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John Shea’s Toolmaking Expertise Highlighted in Science News


John Shea, Stony Brook professor of anthropology and a leading expert in paleolithic stone tool assemblage, is extensively quoted in a forthcoming Science News article on the significance of stone tools to our understanding of hominid evolution.

John Shea

The article, “Telling stories from stone tools,” (paywall) describes new approaches to categorizing stone tools in the context of growing controversies about traditional classification schemes.

Shea discusses flaws in the interpretation of “named stone tool industries” — what he calls “NASTIES” — which may lead scientists to lump together tools of different hominids adapting to similar habitats in the same way.

“NASTIES are like archaeologists’ family heirlooms,” Shea told Science News. “We don’t know what to do with them, but we don’t want to throw them away.”

Shea, recently featured with Alan Alda in the PBS mini-series The Human Spark, is a skilled flintknapper, able to turn a lump of stone into a lethal weapon in minutes. He is especially fascinated by spears and arrows, whose creation requires the combining of different materials — wood, twine, glue as well as finely fabricated stone points — and reveals a sophistication of thinking that is the hallmark of modern humans. Yet he and other archeologists have found evidence of these Stone Age guided missiles going back over 100,000 years in Africa, millennia before the arrival of Homo sapiens, our direct ancestors, in Europe.

Indeed, Shea argues that the invention of projectile weapons was such a great evolutionary leap forward in hunting technology that it permitted modern humans’ expansion out of our ancestral African home — and gave them a critical edge over the humans then living in Europe, the Neanderthals.

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