Apr. 7, 2003 GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Move over, man the toolmaker: The idea of men as stone tool producers may need some rechiseling, say University of Florida scientists who found women sometimes are the masters. The research among an Ethiopian group indicates stone tool working is not just a male activity, but rather that women probably had an active part in creating stone tools, one of the most ubiquitous materials found on prehistoric sites.
"It really gives women a presence in the archaeological record and a chance for us to reflect upon a place in prehistory where women basically have been invisible," said Kathryn Weedman, a UF anthropology lecturer who led the National Science Foundation-funded research, which just completed its second year.
"There has always been this image of 'man the toolmaker' because it's generally perceived by the public, and many archaeologists, that males were the ones who made stone tools," said Steve Brandt, a UF anthropology professor and co-leader of the research team. "But we found that among one ethnic group, the Konso of Ethiopia, women dominate the activity."
The Konso women create a stone tool called a scraper to clean animal hides to be made into bedding and clothing, he said.
Stone tools are important because they were the first recognizable object people made, marking the beginning of the archaeological record dating back as early as 2.6 million years ago, Weedman said. Not until 5,000 to 10,000 years ago were pottery and metal tools introduced, she said.
"Stone artifacts are critical for identifying a wide range of activities that will help us learn what life was like," she said. "Basically, they trace the evolution of human culture because, for better or worse, they are often the only things preserved."
If people were found to be scraping antelope hides 100,000 years ago, for example, that might help tell us when they started making prepared clothing, Brandt said.
The Konso project "is vitally important both in documenting how stone tools are made and used – most people who used stone tools have been dead for hundreds or thousands of years – and in the social context of their use," said Michael Shott, an anthropology professor at the University of Northern Iowa.
The tradition of stone toolmaking continued into the 20th century in isolated parts of Africa, Australia and Siberia, but in the last couple of decades it has virtually disappeared as an everyday activity, except perhaps for the hide workers of Ethiopia, Brandt said.
The project is unique because it provides evidence that women actively flake stone to produce tools, Brandt said. "This project changes our perspective dramatically because theoretically we can talk about gender issues – the role of men and women in ancient societies," he said.
In the study described in the September/October issue of Archaeology magazine, the UF researchers identified 119 Konso hide workers who used flaked stone, glass or iron to scrape hides. Seventy-five percent of the hide workers were women, and most – 73 percent – were 40 or older, Weedman said.
Members of this group are born into the hide-working profession and remain locked into it, Weedman said. The products they make have not yet been completely replaced by Western industrial products, she said. "No one is living in the stone age," Brandt said of today's stone toolmakers. "They're wearing Western clothes, they have radios, they may even know about 9-11," he said. "They make these stone tools because the tools work. Stone is still the superior material – they prefer it over glass and iron."
The research team is seeking to determine why the scrapers look different from one village to the next, which may relate to differences in cultural traditions and ethnicity.
There is a sense of urgency to the research because humanity's first and longest-lasting cultural tradition is being lost rapidly, Brandt said. Many Konso hide workers are elderly and have not taught the craft to their children, and some are beginning to abandon stone for bottled glass because they can more easily pick up pieces off the road instead of having to hike two hours for chert, he said.
In the United States today, stone toolmaking has undergone something of a renaissance with the organization of various fairs and events that give amateurs a chance to try their hand at it, Brandt said.
"The great thing about our work is these are one of the last people in the world using stone tools on a regular basis, and they are living people whom we can directly observe, rather than base our understanding of the archaeological record strictly on experimentation and history," Brandt said.
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