The Science of Stones

Stone tools are usually associated with cavemen and primitive tribes. The thought of using tools made of rock in a modern setting is laughable to the general public. Yes, technology was not where it is today, but it doesn’t make those populations any less capable than ours. After watching a demonstration of flint knapping by Dr. Lucy Johnson on Monday, it’s obvious there’s a lot more involved in creating a stone tool than anyone would think.

Chipping a stone is a science in itself that requires many years of experience and experimentation. It’s not a natural or easy skill to acquire. Each tool with a different purpose requires a different process to create it. The toolmaker must be focused and think about how the other side of the rock will be altered as they take flakes off—a mistake can’t be fixed very easily. The creation of these tools follows the same path of creation for the tools and technology we have today. We create prototypes, test them and make adjustments to make the tool as efficient as possible just like the people using stone tools.

When most people think of stone tools they usually limit this category to arrowheads, but really there is a huge variety of stone tools. Each of these tools needs to be made from the right kind of stone to ensure it is effective. This would require some basic geological knowledge—it certainly wasn’t a random choice of rock. These toolmakers would have to find the right kind of stone and know where they could find it. They didn’t just pick rocks up off the ground and begin to use them. These ancient toolmakers deserve more recognition than the modern day public gives them.

This illustration of stone tools found in Goat Bluff Cave shows the variety of the stone tool category.

This illustration of stone tools found in Goat Bluff Cave shows the variety of the stone tool category.

There are also a lot of ways to shape a rock and with each of these techniques there is a requirement to know how each type of rock will react. The “simple” arrowheads people find and collect are actually very complex. They must be properly balanced and shaped to fit the arrow so that it flies correctly. And multiple arrowheads must be made almost identically so that the shooter knows how the arrow will fly when they let go of the string. This is a much more involved process than the stereotype of hitting two rocks together.

Anthropologists at George Washington University study  the art of flint knapping.

Anthropologists at George Washington University study the art of flint knapping.

Projectile points also have a lot more to say than modern people think. There are so many variations in the characteristics to study. There are so many reasons a tool could look the way it does due to purpose, culture and environment. To today’s world a stone tool may be insignificant, but to archaeologists they are incredibly important in understanding how people of the past are just like us. There is always a meaning and a story behind these shaped rocks left behind years ago.


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1 thought on “The Science of Stones

  1. Lithics are certainly important when trying to understand the culture and lifeways of modern humans and human ancestors – what if, however, hominin tool use went beyond those they created? Many researchers suggest that Neandertals used their teeth as tools while scraping hides; for instance, La Ferrassie 1, the skeleton of an older adult male Neandertal found in southern France, shows wear on his teeth inconsistent with age or chewing. Researchers have since postulated that he used his teeth as a tool of sorts; most hypothesize that Neandertals held one end of a hide in their teeth, using one hand to pull it taut and the other to strike at it with a stone tool. An exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City includes a recreation of this scenario (center figure):©AMNH/Roderick%20Mickens
    While stone tools are incredible in their diversity and sophistication, it is important to consider them in the context of the other tools in their maker’s arsenal to truly understand their purpose.

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