Discovering behavior: a step-by-step process

January 14, 2008

 As discussed in my last entry, the process of tool making has left us lots of clues to the behavior of some of our ancestors. Some of the best information – as it gives us a window into how a species thinks – is the manufacturing process itself.

By continuously experimenting and by observing those few contemporary populations where stone tools are still made, experimental archaeologists gain insights in how ancient stone tools very likely were made as well. Things can get technical very quickly, yet also exciting.

When stone tools are made and lots of steps are required, a lot of waste material is produced. This waste, known by the French term of debitage, often collects at the feet of the tool maker, where it was left.

Using these fragments as pieces of a very old three-dimensional puzzle, stone tool experts have been able to reconstruct the stages in which an actual stone tool was once made. This is not an estimate, but rather the step-by-step reconstruction of the sequence in which each flake was chipped off the original stone.

In some extraordinary cases, researchers can look at stone tools and determine not only the manufacturing process of that particular tool, but also establish whether the person who made it was left-handed.  The angles under which the debitage was removed from the core produced this extraordinary insight. 

In this regard, the work of these stone tool specialists not only requires a lot of patience, but it also approximates approach taken by detectives. With patience, careful observation, reasoning, and in some cases, advanced technology, you can see how it is possible, and very rewarding, to reconstruct ancient hominid behavior.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

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