Oldowan [from Melka] Kunture is Not a Star Wars Character

A couple of weeks ago I clicked through to Erin Wayman’s Smithsonian blog, Hominid Hunting. The post I was curious about is part of a series called ‘Becoming Human‘ and the article in question was ‘The Origin of Stone Tools.’ I was struck by the graphic accompaniment to Erin’s article, reproduced here, and especially the caption from Erin’s blog, which is given verbatim below it.

‘Oldowan choppers are among the oldest-known type of stone tools. Image: Didier Descouens/Wikicomons’

The image depicts a chipped stone artifact from Melka Kunture, in Ethiopia. Its age and the conventions of African archaeology demand that it be referred to as an Oldowan tool, after Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the famous pair of Mary Leakey and Louis B. Leakey toiled for many decades. The artifacts pictured above could be as old as 1.7 Ma. However, artifacts just like these have been securely dated to 2.6 Ma elsewhere in Ethiopia, at Kada Gona.
     The caption reads ‘Oldowan “choppers”.’ ‘Chopper’ is one of the names that Louis Leakey gave to these early artifacts, and so, it would seem, has everyone else since the 1950s. The trouble is…where’s the evidence that this object was the desired end product such that it represents a distinct ‘type’? The evidence, I’d say, existed only in the mind of L. S. B. Leakey, himself. And the trouble with that? Well, many, many archaeologists have used and continue to use Leakey’s classification and, implicitly, it’s underlying lines of reasoning. And, after a time, use becomes convention, convention becomes unexamined ‘truth,’ and pretty soon it’s 2012 and the whole world thinks these objects are the typological equivalent of arrowheads–in other words the desired end product. Damage to the discipline? You betcha! Retaining such labels is counterproductive–it serves only to perpetuate and further solidify the reification that what you see in the illustration are truly the desired end products in the minds of the creatures that made them.
     So, Gargett, if they’re not choppers [or picks, or discoids] what are they? It’s not rocket science. I have to give the crafty bipedal apes credit for coming up with the ‘idea’ of banging one rock against another to remove a sharp edged fragment. Surely this was a stunning accomplishment for mammaldom. But really, aside from the energy required to remove said fragment, there’s nothing unique about such an act in the wide world of animals. We all remember that a species of Galapagos finch snaps off cactus needles to use as probes to extract insects from their hiding places. How far apart are the two behaviors? In fact I’d say they were pretty much identical, and probably used about the same cognitive structures, one being the avian version and the other, the ape. Both behaviours are reductive–one species bangs a rock against another rock to remove a piece to use to cut something; the other snaps off a twig to use as a probe. Both use the portion removed to effect their purpose, not the thing that remains after the removal. We wouldn’t dream of looking at the cactus, seeing that it’s missing a needle, and give it a special name that implies that it was the end product ‘desired’ by the finch. Why then should we conceive of the rock, lighter by one shard, as being conceptually different than the cactus? The only answer to that, as far as I can see, is that there is no good reason other than the misguided mindset of numerous archaeologists over the past century or so.
     Having said that, do I still need to explain why the artifact shown above isn’t what Leakey said it was? Oh, all right, in the view on the upper left, the ‘chopper’ has a relatively straight break margin. Thinking that this artifact was the end product, and your purpose is to ascribe a function to it, you might interpret such a shape in terms of a technology that you know modern humans have used for tens of thousands of years, and continue to use to this day. You’re going to think that the object looks [very roughly] like an axe or a meat chopper.
     In a similar vein, the view on the upper right shows the artifact having a bit of a point. Using the same level of imagination that made the first view into a chopper, the one on the upper right resembles a pick more than an axe. And thus, the artifact could just as well have been classified as an Oldowan ‘pick.’
     But why should we think that such artifacts were the intended end product? Isn’t it much more likely that the flakes struck off were the ‘desired end product,’ and the remainder just the ‘core?’ At least if we adopt a stance like this we won’t be privileging one set of behaviours over another. A number of archaeologists working today accept the essential ‘core’-ness of Oldowan artifacts. However, many of them believe that we can conserve these anachronistic classifications because they allow us to quickly characterize an assemblage. My credulity is strained to the limit by such arguments. To what end? What, I ask, is the point of knowing how many lumps of rock were discarded after one, two, three, or more flake removals?
     I’ll admit, it’s easy to pick on the Oldowan artifact classification and see it for what it is. It’s straightforward [as I see it]. Unfortunately, as I’ve stated before, the question of what was really the intention of the rock-knocker becomes crucial to the archaeological narrative as we get closer in time to the present. As you’ve seen before on the Subversive Archaeologist, it’s this notion of the finished artifact fallacy that’s at the heart of my critique of the so-called Levallois technique in the Mousterian [and, of course, the critiques of Iain Davidson and Bill Noble].
     I’ll save another examination of the Levallois technique for another time. I hope you had a fine weekend. Back to work tomorrow!

[This article has been updated to remove text referring to the illustration as three different Oldowan artifacts. It’s not. A tip o’ the hat to the ever-perspicacious Marco Langbroek for breaking the news to me in one of his comments.]

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