We switched our focus in the Archaeology module back to the Stone Age, starting with some hands-on learning about ancient stone tool technology. Understanding stone tools by simply observing archaeological artifacts is a tricky thing – even seeing that these objects are artifacts can be challenging if you don’t have years of experience. Many archaeologists have found that the quickest way to understand stone tools is to learn how to make and use them.
Prof. Hildebrand, TA Hilary Duke and TBI research assistant John Ekusi took the students to a stand of palm trees just off campus to learn how to process palm nuts using stone tools. Even though stone tools can be made very sharp, not all stone tools are made for the purpose of cutting things like meat. Stone tools can be used in other activities such as cracking open nuts, pounding tough fibrous plant materials, or even smashing open bones to get access to marrow. These percussive activities were likely important parts of early hominin life.
John Ekusi is a TBI research assistant who grew up in the Nariokotome region of Turkana. He is an expert in processing palm nuts for eating. John kindly showed the students how to process these nuts using stone.
The first step in processing palm nuts is to collect them – but they are sitting high up in the trees. The students (and instructors) did their best to knock down some nuts by throwing stones.
Next, the students had to select their stone tools for processing the nuts. The nuts have a tough, fibrous outer coating that must be removed to get to the sweet edible flesh underneath. The most effective way to do this is to grind off the outer layer by placing the nut on a solid and stable stone (an anvil stone) and using a rough, rounded stone in your hand to do the abrading. John Ekusi demonstrated this process for the students before they gave it a try.
After removing the outer layer, some students tasted the palm nuts – they were a hit!
After having used stones to process the palm nuts, students had a better understanding of past hominin activities using stone tools. Next up – learning how to make the stone tools sharp for cutting.
Hilary distributed the tools required to do some basic stone tool-making. The students used stone hammers to hit cobbles of phonolite (a good volcanic toolstone that was used often by hominins throughout prehistory in this region) and remove sharp pieces called ‘flakes’. Hilary instructed the students how to find good angles on their cobbles to hit and successfully remove flakes. It is best to find an acute angle (less than 90 degrees) between two surfaces on the cobbles. Hitting this acute edge will ensure that the blow is more likely to remove a flake in a controlled manner. With only a few instructions, the students practiced on their own, finding their own nuanced techniques and picking up the skills quickly.
Armed with their newfound skills in making and using stone tools, the students were ready to take a closer look at some archaeological collections. The students got a close-up look at one of the most important finds from this area of the world. A few years ago, Drs. Sonia Harmand and Jason Lewis (now at Stony Brook University) and the West Turkana Archaeological Project (WTAP) discovered the oldest stone tools in the world at a site called Lomekwi 3. Dating to 3.3 million years ago, these tools push back hominin stone tool-making over 1 million years earlier than was previously known. Not only does this discovery stretch hominin stone tool-making deeper into evolutionary history, the tools also shed new light on the variability within stone tool-making and using behaviors. Previously, the world’s oldest stone tools were thought to be in Ethiopia dating to 2.6 million years ago. These tools showed evidence of hominins creating flakes (much like how the TBI students learned in this module). The Lomekwi 3 tools, however, look much different and indicate hominins were engaging in other percussive activities with stone.
As a member of the WTAP, TA Hilary Duke lead a lab session for the students so that they could observe these tools and gain an understanding of the world’s oldest known stone tool technology.
Understanding how early hominins made stone tools and knowing what they used them for is an incredibly challenging process. The TBI students took some important first steps in hands-on learning to gain a better perspective on these early technologies. Next, the students will learn important archaeological survey skills as they visit sites that range in dates from the Early Pleistocene to the mid-Holocene.
Stay tuned for more about the students’ trip to Nariokotome and the important archaeological sites that they visited…