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date: 02 October 2023

Bone Tool Technology in the Stone Age of Africalocked

Bone Tool Technology in the Stone Age of Africalocked

  • Justin BradfieldJustin BradfieldUniversity of Johannesburg - Auckland Park Bunting Road Campus


Bone, like other organic materials, featured prominently in the technological repertoires of most historically documented hunter-gatherer communities practising a Stone Age economy. Unlike stone, however, bone does not survive as well archaeologically, resulting in less attention generally being paid to this aspect of material culture. Yet, despite their poorer preservation, bone tools are found in several hominin sites dating to the last two million years in South and East Africa, where two regionally distinct varieties of bone tool occur. Traceological analyses (which comprise use-wear, fracture, and residue analyses) have gone a long way in elucidating the functions of these tools and those from younger periods.

Deliberately modified bone tools are found sporadically at archaeological sites dating throughout the last two million years, but never in large numbers. Bone tools offer us many insights into past cultures and now-vanished technologies. For example, insect extraction, musicality, basket weaving, and garden agriculture were all expressed through the medium of bone. These bone artefacts often constitute the sole evidence for such technologies and their associated behaviors. To this list might be added bow-and-arrow technology, although here there is plenty of confirmatory evidence from lithic and residue studies.

Despite their ubiquitously fewer numbers, bone tools are no less important for understanding aspects of the past than their lithic counterparts and have been the focus of several anthropological debates. The degree of similarity in manufacturing techniques, finished product morphology, and decorative motifs have led some researchers to extrapolate similarities in overarching cultural traditions. But the same similarities are seen in other parts of the world. Even a recurrence of decorative motifs may mean different things to different people at different times. The presence of well-made bone tools in Iron Age sites continues to be seen as evidence for trade between hunter-gatherers and farmers. But without concrete evidence that the bone tools moved from one place to another, such facile interpretations only serve to underplay farmer agency. Apart from trying to work out function, bone tool studies globally are focused on identifying the specific animal species selected to make tools and what such selection strategies might reveal about the symbolic importance of animals in human societies.


  • Archaeology

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