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A Flintknapper for Our Times

So what in the world, I hear you groaning, is a flintknapper? And what would such a person have to do with the Chicago Humanities Festival?

A Flint Arrowhead

To answer in order – a flintknapper is a person who makes tools through the process of lithic reduction, with is a fancy way of saying that they use stones to chip away on other stones in order to create flat surfaces and sharp edges.

Stone Points from Omo Kibish, Ethiopia

Yes, that’s right. We are talking about the archaic tools built by our ancestors thousands of years ago – and that answers the second question. In a festival devoted to the place of technology in the human experience, we decided to start at the very beginning, with the most basic technology humans invented to gain dominion over the world around them.

But we didn’t just go out and get any flintknapper. We got John Shea, one of the world’s leading paleoanthropologists and a regular talking head on such programs as Nova and Alan Alda’s Human Spark. John, a professor at Stony Brook University, is among the world’s foremost experts on the evolution of human behavior, with a particular interest in the interplay of early technology and human development.

John Shea

Making stone tools is thus part of his scholarly practice and something he started while still a graduate student at Harvard when, the lore goes, he used them to hunt for Cambridge wildlife. More generally, he uses the insights he gains from the experimental manufacture of stone tools to make inferences about their use during the Pleistocene area. His work, in others words, offers us a window into the very beginnings of technology.

We really wanted John to take part in the CHF; and we were delighted when he accepted our invitation. At the Festival, John will give a lecture/demonstration on flintknapping and what it can tell us about the essence of the human experience. It’s the kind of event we love to do at the CHF – and who knows, maybe some of our audience will be inspired to take up flintknapping themselves.

Alan Alda and John Shea Spearthrowing

John, for his part, is really looking forward to his big Chicago debut. When I mentioned that the Festival pays its presenters a small honorarium, he just e-mailed back, “Getting paid to make stone ‘Caveman Heaven’ our Paleolithic ancestors are laughing.”


Flint: Sharpening Stones at the Dawn of Technology

Chicago Cultural Center - Claudia Cassidy Theater: Nov. 13, 11:00 AM

Tags: techknowledge, early technology, flintknapping, history, behavior, human development

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