Stone Tools: Theoretical Insights into Human Prehistory

By Amick, Daniel S. | Plains Anthropologist, August 1997 | Go to article overview

Stone Tools: Theoretical Insights into Human Prehistory


Amick, Daniel S., Plains Anthropologist


Stone Tools: Theoretical Insights into Human Prehistory. Edited by GEORGE H. ODELL. Plenum Press, New York. 1996. xiv + 401 pp., figures, tables, notes, references cited, index. S59.50 (cloth, ISBN 0-30645198-0).

This edited volume results from the Second Tulsa Conference on Lithic Analysis held in the summer of 1993. The 12 contributed papers rely on careful analysis of archaeological data to explore theoretical issues. Some thoughtful considerations ofthe value and utility of various concepts in the organization of technology provide the most useful fabric of this book. Following an introductory chapter, Odell has organized the volume into five thematic sections-esearch Design, Curation, Stone Tools and Complex Societies, Innovation and Style in Projectile Points, and Technique and Methodology-followed by a group-authored conclusion. Odell also presents a brief statement before each section, which helps develop organization and context for the volume; however, each chapter merits stand-alone reading.

Hayden, Franco, and Spafford investigate lithic assemblage formation processes at Keatley Creek, a prehistoric winter pithouse village in British Columbia. This lithic assemblage is dominated by expedient reduction of block cores, which the authors argue is an economizing measure resulting from constraints on raw material transportation. More importantly, this paper explores the slippery aspects of theoretical tool design concepts (e.g., reliability), which are often vague, subjective, and highly abstract. Difficulties in operationalizing these concepts are shown to cause inconsistent applications. As the authors state, "Grounding and testing the many newly proposed models of assemblage variability is perhaps the most pressing area for research in lithic studies today" (p. 41). Practical constraints of environmental limitations and task mechanics are shown to strongly influence design considerations and strategies of stone tool manufacture and use. Significantly, these authors question whether design concepts are "useful or productive in understanding lithic assemblages" (p. 42).

Odell uses lithic assemblages from the Illinois River Valley to ask "how can we discriminate between the effects of raw material availability and the forces of curation?" (p. 53). These assemblages show chronological trends of increased hafted tools, decreased hand-held tools, and decreased bifaces. This paper offers a very useful model of long-term technological change in the Midwest, but is limited by assuming these assemblages are representative. Beyond this case study, Odell focuses attention on problematic aspects of "curation" by asking "how easy is it to measure?" and "how useful is it once it has been measured?" (p. 54). He shows the difficulty of unraveling the causes of curation, which may be a response to raw material shortage, efficiency, or mobility strategies. As a result, he suggests the curation concept is deeply flawed.

Nash finds evidence for curation behavior in Middle Paleolithic assemblages from Tabun Cave in tools that are prepared in advance of use, maintained, and transported from location to location. This inference is weakened by absence of comparative data for the Upper Paleolithic, but his investigation leads to useful reexamination of the heuristic value of the curation concept. Nash argues that "curation has come to mean different things to different archaeologists" and concludes we should "interpret assemblage variability in the absence of vague concepts such as curation" (p. 93). He recommends either standardizing or dropping the concept and suggests analysts find less ambiguous terms for making behavioral interpretations of lithic assemblages. This prescription seems to be a dangerous swerve away from productive theory-building and explanatory modeling. Is standardization of meaning possible when the contexts of prehistoric technologies vary so widely? Are suitable descriptive terms available that have the same power but less ambiguity?

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