Living Lithics: Ethnoarchaeology in Highland Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt


Worked stone is of paramount importance in much prehistoric archaeology as it is frequently the only cultural evidence to survive. For the same reason it often dominates interpretation, with lithics afforded a status that is unlikely to reflect their true place within the material culture of which they formed a part (Hardy & Sillitoe 2003). The examination of modern communities can often reflect the role played by stone tool-making in the broader material culture. The modern ethnographic study of stone tool traditions are concentrated in a few geographical areas, namely Australia (e.g. Allchin 1957; Elkin 1964; Gould 1980; Gould, Koster & Sontz 1971; Hayden 1977, 1979; Tacon 1991; Thomson 1964), Central America (e.g. Gaxiola & Clark 1989; Clark 1991; Hayden 1987) and the New Guinea Highlands (e.g. Blackwood 1950; Brass 1998; Cranstone 1971; Godelier & Garanger 1973; Hampton 1999; Petrequin & Petrequin 1988; Pospisil 1963; Sillitoe 1979, 1982; Strathern 1969; Watson 1995; White 1968, 1979; White & Thomas 1972; White & Modjeska 1978; White et al. 1977). While it was still possible until recently to find occasional stone tool-users in other regions (e.g. Burton 1984; Gallagher 1977; Miller 1979; Runnels 1975, 1976), it is arguably now impossible anywhere to find people using stone for most everyday tasks in preference to metal tools.

Until the early 1980s the Wola horticulturists of highland Papua New Guinea (PNG), were still routinely using flake stone tools, and during anthropological study a lithic assemblage was gathered on request (Sillitoe 1988). it consists of nodules, used flakes and waste material and represents probably the last example of its kind of a lithic tradition once found throughout the highland region up to the ethnographic present. However, the majority of Wola material culture, including all clothing and decoration, all musical instruments, all evidence for hunting and food processing, axe hafts, agricultural tools, fire lighters, bags and containers would be unlikely to survive archaeologically. Flaked stone was an integral but secondary part of their material culture: such stone tools played no direct part in food production and stone working was afforded no status. The Wola only viewed their flaked lithic artefacts in relation to their use, while storage and discard behaviour followed no regular pattern and did not conform to widely used archaeological categories such as 'curated' and 'expedient' (Binford 1977, 1989; Hayden 1987; Parry & Kelly 1987). Men were the main makers and users of stone tools, but women sometimes made and used them too. Much of this has been noted before in other areas of the New Guinea highlands (Strathern 1969; Watson 1995; White 1967; White & Thomas 1972). The new data summarised here represent some of the last that might be gathered, and by analogy, raise fresh questions about the relative importance of stone in prehistoric contexts, how it was procured, used and stored and how far it can be used to reflect gender roles.


New Guinea has been occupied for at least 40 000 years (Groube et al. 1986) with the highland region probably populated by 30 000 BP (Smith & Sharp 1993; Mountain 1993). The Wola occupy five valleys, in the Southern Highlands Province (Figure 1). They live between 1600-2000 metres above sea level, along valley sides, in areas of secondary regrowth. The geology comprises mostly sedimentary rocks, mainly limestone. Geomorphological processes are active, erosion is constant, and the occasional large-scale earth movement can dramatically alter the local landscape (Loffler 1977). Lower montane rainforest occurs on mountains and in unpopulated parts of river valleys. Where cultivation has taken place, areas of dense cane grass ate interspersed with the grassy clearings of fallow or recently abandoned gardens, and with the brown soil and green crops of currently cultivated plots. …