Updated: Apr 9, 2021
A material that rarely survives from the earlier end of prehistory is wood. It could be argued that much of prehistory could be considered the “Wood Age” due to its common use in tools, shelters, walls and more permanent buildings. It is generally considered that timber would have always been readily available in prehistoric Europe. However, this is simply not the case. At times during the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), much of Europe would have been an arctic or boreal tundra, dominated by grassland and permafrost with limited tree cover (Willis & Van Andel 2004). This clearly would have impacted the lives of Palaeolithic people significantly. Limited tree cover would have only produced a limited supply of firewood, limited soil generated in cold climates meaning only small, stunted trees could grow, small stunted trees rarely produce lengths suitable for spear shafts (Théry-Parisot 2002; Dilley 2020).
The earliest use of wood is likely to be well in excess of 1 million years ago. However due to lack of evidence, this starting date can only be guessed at. Wood can of course be used for fire (covered in more depth later). It is highly likely that probing sticks were used by our earliest ancestors for fishing out invertebrates in the same way primates do in the present day (Haslam et al. 2009). The oldest humanly worked wooden object is currently the Clacton spear (Essex, UK). Dating to around 420,000 years ago, the broken spear tip found in 1911 by an ameteur prehistorian is currently housed in the Natural History Museum, London (Stringer 2007). Later examples from Schöningen (Germany), date to around 330,000 years ago (Richter & Krbetschek 2015). Neanderthals also used wood for their spear shafts and simple tools like digging sticks, however as discussed these rarely survive (Rios-Garaizar et al. 2018). It is only until the Mesolithic, we have a greater selection of preserved wooden artefacts from sites such as Star Carr (Yorkshire, UK) or the many submerged Scandinavian sites such as Tybring Vig or Vedbæk (Denmark). These sites have yielded fishing and hunting equipment, activity platforms, logboats (with
paddles) and woodworking tools.
An important hunting tool that has been preserved from the Mesolithic is the bow and arrow. It is possible people used bows in the Palaeolithic, though the evidence is sketchy. The waterlogged nature of these sites provides a far broader view of the objects used and made in prehistory. From the Mesolithic onwards, there is a greater indication of wood use, despite it not being present.
Post holes (where a wooden post or pile was driven into the ground) fill with soil and organic matter, this often leaves a soil trace of a different colour to the natural ground around it. An outline of post holes can indicate the size and style of a building, without a single piece of wood remaining.
Stone is the best represented humanly manipulated material from prehistory. Most stone types worked are almost indestructible to normal types of weathering. Stone types that were used to make sharp, flaked tools are especially resistant as these stone types can be flaked predictably due to their hardness provided by a high silica content. Certainly in Europe, the most well-known stone type used for flaked tools is flint. However flint only occurs in certain areas so was either carried or traded outside its naturally occurring regions or an alternate material was used such as quartzite, chert or a high silica volcanic rock type. Flint is nearly pure silica (see the knappable materials article), meaning it can last thousands of years in the ground without changing a great deal. Its surface can be stained or begin to undergo replacement by calcium carbonate, however this is generally only the surface (Rottländer 1975). It is likely that stone tools and flaked stone had some connection to almost all activities in Stone Age groups, from decorating pots with thin flakes to cutting meat for cooking. The ease at which sharp flakes can be detached from a core is a good indication as to why there are millions of flakes and tools across Britain (in museums and still in the ground). In areas where workable stone naturally occurs, such as flint in the SE of Britain, there is a high ratio of waste flakes or “debitage” to flaked tools. This demonstrates people did not need to make use of every flake, and only selected the best shapes for tool production. In areas where a workable stone like flint does not occur, there is a much higher representation of flaked tools to waste flakes as people make use of every piece. Certain types of workable or knappable stone are better for particular tool types. Flint was used for many types of tools, though it is not ideal for tools like axes (despite many flint axes existing). An axe has to undergo repetitive stress and strain when it is struck against a tree. A brittle rock like flint is not suited to this type of stress and can break. Axes made of volcanic stone like tuff, diorite or dolerite are much tougher (though not as hard and brittle). They are quicker to grind smooth than flint and less likely to snap as they are not as hard (and therefore not as brittle).
Minerals, earth and clay were used to create paint, as a burial medium and eventually to make pottery. 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 containers and pouches for holding and transporting goods between seasonal camps or back from a hunting expedition. The arrival of the Neolithic in Britain brought with it the first pots. These pots had curved bases, which suggest they rarely were placed on flat surfaces. By the end of the Neolithic, flat base pots are common. Pots were clearly used for a variety of purposes, though occasionally evidence shows they were used to cook certain types or stew, hold milk or used in the production of cheese. Ochre is a clay based stone or sediment that contains varying amounts of ferric oxide (iron rust). It was used extensively during the Upper Palaeolithic for decorating walls, objects and possibly people's skin. Its use declines past the Palaeolithic in Europe, though evidence of it is still occasionally found on pottery and other objects.
Animals & Plants
Another key resource for Stone Age people was animals 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 (though there are exceptions). Deer provided a huge part of European Stone Age food economy from the Palaeolithic to Mesolithic (reindeer, roe, fallow and red deer). It is likely that some communities specialised in hunting certain types of prey, especially herding mammals (Cummings & Harris 2011). Deer provide large pelts for leather, antlers and a variety of bones for tools, sinews, hooves for glue, organs for storage containers and of course meat for food. From the Neolithic onwards, domesticated animals such as cattle, pigs, goats and eventually sheep provided these material and meat resources (Serjeantson & Field 2006).
Some plant fibres such as nettle, flax and lime bast were used to make string while other plants provided medicine (such as willow bark), glue (bluebell bulbs and pine resin) and tinder for fire making (grasses, silver birch bark and various fungi). 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) (Maier & Schlichtherle 2011). Originally domesticated about 4,000 years earlier in the Fertile Crescent region, Flax was also used for 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 (Maier & Schlichtherle 2011).
Ostrich eggs are thought to have been used as water containers in Africa during prehistory, a tradition that continues with today's 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 (Texier et al. 2010).
The controlled use of fire was likely an invention of Homo erectus, with the earliest evidence from Oldowan hominin 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 (Hlubik et al. 2017). 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 (Gowlett et al. 1981). 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 (Berna et al. 2012).
When early people 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 (Pickering 2001). They are hoping to find animal bones with butchery marks that have 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) (Peintner & Pöder 2000). 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 (Fleckinger 2003). 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.
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