Lithics And Archaeology Research Paper

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In archaeology, the term ‘lithics’ refers to all stone artifacts fabricated by humans from the beginning of prehistory until the present time. Stone artifacts have always played a major role in our understanding of prehistory. Stone is the most abundant, and often the only, human-worked material preserved in prehistoric sites. In addition, stone artifacts retain traces on their surfaces that allow us to identify how they were made and used. From an evolutionary perspective, stonetool making is an essential criterion used by anthropologists to distinguish humans from other hominid species, and to follow the process of human evolution. For the Paleolithic, and along with ceramics and metal for later periods, they are a fundamental source of information concerning past human societies and their economic systems.

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1. Historical Aspects

1.1 The Significance Of Lithics In The Discovery Of Prehistory

At the end of the sixteenth century, Mercati recognized the human origin of polished stone axes, which were previously believed to have been created by lightning bolts. In 1723, Jussieu compared stone axes to ethnographic objects from Canada and the Caribbean. Most notably, as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century, Thomsen classified objects from the Royal Museum of Copenhagen into three successive phases: Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. In 1866, Lubbock divided the Stone Age into the Paleolithic, or knapped stone age, and Neolithic, or polished stone age. Meanwhile, the Stone Age, which encompassed all of humanity, and had even been mentioned in biblical and ancient texts, remained undated until the development of absolute dating methods.

However, the notion that stone tools were very ancient was suggested as early as the late eighteenth century when John Frere identified stone tools in association with the bones of pachyderms at Hoxne (Suffolk, England). Soon after, the first excavations of caves in France, Belgium and England allowed for arguments of a great antiquity of humanity. In 1859, Boucher de Perthes, with support from British geologists, finally succeeded in convincing the intellectual community of the existence of an ancient, ‘antediluvian’ epoch of humanity. He demonstrated that flint hand axes could be found in situ with the bones of extinct animals deep within gravel quarries in northern France. The idea of very early prehistoric humans equipped with only stone tools was born.

1.2 Lithics As A Criterion For The Definition Of Early Humanity?

Chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives, can use natural objects as tools (stone hammers and anvils to break nuts), and even alter natural objects to make tools (removing leaves from twigs to capture termites or ants), but they do not fabricate stone tools in the wild (Berthelet and Chavaillon 1993). The production of stone tools is thus a tempting criterion for distinguishing the earliest species of Homo (Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, etc.) from their ancestors and from other contemporary hominids, the australopithicenes, who became extinct between 3 and 1 million years ago. Unfortunately, this criterion remains putative, since it is rare to find stone tools and early hominid fossils in direct association. There is as well no a priori reason to believe that some of the australopithecines did not also make stone tools.

To date, the oldest known assemblage of knapped stones, discovered by Helene Roche (1980) at the site of Kada Gona in Ethiopia, and dated to at least 2.6 million years ago, already shows mastery of conchoidal fracture (the basis of controlled stone knapping), perhaps indicating that stone tool technology had already existed for a considerable time.

1.3 The Role Of Lithics In The Construction Of A Prehistoric Chronology

Once the great antiquity of humankind was finally accepted, researchers put their efforts into developing a chronological classification of the Stone Age. After the first paleontological subdivisions of E. Lartet (1858: Cave Bear Epoch, Reindeer Epoch), classifications were based on stone tools, along with bone tools for more recent periods (G. de Mortillet in 1869, E. Piette in 1889, H. Breuil in 1912, D. Peyrony in 1933). These classifications emphasized the most characteristic tools found in strata of different sites. Following a paleon-to-geological perspective, these tools were called ‘index fossils’. This procedure led to two excesses that sometimes persist in current research. First, these ‘index fossils’ were regarded as exclusively representative of distinct time periods and ‘cultures,’ which were believed to represent different human groups in an ethnic sense, following an overly simplistic historic schematization. Much work has since been devoted to determining precise dates and geographic origins for these cultures and groups, which are seen to follow a rigid succession of ‘evolutionary cycles’ based on the appearance and disappearance of a few tool types. Second, these successive cultures, which were originally defined in France following the excavation of numerous stratified sites, were abusively extended to other European regions, thus masking the originality of archaeological data over broad areas.

1.4 A Slowly De Eloping Technological Perspective

As early as the nineteenth century, some archaeologists were becoming interested in what stone tools could tell us about the daily activities of our ancestors. They asked a first, seemingly accessible, question: how were these tools made? This question led immediately to attempts to reproduce stone tools. However, early experimental procedure lacked rigor and the results remained superficial (Johnson 1978). Numerous prehistorians observed modern gunflint knappers at Meusnes, France and Brandon, Suffolk at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, an extreme production standardization, and exclusive use of iron tools, limited the utility of the comparison. Other prehistorians turned to early accounts of Native Americans manufacturing stone tools. However, many of the descriptions they consulted were secondhand, and thus too imprecise to be useful. Nonetheless, the record in the Spanish Codex of obsidian pressure debitage by the Aztecs permitted D. Crabtree in 1968, and then J. E. Clark in 1982, to reproduce this production process successfully.

Some prehistorians, such as J. Evans, were able to synthesize numerous observations of archaeological collections, ethnographic records, and their own knapping experiments. As a result, the three major knapping operations (shaping, debitage, retouch) and several knapping techniques (direct, hard stone percussion; indirect ‘punch’ percussion; pressure retouch) were recognized very early (1870). The research of W. H. Holmes (1919) concerning the lithic production activities of prehistoric North Americans was also remarkably modern in its approach to and interpretation of technology. Meanwhile, the functions of stone tools remained hypothetical, except for a few objects such as polished axes and certain arrow heads, the form of which suggested their potential use. Lacking other methods for determining function, the principal categories of stone tools were named after their similarity of shape with traditional tools (e.g., scrapers, borers, knives, etc.).

2. Recent Methodological Developments And Research Orientations

In conjunction with the genealogical perspective described above, early research was aimed essentially at identifying the major evolutionary stages of the Paleolithic cultures. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that broader and more analytical perspectives were developed.

2.1 The Typo-Technological Approach

During the 1950s, the French prehistorian, Francois Bordes, developed a method of studying and comparing assemblages of lithic artifacts, as opposed to single objects, which was both quantitative and qualitative (Bordes 1950). The technological understanding of the objects that he gained through personal knapping experience enriched the methodology he developed. While in the past it had been considered sufficient to discuss only the ‘index fossils,’ this new method entailed study of all the tools, as well as the technological processes by which they were made. The objective of this broader characterization of lithic industries was the identification of the conceptions of the prehistoric groups that produced them. This became the basis of what is referred to as the ‘cultural’ approach, which has since been subject to long debates. In particular, Bordes distinguished several different, contemporaneous ‘facies’ in the Late Mousterian of southwest France. He interpreted these as being representative of different human groups, with different technological traditions, occupying the same region at the same time. L. and S. Binford contested this interpretation, proposing instead that these different facies represented different functional, perhaps seasonal, activities. Other researchers have proposed that these facies could be chronological phases or that they reflect the differential availability of raw materials. None of these interpretations has received unanimous acceptance. In addition, Bordes’ method of distinguishing tool types was rather intuitive; some have suggested that several of these tool types actually represent different stages of use and resharpening of a single type of tool (see Renfrew 1973, Mellars 1990, Dibble and Mellars 1992).

Meanwhile, advances in computer technology that have allowed for more elaborate statistical analyses permitted H. L. Movius to confirm the reality of several tool types distinguished by Bordes and D. de Sonneville-Bordes, particularly for the Upper Paleolithic. The ‘reality’ and meaning of types (especially by Sackett), and the possible use of typological analysis continue to be debated.

2.2 The Paleoethnological Approach

Andre Leroi-Gourhan, a French contemporary of Bordes, implemented a paleoethnological approach to prehistoric human groups. This perspective stems from his more general studies of techniques in ethnographic contexts, following a broad anthropological perspective (Leroi-Gourhan 1943, 1945, cf. 1993). Along with other members of his research team, his objective was to reconstruct the spatial dimensions of human activities, which are represented principally by the remains of their technological activities and the organization of the artifacts in relation to various structures (fireplaces, traces of huts or tents, etc.).

Such spatial analysis could be performed only at those rare sites where occupation floors are well preserved. In addition, excavation techniques had to be modified from the primarily vertical, or ‘telephone booth’ approach that was well adapted to the chronological perspective described above, to a more horizontal approach to allow for exposure of contemporaneous objects on an occupation floor. Under these conditions, this research objective led to two important methodological developments. The first was classification of all lithic remains, including wasteproducts of production, finished tools, and used and abandoned or broken tools, following the technical process of production and use. This method, which was originally developed in ethnological research, is called chaıne operatoire (operational sequence) analysis. The operational sequence is composed of the succession of technical actions beginning at the moment of raw material acquisition and continuing to the abandonment of the tools (cf. Inizan et al. 1999).

The second development was the systematic search for refits between broken objects, retouch flakes and the tool from which they originate, and between lithic objects successively removed from a single core. In this way it became possible to reveal the spatial and chronological relations between isolated objects. Refitting analysis was also developed to detect disturbances within and between archaeological levels, as well as to interpret certain archaeological structures such as different Activity areas (cf. Cahen, in Sieveking and Newcomer 1987).

2.3 The Processual Approach

Beginning in the 1960s, L. Binford, and other American archaeologists, developed the approach called ‘processual archaeology.’ According to this approach, archaeological artifacts must be considered in terms of the dynamic cultural and natural processes by which they reached the state in which they are found by archaeologists—rather than as static end-products, as they are when a typological approach is used. As with the paleoethnological approach, questions can thus be asked concerning the technological behavior of prehistoric peoples, and we can attempt to situate this behavior within its environmental context. The concept of ‘middle-range theory’ was borrowed from sociology to provide a link between static archaeological remains and the dynamic processes responsible for them.

This involves the development of explanatory ‘models’ based primarily on ethnographic references and experimentation. In addition, processual archeologists placed a new emphasis on the natural formation processes (geological, biological, chemical, etc.) of archaeological sites and objects, as well as on the rigorous application of the hypothetico-deductive method to archaeological interpretation. This led to a more critical view of our ability to interpret the past than that espoused by most European archaeologists, and thus to a divergence of research orientations. In terms of lithic studies, American archaeologists became concerned increasingly with the broader contextual aspects of the objects, including the role of lithic technology within the entire technological system of a cultural group. This approach, known as ‘technological organization,’ addresses issues such as group mobility, tool design needs and constraints, time allocation, risk factors, and degrees of technological investment (see Binford 1983, Odell 1996, Torrence 1989). It is the dominant approach followed by American archaeologists as they enter the twenty-first century.

2.4 Developments In Technological Analysis And Classification

Simultaneously, and until the present time, continental European archaeologists, the French in particular, continued to develop their inductive approach to lithic artifacts. This perspective is based on profound practical knowledge of Old World lithic industries, whose high variability and informational value (due to an abundance of complex and sophisticated technologies) is particularly well adapted to this type of approach.

As early as 1963, Tixier had made the pertinent distinction between method and technique in stone knapping. Technique designates the modes of execution in tool fabrication, including how force is applied (direct percussion, indirect percussion or pressure), the tool employed (e.g., stone cobble, wood, antler or bone hammer, copper point, etc.), and the gestures that are used (e.g., direction of blow, manner of holding the stone and tools, etc.). Method, which is performed according to a systematic and more or less reasoned processes, concerns the organization (order and placement) of series of removals from the object being worked, and thus forms the structure of the operational sequence of production. Systematic experiments are essential to the recognition of techniques, which can be identified based on particular stigmata seen on the objects. In contrast, the knapping method can be identified only through a technological ‘reading’ of all the objects that entails determination of the direction and order of removals from each piece.

An experienced lithic analyst can perform this technological reading mentally, even in the absence of refit pieces. It is thus possible to classify an assemblage of lithic artifacts according to their original order in the operational sequence of tool fabrication, and distinguish between the products desired by the stone knappers and the waste resulting from their production (Inizan et al. 1999).

2.5 Economic Perspectives

The analytical principles described above, along with the technological classification of lithic artifacts, have revealed that in certain assemblages particular types of ‘blanks’ were selected for the fabrication of particular types of tools. This realization led to the concept of debitage economy (economy of the products of knapping) (Inizan et al. 1999). This concept was extended to the end of the operational sequence to include tool economy, via which certain blanks were used successively, and/or resharpened in different ways (e.g., work by Binder, and by Perles). At the beginning of the operational sequence, in a single lithic assemblage, different stone raw materials were often differentially acquired and/or used. This led to the concept of raw material economy (by Perles, and by Geneste). These perspectives are especially useful for identifying possible choices and decisions made by prehistoric peoples during technological activities (Perles 1992, Inizan et al. 1999).

Archaeologists also recognized the need for precise determinations of the geographic origins, and modes of acquisition, of the stone materials found in archaeological sites. Following Renfrew’s research on the circulation of obsidian in the Near East, surveys and petrographic characterizations were conducted in many regions of the world where diverse workable stone materials are found. The identification of these materials in prehistoric lithic assemblages allows the extent of the territories frequented by foragers to be determined: From several kilometers for the Early Paleolithic human groups, to several hundreds of kilometers during the Upper Paleolithic (Feblot-Augustins 1997). Later, during the European Neolithic, stone axes and long blades produced in specialized workshops were exchanged over distances up to 1000 km (e.g., Bradley and Edmonds 1993).

2.6 The Development Of Methods For Determining The Function Of Stone Tools

In 1964, with the English publication of his longstanding research, the Russian archaeologist S. A. Semonov (Semonov 1964) demonstrated that the use of stone tools left different macroscopic and microscopic traces on their surfaces. V. E. Shchelinskiı and later L. H. Keeley further developed Semenov’s results using a high magnification method that allows for identification of the materials worked (e.g., wet or dry skin, bone, antler, meat, plants, etc.) on the bases of comparison with experimental samples. In addition, lower magnification methods can indicate the manner in which the tool was used (e.g., scraping, drilling, sawing, striking, etc.), and how it was possibly hafted, according to the direction of striations and location of polish and micro-removals (Keeley 1980).

Unfortunately, these time consuming methods are not completely reliable. Traces of use are quite often altered, especially on older tools. Another problem is the lack of understanding of some of the physical processes involved in use wear. Nonetheless, certain important results have been obtained, e.g., the recognition of woodworking during the Middle Paleolithic (Anderson, Beyries; ref. in Dibble and Mellars 1992), and the illumination of harvesting techniques in the Near East (Anderson 1992). Other studies, also based on experimentation, have focused on confirming the function of stone and bone points as hunting weapon heads. Such analyses attempt to determine how weapon heads were hafted and used (e.g., thrust or thrown by hand, or with a spear thrower or bow, from long or short distance), and test their durability and performance capabilities (see Knecht 1997).

2.7 The Evaluation Of Skill In Lithic Technology

Stone tool fabrication also can be analyzed in terms of cognitive processes. Being an acquired ideomotor Activity, stone knapping requires a period of apprenticeship, and involves the operation of certain psychomotor capacities. Research questions such as the following can thus be addressed: (a) the development of psychomotor capacities during the course of human evolution: For example, it has been proposed that the production of bifacial handaxes with regular edges and a symmetrical form, by evolved Homoverectus, required a propositional level of reasoning (Pelegrin), and/or Piaget’s rational degree of intelligence (Wynn); (b) the recognition of different skill levels within a Paleolithic human group, indicating the activities of children and adolescents at different stages of apprenticeship, or a sexual division of activities (Pigeot, Ploux); (c) the recognition of different degrees of technical specialization during the more recent periods of prehistory, from an evaluation of apprenticeship duration based on ethnographic and experimental references (Roux) (cf. Berthelet and Chavaillon 1993, Sinclair and Schlanger 1990, Gibson and Ingold 1993, Renfrew and Zubrow 1994).

3. Conclusion

Since the 1950s 1960s, approaches to lithic artifacts have undergone a genuine revolution. Starting from the early antiquarian perspective, wherein the most ‘characteristic’ tools were selected a priori for the purpose of constructing ‘chronocultural’ sequences, our approaches to lithic technology have become both more refined and broader. They have been refined by considerable progress in methods of technological analysis of individual objects and of assemblages of objects. The development of practical knowledge through experimental analyses has played a major role in this progress. Approaches have broadened due to the ambition of archaeologists to enhance their field as a human science. From a more ecological and social perspective, researchers are interested in tracing the extraordinary diversity of human behavior since the dawn of humanity, and in understanding its underlying evolutionary mechanisms.


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