Physical Anthropology

Prehistoric Lithic Tool Production



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Projectile points served both a utilitarian and ritual purpose that determined not only their morphology but their manufacture, raw-material composition, and maintenance as well. Heavily used projectiles made out of a rare and valued but durable raw-material would be expected to be reworked more frequently than a projectile made out of poor quality raw-material that was local and abundantly available. Larger projectile points could be more easily reworked and, if it were necessary or advantageous, could be shaped into a different projectile point form through reworking, shattered to produce usable flakes, or made into a different tool type.

Prehistoric lithic creation employed several general manufacturing strategies. The procurement of lithic raw material would have been the first step. Locating chert sources was a function not only of geography, the sedentism or nomadism of the group, and the stresses on the group, but also of the intended uses for the chert and the presence of trade networks. Prehistoric peoples preferred siliceous stone that was pure and had little inclusions, which permitted the predictable flaking of a core and facilitated the creation of the lithic tool. In general, high quality lithic raw-material was reserved for projectile points that served either a ritual purpose as a display or mortuary item, or for projectiles that were intended for long-term use. The overall increased purity made the chert both easier to knap and more durable.

Knowledge of additional methods also affected the choice of raw-material. When heated, the molecules of the chert form stronger bonds and become more glass-like, improving the workability of the stone. This method is called "heat treating." Evidence of this process can be detected by evaluating the chert for the appearance of pinkish or reddish hues in the case of light-colored cherts, the darkening of the chert's natural color, or a high luster and waxy feel.

Bipolar percussion was another adaptive manufacturing strategy. It allowed prehistoric peoples to maximize the number of flakes that could be obtained from a core. This was an especially useful adaptation as increased sedentism made long journeys for good raw-material nodules inefficient or when these good materials simply weren't available. The presence of both bipolar flaking and heat treating are seen as diagnostic markers giving important information about the people who used them.

Towards the end of the Archaic and the beginning of the Woodland, there was extensive experimentation with lithic manufacturing strategies. Peoples used rubbing and polishing techniques in order to make usable items out of local chert sources rather than flaking. This technique appeared throughout later cultural periods as a method of both refining specific projectile points and of making them more aesthetically pleasing.

In general, production methods remained fairly stable and eventually reflected increasing stresses on populations. Sedentism brought with it a shift of energy away from lithic manufacture and towards social activities such as politics and warfare, resulting in a commensurate decrease in time dedicated to the manufacture of stone tools, in stone tool variability, and in sophistication.

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