Research Spotlight: Bamboo tool-making study shines light on East Asia’s Stone Age tool scarcity

The long-held theory that prehistoric humans in East Asia crafted tools from bamboo was devised to explain a lack of evidence for advanced prehistoric stone tool-making processes. But can complex bamboo tools even be made with simple stone tools? A new study suggests the “bamboo hypothesis” is more complicated than conceived, says SMU archaeologist Metin I. Eren.

Research until now has failed to address a fundamental question: Is it even possible to make complex bamboo tools with simple stone tools? Now an experimental archaeological study – in which a modern-day flint knapper replicated the crafting of bamboo knives – confirms that it is possible to make a variety of bamboo tools with the simplest stone tools.

However, rather than confirming the long-held “bamboo hypothesis,” the new research shows there’s more to the theory, says Eren, the expert knapper who crafted the tools for the study.

The researchers found that crudely knapped stone choppers made from round rock “cobbles” performed remarkably well for chopping down bamboo. In addition, bamboo knives were efficiently crafted with stone tools. While the knives easily cut meat, they weren’t effective at cutting animal hides, however, possibly discouraging their use during the Stone Age, say the authors. Some knives made from a softer bamboo species entirely failed to produce and hold a sharp edge.

“The ‘bamboo hypothesis’ has been around for quite awhile, but was always represented simply, as if all bamboo species, and bamboo tool-making were equal,” says Eren, a doctoral candidate in anthropology in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. “Our research does not debunk the idea that prehistoric people could have made and used bamboo implements, but instead suggests that upon arriving in East and Southeast Asia they probably did not suddenly start churning out all of their tools on bamboo raw materials either.”

The findings appear online in the article “Were Bamboo Tools Made in Prehistoric Southeast Asia? An Experimental View from South China,” which will be published in an issue of the journal Quaternary International, edited by Parth Chauhan and Rajeev Parnaik.

To observe the process of using simple stone tools to make a bamboo knife, watch this video made by the researchers.

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About Kathleen Tibbetts

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