This flint eolith is from an ancient gravel deposit in England. Eoliths were once thought to be stone tools, but are now known to be naturally-fractured stones.
The object is curated by the Australian Institute of Archaeology, catalogue no. IA24.241.
The flint eolith in this model is probably from a gravel bed England, although the antiquarian label is illegible. It was collected in the early 20th Century as an example of the eolith ‘type’. It is a heavily-patinated section of a flint nodule with cortex on one face and a small amount of edge damage and taphonomic flaking caused by rolling in river gravels. Modern edge damage has revealed a tan-coloured flint under the patination.
The term eolith (literally ‘dawn stone’) refers to objects once thought to be the earliest stone tools. They are now known to be examples of natural fracture—not deliberately fashioned tools—and, as such, they are rarely a topic of modern archaeological research. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eoliths were one of the central topics in the developing field of stone artefact analysis. The 30-year controversy over whether they were natural or cultural in origin was exceptionally heated—characterised as a ‘raging vortex’ by a contemporary researcher. For instance, one adherent to eoliths, discussing a skeptic in a 1913 letter to a colleague, stated ‘The . . . one [eolith] type—the rostro-carinate—is a great argument for the unbeliever. I want to ram and stuff him with that one type…’
This is because eoliths were often found in gravels dating as early as the Miocene, far earlier than the earliest obvious tools such as handaxes, so the implications were profound. Eoliths were identified in association with the fraudulent Piltdown fossils, and, given the widespread acceptance of eoliths at the time, their presence lended credence to the find. Modern-day creationists continue to argue that eoliths are deliberately-fashioned tools that undermine Darwinian evolution because of their presence in such old geological deposits.
Eoliths were first published by the Oxford professor Joseph Prestwich in 1889 to describe stones found by Benjamin Harrison in Kent, England, and the term was borrowed from the French prehistorian Gabriel de Mortillet as shorthand to refer to similar objects from around England and Europe. Eoliths were collected from flint- or chert-rich river gravels or beach terraces. The supposed artefacts were acknowledged as exceptionally crude compared to later stone tools, but this in itself was not a problem because it supported preconceptions at the time about technological progress. Elaborate typologies of eoliths (including the ‘rostro-carinate’ type referred to above) were developed by their proponents.
The French archaeologist Marcellin Boule was the first to argue that eoliths are examples of natural fracture, followed soon after by similar criticisms by Samuel Hazzledine Warren. Warren’s studies are particularly important in the history of lithic studies—and archaeology generally—because he was among the first to apply experiments and the scientific method of hypothesis testing to resolve a question about prehistory. Warren also linked the results of his experiments to observations of natural fracture in the field. The design and results of those early experiments discovered some of the natural forces at work that can mimic deliberate stone-flaking.