Were bamboo tools made in prehistoric Southeast Asia? An experimental
view from South China
, Metin I. Eren
, Jiarong Yuan
, David J. Cohen
, Yiyuan Li
Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX 75206, USA
Hunan Provincial Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Relics, Changsha, Hunan, PR China
International Center for East Asian Archaeology & Cultural History, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, USA
Available online 31 March 2011
The use of bamboo by hominins in Southeast Asia has long been used as an explanation for the lack of
stone tool innovation and diversity in that region during the Pleistocene. The paleoenvironmental and
ethnographic basis of “Bamboo hypothesis”has been critiqued recently, but those factors are not directly
relevant to the question of whether prehistoric hominins actually used bamboo. There is an even more
rudimentary question that should be answered ﬁrst: is it even possible to make complex bamboo tools
with simple ﬂaked cobble tool industries? This paper shows that it is indeed possible to procure and
manipulate bamboo in a variety of ways with replicated stone tools. Not all bamboo stems are of equal
quality, which should add a layer of intricacy in need of consideration by any future advocate of the
Bamboo Hypothesis. Pilot knapping studies are also discussed, and suggest that the raw material
constraints presented by local raw materials may generally be given undue weight in the morphological
appearance of Southeast Asian Pleistocene stone tools.
Ó2011 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA. All rights reserved.
Paleolithic research in Western Eurasia and Africa has already
demonstrated that most stone tools produced by prehistoric
humans were used for activities such as dismembering animal
carcasses, butchering, and cutting and working wood and other
plant materials. The ﬁnding of the Schöningen spears (Thieme,
1997), dated to some 400,000 years ago, has enhanced the recog-
nition that in addition to bone, antler, ivory (Costa, 2010,Table 1),
and other organics were employed during the long course of early
prehistory. At the same time, intensive and extensive research,
including numerous excavations and laboratory studies in these two
major regions of the Old World, have demonstrated the dynamic
tempos and changes in the production of ﬂaked stone implements.
In early research on lithic technology in Asian prehistory, an
inﬂuential paper by Movius (1948) pointed to a lack of bifaces in
East Asia. Thereafter, the so-called “Movius Line”became a subject
for debate attempting to explain why the Acheulean is not present
in this vast region. The Indian subcontinent, however, has yielded
numerous handaxes and a proliferation of cleavers (Mishra,
2006e2007; Chauhan, 2009), and is sometimes considered to be
a bridge between complex stone implements of Western Asia and
simple ones from Eastern Asia.
In China, although a few occurrences of handaxes are known,
their age is uncertain. At Bose (Guangxi Province), the bifacial
objects were found mainly on the surface but also in systematic
excavations with tektites dated to ca. 800 ka BP (Hou et al., 2000). In
the Luonan Basin (Shaanxi Province) numerous isolated handaxes
were collected from the surface of various terraces (Wang, 2007).
The discovery of a stratiﬁed, well dated handaxe site, in China
would be helpful for solving the issue of whether the morpholog-
ically-recognized bifaces mark the presence of the Acheulean
tradition. Hence, the bulk of the long period of what in Western
Eurasia is called the Lower and Middle Paleolithic produced in
China two kinds of lithic assemblages. These are identiﬁed by
Chinese researchers as the “cobble tool industry”that dominates
South China and the southern portion of North China, and the “core
and ﬂake industry”, mostly in North China (Wang, 2005). The
cobble tool reduction sequence is generally characterized by
striking cobbles on one face, resulting in various types of choppers
and ﬂakes. The second reduction sequence is created by direct
percussion or bipolar (on an anvil) percussion, often using nodules
of quartz and quartzite, and producing many ﬂakes and exhausted
E-mail address: email@example.com (M.I. Eren).
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Quaternary International 269 (2012) 9e21
There have been numerous discussions regarding the domi-
nance of “cobble tools”and “core and ﬂake”industries in East and
Southeast Asia throughout most of the Pleistocene (e.g. Bellwood,
1990: 260e261; Toth and Schick, 1993: 352e353; Marwick,
2008). While in Northeast Asia and a large portion of China
laminar and microblade technologies eventually come to dominate
the Late Pleistocene archaeological record (e.g., Brantingham et al.,
2004; Derevianko et al., 2004; Lycett and Bae, 2010: 525). However,
in Southern China and Southeast Asia, core and ﬂake and cobble
tool industries are maintained up through and including the time of
the early Holocene.
One hypothesis that may explain the Southeast Asian pebble/
core phenomenon (which is akin to, but not exactly like, the
“Movius Line”[Movius, 1948; Watanabe, 1985]) is the “isolation
hypothesis”(Toth and Schick, 1993). This hypothesis suggests that
early Lower Paleolithic hominins bearing Oldowan-like tools left
Africa during “Out of Africa I,”reached Southeast Asia, and were
then culturally cut-off, creating a “cultural backwater”(Toth and
Schick, 1993: 353) in which later dispersals did not penetrate.
However, while cultural and genetic isolation (Hou et al., 2000:
1622) may explain the initial paucity of complex lithic technical
methods such as Acheulean or Levallois, it does not explain the
persistent lack of these more complex technologies for 1.6 million
years (depending on what dates for the initial colonization are
accepted for Southeast Asia [see Dennell, 2003, 2008: 429e431]).
Nor does the isolation hypothesis explain why Northeast Asian
populations eventually came to adopt complex lithic technologies
(i.e., microblades) in the Late Pleistocene while Southeast Asian
populations did not.
A promising hypothesis is the “demographic hypothesis”, which
emphasizes the effects of population size, density, and social
interconnectedness on cultural transmission processes and result-
ing technological patterns (Henrich, 2004; Lycett, 2007: 569; Lycett
and Norton, 2010; Lycett and Bae, 2010). This hypothesis ultimately
.during much of the Pleistocene, particular biogeographical,
topographical, and dispersal factors are likely to have resulted in
relatively lower effective population sizes in eastern Asia. In
these terms, the archaeological factors associated with the
Movius Line sensu lato can be interpreted as a ‘line’which
represents the crossing of a demographic threshold. Under the
parameters of the model, the geographically and temporally
sporadic occurrences of ‘handaxes’in eastern Asia are the
product of short-lived instances of convergence with conven-
tional Acheulean examples from west of the ‘line’, which ulti-
mately do not ﬂourish due to the constraints of relatively
smaller effective population sizes (Lycett and Bae, 2010:
Unlike the isolation hypothesis, the demographic hypothesis
explains the occasional rare bifacial innovation (Hou et al., 2000)as
well as why those innovations did not proliferate. Testing this
hypothesis further requires estimation of prehistoric population
sizes in key areas (at least on a relative basis), a notoriously difﬁcult
endeavor (Chamberlain, 2006; see also Lycett and Bae, 2010: 535),
but one that will become more feasible with increasing amounts of
ﬁeldwork in East and Southeast Asia.
Some researchers have suggested that raw material constraints,
or alternatively constraints on procuring quality raw material, may
have limited lithic technological innovation (Toth and Schick, 1993).
For example, thick foliage may have discouraged access to primary
outcrops of good ﬂaking material. More recently, Gao and Norton
Diameter ¼Diameter of the bamboo shoot base at the location of chopping. Time ¼in minutes (m) and seconds (s). Stroke count ¼how many “chops”to fell the bamboo shoot.
Length procured ¼the length of bamboo shoots procured per species after felling.
Trial # Tool User Species Diameter (cm) Time Stroke Count Resharpening? Length Procured (m)
Wu River, Zhijiang County, West Hunan Province
1 M.I.E. P. pubescens 6.5 18 m 40 s 637 Yes eTwice 10.42
2 Y.L. 10.2 7 m 1 s 388 No
Xiao Shui River, Daixian County, South Hunan Province
3 M.I.E. P. pubescens 7 10 m 50 s 400 Yes eOnce 12.59
4 Y.L. 8.9 9 m 30 s 400 Yes eOnce
5 M.I.E. P. amarus 2.6 3 m 20 s 109 No 8.38
6 Y.L. 2.3 2 m 2 s 139 No
7 M.I.E. D. latiﬂorus munro 4.7 1 m 42 s 96 No 6.37
8 Y.L. 7.8 10 m 18 s 469 No
Li River, Lixian County, North Hunan Province
9 M.I.E. P. viridis 3.3 4 m 20 s 250 No 8.76
10 Y.L. 3.4 4 m 7 s 235 No
11 M.I.E. P. herteroclada 1.8 1 m 10 s 50 No 6.83
12 Y.L. 1.8 42 s 50 No
13 M.I.E. P. pubescens 2.8 2 m 49 s 150 No 12.21
14 Y.L. 7.9 7 m 10 s 450 No
Fig. 1. A replicated unifacial chopping tool on quartzite. The ﬂake scars have been
O. Bar-Yosef et al. / Quaternary International 269 (2012) 9e2110
(2002:404) suggested that hominins in China were limited to raw
materials of “poor workability”and this “placed restrictions on the
development and application of more advanced stone tool making
techniques.”Going further, Norton et al. (2006:533) argued that
a sample of Korean bifaces are statistically thicker than their African
and South Asian counterparts because they were knapped on thick
river cobbles of poor quality toolstone, rather than on large ﬂake-
blanks of better quality raw material. The present authors are
Fig. 2. Blade-like pieces split off from their parent cobble after being placed in a ﬁre.
Fig. 3. Amodern bamboo craftsmenexhibiting the variety of tools he uses (a) as wellas a number of complicatedactions like sawing(b), shaving (c), and avariety of splittingtasks (d, e, f).
O. Bar-Yosef et al. / Quaternary International 269 (2012) 9e21 11
generally wary of raw material “constraints hypotheses”such as
these, because though oft quoted, they predominately remain
unproven determinates of stone tool morphology. Ironically,
knapping constraints hypotheses are probably the easiest to test of
all the ones discussed thus far, simply involving the measurement
of toolstone manufacturing potential against archaeological
Perhaps the most prevalent hypothesis explaining East and
Southeast Asia’s cobble/core lithic industries involves tool
production with another material medium: bamboo (e.g. Pope,
1988; Toth and Schick, 1993; Pope and Keates, 1994; Westergaard
and Suomi, 1995; Jahren et al., 2007; West and Louys, 2007;
Brumm, 2010). The central premise of this hypothesis is that if
prehistoric populations widely used bamboo, then perhaps there
was no technological, functional, or cultural impetus for changing
the morphology of lithic objects. Bamboo is a group of the ever-
green grass family of Poaceae, subfamily Bambusoideae, tribe
Bambuseae. It is one of the fastest growing plants, represented by
over 1000 species. The hollow internodal regions of the stem, that
as a monocot grows to be columnar reaching maturity in 5e7 years,
characterizes bamboo (McClure, 1966; Ohrnberger, 1999). The
current geographic distribution of bamboo species is dominated by
tropical and subtropical conditions. Today the distribution of
bamboo is further north, beyond the clearly subtropical conditions.
However, to what extant this is the result of intentional cultivation
is as yet hard to determine. Warmer and wetter intervals during the
Pleistocene could have created the suitable conditions for the
dispersal of bamboo through the valleys of Northern China.
Brumm (2010) recently questioned two assumptions that he
saw as pillars of the so-called “Bamboo Hypothesis”:(1)that
Fig. 4. A map of Hunan province, with the plotted locations of where bamboo and cobbles were collected during the 2008 experiments.
O. Bar-Yosef et al. / Quaternary International 269 (2012) 9e2112
tropical rainforest environments were stable and ubiquitous in
Southeast Asia throughout the Pleistocene and (2) that according
to the ethnographic record simple lithic maintenance toolkits are
effective in rainforests and that complex extractive lithic tools are
not. However, neither assumption is directly relevant to the
question of whether prehistoric hominins actually used bamboo in
preference to stone. Even if at particular times in prehistory rain-
forests in East and Southeast Asia (“bamboo quarries”) contracted,
there is no reason why bamboo could not have been procured at
distance like toolstone, especially as “certain core areas of rain-
forest [in Southeast Asia] appear to have endured throughout the
Pleistocene, even at the height of the glacial maximum”(Brumm,
2010: 11). And though Brumm shows that complex lithic tech-
nology could be adapted to rainforests in prehistory, that does not
falsify the fact that simple lithic technologies will also sufﬁce.
Thus, while the authors agree with Brumm that paleoenvir-
onmental and ethnographic models cannot be the foundation or
proof of the bamboo hypothesis, for that very reason the short-
comings of those models cannot serve as the rejection of the
The authors also agree with Brumm (ibid. 16) that the bamboo
hypothesis will also eventually need to explain “why the use of
non-lithic tools speciﬁcally precluded the development and/or use
of complex stone technologies in eastern Asia”, but not yet. There
are two rudimentary questions that should be answered before the
explanatory component of the hypothesis should even be
approached. First, is there widespread indirect evidence of bamboo
tool production and use on ﬂaked stone tools (e.g. polishes, resi-
dues, Mijares, 2002; Jahren et al., 2007) and other remains (e.g.
bamboo cutmarks, West and Louys, 2007)? This question will only
be answered through concerted post-excavation artifact analyses.
Until those databases are established, there is a second, and even
more basic, question: is it even possible to make complex bamboo
tools with simple ﬂaked cobble industries? If the answer is no, then
the bamboo hypothesis can be rejected on empirical grounds
directly relevant to it. If the answer is yes, then researchers are
obliged to keep it in contention and await future ﬁeld and labora-
In conjunction with the Hunan Provincial Institute of Archae-
ology and Cultural Relics (HPIACR), in 2007 a long-term experi-
mental campaign examining stone knapping and replicative
bamboo tool production and use was initiated. A pilot study in
November 2007, while informative, honed the much broader
experimental goals to follow in 2008 and beyond in order to:
(1) systematically test the knapping potential of lithic toolstone,
(2) replicate archaeological stone tools in light of toolstone
(3) examine how bamboo tools are may be produced,
(4) assesses the efﬁciency of replicated lithic tools for
manufacturing bamboo tools, and
Fig. 5. A replicated handaxe on a river cobble. The ﬂake scars have been highlighted.
Fig. 6. Replicated preferential Levallois cores and ﬂakes made on river cobbles. The ﬂake scars have been highlighted.
O. Bar-Yosef et al. / Quaternary International 269 (2012) 9e21 13
(5) manufacture a broad range of bamboo tools (cutting imple-
ments, projectile implements, etc.) and measure their func-
tional efﬁciency in comparison to stone implements.
In addition to answering questions regarding whether or not it
is even possible to manipulate bamboo with Chinese stone tool
types, the experiments would also create a valuable middle-range
data set of edge breakage-patterns, polishes diagnostic of bamboo
tool production, and cutmarks on faunal materials that can be
compared to archaeological materials. These latter goals eventually
will re-examine the work of previously published studies involving
diagnostic bamboo micro-erosion on stone tool edges and bamboo
cutmark production (Mijares, 2002; Jahren et al. 2007; West and
While this project is still on going, this paper presents the
results of the pilot study conducted in November 2007 and the ﬁrst
Fig. 7. Replicated stone choppers were excellent for procuring bamboo. However, when chopping from only one side of a bamboo stalk (a) it was difﬁcult to push the bamboo down
(b). When chopping around the diameter of the bamboo (c) procurement was much easier (d).
Fig. 8. Tall stalks of bamboo sometimes became entangled in nearby vegetation (a) requiring extra effort during procurement (b).
O. Bar-Yosef et al. / Quaternary International 269 (2012) 9e2114
systematic experiments conducted in December 2008. These
focused upon the production of choppers and ﬂakes and manipu-
lating bamboo with the replicated stone tools.
2. The 2007 pilot study
The pilot study took place at the Archaeological Field Research
Station of the Hunan Provincial Institute of Archaeology and
Cultural Relics (China) in Shimen, Hunan. Cobbles that should have
been a reasonable match to prehistoric ones were gathered from
the banks of the Li River in northern Hunan.
After practice and adjusting to the raw materials, 17 cobbles of
meta- and orthro-quartzites were knapped for the purpose of
replicating the chopper/ﬂake industries characteristic of the area.
The implement types were easily replicated by an experienced
knapper (MIE) and included unifacial choppers, bifacial choppers,
and ﬂake tools (Fig. 1). The ease in which these implements were
made inspired a closer examination of different toolstones and
their knapping potential, as described below.
Interestingly, attempts to produce blades from the cobbles
failed. This supports assertions that presence or absence of laminar
technologies may be constrained by toolstone quality or type.
Previous analyses of a Terminal Pleistocene lithic assemblage
excavated at Yuchanyan Cave (Yuan, 2002; Boaretto et al., 2009)in
southwestern Hunan Province revealed occasional “blade-like”
tools and “cortical blades,”which were suspected to be the results
of natural splitting by ﬁre. Therefore, 12 cobbles and 2 knapped
choppers were placed in a ﬁre used for a barbecue. The recovered
lithic remains indeed contained numerous blade-like specimens
(Fig. 2). The so-called “blade-like”pieces are only so in the sense
that the specimens were twice as long as they were wide. In
actuality, they were cortical blanks “peeled”off from the rounded
edge of the cobble by the ﬁre’s heat.
For the purpose of experimenting with bamboo, fresh green
bamboo culm sections were purchased from a local farmer (the
species was unidentiﬁed). Attempts to manipulate the bamboo
largely failed until a visit to watch a local bamboo tool
manufacturer (Fig. 3). The ﬁrst observation was that he used
a different species of bamboo (unfortunately, this species also was
unidentiﬁed) than the one initially purchased for the pilot study.
Second, he possessed a number of metal tools with which he easily
sliced through the bamboo. Finally, and most crucially, a number of
arm/hand actions/techniques he used provided clues for bamboo
manipulation, including sawing, shaving, splitting, peeling, and
In brief, though the modern bamboo craftsman was equipped
with sophisticated metal tools unavailable during the Paleolithic
and Neolithic (Fig. 3a), two basic motions are necessary for
manipulating bamboo effectively: chopping (Fig. 3b) and splitting
(Fig. 3d, e, f). “Chopping”involves the use of an implement to cut
the bamboo parallel to its diameter, which happens to be perpen-
dicular to its ﬁbers. “Splitting”involves breaking the bamboo
parallel to its ﬁbers. Thus, like ﬂaked stone technology, bamboo is
a reductive medium (though some of its products can be used for
additive technologies such as basketry).
3. The 2008 experimental study
The 2008 experiments were conducted in three distinct loca-
tions across Hunan province known to possess clusters of Paleo-
lithic sites (Fig. 4). In these locations, cobbles were collected, and
efﬁciency trials conducted with bamboo from natural stands.
Cobble knapping and bamboo tool making were carried out in the
yard of the Hunan Institute of Archaeology in Changsha.
Based on the results of the pilot study, speciﬁc questions were
formulated and a more extensive and systematic experimental
regimen conducted during December 2008. The four main ques-
tions were as follows:
(1) Could complex stone tools be knapped on regional toolstones?
(2) Is it possible to chop bamboo down with replicated choppers,
and if so, what is involved, and how long does it take?
(3) How does one create bamboo knives with replicated East Asian
stone tool types?
Fig. 9. The ease of chopping a stalk of D. latiﬂorus munro (a), was offset by its fastened position (b) due to the entanglement of its upper parts with nearby stalks.
O. Bar-Yosef et al. / Quaternary International 269 (2012) 9e21 15
(4) Is it possible with replicated “cobble/core and ﬂake”types to
produce bamboo strips thin enough to weave into basketry, as
well as other tools?
3.1. Potential of regional toolstones
Cobbles were collected in three areas of Hunan Province, along
rivers in the north, west and south. They included the following
materials: metaquarzite, orthoquarzite, feldspathic quartz-arenite,
and indurated sandstone rich with silica elements. Eren was able to
produce discoid cores and handaxes on all cobbles (Fig. 5), but
a typical Levallois “tortoise”core was obtained from indurated
sandstone rich in silica (Fig. 6). In some cases knapped limestone,
quartz, and quartzite can be much more difﬁcult to manipulate
than ﬁner raw materials such as ﬂint or obsidian. Even so, toolstone
constraints in Hunan province would not have prevented an expert
knapper from accomplishing advanced lithic reduction sequences.
However, a novice or intermediate knapper might have encoun-
tered substantial obstacles. While this assertion is amenable to
experimental testing, it also leads to the question of whether
tougher toolstones could have ultimately enhanced the
suppression of innovation already initiated by other factors
(demography, Lycett, 2007). Nevertheless, we add a proviso eall of
the knapped cobbles were hard and crypto-crystalline. A rock type
such as a coarse quartz may indeed impose formidable constraints,
but this also needs to be empirically veriﬁed.
3.2. Chopping down bamboo
In total, 14 bamboo stalks were chopped down (Table 1). Phyl-
lostachys pubescens was the hardest bamboo species to chop
through, while other species were quite easy to chop either due to
tiny diameters (Pleioblastus amarus,Phyllostachys viridis,Phyllos-
tachys heteroclada) or to softer culm tissue (Dendrocalamus lati-
Crudely knapped choppers performed surprisingly well for
chopping bamboo, with only three of fourteen choppers needing
resharpening. When a bamboo culm was growing nearby to other
culms, chopping could only take place upon one side of the bamboo
(Fig. 7a, b). However, when a bamboo culm stood isolated, chopping
could take place around the entire diameter (Fig. 7c, d), which for
thick culms was more effective for chopping: once the outer green
Fig. 10. Knapping an unifacial chopping tool on a river cobble (a) results in a sharp
edge (b), while additional bifacial strikes (c) were found to dull the functional edge by
increasing the edge angle (d). Fig. 11. Making a bamboo knife. Descriptions are provided in the text.
O. Bar-Yosef et al. / Quaternary International 269 (2012) 9e2116
halm was chopped through around the entire diameter, the
bamboo shoot could be easily knocked over by kicking. When
chopping on only one side of the bamboo, the intact outer halm was
too strong to break.
Overall, only 84 min of bamboo chopping yielded 65.56 m of
bamboo (Table 1). This is strong evidence that simple ﬂaked choppers
are veryeffective for procuring bamboo, especially when considering
that neither MIE nor YL had worked with bamboo previously other
than during the 2007 pilot study. If two inexperienced modern
people can achieve suchimpressive results, surely prehistoric people
would fare even better if they depended on bamboo regularly.
Nevertheless, not all bamboo is created equal, and two short
anecdotes may serve to illustrate some potential problems prehis-
toric people may have had duringbamboo procurement. First, many
species of bamboo can grow quite tall. After chopping down
a particularly tall specimen of P. pubescens, it fell and wedged itself
into the upper trunk of a nearby tree (Fig. 8a). This required one of us
(MIE) to climb the tree in order to lift the bamboo shoot out of the
trunk wedge, while others pulled the plant from the bottom (Fig. 8b).
Second, while D. latiﬂorus munro possesses quite soft culm to chop
through, it often growsin tight thickets (Fig. 9a). Despitesuccessfully
chopping through one rather thick specimen, its upper branches
were so entwined with the neighboring branches around it that the
specimen was essentially locked in place and left hanging (Fig. 9b).
Only after 30e40 min of wrangling and chopping with a metal
machete was it possible to wrangle the bamboo down.
One ﬁnal note: during the course of bamboo chopping, it was
noticed that replicated unifacial choppers were generally more
effective than bifacial choppers for felling bamboo. Additionally,
given the nature of the ﬂaked raw material and its original cobble
morphology, it was found that it is easier to knap sharp, straight,
acute edges when only one side of cobble is ﬂaked, rather than
when a cobble is ﬂaked on two (Fig. 10). Watanabe (1985: 3) sug-
gested that there might have actually been an evolutionary
advantage to such forms:
I am thus led to the interpretation that the Chopper-Chopping
Tool Complex [of Southeast Asia] may be a typological degen-
erated industry that resulted from readaptation. The term
“typological degenerated”does not mean being “functionally
inferior.”On the contrary, it must be assumed that the industry,
though crude in appearance, was economically more efﬁcient
and ecologically more adaptive in the rainforest environment
than the Acheulean and, accordingly, had greater survival value
in such an environment.
In other words, the overwhelming preponderance of unifacial
choppers found in Paleolithic assemblages in Southeast Asia may
simply represent a desire for sharp, acute edges. However,
whether unifacial choppers actually provide dramatic improve-
ment over bifacial ones for bamboo chopping should for now be
considered yet another hypothesis waiting to be systematically
Fig. 12. Making a bamboo knife. Descriptions are provided in the text.
O. Bar-Yosef et al. / Quaternary International 269 (2012) 9e21 17
3.3. A reduction sequence for bamboo knives
West and Louys (2007: 513) note that bamboo can be shaped
into effective knives for cutting because “the outer halm of bamboo
contains large amounts of silica and offers a thin, sharp edge.”In
order to create their bamboo knives, they pounded small diameter
bamboo shoots with a rock or against a tree and from these tore
strips bearing the outer halm. However, this method for bamboo
knife production was inefﬁcient for the small diameter bamboo
species (P. amarus,P. viridis,P. heteroclada): it not only failed to
produce suitable cutting edges, but wasted large amounts of
bamboo due to a total lack of control. For large diameter bamboo
species (P. pubescens,D. latiﬂorus munro), their “pounding method”
was ineffectual. West and Louys do not provide the name of the
bamboo species they worked with (they only provided the genus
name), and thus this discrepancy is probably due to differences in
the bamboo species used in different experiments. Nevertheless,
regarding the ﬁve species of bamboo used in these experiments,
West and Louys’bamboo knife production method did not work.
Thus, bamboo knives were produced with cobbles and ﬂaked
stone implements. After numerous trials, a simple “bamboo knife
reduction sequence”was uncovered, that produces sharp, durable
knives in minimal time. Using this sequence, 20 knives were
produced in about 5 h.
(1) First, a ﬂake is knapped (Fig. 11a). Using the ﬂake as a chisel,
initial splits are made into the bamboo by gently tapping the
ﬂake with a cobble (Fig. 11b, c).
(2) When the ﬂake reaches the hard bamboo “nodes,”continued
tapping of the ﬂake would often result in its breakage or
damage due to the hardness of the bamboo node. However, the
tool-maker can take advantage of the extreme node hardness.
By pounding the nodes themselves with a cobble, the already
initiated splits are perpetuated predictably through the node
and further down the bamboo (Fig. 12a). Thus, depending on
how many initial splits are made, it is possible to control the
width of the eventual bamboo strips (Fig. 12b, c).
(3) Once bamboo strips of a desired width are made, the tool-
maker should slice through the bamboo’s outer halm with
a sharp ﬂake just below a node (Fig. 13a). It may be necessary to
also make small incisions on the inner bamboo surface
(Fig. 13b). These incisions weaken the bamboo strip at a desired
point so that the bamboo can be snapped cleanly (Fig. 13c).
(4) The point at which the bamboo is snapped creates a “platform”
(Fig. 14a). This platform permits the primary access point for
sharpening the knife. Sharpening is done by using a ﬂake as
a chisel again, but making sure the ﬂake bisects the edge of the
bamboo strip (Fig. 14b). This exposes the bamboo’s outer halm,
which is necessary for a sharp edge. A small ﬂake with
a durable edge should be used for shaving extraneous ﬁbers to
ensure the outer halm is sufﬁciently isolated from the inner
ﬁbrous tissue (Fig. 14c). This completes the knife.
The bamboo knives were tested for cutting ability on large
pieces of pork purchased from a local market. While the knives
could easily cut through the pig’s meat (Fig. 15), the knives were
ineffective for cutting through the pig’s skin. This was a surprising
result, and future experiments must address whether or not our
knives were properly sharpened with a ﬂake tool, or whether they
simply cannot cut through thicker hides.
The efﬁciency in knife production time versus cutting effec-
tiveness reveals two possible factors that may have inﬂuenced
bamboo knife development and/or use. While the former may have
promoted the use of bamboo as medium, the latter may have
discouraged its use.
3.4. Making spears
A unifacial chopper is an efﬁcient tool for making a sharp spear
with whichthere is no doubt onecould kill an animal usingan ambush
or intercept strategy. Chopping the edge of an already cut bamboo
stalk took about 30 min to produce this sharply pointed object.
3.5. Splitting bamboo into strips for baskets
With modern tools, bamboo can be reduced into strips thin
enough for weaving baskets (Fig. 16). After a number of trials, it
appears that replicated stone tools can also serve this purpose.
After following steps 1 and 2 from the knife reduction sequence
above, the tool-maker should use a ﬂake as a chisel to carefully
remove a thin strip of bamboo from a wider strip (Fig. 17a). Next,
snap the inner ﬁbrous tissues of the bamboo strip, leaving the
ﬂexible, green outer halm intact (Fig. 17b). It is then possible to peel
the inner portion away from the outer halm (Fig. 17c), leaving
a strip thin enough for weaving baskets. After producing a number
of thin strips, a local bamboo craftsman used the strips to weave the
beginnings of a small basket.
This paper has not proven nor falsiﬁed the bamboo hypothesis
for East and Southeast Asia. Instead, it has examined one of its two
Fig. 13. Making a bamboo knife. Descriptions are provided in the text.
O. Bar-Yosef et al. / Quaternary International 269 (2012) 9e2118
foundational assumptions, namely whether or not it is even
possible to effectively and efﬁciently make bamboo tools with
simple stone choppers and ﬂakes. Had this endeavor been unfea-
sible, it would have been appropriate to reject the bamboo
hypothesis outright. But instead, once a few simple procedures
were mastered, bamboo tool production with replicated East Asian
stone implements was quite straightforward. However, as this
paper has shown, not all bamboo is created equal, either in the
production or use of bamboo tools, which should add a layer of
intricacy in need of consideration by any future promotion of the
For bamboo tool use to be considered a proper contributing
factor to the lack of complex lithic technology in East and Southeast
Asia, two additional lines of research must be pursued. First, the
other foundational question already mentioned in the introduction
needs to be assessed: is there in fact widespread indirect evidence
of bamboo tool production and use on ﬂaked stone tool edges and
other remains? If not, there will be grounds to reject the bamboo
hypothesis. If so, why did the use of non-lithic tools speciﬁcally
preclude the development and/or use of complex stone technolo-
gies in this vast East Asian region (Brumm, 2010; Lycett and Bae,
2010)? Here, functional efﬁciency experiments may play an
important role if it can be demonstrated that for particular adaptive
tasks bamboo tools can signiﬁcantly outperform advanced stone
tools (Lycett and Bae, 2010: 529). However, preliminary examina-
tions of the cutting effectiveness of our replicated bamboo knives
seemed to show that they could not slice through thicker hides. One
is left to wonder, at least for butchery tasks, why a prehistoric
person would go to the trouble of producing a bamboo knife when
a stone ﬂake would certainly do the trick.
Of course, it is possible that a number of factors were respon-
sible for the lack of advanced ﬂaked stone implements in East and
Fig. 14. Making a bamboo knife. Descriptions are provided in the text.
Fig. 15. The ﬁnal bamboo knives were sharp enough to cut meat, but were unsatis-
factory in cutting outer hides.
O. Bar-Yosef et al. / Quaternary International 269 (2012) 9e21 19
Southeast Asia. For instance, it would be fascinating to assess
whether contracting bamboo forests chronologically correlate
with intermittent bifacial innovations that pepper the region
(Brumm, 2010), which did not ﬂourish due to demographic
reasons (Lycett and Norton, 2010), in turn facilitating the re-
adoption of bamboo implements for some speciﬁctask(s)as
forests expanded again.
This paper concludes by echoing the sentiments of Lycett and
Bae (2010: 535), who note that the Indian subcontinent will play
a central role for understanding the range of ﬂaked stone adap-
tations in South Asia. Northeast India in particular exhibits large
quantities of bamboo, and thus it may be signiﬁcant for advocates
of the bamboo hypothesis that the Acheulean is absent there
(Chauhan, 2009:66). Petraglia (2006: 403) notes the intriguing
possibility that certain Indian assemblages lacking bifaces may
share particular characteristics with Chinese assemblages.
However, he also identiﬁes a major distinction between the Indian
assemblages and those from East Asia. There are vast quantities of
cleavers in India (though not evenly distributed) but not in East
and Southeast Asia. On the other end of the continent, Western
Asia has produced several sites with cleavers but the most
distinctive one is Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Goren-Inbar and
Saragusti, 1996). On techno-typological grounds Petraglia is
correct, but we wonder if the vast numbers of split cobbles found
in East Asia could be functional equivalents to the cleaver in terms
of working organic materials, thus serving as yet another link
between the two regions. Further experimental testing and arti-
fact analysis that compares similarities and differences between
India and Southeast and East Asia will go a long way towards
understanding the distribution of ﬂaked stone tool types across
South Asia, and whether the use of bamboo plays any signiﬁcant
role in that overall patterning.
The research design was proposed by OBY. MIE conducted the
stone tool knapping in both 2007 and 2008. DC, JY, MIE, OBY, and YL
all participated in the bamboo experiments. We are grateful to the
American School of Prehistoric Research (Peabody Museum, Harvard
University) for funding the project. We thank the Hunan Institute of
Fig. 16. A local bamboo basket-maker.
Fig. 17. Making strips for bamboo baskets . Descriptions are provided in the text.
O. Bar-Yosef et al. / Quaternary International 269 (2012) 9e2120
Archaeology and Cultural Relics which facilitated the realization of
this project and took an active part in all of its phases. MIE is ﬁnan-
cially supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate
Research Fellowship and by Mustafa, Kathleen, and Nimet Eren. We
are grateful to Stephen Lycett and two anonymous reviewers for
providing comments that substantially improved this paper.
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