Trends toward encephalization and technological complexity ∼1.8 million years ago may signify cognitive development in the genus Homo. Using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, we measured relative brain activity of 33 human subjects at three different points as they learned to make replicative Oldowan and Acheulian Early Stone Age tools. Here we show that the more complex early Acheulian industry recruits left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when skills related to this task are first being learned. Individuals with increased activity in this area are the most proficient at the Acheulian task. The Oldowan task, on the other hand, transitions to automatic processing in less than 4 h of training. Individuals with increased sensorimotor activity demonstrate the most skill at this task. We argue that enhanced working memory abilities received positive selection in response to technological needs during the early Pleistocene, setting Homo on the path to becoming human.