The Archaeology of Body Modification: Identifying Symbolic Behaviour through Usewear and Residues on Flaked Stone Tools

01st June 2002

Alice Gorman

PhD, Division of Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology, School of Human and Environmental Studies, University of New England, October 2000

The origins of modem human behaviour have been construed by some archaeologists as a question of the origins of symbolism. In this thesis I take the position that consciousness is embodied and that body modifications are a key element in generating symbolic behaviour, and I develop criteria by which body modification tools can be recognised archaeologically.

The possibility that body art preceded the first unequivocal archaeological evidence of symbolic behaviour has been long acknowledged but regarded as an intractable problem because of its archaeological invisibility. Archaeological evidence for body modifications shows that they were practiced from the Upper Palaeolithic, but the reliance on preservation of skeletal material and soft tissue, and the difficulty of interpreting ancient art, means that there are limitations to establishing their presence prior to this. The most abundant archaeological remains in the Palaeolithic are stone tools, and I demonstrate that in more recent contexts these are routinely used for head shaving, scarification, and surgery such as finger amputations and genital modifications. The presence of use-wear and human body residues on stone tool edges provides a means of detecting symbolic body practices that is not dependent on stylistic judgements of stone tool form, controversial “nonĀ­ utilitarian” art objects, burials or changes in brain structure and size, none of which have satisfactorily proved that symbolic behaviour existed before 60,000 BP.

To test this I analyse a collection of flaked bottle glass razors used for shaving the head from the Andaman Islands. The results of this analysis are compared to a further series of glass and obsidian razors from Antigua, New Guinea, Mexico and Egypt, and experimental obsidian razors. I conclude that the combination of residues such as blood and hair, and wear traces that indicate a scraping/slicing motion, allow razor use to be identified on stone tools. There is’ ample archaeological evidence to show that blood residues on stone tools can survive up to 300,000 years, and hair is also extremely well preserved. If body modification tools can be identified prior to 60,000 BP they would provide evidence for the use of complex symbolic constructs and hence an earlier genesis of language than currently accepted.

Alice Gorman
The Archaeology of Body Modification: Identifying Symbolic Behaviour through Usewear and Residues on Flaked Stone Tools
June 2002
Thesis Abstracts
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