Antarctica and archaeology may seem to be an unlikely combination. The idea that anything archaeological could be found in that desolate part of the world seems strange. However, the very fact that human beings first got there as recently as 1821, and have certainly not “inhabited” the continent, means it has remained untouched by anything human, and is therefore a window into our history like no other.

     One of the major challenges of archaeology, particularly in studies of the Palaeolithic Period of the Stone Age, which is the bulk of hominid history, is deciding what is man-made and what isn’t. Tools are one such area of confusion.

     When scientists/archaeologists find what they think might be a stone tool worked by hominid hand, they have little reference to determine whether what they think/hope is true, or whether it is just another natural rock formed by natural processes: They have been wrong many times in the past, as shown up by research that came along later.

     Dr. Metin Eren of Kent State University, in Ohio, and his colleagues thought it might be useful to assemble a library of tool-like rocks from a place where they knew there was no chance that humans, or their ancestors, had muddied the waters by creating tools. In essence, they set out to establish a reference library.

     They turned to the Antarctic because, not only was it only reached by humans 200 years ago, but it had experienced a variety of processes, including glacial erosion, frost cleaving and river transport that might batter rocks into tool-like shapes.

     In case anyone wonders, yes, the Antarctic was once free of ice, and moderately warm, but that was way before hominids existed. So Dr. Eren’s hypothesis of “untouched by human hand” is correct.

     Dr. Eren’s report in the journal Antiquity says that, rather than visit Antarctic and start digging up rocks where they could reach them under the snow and ice, they turned to the Polar Rock Repository in Columbus, Ohio; the Repository contains thousands of Antarctic rock samples collected over the past 200 years, which are obviously a lot easier to access than digging through glaciers.

     Studying the Repository rocks in detail, Dr. Eren and his team have identified 14 that they thought could have easily duped archaeologists into believing they had been hand-made. There are almost certainly many more, and the work continues.

     The team also have plans to plunder the trove of Antarctic rocks housed in the British Antarctic Survey, in Cambridge, in England. This will significantly increase the database of natural rocks and thus the reference library for all future archaeologists.

     The database they are constructing focuses on basalt, chert (of which the most familiar type is flint), and obsidian. These rock types were chosen because previous discoveries have shown that hominids seemed to have preferred working with them to produce tools in the Palaeolithic Age. This was likely because flint and obsidian, in particular, were the hardest, and most easily available materials they had, before the development of bronze and iron.

     Once the database has been fully assembled, it will be possible for future scholars to more accurately identify hominid tools among the huge variety naturally-formed rocks. The database will also be a dynamic entity as more and more natural rocks are identified.

     The rocks in the picture above are real tools, found in Spain, made 350,000 years ago by Homo Heildelbergensis.

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