Stone Tool Stories: Eoliths

Eoliths of various types

The term eoliths (literally ‘dawn stones’) 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, 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 and emotional in certain quarters, particularly in Britain. 

Eolith AIA 1

Eolith Piece

Eolith core 2

Eolith Core

Eolith core 1

Eolith Core

Eolith flake 4

Eolith Flake

Eolith flake 3

Eolith Flake

Eolith, flake 2

Eolith Flake

Eolith flake 1

Eolith Flake

Flake, taphonomic damage


Eolith retouched cobble

Eolith Retouched Cobble

The stakes of the debate were high:  because eoliths were often found in gravels dating as early as the Miocene, far earlier than the early obvious tools such as handaxes, the implications for interpreting human evolution were profound.  Indeed, the Eolithic was considered by some scientists at the time to be a formal industry that preceded the Palaeolithic.  Eoliths were identified in association with the fraudulent Piltdown fossils, and, given their contemporary respectability, were thought to lend credence to the find.  Some creationists continue to insist that eoliths are, in fact, deliberately-fashioned tools that undermine Darwinian evolution because of their presence in such old geological deposits.  Eoliths still generate passionate feelings in some quarters today.

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 archaeologist 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 about technological progress.  Elaborate typologies of eoliths were developed by their proponents, such as J. Reid Moir and E. Ray Lankester. 

In 1905 the French archaeologist Marcellin Boule was the first to argue that eoliths are, in fact, examples of natural fracture, followed soon after by similar criticisms by Samuel Hazzledine Warren through the 1910s.  Warren’s studies are particularly important in the history of stone artefact 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.  He also linked the results of his experiments to observations of natural fracture in the field.  The design and results of those early experiments explain the natural forces at work that can mimic deliberate stone-flaking, and this is accepted by archaeologists as the most parsimonious explanation for eoliths.