Stone Age ax study about more than history

Growing up in rugged Alaska, Chris Reynolds pretended to be Tarzan, toting fiberglass bow and arrows, rummaging through the woods, imagining life during prehistoric times.

Fast-forward many years, and the now-43-year-old Reynolds, a longtime carpenter and sculptor, is getting a chance to once again get in touch with his Stone Age roots. The only difference is, this time, he won’t have to pretend what it was like to develop tools for survival more than 1 million years ago.

Reynolds is one of roughly 20 adults in metro Atlanta who are about to participate in an Emory University study that involves learning the art of making a Stone Age hand ax. Like others, Reynolds has eagerly agreed to devote 100 hours over about four months to learn this prehistoric craft.

Dietrich Stout, an assistant professor of anthropology and head of Emory’s Paleolithic Technology Laboratory, said participants committed to learning how to make this craft will be part of an experiment studying evolutionary connections between language and toolmaking.

With the participants staggered over a three-year span as one group follows another, Stout’s participants will learn little by little how to turn a hard rock into a sharp tool.

Participants also will undergo MRI scans and eye-tracking experiments while watching a tool be made and then while listening to someone read a passage from a book. Researchers will then compare the brain response to the two different tasks.

Stout said the study could show, at least in theory, that the evolution of toolmaking skills could have contributed in some way to the emergence of language abilities. Researchers at Emory and elsewhere have studied the connection between ancient toolmaking and language in the past, but Stout said this is believed to be the largest in scope and the first time eye tracking is being used in the experiment.

“The idea is that (language) is very similar,” Stout said, “to what you do with your hands when you make a tool or even an everyday task like making lunch: You are taking lots of individual actions and stringing them together in an organized way to reach a goal.”

Stout said the most time-consuming part of making a Stone Age ax is learning the technique, the way it takes someone time to learn how to play a new sport or throw a ball for the first time. To make a Stone Age ax, Stout said you begin with a lump of rock, and learning how to strike, shape and mold it involves chipping and whittling and thinning down the edges with another stone for sharpness.

It’s important, Stout explained, to use the right kind of rock. Sandstone, for example, is too loose and soft and therefore easily breaks. Here in Georgia, chert, a hard, sedimentary rock, is a better choice.

For the Emory experiment, participants will work with imported English flint stone, which was used during the Paleolithic Period, as well as antler batons for fine-tuning the tool.

Learning the art of making the tool doesn’t require a great deal of strength, but instead demands patience, according to Stout.

“It’s harder than you might think,” he said. “You have to not get frustrated and just start banging on the rock.”

Once a person gets the hang of of making the stone ax, Stout estimates one can be completed in as little as 15 minutes. Stout estimates it takes him closer to 30 to 45 minutes to finish one.

So what were these Stone Age axes used for between 1.7 million and 300,000 years ago?

Stout said some evidence suggests they were used for butchering large animals like wild horses, and these tools that were used for more than 1 million years were utilized everywhere from England to Africa to India. Stout said this Stone Age ax represents a pivotal point in history when we shifted from more apelike creatures to humans. These Stone Age axes were later replaced by a sharp edge attached to a handle.

So far, about six people have signed up to participate in the study, which is open to the public.

For Reynolds, the experiment is an opportunity to bring together his work, hobbies, passion. He recently completed a Master of Fine Arts from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), he loves to fuse together new and old, and with some projects, he gets ideas from a way of life thousands and thousands of years ago and mixes that with contemporary life.

For example, he recently made fabric by laminating seven layers of grocery bags together with an iron and then used the fabric to make a coat inspired by traditional Aleut parkas. (They are traditionally made with with seal gut and adorned with feathers. He used VHS tape and press-on nails.) He also made a spear thrower out of a golf club.

He can’t wait to learn how to make a stone ax — and the possibilities seem endless.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Paleolithic technology,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated by their mastery of materials. I think it will be super fun as a hobby to learn, and I definitely want to incorporate it into my art.”

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