appearance of writing in Mesopotamia (Fagan 2004) (Table 7.4; Figure 7.1).
For narrative purposes, and because I am describing a social technology,
I will call these divisions, starting with the oldest, the long introduction,
the common ground and the short answer. I think of them as temporal
movements in a musical sense since they are of different duration yet
contain repeated themes and phrases.
The take-home message from these charts (Figure 7.1) is not that there
was a container revolution some 20,000 years ago but that throughout
the evolution of human technology both material proxies have existed.
The exact ratio will always be difficult to gauge because, as every archae-
ological study of technology observes, containers are often made with
organic materials and so have a poorer chance of preservation, matched
only by instruments such as wooden spears. Finally, it is important to point
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 171
figure 7.1. The changing proportions of technological innovations from instruments
to containers (instruments Â¼ I, containers Â¼ C, and hybrids Â¼ I/C) see Table 7.4.
The time periods refer to the three technological movements, Table 7.5. See Figures 7.7
out that Figure 7.1 only addresses the issue of devices and not the wider
techniques where the body itself acts as a container and instrument in the
day-to-day activities of living and nurturing (see Chapter 6).
I have also assessed the fifty-three innovations in terms of reductive,
additive and composite technologies (Table 6.3). As proposed by Chapman
(2000) these provide an assessment of technical knowledge and skill.
The proportions for the three movements are shown in Table 7.5.
Once again there are obvious changes in the frequency of techniques.
Additive technologies are more important in the short answer while
reductive technologies dominate during the long introduction. However,
the point to note is that all three technologies are found in all movements.
What now follows is a brief discussion of the archaeological evidence
table 7.4. The timing and classification of 53 innovations as material proxies during hominin evolution (after Chapman 2000; Fagan
2004; Troeng 1993)
Innovation container Ka BP Reductive Additive Composite
L Stone flaking I 2600
O Stone pounding I 1800
N Stone tools I 1700
G Pointed stone tools I 1700
Control of fire C 1600
I Stone bifaces I 1400
N Stone cleavers I 1400
T Cave occupation C 1400
R Stone ball weapons I 500
O Wooden spears/javelins I 400
D Stone points I 390
U Ochre use I/C 380
C Stone flaking Ã€ prepared core technology I/C 240
T Stone blades I 220
I Stone points Ã€ leaf-shaped I 220
O Stone end scrapers I 160
N Human burials C 130
Bevelled bones I 130
Beads or pierced pendants C 95
Barbed bone points I 90
Hearths suitable for cooking C 80
Bone awls I 70
Water containers Ã€ ostrich eggshell C 70
C Stone grinding I/C 58
O Mining C 44
M Shellfish collection C 41
M Fishing I/C 41
O Stone microblades I 40
N Stone axes/adzes I 40
Stone adzes I 35
G Rock Art C 32
R Geometric microliths I 31
O Stone boring I/C 30
U Figurines I 30
N Textiles C 30
D Ceramics C 30
Twining and plaiting C 27
Sewing C 26
Keeping dogs C 21
Storage C 20
S Pottery C 16
H Stone points Ã€ transverse I 14
Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚
O Water craft C 13
R Fish-hooks I 12
T Rectangular dwellings C 11
Legume use C 11
A Edge grinding of stone axes/adzes I 10
N Propagation of plants C 10
S Keeping of ruminants C 9
W Cultivated cereals C 8
E Keeping of non-ruminants for food C 8
R Cultivation of fibre plants C 7
Metal use I/C 6
BP Â¼ Before Present, instruments Â¼ I, containers Â¼ C, and hybrids Â¼ I/C. See Table 6.3 and Figure 7.1.
table 7.5. The changing proportions of social techniques applied to Troengâ€™s 53 innovations
Social technology Europe & Asia Africa
movements Ka BP Reductive (%) Additive (%) Composite (%) No. Ka BP Palaeolithic Stone Age
The short answer 20Ã€6 20 55 25 20 50Ã€10 Upper Later
The common ground 100Ã€21 40 33 27 30 300Ã€50 Middle Middle
The long introduction 2600Ã€101 72 14 14 21 2600Ã€300 Lower Earlier
The total of 72 is accounted for by some innovations being represented by more than one technique (see Table 7.4). The traditional divisions for the
Eurasian and African Palaeolithic are also shown (see also Table 7.7).
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 175
for the three categories, instrument, container/instrument and container
that appear in Table 7.4.
Instruments (N Â¼ 27 Table 7.4)
We have become accustomed to stone tools alone providing the long
introduction to human technology. The earliest are currently 2.6 million
years old (Semaw et al. 1997) from Gona, Ethiopia, and certain to get
older. Stone cobbles, preferentially selected for their fracturing properties
(Stout et al. 2005), were knapped to produce at least two components;
sharp edged flakes and the core from which they were struck that may
or may not have had a further function. That depended on the context.
The struck artefacts were hand-held instruments used for fragmenting
the world of plants and animals. Wielded as knives, hammers or scrapers
they pounded open bones to reveal the marrow within, split nuts and
large fruits and cut branches and grasses. They could even have been
thrown. They are not heavy, weighing much less than a nursing infant,
but were never carried very far, a few hours walk at most (Feblot-Augustins
1990; Jones 1994; Stiles 1998). On occasion the cobbles were piled up into
small caches and parts of animal carcasses brought to them where they
were broken open (Potts 1993; 1988).
From the outset we have evidence for techniques that fragment and
consume, while accumulation and enchainment were common social
practices. The distances may be small in spatial and social terms and the
stone piles and animal carcasses unimpressive by later standards. Even so,
the material basis for the construction of identity was not something that
had to evolve since it was always present as a condition of material life.
Instruments in stone dominate the long introduction to technology
(Table 7.4). New forms appear such as hand-held bifaces, also known as
handaxes, and a plethora of smaller tools with reduced edges that include
endscrapers, triangular points and other forms suitable for projectile tips.
During much of the Palaeolithic stone is not worked into containers
such as bowls, cylinders and pipes or used to build houses, the trademark
container. Neither is there much evidence for the use of other materials
to build shelters, clothe bodies or wrap food.
The picture of the long introduction provided by stone instruments is,
however, illusory. Forty years of observations of tool use among wild
chimpanzees (McGrew 1992) has emphasised the importance of organic
instruments (Table 7.2) and the vagaries of preservation among organic
176 Origins and Revolutions
materials at Palaeolithic time-scales. Hence the justified excitement
when wooden spears are recovered from locales such as Schoningen
(Thieme 1999; 2005) and planks from Gesher-Benot-Yaâ€™aqov (Goren-Inbar
et al. 2002b). The identification of plant residues on Acheulean bifaces,
as at Peninj in Tanzania (Dominguez-Rodrigo et al. 2001), indicates their
regular use on organic materials, especially wood. However, in the absence
of material evidence the prevailing view is that for much of human cultural
evolution technology was reductive rather than additive (Chapman 2000)
and as a result instrument-based. Furthermore, the expectation that
composite technologies may have existed is generally low (Schick and
Organic instruments finally make an impact after 100,000 years ago
Wood may preserve poorly but bone, antler and ivory present an organic
medium that survives in a variety of circumstances, although they too
are rarely found prior to the common ground 100,000 years ago. Many
examples of points have been suggested, in particular from the Spanish
locales of Torralba and Ambrona. However, a detailed analysis by Paola
Villa and Francesco dâ€™Errico (2001) did not authenticate them as artefacts
although elsewhere bone was used to make bifaces as at Castel Guido,
Italy (Villa 1991).
During technologyâ€™s common ground the evidence increases. At
Salzgitter-Lebenstedt, Germany, 23 instruments, among them a triangular
bone point (Gaudzinski 1998; 1999:Figure 13), were made from mammoth
ribs and fibulae. In Africa the picture is richer. At Katanda, Democratic
Republic of Congo, Alison Brooks and colleagues (1995) have found a well
crafted set of barbed and unbarbed harpoons that date to c. 90,000 years
ago. They come from three contexts beside the Semliki River and were
probably hafted to fish spears. At the coastal cave of Blombos, South Africa,
and in Middle Stone Age levels in excess of 70,000 years old 28 shaped
and polished bone tools have been excavated (Henshilwood et al. 2001).
These include awls and points, one of which has indentations which
probably assisted binding to a haft (Henshilwood and Sealy 1997:Figure 6).
The organic points from both Blombos and Katanda are very different
in terms of the shaping skills employed than the sharpened mammoth
ribs and fibula of Salzgitter-Lebenstedt. If a comparison of technical
skill is to be made it is with the much older wooden javelins from
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 177
The important point to take away from this short review is that all of
these organic artefacts are instruments. Moreover, they are the product
of reductive rather than additive technologies. Only in rare instances
do we glimpse composite technologies as with the 75,000 year old lump of
pitch resin from Konigsaue (Mania and Toepfer 1973) and the bitumen
still adhering to a stone tool from Umm el Tiel, Syria 40,000 years ago
(Boeda et al. 1996). Both finds indicate that stone tools were hafted.
Questioning reason and need
The standard view is well stated by Villa and dâ€™Errico (2001:106) who
suggest that the lack of organic points during technologyâ€™s long introduction
was the result of technological necessity. Hunting involved shooting
heavy, stone tipped projectiles into large and medium sized-game from
close quarters: a strategy confirmed by the African evidence. Longer range
hunting with, or without the assistance of a bow or spear thrower requires,
among other things, weight-reduction, which would be achieved by the
use of bone. Further subsistence change led to the hunting of alternative
prey such as birds and a dependence on fishing, underscoring the necessity
of weight reduction for spears, arrows and hooks.
Studies of technological change have therefore been directed towards
the description and then interpretation of differences, through time, in
artefact technology and typology. Linking stone tools to subsistence was
the imperative (Kuhn 1995), resulting in rational explanations for any
change or variation; tools met subsistence and social needs and both their
manufacture and shape were under selection. In this way changes in
tools, whether of bone or stone, must confer adaptive advantage other-
wise there would be no clear direction to change over time. However,
Pfaffenberger (1988:242) reminds us of Marxâ€™s insight that â€˜the Western
ideology of objects renders invisible the social relations from which
technology arises and in which any technology is vitally embeddedâ€™,
and most archaeological studies of stone tools provide a good example
of exactly how hidden they are.
The standard view is undoubtedly encouraged by the common
perception of stone and wood as inanimate, summed up by idioms such
as â€˜turned to stoneâ€™ and â€˜flinty-heartedâ€™, not to mention â€˜a wooden
performanceâ€™ by â€˜bumps on a logâ€™. But isnâ€™t there also the â€˜living rockâ€™
and the â€˜tree of lifeâ€™? Many other cultures regard stone as animate and
as a result display a relational attitude towards minerals (Boivin 2004;
Parker-Pearson 2004). Archaeologist Adam Brumm (2004:147) points
178 Origins and Revolutions
table 7.6. Defining blades and bladelets (after Bar-Yosef and Kuhn 1999:323)
Typological: any flake that is more than twice as long as it is wide is a blade. However,
ratios of 2.5Ã€4:1 are often preferred.
The maximum length of blades is conditional on the raw material. At Etiolles, France,
blades of between 30 and 40 cm in length have been found and refitted to their parent
core (Pigeot 1987). Smaller raw material in Upper Palaeolithic locales in southern
Germany produced blades up to 12 cm in length with a mean of 3 cm (Owen 1988).
Technical: elongated blanks with parallel or slightly converging edges.
Normally blades possess one or more ridges running parallel to their long axes that gives
them a triangular or trapezoidal cross-section.
Bladelets: these are distinguished from blades by an arbitrary maximum width of
between 10 and 15 mm (Owen 1988; Tixier 1963).
The width sets limits on the maximum length that bladelets can achieve rarely exceeds
45 mm with most being under 35 mm (Goring-Morris 1987:375).
Microblades: are even smaller than bladelets and are normally produced by pressure
Microlith: a boundary of 9 mm in width is used to distinguish unretouched from
retouched bladelets (Tixier 1963). Retouched pieces falling below this threshold
are normally called microliths.
to the correlation among indigenous Australians between the power of
place and the power of stone. The Ngilipitji quartzite quarry in eastern
Arnhem Land (Jones 1985; Jones and White 1988) has a special signifi-
cance for the Yolngu who are its traditional owners. For them quartzite
grows in the ground where it is â€˜pregnantâ€™ with â€˜baby stonesâ€™ or â€˜eggsâ€™.
The sparkling quality of quartzite is likened to blood which has a brilliant
quality, birâ€™yun, and anthropologist Howard Morphy (1989) has argued
that this brilliance confers aesthetic value. Such resources are therefore
valued over and above their properties to make efficient spear points.
They enchain people materially and through memory, as shown in
Kim Mackenzieâ€™s classic film of a visit to Ngilipitji, The spear in the
stone, and detailed for many other parts of Australia through the stone
axe trade by Isabel McBryde (1978; 1988; 1997). Then, as always with stone,
the action of fragmentation and the practice of accumulation are strongly
represented, and with them a relational approach to material culture
is possible. Rather than stone tools these are mineral veins, lithic networks
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 179
figure 7.2. The family of blades, bladelets, microliths and flakes. Each member of the
family is distinguished by measurements and ratios. These refer to length and width and
less commonly to thickness.
The fuss about blades: a study in rational and relational change
Both views of technology, rational and relational, can be illustrated by
a stone artefact with about as much charisma as an iron nail but with
an equal measure of indispensability for holding the world together.
Stone blades are a versatile element of material culture found in all three
movements of the social technology (Table 7.4). Few other stone items
in the innovations list enjoy such popularity. For instance, bifaces and
cleavers that are widespread in the Old World (Gamble and Marshall 2001;
McNabb et al. 2004) do not make it into technologyâ€™s short answer,
while polished stone axes that you can see your face in, and chop down
a tree with, are no older than this last technological movement (Fagan
2004). In addition blades figure large in discussions of the Human
Revolution as both a device and a technique (Chapter 2). They provide
me with the opportunity to contrast the standard view with my preferred
social technology (Table 7.6; Figure 7.2).
To understand what the â€˜big deal is about bladesâ€™ (Bar-Yosef and
Kuhn 1999), Steven Mithen (in Fagan 2004) has used the analogy of the
180 Origins and Revolutions
Swiss Army Knife to underscore their utility and versatility. Not only can
they act as tools in their own right with long, straight cutting edges but they
serve as blanks that can be snapped, ground and retouched in a number of
ways to form lightweight components ideal for combining into composite
tools and weapons. They can do everything that those cores and flakes did at
Gona 2.6 million years previously, but they can do it better and they can do
more. As pointed out fifty years ago by archaeologist Andre Leroi-Gorhan
(1957; Tactikos 2003), they do it more efficiently so long as the accepted
measure of efficiency is cutting edge per kilo of raw material and an overall
weight reduction of blade blanks (Figure 7.3).
Blades, cores and the human revolution
Where would the Human Revolution be without stone blades? They
certainly dominate the Upper Palaeolithic lithic technologies of Europe
as well as the Later Stone Age of Africa but they failed to impress during
technologyâ€™s common ground in either Australia or the Western Pacific
(Allen and Gosden 1991; Holdaway and Stern 2004). Now this could be
comparable to some chimpanzee groups using stones to crack nuts
and others choosing not to (Table 7.2). But more importantly the produc-
tion of blades is only one variant in a larger family of prepared core
technologies, abbreviated to PCTs, that are found in all three technological
The important technological concept in PCT is the core since it
brings together skills, knowledge and technique (Schlanger 1996). Cores,
however, are often difficult to define in precise terms (Holdaway and
Stern 2004:37Ã€8). This is because their visual and tactile characteristics
are not discrete but shared with other categories of stone tools, notably
those flakes and tools that are struck from them. Furthermore, since the
whole process starts with a lump of raw material when exactly does the
knapper stop fragmenting a nodule and commence on working a core? It is
like asking at what moment does eating produce the core of an apple,
and stone cores therefore provide a good example of an on-going project
rather than a finished artefact ready for classification (Chapter 6).