Anvil

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Torben C. Rick, Ph.D.

Dr. Torben Rick

Image Courtesy of Torben Rick

Dr. Torben Rick grew up on the California coast where he developed an interest in the ocean and its role in peoples' everyday lives at an early age. As an archaeologist and curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, he studies how humans have influenced and been influenced by the environments in which they lived for centuries and millennia. His work focuses on analyzing animal bones and shells from coastal archaeological sites to understand how marine ecosystems change through time and how people and natural climatic changes influence these developments. He has a bachelor's degree in Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of Oregon.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.
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An Example of Woodland Pottery
A88341-0, Department of Anthropology, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution

About Native American Traditions of Eastern North America

The first humans in eastern North America were small hunting and gathering societies that lived in the eastern woodlands of the United States and relied exclusively on wild plants and animals for their food. About 4,000 years ago, pottery first appeared in North America, but was not widespread until 3,000 years ago. Pottery was an important part of these societies as they shifted from their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one built around agriculture, specifically corn, or maize. At about the same time that maize became the most important crop plant in eastern North America, a major advance in ceramic technology also occurred. Native American societies in the Southeast and Midwest United States began to add ground clam shell to strengthen or temper their pottery clay. This allowed them to make much larger, stronger, and longer-lived vessels of many different shapes. Pottery is a key element of the archaeological record from approximately 1050 B.C., gradually increasing in both the quality and types of vessels made until European explorers and settlers arrived.

Different types of materials used to make stone tools
Photograph courtesy of Scott G.ÿJaquith and Charles A. Hannaford

Materials Used for Stone Tools

Prehistoric tools were made from many different materials. The most common tools in the archaeological record are those made from rocks and minerals. This is due to their ability to preserve well and not disintegrate over time. Prehistoric humans would seek out stones that would break in predictable ways and could be easily manipulated. These included flint, obsidian, chert, and different versions of quartz. Sometimes prehistoric humans would use fire to heat the raw stone material and make it easier to shape into a tool. As tools became more specialized, the types of materials used to make them expanded. Prehistoric humans began to use bones, antlers, wood, and other organic matter to help them with their daily activities. They would also combine materials to make their tools. For example, they would use wood for shafts of spears or arrows and attach these to stone projectile points using a thread made from animal hide and glue made from plant resin. As humans moved throughout the world, they encountered new types of materials that they could use to create new tools. For example, stone tools made of flint are very common in Western Europe while tools made of obsidian (volcanic glass) are much more common in Eastern Africa.

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How Prehistoric Tools Were Used by Humans

Many different animals besides humans use tools, but making such diverse and specialized tools is a trait characteristic of our species in particular. These skills separate humans from other primates. Prehistoric tools were made from many different types of materials, including stone, wood, animal bones, and antlers. Eventually modern humans learned how to make tools out of metals like copper and iron. Early tools come in many varieties, including points for spears and arrows, axes, sinkers, atlatls, digging sticks, knives, drills, scrapers, awls, and others. Tools allowed humans to become skilled hunters and fisherman. Prehistoric humans also used stone tools to help them perform daily activities. Tools like axes, scrapers, and awls were used to process animal kills for food preparation and to turn animal hides into clothing. Prehistoric humans also used tools to work wood and plant materials into shelters. By using tools, humans exerted some control over their environment and were able to influence and change it. This allowed them to live in more diverse climates and spread throughout the world.

Baule woodcarvers at work, Yagolikro village, Ivory Coast
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1972. Image no. EEPA EECL 6900. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

About Humans and the Environment

Humans have always manipulated their environment, whether by acquiring food, making and using tools, or other aspects of daily life. They are constantly interacting with their environment on a daily basis. By using the available materials, humans have created shelter, made tools, created containers and vessels, and produced items of personal and cultural significance. Many of these resources are naturally occurring, such as stones, minerals, animal bones, or organic fibers from plants, while others are made from combining materials. The process of acquiring these materials and the manufacturing process can be traditional practices that are passed down from one generation to another. Because materials are unique to the location of different communities and cultures, by studying the types of materials, as well as animal remains found and the processes used to manipulate them, anthropologists and researchers can learn about the daily activities and lifestyles of the cultures they are studying. In what ways do you interact with your environment on a daily basis?