episode #143 prehistoric materials

frozen rose covered in snow

A material that rarely survives from the earlier end of prehistory is wood. It could be argued that much of prehistory could be considered the “Wood Age” due to its common use in tools, shelters, walls and more permanent buildings. It is generally considered that timber would have always been readily available in prehistoric Europe. However, this is simply not the case. At times during the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), much of Europe would have been an arctic or boreal tundra, dominated by grassland and permafrost with limited tree cover (Willis & Van Andel 2004). This clearly would have impacted the lives of Palaeolithic people significantly. Limited tree cover would have only produced a limited supply of firewood, limited soil generated in cold climates meaning only small, stunted trees could grow, small stunted trees rarely produce lengths suitable for spear shafts (Théry-Parisot  2002; Dilley 2020). [Ancient Craft]

The earliest use of wood is likely to be well in excess of 1 million years ago. However due to lack of evidence, this starting date can only be guessed at. Wood can of course be used for fire. It is highly likely that probing sticks were used by our earliest ancestors for fishing out invertebrates in the same way primates do in the present day (Haslam et al. 2009). The oldest humanly worked wooden object is currently the Clacton spear (Essex, UK). Dating to around 420,000 years ago, the broken spear tip found in 1911 by an amateur prehistorian is currently housed in the Natural History Museum, London (Stringer 2007). 

Post holes (where a wooden post or pile was driven into the ground) fill with soil and organic matter, this often leaves a soil trace of a different colour to the natural ground around it. An outline of post holes can indicate the size and style of a building, without a single piece of wood remaining.

Stone is the best represented humanly manipulated material from prehistory. Most stone types worked are almost indestructible to normal types of weathering. Stone types that were used to make sharp, flaked tools are especially resistant as these stone types can be flaked predictably due to their hardness provided by a high silica content. Certainly in Europe, the most well-known stone type used for flaked tools is flint. However flint only occurs in certain areas so was either carried or traded outside its naturally occurring regions or an alternate material was used such as quartzite, chert or a high silica volcanic rock type. 

Minerals, earth and clay were used to create paint, as a burial medium and eventually to make pottery. Pottery was not in use in the British Mesolithic but was in the late Mesolithic elsewhere in Europe, instead people would have likely used other materials such as bark and leather to make containers and pouches for holding and transporting goods between seasonal camps or back from a hunting expedition. The arrival of the Neolithic in Britain brought with it the first pots. These pots had curved bases, which suggest they rarely were placed on flat surfaces. By the end of the Neolithic, flat base pots are common. 

Some plant fibres such as nettle, flax and lime bast were used to make string while other plants provided medicine (such as willow bark), glue (bluebell bulbs and pine resin) and tinder for fire making (grasses, silver birch bark and various fungi). 

The controlled use of fire was likely an invention of  Homo erectus, with the earliest evidence from Oldowan hominin sites in the Lake Turkana region (Kenya). Sites such as Koobi Fora and Olorgesailie date from around 1.5 million years ago and contain oxidised patches of earth to a depth of several centimetres, which has been interpreted as evidence for fire control (Hlubik et al. 2017). Red clay shards have been discovered at Chesowanja near Lake Baringo and experimentation showed that the clay must have been heated to 400 °C to harden (Gowlett et al. 1981). Microscopic traces of wood ash, alongside animal bones and stone tools, were found in a layer dated to 1 million years ago at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa (Berna et al. 2012). 

When early people learned to control fire, cooking on open fires was eventually developed – probably by accident. Evidence for when cooking meat started has not yet been found, however archaeologists working in places such as Swartkrans (South Africa) are searching for evidence to show that this was possibly 1 million BP (Pickering 2001). They are hoping to find animal bones with butchery marks that have also been burnt, indicating that cooking of meat took place by Homo erectus (who had a 20% larger brain and smaller teeth with sharp points and thinner enamel). 


Gorillaz: Fire Flies

Stereo MCs: Playing With Fire

The Hics: Cold Air

BADBADNOTGOOD feat. Ghostface Killah: Food

The KLF: Build a Fire

Agnes Obel: Stone

James Newton Howard: Piecing It Together [The Tourist, OST]

Cigarettes After Sex: I’m a Firefighter

Javier Navarrete: The Light of a Fire

Boards of Canada: Farewell Fire