Beyond Utilitarianism: The Colours of Stone Tools


This is a broad bifacially worked “leaf point” (12x 5,9 x 0,25 cm)from the Tenerian technocomplex, displaying one of the characteristic of Tenerian stone tools- their colorfulness

All material productions in Modern Humans are culturally, socially and physically embedded. With ocher and manganese, our ancestors, since the Middle Pleistocene marked objects and possibly their own skin. Colors were symbols by which they identified themselves and their group. Humans may have first used ocher either as an adhesive or a pigment, and later to make artistic drawings and paintings.

Most Prehistorians avoid discussions about raw materials for stone tool production in terms of the spiritual, ritual, or symbolic spheres, beyond simple utilitarian aspects. Nevertheless such questions remain highly interesting and may be, at least partially, be answered by middle-ranged inductive approaches.

For example- why was translucent quartz preferred by certain Middle Pleistocene Paleolithic communities?  Quartz fractures are less predictably relative to other stones that were used for tool making, and tend to shatter and fragment.

Highly colored and banded Bergerac flint is found as far away as 100 km from the source (Les Fieux, Le Plane, Le Mas-Viel). During the Upper Paleolithic, Bergerac chert was distributed as far as 330 km to the south-east (Regismont le Haut), 260 km to the south-west (Isturitz) and 255 km to the north (Les Roches). At Pataud in Les Eyzies mainly local lithic raw materials were used during the Aurignacian, while the importance of Bergerac chert increased in the Gravettian assemblages of this site. Could this have non-utilitarian reasons beyond the emergence of new networks during the Upper Paleolithic in the Vezere valley, where flint of good quality was always present?

In the ethnographic context, visually distinctive raw materials for stone tool production were and are frequently associated with non-functional, symbolic, values. Although informations about this topic are sparse, some detailed observations  come from Australia. The Aborigines of the Western Desert have a special category for stones with distinctive color, shape, or texture, such as quartz crystals, mica, and oddly shaped bits of agate. The category includes prehistoric stone tools that the people of the Western Desert find and re-fashion, and even European detritus such as bits of Bakelite plastic or eye-glass lens.

Aborigines often associate their stone tools with the power of ancestors and ancestral landscapes, an association strengthened by qualities of the raw material, especially iridescence and light reflection. The brightness they value belongs to other substances too, such as fat, which are therefore considered aesthetically satisfying and “spiritually charged with power.”  From these ethnographic data it is concluded that color played a fundamental role in both expressing and maintaining relationships to places, ancestral beings and other groups of people.

“Specifically, a growing body of ethnographic evidence supports the contention that many forms of stone tools produced over the past 6000 years in western Arnhem Land have both aesthetic and symbolic value which influenced their manufacture. Much of this is related to ideas about power: the power of Ancestral Beings that created the landscape, including rocky outcrops used as quarries; the power and properties of stone as a substance, and especially quartz and quartzite; the power of initiated males who made, used and controlled access to certain stone tools; and so forth” (Tacon 1991).

Suggested Readings:

The Meaning of Colors

Neolithic / Chalcolithic Jade artifact from Varna

Bergerac chert / flint during the Upper Paleolithic

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