Emslie Horniman Award – Luiseach Nic Eoin

Home Past Awards Emslie Horniman Award – Luiseach Nic Eoin

Award Holder: Luiseach Nic Eoin
University: Oxford University
Title of Research: Grindstones of Western Lesotho

Ha Makotoko in April 2014, post-inundation
Ha Makotoko in April 2014, post-inundation

Macrolithic technologies for grinding, pounding and otherwise pulverising foodstuffs have their origins in the very earliest of percussive technologies: it is well established that non-human primates use stones in extractive foraging, thus it requires no great leap of the imagination to connect our earliest hominid forebears with this technology as well, and indeed the morphology of the earliest stone tools suggests that they would function suitably as plant-processing tools. And yet ‘grindstones’ (to use a shorthand term) are widespread among human societies even today, particularly in small-scale agricultural groups, to whom the grindstone is an essential domestic object, situated alongside the pot, the spoon and the fire as objects without which we simply cannot do. Were it not for a grindstone, many families in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, would not eat.

The importance of these objects appears to have been constant: in southern Africa, grindstones are ubiquitous on hunter-gatherer sites, and yet paradoxically we know very little about them. Their very ubiquity has rendered them invisible and in archaeology we see them used solely as proxies: they have been variously (and contradictorally) cited in the literature as evidence of behavioural modernity, domestic presence on site, or presence on site of domesticates. My doctoral research aims to interrogate these neglected yet important objects, focussing on items from a 40,000 year occupational sequence at the rockshelter of Ha Makotoko in western Lesotho (southern Africa), using functional analysis (residues and usewear) as well as techno-typological research, in order to understand their full biographies and place in human lifeways. I argue that the grindstone is the most important object to our understanding of the interplay between the ‘gathered’ and the ‘gatherer’.

An essential component of this analysis is experimental work and ethnoarchaeology: since we know so little about hunter-gatherer grindstones, I wished to take advantage of the long tradition of agricultural grindstone use maintained in Lesotho to the present day. While bearing in mind questions regarding uniformitarian assumption, there appear to be enough similarities between the use globally and historically of grindstones to warrant a comparison. Creating an experimental suite of grindstones (overseeing every step from raw material provisioning through to use and discard) with the advice and guidance of local Basotho women, I would be able then to compare these examples with the morphologically different archaeological sample from the same geographical region. I based my plan for fieldwork on previous research in the same region, which had both answered and provoked questions on contemporary economic use of gathered resources (primarily plants).

Although in principle an uncomplicated task, in reality issues of course arouse: other components of my doctoral work (primarily residue analysis of archaeological grindstones) necessitated my presence in the laboratory in Oxford, and I was unable to spend more than six weeks on fieldwork, which was not long enough to compile the corpus of experimental examples. I was extremely fortunate in finding an excellent Mosotho research assistant, Ms Soldart Khantsi (a recent graduate of the cultural heritage studies programme at the National University of Lesotho) who agreed to help me. Following several months in which I devised a suitable programme of experiments, aided by Soldart’s feedback, Soldart then travelled to her home village along the Sebapala river in the mountains of south-western Lesotho and began to create experimental grindstones with the input of local women (who use grindstones themselves every day of their lives) on local raw materials. Soldart documented her work audiovisually and with written notes, and at the beginning of April 2014 I was able to travel to Lesotho to finish up the experimental work and begin in-situ analysis.

Based initially in the university town of Roma, western Lesotho, I travelled south to Quthing district: the unavailability of four-wheel-drive vehicles for rental within Lesotho made things more difficult and so it was that I travelled on dirt roads, up hairpin bends and into the mountains. Arriving with Soldart in her village, Sekhutlong-sa-Lineo, I proceeded to analyse the experimental corpus with a USB microscope, DSLR camera and residue swabs. I was able to see grindstone use in action, observing the way the whole body is used in a skilled and learned way to process various plant materials: to use the language of André Leroi-Gourhan (following Marcel Mauss) the actions and gestures that go to make up the techniques of the body in a societally specific way. Although the techniques of grindstone use are widespread within Lesotho, use in the future will probably be limited due to the advent of mechanised grinders, yet until now the behaviours of use have not been codified either in the academic or lay communities, making the documentation of this living heritage both a privilege and a unique opportunity.

Following the stay in Sekhutlong, once back in Roma, I conducted some further experiments fashioning some grindstones more morphologically similar to those found at Ha Makotoko, in order to compare the bodily actions involved: it emerges that hunter-gatherer style grindstones are unsuitable for the kind of high-intensity and high-efficiency grinding permitted by the Basotho-style variants which much provoke questions as to their use and place in hunter-gatherer lifeways. The residue component of my DPhil is designed to explore questions based on these experimentally generated predictions and is ongoing. At this stage I can say that it offers tentative support for the predictions: grinding of wild grasses is established in the Middle Stone Age at Ha Makotoko, but this is relatively low-intensity in nature, unlike contemporary processing of domesticates (primarily maize and sorghum).

Apart from creating the experimental corpus, I was also able to collect plant reference material from the area surrounding Ha Makotoko and from Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town: these reference specimens are essential in order to determine the uses of archaeological grindstones, since residue work is carried out on a morphological basis. Although the area around Ha Makotoko has been substantially diminished by the completion of the Metolong Dam (which has flooded the rockshelter itself, ending use of the cave which has lasted over 40,000 years and into the present day) it was possible to obtain samples of a number of edible geophytes. Samples obtained from Kirstenbosch broaden my collection still further as do those kindly provided by a number of colleagues.

Without funding from the Horniman Award, none of this would have been possible. Travel alone to southern Africa is prohibitively expensive, but thanks to the RAI I was able to comprehensively complete the fieldwork necessary for my DPhil: the experimental work provides a necessary anchor for the residue and usewear analysis, allowing the generation of predictions which the functional analysis can then verify.

I believe that this work will enable me to make a substantial contribution to our understanding of hunter-gatherer lifeways in southern Africa, which for so long has been biased towards the ‘hunted’ end of the spectrum at the expense of the ‘gathered’, a state which is at odds with our understanding of contemporary and historically known hunter-gatherer groups. My DPhil is the first to examine botanical residues of lithic technology in Lesotho, and very much in a minority in southern Africa more generally. It is also among the first to examine grindstone technology (from a functional perspective) within sub-Saharan Africa, which I believe is a key component of the ‘gathered’ part of this lifeway. The coupling of relatively new microresidue techniques in an understudied area, on a very poorly understood class of material culture, is already overturning our understandings of hunter-gatherer lifeways, and the experimental component of this project is an essential part of this.

The experimental material is not the only contribution however: the living (often termed ‘intangible’) heritage of daily life in Lesotho and other areas globally is threatened by large scale development and extractive resource projects as well as increased globalisation. Introduction of mechanised processing increasingly diminishes the need for the ancient craft of grindstone use. While it is hoped that this may make life easier for the women who use grindstones today, as use of this technology diminishes (catalysed also by projects which render raw material sources inaccessible – grindstones cannot be obtained from riverbeds 60m under water) so too do the stories, traditions and beliefs that accompany it. Processing and knowledge of wild plants for medicine and food will also decrease and a rich (and far from intangible) part of heritage will be lost. Documenting this heritage while it is still relatively vibrant will not compensate for this loss, but accessibly archiving for both the source communities and academia, can mitigate it to a certain extent.