Notable: Raw material choice may not matter to handaxe shape

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Notable paper: Eren MI, Roos CI, Story BA, von Cramon-Taubadel N, Lycett SJ. 2014. The role of raw material differences in stone tool shape variation: an experimental assessment. Journal of Archaeological Science 49:472-487. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2014.05.034

Synopsis: Metin Eren and colleagues show in a large experimental study that the properties of raw materials do not constrain the shape of handaxes, at least not in the hands of a skilled knapper.

Important because: If differences in artifact shapes between sites or regions actually reflect raw material type, they tell us nothing about ancient culture, knowledge or learning. By showing that raw material doesn’t matter, Eren and colleagues raise the potential of studying ancient cultural differences. Demonstrating that handaxes in particular are not constrained by raw material means that the Acheulean – with a diversity of handaxe shapes and sizes in different places – is not as monolithic as many archaeologists have claimed.

But… Toolmakers really do prefer some raw materials over others, and traveled some distance to obtain them, even among the earliest Oldowan toolmakers. Toolmakers who were forced to work with shoddy materials probably had a harder job, and would have had a harder time transmitting their knowledge to novices. So raw material obviously matters to the kinds of artifacts we should expect to find, even if it does not constrain artifact shape in any absolute way.