What Ancient Stone Tools Reveal About Life In The Past

Ancient stone tools are among the most iconic archeological artifacts. In this post, you will find the YouTube video exploring the intriguing ways that stone tools can tell us about life in the past and a full video transcript (with relevant references and links).

YouTube Video

YouTube Video Transcript

Here, you will find the complete transcript of the video in the previous section with hyperlinked references/citations.

Introduction

Ancient stone tools are among the most iconic archeological artifacts. They’re also the oldest known types of human-made objects. Made from rocks and minerals, ancient stone tools can tell us a lot about life in the past.

Some of it is obvious, like hunting, while others are not so obvious and require a bit of archaeological detective work.

Hi, I’m Dr. Smiti Nathan, and I’m an archaeologist.  In this video, we’re going to explore the intriguing ways that stone tools can tell us about life in the past.

So let’s get into it.

Hunting

There are hundreds of different types of stone tools made of different materials with different purposes throughout time across the world. However, there are instances where we can look at a specific type of stone tool and figure out what it was used for.

Let’s take a look at the highlands of the Andes Mountains in Peru. Here, a team of archaeologists excavated the grave sites of hunter-gatherer communities that lived over 9, 000 years ago. The researchers here suggest that people of all genders hunted in the community, therefore they examined the graves of various individuals to learn about them.

These individuals were buried with an array of stone projectile points.

One of the questions the researchers had was, what were these stone tools used for? To explore this, they took microscopic pictures of the edges of the points. From these images, they were able to deduce what these stone tools were used for based on the wear patterns.

This technique is appropriately called use-wear analysis. And the researchers found that the points buried in the graves were used for hunting animals as well as cutting and scraping the hides.

Food Processing

Now projectile points are not the only stone tools out there that can be used to scrape animal hides.

 There’s a tool literally called a scraper, and these can be pretty common in certain parts of the world at certain times.  The name comes from its assumed purpose, scraping the flesh and fat off the inside of animal hides to make clothing.

And these often seem to have been used for other general purposes too.

A team of scientists working in eight countries across central Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Zambia, and Angola, conducted a large scale study of all the stone tools found in 35 archaeological sites, some of which were up to 100, 000 years old.

They found that some of the most common types of stone tool artifacts were scrapers, which could mean that processing food and animals using stone tools was important and common in this region at certain times.

Material

Now, when we talk about terms like scrapers or projectile points, these are terms that archeologists came up with that pay specific attention to the form or shape of certain stone tools.

Another term that’s really important is lithic analysis.

It’s the technical term for the study of stone objects in the archaeological record.

The word lithic comes from the Greek lithos meaning rock.

Now when it comes to rocks and minerals, many different types have been used to make stone tools. Take chert, for instance. It’s a widely used stone, or perhaps the most iconic material, flint, which is simply a form of chert. These stones form nodules within carbonate rocks, such as limestone or chalk, and the most important thing about them is that they are cryptocrystalline.

This means that they are formed by extremely small crystals. This fine-grained nature makes it easier to control how they break and therefore imposes shape on stone flakes. Other more coarse-grained stones can be used, such as quartzite, but these make much rougher stone tools.

Movement

The type of rock or mineral used to make an object can also reveal really important aspects of life in the past.

We see archaeological evidence of people traveling or trading across long distances to get the right type of stone.

In the present, archeologists have been using various scientific methods over the past few decades to help figure out where certain stone tool materials may have come from.

Archaeologists working in Polynesia found unique chemical signatures and tools made of volcanic materials like obsidian and basalt. 

They did this by using a technique called x ray fluorescence or XRF. XRF works by using an x ray instrument to capture a profile of the elements that a rock is made out of.

Since rocks can vary in their composition based on their type or where they were formed, this can result in a distinct signature of sorts for certain rocks.

In the case of the Polynesia study, they found that the obsidian basalt contained varying levels of elements like zirconium and strontium. So, interesting signatures.

They then use these signatures to trace the origins of these stone tools from the archaeological sites and found something interesting.

Rocks that originated in Samoa were found as far away as the Cook Islands.  This means that based on this data, ancient Polynesians traded over long distances.

Trade

Trade was an important part of life for many societies in the past.

Stone tools not only can reveal where some stone objects may have come from, but where they traveled to.

In North America, one of the most iconic types of stone tools is the Clovis point.  Clovis points were once thought to be among the oldest artifacts present in North America and although we know this is no longer true they still tell us something important about the culture of their time such as trade networks.

A team of archaeologists studying Clovis points from 84 sites across North America like New York, California, and Arizona found three distinct trade networks that were active in the late Pleistocene.

Symbolism

Now while stone tools can reveal important functional activities in the past, like hunting and trading, they can also tell us about people’s social values in the past.

At an approximately 15,000-year-old site in Kashiwabara, Japan, located about 30 miles northeast of Tokyo, archaeologists recovered a cache of eight stone tools. Based on excavations, it seems that these stone tools were intentionally buried.

Creating stone tools and intentionally burying them somewhere else is not completely uncommon, and we see this with Clovis points in North America.

What’s interesting here is the why. Why did people bury these objects? There are a lot of theories. Some of them are functional, like keeping them safe for later use, while others consider ritual and ceremonial purposes.

While figuring out the why for the Kashiwabara cache is still ongoing, we do have other examples that highlight the symbolic importance of stone tools. Archaeologists working in northern Britain and Isle of Man at early Bronze Age sites conducted use-wear analysis to examine how stone axes were used by people thousands of years ago. They found that stone axes were used for many different purposes, like chopping wood and butchering animals.

However, they might have also had symbolic value. You see, in some cases, they were re-sharpened and buried in funerary contexts, suggesting that they were not just used for functional daily use, but also had symbolic value.

Outro

Now, throughout this video, we mentioned that one of the uses of stone tools was to hunt animals and butcher them. So if you’re interested in learning more about what animal bones can tell us about life in the past, check out this video here.

 That’s all for this video and we’ll catch you in the next one. Bye.

Credits

Anya Gruber: Co-Producer, Researcher, Scriptwriter

Noor Hanania: Lead Video Editor

Smiti Nathan: Director, Co-Producer, Support Video Editor

Thank you to John F. O’Hara for fact-checking an earlier version of this video’s script.


If you enjoyed this post, check out my channel and other videos.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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