Ancient Toolkit Gives Glimpse of Prehistoric Life

by Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News
Dec. 13, 2007

Before the end of the last ice age, a hunter-gatherer left a bag of tools near the wall of a roundhouse residence, where archaeologists have now found the collection 14,000 years later.

Ancient toolkit

The tool set, one of the most complete and well preserved of its kind, provides an intriguing glimpse of the daily life of a prehistoric hunter-gatherer. The contents, as described to Discovery News by Phillip Edwards, a senior lecturer in the Archaeology Program at Melbourne's La Trobe University, show the owner of the bag was well equipped for obtaining meat and edible plants in the wild."There was a sickle for harvesting wild wheat or barley, a cluster of flint spearheads, a flint core for making more spearheads, some smooth stones (maybe slingshots), a large stone (maybe for striking flint pieces off the flint core), a cluster of gazelle toe bones which were used to make beads, and part of a second bone tool," he said.

Edwards outlines the finds, attributed to the Natufian culture from a site called Wadi Hammeh 27 in Jordan, in the latest issue of Antiquity. He believes the tools were enclosed in a hide or wickerwork bag with a strap that would have been worn over the shoulder. Such bags rarely had compartments, so the owner probably protected valuable items by wrapping them in rolls of bark or leather before placing them at the bottom of the bag. The sickle, constructed out of two carefully grooved horn pieces, was fitted with color-matched tan and grey bladelets. It would have been a marvel of form and function for its day and is the only tool of its kind ever linked to the Natufian people. The rest of the items were designed to immobilize and then kill game such as aurochs, red deer, hares, storks, partridges, owls, tortoises and the major source of meat - gazelles. "A lone hunter or a group of hunters might wait for gazelles to cross their path while waiting behind a low 'hide' made of twigs and brush," Edwards explained. "They might have worked on making bone beads to wile away the time. Then a hunter could get off a shot while the animals were off their guard. A first shot might wound, but not kill, and then a hunter or a group of them will track the wounded animal."He added, "We don't know if Natufian hunters had the bow and arrow, or just spears."The mountain gazelles targeted by the Near Eastern hunters probably weighed between 39 and 55 pounds, so a strong adult "could carry an entire carcass over his shoulders without much trouble."But the bag's owner wasn't necessarily a man; women are thought to have been in charge of plant gathering. The tools, therefore, either belonged to a woman hunter-gatherer, or work activities were more gender-blind than thought during prehistoric times, Edwards theorized.

Francois Valla, director of the French Research Center in Jerusalem and a noted archaeologist, told Discovery News that similar ancient clusters of tools have been excavated, but this latest one is "the most spectacular of them all.""The clustering of these items is due to a decision made by some Natufian individual," Valla said. "As such, it is a rare testimony of the behavior of a person 14,000 years ago."

The toolkit's showpiece item, its double-bladed sickle, is now on display in the museum of the Faculty of Archaeology & Anthropology at Jordan's Yarmouk University.

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