Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Stone Tool Manufacturing Methods - Flexibility on the Georgina River, Camooweal, Queensland

Ethnographic observation has well-documented the highly flexible approach to stone technology that was often characterised by a high level of flexibility. According to Moore it appears that in the Australian context the function of a stone was related only loosely to its form. It has, nevertheless, been recognised in many ethnographic studies that artefact manufacture was “aimed at” the production of specific forms (Horne & Aiston, 1924: 92). In this study Moore has examined the rigidity in the manufacture of artefacts by an archaeological analysis of a large stone assemblage from Camooweal, northwest Queensland, Australia. The reduction sequence followed to make the assemblage was modelled and the rigidity of the various trajectories that comprised the reduction sequence was used to assess the degree to which blanks for “aimed at” forms crossed between trajectories. The technological analysis indicated that blank production for “aimed at” forms was actually relatively rigid, though it is indicated by the ethnographic literature  that various categories of artefact tended to be used in an ad hoc fashion. Moore suggests this is at odds with the sweeping generalisations concerning the flexibility of Aboriginal lithic technology.

According to Moore the “flexibility” of a lithic technology can be seen as the degree to which a stone might be used for multiple purposes. Moore says flexibility is a continuum that has a hypothetic “inflexible” structure at one end of the continuum, which is a reflection of the manufacture of a specific type of stone for a specific use, and at the other end a “hyper-flexible” structure, which is a reflection of the use of any stone for multiple tasks. Historical changes in the perspective of Australian scholars of the Aboriginal toolkit tacks a shift along this continuum. In the early years of Australian archaeology the models used by archaeologists were borrowed from paradigms of the Old World and applied assuming a degree of inflexibility of stone technology, i.e. artefact types that were archaeologically defined were believed to be a reflection of specific functions or cultural groupings (Veth et al., 1998). In more recent decades the paradigm has shifted towards a consensus that stone tools were used by Aboriginal People in a manner that was highly flexible and tool form and function were rarely linked in any systematic way (Hiscock, 1998).

Enhanced appreciation of the ethnographic literature is the main reason for this intellectual shift. The observations of Daisy Bates of the use of stone tools among Aboriginal People in the 1920s is an example, inspiring her to rail against the assumptions of Australian antiquarians. When she was confronted by the claim that specific function is a reflection of specific types of artefact, she noted “no stone – except the initiation flint – can be said to be made for a definite purpose…[they] use their little knives and flakes for any purpose” Bates, 1922 in Wright, 1977: 2; emphasis in original).

A similar observation was made by George Aiston:

“In describing these tools it must always be remembered that the casual nature of the black does not allow him to keep any tool for the one purpose. He is just as likely to use his best stone knife to scrape a weapon as he is to use any flake he may pick up. At the same time he may get an affection for a certain tool and only keep it for the purpose for which it was most suitable… This casualness is what makes it so hard to say specifically that a tool is used for any one purpose… (Horne & Aiston, 1924: 91-92).

Though Aiston concludes “… but in describing them I have carefully asked [the Aboriginal People] until I could arrive at what was aimed at in each particular tool, and so have classed them” (Horne & Aiston, 1924: 91-92). A similar track was taken by other researchers, using observation and questioning what a stone tool was “aimed at”, while discovering, often unexpectedly, that the tasks to which the tools were applied epitomised “casualness and opportunism” (Gould et al., 1971: 154). Therefore, Aboriginal people sometimes used large bladed “fighting knives” as adzes in woodworking (Cane, 1992: 25), “points” to engrave wooden tools (Davidson, 1935: 162; Kamminga, 1985), “woodworking adzes” as a tool to butcher animals (Thompson, 1964: 418) and throwing weapons (Davidson, 1935: 160), and axes as knapping hammers (Smythe, 1878: 379). Aboriginals have also been observed scavenging byproducts of “aimed at” tool manufacture for use in various tasks. An example is Horne & Aiston (1924: 87, 101) commenting that flakes produced in the manufacture of “ideal stones” were scavenged for use as “casual tools”. Flakes that were struck during manufacture of axe blanks have been described (Basedow, 1625: 363-4) that were used as-is or retouched into scrapers, and flakes that were apparently struck in retouching a scraper were mounted as barbs on the heads of wooden spears (367). Percussion flakes struck in the manufacture of Kimberley points have been observed (Elkin, 1948: 11) being used for “cutting flesh,” and it was implied by Tindale (1985: 9) that pressure flakes were used in ceremonies associated with initiation. It has been noted (Roth, 1904: 16) that the detritus from the manufacture of large blades might be retouched into scrapers, and it was indicated (Binford, 1989: 181-2) that sometimes large blades might be reduced as cores to produce small unmodified cutting tools. In some parts of Australia “hyperflexibility” is suggested by the manufacture of complex wooden implements by the use of stone pieces that are minimally modified or even unmodified (Mountford, 1941; Thomson, 1964: 412-4; Hayden, 1979; see also Gould et al., 1971: 163, Gould, 1978: 819). Sometimes even hafted stone tools that had been carefully crafted consisted of stones that were naturally occurring with little or no modification were used (e.g. Tindale, 1965: 133, 135, 160; Mountford, 1965: 316).

Moore suggests there is a tension in Australian lithic studies as a result of an apparent contradiction in these observations. It is clearly indicated in ethnographic studies that the functions of stone tools were unstructured and highly flexible, though it appears from archaeological analysis (e.g. Akerman, 1976; Akerman et al., 2002: 18-20; Hiscock, 1993; Moore, 2003a, b) and ethnographic evidence (Roth, 1904; Spencer & Gillen, 1904; Elkin, 1948, Baines, 1966), that the sequences of certain stone reduction were quite structured, or, in a phrase from Aiston, were “aimed at” specific artefact forms. Therefore, as a result of the overwhelming evidence supporting the unstructured tool use by Australian Aboriginals, Moore poses the question just how structured were the approaches to the manufacture of tools among Aboriginals?  Exploring the source of blanks for the manufacture of “aimed at” retouched forms through sequence modelling is a way of examining this question. A reduction sequence model is a way to describe the manipulations used by a stone knapper to a block of stone. The presentation of the model can be in the form of a flow chart in which technological choices are shown as pathways or “trajectories”. Flake blanks to be used in the manufacture of “aimed at” forms derive from the culmination of the technological steps within a single reduction trajectory in a rigid, inflexible structure. In this case technological structure consists of a set of distinct trajectories that involve a minimum movement of flake blanks laterally between them, these lateral movements being referred to in this paper as “crossovers”. When a technological structure is flexible flake blanks for “aimed at” forms are derived from any number of trajectories that are highly interconnected.

In this study Moore examined the structural rigidity of the lithic technology that is reflected in large surface assemblage recovered on the upper Georgina River, northwest Queensland. Moore summarised previous studies into this assemblage and described unpublished elements of the technology. To provide a reduction sequence model of the lithic technology on the Georgina River various technological reconstructions have been drawn together. It is suggested by the results that a relatively rigid structure was used in the manufacture of stone artefacts. The reduction sequence models for the upper Georgina River, the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, and Tasmania (Moore, 2000a, b) were compared and the implications for Australian lithic studies are discussed in this paper.


In this study the flexibility of lithic technology was examined from the standpoint of the production of blanks for “aimed at” forms. According to Moore there is a high degree of technological rigidity at Camooweal which Moore says is a bit surprising as the general characterisation of Aboriginal technology as casual, opportunistic, and ad hoc (e.g. Gould et al., 1971). According to Moore in the upper Georgina River region this characterisation applies to the function of artefacts rather than to their manufacture. That the waste flakes produced in the different trajectories were sometimes used for multiple functions that involved the processing of both animal and plant materials is indicated by residue analysis that is ongoing (T. Loy pers. comm. to Moore, 2001; Loy & Nugent, 2002), which accords with the ethnographic observations discussed earlier. It has been suggested by residue analysis that incorporating a more realistic portrayal of use would involve the overlying of an intricate web of arrows linking the flakes produced at various stages of “aimed at” artefact manufacture, as well as the forms that are “aimed at”, with many functions. Moore says this would reflect the high degree of functional flexibility that is apparently inherent in the upper Georgina River lithic technology.

Moore asks the questions, “Why were ‘aimed at’ forms produced in the first place?” The functions for these “aimed at” stone artefacts are indicated by ethnographic accounts to have had many functions, and these functions were also accomplished by ad hoc flakes, as well as non-stone elements of the material culture. E.g.., hardwoods were worked successfully with unmodified  or minimally modified stones, tula adzes or hafted axes (Mountford, 1941); Thomson, 1964: 412-4; Hayden, 1979); wood, bone or teeth were used to tip spears instead of stone (Davidson, 1934; Kamminga, 1985:8); Digging sticks and large blades were used to dig and process yams instead of bifaces (O’Connell, 1974); see discussion in Moore, 2003c); and small flakes and blades were used for ceremonial fighting, instead of large leilira blades, which were ostensibly made for the purpose (Aiston, 1928: 129; Horne & Aiston, 1924: 96-7; see discussion i9n Moore, 2003a). White concluded that “… the majority of stone tool forms were not necessary, in a utilitarian sense, at all” (1977: 26), resonates, according to Moore, in this context.

It has been suggested by several authors hat the link between technological and social domains of human existence is a defining characteristic in the emergence of modern human behaviour about 40,000 years ago in Eurasia (Kuhn & Stiner, 1998; Mithen, 1996a, b). According to this view, at the start of the Upper Palaeolithic, the explosion the forms of stone artefacts exploded, which reflects an expansion and embedding of stone technology from the economic domain into the social and symbolic realms of culture. There is a large amount of ethnographic evidence from Australia that indicates stone artefacts did in fact perform social and symbolic roles; therefore it is conceivable that the discordance that has been discussed here between the ad hoc function and rigid technological structure is related to the phenomenon. Since it possible that Australia was colonised by 50,000 BP, the study of Australasian stone artefact assemblages offers an important source of data, which is largely untapped, on the emergence and spread of modern human behaviour (Foley & Lahr, 1977). Moore suggests that an understanding of technological structure behind stone artefact assemblages is an important prerequisite for tapping this potential.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Moore, M. W. (2003). "Flexibility of Stone Tool Manufacturing Methods on the Georgina River, Camooweal, Queensland." Archaeology in Oceania 38(1): 23-36.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 10/07/2015
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