This flint eolith retouched cobble is from an ancient gravel deposit in Kent, England. Eoliths were once thought to be stone tools, but are now known to be naturally-fractured stones.
The flint eolith in this model is from a gravel bed in Kent, England, where eoliths were first recognised in 1889. Note the unifacial retouch to one face. This retouch was caused by natural processes working on the acute edge of the stone. The flat stone was initially produced by weather-spalling from a larger flint nodule; the flat spalled surface served as the platform for the natural flaking. Note how this spalled surface is superficially similar to the ventral surface of a flake, but lacks the defining characteristics of percussive force, such as unidirectional compression rings and a bulb of percussion. Note also the considerable edge-damage on the stone caused by rolling in the river gravels.
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.