January 25, 2005

Couple Creates Prehistoric Institute

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) -- A husband-and-wife anthropologist team who have spent decades studying early humans' skill in crafting stone tools have parlayed their expertise into an Indiana University institute devoted to prehistoric human culture.

Scientists at Nicholas Toth and Kathy Schick's year-old Stone Age Institute north of Bloomington study the origins of human technology at field sites in Algeria, Ethiopia, South Africa and New Guinea.

Their studies are attempting to answer, among other questions, why or how early hominids began making tools, and what ancient stone tools reveal about their makers.

Last week, an international team led by one of the institute's scientists, IU paleoanthropologist Sileshi Semaw, announced the discovery of fossils of a human ancestor that lived about 4.5 million years ago in what is now northern Ethiopia.

That research was published in the scientific journal Nature.

For Toth and Schick, their institute's 30-acre site in southern Indiana's secluded rolling hills provides a haven to advance research by themselves and other scholars.

The 11,400-square-foot, $3 million stone building, guarded by a locked gate, serves as a home base and serene gathering site for the couple and six scientists and colleagues who conduct research worldwide.

The couple's pursuit to shed light on the crucial development of tool-making abilities among early hominids has led them to test stone tools by themselves butchering animal carcasses.

They've also had electronic devices inserted into their forearms and hands to record data on which muscles are used to fashion simple tools out of stones.

"You are getting archaeology out of the armchair, and putting yourself in a realistic situation and having problems that would have confronted our Stone Age ancestors," said Toth, the institute's co-director.

He and Schick, both on leave from teaching at IU, are known for experimental archaeology - studies that attempt to recreate and isolate conditions that were present in prehistoric times to gain a better understanding of the human past.

Such experiments can reveal information about how tools were used and what would cause wear patterns seen on ancient tools.

The center's research library on early prehistory and an extensive artifact collection were donated by the late J. Desmond Clark, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, with whom the couple worked.

Although closely affiliated with IU through the research of its co-directors, the institute is an independent nonprofit financed by a private group, Friends of CRAFT.

With the construction of the institute behind them, the couple are working to raise a $20 million endowment to expand the library and fund additional researchers.


Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com