P314 Earlier Prehistory of Africa

Home Page | Syllabus | Readings | Lecture Notes | Quiz Site | Assignments

Week 4: ESA Archaeological research in East Africa: new data & new questions

Map of East African early hominid sites

So far, we’ve done a brief comparison of the geological and environmental context of sites in South Africa and East Africa. Now we’re going to look at what was found at sites in more detail, and the questions about how to interpret them… how we can use archaeological sites to make inferences about the behavior of early hominids.

On the one hand, archaeologists have the opportunity to look at sites as evidence of hominid activities. Once early hominids started breaking rocks, they left behind a durable record of their behavior. Each site marks the spot where debris accumulated… sometimes the actual locations where activities took place (in situ sites)… the "calling cards" of the stone age. This gives us the opportunity to analyze what hominids did, and when and where… from there we can pursue questions of how and why.

Step 1 = Using the CD-ROM, look at the artifacts at FLK-Zinj.

= Broken stones

Who made these artifacts? What is the logic behind this hypothesis?


Last time we started looking at the nature of the artifacts discovered at FLK-Zinj. (I hope you’ve continued to read about the artifacts in the assigned readings. In particular, for technology, read the Toth article and the Isaac article. The Leakey article summarizes other sites at Olduvai other than FLK.)

To summarize the points you made in class Tuesday, you noted that:

The artifacts were broken stones, hammerstones and unmodified stones

Functionally, they could serve as cutting, scraping or pounding/crushing tools

Who dunnit? You made arguments based on:

This gets to one of the central questions archaeologists worry about: what can the artifacts show about the mental and cultural abilities of the hominids? To answer this, we need to be able to analyze how the different types of tools at such a site were made and whether they reflect any deliberate "designs" by the hominids, or whether they were opportunistic.

Remember Mary Leakey’s Oldowan typology? She distinguished between flaking debris and informally utilized pieces, and tools that she thought were actually designed to be specific shapes, because of how they were made. For example… chopper versus discoid
And she argued that she could recognize sites with assemblages with suites of tools that were so different that they could represent different "cultures" of hominids… e.g. different traditions of tool making by different social groups of hominids. (see the article by Leakey in the readings).

If you look at Leakey’s descriptions of different assemblages of tools from different sites at Olduvai, you’ll see %’s of many different tool types. The question is: does this reflect actual mental templates of ancient hominids, or are we applying modern human desire to classify (to put things in pigeon holes) to a bunch of simply broken rocks?

An alternative classification scheme was developed by Glynn Isaac and Nick Toth that was based on experimental studies and instead of assuming different tool types existed, focused on the technology of how they were made…. Least effort assumption that goal of flaking was flakes… e.g. sharp edges. Their categories of artifacts determined essentially by physics of stone fracture

Within these categories they noted a regularity of pattern.. e.g. appear to reflect morphological or functional goals, not just expedient flaking. Such as "Karari scraper"

From this "core + flake" perspective, the Oldowan sites look much simpler, and perhaps more similar to each other. This places the burden of proof on the archaeologist to demonstrate that tool "designs" are not just by-products of an opportunistic flaking process. Rick Potts adopted aspects of this approach in his interpretation of sites at Olduvai (see assigned article).For example:

What are key abilities needed to do percussion flaking?

Experimental work with Kanzi and other chimps: Experiments by IU researchers Nick Toth, Kathy Schick and Gary Garufi with captive chimpanzees have demonstrated that chimps can also learn to use flakes as sharp knives, and learn to flake stone cores.

They can PERFORM well (VIDEO)

In wild:
Chimpanzee comparisons: apes in the wild learn to use a wide range of tools... as described in the article by Whiten et al. (PDF version with color illustrations)

Want to learn more about chimpanzees?


Jane Goodall at Gombe National Park, Tanzania

Now: go down to lab to look at examples of Oldowan tools and see some flaking (last 20 minutes)

 Professor Jeanne Sept
 (812) 855-5395 ; email: SEPT  
 Office Hours Student Bldg 038

TH 1:00-2:00, or by appt.

   Lectures: Student Bldg 150

TuTh 11:15-12:30

Home Page | Syllabus | Readings | Lecture Notes | Quiz Site | Assignments

Human Origins in Africa | African Resources | Archaeology Links |
Sept teaching interests | IU Anthropology
Sept research | Sept Home Page


Last updated: 21 September, 2000
URL: http://www.indiana.edu/~origins/teach/p314/xxx.html
Comments: sept@indiana.edu
Copyright Jeanne Sept 2000 : do not cite without permission

IU Bloomington Home Page