How Rare are Stone Age Artifacts? A Visit to a Stone Tool-Making Center at Kathu, South Africa

Hundreds of millions and possibly billions of stone artifacts sit just under parking lots and homes in Kathu, South Africa.  Artifacts in this area were examined a few years ago in a vacant lot scheduled to be developed into a shopping plaza.  Explorations in this lot revealed a very dense collection of artifacts referred to as an “astronomical” collection in a report by a South African museum commissioned to survey the site and make recommendations about further development.

A sample of hand-axes found at Kathu.

A sample of hand-axes found at Kathu.

How many artifacts were found?  In just a few meter-square sample pits over a several acres, archaeologists collected 10s of thousands of stone tools and products of tool making.  The archaeologists estimated that there are on average 900 artifacts per 100x100x10 cm volume of material in this area with much of the area up to 2 meters deep in artifact rich soils.  This high concentration of artifacts along with available source rock in outcrops nearby suggests that long ago this was a tool making center.

When I first read about this incredibly rich stone tool site it got me wondering:  just how prevalent are stone tools? I really didn’t know, but as I researched this site further and several others from around Africa and the Middle East I was absolutely stunned by the sheer volume of stone tools that have already been found.  Then I asked myself the question, just how many stone tools or artifacts could there be in the soils of Africa?  My back-of-the-envelope calculations seemed so ridiculously large that I found it difficult to believe at first.

A sample pit from Kathu Townlands Stone Age site.  Stone Age artifacts are found throughout the column down to bedrock.  The small rock pieces here are fractured bedrock from a hill nearby with wand blown in from the Kalihari dessert.  Image from Walker et al. 2013 report:  A second phase 2 archaeological data recovery at the site of Kathu Townlands for Erf 5116: Kathu, Northern Cape Province.

A sample pit from Kathu Townlands Stone Age site. Stone Age artifacts are found throughout the column down to bedrock. The small rock pieces here are fractured bedrock from a hill nearby with wind blown in from the Kalahari dessert. Image from Walker et al. 2013 report: A second phase 2 archaeological data recovery at the site of Kathu Townlands for Erf 5116: Kathu, Northern Cape Province.

For example, the Kathu Townlands vacant lot site which was surveyed covered a couple of acres.  In just that area alone I estimate there must be between 36 and 360 million artifacts.  Those are astounding numbers.  But then consider that large numbers of artifacts have been found outside this lot.  The total area covered by this stone tool manufacturing center is now thought to extend over some 25 hectares (61 acres).  Using much more conservative estimates for the density of artifacts and depth to which they occur, I still come up with an low-end estimate of 1 billion stone artifacts in these soils.

A hand-axe pictured as it was found. Complete specimens are not common probably because they were not used here and so they would have been taken elsewhere to be used. This one was probably lost in the sand and rock after production.  Image from Walker et al. 2013 report:  A second phase 2 archaeological data recovery at the site of Kathu Townlands of Erf5116.

A hand-axe pictured as it was found. Complete specimens are not common probably because they were not used here and so they would have been taken elsewhere to be used. This one was probably lost in the sand and rock after production. Image from Walker et al. 2013 report: A second phase 2 archaeological data recovery at the site of Kathu Townlands of Erf5116.

But the gaudy numbers don’t stop there. Within a few miles there are several other high density stone artifact sites not to mention hundreds of other locations in South Africa.  And these are only the sites that we know about. There are almost certainly ore sites left to discover than have already been discovered.

Billions and billions of artifacts and millions and millions of tools

Stone artifacts in South Africa alone must number in the tens of billions if not more.  Of course, most of these are not completed stone tools.  Stone artifacts include all the shards of stone tool production.  The number of complete stone tools would be a small percentage of these artifacts.   Even so, we are talking about tens of millions of stone tools.  The more I read the more is suspect that I am much more likely to be underestimating their abundance. And this is just South Africa. Stone artifacts are found abundantly throughout Africa.

Maybe the best evidence of how common stone tools and other artifacts are in South Africa can be found in the final conclusions of the report by the McGregor Museum that I mentioned earlier.  Although they only were able to examine a tiny fraction of the material at this site they conclude: “we recommend that the permit for destruction of the remaining archaeological deposits of Erf 5116 be approved.”  They argue that they collected enough material to be able to study the tool technology and characterize it in this place and time in history and no more material is necessary.  Even though these tools are thought to be a half a million years old getting more material isn’t considered valuable enough to stop most of it from being paved over. A museum giving permission for development and not fighting for protection should be enough to convince you that stone artifacts are incredibly common.

The Stone Age, Creationism and Adam

I am rolling around some ideas for a series of posts in which I would introduce you to some of the more famous Stone Age sites. We would look at the context in which the artifacts are found and ask how those tools can be explained in a variety of faith traditions.  Here are some particular questions that I am hoping address as I do my research:

  • When did the people live that produced all these stone tools?
  • How do young earth creationists (YECs) fit the Stone Age into their post-flood timeline?
  • Who produced these tools and when did the live?
  • For evangelical Christians, what challenges, if any, do these tools present for out understanding of a historical Adam?
  • If there had been a global flood would stone tools be expected to be found in the geological column?
  • Are all stone tools produced the same way or are there different stone tool production technologies?

Kathu Townland Stone Age References:

Walker, Steven, Michael Chazan, Vasa Lukich, and David Morris. “A second Phase 2 archaeological data recovery at the site of Kathu Townlands for Erf 5116: Kathu, Northern Cape Province.” http://www.sahra.org.za/sites/default/files/heritagereports/Rooisands_mall_second_Phase_2_20130826.pdf

Walker, Steven JH, Vasa Lukich, and Michael Chazan. “Kathu Townlands: A High Density Earlier Stone Age Locality in the Interior of South Africa.” PloS one 9, no. 7 (2014): e103436. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0103436

Comments

  1. I have examined some stone tools. And I understand how they often are (or can be) made. But with many of the “simpler” tools, I have often wondered: How can we be sure they were MADE or purposefully SHAPED by human artisans . . . rather than somehow formed through natural processes and then IDENTIFIED as “suitable” or “worthy” of the kinds of services to which a human would want to put them?

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    • Great question. Sorry about my late response. I’m no expert on this so take the following with that in mind. I know that there are some rock artifacts which are disputed because there are natural processes that can cause similar shaped objects. In all my reading the marks of authentic shaping is related to analysis of the pattern of shards produced. If the directions by which a chip was made come from uniform directions rather than randomly about the rock then that is considered evidence of purposeful action. I might liken it to the analysis of cut marks on bones. Many fossils bones or subfossils have marks on them. They could come from rolling around in gravel during transport or from bite marks from a carnivore eating the flesh off them or from stone tools cutting away the meat. To the untrained eye the marks might appear the same but experimental evidence and comparison of lots of examples allows experts to distinguish the various types of marks.

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  2. Interesting article! Question: When did hand axes go out of fashion in Africa? I ask because I recently picked up one in Gauteng Province, South Africa, and I am trying to work out its minimum age. As far as I can work out, Neanderthals in Europe continued to make hand axes until recently, but they did not live in Africa, so perhaps here the hand axe was replaced by more advanced stone tools longer ago? I haven’t been able to find any clear information on this on the web.

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    • I’m not going to be able to help much since I’m don’t have a lot of knowledge in this area. But I’m pretty confident that hand axes were a common element of stone tools through out the stone age. That would cover a long time (500,000 years at least) so just having a stone axe doesn’t narrow the time frame own much. I’m sure an expert could narrow that down quite a bit. Although hand axes have been used over a long time they clearly changed a lot. The methods of producing them, the materials that were used changed and enough is probably known such that a person could look at the axe and assign it to a particular period.

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  3. Simply put they have not discovered trillions of hand axes, in fact the amount of material is very little, much less than should be estimated from a millions of years theory. You are projecting this problem onto creationists. They will tell you that geological changes are responsible for the lack of evidence and material found from the stone age. There should be huge amounts of bones and human remains, but we find only a few scattered around. Well the bible also agrees on this geological change, it was called the flood, and we believe that is why the earth is covered in sedimentary rock, and below the sedimentary rock lies frozen tropical forests all over the world, including the Arctic. Cheers.

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    • Hi Eric, thanks for your response. Like Terry Mortenson who responded from AiG you seem to be interpreting “artifacts” as complete hand-axes. Very true there are not trillions of hand axes. There are trillions of stone artifacts most of which are the chips produced in fashioning stone axes. These are all the product of stone tool production as I defined in the article and the articles that I reference.

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