Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Stone Age Genesis

Both the Economist and the Wall St Journal carried the story of really old stone tools.  Archaeologists excavating at Pinnacle Point in South Africa found "microlith"  (we used to call them "flake") tools.  Flake tools are harder to make than the older "core" tools.  The oldest stone tools found are merely pebbles that have been bashed hard enough to fracture them, yielding a sharp cutting edge.  They are so crude that some argue that they are merely random stones.  Next step in stone tools was the "core".  Start with a fist sized chunk of flint.  Whack at it to form two sharp edges, and you have the "hand axe".  It was probably used to butcher killed game, to slice off roasts and chops for grilling over the fire. 
  Next step was to work with "flakes"(now called "microliths").  Start with a chunk of flint,  Strike it just so and a "blade" a thin piece of flint with two razor sharp edges flakes off.  Just as is, a flake is as useful as a modern straight razor blade.  And it's a great starting place to make arrow heads, or the famous folsom points that tipped throwing spears. 
   The South African site that is getting all the press coverage yielded flakes about 1 and a quarter inches long.  A little big for arrow heads, and no where as neatly chipped as American Indian arrow heads.  They lack any sign of a retaining groove to lash them to a shaft.  They look about right for points to a throwing spear. 
   So what makes this find so exciting?  The date.  The archaeologists are claiming they are 71,000 years old, making them the oldest flake tools ever discovered.   Too bad the archaeologists don't tell us how they dated their find.  Surely no one counted 71,000 layers in the dirt wall of the excavation.  Radio carbon dating only works back maybe 15,000 years.  So how did they estimate 71,000 years?  As the oldest flake tools ever discovered, they are interesting.  Other wise they are just crude chipped stone. 
   Then the "journalists" at both publications segued off to speculating upon the birth of modern minds, capable of art and music, poetry and the finer thoughts.  Sounds great.  Me, I think flake tools come from superior small motor skills.  I could make a "core" hand axe, no problem.  But to strike a chunk of flint and get a 4 inch long sliver with razor edges to pop off, in one piece,  I could never do that.  The flint would shatter, fail to flake, and after days of flint knapping, I'd wind up with nothing useful.  But there are guys who can do it, and do it well.  

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