By Michelle C. Langley. Based on the article Interproximal grooving of lower second molars in WLH 4 by Arthur Durband, Michael Westaway and Daniel Rayner published in AA75.
Stone tools, called ‘lithics’ by archaeologists, are the ‘bread and butter’ of researchers interested in human evolution and/or the various hunter-gatherer cultures which comprise human prehistory (including those in the ethnographic present). Lithic technology has been around some 2.6 million years, and in many cases, remains the only evidence for human behaviour which has survived the multitudes of natural and cultural processes which can destroy sites over the thousands of years they lie on or in the ground.
Despite the early appearance and prevalence of stone technology in the archaeological record worldwide, it is likely that the first tools used by our ancestors were organic – being made from either wood, grass, bone or any other natural raw material which decomposes and disintegrates long before the archaeologist begins to investigate the place in which they were made, used and discarded. Consequently, the oldest organic tools to have been recovered are much younger than their stone counterparts and have only survived through exceptional circumstances of preservation. An example is the 400,000 year old wooden spears recovered from the site of Schöningen (Germany), which were preserved only because they rested in an anaerobic (no oxygen) environment in which natural decay was prevented. These weapons were used to hunt horses, and along with the lithic tools used to butcher the captured animals, allowed archaeologists to learn about the subsistence (food gathering and processing) activities of the early humans who inhabited the area. An Australian example of organic projectile weaponry surviving through exceptional preservation circumstances are the Wyrie Swamp (southeast Australia) finds. Here, 25 artefacts made from sheoak including digging sticks, boomerangs, one-piece spears with points or barbs and pointed stakes were recovered and dated to 11,796–9114 years BP. This site provides clear evidence that boomerangs have an antiquity of at least 10,000 years!
Furthermore, archaeological and ethnographic research has demonstrated that in many regions of the world, tools manufactured from organic raw materials make up the majority of a communities material culture (their tools, clothing, artwork, housing etc). Thus, the survival of only stone technology plus a handful of organic items in many ancient archaeological sites means that the diversity and complexity of hunter-gatherer technology is difficult to investigate in depth. In other words, we are having to build our interpretations of the past from only a small sample of what was originally made and used by Pleistocene (before 10,000 years ago) populations, though certain sites such as Blombos Cave (South Africa) and Grotte des Pigeons (Taforalt, Morocco) have provided artefacts made from marine shell which have changed the way we understand our earliest African ancestors.
Thus, archaeologists who wish to learn about prehistoric organic technologies and who do not have the artefacts themselves to examine, must seek this information through a range of indirect methods. One such method is the analysis of human skeletal remains.
In AA 75, Durband et al. present an analysis of the teeth from a skeleton recovered from the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area (New South Wales) and referred to as WLH4. The Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area has played a central role in our understanding of early Australian people and their lifeways. It is here that the oldest known cremation in the world (LM1 dated to ca 40,000 years BP) was found as well as an equally ancient ritual burial of a man who was covered with red ochre before being buried (known as LM3).
Examination of the lower second molars of WLH4 resulted in the identification of what is termed ‘interproximal grooving’–horizontal grooves on the side of the tooth. These grooves were produced through ‘the repeated dragging of some fibrous material across those surfaces of the teeth’ (Durband et al. 2012:119). Ethnographic records of Indigenous peoples in Australia report that people often worked animal sinew or other flexible fibrous material for use in tool production (such as hafting weaponry) by repeatedly dragging the fibres laterally through their teeth. These grooves, then, are evidence for the working of organic raw materials for use by the prehistoric people of the Willandra Lakes where no such technology has survived to be directly examined.
While the skeleton which was examined in this analysis is not a many thousands of years old, probably dating only to the late Holocene (after 10,000 years ago), this same pattern of use wear on teeth has been identified on the remains of Neanderthals who inhabited Europe and Western Asia between around 300,000 and 30,000 years BP showing that this behaviour has a deep past. Furthermore, the more recent history of organic technologies and the people who made and used them is no less worthy of intensive study than the origins of these items and behaviours. Moreover, if we are to build an accurate and comprehensive interpretation of our human past we must have a good understanding of all their technologies–not just the stone ones.
Durband, A.C., M.C. Westaway and D.R.T. Rayner 2012 Interproximal grooving of lower second molars in WLH 4. Australian Archaeology 75:118-120.
For further information on the analysis and prehistory of lithic and organic technologies see:
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