As I’ve mentioned before, I am friends with Malgorzata Koraszewska and Andrzej Koraszewski, who run the highly popular Polish website Racjonalista, which has thousands of secular followers starved for a non-theist viewpoint in an overwhelmingly Catholic country.
Malgorzata translates many of this website’s articles into Polish, and so we have struck a deal: in return for the right to translate any of my pieces without asking, I get a daily “Hili Dialogue.” Hili is their young tabby cat, and every day Andrzej has a two-line dialogue with her, with Hili showing her characteristic haughtiness, inquisitiveness, and, above all, penchant for noms. The dialogue always includes an appropriate photo.
I thought I’d put up today’s Hili Dialogue since it’s one of the rare ones that mentions me.
Hili: I must ask Jerry, when people lost possibility to care for their hygiene without all those artificial tools.
Andrzej: Get thee to a nunnery, and let me clean my teeth.
(Note that Hili’s back paw is green. She recently injured it, and the color is from an antibiotic ointment.)
Since this is a question about human cultural evolution, I thought I’d answer it for Hili.
I could construe your question in either of two ways: when did humans first start using tools? Or when did humans first start using toothbrushes?
The first question is much easier to answer, since tools and their markings are preserved much more readily than are toothbrushes. There is questionable evidence of human tool use about 3.4 million years ago, about 2-3 million years after our ancestors had split from those of modern chimpanzees. This “evidence” consists of cut marks on and crushed segments of animal bones, and those bones are associated with the remains of Australopithecus afarensis in an Ethiopian site dated 3.4 mya. The authors of that study, published in Nature in 2010, suggested that the cut marks and crushed regions reflect the use of stone tools for butchering.
That work got a lot of attention because it pushed the earliest hominin tool use back 800,000 years, since, before that, the earliest unequivocal evidence for human use of tools was 2.6 million years ago. But other workers have suggested that that early evidence for tool use might be bogus, reflecting only the trampling of those 3.4-my-old bones by other animals (they supported this by looking at marks on bones trampled by modern animals). Kate Wong at Scientific American reports on the controversy.
As I mentioned, my dear cat, the earliest widely accepted use of human tools was 2.6 million years ago. As the Smithsonian notes:
The oldest stone tools, known as the Oldowan toolkit, consist of at least:
• hammerstones that show battering on their surfaces;
• stone cores that show a series of flake scars along one or more edges; and
• sharp stone flakes that were struck from the cores and offer useful cutting edges, along with lots of debris from the process of percussion flaking.
It’s not clear which of our ancestors (or relatives) used the Oldowan tools; suggestions have involved species of both Australopithecus or Homo (e.g., H. ergaster, H. habilis). They were first described in Tanzania but have been found in many other parts of Africa as well.
Here are some Oldowan tools from the anthropology collection of the University of California at Berkeley; you can order casts of them from this site (photos by Peter Bostrom):
Chopper cores (used for crushing or as a source of stone flakes for cutting):
As you know, Hili, other animals besides humans use tools: these include crows, dolphins, elephants, and octopuses. But of course domestic cats like yourself are far too clever to have to fashion tools, for you simply get humans to do your tool-using for you. They can, for example, use can openers to release the contents of your beloved Whiskas—something that no nonhuman animal can do.
As for toothbrushes, that’s a harder question. As an article in HuffPo reveals, the earliest toothbrushes were probably just human fingers, a “tool” that would have left no trace. Apparently the Egyptians were using toothpowder made from ash, pumice, and eggshell about 7000 years ago, a concoction that would have been hard on the enamel! The ancient Babylonians cleaned their choppers with chewed-up twigs about 3500 B.C—something that I’ve also seen in modern India.
The advent of the real “toothbrush” appears to have been around 1700, with mass manufacture taking place less than a century later. These early toothbrushes used animal hair (not cat, I hope!); nylon bristles weren’t used until 1937.
I hope, Hili, that this satisfies your curiosity. And I hope you are keeping your teeth clean!
Professor Ceiling Cat