Artifice and art itself – these are the two meanings of the Greek word technē. Technē is, according to French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler, and according to the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus, the defining characteristic of man. There is no man without technics; and there is no technics without man.

This idea of ‘technics’ is supposed to comprise both techniques for making things, and the technical products of those techniques. The word ‘technics’ also equivocates between modern machine technology and primitive ‘tools’ and their techniques, whether they were turned towards art or craft – things we wouldn’t necessarily think of as ‘technology’.

In the first part of Man, The Animal Without Essence I focused on the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus, in the second part I looked at Plato’s cave allegory in relation to prehistoric art and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgetting Dreams. So what I want to do in this third part is justify and illustrate the idea that man and technics arise at exactly the same moment. One of the chief in this regard was the twentieth century palaeoanthropologist, André Leroi-Gourhan (palaeoanthropology being the study of the oldest (palaiós) forms of the human being (anthrōpos).)

What Leroi Gourhan shows us is two extraordinary things: 1. techniques have a history. From the most simple things about prehistoric tools, such as flints, we can say something about the level of historical development the people of that time had reached. And we can say something about how intelligent they were. There is a direct correlation between the type of tools people were capable of making, and their brain. The two ‘mirror’ one another, so to speak. The evolution of man and the evolution of the tool run side by side. 2. There IS no human being properly speaking, that does not use tools i.e. there is no ‘man’ without technics (hence the title of this series).

Change in posture before development of brain: from quadripedal to bipedal

Leroi-Gourhan begins his book, Gesture and Speech, (1964) by opposing a very long tradition in palaeontology: the idea that the evolution, the development of the human being is governed by the brain. Everything else, its posture, skeleton, and physiology generally, results from the gradual increase in size of the animal’s brain.

In fact, as Leroi-Gourhan tries to show, everything begins with the feet. With the posture and the skeleton of the animal, and the way that this changes over the course of time. One change in posture in particular is crucial: the move from the four-footed (quadripedal) stance to the two-footed (bipedal) stance.

This has the effect of freeing up or liberating a number of different parts of the animal (by liberating I mean that it makes possible certain novel functions that will come to be assumed by certain organs, and secondly I mean the freeing up of the movement of the individual appendages, making them more mobile). So what were these liberations, these changes in function and mobility, that occurred with the assumption of an upright stance?

First of all, the front limbs of the animal were freed from task of walking, this freed up the hand and thus bestowed upon it the possibility of grasping things, like tools, as well as gesturing. Now, because the hand was now given the possibility of grasping things, the MOUTH was simultaneously freed from this task – the task of grasping and picking up – it is now free to SPEAK. (It’s hard to grip tools if you have to run with your hands at the same time; and it’s hard to speak with a dead rat in your mouth!)

Hence, two significant things are liberated in the move from the quadrupedal to the bipedal stance: the hand and the face; gesture and speech. Effectively the new erect stance opens the way to two essential human characteristics: the use of tools, and the use of speech.

But there is a third consequence of the upright stance, and that is an increased space in the skull for the brain. In four-footed animals, the spine enters the skull at the rear, and given the angle of entry, and given the low flat skulls that such animals must have (for reasons of weight-bearing and mechanical stress), the spine and the shape of the skull leave precious little room for a brain.

Now with the assumption of an erect posture, the spine enters the skull at the base, and given the way that this supports the weight of the skull, and the amount of space left free at the top, front, and rear of the skull, this opens up space, a space in which a much larger and more complex brain can evolve:

We therefore have three effects of the upright stance: hand, face, and brain.

So to Leroi-Gourhan, humans do have bigger brains than their cousins, but crucially, this brain did not come first and initiate the development of the other two: the empty space in the skull came first, and that empty space was the result of a prior change in posture and skeleton.

One of the crucial discoveries for Leroi-Gourhan – and for all of palaeoanthropology – was the discovery of a primitive man known as the Zinjanthropian, or Zinjanthropus, in 1959. Given that Gesture and Speech was completed a mere 5 years later, one can imagine that this discovery was one of Leroi-Gourhan’s main inspirations for writing the book. The Zinjanthropian was perhaps the very first human: he had plenty of room in his skull for a large brain, but he had only a tiny one. And what is even more crucial about this man was that, despite this tiny brain, he nevertheless used tools. As Leroi-Gourhan puts it: ‘The discovery of Zinjanthropus has taught us that technicity is present even in the most rudimentary of human forms’ (GS83).

‘Perhaps the most important development of the science of fossil man was Leakey’s find on July 17th, 1959, in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanganyika, of Zinjanthropus boisei accompanied by very primitive but unmistakably human-made tools’ (89) – ‘chipped pebbles. These form part of an industry that had long been known in Africa under the name of “pebble culture” (90):

Therefore, the use of tools could not be a consequence of an extremely well developed brain. Rather, the development of more and more sophisticated tools occurred simultaneously with the progressive development of the brain, as Leroi-Gourhan tries to show by looking at the history of tools alongside the history of the human skeleton and its brain. And what he is able to then show is that the history of technics and the history of the human being run parallel with one another; they are, if not the same, at least inextricable.

So, when Stiegler recapitulates Leroi-Gourhan’s analyses, he speaks of the tool outside and the brain inside ‘mirroring’ one another. Their development and their respective histories reflect one another. In part 4 I will examine this fascinating idea by looking at the development of cutting tools made out of stones -flint and quartzite- and what the developing technical procedures for MAKING these tools tells us about the brain of the human beings who made them.

Adapted and expanded from a lecture given by Dr. Mike Lewis at the University of the West of England by Matt Bluemink

Part One: Man, The Animal Without Essence

Part Two: Fire and the Cave

Part Four: The Edge of Time

11 thoughts on “Man, the Animal Without Essence, 3: Brains, Hands and Tools

  1. Pingback: Man, the Animal Without Essence | Blue Labyrinths

  2. Pingback: Man, the Animal Without Essence, 2: Fire and the Cave | Blue Labyrinths

  3. Pingback: Man, the Animal Without Essence, 3: Brains, Hands and Tools | Reddit Spy

    • Thought you might like it. Yeah I find it really interesting that the idea that posture and therefore the use of tools is directly linked to our ability to communicate as well as our brain capacity.


  4. I’m sort of a ditz when it comes to this stuff. So when space opens up in the skull, the brain can then fill it up. That much I understand. But then what causes the skull to then expand from there? And why couldn’t this second process have happened before standing? Sorry if this is a stupid question.


    • Thanks for your comment!

      So to try and summarise briefly: the move from the quadripedal to bipedal stance allowed for a freeing up of the hands as manipulators of outer objects. Prior to this our skulls and mouths had been our primary organ for eating – of course – but also for the transportation and manipulation of outer objects.
      When our hands were freed from the task of movement our stance become more and more upright, which led to the spine entering at the bottom of the skull rather than the back. This in turn allowed for the spreading of the cortical fan (see diagram) which gave the brain the chance to develop further. The freeing of the mouth as our primary object manipulator also allowed for the mouth to be used as more versatile means of communication.
      So the freeing of the hands leads to freeing of the mouth; which leads to increased ability in both communication and outer manipulation; which in turn allowed the brain to start to grow into the empty space in the skull that had been a result of our change in posture.

      I think that answers your question? If not I’ll try and clarify a bit further 🙂

      Glad you’re enjoying the series.


      • I was wondering how the brain and skull expand after that first expansion into the empty space created by becoming upright. I see now that I missed the caption under the skull diagram…that explains it! (I couldn’t read the small print on my screen and didn’t think to blow it up. Maybe my brain has a little bit more expanding to do.) 🙂


      • Ah I see, yeah it’s the increase in the middle sector of the skull which corresponds to voluntary motor function etc . Sorry for the size of the text, these were the best quality images from the book that I had!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Man the Animal Without Essence, 4: The Edge of Time | Blue Labyrinths

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