Second Stage Clovis Biface

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Dennis J. Stanford, Ph.D.

Dennis Stanford with Clovis stone points from the collection of the Smithsonian?s National Museum of Natural History

Photo by Chip Clark

Dr. Dennis J. Stanford earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Wyoming and went on to complete his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico. He serves as the curator of North and South American Paleolithic, Asian Paleolithic and Western United States archaeological collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He is the director of the Smithsonian’s Paleoindian and Paleoecology Program and the Head of the Division of Archaeology at the Museum. His research interests include how climate change and ecosystems during the terminal Pleistocene influenced the origins and development of New World Paleo-Indian cultures. He uses public and experimental archaeology to learn more about stone tool technology and early human lifestyles. He has conducted fieldwork in all areas of the world, including Siberia, China, Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, Plains and Southeastern United States, and Central and South America. He is well published, with his most recent work titled, "Across Atlantic Ice," which explores the idea that the first people arrived in North America by boat from Southwest Europe, rather than over the Bering Strait.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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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.


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?

Projectile point styles in the Mesa Verde region, Paleoindian through Pueblo III periods.
Composite photo courtesy Crow Canyon Archaeological Center (top row, left, photo courtesy of Center for the Study of the First Americans, Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University; top row, right, photo from the Bureau of Land Management; all other points from the Edge of the Cedars Museum collection, photos by Joyce Heuman Kramer, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center)

Tool Typology and Dating

Prehistoric tools can be useful in helping archaeologists figure out when a site was occupied by humans. Scientists can determine how old tools are by dating the sediments or layers that tools are found in and by comparing the tool's shape, design, and type of material to other tools whose age is known. Some of the first tools were large multi-purpose tools called choppers and handaxes. These were large rocks that prehistoric humans flaked to create sharp edges and were probably used for several purposes. As time went on, tools became more specialized and refined to meet different needs. As people began to hunt different types of game, spear and projectile points that were sharp on both sides replaced choppers. Tools became thinner, lighter and eventually had serrated edges. For example, Clovis points became widespread in North America around 13,000 years ago; they were likely used to butcher mammoths, bison, and other large animals. Later in time, smaller, lighter Folsom points became more common. Over time, projectile points became razor sharp, more triangular in shape, and began to have stems to improve hafting onto a spear or arrow shaft. Later humans made tools from a variety of types of stones, bones, and other organic material.