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Stone Tools Guide

Choppers, handaxes, blades
Projectile points, microliths

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CONTENTS

Bifacial hand axe made during the Acheulean culture
Acheulean bifacial hand axe, made in Spain by Homo erectus or Neanderthals. Image by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez/Locutus Borg. (CC BY 2.5)

What are Stone Tools?

Prehistoric stone tools are man-made implements which were fashioned from flint, chert, or some other cryptocrystalline stone, using a process known as knapping or lithic reduction.

Tools needed for robust jobs were made typically from granite and other hard materials, using a combination of percussion and grinding.

In archaeology, the discovery of deliberately made cutting tools confirms the presence of humans at a site.

Stone Tools: An Art

For more than 3 million years, Stone Age culture depended upon the creativity and skill of its tool-makers. In effect, tools were the original art of prehistory.

What is a Stone Tool Industry

In archaeology, a stone tool industry is a class of tools grouped together on the basis of shared technology or shape, and are typically related to a particular era.

The main tool industries of the Stone Age were: Oldowan, Acheulean, Mousterian, Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Specifically African tool industries include Aterian, Stillbay and Howiesons Poort.

Lesser industries include: Emiran, Ahmarian, Châtelperronian, Gravettian and Solutrean.

Note: prehistoric tool industries are sometimes called 'tool cultures'. For other archaeological terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

Who Made the First Stone Tools?

The earliest stone tools - crude hammerstones, anvils, and cutting tools - were likely fashioned by one of the pre-Homo species of the Australopithecus genus, like Australopithecus afarensis.

The artifacts were discovered in 2011 at a site called Lomekwi 3, located near Lake Turkana (the former Lake Rudolf) in northern Kenya. The previous year, marks on animal bones possibly made by stone tools, were found a few hundred kilometres to the north, in Ethiopia, dating to 3.39 million years ago.

For more about the chronology of ancient culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (540,000 BC).

What is Knapping?

Put simply, knapping (flint-knapping or stone-flaking) is the removal of slivers or pieces of stone (flakes) from a larger stone (the core), by striking.

A striker is used to do the knapping. Strikers come in all sizes and are made from a variety of soft or hard stone, bone, antler or wood.

Essentially, all stone tools are either cores or flakes.

Why were Stone Tools Important?

Answer: because they helped early humans to survive and become apex predators.

Imagine, for instance, that a group of human hunters have finally managed to subdue and kill an elephant. They are all exhausted but there are only four hours of daylight remaining, and vultures are circling. It won't be long before packs of other predators arrive to compete for the kill. So the hunters must skin the carcass, dismember it, then retrieve and chop up the meat, as fast as possible.

These tasks would be impossible without chopping and cutting tools to butcher the animal.

All stone tools were essentially aids to survival, even as late as the Neolithic, when adzes, axes and cutting chisels were needed to clear forested land for growing crops and grazing animals.

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Stone Tools as Art

Stone tools are an important marker of relative behavioural modernity.

True, advances in lithics technology were painfully slow during the Lower Paleolithic, under Homo habilis and Homo erectus. But they improved during the Middle Paleolithic, under the Neanderthals, and then - during the Upper Paleolithic - innovation accelerated significantly, with the arrival of modern humans.

If toolmaking is an indicator of cognitive development and conceptual thinking, and if it also involves significant creativity, then it's easy to see it as a form of paleolithic art - like jewellery making, perhaps.

Of course, it doesn't compare with cave painting, or prehistoric sculpture, but it surely qualifies as an early type of applied art.

After all, at various times during the later Stone Age, toolmakers found new ways of flint-knapping, and introduced new materials and new flake forms.

The fact that the tools they were designing were functional objects, need not distract us from the artistic skills and vision of the hunter-gatherers who created them.

What are the 4 Main Types of Stone Tool?

Early humans made four basic types or categories of stone tool, each of which is associated primarily (but not exclusively) with a specific tool industry.

Note: While one particular tool culture might be superseded in a given region by another more advanced toolmaking method, the older technique or tool typically continued until it was no longer needed.

In several parts of Asia, for instance, pebble tools of an early type continued to be made throughout Paleolithic times. Also, the bifacial handaxe, first made about 1.7 mya, was still in use in 250,000 BC.

How did Tools Evolve in the Stone Age?

Note: two methods were used to generate greater precision when using the percussion method.

(1) Indirect percussion flaking. This involved placing a piece of bone or other robust material where you wanted to apply pressure, and then striking that material with the hammerstone.

(2) Indirect percussion flaking. When super precision was required, pressure was applied to the desired spot (with a small stone, or piece of bone, antler or wood) until a flake was dislodged. This technique was also used when retouching.

For more, see: History of Stone Tools.

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Toolmaking Timeline

Here is a brief summary of the main stone tool industries (styles) of the Paleolithic.

For more about the earliest prehistoric art, which emerged during the Lower Paleolithic, see: World's Oldest art (from 540,000 BC).

Materials for Best Cutting Edge

Throughout prehistory, the main goal of toolmakers has been the creation of an improved cutting edge. Or, to put it another way, the preferred stone for nearly all tools was whatever produced the sharpest edge.

Note also, that very hard stone, such as granite, doesn't necessarily produce a sharp edge. What's more, stone does not retain a sharp edge as well as today's steel. So a sharp stone tool needs to be resharpened regularly.

The stones that gave paleolithic toolmakers the sharpest edge were flint, chert, carbonado, volcanic rocks, or the rarer onyx or obsidian.

Artifacts, Ecofacts, Geofacts

What is an artifact?

An artifact (or artefact) is an object (or fragment thereof), which was made or adapted for use by humans. Examples include stone tools, items of pottery vessels, carvings, items of personal adornment such as necklaces or amulets. Bones or wood that exhibit signs of human alteration are also artifacts.

What is the difference between artifacts and ecofacts?

Natural objects - meaning, those unmodified by humans - such as environmental material recovered from a site, including animal or human bones, are classified as ecofacts not artifacts.

What are geofacts?

A geofact (geology + artifact) is a fragment of stone of any shape that has been eroded or broken by natural forces without any human involvement. Distinguishing stones modified by nature, from those modified by humans, can be extremely difficult outside a laboratory.

What the heck is an eolith?

Eoliths are naturally broken stones that look as though they are stone tools. Initially, scientists interpreted eoliths as very early Stone Age tools, made by non-Homo primates, like Australopithecus afarensis or Kenyanthropus platyops. Nowadays, they are understood to be the result of natural forces.

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Choppers

Choppers are the diagnostic tool of Oldowan culture, made by H. habilis during the earliest toolmaking phase.

Typically, they are spherical stones which have been struck a number of blows with a hammerstone or pounder, so as to leave an irregular edge that acts as a chopping blade.

Little sophistication is involved in the manufacture of these crude implements, and any retouching or finishing-off is rare.

Crude or not, choppers, along with the fragments broken off by the hammerstone, solved the problem of how to slice through the skin of an animal carcass and chop up the meat.

These simple pebble tools gradually evolved into the next major tool - the handaxe.

Handaxes

The handaxe is the defining tool of Acheulean culture, and the most popular item in the paleolithic toolkit.

Handaxes have been recovered from archaeological sites all over Africa, Europe and Asia, notably Olorgesaille in Kenya, Boxgrove in Britain, and Atapuerca in Spain.

Numerous specimens have also been recovered from the Baise Basin in Guangxi province and the Danjiangkuo Reservoir area in northern Hubei province, China.

During their huge life span, they were made by H.ergaster, H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, and Neanderthals as well as the mysterious Denisovans, down to at least 250,000 BC.

Although the Acheulian tool tradition marked a definite advance in human cognitive development, over the Oldowan culture, the handaxe was (in essence) no more than a refined chopper.

So what's the difference between a handaxe and a chopper? Put simply, a handaxe is flatter and is shaped on both sides - hence it is referred to as a bifacial tool, or simply a biface. It is also more carefully shaped with a longer, more even cutting edge.

Characteristically, handaxes have a teardrop shape - with one end (the cutting edge) sharpened, while the other (the part gripped by the user) is left blunt.

They had sufficient weight for heavy jobs, while their blade was usually good enough for finer work.

Hence they were multi-purpose implements, which were invaluable for cutting and scraping animal hides, as well as breaking bones and chopping up carcasses.

Flake Tools

As explained above, flake tools are created from flakes struck from a core stone. Usually, they have very sharp edges, making them ideal for cutting, carving and scraping.

The first examples were created during the Oldowan culture, around 2.57 million years ago. However, it wasn't until humans invented the Levallois technique of flint-knapping during the Mousterian tool culture, about 300,000 BC, that tool-flaking really advanced.

The Mousterian tool culture, named after Le Moustier in the French Dordogne, was associated with the emergence, dominance and decline of Neanderthals in Europe. See, for instance, La Micoque archaeological site in the Dordogne.

The Levallois Technique involved preparing one side of the core by striking off very small flakes, thus creating a shape which could be struck off the core stone with one blow.

The technique enabled toolmakers to plan the size and shape of the flake, which resulted in far more consistent flake-tool production.

Over time, humans mastered the process and were able to produce very small tools (microliths) with great precision.

Levallois-Mousterian flake tools included scrapers, burins, and a diverse range of important projectile points, including denticulates, created by soft-hammer as well as hard-hammer percussion.

The main types of flake tools created during the Levallois-Mousterian culture or shortly afterwards, include:

Scrapers

The scraper is one of the least exciting tools in the Paleolithic toolkit, but also one of the most useful.

It was so useful, they made tons of them - for scraping wood, animal flesh or animal hides, retouching tools, preparing a flat surface, and so on.

In keeping with their intended tasks, scrapers were given long flat cutting edges, sometimes slightly curved for use with bowls and pots.

The vast majority were made from flakes rather than cores, so that one side was sharp and the other dull, to allow it to be grasped.

They came in a wide variety of sizes and styles including end scrapers, side scrapers (racloirs), notched scrapers.

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Burins

Burins are specialized flake tools with sharp, chisel-like tips. The were invariably hafted onto a handle. Modern humans used them to create rock engravings, and to work wood, bone, ivory and antler.

They are often associated with the making of spears, darts or harpoons, and the cleaning or perforating of hides. Also, like scrapers, they were used for retouching other tools.

Burins appeared during the Mousterian culture but it wasn't until the Upper Palaeolithic that burin technology was fully developed.

Awls

An awl is a crude pointed hand tool (think spike), typically used to punch holes in wood or animal hides, in order to make clothing.

They were also employed in the slicing of vegetable fibres for fishing nets.

Awls were made from sharpened bone, wood or stone.

They are believed to have originated in Africa before being introduced to Eurasia, SE Asia and Oceania.

Projectile Points

Projectile points, introduced in Europe by Neanderthals, and in Africa by Homo sapiens, were critical enhancements for Middle Stone Age hunting tools, but were not fully used until after 40,000 BC.

They came in a diverse range of sizes. The largest were hafted onto harpoons; with the rest being attached to (in descending order of size) thrusting spears, leisters, throwing spears, javelins, darts and arrows.

Spear point technology arose independently among different tool industries around the world, including the Fauresmith, Levallois, Still Bay and Aterian cultures.

Blades

A 'blade' tool is a long, thin, rectangular-shaped stone tool created from a flake struck from a core. Those with one edge blunted are called backed blades.

Originally, scientists thought that blade tools were first introduced by Cro-Magnons during the Upper Paleolithic. Now it seems they may have originated during the Middle Paleolithic, thanks to Neanderthals.

In any event, blade-making was a highly technical operation requiring considerable skill.

In simple terms, blades were made by striking off the longest possible flake from a core, with a hammerstone or soft billet, and then retouching it to attain the specific shape and cutting edge needed.

Great care was needed, firstly, because the core needed to be struck in a very precise way to create the geometries for repeat strikings; second, because the blades themselves were extremely thin and broke easily.

Blades were an extremely valuable hunting weapon. Typically attached to spear or dart shafts, they proved capable of causing major wounds in prey animals.

In addition, their long cutting edge made them useful as knives or specialist cutters. Indeed, blades were often used as blanks for other tool types, like microliths and arrowpoints, notably during the Magdalenian and Azilian tool cultures.

Blade technology was developed independently by hominins in different parts of the world including Europe, Africa and Asia, as well as Papua New Guinea and Australia.

Blades measuring more than about 45 mm in length are referred to as macroblades; those less than 12 mm are known as microblades.

Stone Knives

Stone knives were bifacial blade tools, typically hafted onto a handle. They could be used as a conventional hand tool, or as a projectile point for a spear or dart.

Modern humans were extremely casual in their use of knives: striking one from a core whenever they needed a sharp tool and then dispensing with it afterwards.

Middens and debitage piles at archaeological sites around the world contain a huge number of these knife discards.

However, some knives were precious items. Archaeologists have made numerous finds of prestige stone daggers, flaked from the highest-quality stones, with carved and engraved handles. Examples include: the German Allensbach Dagger (3,000 BC) and the Danish Hindsgavl Dagger (1,800 BC).

Macroblade knives were still being used well into the period of recorded history, by Inuit people in Alaska, and by Indigenous peoples in Australia and the Admiralty Islands.

Arrowheads

Spear-Throwers

The spear-thrower (or atlatl) was a hunting tool, usually made out of wood, bone or antler, which 'extended' the throwing arm of the hunter, allowing him to propel the spear up to 150 km/h (93 mph).

The greater velocity imparted to the spear allowed it to pierce even the thickest of skins.

The invention of the spearthrower was an important milestone in Ice Age tool technology, as it enabled prey to be hit by missiles at a greater distance than before.

This made it safer to hunt megafauna, and also gave hunters a chance to bring down even fast animals.

The first known atlatl (dated to 15,500 BC), was recovered from the Combe Saunière site in the Dordogne.

But note that the Australian hominin known as 'Mungo Man', who was dated to 38,000 BC, had osteoarthritis in the right elbow - a condition sometimes called 'atlatl elbow' - which might have been caused by prolonged spearthrower use.

In addition, scientists have found evidence of high-velocity impact on Italian microliths dating to between 43,000 and 38,000 BC, which suggests spearthrowers may have been in use at that time.

Microliths

A microlith is a small stone flake, typically no more than 1 cm in length and 0.5 cm in width, that was hafted onto a shaft or handle.

They were either mounted individually or placed in a line to provide a longer cutting edge.

Up to eighteen microliths were fixed to a single spear. They were used as spear points, arrowheads or knife points.

Microlith technology was introduced by different stone cultures around the world.

The earliest specimens come from the Howiesons Poort lithic industry in South Africa, about 60,000 BC.

They were fully developed by modern humans across Europe, Africa, Asia and Australasia, during the Late Stone Age, between 33,000 and 3,000 BC.

Microliths are commonly separated into two types: laminar and geometric.

Laminar microliths are slightly larger, and were common throughout the Upper Paleolithic and into the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras up to the very end of prehistory (3,000 BC).

Laminar blades were superceded by geometric microliths from about 9,000 BC.

Grinding Tools

Stones tools were used widely in prehistoric times to grind and crush different materials including seeds, berries, fibres, and ochre.

Two stones were usually used (top and bottom), to reduce a material to powder between them.

Grinding stones were generally fashioned from abrasive materials such as basalt or sandstone.

In hand-grinding, the top stone typically had a convex surface and was small enough to fit in the hand, while the bottom stone was concave. An example is the mortar and pestle method, which was invented in the Middle East around 20,000 BC.

For a list of important archaeological sites noted for their cave art as well as tool technology, see: 80 Paleolithic Caves.

References

(1) Clarke, David (1978). Analytical Archaeology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press. pp. 372–373. ISBN 0231046308.
(2) Dibble, Harold; Whittaker, John (1981). "New Experimental Evidence on the Relation Between Percussion Flaking and Flake Variation". Journal of Archaeological Science. 8 (3): 283–296.
(3) P. Callow, The Olduvai bifaces: technology and raw materials. In: M. D. Leakey/D. A. Roe, Olduvai Gorge Vol. 5. (Cambridge 1994) 235–253.
(4) Corbey, Raymond, et al. "The Acheulean handaxe: More like a bird's song than a beatles' tune?." Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 25.1 (2016): 6-19.
(5) Bisson, M.S. (2001). "Interview with a Neanderthal: An experimental approach for reconstructing scraper production rules, and their implications for imposed form in Middle Palaeolithic tools". Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 11 (2): 165–184.
(6) Chauhan, Parth; Lycett, Stephen (2010). New perspectives on old stones : analytical approaches to paleolithic technologies. New York: Springer. p. 65. ISBN 144196861X.
(7) Butler, C (2005). Prehistoric Flintwork, Tempus, Stroud. ISBN 0-7524-3340-7.
(8) Wilkins, J.; Schoville, B. J.; Brown, K. S.; Chazan, M. (2012). "Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology". Science. 338 (6109): 942–946.

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