The Antiquity of Man

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Mike Brass. 1997 partial essay. How experimental archaeology has contributed to our understanding of the Early Stone Age

The biggest problem that modern archaeologists have is that right from the start of our assignment we are so distanced in time from our subject. Archaeologists are unable to go back in time to see first-hand what our extinct hominid ancestors were doing, how they survived, how they created artefacts and how they responded to challenges.

However, the sites that our ancestors have left behind provide us with the opportunity to examine some of the mysteries of the past. What makes a site? What events and/or activities by man made tools? And how does that help in our understanding of the past?

The direction to take at first in attempting to understand the formation of Stone Age sites is to have a close look at the system of artefact manufacture - a purpose that will become clear as the report progresses.

When an Oldowan core is flaked, what stone debris is produced? How many fragments? Although this will obviously depend on how much the artefact has been worked, a simple rule has been found to apply (Schick & Toth 1993: 192): "the average ratio is approximately one core to thirty or forty flakes and fragments." Although different flaked cores will produce other figures, at least this does give us an average figure to work with when examining sites.

Now that we have established roughly how many flakes will have been produced, the question arises: what are their sizes? The size distribution is most likely as follows (Schick & Toth 1993: 193):
over 8 cm:
4 to 8 cm:
2 to 4 cm:
1 to 2 cm:
less than 1 cm:
Although flaking a few cores would thus produce much stone debris, there will have been many that were too small to have been of any use to our early ancestors. To us, however, this stone debris is invaluable. The debris assemblage enables the archaeologist to assess how significantly, if at all, a site has been subjected to water erosion. This analysis, combined with a geological assessment of the site, yields evidence of how much erosion a site has undergone and thereby helps the archaeologist establish in which sites hominid remains and/or remains of hominid activity would be best preserved.

The following experiments that have been conducted have been particular useful in understanding archaeological sites (Schick & Toth 1993: 194). Experiments were conducted creating Oldowan cores and examining the spatial flaking and fragmental debris. The result was the determination that the chips usually fell within a five foot radius of the tool maker, with the larger chips landing closet. This is a useful tool to use when examining patterns of stone pieces from other sites. Experiments were also conducted under laboratory conditions simulating water erosion, observing which artefacts were washed away and which remained insite; the results of which contribute towards understanding the extent of the erosion out in natural settings and what might have occurred.

It is from the results of these types of experiments, together with observations about the workings of the local natural environments, that the archaeologist is able to form opinions about the formation of sites as well as determine what a certain site can reveal about the nature of its occupants. There are different lines of evidence - geological evidence, geographical evidence, etc. - which reveal different patterns to look out for that inform the archaeologist that the site under question is pretty much undisturbed or that it has been drastically altered since it was occupied. The most important evidence, I believe, to look for is as follows:

Artefact disposition: Where there are large numbers of flakes to a low number of cores, as well as there being more fragments than whole flakes, that is a very good indication that the site is relatively undisturbed compared with a disturbed site of a high core to flake ratio and a high flake to fragment ratio (Schick & Toth 1993: 205).
Stone and bone alignment: In a site that has had significant disturbances, most of the elongated pieces will have similar alignments, either in one direction (the direction of the flowing water) or at right angles. An undisturbed site will not show this alignment (Schick & Toth 1993: 205).

There is also the question of the survival rate of bones. In other words, the presence or absence of certain sections of skeletons may be related to either their delicacy and inability to preserve in the face of the elements. Observation of skeletal remains at Sterkfontein suggests that some skeletal parts were more hardy than others (Brain 1981: 22). An interesting observation is that "in his book Early Man in Europe, Rau described the contents of Stone Age refuse dumps or kitchen middens, in Denmark, pointing out that the bones were the discarded food remains of the people and their domestic dogs. To verify this assumption, Rau described how Professor Steenstrup locked up some dogs, restricting them to a diet of bones and thereby ascertained that all the bones rejected by the dogs were the same that are present in the kitchen middens, while the bones or portions of bones devoured by them are correspondingly missing there." (Brain 1981:22)

Then there is the fact that some animals' skeletons are simply more resistant to carnivore damage than others: for example, a primate's vertebral column is more prone to extensive damage than that, say, of an antelope (Brain 1981: 26). Thus, the representation of different animal skeletons in the archaeological record should take into account the different degrees of resistance to carnivore action.

A collection of bone fragments was made from the area near a Hottentot village; the strange thing was that many pieces showed wear and polish as if from human use. However, the Hottentots denied using bone tools. Now, these "tools" were found to be abundant near water holes. What actually happened was that in protected areas, the bones would develop chalky surfaces and then the sand, disturbed by the animals coming down to drink, would wear the bone so that the bone would eventually be worn and polished. That should serve as a cautionary message not to judge bones as tools that were used by humans simply because those show signs of wear and polish.

There is also the question: what level of technique went into making this stone tool? Was it sophisticated? Was it efficient?

It first must be remembered that stone tools first appear in the archaeological record roughly two and a half million years ago. This is the same time that Homo habilis first shows up on archaeological sites. Since the Australopithecus species was also around at that time, it is possible that either both species were tool makers or that H. habilis was the lone maker. The earliest stone tools have so far been found at Olduvai Gorge, first by Louis and Mary Leakey, and are primarily large cobbles with flakes knocked off. (Smith 1996: 18) Nick Toth has conducted research on these tools and has arrived at the following conclusions:
1. "Many Oldowan core tools are probably by-products of flake manufacture, which meant that the flakes were the desired stone tools;
2. "Raw material for these stone tools was carried from place to place for future use (simple curration of the stone);
3. "This simple technology does not necessarily reflect the cognitive (mental) abilities of the stone tool makers, and they were probably not necessarily dependent on them for survival." (Smith 1996: 19)
In essence, therefore, Toth is suggesting that heavy stone bashing tools were only a small part of the technology used by our ancestors and that our ancestors probably had more skill than what is reflected in the stone tool remains.

In southern Africa, bifaces in the younger assemblages have more flake scars and more shallow scar beds when compared with those of the oldest Acheulean assemblages. (Volman reported in Klein (ed.) 1984: 186) Experimental research conducted by P.R. Jones (Volman reported in Klein (ed.) 1984: 187) "suggests that both the number of scars and the thickness breadth ratio of handaxes may be controlled by the size, shape and flaking properties of the raw materials employed, so that some bifaces termed crude or primitive are, in fact, the products of sophisticated and efficient techniques of stone tool manufacture."

Jones has also conducted butchering experiments that he claims "the superior efficiency of large bifacial cutting tools over small retouched or unretouched flakes for almost all purposes of heavy-duty butchery," particularly if large animals and long work sessions are in order.

If Jones' claims are correct, then it provides support for Klein's explanation concerning the many handaxes at Elandsfontein "Cutting 10" and the differences in the numbers and body parts of animals. It is Klein's arguement that large mammals were killed on site with small creatures either being removed for processing at other camps or eaten by scavengers.

Let's switch from Elandsfontein to Sterkfontein, to the excavations and experiments conducted by Brain. Brain has provided more definite evidence for a stone artefact enterprise in Member 1, the tools being quite thin and with polish and faceting stretching 30mm from one tip that, in most cases, is blunt. One possible use for these tools, Brain suggests, is for digging bulbs out from rocky soils together with stone hammers and a digging stick (Volman reported in Klein (ed.) 1984: 178). After half an hour of digging, the experimental tools used showed wear that was very similar to those Brain found at Swartkrans. Most of the stone artefacts found could have simply been debris left over from the manufacturing of tools. While for the remainder, their presence indicates that at least part of the manufactured tools were kept as a reserve for future foraging or were conserved after they had already been used rather than being left on the forage site.

Robert Blumenshine of the University of Rutgers has studied reasonable healthy animal bodies together with carcasses that still had to undergo scavenging all year round on the Serengeti Plain in East Africa. He concluded that the best times for scavenging were during the dry season along river banks where edible animal parts - especially fatty marrow contained in the lower limb bones - would have been readily available and accessible (Schick & Toth 1993: 207).

The Westconsin University pairing of Bunn and Kroll came to a different conclusion after a close examination of animal bone remains at Olduwai Gorge. More precisely, animal remains found at a site called FLK Zinj where antelope, ancient hartebeest, springbok, waterbuck, pigs and other carnivores [Schick 1993: 207]. Most of the remains were therefore of large animals, weighing more than one hominid could carry as a whole by himself. The lower jaws, upper and lower hind legs and forelimbs constituted the majority of the bone remains (Schick & Toth 1993: 207). Bunn and Kroll arrived at the conclusion that stone tools were used to extract the most nutritious animal parts and that therefore early man was either a very competent hunter or brilliant scavenger with the ability to get to a carcass before other scavengers or before other scavengers could get very far in demolishing the carcass.

Other researchers, like Patricia Shipman (John Hopkins University) and Richard Potts (Smithsonian), have examined animal remains from FLK Zinj using the scanning electron microscope analysis. They argue that the number of actual cut marks are less than those advocated by Bunn and Kroll. Shipman has opted for the scavenger model for early hominid feeding activity. Potts, on the other hand, is of the opinion that a concrete conclusion cannot yet be reached about how the bones were acquired and how they appeared on this particular site (Schick & Toth 1993: 208).

Animals that are adapted for savannah life normally live in packs or groups which consist of relatives. This is due to the need for protection against the ever-present threat of other predators, of other carnivores. There was also the need of defending their resources, their food against enemy hominid groups as well as other predators or scavengers. The result of interaction in groups means that individuals have a better survival rate, as well as relatives. This "primitive" social grouping is termed as "kin selection".

It is on this basis that one may draw the conclusion that it is very likely that our early hominid ancestors lived in communal groups that were kin related. The necessity of controlling social interaction and relationships, movements (with reference to scavenging or hunting large animals) would most likely have resulted in communication skills receiving a huge evolutionary boost. The improved interaction would help with respect to gaining control of large dead animals and the cutting up or processing of a carcass would be much more efficient with the group putting in a concerted effort. Therefore it can be seen that in order for a group to function, cooperation was essential; and for the hominid species to survive and evolve, it was of paramount importance to form groups to protect themselves from other hominids and carnivores.

An important advantage in the struggle for survival is mastering the control of fire. Fire provides warmth. It also provides security against other predators who are afraid of fire. So, the question is: when did our ancestors first master the art of fire-control? Bones have been found at Swartkrans Member 3 (roughly one and a half million to a million years ago) which appear to have been deliberately burnt. On close investigation, the temperature they had been heated to was found to be in the range of that expected in campfires: "In a series of 10 specimens, darkened Swartkrans fossils always contained over 2% carbon, whereas normal fossils always contained less than 1.5% carbon. A background level of approximately 1% carbon is associated with the inorganic phase; organic char is recoverable from only darkened fossils. We found that, in experimental studies, such char develops mainly between 300 and 400 degrees centigrade. The carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N) of fresh collagen ranges from 2.9 to 3.6; for char in the experimental series it is 4.2 to 6. Swartkrans fossil chars are even more depleted in nitrogen; this is constant with elevated C:N ratios reported for organic residues from other burnt archaeological bones." [Brain 1988: 828] As Australopithecus robustus was not yet extinct, it not possible to be certain whether it was he or his neighbour, Homo habilis, who mastered the art, or even if it was both species.


Brain, C.K. 1981. The Hunters or the Hunted?; Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Brain, C.K. & Sillen, A. 1988. Evidence from the Swartkrans cave for the earliest use of fire. Nature 336

Klein, R.G. (ed.). 1984. Southern African Prehistory and Paleoenvironments. Rotterdam Boston: A. A. Balkema

Schick, K. & Toth, N. 1993. Making Silent Stones Speak: Human Evolution and the Dawn of Technology. London: Simon & Schuster

Smith, A. 1996. Africa and World Prehistory. Cape Town: University of Cape Town

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