Museums worldwide preserve and record the remains of technology used by our predecessors. Use of particular materials has led to a way of categorising whole groups of people in specific places and times. We refer to people of the Palaeolithic Age, the Neolithic Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and more recently, the Industrial Age.
Stored safely in small drawers in a Whanganui Regional Museum collection storeroom is a whole series of Palaeolithic stone tools produced by our human and pre-human predecessors. This amazing collection of stone tools was collected by H W Seton-Karr in North Africa during the late 19th century and donated to our Museum in 1935.
Looking at these tools leads to a sense of wonder about the people who made them, who they might have been and what their lives were like.
One drawer holds extremely ancient, rounded chipped stones called Oldawan tools which were created by pre-human hominids over 1.5 million years ago. These very clever hominids called Homo habilis (known as the Handymen) walked on two feet, lived in Africa and used stones gathered from around them as their technological solution to practical tasks. Perhaps they were skinning animals, cutting meat, or processing plant materials. The tools are rounded stones, small enough to fit into a modern human hand and flaked at one end, probably to create sharp stone fragments to use like a knife.
Yet another iteration of humankind, living in the period from 1.8 million to 300,000 years ago, developed much greater skill in working stone, creating teardrop shaped tools called Acheulean hand-axes, named after the valley in Europe where these tools were first discovered. These tools are shaped, working hand-axes made from stone by an upright-walking hominid species called Homo erectus (or Upright man), who used fire, created pigments and transported different kinds of stones across great distances. The remains of Homo erectus have been found associated with Acheulean tools. Acheulean tool technology lasted more than a million years and several hundred thousand of them have been discovered in numerous localities across Africa, Europe and Asia. A significant collection is held in Whanganui Regional Museum. Acheulean hand-axes are also associated with the hominid species, Homo heidelbergensis.
Stone tool manufacture was further developed by two later human species, Homo sapiens neanderthalus (Neanderthals) and Homo sapiens sapiens (us). This period of greater technological advancement is referred to as the Upper Palaeolithic. The tools are more intricately worked, with evidence of many more flakes of stone being removed, greater care in the overall shaping of the tools and a wider variety of tools created, including arrow-heads and spear-points.
Over thousands of years the technological skills of Homo sapiens sapiens became increasingly more complex and stone tools were created that are instantly recognisable to us today. One Neolithic stone axe-head in the Museum collection resembles a modern axe-head. It is a beautifully made tool, smooth, carefully shaped and fit for purpose. The person who made it was probably not all that different to us.
At some time in the far distant future, as with all the ages of humans who have gone before us, our discarded technology could provide a picture of who we are and how we lived.
Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.