Review of ‘Lithics in the Land of the Lightning Brothers: The Archaeology of Wardaman Country, Northern Territory’ by Chris Clarkson

01st June 2008

Gould book review cover AA66Lithics in the Land of the Lightning Brothers: The Archaeology of Wardaman Country, Northern Territory by Chris Clarkson, Terra Australis 25, ANU E Press, Canberra, 2007, xvii+221 pp., ISBN 9781921313288 (pbk).

Richard A. Gould

Department of Anthropology, Brown University, Providence RI 02912, USA

In northern Australia much of what we know about prehistory is derived from stone tools and tool-making debris, mainly because of the durability of lithic materials in the archaeological record. How much of the totality of past human behaviour can archaeologists reclaim through this body of evidence? The author has made a rigorous and commendable effort to probe the limits of inference based on lithic technology. This study centers on the lithic reduction process as an analytical platform for two goals: (1) characterising changes and variability in stone technology in the interior of northern Australia about 120km southwest of Katherine, Northern Territory, from the late Pleistocene until around 1500 BP, and (2) drawing inferences about changes in adaptive behaviour linked to climatic changes that affected the resources required for Aborigines living directly off the land.

The author does a fine job of analysing lithic technology in relation to strato-chronological evidence. His analysis conforms to what I have referred to elsewhere as ‘Crabtree’s First Law of Lithic Reduction’ which highlights how the last step in producing a stone artefact can obliterate all or most preceding steps. This observation provided a rationale for studying quarries and workshops in order to find evidence of steps in the production process (including unfinished, broken, and rejected pieces) and did much to redirect attention by archaeologists in North America away from an over concern for finished bifaces, like fluted points. The concept of the lithic reduction process followed from this assumption and continues to be applied effectively and refined to account for local and regional variations in prehistoric stone toolmaking – as demonstrated in this volume.

Clarkson’s analysis identifies some important points about the culture-historical sequence of lithic technology in the study area. The lithic reduction sequences there reveal a dendritic model of changes that is non-linear, and they also reveal variable rates of change in different components of the lithic assemblages. While lithic reduction is linear in the sense that it is always a subtractive process – involving removal of material from a piece without any way of building the piece backup – it is non-linear in the way some variables like discard rates peak, dip, and peak again through time. These findings should not surprise archaeologists, but it is helpful to see them worked out in detail with reference to the chronology of site assemblages at four stratigraphically-excavated rockshelters; Nimji (a.k.a. Ingaladdi), Garnawala 2, Gordolya, and Jagoliya. For example, the ‘event tree’ in Figure 6.3 encapsulates changes in core forms resulting from different modes of reduction and the relative frequencies of each stage in these excavated assemblages. This is followed by a discussion of shifts in tool-making strategies and the technical and behavioural factors that may account for these shifts.

Given the careful attention to lithic reduction sequences and stratigraphic relationships throughout this volume, it seems odd that more detailed attention was not paid to the matter of performance as defined by Schiffer and Skibo (1987, 1997) and cited by Clarkson. The author presents good evidence for the relative use-lives of different kind of tools, but the physical basis of this performance relative to the types of lithic raw materials used is hardly discussed. Similarly, the author’s ‘start-up costs’ in producing certain tools like tulas and points take in obvious factors like manufacture, hafting, and the objects to which they were hafted, but only partially explore the effort (cost) of obtaining the lithic materials, especially if the source was not local to the site area. The question of local vs non-local sources is never fully defined or analysed, and the lithic landscape is not treated in detail. In short, the direction of the lithic analysis is clear and convincing, but the conclusions are still somewhat incomplete.

Another anomaly worth mentioning here is the relative scarcity of ground-stone pieces. Only three were reported from Nimji, one from Garnawala 2, two at Jagoliya, and none from Gordolya. So for all practical purposes, ‘stone artefacts’ in this monograph means only flaked stone tools and debris. This raises the question of direct vs indirect indicators of economic activities, especially in relation to ecological stressors like prolonged drought. In Chapter 2 the author launches into a review of optimal foraging theory as it pertains to human hunter-gatherers by examining variables such as dietary breadth, central place vs field-processing of resources, encounter rates and patch choice, mobility and settlement patterning, and other factors that have figured prominently in a growing body of literature on the subject that was adapted originally from the biological sciences. Taken by itself, this is an excellent critical and concise review of this subject, and its best feature is the way it addresses risk. This factor was neglected at first in some biological models that emphasised optimality over risk mitigation. Today’s optimal foraging theorists, however, have become much better at integrating risk into their models. Clarkson’s treatment reflects this modified view of optimality, which archaeologists and anthropologists working in Australia’s arid and semi-arid zones have come to appreciate.

Taking this amended optimal foraging model along with different archaeologists’ commentaries, the author offers predictions (test implications) that should apply to changes in the lithic assemblages within the study area from the late Pleistocene onward. This kind of hypothesis-testing approach has its place in studies of this kind and can serve as a useful framework for considering alternative kinds of behaviour by mobile hunter-gatherers under ever-changing ecological conditions. But this kind of reasoning sometimes requires piling assumptions on top of each other, and care is needed to avoid exceeding the reasonable limits imposed by limited physical evidence, in this case flaked stone tool technology. The author explores these hypotheses and their test implications in a rigorous and detailed manner, but the question remains: Are there more convincing ways to infer changes in past economic and adaptive behavior more directly, with fewer assumptions?

When Clarkson states, ‘the study of stone artefact assemblages has the potential to contribute a vital and unique perspective on the past because they provide a tangible record of human behaviour intimately linked to the means by which people extracted a living from their environment’ (pp.162-163), he takes the position that, however indirect and inferential they may be, there are predictable linkages between lithic technology and adaptive behaviour among marginal hunter-gatherers. What about more direct sources of information about how the physical evidence of archaeology connects with ancient adaptive behaviour, such as faunal studies, residue analysis, bone and soil chemistry, and phytoliths? Direct approaches like these are becoming increasingly important in archaeology and are providing alternative pathways for hypothesis-testing that require simpler hypotheses and fewer assumptions. To his credit, Clarkson is always careful to note how lithic reduction and archaeological sequences only suggest, but do not demonstrate or prove, the validity of his hypotheses. There is, in fact, empirical evidence from ethnographic studies of Aboriginal Australians to suggest that some of these hypotheses may not be borne out as predicted, although this in no way negates their value as a framework for evaluating adaptive behaviour. So let the testing proceed …

From a regional perspective, Australian archaeologist’s will find Clarkson’s volume a useful guide to comparative analysis of lithic assemblages in other areas. For now, however, they will probably find the author’s conclusions on technological changes more compelling than his further inferences about palaeoecological and economic adaptations. Clarkson’s monograph definitely raises the bar for the controlled analysis of lithic technologies in Australian prehistory and represents a positive contribution that other Australian archaeologist’s should consider seriously in relation to their own studies.


Schiffer, M.B. and J.M. Skibo 1987 Theory and experiment in the study of technological change. Current Anthropology 28:595-622.

Schiffer, M.B. and J.M. Skibo 1997 The explanation of artifact variability. American Antiquity 62:27-50.

Richard A. Gould
Review of ‘Lithics in the Land of the Lightning Brothers: The Archaeology of Wardaman Country, Northern Territory’ by Chris Clarkson
June 2008
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