Fossils and Artifacts

Fossils and Artifacts

Individually, artifacts and fossils offer archaeolo­gists, historians, and paleontologists glimpses of the past, with artifacts reflecting technological developments and fossils indicating life forms that once inhabited a biome. When examined together, artifacts and associated fossils, in both primary and secondary contexts, provide additional insight into an archaeological site’s formation processes and, ultimately, an idea as to a site’s and its affili­ated life forms’ place in time.

Occupation of North America

It was in 1927 that excavators first discovered Paleoindian projectile points near Folsom, New Mexico, a discovery with immediate and substan­tial ramifications. Before 1927, scholars thought that Native Americans had traversed North America only a few thousand years earlier. The projectile points, often fluted, which are now referred to as “Folsom” points, were found associated with the fossilized remains of an extinct species of bison, suggesting Native American occupancy more than 5 thousand years earlier than previous believed. What made the discovery even more convincing was that Folsom points were found embedded in some of the remains. Today, we have radio-carbon dating to verify the Folsom discoveries. In 1927, the excavators relied on the simple collaboration of artifacts and fossils to understand the site’s tempo­ral implications, a method far from absolute, but effective nonetheless.

The Emergence of Tool Traditions

The Sterkfontein site, a collective of cavern rem­nants located in South Africa, continues to yield fossil remains of early hominid species and a vari­ety of early lithic tools, including Australopithecine and Homo habilis specimens for the former and hand axes for the latter. The overlapping of speci­mens at Sterkfontein contributes to ongoing debates on when and by whom Oldowon and later tool traditions were created. With Sterkfontein hom­inid remains estimated at over 1.5 million years old and the associated tools resembling tra­ditions, which would be an early Acheulean dis­covery, it is clear that hominids had created stone tools nearly 2 million years before the present (BP); an understanding gained through an analysis of artifacts and associated hominid fossils.

Environmental Change and
Technological Innovation

The understanding of plant domestication, par­ticularly in the Near and Middle Eastern regions where initial domestication efforts took place, remains a strong research objective of paleoan­thropologists and paleontologists alike. Consequently, an endless collection of artifacts and fossilized pollen grains has been gathered and partially analyzed, providing clues as to the pro­cess by which humanity learned to manage plants for consumption purposes. A consequence of this research is knowledge of paleoenvironments and the technological adaptations made by human populations responding to environmental changes through time. As with previous associations of artifacts and fossils, but with fossilized plants instead of fossilized animal remains, the examina­tion of assemblages provides greater insight than natural or manufactured collections alone, ulti­mately providing a better understanding of human­ity through time.

Neil Patrick O’Donnell

See also Anthropology; Archaeology; Boucher de Perthes, Jacques; Fossil Record; ; Paleontology

Further Readings

Clarke, R. J. (1988, June). Habiline handaxes and paranthropine pedigree at Sterkfontein. World Archaeology, 20(1), Archaeology in Africa [Special issue], pp. 1-12.

Eastwood, W. J., Roberts, N., & Lamb, H. F. (1998). Palaeoecological and archaeological evidence for human occupance in southwest Turkey: The Beysehir occupation phase. Anatolian Studies, 48, 69-86.

LeTourneau, P. D. (2006). Folsom culture. In H. J. Birx (Ed.), The encyclopedia of anthropology (pp. 975-978). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Susman, R. L. (1991, Summer). Who made the Oldowon tools? Fossil evidence for tool behaviour in Plio- hominids. A quarter century of paleoanthropology: Views from the U.S.A. [Special issue]. Journal of Anthropological Research, 47(2), 129-151.

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