Stone Tools: Rediscovering Prehistoric Technology

Have you ever wondered how you might survive out in the wild with absolutely nothing and everything you needed had to be either gathered, hunted, or handcrafted? How would you make the necessary tools to survive? Experimental archaeologists are interested in answering these questions, but from the perspective of early humans. With no knowledge of modern techniques, how did early humans develop the technology to craft tools?

Around the mid-1960s there was an increase in lithic experimentation, or the analysis of stone tools and artifacts using basic scientific techniques, among archaeologists in an attempt to understand how prehistoric stone tools such as hand axes or projectile points were made. Stone tools make up most of the artifacts found during the aptly named Stone Age of the Old World (Africa, Asia, and Europe), which began with the first production of stone tools roughly around 3 million years ago1 and ended with the first use of bronze around 8000 – 2000 BCE (dates vary depending on location). Because there is such little evidence during that time apart from the stone tools, experimental archaeologists focus on what they can deduce of the production and possible implementation of these tools in an effort to contribute to a bigger picture of human history.

Stone tools were not just made from any stone – the process involved knowledge of the best stones to use, such as flint, quartzite, obsidian, or jasper (depending on what was locally available). Due to the inherent mineral properties of these rocks, they break with a conchoidal fracture, meaning they flake off in sharp, smooth curved edges. Prehistoric peoples developed multiple processes of striking these stones in precise, controlled ways to produce sharp-edged tools. This technology is now known as “flintknapping.” When attempting to replicate a stone tool, it is the process – the development of the technology – rather than just the creation of an exact replica that most interests experimental archaeologists.

Sometimes a discovered artifact is the finished product and – if one is very lucky – it is still intact. The trick is to ask the right questions to deduce its original purpose and the methods employed in its design and construction. Then the scientific process takes over: hypothesize how and in what order to strike the stone, test it out, and trouble-shoot as necessary. One major advantage to hands-on experimentation is that often the very process of doing leads you to the right questions to ask. (After all, who learns to ride a bike just by being told how it is done but without practicing?) Making replicas as accurately as possible enables a researcher to conduct further experiments on durability and efficiency using the replicas in simulations (such as cutting up meat or scraping a hide) that could not be done with the real artifacts.

Figuring out how something was developed and used is really only the first step. How was the process learned and spread? What might have been the greater context of the tool? Answering these questions can give us not only a greater understanding of how we got to where we are today, but can help us rediscover technologies that have been lost through time.

Want to see some Stone Age tools up close? Check out the Becoming Human exhibit in the newly updated Being Human Hall at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. Learn more at www.perotmuseum.org.

1 Harmand, Sonia, et al. “3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya.” Nature, vol. 521, 2015, pp. 310–315.

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