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CHICAGO, 6 JULY 2016 - In 2015 an astonishing discovery was made in West Turkana, Kenya. A 3.3 million-year-old site yielded deliberately fashioned stool tools. This discovery pushed the threshold of tool- making back by 700,000 years. Just who made these tools remains unclear. The implications are that either the genus homo is much older than previously thought or something not fully human was also capable of making tools. Whatever the case, it is possible to hold in one’s hand a stone tool that spans the entire history of sentient beings.
Indeed the most primal, basic gesture that humans can make in response to their environment is to pick up a stone and strike another stone with it. With that simple action the entire technological trajectory of the species is set in motion. With that simple act our ability to modify and ultimately determine the fate of the planet is set.
For many cultures stone tools seem to have been much more than a utilitarian artifact. In example after example it is obvious that the tool makers were making aesthetic as well as practical decisions about their work. The grain of stone, the texture, the color and natural imperfections were observed and incorporated into the tool imparting beauty in addition to utility. The fact that many tools have been discovered in ritually conceived settings also implies that another level of meaning was collectively understood. Whether the primordial connection between stone and human-ness was intuited or consciously understood does not matter. What matters is that humans – for more than three million years – have maintained a relationship with stone that has only been abandoned in the recent past.
Dating stone tools is most often based upon morphology. And that morphology is relative to location. For example, the Neolithic period ended in China around 1500 BC. In the Americas it lasted until AD 1492. Therefore a tool considered Neolithic from China may be nearly 2000 years older than a Neolithic tool from Arizona. However, in the Old World, prior to the populating of the entire planet, certain stages of tool type are fairly consistent and again based upon physical properties. Many of these specific tool types are named after the European site where they were first discovered and can be dated with some certainty. Stone itself cannot be forensically dated. However organic material discovered in association with a stone tool can be dated and thus the stone is presumed to be of a similar age. Likewise, paleontological remains can help in dating. For example when a mastodon skeleton is discovered with a projectile point lodged in a bone it is certain that they are contemporaneous and datable.
However interesting the ethnology of a stone tool is, it is ultimately the beauty – the impossibility – of the tool that intrigues. The laborious process that results in a tool that looks more ‘born’ than ‘made’ is far from most modern human’s experiential base. The hundreds of hours in flaking, pecking and polishing leave no opportunity for mistake. They are mysterious, tactile things that melt into one’s hand and connect one with the very beginnings of humanity.
This exhibition presents these tools, from a variety of sources, in an abstracted context that has nothing to do with how they were fashioned or used by ancient man. They are, rather, presented as startlingly beautiful objects. Their economy of form, surface texture, and intrinsic lithic properties make them immediately accessible to us humans at this end of the timeline.