Updated: Jan 10, 2021
In an attempt to avoid this becoming a multi-volume book series on Palaeolithic tool technology, I explore some of the iconic tools from the Old Stone Age. Some of these tools remained in the human toolkit for hundreds of thousands of years, this raises questions on human reliance on existing technology or a reluctance to use different tool types. Clearly we can infer information about the lifestyles of these early humans through the tools they left behind. From a modern perspective, a hairdresser has a distinctive set of tools many of which have changed little in generations. Their toolkit is very different to that of a plumber, and a plumber’s tools can tell us some of the activities they engaged with during their working day. Though simplified, this kind of approach can be applied to prehistoric tools, though experimental archaeology is sometimes needed to determine a tool’s use beforehand. As with many prehistoric tools, it is likely that a degree of non-functional agency developed over generations such as myths, folk tales and belief/religious significance of some kind. We see this commonly in modern society connected to objects and tools such as carpenters who have a favourite chisel or archaeologists favouring a trowel that has arguably seen better days. Due to the extreme age of many Palaeolithic artefacts, those intimate connections have long since been lost. Therefore it is quite possible many artefacts were more than just a cutting tool or similar, but we will probably never know.
The handaxe is often labelled as a multi-function tool that could be used for a variety of activities, from digging, smashing bones to displays of sexual prowess (Ohel 1987; Murray 2017; Kohn & Mithen 1999). However, in truth, it is far more likely they were used as butchery tools and worked in the same way as a modern butcher's saw knife (similar to a bread knife). Handaxes are often flaked on both sides or faces, making them “bifacial” (two-faced). This gives the edge a serrated cutting margin, instead of a straight one like a kitchen knife. This means a handaxe requires a sawing motion to cut effectively. There are a number of forms and shapes of handaxes, some are oval, pointed, curved with a flat base, cordate, subcordate, flat-bladed (like a chisel blade) and tear drop shaped. Archaeologists are uncertain why there are so many different shapes, but it could be down to the raw material used or preference within the group of humans (Machin et al. 2007). The people who first made handaxes were probably Homo ergaster or Homo Erectus around 1.7 million years ago in Africa, but older handaxes may exist (Lepre et al. 2007). To make a handaxe, you can either start with a large flake from a boulder, or a nodule of flint or chert. You can then use a hard pebble to take off flakes from around the edge on both sides. By detaching flakes on both sides, the flintknapper creates a serrated edge, ideal for cutting up carcasses. I have demonstrated the production of a handaxe with flint in on of my #KnapTime episodes.
In general, a handaxe should only take 10 - 30 minutes to make. This may sound like a short production time, but these objects were made to be tools rather than pieces of art. However, some unusually large handaxes do exist which raise questions over an early form of craft showcasing, as examples such as the Furze Platt handaxe (from Berkshire, UK) are simply too large to use at 30cm in length and nearly 3kg in weight (MacRae 2016). It is evident that some handaxes were reflaked to sharpen the edges, but there are many examples of handaxes that have been dropped after a single use episode such as at Boxgrove and Lynford (Sussex and Norfolk, UK) (Roberts et al. 1999; Boismier et al. 2012). The last humans to make and use handaxes (in Europe) were Neanderthals who died out between 40,000-30,000 years ago. They made a refined handaxe type known as a “Bout Coupe”, which has a flat based and curved tip. Anatomically modern humans have made tools similar to handaxes around the world, though perhaps not with the same consistency as their ancestors.
Levallois Flake Tools
One of the first types of stone tool technology was based around core and flake detachment. The flakes could then be used as cutting tools with little reworking. This type of technology is sometimes referred to as “Mode 1” as part of the Olduwan tool industry or “technocomplex” devised by Graham Clarke in 1969. The following Mode 2 is composed of the Acheulean technocomplex (after St. Acheul in France), best associated with handaxes. The third Mode is known as the “Mousterian” after the Neanderthal site of Le Moustier, also in France. Clarke’s mode system implies continuous linear development over time. This is however not the case as Mode 1 style flintknapping is present again in later prehistory, while handaxes reappear after Mode 3 at the end of the Mousterian (Clarke 1969). Within “Mode 3” or the Mousterian, there is a flintknapping style known as “prepared core technology” or “Levallois technique”. This differs from Mode 1 which involves the opportunistic removal of flakes which changes the shape of the core. Levallois is different, as the shape and preparation of the core determines the shape of the flakes that are removed. The technique requires a high level of skill and cognition to plan several steps ahead during the flintknapping process (Schlanger 1996). By creating a prepared core, successfully removed flakes are detached which have a size and shape determined to some extent by the maker. This allows a flintknapper to detach large flakes with razor sharp edges that would make suitable cutting tools, or triangular flakes suitable for spear points. Re-working of the core allows for further preferential removals, though the ratio of waste flakes (debitage) to preferential flakes is rather high. Having made many Levallois cores myself as replica assemblages for museums and schools, it is noticeable that a great deal of time and energy investment is required to produce a relatively small number of good quality preferential flake removals.
Levallois cores have been created on a number of different rock types including flint, chert, quartzite and a number of volcanic materials (Groucutt et al. 2016). This demonstrates the technique can be applied to a variety of stone types, not exclusively glassy materials. The technique can be conducted exclusively with hard hammer work. The only scenario in which antler soft hammers are effective is if there are surface mistakes or angle problems (which are rarely beyond the capacity of a hard hammer strike).
Solutrean Laurel Leaf Spearheads
The Solutrean is a sub period of the Upper Palaeolithic dating to between 22,000 and 18,000 BP that occurs in SW France, Spain and Portugal (Aubry et al. 2008). It is a relatively short period in the European Palaeolithic, but the later part of this short period saw the appearance of some of the finest stone tools in the entire Palaeolithic. The tools produced were spearheads, flaked on both sides to a leaf shape. They were first identified during excavations at the site of Volgu (France) in 1874 (Aubry et al. 2008). The largest of the points from Volgu are 350mm in length and only 10mm thick, which is clearly a significant achievement in the craft of flintknapping (Schimidt et al. 2018). At this time in the Palaeolithic, only modern humans occupied the European landscape as Neanderthals had died out some thousands of years before. The time period takes its name from the site located at Solutré in central France. Here evidence was found of a hunting station used by humans for thousands of years. Early theories suggested the large rock outcrop (The rock of Solutré) was used as a hunting drive to force herbivores to leap to their deaths. However this theory has long since been disregarded as antiquarian romanticism. The hunters for the Solutrean hunted horses, reindeer, bison and mammoth mainly, though other animals are less frequently represented (Banks 2006). The manufacturing process of a solutrean spearhead required good quality flint, which is available in central France. It is likely the flintknappers worked nodules down to rough-outs using hard hammers, before moving onto a refinement stage with antler soft hammers.
The final shaping stage would have required a great deal of skill and experience. Research has found the flint was worked raw, without heat treatment (Schmidt et al. 2018). The heat treatment process for lithic raw material makes it glassier, and easier to flake.
Blades & Blade Tools
True laminar blade technology (also categorised as Mode 4 by Clarke in 1969), appeared with modern humans and spread into the regions they inhabited (Bar‐Yosef & Kuhn 1999). As modern humans spread throughout Africa, Asia and Europe, they would have come into contact (either directly or in-directly) with Neanderthals. There are some instances of Neanderthal lithic technology changing to incorporate blade-like tools around the time of modern humans (Delagnes & Rendu 2011). Some researchers however believe the shift in laminar style blade production amongst Neanderthals was not influenced by modern humans (Pastoors 2009). A laminar blade core strategy utilises a thick piece of knappable stone with a flat top or “platform”. Using a stone hardhammer, antler or bone soft hammer, long flakes can be removed from down the side of the stone. Once several flakes have been removed, the resulting flake cars leave prominent ridges running down the core. A knapper can use these ridges to direct following flakes, therefore resulting in elongated removals of a relatively consistent form.
Producing long, thin shards of sharp stone offers a variety of options to a toolmaker. They can be used immediately as cutting tools for a broad spectrum of tasks, from butchery to woodworking. Reworking of the blades into distinctive shapes can provide projectile points, scrapers, awls, burins and saws (to name a few). Laminar blade technology continued to be used through the remainder of the Palaeolithic, through the Mesolithic and up to the early Neolithic. It does reappeared in isolated industries such as the Grand Pressigny blade and dagger techno-complex.
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