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Ben Copsey
PhD student
Downing College
Dept. of Archaeology & Anthropology
University of Cambridge


Project Supervisor Funding
The First Cultures: Stone Tool Diversity in the Plio-Pleistocene of Africa Robert A Foley AHRC

The stone tool technologies of Plio-Pleistocene Africa form the first expression of material culture in the archaeological record. Solely Mode 1 technologies are found throughout Africa in the Plio-Pleistocene from 2.6 to 1.8 million years ago and beyond. Eastern Africa provides the majority of well–studied sites in this time period, including the Olduvai complex that gives the common name of “Oldowan” to these assemblages. Mode 1 technologies are characterised by simple technology producing small flake tools from larger cores and have been near universally described as homogenous, falling into one typological category – The Oldowan. However, the emergence of hominin technology in Africa occurs through a wide range of techniques, materials and artefact forms that indicate a startling level of diversity at the dawn of human technology. This diversity shows little apparent patterning on either chronological or geographical grounds with procedural, technological and functional differentiation arising at different sites and times within Plio-Pleistocene East Africa. This project aims to investigate the wide range of cultural diversity present in the Kenyan-owned assemblages of Plio-Pleistocene Africa in order to investigate the concepts of “Mode 1”, the “Oldowan”, and “Oldowan technocomplex”, as well astheir meaning in modern archaeology. Understanding the development and evolution of Mode 1 technology in Africa is vital to the investigation of all archaeology as the first cultural developments shaped the ways that cultures spread, change and adapt, and produced in humans a dedicated tool-using species with universally-rich cultures and histories. The study focuses on a site-by-site account of diversity in the Oldowan and how the entity is further obscured by the conflation of terms relevant to the discussion. Difficulty also arises from the lack of a concrete definition of what and why diversity exists – as well as how it can be termed. Is it legitimate to identify and explain areas and assemblages showing cultural continuity? Are these material expressions of the first archaeologically detectable cultures? The project is being carried out on a range of artefacts from the collections of the Kenya National Museum allowing a cross-comparable dataset describing multiple sites to be developed. This will enable study of Mode 1 diversity and cultural differentiation in the African Plio- Pleistocene.





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