Research Reveals Stone Age Humans Recycled Stone Tools

A study of fire-damaged artifacts found at the Molí del Salt site in Spain has revealed that hunter-gatherer humans of the Upper Paleolithic Age recycled stone tools.

The Molí del Salt archaeological site in Tarragona, Spain (M. Vaquero et al)

The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, indicates that recycling was an important component in the technological behavior of hunter-gatherers.

“In order to identify the recycling, it is necessary to differentiate the two stages of the manipulation sequence of an object: the moment before it is altered and the moment after,” Dr Manuel Vaquero, a researcher at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili and lead author of the study, explained to SINC. “The two are separated by an interval in which the artifact has undergone some form of alteration. This is the first time a systematic study of this type has been performed.”

Dr Vaquero’s team collected 1583 retouched artifacts including 199 multiple tools (those that combine two tools within the same item) from the Molí del Salt site, Tarragona, dating back to the end of the Upper Paleolithic Age some 13,000 years ago. “We chose these burned artifacts because they can tell us in a very simple way whether they have been modified after being exposed to fire,” Dr Vaquero said.

The study shows that tools used for hunting, like projectile points for instance, were almost never made from recycled artifacts. However, double artifacts were recycled more often.

“This indicates that a large part of these tools was not conceived from the outset as double art-facts but a single tool was made first and a second was added later when the art-fact was recycled,” Dr Vaquero said. “The history of the artifacts and the sequence of changes that they have undergone over time are fundamental in understanding their final morphology.”

Four endscrapers retouched after fire damage, left, and four double tools retouched before and after fire damage (M. Vaquero et al)

“Recycling could have been determinant in hunter-gatherer populations during the Paleolithic Age if we consider the behavior of current indigenous populations nowadays. It bears economic importance too, since it would have increased the availability of lithic resources, especially during times of scarcity. In addition, it is a relevant factor for interpreting sites because they become not just places to live but also places of resource provision.”

Humans at the Molí del Salt site did not have to move around to find raw materials to make their tools, a task that could have taken them far away from camp. “They would simply take an artifact abandoned by those groups who previously inhabited the site,” Dr Vaquero concluded.

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Bibliographic information: Manuel Vaquero et al. 2012. Temporal nature and recycling of Upper Paleolithic artifacts: the burned tools from the Molí del Salt site (Vimbodí i Poblet, northeastern Spain). Journal of Archaeological Science, 39: 2785 – 2796; doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.04.024