Early tool time: Anthropology postdoctoral fellow explores bone tools made by our Paleolithic ancestors -

Early tool time: Anthropology postdoctoral fellow explores bone tools made by our Paleolithic ancestors

Naomi L. Martisius is a postdoctoral fellow in The University of Tulsa’s Department of Anthropology endeavoring to understand better the production and deployment of bone tools by our human ancestors millennia ago. Recently graduated (2019) with a doctorate in evolutionary anthropology from the University of California, Davis, Martisius will be at TU until Dec. 2022 courtesy of the National Science Foundation Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences postdoctoral research fellowship.

“Ancient Homo sapiens and their relatives, including Neandertals, left behind countless Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) artifacts,” Martisius said. “These remains – primarily of stone but also of bone – provide ample information into the lifeways of these early people. They help us to figure out what it means, in fact, to be human.”

Two women wearing face masks examining a paleolithic bone tool
Naomi L. Martisius and Danielle Macdonald examine a bone awl from the archaeological site Kharaneh IV, Jordan

“We are thrilled to have Naomi joining us as a postdoctoral fellow,” commented Assistant Professor of Anthropology Danielle Macdonald, who first met Martisius in 2018 at an archaeology conference in France. “Her innovative research on bone tool technology, quantitative microscopy and paleolithic cultures is reframing how we understand peoples’ tool use in prehistory. As well, her work on experimental archaeology will provide a wonderful opportunity for TU students to participate in archaeological research by learning how to make and use bone tools as well as help with Naomi’s experiments.”

Experimental archaeology and microscopic analysis

While at TU, Martisius will undertake experimental archaeological research. This will see her making and using bone tools for a variety of tasks, such as cutting, scraping and sewing. Martisius will then use the Department of Anthropology’s Sensofar S Neox confocal microscope, which is housed in the department’s Surface Metrology & Tribology Lab, to identify traces of use. These she will then compare to similar archaeological artifacts.

A woman smiling at the camera and standing in front of a high-tech microscope
Naomi L. Martisius using the Sensofar S Neox microscope to analyze a bone tool

This powerful 3D microscope will allow Martisius to study tiny details of a bone’s surface quantitatively. In recent years, archaeologists have become increasingly drawn to 3D microscopy because of its ability to measure microscopic surfaces and look for patterns using statistical analyses rather than individual archaeologists’ interpretations.

According to Martisius, “this field, especially for the study of bone tools, is in a preliminary state and requires thorough methodological development before it can accurately inform our archaeological interpretations.” Once Martisius has figured out all the details of the method, she will transfer what she has learned to her study of ancient bone artifacts.

Really old European bones

Following her doctoral research, which focused on Neandertals’ specialized bone tools from two sites in France, Martisius spent five months in Bulgaria on a Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship studying bone tools and animal teeth pendants from Bacho Kiro Cave. Dating to about 46,000 years ago, the people who made those artifacts were among the first Homo sapiens in Europe. Once Martisius’s Fulbright concluded, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig hired her as a postdoctoral researcher to continue working on the Bacho Kiro assemblage.

A woman looking at an image on a computer monitor
Naomi L. Martisius

“This corner of Europe is really exciting for archaeologists who study ancient people,” Martisius commented. “It’s here that the first modern humans migrated into Europe and, quite possibly, encountered Neandertals. Not long after, our Homo sapiens ancestors had replaced Neandertals in Europe.”

Martisius’s entryway to this long-gone world are artifacts made from bone or teeth. She explained: “Early humans would hunt an animal for its meat and other resources, such as marrow and organs. Then, they would use the animal’s bones to make various types of tools to help with everyday activities, such as working hides. It’s not uncommon to hear prehistoric people caricatured as oafish or barely surviving. But our study of their tools reveals they had an excellent grasp on the resources in their environment and knew exactly how to use them.”

The evolution of human ingenuity and technical skills

In addition to her work in France and Bulgaria, Martisius has spent time excavating in Israel and has conducted research in South Africa. “I am most interested in comparing what early humans were doing in different parts of the world during the Paleolithic and assessing how their technologies changed over broad time scales.”

By taking such a long and global view of time and technology, Martisius hopes to expand scientific understanding of when and how human capabilities developed. “Over the last 3 million years or so, our ancestors became increasingly human. Their tools help us to tease apart questions regarding — and find answers to — the changes in their ingenuity and technical skills.”

Does digging up and studying the remains of long-dead people and cultures interest you? If so, consider undertaking your explorations at TU through a bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a major in archaeology and a minor in history.