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October 6th, 2009
Spark Blog: Working (and Playing) with Primitive Technology

By Larry Engel, Director and Director of Photography for The Human Spark


It looks like “Bambi” will evade another spear, this one thrown by Alan Alda. Photo © Larry Engel 2008

We’re in the middle of a group of people sitting on the ground. They’re hitting rock against rock. Alan is among them. Flakes fly off from large chunks of black obsidian. They are all trying to make the perfect stone tool — a sharp-edged stone cutter that was used by early humans for hundreds of thousands of years in our past. We’re not in a terribly exotic location like Africa. No, we’re in the heart of Long Island, NY at Stony Brook, which is part of the State University of New York. John Shea is the group’s leader, a professor in experimental archeology. Alan has come to learn first-hand how early stone tools were made, and why making tools in the way that humans did deep in prehistory has so separated us from other tool-using and tool-making species.

I had to make sure that my lens was well-protected, so I put a clear UV filter in the matte box. This way, if a sharp flake hit the camera it would chip a $250 filter rather than a $25,000 lens. The flakes are harder than glass, and they’re sharp. In fact, surgeons use obsidian blades in some of the most delicate surgeries they perform.


Veronica Waweru sets Alan Alda up with replica bow and arrows. Photo: Maggie Villiger

We have a busy day ahead of us. First it’s the flaking. Then we head to the sports complex where we experiment with more sophisticated weaponry — spears and arrows. Being able to take down prey from a distance provides a great advantage over trying to attack it up close and personal. The move from hand axes to more sophisticated hunting tools (and techniques — including group, or shared, hunting) may have been one of those human sparks that we’re looking for. It takes more social interaction and trust to hunt together than to go it alone. It also indicates a move away from scavenging toward more aggressive hunting and larger prey.

Veronica Waweru, a Kenyan, is here on the ball field with us. The construction and use of arrows is her archaeological specialty. She’s especially interested in the contemporary and ancient use of poisons in conjunction with arrows. Arrows, she and Shea explain to Alan, are even more sophisticated than spears. They not only demand the construction of the weapon itself, but also of the launching device — the bow. This may have led to divisions of labor among the early toolmakers, perhaps another indicator of the human spark… more trust and social interaction.

In any case, everyone, including Alan, is taking aim at a Styrofoam deer that John plopped down in the middle of the field. No one is doing a very good job of hitting the target, and I’m trying not to laugh too hard and shake the camera when a spear does make its mark. Everyone takes several steps closer to the prey. No hits. Another few steps closer. Finally a few spears hit home, including one from Alan, who’s very pleased with his marksmanship.

With weapons and deer in hand, we finally head back to the classroom (after eating hand-delivered pizza in the lounge). There, John is preparing to demonstrate another example of early humans’ ability to make things.

We move the tables and chairs to the back of the room, hang a black backdrop, and put up a couple of lights so John appears more in limbo than in a classroom. I’m in very close to him with the camera. He had warned me that the flakes coming off the rock are extremely sharp and that I should wear gloves to protect my hands. I did for a while, but then after changing lenses for better macro (close-up) work, I didn’t bother putting the gloves back on. Big mistake.

I’m filming no more than a foot away from John and I feel a little touch on my left knuckle; I have my left hand out in front of the camera supporting the lens and focusing. Not thinking much about it, I keep filming until John stops working and looks at me. Peter Miller, our sound recordist and a good friend of mine, also looks down at me. I’m dripping nice deep-red blood all over my pants as I move to change the camera angle on John.

One small fleck has sliced my knuckle nearly to the bone. We scramble for the first-aid kit, clean the wound and bandage it up tight. Blood seeps through but eventually clots. The wound ends up healing fast and without a scar, something that John said would happen because it was such a clean cut. And I never even felt it.


John Shea displays his bead handiwork. Is this one piece of the human spark? Photo © Larry Engel 2008

Back to work, John is now working with a small stone tool with a pointy end to make an object that has little to do with hunting. He’s working with soapstone, a rather soft rock. He first takes the small piece of soapstone and whittles on one side, then the other, finally creating a tiny hole. Then he works around the hole, reducing the size of the stone until he’s made… a bead. He finishes his creation by staining it a deep red from a piece of ochre that he dissolves in a little bit of water.

As an experimental archeologist, Shea seeks to better understand our ancestors by discovering how ancient things were made and used. In struggling to manufacture primitive tools and artifacts, he learns to better understand the techniques, the raw materials and the labor needed for their creation and use. Beads have become something of a new passion for him and his peers – they indicate a capacity for art and symbolism and also that their makers had the time and labor to pursue the creation of objects not directly related to food and survival. They’ve recently been discovered in several new locations in Africa at sites that push the date for beadwork far deeper into our past.

As we’re about to wrap the day, we ask John what he thinks the human spark is. He answers that perhaps one spark was the creation of a hole in a small piece of stone.

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