Stone Tools

Stone tools become smaller, more specialized, and more difficult to make through time (Figure 3.15; Table 3.2). The earliest, most primitive, stone tool industry recognized in the archaeological record is the Oldowan industry or the Early Stone Age tradition. It is a culture of simple crude cores and sharp flakes with only a handful of named types in the toolkit like choppers, hammerstones, and scrapers. Flakes held between the thumb and the forefinger can be used like a scalpel to skin

Oldowan Chopper

Oldowan Hammerstone

Oldowan Flake

Acheulean Handaxe Levallois Core

Levallois Flakes

Upper Paleotithic Blade



Mousterian Flake Scraper

Mousterian Flake Scraper


Figure 3.15 A comparison of stone tool types found throughout the prehistoric record. Spearheads and arrowheads would have been hafted onto wooden implements and were not invented until 50 Kya. Illustration by Jeff Dixon.

and butcher an animal carcass. Intentionally manufactured flakes stand apart from ones made by Mother Nature in their scars from production: because of the classic fracture pattern, there is usually a mark from where the hammerstone struck the flake from the core and underneath that is a bulge or a "bulb of percussion."

Oldowan scrapers and choppers are polyhedral and spherical implements that would have been useful for a wide variety of food preparation processes, of both animals and plants. Hammerstones not only knock flakes from softer rocks but they also crack open nuts and bones for the nutritious marrow inside. The first stone tools were manufactured around 2.6 Mya with evidence from the Kada Gona site in the Hadar Region of Ethiopia. Other early sites include Omo and Bouri in Ethiopia and Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

What hominin species made Oldowan tools? It is certain that early Homo was making them but did they invent them or did australopiths? And did Paranthropus make them? The obvious benefit of stone tools would be to use them to butcher animal bones for meat and bash the bones open for the nutrient-rich marrow inside. We usually assume that only early Homo was eating meat. But they would also be useful to australopiths and Paranthropus for cracking open nuts and for digging up tubers and other underground foods. As of yet, there is still no clear-cut evidence to know one way or the other.

Building on the simple Oldowan technology, the Acheulean industry that arose around 1.6 Mya included more sophisticated tools including handaxes and picks. These tools were still crude but looked more symmetrical than previous ones. They are called "bifaces" because the stone is flaked-off and fashioned on both sides to give a symmetrical appearance. As opposed to much of the Oldowan Industry, even a nonexpert can clearly surmise that Acheulean tools took serious skill to produce.

The Acheulean tradition, named for the site of its first discovery in France, lasted for up to 1.5 million years in some localities. Clearly the tools in the Acheulean kit were useful for H. erectus and Archaic humans for processing foods. For many years it was thought that the advent of Acheulean technology allowed H. erectus to radiate successfully outside of Africa. However, other animals like elephants also originated in Africa and dispersed across the Old World without the aid of stone tools. Furthermore, Dmanisi, the oldest hominin site outside of Africa that has preserved tools, has only Oldowan tools. There is a general lack of Acheulean tools at Asian sites, a trend that was first seriously contemplated by archaeologist Hallum L. Movius. He drew a theoretical threshold line ("Movius line") across Eurasia beyond which no Acheulean tools were found in the East. There are many reasons Acheulean could be sparse in Asia and Indonesia. It is quite possible that hominins dispersed out of Africa before Acheulean technology was invented. Also, eastern hominins could have relied more heavily on organic tools made from things like bamboo, which did not preserve. Movius's line may not last much longer, however, because in 2000 archaeologists reported that they discovered handaxe-like tools (nearly indistinguishable from African ones) in the Bose Basin of China dating to 800 Kya.

By the time Archaic humans emerge in the Middle Paleolithic they show an improvement on the Acheulean that involves the use of the Levallois technique which is a method used to control flake size and shape. By preparing the core first more flakes, sharper flakes, and longer flakes can be produced from a single core. It is a process that requires several steps and is indicative of higher intelligence.

Neanderthals, for the most part, are credited with making Mousterian tools. They used Levallois and other prepared core techniques. The tools show increased variety, required soft hammers like bones and antlers to make, are often retouched or reflaked and reshaped to sharpen and hone them. Clearly brains and not brawn are needed to make Mous-terian tools. Some Neanderthals moved on to making more advanced Chatelperronian tools that are very similar, if not identical, to some modern human tool kits from the same time period.

The emergence of any particular hominin species does not correlate with the concomitant emergence of a particular stone tool industry. For instance, H. erectus fossils appear before Acheulean tools do and the so-called revolutionary modern human/Upper Paleolithic tool kit does not appear until about 150,000 years after the first human fossils.

By 45 Kya, humans were making blades (very long flakes) and mi-croliths (small flakes that were also hafted onto other tools). The earliest Upper Paleolithic tool culture, called the Aurignacian, superseded the Neanderthal cultures everywhere by 28 Kya. Like other aspects of human behavior, humans took toolmaking to the extreme. They invented the most tool types, used diverse materials (stone, bone, horn, antlers, and teeth), procured raw materials from up to hundreds of miles away, and also produced the smallest tools on record.

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