Big debates over little tools: ongoing disputes over microliths on three continents
After more than a century, debate over the explanation of microliths continues. We review debates on three continents (Australia, India and southern Africa), and argue that depictions of them as purely symbolic items manufactured for public display are implausible. Two different mechanisms dominate recent discussions: 1) exchange of symbolically loaded artefacts as a device for constructing cultural connections and establishing access to territory/resources, and 2) microliths as portable and standardized tools that helped buffer foragers against economic risk and/or scheduling difficulties by increasing multi-functionality and tool readiness as an aid in reducing fluctuations in resource capture. We show that there is a different history and pattern to microlith use on each continent and dissimilar environmental contexts for microlith-intensive phases. This conclusion challenges any notion that a single simple process underpins microlith use across the globe and implies that comparative studies might enhance understandings of this process of technological change.