How the craftsmen in the New Guinea Highlands helped to solve an archaeological mystery.

Learning Process is a blog series containing stories about practical solutions and technologies in indigenous cultures, past and present.

Prehistoric stone tools found in the Old Stone Age archaeological sites are usually the best, most durable and sometimes the only evidence of the past material culture. They are most informative when shaped into specific forms which imply particular use, technological know-how, cultural affiliation or even progress.

Among such tools was the so called fabricator, first recognised and defined by Frederick McCarthy and his colleagues in Australia (1946), but present in some of the oldest archaeological sites where early, pre-modern humans made and used it, for example at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania some 1.8 million years ago.

The fabricator was considered a specific stone tool of unknown function. It was originally described as biface (flaked on both sides) with edges battered and splintered through use. It is often associated with difficult- to- flake stone, especially quartz.

During his research at the Lake Kopiago, in New Guinea Highlands, in the 1960s Peter White observed, 'almost by accident' – as he put it – how Duna-speaking people had flaked some stone by what archaeologists call ‘bipolar technique’.

They placed their stone for flaking on another flat stone as on an anvil and struck it with a hammer-stone, removing a series of flakes. Because of the impact of hammering the flakes are detached on both sides where the hammer-stone hits the rock and where the hard anvil redoubles the impact. The resulting products are flakes and the core visibly flaked but also battered on both sides at the same time.

Duna People made additional improvements by wrapping bark around the stone core during the flaking process, allowing flakes and shards to be captured by the bark – possibly as a safety measure.

This interpretation of the fabricator (renamed scalar core) was widely accepted by Australian and overseas archaeologists. The observation at Lake Kopiago validates White’s assertion that stone was flaked and used opportunistically, perhaps more than Palaeolithic archaeologists in the Old World assumed for a long time. But also it suggests that the flaking technique was appropriately selected for the material at hand.

Flint, chert, silcrete, fine quartzite and other similar materials were often flaked with well-structured methods, usually obtaining standardised products such as knives, blades and flakes of specific size and proportions. For such well-controlled flaking, a core would be held in one hand or rested on soft support, while the hammer may be a stone or an organic material such as wood or bone.

Prepared by Jordan Cavanough and Stan Florek.