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Denticulate Tool - Neolithic NW Africa

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  • Denticulate Tool - Neolithic NW Africa

    We had some discussion about “denticulate” tools in these threads:

    http://forums.arrowheads.com/forum/general-discussion-gc5/what-did-i-find-gc11/206510-anyone-ever-seen-anything-like-this

    http://forums.arrowheads.com/forum/general-discussion-gc5/what-did-i-find-gc11/203837-some-said-bear-effigys-i-think-not-what-are-these-very-rare-indeed


    I mentioned on one of those threads that I had a Neolithic African denticulate. It took a little while to find what box I had it stored in, but here it is:
    Click image for larger version

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    The lithic is the same as in Ron’s and my Neolithic axe examples posted recently… a high quality flint mottled with red and grey non-geologically referred to as silex. It seems to have been a popular choice of material in the Saharan and Subsarahan regions of NW Africa for quality tools. In addition to outcrops in various places it can be found as cobbles on the beaches along the coastline and I believe this item was made by refinement of a slice from bipolar reduction of a cobble rather than from a knapped flake.


    It’s pretty much unifacial, with a shallow D-shaped profile in cross section. It also tapers off at the distal end. In both cases, I think that’s the result of heavy polishing:
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    Click image for larger version

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    The proximal end must have been hafted horizontally. Note that the dorsal surface has some shallow grooves running laterally. I’m sure that those are the residual channels of lateral flaking scars which haven’t been fully polished out. They’re not from use-wear as far as I can tell: Click image for larger version

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    These are not common tools and have not reliably been assigned to a function. You couldn’t use this one as a saw with a vertical hafting orientation. There wouldn’t be enough support. You also couldn’t use it as a hand-tool for sawing for the same reasons. The use-wear on the teeth also doesn’t indicate that function unless it was used on something very soft like fruit or vegetable materials. Also, why put the teeth all the way round the perimeter (apart from the base)… even round the distal end?

    As I mentioned previously, some people assign these things as “fish scalers” but I’m not aware of any protein-residue analysis to support that. Here’s a modern fish scaler of simple design:
    Click image for larger version

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    [Fish scaler by “Challenge Plastics” from the “Beyond the Banks” website]



    This particular example (not the plastic one!) came from a Neolithic site near the coastal area of the Algeria/Morocco border which might support the fish-related usage and also my belief that it was produced by bipolar reduction of a beach cobble. They have also been found inland… but such sites are often near a lake that has long since disappeared, so that doesn’t negate the fish-scaler hypothesis.

    Any other ideas?
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

  • #2
    Hey Roger, Very nice artifact. I have read that similar artifacts were used to rake and shred cedar bark to be used as tinder.
    Michigan Yooper
    If You Don’t Stand for Something, You’ll Fall for Anything

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    • #3
      Originally posted by Ron Kelley View Post
      Hey Roger, Very nice artifact. I have read that similar artifacts were used to rake and shred cedar bark to be used as tinder.
      ​Yeah... but the problem I have with many of the suggested uses is this: If I wanted to shred something fairly resilient I would want a a straight edge that had serrations and I would want to be able to push downwards on the opposing edge to exert some pressure. You could probably scoop a fig out of its skin with this (?) because of the curvature and not needing to apply much downward pressure, but it has limited potential use for more demanding tasks if you believe in "form fits function" principles.
      I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

      Comment


      • #4
        I like Ron's suggestion as a tool for making a fire bundle .
        Why go through the effort of polishing a tool ( which was done for strength correct? ) And then not apply any pressure on it? I think the guy who polished it intended to put some amount of pressure on the tool?
        I actually think the rounded edge would also decrease resistance as opposed to a straight edge when being pushed forward similar to a gouges edge.
        As far as not being hafted goes, I don't see how it would have been usable without some kind of hafting?
        I'm imagining it being used in a quick strafing action as opposed to a slow pressured pushing action. This way it's producing fine, stringy material which would be better suited for a tinder bundle.
        Just trying to think outside the box here, I love contemplating tool usage.
        Josh (Ky/Tn collector)

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        • #5
          The preferred material for tinder in Neolithic times came from various types of fungus commonly found on dead and dying trees, known as “tinder fungi”. There are lots of synonyms, regional subspecies and similar related fungi but the species found and most commonly used in Africa is the “false tinder fungus”, usually assigned as Fomes fomentarius. It works just as well as the “true tinder fungus” but was used in a slightly different manner. It grows as a large, hard, hoof-shaped fruiting body on most hardwood trees and, when dried, becomes an even harder (but pliable) mass. Generally, it has to be hammered into thin sheets for use rather than shredded or crumbled as for other types. It also occurs throughout Europe; Otzi (the frozen Neolithic man recovered from the Alps) was carrying pieces of it together with flint “strikealights”.

          It occurs in both North and South Africa but, obviously, it needs trees to grow on so isn’t found in the largely treeless interior Saharan regions. In those areas you wouldn’t be making wood fires anyway and if decent wood was to be found, it was too valuable to burn. Shorter duration grass- and scrub-kindled fires perhaps, but there are many wispy/fluffy grasses which also make decent tinder when dried.


          I also have this item, acquired from the Pitt Rivers collection. It’s from the Faiyum Neolithic of Egypt and was assigned by Augustus Pitt Rivers as a sickle blade. It’s more what you might call “finely serrated” rather than “denticulate”: Click image for larger version

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          I don’t doubt the assignation. There are similar and more distinctly denticulate examples from elsewhere in Africa, such as this one from Libya: Click image for larger version

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          [Picture from Neolithisation of Northeastern Africa, edited by Noriyuki Shirai; A perspective on Neolithization research from the Libyan coast by Giulio Lucarini]

          The assignations generally come from use-wear studies and occasionally from remnants of the haft found in association. I’m not sure why it would have needed a double edge. The most usual hafting method was something like this (and variations thereof): Click image for larger version

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          [Picture by Wolfgang Sauber - Museum Quintana (Kunzing, Germany) – Creative Commons license]

          These examples (also believed to be sickle blades) were found in an ancient well in the Jezreel Valley of Israel, together with a skeleton that dated to around 8,500 years ago. Most are single edged, but one has a double edge: Click image for larger version

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          [Picture from Israel Antiquities Authority]

          We may never know what the example I originally posted was used for unless one turns up in association with something or with residues on the serrated area, but I don’t believe it to be sickle-related. I still think it is however related to food processing of some kind. It might work effectively as a “threshing” tool if you had a handful of something like millet stems from which you were stripping the grain. Pearl millet grows well in poor soils of the arid regions surrounding the Sahara Desert, and is still a food source today: Click image for larger version

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          [Pearl millet. Picture from USDA-ARS – Public Domain]

          The other possibility that I have long considered, but have no particular evidence to support is this. Bottle gourds and calabashes have been used for centuries in Africa as containers for water. If you were hollowing out one of these things, then the tool I have would probably do a fine job if vertically hafted onto a long stick handle. The material inside young immature gourds is quite fleshy but as they enlarge and mature it becomes a fibrous mass with large hard seeds, like this: Click image for larger version

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          [Picture from diynetwork.com]



          (Re: polishing, it’s true that it has a strengthening effect on some lithic tools in the sense that it can make them less prone to breakage, but when I mentioned that on Ron’s “axe” thread I may have misled you slightly. One of the effects of the Neolithic revolution is that it freed up more time for activities that went beyond the need for survival. We know that one of the markers for the Neolithic is that people invested some of that time in polishing their lithic tools. Experimental archaeology suggest that it takes around 150 hours to fully polish a typically-sized Neolithic axe. The general belief is that this was for aesthetic and prestige reasons, but it does have some functional benefits too which must have been observed and capitalised upon. For cutting tools, it provides a smoother edge that cuts more easily/cleanly, but bladed tools are generally only partially polished, with the polish confined to the blade area. That reduces “snagging” on tools used with a “to-and-fro” action and so can reduce the likelihood of breakage of the thinner areas.

          For axes (and adzes) the benefit is two-fold, but requires fuller polishing. In addition to the smoothness of the bladed area cutting more easily/cleanly, the removal of imperfections on the body of the tool reduces the incidence of breakage from torsion. Small projections such as the arrises of flake scars can cause an axe to deviate from its intended path such that a forceful blow creates lateral forces that make it vulnerable to snapping. Such imperfections also present a localised small surface area where the pressure from a forceful impact is concentrated. That means the shock-wave is not dissipated evenly and can result in shattering.)
          I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

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          • #6
            That response was worth the wait Roger! I made one the other day to haft up and give a try, but your suggestion of tool to hollow out gourds seems like a good one to me, it would work perfectly for that job.
            And now that I think about I've used a tool like this several times for pumpkin carving and they work excellent to remove the hair like fiber from a pumpkin.
            Josh (Ky/Tn collector)

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            • #7
              When I made my antler handle I found that a denticulate tool was the only way to cut the antler to the correct size. I also used it to create the notch.
              Click image for larger version

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              Same tool after sawing the antler then snapping it off.
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              • #8
                For sure, denticulate saws were used in Palaeo times in the Old World for bone and antler work. A straight edge or a concave incurved edge work better than a convex one. Such usage is normally very evident on the tool itself and also sometimes on the resultant artefact, if it has not been subsequently ground/abraded. Once we get to Neolithic times, use-wear studies of many bone and antler artefacts indicate a higher degree of sophistication for the cutting methods used.

                There are strong indications in various locations for the frequent use of bow-like saws, with the “blade” believed to have been produced from something like tightly twisted horsehair and probably impregnated with a mixture of river sand and grease. They would have given a much finer cut. There were no horses native to Africa in those times, but other equids such as the African wild ass would have served equally well.

                There has also been speculation about softening of both bone and antler by soaking in urine or extracts from things such as the sorrel plant. Although such techniques may well have been used, experimental archaeology has shown that they give very little real improvement over plain old water. It has also been shown that a very short immersion in boiling water is just as effective as a prolonged soak in cold water, and can be repeated at intervals to maintain the softness without permanently degrading the material.
                I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

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