Section Summaries

Introduction | Environmental, ethnographic and archaeological context | Material culture and the use of stone tools | Raw material, technology, storage and discard | Social and gender aspects of stone tool use | Functional analysis | Wola use of lithics within the wider material context

Section 1: Introduction

Stone tools are frequently the only surviving cultural remains in prehistoric archaeology and are so important that it could be argued that without them, the discipline would not exist. Historically, this importance has influenced the way stone tools are used by archaeologists as they are frequently afforded a status that they do not necessarily deserve as well as being over-used for interpretation (e.g. Forsberg 1985; Smith 1992). Ethnographic examples from around the world show that humans employed a wide range of raw materials to manufacture items of material culture. Although the relative importance of stone tools is difficult to assess archaeologically, this paper suggests that clues to understanding the development of lithic systems and what they represent are not to be found in the lithics alone. Rather, to understand the lithics it is necessary also to examine the historical, socio-economic, material and environmental contexts to which they belong.

Section 2: Environmental, ethnographic and archaeological context

The Wola live in scattered homesteads in the highlands of Papua New Guinea in an area of steep hillsides and deep gorges. Their subsistence is based on fallow horticulture and their staple crop is the sweet potato. Both men and women engage in garden cultivation though women are more responsible for harvesting garden produce. They also keep pig herds; these animals feature in the exchange which is central to the strongly egalitarian social system found across highland New Guinea.

New Guinea has a long history of human occupation, going back at least 40,000 years and there is tentative evidence for resource management as early as 30,000 BP. A small number of sites have been excavated in the highlands and the predominant early artefact type is the waisted blade, thought to be the precursor of the polished stone axe.

Ethnography and ethnoarchaeology have assisted in many different aspects of archaeological interpretation though ethnographic study of stone tool technology and use is less common. Ethnographic studies of flaked stone tool assemblages are concentrated in Australia, New Guinea and Central America where some people made and used these until recently.

Section 3: Material culture and the use of stone tools

The traditional material culture of the Wola contains almost 200 individually named items and uses 255 different raw materials. Stone working was only a small part of this and comprised two separate traditions. The polished stone axe, imported from outside the region, was a multifunctional tool used particularly for woodworking. Flaked tools were made of local chert which was knapped into unretouched flakes. These were used in the manufacture of a range of artefacts and were still used to make over half of all household goods into the 1980s, long after the introduction of steel alternatives. Other important raw materials include wood, bark, bamboo, rattan, feathers, shell and bone. The significance of string is considerable, both in terms of women's manufacturing time and in numbers of items in which it formed a constituent part.

The majority of material items were not related to subsistence; many were important for ceremonial or decorative purposes, and most would be unlikely to survive archaeologically. Only two items, the chert flake and the polished stone axe head would be sure to survive. Those aspects of Wola material life which would be likely to go undetected in a prehistoric context include all clothing and decoration, all musical instruments, all evidence for hunting and food processing, all evidence for hafting axes, all agricultural tools, fire-lighting equipment and bags.

Section 4: Raw material, technology, storage and discard

The raw material for the flaked tools was a local chert that occurs in nodules along riverbeds and in certain soils. It is common and nodules were obtained quickly when needed; weight and colour were used as indicators of quality. Knapping was by direct percussion, usually by men. When women knapped, they used the bipolar technique nodule. Knapping was normally done outdoors away from areas where people walked, because of the dangers of flaking debris. Flakes were not retouched; appropriately shaped pieces were selected and used directly. Edge angle was the most important criterion in flake selection. The two main types of tool employed were sharp-edged pieces and pointed pieces suitable as borers; these were sometimes hafted. Tools were identified and named exclusively in relation to their use.

Nodules and flakes were stored or disposed of carefully and examination of Wola behaviour towards storage and discard of their lithic material shows that this is more complex than current archaeological categories allow. The Wola demonstrate an apparent disinclination to get rid of potentially useful but perhaps never to be used objects. Unusual stone items such as ancient mortars and pestles, were sometimes collected as ritual objects; it was considered good luck to find them and they were often kept in purpose-built houses.

Section 5: Social and gender aspects of stone tool use

Stone tool working was usually done alone though the presence of stone tools in myths suggests a more complex relationship than is perhaps implied by people's apparent lack of interest in chert tools. Tasks among the Wola are divided along gender lines, and both men and women believe that men have 'stronger' brains as well as bodies. Men undertake nearly all tasks employing 'strong' raw materials (e.g. stone) while the traditional raw materials employed by women were all 'soft' organic materials that would be unlikely to survive in a prehistoric context. This has an obvious resonance for archaeology, and suggests that the detection of a wider range of raw materials, in particular the 'lost' organic ones, could provide a broader picture of prehistoric life.

Though Wola life and task divisions could be construed as favouring men, they are restricted by their gender roles as much as women though collaboration occurs and each gender group contributes to the others' tasks, most notably through the multiple authorship of material items and exchange goods.

Children learn in an informal way by copying adults. People make what they own and children consequently have few possessions. The identification of children in the archaeological record by equating them with low-quality workmanship may be simplistic; the Wola recognise both manual dexterity and the lack of it.

Section 6: Functional analysis

Karen Hardy with Robert Shiel (University of Newcastle upon Tyne)

A functional analysis was undertaken on the ethnographic assemblage. The results were used archaeologically to try and determine how the 'site' might be interpreted. Results suggest that the archaeological interpretation was correct but simplistic. A statistical analysis was used to identify variables that were most useful for determining stone tool function; these include edge angle and the distribution pattern, invasiveness and development of polish. Ethnographic data was then examined to assess the importance of factors other than actual material worked, such as individual user, amount of time used etc. The worked material proved the single most important factor in creating usewear traces. A cluster analysis of the most useful variables identified four groups of tools that were defined by use, morphology, and usewear traces.

Section 7: Wola use of lithics within the wider material context

The large amount of ethnographic information available for the Wola has enabled examination of factors underlying their lithic technological tradition. A combination of material, environmental, social and economic factors, seem, when viewed together, to be responsible for the simple but sophisticated nature of chert technology in highland New Guinea. This suggests that in an archaeological context, if information on subsistence and environment and a greater understanding of tool use were incorporated into lithic analysis, a clearer picture of the role and place of stone tools might emerge.

The main aspects of the Wola lithic tradition that may be relevant to the study of prehistoric stone tool assemblages include:


Appendix 1: The assemblage

An assemblage of three cores, their flakes and knapping debris was made in 1983. This represented one of the last opportunities to record and collect lithic artefacts made by habitual users. Twenty-two tasks were carried out using these tools. In addition a number of old flakes were dug up and included in the assemblage. The use of these was not recorded, though they were examined. Technologically simple knapping methods were employed and cores were not prepared before knapping. Cores are multiplatformed and flakes show clear evidence of direct percussion using a hard hammer. Flakes were selected for use only on the basis of their suitability for a given task, and selected flakes ranged widely in size and edge angle.

Appendix 2: Field Notes. List of used and bought tools

Appendix 3: Terminology

This is a list of terms related to chert and its uses among the Wola.


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Last updated: Wed Oct 8 2003