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Day 34 (July 29, 2011): What’s the Point?

July 29, 2011

The road to becoming human was sometimes a dangerous one, and survival required sophisticated weapons. Here at Olorgesailie, the BOK-2 team has uncovered one of the first kinds of such weapons—the MSA point. 

The MSA, or Middle Stone Age, is the more recent of the two stone technologies we have a record of here at Olorgesailie. In our digs, the MSA is represented in a younger formation called the Oltulelei Formation, which lies on top of the older Olorgesailie Formation. This time period is the expertise of Alison and John.

The MSA is an intriguing time in prehistory characterized by the rise of much more complicated tool kit and ways of manufacturing tools (i.e., stone technologies).  Flake blades and smaller, more sophisticated prepared cores begin to appear, but the most unique tool type of the MSA is called ‘the point’.

A point is a particularly sharp and tapered stone tool. After a complicated manufacturing process, the point was then hafted, or bound, to a wooden shaft.  Hafting represents the first technology combining two different materials together, quite a step! It gave early humans a major advantage in hunting, enabling them to take down larger prey and strike from greater distances. So, how did early humans create such a valuable tool?

A black obsidian rock with brown dirt sploches and # 4368 painted on one side. It is a stone tool, a Levallois point, with a teardrop shape and is 7cm at its greatest lenght.
An obsidian Levallois point from BOK-2. This tool was created from a prepared core
There are two different ways to manufacture a point. One way is to prepare a core in such a way that the flakes that are knapped from it are already pointed. This is called a Levallois point.  Levallois prepared-cores were first discovered by construction workers while digging a subway station in Paris more than 100 year ago.  It is also associated with the Neanderthals, which was the first indication that Levallois technology existed a long time ago!

A black obsidian rock chipped into a tear dropped shaped form with the #1198 painted on it. It is approximately 3 cm in lenght
An obsidian MSA point from BOK-2.
The second way is to remove a flake from a core, and then ever-so-carefully strike the edge of the flake to make it pointed. This modification is called retouch.  Retouch involves striking off tiny flakes until the resulting edge is somewhat jagged. Retouch actually dates back to the late Acheulean handaxes and scrapers, but the retouch needed to make an MSA point is unique—it is very flat and invasive, resulting in a point so thin and sharp it can do serious harm to an enemy. In fact the retouch is so fine that it could not have been achieved with another stone. The manufacturer would have had to use something softer like bone or a wooden rod to achieve the sharp edge.

Finding these points at BOK-2 has been very exciting. It shows that early humans were well on their way to having the technological abilities of later prehistoric members of our own species, Homo sapiens.