In our last column, Nola Markey and Brian Finlay discussed stone tools collected from the shores of Little Shuswap Lake. This collection included some tool types about which readers may already be familiar: arrowheads, spear points and scrapers. Why do archeologists seem preoccupied with stone tools?
Stone tools are ubiquitous in the archeological sites in our region. First Nations peoples made a great variety of tools and equipment out of wood, bark, tree roots, mammal bones and antlers and many other organic materials.
But many of the things people made in the past do not preserve well under most conditions. Commonly, organic artifacts decay in the ground, so what’s left for us to find? Stone tools. Archeologists rely on stone tools to understand the pre-contact life of First Nations in the Kamloops area and beyond. The study of stone tools has been a fundamental part of the archeology of the B.C. Interior for over a century.
Making tools from stone is difficult (I know, I’ve tried). You can’t make anything out of most kinds of stone (I’ve tried that, too). Only specific kinds of stone share the physical properties that allow them to be predictably shaped into usable tools.
First Nations peoples in our region have known for many thousands of years where to acquire the best tool stones. One especially important source is located near Cache Creek, in the aptly named Arrowstone Hills. Pebbles and cobbles of dacite, a fine-grained volcanic rock, were collected on a massive scale across an area of at least 100 square kilometres. Hand-dug pre-contact mining pits, still visible in parts of the site, testify to the importance and intensity of use of this resource. This prehistoric quarry was used for millennia.
One of the challenges in the regional trade in tool stones was their weight. To keep loads manageable, people with access to tool stone sources would complete the preliminary preparation and shaping of stones into what archeologists call “blanks,” creating lighter and standardized trade items. These could be manufactured into a variety of different tools by their eventual owner.
Archeologists have used a variety of techniques to match the artifacts they find to particular tool stone sources. The recent development of portable X-ray fluorescence devices has allowed archeologists to confirm the geochemical fingerprint of both tool stone sources and artifacts and has led to a renewed interest in this kind of study.
Archeological research shows the high-quality dacite tool stone collected and quarried from near Cache Creek was traded across the region and beyond — and this trade persisted over thousands of years. First Nations communities established an interconnected series of pedestrian trails and canoe routes that facilitated regional trade. These trade networks allowed access to important resources that were not locally available.
Regional trade and exchange helped maintain social connections forged through kinship and marriage. Recent archeological excavations near Vancouver confirmed that Cache Creek dacite was traded down the Thompson and Fraser rivers all the way to the coast 5,000 years ago.
So, if you discover stone tools while you enjoy the outdoors around Kamloops, please don’t collect them. Instead, consider that what you’ve found represents a very rare resource, a tool stone collected and carefully curated and traded across dozens or hundreds of kilometres.
All that before it was carefully crafted into the tools you’ve discovered.