Section 1: Introduction

Summary | Introduction | Background

1.1 Introduction

Stone tools are frequently the only surviving cultural evidence for early prehistoric societies. The prehistoric archaeologist uses them for everything, from site interpretation (e.g. Barton 1992; Mithen 2000; Wenban-Smith et al. 2000) to examination of hominid cognitive and language development (Chazan 1995; Davidson and Noble 1993; Mithen 1996; Steele et al. 1995; Toth and Schick 1993). So central are stone tools and their accompanying manufacturing debris to prehistoric archaeology, that without them it is doubtful whether the discipline would exist. It is, perhaps, because of this fundamental and central role that their importance is frequently transferred to the archaeological society under study. In interpretation, there is a tendency to afford lithics unequivocally the same central, defining, status in the past that they have in the present.

Yet a quick glance through the ethnographic literature shows us that material culture from virtually anywhere comprises large numbers of objects using a wide range of raw materials, of which stone is but a part, and often a minor part. These materials usually include all locally obtainable natural items from which use may be derived, and are supplemented through exchange networks. They include short-lived objects such as plant fibres, feathers and moss, to the indestructible stone, and cover everything in between.

Stone tools were thus only one component of any material culture of which they formed a constituent part, though the size and relative importance of the part they played is often elusive to archaeologists. This article looks at role of lithics in the life and material culture of the Wola of highland Papua New Guinea, from an archaeological perspective. It examines lithic technology, storage and discard patterns, selection and use of tools, the social aspects of stone tool working and gender issues related to stone tools and the wider material culture. Based on this and on an examination of archaeological, environmental, and ethnographic information, it looks at why the lithic technology might be the way it is. This paper also examines ways in which, with no other direct evidence to go on, it might be possible to reconstruct the meaning and importance of lithics, within specific archaeological, material culture contexts.

In his ethnotechnological study of the Wola material culture, Sillitoe makes the point that 'the collection of such (material culture) data depends on work among living human beings'. He goes on ' is small wonder that, shut up in museums with only objects to study, they (museum staff) have failed to break old moulds and significantly advance the study of artifacts, to produce well-integrated and theoretically currently relevant accounts of others' material assemblages...the obvious seems to have been overlooked...that a people's material culture is an impartible aspect of their life, on material, adaptive, symbolic and other grounds, and that the growth of material culture studies will depend on the consideration of objects as integral parts of their existences' (1988, 6). Though Sillitoe, as an anthropologist, felt the need to justify what he was doing because it involved objects, justification like this is difficult to understand from the perspective of prehistoric archaeology, because material objects form the foundation of our discipline.

It is anticipated that the Wola assemblage, together with its accompanying ethnographic information on stone tool manufacture and use, combined with the wide-ranging information on the Wola, could be used for many different types of research and could be applied to many topics, ranging from fracture mechanics of flaking to socio-cultural questions and behavioural systems.

1.2 Background

In 1983 one of us (PS) was asked to observe and record the manufacture and use of an assemblage of flaked stone tools. At that time chert was still a widely used raw material, although steel tools had replaced many stone ones. Since the 1980s, metal tools (e.g. steel knives and razor blades) have largely replaced chert, which is now rarely used as a raw material.

The resulting assemblage, discussed here, probably represents one of the last examples of a flaked stone tool assemblage made and used by habitual stone users from highland New Guinea. It is part of the flaked stone tool tradition found throughout the highland region in the ethnographic present and recent past, and is not to be confused with the polished stone axe/adze tradition which is still alive in certain areas of New Guinea (e.g. Hampton 1999; Stout 2002). These tools featured in a considerable number of tasks before contact, and in the 1980s were still employed to manufacture over half of all material culture items.

The assemblage was to have been studied in Australia in the 1980s but, due to unforeseen circumstances, this did not happen. The original aims of the study, reflected in the field information collected, relate to the interests of the initial Australian collaborators. These include the identification of the function of stone tools and different edge fracture types, fracture mechanics, the relationship between the physical nature of a tool and its efficient use and, by implication, the importance of tool selection or design to prehistoric stone tool users (Kamminga 1982; Cotterell and Kamminga 1987). While the present work does not follow this line entirely, much of the information obtained has been used.

The project remained dormant until the other author (KH) was asked to write a report which highlighted its archaeological significance. A small, three-month research grant was obtained, and the project started. Nine years later, it is finally ready for publication.

In addition to logistical problems such as lack of grant money, the difficulties that would be encountered during the collaboration were not anticipated. Gosden (1999) provides an historical context of the development of archaeology and anthropology in the UK, which suggests clues as to why collaboration was so difficult. His view, and one that is supported by us, is that, despite problems, there is a growing need for collaboration.

The opportunity to study lithics within a living tradition has declined throughout the last century and is now, sadly, virtually non-existent. It is unfortunate that so few specialists conducted investigations while it was still possible. The collection and description of many ethnographic stone tool assemblages were undertaken long ago, often by researchers not equipped with specialist training in stone tool analysis. Such collections, and their related observations, cannot be repeated so that the usefulness of many of the records is limited by a general lack of understanding of the processes that were being observed and recorded. Wola lithic technology was simple and involved the use of unretouched flakes. This study will not provide answers to how complex technologies developed or worked, but it does provide possible clues to the reasons behind the wide variability of lithic technology, while not forgetting that the people of New Guinea have been in the process of change for some time (Gosden and Knowles 2001). It goes on to show that clues to understanding the development of lithic systems and what they represent lie not only in the lithics themselves. Rather, to understand lithics, it is first of all necessary to understand the historical, socio-economic, material and environmental contexts to which they belong.


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Last updated: Wed Oct 8 2003