).
Collaborator Contribution The partner has contributed material to a museum dispaly in preparation at the Victoria Gallery & Museum, Liverpool. The display results directly fromt the AHRC funding that led to the publication of 'From Hand to Handle'. The partnership has more recently contributed to a presentation to an international audience for EXARC 2021 (experimental archaeology conference).
Impact No outputs at present.
Start Year 2015
Description Advisor on 'The Human Universe', BBC production 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Guidance given to programme makers on the key issues to be covered in the documentary and logistical information on where to film.

The research supported by the AHRC featured in the first episode of the documentary series, highlighting the importance of the invention of hafting in human evolution.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description British Institute in Eastern Africa Annual Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The talk sparked questions and led to discussions afterwards.

The presentation led to discussion of future research priorities in African Middle Stone Age archaeology, in particular the identification of large gaps in knowledge and how these can be addressed.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Darwin Festival Lecutre 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The talked led to an extensive discussion on the process of invention as distinct to innovation and generated interest in the published outcome of the AHRC supported research.

Members of the West Midlands Branch of the Society of Biology who sponsored the talk requested further information about the data presented and in particular how they might follow progress in this area of research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Invited to present a keynote address to a panel meeting organised by the University of Vienna to discuss the development of the bow and arrow and its impact on human evolution 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The keynot address gave the workshop a broader historical and intellectual content for the topic under discussion (the role of the bow and arrow in human evolution). My aim was to situate this particular technology in the broader scope of human anatomical, social and cognitive evolution, drawing on the results of my research on hafting and the findings of the current Deep Roots Project. The bow and arrow was introduced as an outcome of the invention of hafting which created the first simple machines that long predated this particular technology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description The African Roots of Human Behaviour 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This public symposium led to debate on the concept of invention, the quality of data available in the African record and possibility of parallel but different processes operating in Southeast Asia.

The audience cross-cut disciplinary boundaries and one notable impact was the incorporation of the ideas presented into an ongoing project in cognitive psychology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description The Archaeology of Modern Human Evolution in Africa workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The workshop was designed to challenge current thinking about the evolution of human behaviour and it succeeded in doing so.

The workshop led to plans for a publication on what constitutes the African Middle Stone Age and to networking for a supporting grant application on cognitive evolution in the Middle to Late Pleistocene.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description West Lancashire Archaeological Society talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A talk to the regional society on the findings of the project research linked to the 'From Hand to Handle: the first Industrial Revolution'. The talk sparked lively debate about the lasting impact of innovations in the Stone Age on the participant's personal lives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016