Summary | Environment | Ethnographic background | Archaeological context | Ethnography and stone tools

2.4 Ethnography and stone tools

Ethnography and ethnoarchaeology assist in many different aspects of archaeological interpretation (David and Kramer 2001). Examples such as Binford's study of bone discard patterns among the Nunamiut (Binford 1978) and Meehan's study of Australian shellmounds (Meehan 1982) illustrate how ethnoarchaeological research can provide useful frameworks for the interpretation of archaeological data.

Ethnographic study of stone tool technology and use is less common. Hayden (1979) noted that most earlier studies of stone tools were sketchy and, regarding the use of artefacts, tended to concentrate on one artefact type, such as the stone axe or the scraper. He also noted that with some notable exceptions (e.g. Gould 1977; 1980; Hayden 1979; 1987; White 1968), prehistorians did not appear to appreciate the potential value of studying extant users of tools. In addition, Torrence (1989a) noted that anthropologists tended to ignore modern technology and material culture. Though the opportunity to study stone tool technology and use directly has almost gone, conceptual advances in the way ancient technologies are studied (e.g. Dobres 2000) have brought new insight into the study of tool manufacture and use.

Contemporary ethnographic study of stone tool manufacture and use has been concentrated in a few geographical areas. Three regions of the world stand out as having provided most of the modern ethnographic data on stone tool manufacture and use: Australia, Central America and Papua New Guinea. While it is still possible to find stone used for making specific artefacts in some places, it has become more and more difficult, arguably impossible, to find stone used for everyday tasks by people either unacquainted with or in preference to metal tools.


There are many areas of Australia where the recording and ethnographic observation of stone tool manufacture and use has been undertaken (e.g. Allchin 1957; Elkin 1970; Knight 1990; Taçon 1991; Thomson 1964; Tindale 1985). The most detailed studies have been conducted among the Aboriginal inhabitants of the western desert, and concern their lithic technology and use (Gould et al. 1971). These people have been, at least for the last 60 years, reputedly the last living hunter-gatherers to rely exclusively on the manufacture and use of stone tools (Hayden 1979). All aspects of stone tool use, from raw material procurement strategies to use and discard have been analysed in detail by Gould (1980), and this analysis provides a valuable insight into the way stone was obtained and used, as well as exploring some of the reasons behind use and technological differentiation between different raw materials. Hayden (1977; 1979) examined use and wear patterns of western desert ethnographic artefacts with the aim of understanding wear traces on ethnographic stone tools. While Hayden's work has contributed significantly to our knowledge of stone tool use, he expressed reservations about it, stressing the need for further study in western Australia before it was too late. This never happened, and his report is the final ethnographic statement on stone tools there.

Central America

Stone working has been recorded in several areas of Central America. The Lacondon Maya in southern Mexico still make stone projectile points to tip arrows (Clark 1989; 1991), although this is largely for the tourist trade (Nations 1989). In some areas of the Caribbean, manioc grating boards have flaked stone teeth (Walker and Wilk 1989). The Huicholes of western Mexico have replaced naturally occurring stone with bottle glass which they still knap (Weigand 1989). An interesting use of stone in Central America concerns the chance discovery of people in highland Guatemala still making grinding tools, pestles and mortars (metates and manos) using a variety of knapped stone tools to shape them (Hayden 1987; Hayden and Deal 1989; Hayden and Nelson 1981). These people also use bottle glass to make knapped artefacts for hideworking, woodworking, ritual and medicinal implements, in particular for blood letting. A use-wear analysis was performed on a number of these implements to examine traces such as flaking, crushing, scarring and rounding (Deal and Hayden 1987).

Lewenstein (1987), undertook an ethnoarchaeological experimental programme of stone tool use in northern Belize. She gave replicas of archaeological examples of obsidian and chert tools to local people to use as they saw fit, on the grounds that they were knowledgeable about tasks associated with swidden agriculture, hunting, butchering, hide working and carpentry, and then compared use-wear traces on modern and archaeological samples.

New Guinea

While the western desert Aborigines are reputedly the last hunter-gatherer people to have depended on stone tools, the New Guinea highlanders are probably the last agricultural people to have depended on stone as a primary tool resource (Hayden 1979).

Figure 2: Locations of ethnographic collections and descriptions of stone tool manufacture and use

There are many reviews and descriptions of the stone tool technology of the New Guinea highlanders, both descriptions of polished stone axe manufacture and use, and the use of chert for knapping. Studies have been carried out across the highland region (Fig. 2) (e.g. Blackwood 1950; Brass 1998; Chappell 1966; Cranstone 1971; Godelier and Garanger 1973; Hampton 1999; Hardy and Sillitoe 2003; Heider 1970; Nilles 1942-5; Petrequin and Petrequin 1988; Pospisil 1963; Salisbury 1962; Sillitoe 1979b; 1982; 1988; Strathern 1969; Townsend 1969; Watson 1995; White 1967; 1968; 1979; White and Thomas 1972; White et al. 1977).


Other regions of the world where stone tool manufacture and use has been studied include Ethiopia, where Gallagher (1977) found people who were still manufacturing obsidian scrapers in the late 1970s for scraping cow hides. The manufacture and use of stone tools among the Xít Indians of Brazil has been recorded by Miller (1979), as has the use of glass scrapers for wood-working in Southern Greece by Runnels (1975; 1976). Threshing sledges were still in use in several countries, such as Spain (Plates 116, 117) and Cyprus until recently (Whittaker 1996; 1999; 2000). These examples all correspond to relict survivals of the manufacture and use of one type of stone artefact within a modernised non-stone based tool technology. Although useful, they do not provide the same range of information as whole assemblages of stone tools in ethnographic context.

Plate 116 116 Plate 117 117
Threshing sledge, Spain and detail


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Last updated: Wed Oct 8 2003