Friday, July 07, 2006

The Stone Axe

It is an incredible fact that at the end of the 20th Century, there were humans on one side of the earth sending people into space, while on the other side, humans existed whose highest technological achievement was the stone axe. The stone axe was an incredibly important technological development for mankind. Much more important than the spaceship. It allowed man to control his environment for the first time, chopping down trees and creating 'gardens' in the jungle.

Last weekend we went to see a special exhibition at the French National Archaeological Museum which is located in the chateau of St Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris. The museum doesn't seem to get that many visitors and you can pass a very calm afternoon there, looking over the fabulous and well explained (if you speak French) exhibits.

The exhibition called 'Objects of Power in New Guinea' is based on a donation of material from two anthropologists who have worked in Papua New Guinea over a period of more than twenty years. The objects, and an accompanying film, document the importance of stone axes to some of the native peoples of this island.

A number of 'objects of power' are displayed which include the stone axes. The axe is an essential tool for the natives in their mode of life which is based on being able to clear patches of the dense rain forest and create 'gardens' where taro, maize and sweet potato are grown. As well as a practical item, non-utility 'axes' are used as an item of trade, dressed up in woven clothes like a woman. Consecrated axes cannot be touched without sacrificing a pig. The axe is a sign, symbolising the status of young men.

The men quarry the axes from a particular outcrop of glaucophane schist rock to which they have to hike for up to a week, an arduous and dangerous journey. They build a fire under the rock to make the stone expand and exfoliate. They then throw it into a nearby river so that it cracks and splits into pieces of suitable size. Another fire is used to reheat large pieces of stone before throwing them again into the river.

The natives believe that a deity was buried underneath the rock outcrop and that magic powers introduced the axes into this particular rock outcrop. They believe their work is simply to release the axes from the stone in which they are encased.

Once a suitable sized lump of rock has been found, the man begin knapping the edge of the stone to make it the right shape. They return to their village with up to a dozen pieces of rock each. These they model into perfect mirrored blades over the coming months, grinding the axes to a perfect edge on a sandstone block lubricated with water. The resulting axes are beautiful, their blades decorated by the patterns inside the rock. Green dye from plant leaves is used to give the axes a verdigris finish.

Here is the first technology of man. It gave him a hitherto unknown power over nature. He invested the rock from which the axe came with his own supernatural conception of the universe in which a greater power was giving him rights over the rest of nature. To that supernatural power, he began to sing praise in song and verse.


clare said...

Fascinating post, Jonathan. I'd love to see one of those stone axes. When I hear about feats such as this I always wonder how such technology, which seems quite sophisticated to me, was first developed. Who first threw the rock on the fire? Who first learnt to sharpen the rock - I guess it was by accident and generations building on what had gone before.

Ah, these homos sapiens, sometimes they seem such amazing creatures; but then they go and spoil it all by throwing those beautiful stone axes (or something like them) at each other!

Jonathan said...

Thanks Clare. The people described in my review would seem to be living a lifestyle akin to that of Neolithic people of Europe, beginning around 5000 BC. The Papua indians have a highly developed axe-making technique and have moved from a hunter-gathering lifestyle to a proto-agricultural style of living involving some domestication of plants and animals. The discovery of axe-making technique must have come of experimentation. It is interesting that the 'discovery' has occurred in many diverse parts of the world. Perhaps the experimentation is finally driven by competition to survive? As you say, the axes are also rather dangerous and as soon as the neighbouring tribe has them, it would put a pressure on your own tribe to find out how to make them as well. In my opinion, these people, hidden away in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, may simply be the last to adapt to the ripples of a technological revolution that began in the Mesolithic some ten thousand years earlier, but I don't know how long they have been producing axes, so that is speculative. The technology for shaping stones goes back much further than that of course, as do the techniques of humans to kill each other...