“Stone, My Friends: Humanity’s First Non-Renewable Resource”

The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov declared:  “Stone, my friends, was humanity’s first non-renewable resource.  Luckily there is so much of it that it never became scarce!”  In a seminar on the future of space as a non-renewable resource, it was clear where Asimov was going:  he was going to cover Alpha to Omega, everything from the origin of stone technology to the positioning of satellites in orbit, and further concerns beyond the earth’s gravitational pull.  But he didn’t spend long on stone, the resource that didn’t become scarce. 

Asimov was enthralling all the way through, but I was fascinated with his comment about stone, my mind stuck on the beginning of his talk.

Everything being relative, however, Asimov was only partly right:  knappable stone often is a scarce resource, because it is distributed unevenly across the landscape and between regions.  This quality creates an economy of lithics (or more accurately, many individual lithic economies).   The requisite mobility of early hunter-gatherer lifeways would bring cyclically relocating human communities into the proximity of useable (sometimes excellent) stone sources, but would also send them off to a distant animal migration route or perhaps a drainage where the varied, local food resources were abundant enough to make a living for the next  season.  Writing about Paleoindians, archaeologist David Meltzer (2009:250) has said:

After groups departed the quarry, they looped around the landscape, and over time, artifacts were used or broken, and the stone supply dwindled. When far from a quarry, the groups conserved their resources: fluted points that dulled or broke were carefully resharpened, but if broken beyond repair or whittled to a useless nubbin…the point might see new life by being recycled into other tools like scrapers, drills, or wedges.
— David Meltzer


In the 1970s archaeologist William Gardner (1977) began to think of Paleoindian and Early Archaic stone quarries as the focal points of settlement systems in which bands who were seasonally dispersed for subsistence would converge to replenish stone supplies; and at the same time form aggregated settlements where people were involved in the social and ritual activity important to integrate these small societies, and provide opportunities for marriages, alliances, and the future of reciprocal obligations.  Gardner saw the quarries as predictable locations where different bands could depend on reconnecting with others.  He referred to this view of the central role of quarries as the “lithic determinist theory” of Paleoindian and Early Archaic settlement patterns.

Gardner’s positioning of the stone source as the central geographical feature of social interaction within an annual cycle of hunter-gatherer movement was a radical departure from archaeological thought about this subject, which saw subsistence pursuits dispersed geographically across the spatial and habitat characteristics of food resources as the major or sole determinant of the locations of hunter-gatherer camps.  Contemporary archaeological theory also saw subsistence as the key to any periodic tendency for hunter-gatherer populations to aggregate.  Human aggregation sites were seen as essential to the integration of small, mobile societies (Conkey 1980); many archaeologists felt that understanding subsistence systems held the key to explaining the location of aggregation sites.  The solution to conflicts between social and subsistence requirements would be resolved by sites where food was abundant, at least for a short time.  Gardner, however, saw high quality stone sources as the fundamental sites for Paleoindian and Early Archaic aggregation because they were predictable locations that filled a technological need.  The assumption here is that subsistence requirements would be satisfied from these locations. 

Gardener’s lithic determinist theory became known among eastern woodlands archaeologists, but was not widely adopted.  It was more common for regional archaeologists (following Binford 1979, 1980) to view lithic procurement as embedded in the mobility required for subsistence, such that stone was procured in the course of local foraging trips or more distant, logistical forays, both parts of the food quest.  The idea that quarries were central to Early Archaic settlement systems, however, was reintroduced by I. Randolph Daniel, Jr. (1998) who saw quarries as the locations fundamentally defining band territories used in annual rounds.  The quarries were the central and recurrently used sites in these settlement systems, which also involved living at more distant sites within the territory to meet subsistence needs not satisfied at the quarry sites.  As with Gardner’s (1977) model, Daniel’s model was a system of mobility in which Early Archaic communities replenished stone supplies at well-established quarry sites, residing there seasonally before trekking to other sites to continue subsistence pursuits.  These trips away from the quarries could take people to the distant edges of their habitually used and defined territories.  Along those journeys, stone supplies would become depleted and stone conservation and repurposing would become important, as in Gardner’s model (and similar to Meltzer’s statement quoted above).  The cycle would lead back to the quarry site, which could be seen as the starting point of the mobility pattern that was otherwise often governed by subsistence concerns.  

Daniel (1998) differed from Gardner (1977) in that Daniel did not see the quarry as the penultimate aggregation site.  The aggregation site integrating bands, he believed, would occur in a drainage located between two band territories, and would thus occur at some distance from the quarry sites.  The geographic scale that Daniel refers to involves areas roughly the size of much of North Carolina and Georgia, respectively spilling into South Carolina from both sides.  The hypothetical aggregation site (the Taylor site) was in South Carolina at a strategic riverine location accessible to both bands, but beyond the limits of their territories as defined by Daniel (1998) based upon predominant raw material use.   

One could perhaps transform this into a more complex and hierarchical model, with features of Gardner’s and Daniel’s thoughts, in which small co-residential groups who were dispersed through the year focused on and came together seasonally at the quarry, while the maximal aggregation involved two quarry-focused groups that may have coalesced temporarily on some periodic basis at a site located between their territories (or perhaps in an inexact world of rivers and forests, where their territories overlapped).

Early Archaic projectile points from the Coxsackie, New York area.

When surveying the data on Early Archaic sites in Coxsackie, New York, it is difficult to not think about the power of stone sources as the factor drawing early human populations to this part of the Hudson valley.  This is particularly true given the concentration of Paleoindian and Early Archaic sites and projectile point finds in the area including Coxsackie, Athens, and New Baltimore; and the occurrence of the flint quarries at Flint Mine Hill, West Athens Hill, Scott Farm, and as is becoming increasingly apparent, the Helderberg chert outcrops along the valley wall, west of the Normanskill chert quarries.  Coxsackie has Paleoindian sites such as West Athens Hill, King’s Road, and Swale, as well as a proliferation of fluted point finds at places such as Flint Mine Hill and the surrounding flats.  Coxsackie has been known for a concentration of bifurcated base points since the 1960s and 1970s (Funk 1976), and more recently the occurrence of projectile points in the Kirk tradition, and Middle Archaic type projectile points such as Neville and Stark stemmed.  These usually occur at small campsites and as isolated finds.

If one were to take Gardner’s model literally and apply it to Coxsackie, the central role of the quarries would structure Paleoindian and Kirk tradition Early Archaic settlement systems.  This role would end by the appearance of bifurcated base points, because Gardener considered this appearance congruent with settlement and subsistence change ushering in the smaller geographies and less dedication to the best lithic sources typical of the Middle Archaic period. However, it may be wiser to adapt Gardner’s model to the Coxsackie setting than to apply it uncritically.  In the Coxsackie area, there appears to be a tendency for bifurcated base point concentration that suggests a continuing, similar attraction to the lithic sources as characterize the Paleoindian and Kirk traditions.  Moreover, Middle Archaic stemmed points such as the Neville type also are found in relatively great abundance in Coxsackie compared to other Hudson region locales.  

The abundance of Middle Archaic projectile points in the Coxsackie area arguably is a continuation of the older process of centering settlement patterns on lithic sources.  However, by this point in time (8000 radiocarbon years ago), the significant role of the quarries in attracting human settlement was old, and historic in the sense of the human tendency to reference the past in order to validate the present.  The transition to the Middle Archaic in Coxsackie may thus show the transition from an anchoring place within a wide-ranging transhumant settlement system, to a homeland for a more locally oriented community.  This may herald the beginning of the proliferation of varied and dispersed Archaic period homelands (some of which lacked the great stone sources found in Coxsackie) that would evolve within increasingly circumscribed cultural landscapes for thousands of years longer.

Isaac Asimov was a brilliant man.  His comment about stone was profound but also his opening quip.  It seems fair to consider that if Asimov had followed through the implications of stone as a non-renewable resource, he might have glimpsed a hint that lithic source locations structured space:  structured it into a non-renewable social resource conditioning the geography and future of mobile hunter-gatherers.

References Cited
Binford, Lewis R.
1979    Organization and Formation Processes:  Looking at Curated Technologies. Journal of Anthropological Research 35:255-273.

1980    Willow Smoke and Dogs’ Tails:  Hunter-Gatherer Settlement Systems and Archaeological Site Formation.  American Antiquity 45:4-20.

Conkey, Margaret W.
1980    The Identification of Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Aggregation Sites:  the Case of Altamira.  Current Anthropology 21:609-630.

Daniel, I. Randolph, Jr.
1998    Hardaway Revisited:  Early Archaic Settlement in the Southeast.  University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Funk, Robert E. 
1976    Recent Contributions to Hudson Valley Prehistory.  New York State Museum Memoir 22, Albany

Gardner, William M.
1977    Flint Run Paleoindian Complex and Its Implications for Eastern North American Prehistory.  In Amerinds and Their Paleoenvironments in Northeastern North America, edited by Walter S. Newman and Bert Salwen, pp. 257-263.  Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 288, New York.

Meltzer, David J.
2009    First Peoples in a New World:  Colonizing Ice Age America.  University of California Press, Berkeley.