The Wood Age

An interesting bias that enters into our understanding of the world and human history comes from material sciences. When we look into the deep human past, we have very weak evidence upon which we can base our assumptions and theories. Before people wrote things down, we didn’t have anything that could preserve the history of a people or place. And even once people began to record things it was still hard to save those recordings for the long term. We have some stone and clay tablets with inscriptions on them, some quipus (string counting devices), and some written documents on animal skin, but not a lot of well preserved, documented writing from the earliest known humans to have settled into communities. Most of the artifacts we have from early humans come from any stone tools they used, because those can be preserved better.
Yuval Noah Harari writes about the bias these stone tools create in his book Sapiens. “The common impression that pre-agricultural humans lived in an age of stone is a misconception based on this archaeological bias. The Stone Age should more accurately be called the Wood Age, because most of the tools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were made of wood.”
I think it is interesting to consider our bias of ancient humans based on the materials we can recover of their history. The Stone Age is a common idea that appears in cartoons, in advertisements, and in stories. But it is understandable that early humans would have used wood more than stone for many tools. Wood is lighter, can be shaped more easily, and may be more available than stone in some parts of the world – not for me personally here in Northern Nevada. The Stone Age bias is a simple bias that we never think about unless we are asked to stop and consider the way that materials and artifacts could bias our minds. It is an accepted story and idea that we share, without even realizing the bias taking place.

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