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Learning Process: Stone tools in the Highlands

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 20 May 2015

Researching stone technology in the villages of Papua New Guinea.

Villages of Legaiyu: Working with Stone Tools 02

Villages of Legaiyu: Working with Stone Tools 02
Photographer: J Peter White © J Peter White

Learning Process is a blog series containing stories about practical solutions and technologies in indigenous cultures, past and present.

Stone tools were once the most common and universal hardware used by humans around the world. Stone tools are not only associated with the early stages of pre-modern humans’ evolution, but are often taken as the most tangible indication of culture (in opposition to nature) and a marker of human ascendance to civilisation.

However, stone tools went out of use, replaced by metal tools of bronze and iron. This happened at the beginning of the Common Era in Egypt, about 500 years ago in Americas and within the past two hundred years in Australia. In parts of Papua New Guinea old-fashioned stone tools remained in use well into the second half of the 20th century.
Most of the human past is known (imperfectly) through archaeological evidence, not written records. Also most of this evidence, extending for a few million years, consists predominantly of stone tools (along with production refuse and food remains). Yet, archaeologists are usually compelled to speculate how stone tools were made, used and discarded. How great it would be if we could see how the prehistoric humans handled their stone tools!

So, in order to provide at least partial answer, Dr John Peter White went, in the 1960s, to the Highlands of Papua New Guinea where the local villages had only been in regular contact with foreigners since the late 1950s. Many people had grown up in a time when stone tools were commonly used; they still remembered traditional stone technology and occasionally used stone tools in shaping organic materials, especially wood, bone, animal tissue and plant fibre.

Living in the local villages of Legaiyu, Himarata and Lake Kopiago, White observed and recorded the use of stone tools in making bows, arrows, drills and other tools. First he joined the local men as they gathered the stone necessary for the tools, a task that often meant walking several hours to find the right material. They then made their tools by flaking flint and chert into desired forms with sufficiently sharp cutting edges.

While the results of White’s research cannot be universally applied, they provide important insights into use of stone tools in comparable cultural settings where metals were unavailable. It is also instructive to consider that archaeological methods of classification and analysis based on the shape of stone tools is not always as relevant and informative as we tend to think.

Prepared by Jordan Cavanough and Stan Florek