Section 7: Wola Use of Lithics within the Wider Material Context

Summary | Wola use of lithics within the wider material context | Conclusions

7.1 Wola use of lithics within the wider material context

While a detailed understanding and description of lithic technology is an accepted part of lithic analysis, it is difficult in archaeology, to 'get under the skin' and examine reasons why a technology may be the way it is. The substantial information available on Wola life, environment, and material culture, meant that it has been possible to go beyond description and take a look at some of the reasons why Wola lithic tradition might be the way it is.

Binford observes 'where an instrumental technology is primarily manufactured from nonlithic raw materials, with lithics being used interjacently, the lithics may in comparison appear impoverished and crude' (1989, 466). In the context of highland New Guinea, analysis of why this may be so suggests three main aspects that, combined, jointly affected the nature of highland lithic technology.

The simplicity of New Guinea lithic technology is not recent. The waisted blades that were present throughout most of the region's prehistory are the most elaborate knapped stone tool found in New Guinea so far, though these are believed to be linked to the polished stone axe rather than a precursor of the flaked lithic tradition. Others have suggested various reasons for this simple technology (e.g. White 1977), although generally concentrating on stone tools quite separately from other aspects of people's lives. Torrence notes that there is no 'theoretical basis capable of accounting for the wide range of tool-using observed among past and present societies' (1989a, 2) and thinks that stone tools are not contributing as much as they could to an understanding of human behaviour.

To address questions relating to human behaviour using stone tools, it is necessary to understand the context of their role in any given society. This requires examination of the use of stone in relation to other raw materials, tasks and activities requiring tools, and an appreciation of the environmental, historical and socio-economic background. Much of this is lost in an archaeological situation, though a more holistic approach to lithics analysis should provide more detailed information on stone tool use than is currently often obtained.

The first point relates to the environment. An immediate reaction when looking for a cause of the modest lithic technology of the Wola would be to cite the proximity and abundance of the raw material. This may be one answer, but it is only part of the story. The steep altitudinal range provided people with a wide range of raw materials all within easy reach. The country the Wola live in can be separated into two major ecological zones that between them provide almost all of the raw materials they require. Man-made cane grassland occurs in valleys at between 1,600 and 2,000 metres and it is here that people live and cultivate, while over the large remaining areas, montane forest predominates. Beyond these two zones, the Wola distinguish nine different sources of imported raw materials (Sillitoe 1988). The raw materials used by the Wola occur in fifteen categories, do not include food, and total altogether 255 individually named materials Table 2. Thirty-four of these raw materials were imported from other regions with the remainder being available within a surrounding area of roughly 30 square kilometres.

Examination of the tasks for which the chert tools were used suggests that their functions are fairly limited, notably to paring and shaving and boring holes. Many raw materials were worked on but sharp, unretouched edges were always suitable, though in the case of boring holes, flakes with naturally occurring points were selected. The requirements the Wola had of their stone tools were limited and elaborate artefacts were unnecessary. The presence of bamboo, several types of tropical hardwood, and the availability of animal products (tusks, bone, teeth and claws) provided a wide range of raw materials to supplement stone for the manufacture of tools for use in similar tasks. Bamboo in particular can quickly be made into very efficient cutting implements, and is a useful alternative to stone flakes for many tasks. Hampton (1999) notes that among the Dani in Irian Jaya, the entire kill sequence of pigs, one of the most common and ritually significant events of Dani culture, is done using only bamboo tools. Hutterer (1977) notes in south-east Asia the importance of other raw materials, in particular wood and bamboo, and Strathern (1969) also makes the point that there are quite a number of tasks in highland New Guinea which can be undertaken using tools made from other materials.

The particular importance of stone tools among the Wola lay in their manufacturing role. Even in the 1980s, long after the introduction of steel alternatives, stone tools were still being used to manufacture over half of all material culture items. (Table 2).

The use of unretouched flakes, for example in manufacturing tasks, has been discussed before (e.g. Gero 1991; Hayden 1977; Juel Jensen 1994; van Gijn 1998; Owen 1993; 2000; Wickham-Jones 1984) even though some researchers persist in considering only retouched pieces as tools (Ballin 2000; Saville and Ballin 2000). The present study has illustrated, in a well-documented ethnographic context, that the use of unretouched flakes among the Wola was mainly for manufacturing primary items of material culture. The fact that unretouched flakes were still being used to manufacture over half of all Wola items of material culture well into the 1980s is a reflection of their importance to the Wola.

The second point relates to food. Highlanders are able to meet their food requirements readily under normal climatic conditions. Garden vegetables, particularly the staple sweet potato (and in the past the taro) are available all year. Domestic pig is the main source of meat. Some animals are hunted, including rats, kangaroos, wallabies, birds, frogs, lizards, fruit bats, python, wild boar and cassowary. But throughout the highland region, hunting is not important to subsistence (e.g. Pospisil 1963; Salisbury 1962; Sillitoe 2001); people depend largely on agriculture for their food requirements. Agricultural tools were made predominantly of wood with heavy work done in the past using polished stone axes and care was taken with these primary tools. Though stone tools were used in the manufacture of many items, their role as maintenance tools reduced their importance in the eyes of the users. The range of gardening tools and the care with which they were made and maintained correlates with the relative importance of agriculture (for tool lifespans and manufacturing times see Sillitoe 1988). Chert tools did not play a primary role in subsistence, and when hunting or defensive weaponry such as spears or arrows were manufactured, bone or bamboo, rather than stone, was used for making the tips.

Plate 4 4 Plate 6 6
A man called Waenil cutting a branch in two in clearing a garden (4), Hewing a pig club with a stone axe (6)

Plate 7 7 Plate 8 8 Plate 9 9
Hewing a haft for a stone axe, with a stone axe (7), Cutting palmwood for arrow points using a stone axe (8), Working on shaft for a spear (9)

The third point relates to polished stone axes/adzes. The axe was used in a wide range of tasks, both in an extractive and maintenance capacity (Plates 4, 6–11). Stone axes, described as the 'all-purpose tool' (Bulmer and Bulmer 1964), were used in tasks ranging from chopping down trees and clearing land for gardens, to cutting grasses. They were used intensively for wood working, from heavy work such as preparation of fence posts and house building materials, to lighter work such as obtaining bark and vines, and in making personal items like wooden bowls, spears and shields (Strathern 1969). They had very long lifespans; often men had one axe which lasted them all their life, with occasional maintenance work, mostly honing it to remove nicks (Sillitoe 1988). Torrence (1989b) notes a worldwide simplification in lithic technology correlating with the onset of Neolithic economies and the introduction of polished stone axe traditions. This could be because a wide range of functionally specialised flaked stone tools is replaced with the highly versatile polished stone axe which eliminated the need to rely on many individually specialised tools.

Plate 10 10 Plate 11 11
Hewing a shield (10), Shaping the neck of a drum (11)

Going further into the past, the environment of the highlands underwent changes related to the major Pleistocene climatic fluctuations, though much of this was restricted to altitudinal movement. Since the end of the Pleistocene, the environment has remained more or less constant. The range and variety of raw materials available to people has always been wide. The very early appearance of resource management in the highlands (Hope and Golson 1995; Haberle 1993; Spriggs 1996) suggests that hunting was not a dominant part of subsistence for very long, if at all (Sillitoe 2002a). While the polished stone axe appeared by 9000 BP (Hampton 1999), waisted blades, thought to be their precursors, have been found in the earliest known contexts (Groube et al. 1986). These large, heavy tools will have been useful for many tasks, as the polished axe was in more recent times.

Elaborate lithic technologies, comprising a large formal component, can be correlated with the need for specialist stone equipment; for example the need for elaborate hunting weapons, the burin-filled assemblages linked to decorative and art work, and the scraper-dominated assemblages, possibly linked to the use of hides and hide working. Among the Wola none of these things existed; hunting was not vital to subsistence, there were no very dangerous animals and spear and arrow heads were made using other raw materials. Wood and bamboo artefacts, such as arrows and pipes, were decorated by carving using unretouched flakes, and people did not work hide. There was therefore no necessity to produce a range of specialised chert tools.

It seems that a combination of often interrelated social, economic and environmental issues were at least partially responsible for the simple but sophisticated nature of chert technology in highland New Guinea. Stone tools filled their role perfectly and, with the readily available raw material, were the ultimate disposable, maintenance tool. Perception of chert tools as uninteresting and dull by the Wola and their neighbours, may relate to a combination of the availability of the raw material together with their 'hidden' role as secondary work tools. The use of bamboo in particular as an alternative to stone for cutting, the use of bone as the ultimate in deadly arrow tips and the versatility of the polished stone axe, all play their part in the holistic view of Wola lithic technology.

The scope for this type of interpretation in an archaeological context is naturally more limited. It should be possible though, by broadening lithic analysis to include other factors such as environmental and subsistence information, and by examining alternatives to stone and the availability of other raw materials, to obtain a broader picture of the role of stone in the material culture. People made stone tools to use, so by looking more at potential uses, it should be possible to reach new levels of understanding of the meaning and place of stone tool technologies.


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Last updated: Wed Oct 8 2003