A follow up on ancient tools…


I was a graduate-student in Anthropology in a former life…

I finished my post the other night by inquiring if there was an interest in a couple of posts on lithics (stone tools). I was an Anthropology major at Kenyon, spent a few seasons in the field in Kenya and Venezuela, and went through the Masters program at Kent State (Kent Read, Kent Write, Kent State). In the interest of full disclosure, I did not complete my thesis (long story), and thus can only lay claim to a B.A. However, I spent the better part of a decade studying bones, stone tools, and non-human primates, and have a greater than layman’s knowledge of the subject.

The earliest tools were simply sharp flakes removed from a river cobble. (from Feder, 1996 )

I tried to describe the Oldowan and Acheulean stone tool traditions in my last post. I found good diagrams for this one. In Oldowan tools, the flakes are removed from one side of a stone core. The later, Acheulean tradition features cores that were specifically shaped to a pear-like pattern that was duplicated across a wide geographical swath and was the dominant tool form for the better part of a million years. This tool shape, with its various cutting, scraping and chopping edges is what the HuffPo article referred to as the Paleolithic “Swiss-Army Knife”.

Acheulean hand-axe. (from Whittaker, 1994)

In what I plan on turning into a multi-part series on lithics, I will be relying on 3 texts from my Anthro days. The first is The Past in Perspective (1996) by Kenneth Feder. This was my intro text at Kenyon and is a great overview of Archaeology. The second is Lithics (1998) by William Andrefsky Jr. and is part of the Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. It is an upper level text and goes into pretty minute detail, especially as it relates to site analysis. The last book is a more popular-market offering, Flintknapping: Making and Understanding Stone Tools (1994), by John Whittaker, and is the best how-to book on stone tools I have ever come across.

The three texts from which I will be drawing most of my information for my upcoming Lithics 101 series.


I also mentioned that I would probably do a couple of other posts on my fieldwork experiences. I apologize for not posting last night, but I spent over an hour looking for my photo albums and a couple of EDC items (for a Massai tribesman) that I acquired in my time in Kenya.

One of the sites we excavated at Koobi Fora was a hillside with a plethora of fossil bones eroding out of it. The majority of the bones had perimortem cut marks, telltale signs of purposeful, tool-aided disarticulation. So while the discovery of the animal residue on the 500k year old hand-axe in the HuffPo article is newsworthy, there is significant evidence of tool-aided butchery dating almost 2 million years further back. Neither the cut mark evidence nor the residue is direct evidence of cooperative hunting (Cro-Magnon artwork can be taken as direct evidence for example). The same marks would be present on scavenged bones.

There is a whole field – taphonomy, which examines the perimortem situation and burial processes (natural and hominid-made) resulting in the formation of an archaeological site. It is also one area of archaeology that lends itself well to experimental study. The famous “Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee would be a great example of forensic taphonomy.

A fossil bone with butchery cutmarks. Koobi Fora, Kenya

Stone tool “in situ” from the same area.


As students, we also made our own stone tools, mostly Olduwan-level, to butcher a couple of goats. The process left similar marks on our goats as the ones we were finding on the fossil bone.

Mbuzi…it’s what’s for dinner.

Our stone tools didn’t skin the goat as easily as the Kraken skinned a groundhog, however, the results were more than serviceable.

FullSizeRender (26)

I ain’t as good as I once was…

Stay tuned, I will do my best to guide you on the trip down this particular rabbit-hole.



  1. sagebrushracer says:

    nice! please continue..

  2. John F. MacMichael says:

    I am definitely interested. It has been a long time since I did any systematic reading in archaeology and I would like to see what the current thinking is on the origins of human tool making and use.

  3. Minnesota Nice says:

    Sounds like a great series! Looking forward to it!!

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A follow up on ancient tools…

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