Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Stone Tool Studies

The question arises of whether stone tools are a good guide to connecting behaviours in different parts of the world, which again arise from naming practices for tool types and the assemblages of tools. A small number of artefacts that were deliberately selected from among the finds at Liang Bua, which were published with the original species description  (Morwood et al., 2004), became part of an argument that suggests the tools were too “sophisticated” to have been made by any known hominin other than modern humans (Martin et al., 2006). An error has been exposed in relying on drawings of a few artefacts that were carefully selected, by detailed analysis of the artefacts from Liang Bua (Moore et al., 2009), and of those from the earliest sites that have been found in Flores that date to several hundreds of thousands of years older (Brumm et al., 2006).

According to Davidson over the past more than 40 years Australian archaeologists have been sceptical of typologies (see Holdaway & Stern, 2004: 283-315)., which has resulted in artefacts at the present are rarely illustrated in published reports (but see Smith, 2006). Stone tools were not mentioned in a particular synthesis of Australian archaeohistory (Davidson, 1999). There are only 8 stone artefacts illustrated in the latest synthesis (Hiscock, 2008). Davidson claims the interpretations of Australian artefacts can be misleading, particularly those which involve comparisons of Australian stone industries with Old World Oldowan, Acheulean, Levallois, Mousterian, Upper Palaeolithic sequence (OALMUP; Davidson, 2009). According to Davidson aspects of stone tools from Australia have been compared with the Oldowan (e.g., Toth, 1985); in western Queensland in particular, hand axes have been found (see analysis in Moore, 2003) and the Northern Territory, though they are not in any way related to the Acheulean “tradition” spatially and chronologically (Davidson, 2002); a technique that would be classified as Levallois by experienced analysts (Sonneville-Bordes, 1986) was used in Australia (Moore, 2003), though some of the artefacts that might be identified as Levallois points in other parts of the world were made by a blade-making technique on single-platform cores that have been called horsehoof cores (Binford & O’Connell, 1984). The case for the Levallois and related techniques being the fundamental technologies taken from Africa by modern humans to the rest of the world is weakened by the equifinality involved (see e.g., Foley & Lahr, 1997). The fact is that these artefacts were made on horsehoof cores in 1974, these cores are otherwise said to be characteristic of the earliest stone industries of Australia (Bowdler et al., 1970) is said by Davidson to further undermine the use of both “Levallois” points and horsehoof cores as type fossils of early industries. A final point made by Davidson is that it has been suggested that “blade” industries do not occur in early assemblages from Australia (Mellars, 2006b), which is to some extent confirmed by the details of the assemblage recovered from Puritjarra (Smith, 2006). According to Davidson the whole question of blades is more complicated than is generally said to be in the standard literature of the Old World, with blades being found throughout the sequence in Australia (Davidson, 2003). At Lake Mungo in particular, conjoining flakes onto horsehoof cores, dating to more than 40,000 years old, demonstrated that blades had been removed from the site (Shawcross, 1998). The percentage found at Puritjarra, 3.6 calculated by the author based on the data in Smith, 2010, is very low for an assemblage from the period of modern humans, though it is higher than the proportion at the Kapthurin in Africa, from the Middle Pleistocene (Johnson & McBrearty, 2010).

There has been a long history in Australia of trying to fit stone artefacts into the framework that was established for Europe and, and to a lesser extent, Africa, and each attempt either failed or was only partially successful. Davidson suggests there are 2 explanations for this that contradict each other: either the OALMUP sequence is actually a universal aspect of hominin and human progress, according to which the Australian Aboriginal people just did not measure up; or the situation in Australia indicates something that is fundamental about the flaws that result from trying to write a narrative of hominin and human archaeology that is based on 5 basic stages covering a period of 2 million years.

Examination of an attempt (Mellars, 2006b, 798-799) to account for the inconsistency for the OALMUP sequence by

1)      A scarcity of raw materials that were suitable;

2)      There was no necessity for complex tools in economies in which emphasis was on marine resources, and in which there was no need to prepare skins for clothing; and

3)      Founder effects, drift and “progressive loss in the complexity and loss of culture and patterns of technology”.

An assumption, that are based on this underlying argument, about the continuity of traditions and the probability of convergence on particular forms of products produced by stone flaking, which Davidson suggests is something like this:

1)      Archaeologists are able to recognise patterns in the products of flaking that vary throughout time and space.

2)      In terms of the intentional actions of the knappers, these patterns are meaningful.

3)      Products of flaking that are close to each other in time display similarities.

4)      When major changes take place in the products of flaking between chronostratigraphic periods, a cultural change is indicated.

5)      Products of flaking generally display more similarity between regions that are adjacent then between regions that are distant, provided there is no major variation from one region to another.

6)      When big differences are apparent between products of flaking in adjacent regions, it may be an indication of a lack of cultural connection between them, provided there is no substantial difference in raw materials.

7)      The assumption that is required for of this to be true is that the methods used in the making of such flaking products were followed by succeeding generations.

According to Davidson this set of assumptions has dominated European thought of the subject from the 19th century, though in Australia the ethnographic record does not provide strong support for archaeologically defined types being of importance for the people making and using flaked stone artefacts (Holdaway & Douglas, 2012). Some of these propositions appear to be consistent with sites that are stratified, though without the stratigraphic evidence, inference becomes much more problematic. There are 2 different patterns of bifacial flaking well-illustrate by some anomalies. Bifacial flaking had similar end results in the Acheulean and Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition that were chronologically separated in the first of these cases, as well as in Australia at a much later time. That the particular outcome may not result from tradition at all is suggested by chronological and spatial separation, instead being an end product of particular strategies of knapping. It is suggested by the evidence in Australia that rather than being a continuous tradition, that “handaxes” that are the products of bifacial knapping, could possibly have been invented or discovered independently thousands of times.

At later dates it is not likely there was any connection through a common tradition of bifacially flaked points (for the Solutrean and Clovis, see, e.g., Shott, 2013; Straus et al., 2005). Davidson suggests the most likely interpretation is that the points that were bifacially flaked are also examples of people arriving at a solution to particular needs quite independently by using a range of similar techniques. Davidson suggests these points that are bifacially flaked are also examples of people using a range of similar techniques which arrive at a solution to particular needs independently, is the most likely interpretation.

Davidson suggests pieces that are apparently complex such as large bifacial cores, as in the Acheulean or smaller bifacial points, may have been invented or discovered independently more than once, then they may have been invented many, many times, and the same would apply to other “types”, as for example backed artefacts (contra Mellars, 2006b) where it can be quite complex deciding what is to be included in the comparison (Hiscock & O’Connor, 2005). Though narratives depending almost entirely on assumptions that are not stated or not examined, archaeologists have a propensity to see connect ion where there is similarity. In spite of appearances, continuity of cultural tradition is weaker than it has been assumed to have been; given the relatively small number of options in knapping, it is to be expected there would be similar outcomes (Moore, 2013). Claiming that similarities provide an adequate basis for showing cultural connection over long distances or long periods of time have been misleading. Also, writing a cultural history in terms of “failure” to achieve the goals of an illusory progress, as defined inductively based on the record in Europe, is not licenced by a lack of similarity.

What is to be explained?

According to Davidson, the picture emerges of people, Homo sapiens, arriving in Sahul, possibly by multiple routes, at sometime around 50,000 and 45,000 years ago, in spite of all the reservations archaeologists have concerning the sources of evidence. They must have modern cognitive abilities, as evidenced by their arrival on the continent of Sahul. The use of symbols was one of those abilities, an ability which became a dominant behavioural feature once in Sahul. The case has been made that rock art was established at a relatively early time, and also that personal ornaments may also have been used (Balme et al., 2009; Mulvaney, 2013). The early symbolic evidence has recently been analysed, the results showing that within regions the use of symbol was patterned, and was different between regions (Habgood & Franklin, 2011).

Davidson says one of the functions of archaeohistory is to provide an account of how the conditions that are recorded historically emerged in a past that was not recorded (e.g., Davidson, 2010b). One question is what was the variation at the time of the historical record that needs to be accounted for?  The other question is what were the processes of introduction, diffusion or independent invention that contributed to the variation that was recorded historically?

Sources & Further reading

  1. Iain Davidson in Dennell, Robin & Porr, Martin, eds., 2014, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Search for Human Origins, Cambridge University Press.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 14/08/2015
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