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Telling stories from stone tools

New approaches to categorizing stone tools aim to improve descriptions of hominid evolution

1:51pm, March 23, 2015
A stone tool

TOOL TIMING  Hand axes, such as this Acheulean tool, were made as early as 1.7 million years ago. They probably had multiple uses, much like a Swiss army knife.

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Imagine if tens of thousands of years from now, archaeologists were to dig up a pile of wrecked, 20th century cars and try to figure out what people did with the strange-looking things.

After measuring soil-encrusted automobile shells and scattered engine innards, the researchers might well announce the discovery of ancient religious altars. Support for their interpretation would come from fragments of 20th century texts describing widespread car worship. Eminent scientists might propose that basic altars were made in a city called Detroit before being modified by their owners into objects suitable for worship. A flood of publications would sort the artifacts into categories of altars based on the presence or absence of tail fins and roof racks.

Archaeologist Harold Dibble of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia likes to tell this futuristic farce when he gives lectures

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