Stone Tools

In Through the Lens of Anthropology we read about stone tools in the first part of chapter 5 “Cultural Diversity from 3mya 20,000ya” for Intro to Anthro 2022. The previous class discussed how “race is not a valid biological concept” (Muckle, González, and Camp, 104) and the next class was about interpretations of archaeological artifacts.

Transcript: Stone Tools

. . . Biological Anthropology will always be with us, but technically we’re finished with our evolution and Biological Anthropology unit. We’re going into archaeology. Muckle, González, and Camp start the archaeology part about 2.5 million years ago. It’s interesting because some textbooks put this in the biological evolution part because stone tools start far back. It’s so far back that a lot of people don’t start the archaeology unit until later, like about 70,000 years ago. Archaeology gets much more exciting around 40-60,000 years ago than it is at 2.5 million years ago, but they do this because this is the first time we have the _undisputed_ manifestation of culture in the form of preserved stone tools. We have undisputed stone tools at about 2.5 million years ago.

We’ve talked about culture as learned behavior. We can sometimes see this as happening as early as bipedalism: walking and learning how to walk. We can also see culture in the form of tools that are formed from other things that have decayed like sticks and things that chimpanzees use for tools, but these are found in the archaeological record. They’re still here today. We can date them to about 2.5 million years ago. For the first part of this unit, we’re basically going to be going way back into what is called the Paleolithic, which we had been talking about before, but in terms of the biological stuff. Now we’re going to be doing more of the cultural stuff happening in the Paleolithic.

At this point I’d like to pause and go back to a question asked in the comments: What is the difference between a paleontologist and a paleoanthropologist? . . . I was composing an answer. Then, I started getting snarky, and I decided I needed to cut down the level of snark. The reason I get snarky about this is because “paleo” is just what we call the Stone Age. We used to call it the Stone Age. “Paleo” means ancient or old, and “lithic” means stone. It sounds pretty cool to call it the Paleolithic, but really, we’re just swapping terminology. As far as I can tell, a paleontologist is somebody who studies really old stuff, and a paleoanthropologist is somebody who studies the old human stuff. Like I said, I was trying to write that out. Then, I realized that it was hard for me to be to not be irreverent in answering the question. If you look at the chart (on p.115) where they divided the Lower Paleolithic, the Middle Paleolithic, and the Upper Paleolithic. On these terms I am much more of a lumper, not a splitter. They go from about 3 million years ago through about 12,000 years ago.

Why did the Paleolithic end 12,000 years ago? That’s mainly when we see, . . . that’s when agriculture begins and becomes important. We stop talking about the Stone Age. We can divide it into different eras if we wish. Basically, really old stuff, pre-agriculture stuff, and agriculture has marked a boundary line. We will debate whether that should be as much of a boundary line as people have made it out to be, but that’s where we are.

We’re in an era from perhaps as early as 3.3 million years ago. Some people have argued a recent find, which Muckle, González, and Camp discuss (p.123), that maybe we see stone tools as early as 3.3 million years ago in Kenya. The stone tools from 2.5 million year ago are well established. Recently we found some 3.3 million years ago, but the problem is: Is it really a stone tool? Is it evidence that humans or other creatures were making this into a tool? You really need to look closely to try and figure out if that is a tool or not. Some people have seen that there are Capuchin monkeys who like to bang stones together. If you look at what results from that, just banging stones together for fun, it’s hard to distinguish that from some of these early stone tools. This always comes up for debate as to exactly when this happened. I’ll put a question mark there.

There are some stone tools that emerge that are called the hand ax, which is definitely constructed or been made by the Homo populations at the time. They have remarkable durability. By the way, when I say, “hand ax,” what are you expecting to see?

We’re expecting an ax! . . . You can’t use this as an ax because the edges are sharp. If you took it in your hand and tried to use it in your hand it would cut your hand. I think it’s called this because they basically form the shape of a hand. The edges get sharp. If you look (p.124), this one is from about 780,000 years ago. There’s an article titled “The handaxe reconsidered” (Wynn and Gowlett 2018). The title of box 5.3 is “The Acheulean Hand Ax – Tool, Core, or Sexual Object?” (124). Let’s just forget the sexual object thing. There’s some debate about what these things were used for, maybe throwing, maybe scraping and carving, maybe used for different things at different places. The reason some people say “core,” is that some people think this is simply the leftover from what may have been a different tool–these things are just the garbage from other kinds of tool manufacture. That doesn’t seem right either. These things show remarkable stability over a long period of time–they’re widespread throughout this period of about two million years to one million years ago. They’re called the “Swiss Army rocks” because they’re perhaps multifunctional, but we can’t really tell what they were used for. We know they aren’t like an ax.

. . .

I think it’s worthwhile to speculate, but it’s also worthwhile to be humble, and say we’re never going to know. It’s nice to keep accumulating information, but there’s probably a lot of variability here. . . . There are some things that are more indisputable than others, but part of it is individual certainty and where you want to draw the line. I’m a lumper on a lot of these things, and I’m a skeptic on a lot of these things. . . . I think this article: “Wynn and Gowlett (2018) suggest that the hand ax design results from neither strict functionality nor aesthetics, but a combination of both” (124). There is something aesthetically wonderful about the hand ax. One anthropologist that I like . . . suggests that it’s almost a perfect cup of the hand (Ingold). It is in some ways biologically like the creatures that made them. I find that compelling. Does that satisfy our answer to “why?” It makes me happy, but I’m not sure it’s entirely [satisfactory].

Another thing that we can use, that we always have to be careful about using to try to interpret what was going on in the past, but there are some contemporary anthropologists who look at societies in other parts of the world and say that what’s interesting here is that in at least some of these societies often it’s _women_ who are making and using the stone tools. Now does that mean that we can project back into the past and say, “aha, it must have been women doing this”? No, we cannot do that. However, we do want to clear our heads of the conception that it had to be big guys doing stone tools back in the day. We call this “ethnographic analogy”: looking at the practices of contemporary peoples, hopefully in the area in which the artifacts were discovered. Then, making inferences about the past. Now you always need to be careful with that because we can often make some pretty bad inferences about the past, but it can be useful at least in shaking up some of our conceptions about the past. Again, I am not saying that this was women, men, or anybody else. I’m just saying that in some contemporary evidence it’s often women. We cannot count that out as a possibility for what was going on.

[Time to discuss] fire. There have been some people who ask–“Was Cooking the Driving Force of Human Evolution?” (Box 5.2, 119). They talk about Richard Wrangham’s book _Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human_. Wrangham wants to put cooking at about 1.8 million years ago with Homo erectus, which would be a long time ago. Then, he wants to argue that all kinds of things happen because of cooking. We’re able to process the meat, cook it, and get brains growing bigger, and all those wonderful things. Most anthropologists I think would say that probably in terms of controlled fire and cooking we’re in the hundreds-of-thousands-of-years-ago range, not 1.8 million years ago. That seems early. They say that there’s indisputable evidence from 40,000 years ago, but that’s when we have evidence that you can’t argue with. I think most people would say we’re probably somewhere between forty thousand and 1.8 million, maybe in the middle.

I think that on these things you always need to be careful of people who want to say that _one thing_ “made us human.” Also, everybody wants to be the first to discover something. It’s no fun being the person who says, “well, I discovered the second time humans did this.” You’re not going to get a big headline out of it. I was initially reluctant to discuss this book: _First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human_ (DeSilva) because it has some of that same quality. Which was it, was it cooking, was it upright walking, who knows? When I type into Google how _something_ made us human I come up with: how cooking made us human; or how water made us human; compassion, feet, upright walking, monogamy (definitely not). People are interested in ethics, maybe fire, running. Other people say, “language.” My point is, be careful with any one factor thing. There’s probably a lot of things going on. I think in terms of bipedalism, we can say that is what separates out some of the first hominin lineages from others that would go and become more like contemporary apes, but I think that we just need to be careful about single-motor or single-origin ideas in the same way that we were careful about single-factor ideas for bipedalism or walking.

Archaeology gets perhaps more exciting at about 70,000 years ago when you have some of this stuff beginning to come together as a package that allows Homo sapiens to expand their range and to spread out into different places all over the planet. . . . We see people co-evolving with tools from three million, 2.5 million, one million years ago, but the first tools–those hand axes that we talked about–are remarkably stable and don’t show a lot of proliferation for quite a long time, maybe about a million years. [See the page on Tools for 2+ million years for an earlier version and Jonathan Marks on people as “ex-apes.”]

There does seem to be an acceleration in terms of the feedback loop of tool use and how that became important from generation to generation. The tools became more sophisticated about 70,000 years ago: different techniques for gathering plants and hunting animals start to be adapted. Then, the use of fire is probably by 70,000 years ago. We have undisputable evidence at forty thousand years ago, but most likely being used in various ways at this time. All these things are crucial for the expansion of the Homo sapien range, because what we have are creatures that don’t have to change biologically to live in a wide range of habitats. Things get perhaps more archaeologically interesting as you have more artifacts that represent these adaptable lifestyles in terms of social groups.

. . . I really want to emphasize here the section on social systems in Muckle, González, and Camp (120). As humans expand, they are always connected to each other. There are no groups that become isolated from each other. That is why the idea of a subspecies for race doesn’t work. [See also the 2021 version for a fuller biological treatment of race fallacies.]

They were connected to each other, they were trading stuff around, and they also had what we call “exogamous marriages.” That meant that you had to marry outside of your kin group. As we have these probably small groups of people, 30-50-70 people, but the people who would be in a group are going to change. We call this “fluid group membership.” It’s not just the same people. It’s not just one group of ten who are only in their group. We sometimes refer to these as “kin-based societies,” or societies that are based on kinship or family organization. Of course, kinship is important, but it is not something that completely defines these groups. People often left their groups to marry in other groups. As we saw with non-human primates, females or males leave the group. If we look at contemporary societies of gatherers and hunters, it’s quite incredible how many unrelated people you find in the group, because people are relatively free to move around. There are no national boundaries and borders and walls and passports to restrict people’s movement. So, people could and did move around a lot, both between groups and across territories during this time. This is extremely important as we think about the expansion of humans and the development of different groups over the archaeological space.

Archaeology becomes more interesting at about 70,000 years ago. We get all these neat little terms that archaeologists use for things like “habitation sites” and “base camps”: places where you start to see accumulation of artifacts, where people live. You start to see rock art. You have pictographs, or painting on stone surfaces. The petroglyphs, engravings made on rock surfaces. They seem to appear in the archaeological record about 65,000 years ago. So, of course we can admire the cave paintings of 30-35,000 years ago, but as we go outside the European range, we see rock art emerging in Africa and in Australia probably around 65,000 years ago. Again, this is an important period where these kinds of artifacts start to come together as a package in various Homo sapiens sites. . . . We start to see more clearly defined artifacts, or things that are made by humans. . . . “A fire hearth indicates a discrete, contained fire” (110).

Lithic scatters: “the accumulation of waste flakes created and left behind from the manufacture of lithic (stone) tools” (110). Some people have interpreted those hand axes as cores, or as part of the lithic scatter, but obviously when you’re making stone tools, you’re going to have a bunch of flakes and scatters around. Then, middens, which are “discrete accumulations of trash” (110).

Archaeologists like to say they are studying middens instead of studying garbage. It sounds better to call it a midden. . . .

They discuss that we want to figure out what was going on in the environment–what people might have been hunting and gathering in a particular environment. So, trying to figure out paleoenvironments, the ancient environment and diet. Then, of course, looking for what people were eating and especially the faunal remains: any part of an animal (111). Most of the faunal remains that are going to be identified in archaeological sites are bones, because they’re going to be still around and preserved. The other things like hides and hair and fur and nails and claws: those things are probably going to disappear. The bones will be around, especially the larger bones are going to preserve better than the smaller bones.

This leads us to an issue about what kinds of things show up in the archaeological record. Together with the way in which archaeology has been practiced, there’s high potential for bias. This high potential comes from a few factors. The first is that . . . it’s very difficult to figure out what an object was used for, or what social structure people had, from what was left behind. What we want to know is the culture and way of life but doing that simply from material artifacts is very difficult. You can have very different social systems with pretty much the same material culture. That’s part of the problem. Another part of the problem is that the record is quite incomplete. We saw this with the fossil record as well, but it’s certainly true of the archaeological record. A lot of stuff disappears and was not preserved. If you’re throwing things into a midden, it’s not because you wanted those things around. You wanted to get rid of them, and you’re hoping they’re going to go away. The archaeological record is incomplete. Then, the organic remains [are] going to rot away and completely disappear. A lot of the tiny bones disappear too. They’re gone, and you can’t find them. You’re left with the larger bones. What does that mean? It means it’s very easy to read our own modern ideas or our own bias onto the past, and to go looking for things that we do now and say, “aha, when did this start?” We don’t know: it may have had multiple starts. You always need to be careful about looking for the origins of your own social system or your own ideas, and looking for them as if they had to have a startup point and were located inevitably in the past.

What else? Because archaeology basically originated in Europe and certain parts of North America, it often comes with a European or a Eurocentric bias, which means most of it has been done in the areas around Europe and in parts of North America. Certainly, when you are describing other peoples . . . maybe we should start using the word “ancestors” instead of “skeletal remains” and “belongings” to replace “artifacts.” Maybe we should stop talking about “sites” and start talking about “villages” or “gathering places.” I think that this is something that we probably should start to do, recognizing that simply replacing terminology is not necessarily going to change the practices of power, but it can be a start. You have to watch out for the terms that are used, because some of them are not neutral.

What else do we have to look out for in terms of bias? . . . Yes, archaeology as a discipline, for various reasons, seems especially conducive to male bias. That has something to do with all the big bones being preserved over time and the kinds of stuff that gets preserved in the archaeological record. That is going to be the main thing that we focus on or interpretations of archaeological artifacts in the next class.


In Through the Lens of Anthropology we read about stone tools in the first part of chapter 5 “Cultural Diversity from 3mya 20,000ya” for Intro to Anthro 2022. The previous class discussed how “race is not a valid biological concept” (Muckle, González, and Camp, 104) and the next class was about interpretations of archaeological artifacts.

Print
Email
Tweet
Pin
Share