Experimental Archaeology

From Stone Age axes to electric guitars, each milestone in the history of technology reveals more about the nature of human evolution. Two archaeologists on the Bloomington campus, Kathy D. Schick and Nicholas Toth, investigate the relationship between tools and human adaptation at the Center for Research into the Anthropological Foundations of Technology (CRAFT), which they founded in 1988.

In the midst of directing CRAFT, participating in archaeological digs around the world, and teaching graduate and undergraduate anthropology courses, Schick and Toth have written the book Making Silent Stones Speak: Human Evolution and the Dawn of Technology, which, in part, reconstructs the lives of our primitive tool-making ancestors. The husband-and-wife team will also be featured this fall in a television series on human origins. The book and the series reach beyond academe to expose a wider public to Schick and Toth's specialty-- experimental archaeology.

The experimental branch of their discipline, Schick says, emphasizes the behavior and psychology of our early ancestors. Schick describes the experimental approach as useful in "showing how tools fit into the lives of people in the past." She says, "We're always taking the data we find, the tools we dig up, and actually trying them out, figuring out how the tools were made, how the site where we found the tools may have formed, how the tools were used. We consider what all this tells us about behaviors in the past."

Besides years of fieldwork and rigorous professional training--Schick and Toth studied with renowned archaeologists Glynn Isaac and J. Desmond Clark at the University of California, Berkeley--experimental archaeology requires imagination. This description of ancient handaxe production from Making Silent Stones Speak exemplifies that quality: "The technique of striking off large flake blanks from lava, quartzite, obsidian, or flint boulder cores . . . requires a large hammer stone and a lot of force. We know from experience that the injuries produced in quarrying massive flakes from boulder cores can be formidable, especially if one is scantily clad. . . . Accidental injuries from flaking stone may have been one of the most common 'occupational hazards' during those times."

Added to their imagination is Schick and Toth's determination to reproduce the technological feats of the past. When giving presentations about CRAFT's research projects, Toth has been known to climb onto a conference room table and quickly create a replica of a prehistoric handaxe by chipping flakes from one stone with another--to the amazement of his audience. In the field, Schick and Toth test the utility of tools they have found or replicated. For example, their book describes their dismemberment of an African elephant and a wildebeest (both dead from natural causes), conducted entirely with flaked stone tools. "The rapid, efficient exploitation of relatively fresh animal carcasses through scavenging or hunting would have been an important addition to the early hominid diet," they write.

Other projects for Schick and Toth include tool-making experiments with Kanzi, a pygmy chimpanzee, or bonobo. "Some chimpanzees in West Africa use stone tools as hammers, perhaps to break open a nut," says Schick. "But they don't use flaked stone." Schick and Toth created an incentive for Kanzi to create his own sharp stone tools: a box containing fruit secured by a rope. After watching Schick and Toth make stone knives, Kanzi began to make his own stone tools and to sever the rope. "But," Schick says, "his are much more rudimentary than the earliest human-made tools." The Kanzi experiments will continue throughout this year. And then there are the guitars. Toth explains, "Each year CRAFT has hosted a speaker who is an expert in an ancient craft-- someone who tries to learn how ancient technologies worked and to replicate them." This year, however, the speaker was Seymour Duncan, a stone-tool maker who also happens to be the world's expert on electric guitars. Toth says, "He takes vintage electronic components from the 1940s and 1950s and figures out exactly how they were made, then recreates the vintage sounds." At CRAFT, there is no incompatibility between study of a hunter-gatherer's handaxe and of a rock musician's "axe." Technology, after all, Toth says, is "larger than tools and their use. It is the system by which those tools are used by a society."

--Karen Grooms