Category Archives: stone tech

Advanced lithic tech 70,000 years ago in South Africa

A new paper argues for the importance of ill-researched early African stone technologies in human techno-cultural evolution, based mostly on the heat-treated microlithic technology used at Pinnacle Point and its persistence through time. 
Kyle S. Brown et al., An early and enduring advanced technology originating 71,000 years ago in South Africa. Nature 2012. Pay per view ··> LINK [doi:10.1038/nature11660]

There is consensus that the modern human lineage appeared in Africa before 100,000 years ago1, 2. But there is debate as to when cultural and cognitive characteristics typical of modern humans first appeared, and the role that these had in the expansion of modern humans out of Africa3. Scientists rely on symbolically specific proxies, such as artistic expression, to document the origins of complex cognition. Advanced technologies with elaborate chains of production are also proxies, as these often demand high-fidelity transmission and thus language. Some argue that advanced technologies in Africa appear and disappear and thus do not indicate complex cognition exclusive to early modern humans in Africa3, 4. The origins of composite tools and advanced projectile weapons figure prominently in modern human evolution research, and the latter have been argued to have been in the exclusive possession of modern humans5, 6. Here we describe a previously unrecognized advanced stone tool technology from Pinnacle Point Site 5–6 on the south coast of South Africa, originating approximately 71,000 years ago. This technology is dominated by the production of small bladelets (microliths) primarily from heat-treated stone. There is agreement that microlithic technology was used to create composite tool components as part of advanced projectile weapons7, 8. Microliths were common worldwide by the mid-Holocene epoch, but have a patchy pattern of first appearance that is rarely earlier than 40,000 years ago9, 10, and were thought to appear briefly between 65,000 and 60,000 years ago in South Africa and then disappear. Our research extends this record to ~71,000years, shows that microlithic technology originated early in South Africa, evolved over a vast time span (~11,000years), and was typically coupled to complex heat treatment that persisted for nearly 100,000years. Advanced technologies in Africa were early and enduring; a small sample of excavated sites in Africa is the best explanation for any perceived ‘flickering’ pattern.
Supplementary materials (PDF) are freely available.
Supplementary Figure 2. Artifacts including crescent shaped backed blades (A-L) and notched blades (M-U) from the DBCS at PP5-6 show affinities with the Howiesons Poort industry. Backed blades are oriented with backed edge up and unmodified edge down. Notched blades are oriented parallel with axis of flake removal.

Posted by on November 7, 2012 in Africa, Middle Paleolithic, MSA, South Africa, stone tech


Bamboo knives? Darts?

Bar-Yosef splitting bamboo with simple stone tools
There is a long held idea among prehistorians that maybe, only maybe, the peoples of SE Asia used bamboo-made tools instead of stone-made ones, what would explain the relative scarcity of stone tools in this area before the Hoabinhian (or rather its predecessor: the Son Vi culture) and the fact that they are mostly flakes and cobbles, not blades.
The hypothesis was floating around for decades but was never, I understand, tested in any practical way. Now a team lead by O. Bar-Yosef and manned by the expert hands of knapper Metin E. Eren, have attempted to reproduce these alleged bamboo knives.
They found that making with the simplest stone tools them was relatively straightforward (see video) but that, once created, they’d lose their edge quickly. Also the ability of bamboo knives to cut hides was poor even if they are useful to cut meat.
On the other hand, Eren was able to produce which is maybe the most critical bamboo tool needed: a spear or dart. While bamboo knives were surely useless in comparison with simple stone flakes, bamboo darts may have been a critical component of the Paleolithic toolkit: the hunter’s weapon.
Of course, bamboo proved itself ideal for basketry and container creation.
Direct sources:

Solutrean-style retouch 75,000 years ago in South Africa

Blombos point
Since I started reading about the MSA (Middle Stone Age, the main African Middle Paleolithic stone industry) I have been under the impression that it had Solutrean affinities.
Well, now it is confirmed that at least some MSA crafters, those from Blombos Cave, South Africa, effectively used this technique some 35,000 years before it was known in Europe.


Pressure flaking has been considered to be an Upper Paleolithic innovation dating to ~20,000 years ago (20 ka). Replication experiments show that pressure flaking best explains the morphology of lithic artifacts recovered from the ~75-ka Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. The technique was used during the final shaping of Still Bay bifacial points made on heat-treated silcrete. Application of this innovative technique allowed for a high degree of control during the detachment of individual flakes, resulting in thinner, narrower, and sharper tips on bifacial points. This technology may have been first invented and used sporadically in Africa before its later widespread adoption.

Very few stones types (obsidian, jasper, high quality flint) can be retouched this way without previous thermal modification (heating the stone appropriately). This was the technique used at Pinnacle Point, not far from Blombos in that very same time. The technological sophistication is such that it has been compared to metallurgy.
While Pinnacle point offered the first evidence of stone preparation through heating in order to improve knapping, Blombos has the first one of pressure retouch. Other evidence of the so-called modern behavior (symbolism, art, etc.) is also abundant in the South African MSA. Even food processing is known from that time in nearby Mozambique.

Source: Science Daily.

Solutrean points (or casts):

< From Don’s Maps:  

A cast of a Solutrean “laurel leaf” spear point, over 13 inches long. These delicate and beautiful implements were prepared by delicate flaking across the surface. Many are so large and delicate that they could never have been actually used, and may have been status objects.

Photo: Man before history by John Waechter

< From Lithic Casting Lab:


Francois Bordes wrote that “The majority of these specimens (Volgu cache) were chipped by direct percussion; but for the finer ones, indirect percussion or pressure has been used.” Jacques Bordaz wrote that “The obvious fragility of some of the specimens (Volgu cache) suggest rather a ritual use, or perhaps they were simply examples of some knapper’s bravura.”

< From Wikipedia.

A more complete toolkit from Solutré-Pouilly.

Another culture that used the same technique later on was Clovis culture in Holocene North America.