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CBC’s Quirks & Quarks: Recreating the Bamboo Age

Canadian science journalist Bob McDonald interviewed SMU archaeologist Metin Eren for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Quirks & Quarks with Bob McDonald radio show.

Eren’s latest research tests the long-held theory that prehistoric humans in East Asia crafted tools from bamboo, which archaeologists in the past devised to explain a lack of evidence for advanced prehistoric stone tool-making processes. Eren research asked “Can complex bamboo tools even be made with simple stone tools?”

A modern-day flint knapper, Eren replicated the crafting of bamboo knives and confirmed 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, he says.

In “Recreating the Bamboo Age,” Eren explains how he made the bamboo tools and what he and his colleagues determined from the experiment.

Listen to the podcast.


Quirks & Quarks
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Prehistoric humans achieved a lot with stone tools, and some cultures developed them to the acme of refinement.

However, archeologists have been puzzled by the fact that in Southeast Asia, the stone tools they’ve found were universally simple and crude. Some have suggested that this was because early humans used flexible, plentiful bamboo instead, as their material for more sophisticated tools.

Experimental archeologist Metin Eren, a PhD at Southern Methodist University, had an opportunity to test this idea. Mr. Eren has spent years developing his skills as a flint-knapper — a maker of stone tools. He decided to try his hand at bamboo tool making. He rediscovered techniques that allowed him to make various bamboo implements, using a few simple rock edges to start the process.

He had great success making spears, and breaking down bamboo for weaving. However, his attempts to make a bamboo knife — an essential tool for early humans — were disappointing: the knives could be made very sharp indeed, but weren’t durable enough to be really useful.

Listen to the podcast.

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Modern-day bamboo tool-making shines light on scarcity of Stone Age tools from prehistoric East Asia

Bamboo knives are easy to make — and will cut meat, but not hides, suggesting prehistoric people preferred crudely made stone flakes

The long-held theory that early human ancestors in East Asia crafted their tools from bamboo and wood is much more complicated than originally conceived, according to a new study.

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 archaeologist Metin I. Eren, the expert knapper who crafted the tools for the study.

Study: Bamboo knives were efficiently crafted and able to cut meat, but not hide

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 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “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.

“The importance of experimental archaeology, of replicating the production of bamboo tools with simple stone artifacts, was needed for a long time. Due to successful cooperation in every stage of the experiments with our Chinese colleagues, we managed to demonstrate the potential of a simple stone tool technology to produce many different daily tools made of bamboo,” said archaeologist and lead author Ofer Bar-Yosef, professor of Stone Age archaeology at Harvard University.

In addition to Bar-Yosef and Eren, co-authors were archaeologists Jiarong Yuan and Yiyuan Li of Hunan Provincial Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Relics; and archaeologist David J. Cohen of Boston University.

Poor diversity of prehistoric stone tools in Southeast Asia
As in Africa, previous fossil discoveries in East Asia have indicated that early human ancestors continuously inhabited those regions for as much as 1.6 million years. Unlike Africa and western Eurasia, however, where stone tools show increasing and decreasing complexity, East Asia’s stone tools remain relatively simple.

Researchers know that simple flaked “cobble” industries existed in some parts of the vast East and Southeast Asia region, which includes present-day China, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, parts of Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, East Timor and Vietnam. Stone tool discoveries there have been limited to a few hand axes, cleavers and choppers flaked on one side, however, indicating a lack of more advanced stone tool-making processes, innovation and diversity found elsewhere, say the authors.

The lack of complex prehistoric stone tool technologies has remained a mystery. Some researchers have concluded that prehistoric people in East Asia must have instead crafted and used tools made of bamboo — a resource that was readily available to them.

Scientists suggest several reasons for missing stone tool industry
Scientists have hypothesized various explanations for the lack of complex stone tools in East and Southeast Asia. On one hand, it’s been suggested that human ancestors during the early Stone Age left Africa with rudimentary tools and were then cut-off culturally once they reached East Asia, creating a cultural backwater.

Others have suggested a lack of appropriate stone raw materials in East and Southeast Asia. In the new study, however, Bar-Yosef, Eren and colleagues showed otherwise by demonstrating that more complex stone tools could be manufactured on stone perceived to be “poor” in quality.

Studies set out to test “bamboo theory” by replicating stone tools
Prolific in East and Southeast Asia, bamboo stands grow fast and thick, reaching maturity in 5 to 7 years and totaling more than 1,000 species, the authors say.

In a 2007 pilot study and a 2008 expanded study the authors worked with the Archaeological Field Research Station of the Hunan Provincial Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Relics in Shimen, China. Experiments were carried out in three locations across Hunan province known to possess clusters of Paleolithic sites.

The researchers gathered different kinds of cobble-sized rocks along the banks of the Li, Wu and Xiao Shui rivers, similar to those that would have been available to prehistoric human ancestors.

From those rocks, Eren easily replicated flake tools and stone choppers, some of them flaked on one side and some flaked on two sides. The team then observed a local bamboo toolmaker — who used metal tools to easily slice the bamboo — to learn techniques for sawing, shaving, splitting, peeling and chopping bamboo.

Stone tools efficiently chopped down bamboo stalks and produced knives
Using the crudely knapped stone choppers, the researchers in 84 minutes chopped down 14 bamboo stalks representing five species. When cut, the stalks, both small and large in diameter, totaled more than 65 meters in length. The stone tools performed remarkably well for that purpose, the authors write. That was especially true, they said, considering the tools were wielded by two modern people who were inexperienced with chopping bamboo, researchers Eren and Li. But Eren sometimes found himself scrambling up trees to release felled bamboo wedged in branches.

After numerous trials, the researchers developed a simple “bamboo knife reduction sequence” that could produce 20 sharp, durable bamboo knives in about five hours. Using pork purchased from a local market, the researchers write, they found that the knives easily cut meat, but not hide.

In other findings, the authors write that with a simple stone unifacial chopper, Bar-Yosef was able in 30 minutes to easily make a sharp spear that would have been capable of killing an animal. Also, using the replicated stone tools they were able to produce strips of bamboo thin enough for weaving baskets. “For some items, like baskets, bamboo might have been an ideal raw material,” Eren said.

“But one is left to wonder, at least for butchery tasks, why a prehistoric person would go to the trouble of producing a bamboo knife when a stone flake would certainly do the trick,” the authors write.

Unprecedented study confronts long-standing assumption
“The so-called bamboo hypothesis, to explain the virtual absence of complex prehistoric stone tool technologies in eastern and southeastern Asia, has been often cited but always remained somewhat ambiguous,” said Chauhan, co-editor of the Quaternary International issue in which the article will be published. “This unprecedented experimental study by Ofer Bar-Yosef, Metin Eren and colleagues represents a first step in the right direction, to confront a long-standing assumption about early human technological adaptations.”

Funding for the research was provided by the American School of Prehistoric Research, Harvard University; a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship; and the Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University.

SMU is a private university in Dallas where nearly 11,000 students benefit from the national opportunities and international reach of SMU’s seven degree-granting schools. For more information see Follow SMU Research on Twitter, @smuresearch.

SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews. To speak with Metin Eren or book him in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650.

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Live Science: Archaeologist Recreates Stone Age Technology

Live Science is featuring an interview with Metin I. Eren, a Ph.D. candidate in the SMU Department of Anthropology.

In the November 12 piece, “Science Lives: Archaeologist Recreates Stone Age Technology,” Eren answers the ScienceLives 10 Questions to elaborate on his expertise in Stone Age archaeology, human evolution and experimental archaeology. An expert flintknapper, Eren can accurately replicate prehistoric stone-tool technology to investigate prehistoric tool efficiency, design and production.

Read Eren’s answers to the ScienceLives 10 Questions.


Live Science
Metin I. Eren is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Southern Methodist University. His areas of expertise include Stone Age archaeology, human evolution and experimental archaeology. He is an expert flintknapper, which means he can accurately replicate prehistoric stone-tool technology. Through his experimental research and that of his colleagues, researchers have investigated Neanderthal tool efficiency and design; prehistoric bamboo tool production in China; and how animal trampling in India may disturb buried artifacts, potentially biasing subsequent interpretation. His research currently involves how prehistoric humans colonized unfamiliar landscapes. By focusing upon the Pleistocene colonization of the North American Lower Great Lakes region eleven thousand years ago, he is exploring what sort of behaviors and technology people used to successfully adapt to, and eventually settle into, an uncharted Ice Age landscape. Read his answers to the ScienceLives 10 Questions below.

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Name: Metin I. Eren
Age: 27
Institution: Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX
Field of Study: Human Evolution and Experimental Archaeology

What inspired you to choose this field of study?
Human evolution is the study of us — where our species came from, and where we are going. By studying how we evolved, we can better understand how we fit into nature and how we are connected to it, and to each other. Having the chance to contribute pieces to the human story through scientific practice was simply an opportunity I could not pass up.

Though I started working on archaeological excavations when I was 16 years old, I realized in college that to get a more complete picture of the past I should learn how to make prehistoric tools. By knowing how to make replica tools, experimental archaeologists can conduct tests that otherwise would not be possible to conduct on real (and priceless!) artifacts, such as how well they work for hunting or butchery, or how durable they are when we try to break them. So, over many years I learned the very difficult craft of “flintknapping,” which is the process of flaking stone to make tools. Since stone tools make up 99.9 percent of the artifacts we find during the Stone Age, which is the longest archaeological period in our evolution (2.6 million years!), experimental archaeology can contribute many pieces to the study of human evolution, behavior, and technology.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
I’ve been really fortunate to always be surrounded by people who look out for my well-being, and so it is really hard to pick just one piece of advice. However, there are two quotes that I keep in the back of my mind when it comes to my life and career in science.

(1) From my parents, quoting John F. Kennedy: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

(2) From my Ph.D. advisor, Professor David Meltzer: “Don’t stop pedaling.”

What was your first scientific experiment as a child?
Though I had been on numerous excavations as a teenager, I did not conduct my first true archaeological “experiment” until my third-year in college. While writing my senior honors thesis it sort of hit me that the method I was using to measure artifacts did not really get at the information I was really interested in. So with the help of my dear friend and colleague Professor Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo (Complutense University, Spain) I devised an appropriate method which we tested on experimental stone tools. We ended up publishing the new method in a top-tier archaeology journal.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher?
The idea of contributing to knowledge has always inspired me. Being a scientific researcher allows me to do that. I also love to travel and explore — archaeology in particular lets me to do that. Between field work and conferences I have traveled around the world, from the most remote locations to the biggest cities.

Read the full article on Eren’s answers to the ScienceLives 10 Questions.

SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews. To speak with Metin I. Eren or to book a live or taped interview in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650 or email