Stone Age Materials

Wood

The most basic material that the Stone Age people used was wood, as this was readily available and could be used for many different things, from making tools and weapons, to building shelters, to cooking with fire. Unfortunately wood rarely survives over time, so often archaeologists have to interpret how wood was used by studying the areas that was once occupied by wood, such as post-holes.

The use of fire by early man is still disputed; evidence for the controlled use of fire by Homo erectus begins around 400,000 years ago, with some claims for the earliest of control of fire from 0.2 to 1.7 million years ago. When early man learned to control fire, cooking on open fires was eventually developed - probably by accident. Evidence for when cooking meat started has not yet been found, however archaeologists working in places such as Swartkrans (South Africa) are searching for evidence to show that this was possibly 1 million BP.

Some examples of where Stone Age wood has been recovered include four wooden spears made around 400,000 years ago and found in Schöningen in Germany. The 2m spears were found in soil whose acids had been neutralised by a high concentration of chalk near the coal pit. Such spears (made of yew or spruce) would have been thrusting weapons not javelins, due to their poor piercing power as a projectile so would have required the hunters to ambush their prey. This was the likely scenario are Schoningen where (based on environmental data) the hunters would have been hiding in reeds around a large lake waiting for a group of wild horses who they ambushed. Boxgrove (UK) gives further evidence of spear use for hunting large fauna, here a horse scapula was found with what appears to be a hole from a fire hardened spear.

>> Learn about fire-hardened wooden spears <<

Stone

Stone was the next most important material for early man, as this was mainly used to make tools/weapons and also eventually to make buildings. Flint is generally considered the stone material of choice for early man, however this stone is only found in specific geological areas and so was one of mainly types of stone used through prehistory.

Flint is nearly pure silica, containing less than 5% impurity in the form of Calcium Carbontate, that has a very fine crystalline grain which gives it a glassy character so that when struck it fractures conchoidally, which makes it perfect for knapping. Scientists are still not sure how flint was formed in the ocean millions of years ago, but when flint is broken it appears that the remains of sea creatures played a part in the formation of flint, as can be seen in the flake below containing a small belemnite (squid-like animal).

>> Learn more about Flint <<

Animal & Plants

Another key resource for the early Stone Age people was animal parts and plants. It is likely that every part of any animal killed or found dead, would have been used either as food or natural resources, such as leather, bone, antler and sinew. Plants and fibres were used to make string, medicine, glue and as tinder for fire making.

Ostrich eggs are thought to have been used as water containers during prehistory, a tradition that continues with todays hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari, who collect ostrich eggs, for food, as beads, or water containers. They puncture a small hole in the top of the egg, empty their contents and fill them with an average of 1 ltr of water.

More than 270 Ostrich eggshell fragments (from at least 25 separate eggs) were found by Pierre-Jean Texier and his team from University of Bordeaux during research at the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in the Western Cape of South Africa.

There is evidence in the form of tools made from split ribs of red deer, cattle and pigs (spindles, spindle whorls, hatchets), finished items (textiles, shoes and hats and nets) and waste products (flax seeds, capsule fragments, stems and roots) from the Late Neolithic Alpine lake dwellings around Lake Constance (around 5,500 years ago) for the production of cloth from the flax (Linum usitatissimum).

Originally domesticated about 4,000 years earlier in the Fertile Crescent region, Flax was used its oil-rich seeds. The flax boom began around 3000 BC with at least two different varieties of flax being grown within the communities.

Flax must be processed before use, as the fibre is collected from the inner bark of the plant and 70-90% of the plant must be removed prior to spinning. This can be assisted by allowing the harvested sheaves to stay in the field for retting (rotting), as this removes the woody epidermal residues, a different technique from seed harvesting for oil

ostrich egg

>> Learn how to make a Yucca paint brush <<

Minerals

Minerals, earth and clay were used create paint, as a burial medium and eventually to make pottery.

>> Learn how to make Stone Age paint <<

Pottery was not in use in the British Mesolithic but was in the late Mesolithic elsewhere in Europe, instead people would have likely used other materials such as bark and leather to make container and pouches for holding and transporting goods between seasonal camps or back from a hunting expedition.

Fire

The controlled use of fire was likely an invention of Homo erectus, with the earliest evidence from Oldowan hominid sites in the Lake Turkana region (Kenya). Sites such as Koobi Fora and Olorgesailie date from around 1.5 million years ago and contain oxidized patches of earth to a depth of several centimeters, which has been interpreted as evidence for fire control. Red clay shards have been discovered at Chesowanja near Lake Baringo and experimentation showed that the clay must have been heated to 400 °C to harden. Microscopic traces of wood ash, alongside animal bones and stone tools, were found in a layer dated to 1 million years ago at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.

When early man learned to control fire, cooking on open fires was eventually developed - probably by accident. Evidence for when cooking meat started has not yet been found, however archaeologists working in places such as Swartkrans (South Africa) are searching for evidence to show that this was possibly 1 million BP. They are hoping to find animal bone with butchery marks that has also been burnt, indicating that cooking of meat took place by Homo erectus (who had a 20% larger brain and smaller teeth with sharp points and thinner enamel).

Otzi the iceman carried four pieces of Fomes fomentarius (commonly known as the tinder fungus, false tinder fungus, horse hoof fungus, tinder conk, tinder polypore or ice man fungus). This species is a tough perennial fungal plant found in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America, that produces very large polypore fruit bodies that are shaped like a horse's hoof and grows on the side of various species of tree, which it infects through broken bark, causing rot. The fruit varies in colour from brown to grey to black and was used for tinder (in the form of amadou) as a primary material used to catch a low-heat spark created by striking iron against flint. It can also be used to transport fire across long distances, as tinder fungus can smolder without actually flaming for many days. Chemical tests led to the conclusion that Otzi carried the Fomes fomentarius for use as tinder. The bracket is the fruiting body of the fungus that has a hard outside layer and the ends of the spore tubes can be seen on the underside. Inside the bracket (between the spore tubes and the outer layer) is the trama layer or “flesh" which is quite firm in consistency with a cinnamon colour.

Stone Age Tools

Tool Making: Lithics

The use of stone tools required early humans to adapt the shape of high silica stones like "flint" through a process generally referred to as Flintknapping. This required material to be chipped away in a carefully controlled manner with special tools to produce sharp projectile points or tools.

>> Learn about Flintknapping <<

Tool Development during the Paleolithic

The Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age is the start of human existence but is generally considered the start of tool usage. Hominins in the earliest (lower) Palaeolithic would not have been under the Homo genus, but instead Australopithecines, Paranthropus and Adipithecus. They lived in central-eastern Africa from 3.9-1.2 million years ago and would have lived in a very similar way to modern primates today; studies have been conducted, observing modern primates to try and make links to their behaviour and how our earliest ancestors may have behaved.

The first tools may have been in existence around 3.4 million years ago, however the only evidence of them are scratched and cut bones, none of the tools themselves exist so are still debated. Currently the oldest stone tools that are widely accepted date to 2.6 million years ago. They are known as The Oldowan tool industry.

The tools were simple core, chopper and flake tools that generally consisted of on a few removal flakes. It is thought the hominin to use these was probably Homo habilis, although there is some debate that it may be a late Australopithecine. The function of Oldowan tools is likely to be plant matter processing (for consumption) and scavenging activities.

By 1.9 million years ago, Homo erectus appeared in Africa and spread into Eurasia. The Oldowan industry continued in the east such as in Java and China from 1.6 million years ago, travelling bands of Homo erectus would have brought the Oldowan with them.

Oldowan Culture

Oldowan Culture (image provenance / © unknown)

The earliest stone tools at Cambridge  Archaeology and Anthropology Museum

The next major stage in tool production was the Acheulean which appeared around 1.7 million years ago. It is most well known as the “handaxe culture”. Handaxes are found across Europe, Africa and western Asia showing that is was a successful tool industry. The Acheulean is considered “Mode 2” in human’s tool development (The Oldowan being mode 1) and contains a wide array of handaxe shapes and designs which may be for different tasks or group preference. The earliest evidence of hominins in the UK date to the Acheulean at nearly 1 million years ago at Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast. The hominins here were likely to be a sub-group of Homo erectus, possibly Homo heidelbergensis or H. antecessor (whom left many remains in Spain).

The people of this time would have been active hunters and may have used a variety of hunting strategies. At Boxgrove around 300 handaxes (mostly ovate in design) were uncovered, indicating the area was a popular spot for both animals (the prey) and hominins. Alongside the Acheulean called the Clactonian which is fairly similar to Oldowan as it is based on cores and flakes however it only lasts for around 100,000 years between 0.3 - 0.2 million years ago.

Clactonian Culture

Clactonian Culture

(image provenance / © unknown)

The next big stage in the Palaeolithic is the Middle Palaeolithic (300,000-30,000 years ago) this period is best known for the appearance of Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals). They used a variety of tools including handaxes, core and flakes (known as levallois) and spear points. Neanderthals were very efficient hunters who occupied much of Europe and Eurasia, their tool culture is known as the Mousterian (Mode 3) after the Le Moustier rock shelter in the Dordogne (France). Generally occupation sites for Neanderthals groups come in the form of caves although some open air sites exist which may have been hunting sites or workshop areas for tool production.

Early modern humans brought about the Upper Palaeolithic after emerging in Africa and moving into Eurasia and Europe. Their tool industry was based on long blades that could be easily made into spear points for javelins or atlatl darts. The period is divided up into many smaller time periods such as the Aurignacian, Gravettian and Solutrean in which there are slight chances to tool style. The whole industry is classed as group 4. Towards the end of the Palaeolithic people started making much small blade tools known as microliths (mode 5) which could be set into knife handles or harpoon shafts, these continued to be used into the Mesolithic from about 11,000 years onwards (in the UK).

>> Palaeolithic Tools <<

Tool Development during the Mesolithic

After the end of the last glaciation around 12,000 years ago groups of people became semi-sedentary (partially nomadic) and lived in seasonal settlements (generally inlands in the summer and by the coast in the winter). Hunting patterns would have also been on a seasonal basis depending on deer migration, wild fowl returning and fish migrating upstream. This would have also meant hunting equipment would have varied for different prey. Bows would have been especially popular in the Mesolithic but may have been an invention of the Upper Palaeolithic. Remains of wooden bows from Holmgaard (Denmark) and Star Carr (UK) give an idea of the shape and style of Mesolithic bows which would have been as along as some medieval long bows but would have had wider limbs to utilise the sap wood of the tree.

Tools would have mostly been blade based (especially projectile points) but scraper and early axes were also in use during the Mesolithic. Axes (known as tranchet axes) would have appeared cruder than later Neolithic axes but would have had a refined blade created by a tranchet (French for “slice”) removal flake.

The Mesolithic started to come to an end in Britain around 7000 years ago when farming, pottery and polished stone tools arrived from mainland Europe.

>> Mesolithic Tools <<

Tool Development during the Neolithic

The start of the Neolithic (7000 years ago in Britain) is generally marked by a package deal devised by Gorden Childe this included the appearance of: Farming, Pottery, Polished stone tools, Sedentism, Monument building and the domestication of animals such as cattle and sheep. It is believed farming spread to Britain from the Fertile Crescent in Asia Minor from around 12,000 years ago showing it took a long time for the “Neolithic Revolution” to reach the UK. Some regions such as coastal Denmark resisted farming and the other aspects of the Neolithic, choosing to stick with their Mesolithic hunter-gather lifestyle.

Tools of this time would have been made of variety of materials (like the Mesolithic and Upper Palaeolithic before). In terms of stone tools, flint and volcanic stone axes would have been ground and polished on sandstone blocks giving a cleaner cutting edge and allowing the flint blade to last longer. Refined arrowheads and knife blades were also present in the Neolithic, arrowheads especially came in a variety of forms that developed through the Neolithic acting as markers. An example of this this would be chisel arrowheads that were particularly popular at the end of the Neolithic when the likes of Stonehenge was being built.

While areas of forest (which would have covered most of the country) would have been cleared with tranchet axes in the Mesolithic to encourage game; clearings in the Neolithic were also made so fields could be made for crop growing. The land would have been worked with basic wooden ploughs pulled by oxen and seeds sown by hand. At harvest the crops would have been cut by hand using flint sickles and threshed with sticks (to separate the grain from the chaff). The grain would then have been ground into meal flour in a saddle quern stone.

>> Neolithic Tools <<

Stone Age Medicine

During prehistory, it is assumed that rational treatment was used only on obvious injuries (cuts or broken bones) otherwise spiritual treatment was carried out by the tribal shaman, who received his medical ability through his relationship with the gods.

Surgery

( Rama - Public Domain )

Cranial trepanning (also known as trephination or trephining) is a surgical procedure in which a hole is drilled into the human skull to remove a piece of bone. In the 1880's, a French excavation found numerous skulls  dated to 6500 BC, with 10cm holes; investigation showed that many survived for years after the operation and also that in some cases there was no evidence of injury prior to the trepanning; this was possibly to release "evil spirits" from the head (likely to be blood clots).

Four techniques were used for the procedure (1) four straights cuts at right angles (2) scraping with a rough stone (3) a series of small holes bored into the skull and then spaces in between were cut (4) grooving with a sharp stone, such as flint - this method offered the best chance of survival.

The earliest recorded trepanning was around 7,300 - 6,220 BC, according to Radiocarbon dating of the Dnieper Rapids cemeteries near Kiev in Ukraine, showing successful trepanation was performed on one skeleton (no. 6285-9). The skull (originally reported in Russian by I.I. Gokhman in 1966) has a depression on its left side with a raised border of bone and "stepping" in the centre showing healing during life. The complete closure suggests the survival of the patient, a man who was over 50 years old at his death.

Plants for Medicine

It is likely that plants, herbs or clay and other natural ingredients, like honey were used by prehistoric shamans as medicines and for dressing wounds, however no direct evidence has been found. Anthropologist Luigi Capasso reported Otzi the iceman carried with him a birch fungus that could have been used as a laxative and as a natural antibiotic.

Oral Care

A 6,500-year-old human male tooth (found more than 100 years ago in Slovenia) could provide evidence of the earliest form of human dentistry as indication are that toothache was treated with beeswax. Federico Bernardini and Claudio Tuniz (Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics) believe the beeswax was applied around the time of the person’s death, but cannot confirm whether it was shortly before or after. The tooth is a left canine, whose crown bears the traces of filling with beeswax that exactly fills the shallow cavity in the exposed dentin and the upper part of the crack.

Evidence from Grotte des Pigeons cave in northern Morocco, analysis of over 50 human remains indicates that extensive snacking on acorns and pine nuts may have led to some tooth decay more than 13,000 years ago. In some skeletons, the oral health was so bad that destructive abscesses had developed.


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