From Raw Material to Symbol of Social Value: Obsidian Movement in the Palaeolithic

Author(s): Theodora Moutsiou

Year: 2015


Recent research has demonstrated the extensive use of obsidian throughout the Palaeolithic in all the areas where obsidian sources were available at the time. Further analysis revealed that obsidian covered a wide range of distances on the Palaeolithic landscape but in the majority of cases its movement was linked to long distances, i.e. ≥100 km. This surprising conclusion cannot be satisfactorily explained on purely functional terms. Obsidian’s physical properties could have been the primary reason for its use in short site-to-source distances but this explanation fails to explain why our early ancestors would have undergone the effort of traveling far to acquire obsidian when other good quality materials where locally available. A more likely explanation, discussed in this paper, seems to be associated with obsidian’s aesthetic properties, specifically colour, brilliance and iridescence. These features transformed obsidian into a material of social value that allowed early humans to control their global social landscape and negotiate otherwise completely unrelated individuals.

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From Raw Material to Symbol of Social Value: Obsidian Movement in the Palaeolithic. Theodora Moutsiou. Presented at The 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Francisco, California. 2015 ( tDAR id: 394989)