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Homo, the Toolmaker
The First Division of Labor
Sharing and the Division of Labor

From small nomadic packs 

in the African wilderness . . .

. . . to megacities linked in

worldwide civilization

Wild to Civilized

The Origin of Sharing

In our very early evolution, we had no division of labor. We all ate only fruits and vegetables, and we all had the same skills to gather them. When we began to hunt and eat meat, the men hunted and the women continued to gather fruits and vegetables. A sexual division of labor began.

From small nomadic packs 

in the African wilderness . . .

. . . to megacities linked in

a global industrial civilization

Before a division of labor


About 7 million years ago, so very long ago that it is hard to conceive, a new kind of animal—our ancient ancestors—began to move across the African wilderness in a new way. We began walking on two feet. Hominids we have been called. The great apes—chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas—continued on as knuckle walkers or tree swingers, using four feet most of the time to get around on land or in trees.


Walking on two feet was a liberating change for us. We could walk or run longer distances. Walking on two feet freed up our hands to hold and manipulate objects in a multitude of ways. We could, among many other things, dig up root vegetables lying under the ground’s surface. Standing tall, we could use our hands to reach higher and to use our eyes to see distant objects better in the open African grasslands, the so-called savanna that was dotted with stands of trees and bushes often laden with fruits.


With these new and improved abilities, we were moving in the direction of becoming modern humans, but we remained quite apelike in appearance. Our brains were large compared to almost all other animals, but still relatively small compared to us as modern humans. Our chins remained sloped backwards rather than projecting forward. Our eyebrows were big and bulging from our skills. Our foreheads were still sloped backwards, not yet globular as they re today. Our bodies remained covered with fur or hair, which would mostly disappear over time.


At these very early times, we lived in close-knit nomadic packs numbering from 5 to 25 individuals, roaming through the African wilderness in search of food. Everyone in the pack stayed together almost all the time. We had no possessions. All we had were our naked bodies—with heads, torsos, arms, hands, legs, and feet—which were sufficient for us to roam, gather, eat with, and reproduce, as all other animals do. We were vegetarians, even vegans, using our bare hands to pick food from shrubs and other plants and eating it raw. Wild fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and even insects were our basic diet. We occasionally ate meat by scavenging for the carcasses of animals already killed by other creatures. We probably even killed a few smaller animals ourselves with well-aimed stones. But these scavenging and hunting efforts were haphazard and infrequent. Fruits and vegetables were hands down the mainstay of our very early diet.


The wilderness suited us well. We had familiar routes and food sites as we roamed over a large area. When we depleted the available food in one spot, which may have been in as little as a day or two, we moved to a new location. The time it took to gather our food was not extensive—perhaps five hours a day including travel time, some have conjectured—and considerable time was left for leisure. We likely sat together, probably in a circle, and engaged in boisterous social activity at regular intervals, but our language was probably little more than hoots, hollers, and warning vocalizations. Perhaps quite simple forms of singing, dancing, and story-telling occurred at this time: continuous hoots, hollers, jumping, and gestures, soon according to a steady beat. Chimpanzees in the wild have been seen “dancing” as they watch a forest fire or hear thunder. Were these early hominid behaviors the first “musical”? We will never know with certainty. More social activity happened when we met up occasionally with other nomadic packs or several of them at a time in a sort of festival. With them, we sometimes swapped members, primarily to secure mates for unmated members of a pack. Thus, we avoided incest.


We lived in this way as vegetarian bipeds for 4 or 5 million years. Most significantly for our purposes here, we had no division of labor at this very ancient time. A division of labor involves differentiation of skills between people. It involves taking objects from the environment—one person doing one task on them, another person doing a different task on them, and so on—and passing the objects along from worker to the next worker, and onward, if necessary, to complete the object. In a division of labor, we share. Only by allowing another person to take and hold and work on a product that we have worked on, and often vice versa, do we both benefit in the end. This passing-along of work objects is the essence of sharing, whether it is only between one man and one woman, or from one worker to the next worker and onward.


None of this sharing, however, happened very, very long ago. Like most other animals, in our very-long-ago pre-human days, we had no skill differentiation, no passing-along of objects we have worked on to another individual, no sharing. Everyone except the youngest members of the pack had grown up to have all the same foraging skills used for our survival: to select and pick fruits and vegetables from plants or dig them out of the ground, and to peel them, crush them, or crack them open. We did not need help from others. We gathered our food as individuals and ate only what we had gathered as individuals. Moreover, we ate our food immediately at the foraging site—no saving for the future. No sharing. Perhaps mothers shared some food bits with their very young children-in-arms. But by the time children were weaned from mother’s milk, sometime around age four, they had learned to gather and eat plant food simply by observing what we adults were doing. Hunting and sharing of food were yet to come. And when they did, a momentous change took place in our mode of survival.


The advent of Homo, the toolmaker


From 7 million years ago until perhaps as recently as 2.3 million years ago, then, we did not have a division of labor. We survived individually. Of course, both mating and breastfeeding occurred in those days, and these acts were, indeed, true divisions of labor, but of a distinct nature. They were biological capacities or “skills.” They involved differentiation of the sexes in their innate “skills,” and, like other divisions of labor, they involved passing-along of objects—sperm and milk. But these divisions of labor were built into our bodies and into the bodies of other mammals for a far longer period on the evolutionary timeline. Mammals arose over 150 million years ago. So these biological divisions of labor had lasted for many millions of years before we acquired a division of labor that involves environmental objects. In other words, other mammals besides us have sexual reproduction and nursing of infants, but with a few very limited exceptions, no other animals have worked upon environmental objects and shared them with other members of their species. And none has gone so far as we have gone to manipulate and share environmental objects in a way that would soon become unimaginably complex.


Thus, well before the end of our 7 million years living as bipeds in nomadic packs eating only fruits and vegetables, a significant change took place in our survival mode. No later than 2.3 million years ago and almost certainly further into the past, one of our early ancestors invented a tool, the first tool that we recognize clearly in the archaeological record: a stone tool. This first stone tool has been recognized by archaeologists as marking a new branch on the evolutionary tree: the genus Homo, meaning “male human” or just “human.” Homo includes such now-extinct species as Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo ergaster and Homo neanderthalensis, among others. And it includes us, Homo sapiens. All these earlier species—before sapiens—looked more apelike than we do today, especially in the head: smaller brains, prominent brows, flat noses, protruding jaws and teeth. But their bodies from the neck down were almost modern. Living from at least 2.3 million years ago until about 150,000 years ago, all these less-than-modern species that preceded sapiens nevertheless qualified as humans—Homo—because they were, like sapiens, inventors of tools and toolmakers.


The first less-than-modern humans in the genus Homo were labeled Homo habilis, meaning “handy man” or “handy human,” a very fitting name for the species we consider to have been the first toolmakers and, thus, the first true humans. Those first stone tools made by habilis roughly 2.3 million years ago were simply flakes, pieces of stone broken off a larger, easily fractured stone by striking another stone against it. The resulting flakes had sharp edges that could be put to many cutting uses, but their principal use was probably cutting through tough animal skin to reach the meat on an animal carcass and cutting the meat from skin and bone. These flakes were the first knives, a primary tool—even the primary tool—throughout our human history.


What is distinctive about all tools and all human technology, even these simple flakes, is that they require forethought, planning ahead, being purposive, doing one activity in order to achieve a future goal. Before tools, we just confronted the wilderness around us, took its fruits directly with our hands, and consumed these fruits immediately, all using the “tools” of our hands, legs, eyes, and brains built into our physiology very long ago.


Soon after the invention of flakes came choppers. [IMAGES OR DRAWINGS OF FLAKES AND CHOPPERS.] As habilis, we realized that the stone core from which the flakes were being taken could itself be shaped by flaking to create a stone with a sharp-cutting edge, one that would fit in the hand. Like the flakes, it was undoubtedly also a multi-use tool serving to harvest edible plants, cut and crush plant stems and leaves, crack open nuts, and as we began to hunt, to remove meat and cut it up. These first stone tools of habilis—flakes and choppers—were very crude, but they were useful and lasted as our only stone tools throughout habilis’s entire time on earth, which was almost a million years. Yes, for almost a million years, we lived with crude flakes and choppers with little variation in how we made them or used them.


But we don’t know that habilis was the first toolmaker. Habilis may have been the first to make tools of stone, which have permanence against the ravages of nature and need only to be discovered today under layers of earth. But perhaps yet further back in history, we made tools of other materials: wood, bone, and antler. We might speculate that the initial killing tool of early hominid species—before Homo habilis—may well have been a natural, unmodified stone of just the right size, hurled at small animals. But even that natural stone would require a modicum of forethought to be picked up and thrown at a small creature in order to kill it and eat it.


Very likely, the next tool was the first tool to be altered by us, a small branch broken off a tree and further broken or shaped into a stabbing stick for killing. After wooden sticks might have been tools of bone or antler, sharpened and used as stabbing tools. These tools would have decayed and disappeared. With no remaining evidence of earlier tools, then, stone tools are our first evidence of tools being shaped and fashioned from the environment, and we have dubbed their makers Homo habilis.


Hunting as opposed to scavenging is the deliberate seeking of animals to kill for food, and very occasional hunting likely began with the use of natural stones and sharpened wooden sticks, bones, and antlers, long before habilis invented stone flakes and choppers. This timing makes sense because the flakes and choppers of habilis do not seem fitted to be killing tools. Cutting and chopping, yes, but not killing, which usually required sharp points. The first “toolkit” of Homo habilis, then, might have included a pointed stick of wood, bone, or antler, combined with stone flakes and a stone chopper. More serious hunting had thus become possible, meat would become desired, and our way of life would change dramatically. 


The first division of labor


Hunting, by its nature, had to take place quietly, away from any gathering of people, and it required the ability to run rapidly. The task of hunting, therefore, fell to the men and older boys since small children would have made noise and interfered with women’s mobility. As a consequence, hunting separated the men from the women and young children for periods of time. The very beginnings of father-goes-to-work and mother-stays-at-home happened right here, so very long ago, just when a division of labor—a sexual one—first began.


Thus, the very first division of labor in humans, however part-time it was, began when we invented tools for killing animals. (Note: The word invented is used here because these early tools were in every sense unique and new objects crafted out of the raw materials of nature, however simple they appear to us today.) With the beginning of hunting, the skills of the men in procuring meat became somewhat different from the skills of the women in gathering fruits and vegetables. At first, excursions to hunt occurred very intermittently. The men brought their occasional catch back to a campsite while the women steadily gathered fruits and vegetables, and brought their gatherings back a campsite. The women’s gatherings were the bulk of the pack’s food. The campsite thus first developed at this time, a place to meet after being separated. At the campsite, sharing began as meat from the men was passed to the women and children and as fruits and vegetables from the women were passed to the men and older boys. We ate, then, in a group, not spread out at a gathering site, working alone. This campsite exchange, this sharing of food, in fact, became very important, the only way for the high-calorie, highly nutritious, and very delicious meat to get to the women and children and for the essential nutrients of plant food to get to the men and older boys.


This first division of labor was sexual, and it meshed with our physiologically built-in reproductive and nursing divisions of labor. It was, be it noted, a manipulation of environmental objects—wild animals killed for meat, wild fruits and vegetables harvested—all brought back to a campsite and passed along from one person to another, which qualify it as the kind of division of labor we are focusing on.


At first, the takings from hunting were small and unpredictable. Men still gathered plant foods along with the women, although not quite as often. Nevertheless, when we adopted tools and especially stone tools, what hunting we did, combined with gathering, yielded slightly more food and slightly more higher-calorie food. That slightly better food supply meant that the calorie-needy hominid brain grew ever so slightly in size and the nomadic pack grew ever so slightly in numbers. Slightly more food also allowed the pack to stay in one location a bit longer. These small changes, which began by the time of Homo habilis, increased ever so slowly over the course of the next almost-a-million years during habilis’s existence on this earth.


This advent of Homo and the beginning of a division of labor were just the start of a process of change. Over a span of 2 million years, habilis was followed by Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo ergaster, and Homo neanderthalensis, and other early Homo species, not necessarily in a direct line of descent, but with much overlap among the species over their respective long years of existence. These early species were followed by what is termed “archaic Homo sapiens”—who appeared around 400 thousand years ago with a virtually modern brain in size but still with the remaining apelike features of a thick skull, prominent brow ridges, and lack of a prominent chin. Finally, around 200-300 thousands years ago, fully modern Homo sapiens appeared.




The change in our way of life began with Homo habilis and continued long after habilis disappeared from the earth. The change was significant and continued steadily in the same direction – towards civilization and new movement patterns. Over a time span of 2 to 3 million years (???? CHECK DATES) and up to the start of civilization less than 6,000 years ago, a part-time division of labor became full-time, a small amount of food sharing became extensive food sharing, a few primitive tools became a host of more skillfully crafted tools, a few simple products became a large array of products, a slightly larger pack became a very much larger society, and a slightly longer stay at each feeding site became permanent settlements. In other words, the very small changes that resulted from hunting were the beginning of trends that would continue inexorably to our modern selves in modern civilization: small nomadic packs became cities of people, more food from hunting became large grocery stores and other non-food stores, and nomadism became a sedentary life-style based on ownership of land that eventually becomes occupied by very large structures built on it.


These early small changes occurring with habilis, then, were our very first steps towards modern civilization—set in motion when we invented the first tools, began to hunt, and developed sharing and a division of labor in the sense we use it in this work. To be clear, a division of labor involves taking materials from the environment, altering those materials by one person or one set of persons who perform a set of tasks on them, after which the materials are passed to another person or set of persons who perform a different set of tasks on the materials, and this specialized work and passing-on of altered materials continues according to the complexity of the production process until the materials become final products, which are then passed to the end-users, the consumers, who ingest or otherwise use the products.

Sharing and the division of labor

Making tools is what distinguishes us humans from almost all other creatures. Chimpanzees and a very few other species have also been observed to make very simple tools. Some chimpanzees, for example, use their hands to strip leaves off a twig and insert it into an anthill, then bring it up with ants clinging to it, to be eaten. Some of them also have been observed to use leaves with their hands to wipe their bottoms when they have diarrhea. But these simple tools are the extent of their toolmaking. For us humans, in contrast, our first attempts at toolmaking were just the beginning. Before tools, we had only our hands. After tools, we had implements in our hands to help us deal with objects in our environment. These tools became increasingly complex at an increasing pace. At first, they gradually became more skillfully shaped into finely crafted arrowheads and into spearheads tied to shafts, then at an increasing pace, turning metal and wood into hoes and plows, into chariots and wagons, into looms and steam engines, and continuing on an ever more increasing rate of innovation, into tractors, automobiles, high-rise buildings, airplanes, printing presses, hydroelectric dams, electric power grids, computers and other electronic devices, and all the objects that surround us every day and fill our environment. This increasing speed of innovation corresponds to the point in the historical graph, Figure 2, when population growth quickly gains pace and accelerates dramatically in a sharply upward-turning line. These innovations are all tools we have crafted, tools we have used and continue to use to manipulate other environmental objects further, all tools we have fashioned, ultimately, with our hands. We are, indeed, handy humans, handy in its double meaning of skillful and relating to our hands.


So at a very ancient time, we did not share. Eventually, sharing began, and as we shall see in the following chapters, in a comparatively short time, historically speaking, it developed into a vast network of sharing. Sharing, whether on a small scale or a large one, is the essence of all divisions of labor. Most people will recognize sharing when food is passed from one person to another, or when a hunter returns and passes part of his capture to his family or to members of his tribe. But whether the passing-along of work objects occurs between family members or between workers in a large factory or bureaucracy, passing-along of work objects from one person to another is sharing. Even sentences and the words and tiny letters that make up those sentences are work objects, very thin layers of inked markings on another work object, paper. Even language and ideas are work objects; they depend on manipulating our environment with various lingual sound waves or with markings on paper and manipulating the nerve networks in our brains that ultimately connect to those lingual sound waves or written markings.


The three divisions of labor that we will discuss are the basic different ways we can organize this sharing. From this sharing, we have our daily work, our occupational lives that supply us with all the material goods constantly around us, including, not least, the[S1]  food we eat by which we survive. We will be using modern words with the intention that they shall apply equally to prehistoric as to modern divisions of labor. The consumers in a prehistoric hunting and gathering nomadic packs are the pack members themselves, who are sharing—passing along—meat, fruit, and vegetables to other pack members. The meat, fruit, and vegetables were their work objects or products. The work of the hunters consisted of stalking, killing, butchering, and bringing back to the campsite their capture for the day. The work of the gatherers consisted of plucking fruits and vegetables from shrubs and trees or digging them out of the ground, bringing the fruits and vegetables back to the campsite, and cracking them open or otherwise making the useful food portion of the plants available. These modern terms cover the basic elements of any division of labor.


Finally, for our purposes here, a division of labor always involves movement. The passing-along or sharing of work objects involves one person moving into contact with another person in order to pass a work object on to the next worker or on to the consumer. All the passing-along, even in a large, complex division of labor, involves movement of individuals into contact with other individuals in order to pass along work objects. The number of different ways that these movements can take place is nearly limitless. We see this passing-along daily, but it is so omnipresent that we do not even notice it. But all the movements come down to three basic patterns of movement.  Our goal in this Part III is to describe and analyze these movements that are constituent parts of all divisions of labor.


Figure TIME.  Timeline of major events in human evolution

         [[[The image version of the chart below may be easier for mobile formatting-MATT]]]

6 - 7 million years ago          

Early hominids; first bipeds; gathering and scavenging; nomadic packs; no sharing


2.3 million years ago

Homo habilis; first species in Homo genus; first stone toolmaker; gathering and scavenging, small amount of hunting; nomadic packs


Intermediate years    

Various species of Homo, including:

      Homo erectus, existing 2 million years ago to 500,000 years ago

          longest surviving hominid: 1.5 million years

          Increasing complexity of stone tools

          Gathering and significantly more hunting

          Control of fire and cooking

          Nomadic packs


200,000 years ago      

       Homo neanderthalensis

           Increasing complexity of stone tools; hunting is most important; nomadic packs


       Homo sapiens

           Anatomically modern humans

           Hunting and gathering 

           More elaborate stone tools

           Nomadic packs

10,000 years ago        

       Homo sapiens

            Subsistence agriculture begins

            Sedentary living in villages

            Pottery, weaving, metal-working


6,700+/- years ago       

       Homo sapiens

            Surplus agriculture

            First small cities; beginning of civilization

            Occupational specialization

            Writing, metal-working


500 years ago 

        Homo sapiens

               Beginning of industrialization

               International trade

               Much larger cities

               Booming population growth

Questions or comments:

Hominid Timeline.PNG
homo habilis.jpg
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