Correct term for current cultures using stone tools
August 27, 2016 11:09 AM   Subscribe

MeFi... help us please! My boyfriend and I cannot figure out the correct term to describe a group of current people whose technology consists of stone tools and not much more. More information in the extended explanation below.

I can't even remember how we got on the topic, but we spent most of the night and this morning debating this subject.

It started with him saying something along the lines of "today's stone-age tribes." My immediate reaction was that was incorrect usage of the word (background: I have a BA in anthropology). First off, The Stone Age refers to a period of prehistoric time which "ended between 8700 BCE and 2000 BCE" (thanks Wikipedia!), not just the primary material of your technology. Furthermore, the use of the word "stone age" reinforces the idea that these groups of people have not changed over time and that they are backward. SOURCE

He argues that this term is still widely used in popular media and that it is not derogatory but instead describes the primary material of a culture's technology. He wants a term that would replace "stone age" that would simply describe groups of people who primarily utilize tools similar to those used during the stone age.

I'm at a loss... please help us internet so we can end this dumb couple fight!
posted by Rage-chel to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:21 AM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

No, Paleolithic also refers to a specific time period (generally, Paleolithic is the continental word for the anglophone Stone Age) and contrasts with Mesolithic, Neolithic, etc. I'm a paleoanthropology ABD, and I'm not sure there is a specific word for this--none that I can think of offhand that isn't potentially offensive (Stone Age, primitive, etc). I'll keep thinking on it though.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 11:27 AM on August 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

One word I've seen (that I think is used in anthropology) is to describe these cultures as "pre-technological". It would include other types of subsistence hunter-gatherer types who maybe make tools out of things other than rocks.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:31 AM on August 27, 2016

They are not pre-technological; they have their own technologies.
The most accurate way to go about this is not to group every tribe that uses stone tools as if that fact, the dominant material of their tools, is the most salient thing about them, the one thing that makes them all "the same" vs many other, non-technological aspects of cultural life. This is a Western, technology-oriented taxonomy and does have a history suggesting a progress narrative that is not accurate. Similarly, though we don't often think of it, using the term "digital age" to mean "our" era puts people who are not inside the grid as somehow "behind" the current era, when in fact differential access to digital technologies is a complex political and social issue that has nothing to do with the cultural sophistication or "modernity" of those who don't have access to it.
posted by flourpot at 11:46 AM on August 27, 2016 [18 favorites]

Most often, these groups are referred to as uncontacted peoples or tribes. In general they do tend to use stone tools but that is not their primary descriptor — what connects and describes them best is that they are uncontacted by mainstream global civilization. If they choose to permit contact, they tend to rapidly advance beyond stone tools.
posted by beagle at 11:55 AM on August 27, 2016 [14 favorites]

There isn't a word for every type of person or group.
posted by amtho at 12:50 PM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


I get the impulse to make language precise for the sake of precise communication. I find the effort to make these kinds of articulated distinctions pays off in a number of ways.

But having studied fields where common terms like "compact" and "momentum" have precise technical meanings and much less precise lay use, my guess is that terms like stone-age and paleolithic probably function effectively for your husband's use case, and his defense that they're widely deployed that way may well be accurate. It doesn't mean that either of you is wrong, it means that what words mean involves some social construction that's not always simple.

If you can't come up with a better term, appropriate paleolithic. If you can't do that, maybe some kind of play like paleolith-ish can give you the differentiated articulation that might be desirable.
posted by wildblueyonder at 1:27 PM on August 27, 2016

Would talking about a group as a people who are "using stone-age technology" (rather than as people who are stone-age) be a way for everyone to understand what is meant and what is not meant? The words have different meanings and connotations to different people, but perhaps adding a level of removal helps?
posted by anonymisc at 2:20 PM on August 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

"Stone Age" was not a term that was used in any of my college anthropology courses over a decade ago. That is... no. Your boyfriend is wrong. This is one of those mansplaining-adjacent things guys do where they unilaterally get to be right about everything all the time even when their female interlocutor has an advanced degree in the subject at hand.

"Paleolithic" is used to describe pre-modern human material cultures* in archaeological terms. But it doesn't sound right to me for use with groups of people living in 2016. It's definitely an archaeology term, used to describe people we can't really identify aside from their stuff (and, specifically, their stuff that was made of materials that last tens of thousands of years).

One problematic aspect of this entire conversation, which I'm sure you know as someone with an anthro degree, is that we all live in 2016. There are uncontacted groups (which might be the word your boyfriend is looking for?), but by and large, even if you're part of an indigenous culture, you know about stainless steel and text messages and plumbing. You may choose to use different technology, but a !Kung person living according to their traditional culture in modern Namibia is no more a "stone age" person than an Amish person is a "17th century" person.

It's also generally not useful to describe modern day people by what kinds of materials their physical objects are made of. For example there are some Japanese chefs who swear by cutting fish with stone blades because any metal would taint the flavor of the fish. However we would never call Japan a "stone age culture".

*Not PEOPLE, cultures. Which as I'm sure you know are different things. You use this term to talk about people's stuff, not the people themselves.
posted by Sara C. at 2:53 PM on August 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

there is a great answer on this reddit page from an anthropologist , explaining why and how this term is flawed and also why trying to directly substitute it with another term is a bit of a fool's errand.

Tl;dr the main thing these some are cultures have in common is often our - and your bf's in this case - ignorance about them.

That being said we have a number of anthropologist mefites who will hopefully weigh in, Churachura and col_pogo come to mind.
posted by smoke at 3:10 PM on August 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

I suspect most such peoples would qualify for the label Hunter-gatherer. That would probably be the best term to use as short-hand for cultures that still use handmade spears and arrows and the like with stone tips.
posted by Michele in California at 3:22 PM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hunter-gatherers are called by that term because they hunt and/or gather for their livelihood. It has nothing to do with what materials their possessions are made from.

This is another good example, actually, of how we don't identify extant groups of people by what their technology is made of. Anthropologists sometimes identify different cultures by how they make a living (farmers vs. pastoralists vs. hunter-gatherers etc), or by their level of societal complexity (band vs. chieftanship etc), but in general we do not classify human beings currently existing on the planet by what their stuff is made out of.
posted by Sara C. at 3:33 PM on August 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

"Stone Age" was not a term that was used in any of my college anthropology courses over a decade ago. That is... no. Your boyfriend is wrong. This is one of those mansplaining-adjacent things guys do

He isn't wrong though; in that the term is used in popular media in the way he says it is and how he was using it. Anthropology doesn't invalidate that without linguistic prescriptivism. A quick google:
The Telegraph: Stone Age tribe kills fishermen who strayed on to island
The Guardian: Survival comes first for the last Stone Age tribe world
The New York Post: Mystery surrounds Stone Age tribe emerging from jungle
for example.
(In some of the articles I saw, they touched on the question, noting that stone-age does not imply backwardness, and/or that some people find it objectionable. There were various alternatives offered, but there wasn't a consensus that I saw) There is need for a better phrase.

For what it's worth, I like the question title (eg a current culture that uses stone tools), and I also like Sara C's example of the Amish as a people where commentators are often similarly interested in their different use of technology, but generally handle the describing better, so perhaps that offers a better template to use elsewhere?
posted by anonymisc at 3:49 PM on August 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

Yeah, agreeing with Sara C. that in general we do not classify human beings currently existing on the planet by what their stuff is made out of. With that said, one phrase I've seen used is "stone tool-dependent culture" or "predominantly stone-tool dependent culture". The second more accurately describes those cultures today I think, as there are few to no truly uncontacted people, and those who have been described that way are usually people who know about others outside their group, but choose to stay out of contact, and they often have some metal items acquired one way or another. "Stone-tool dependent culture" is kind of a clunky description though, and I agree that how people make a living or organize or govern themselves says more about them than the materials their tools are made of.
posted by gudrun at 3:50 PM on August 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm an archaeologist and the term "paleolithic" means very specific and different time periods depending on what culture and area of the world you're talking about.

For example, to get granular, the Paleolithic period for Native Americans in the Northeast of the Americas spans from as early as 12-10,000 BCE (based on current evidence, though there've been exciting developments in Florida from which we can extrapolate potentially earlier habitation), up to about 8000 BCE.

And (personal bugbear), not to stray too far into the fray of controversy, but a "paleo" diet also means wildly different things depending on where and when in the world you're talking about, but that's another conversation.

At any rate, the term I would use for similarly organized contemporaneous societies would indeed be "hunter-gatherer".
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 5:01 PM on August 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

How about just "lithophilic"?
posted by amtho at 5:50 PM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Using "stone age tribes" to describe contemporary cultures is, indeed, derogatory. It implies that these people are not modern, that they are backwards and historical and lost in time and primitive. And to be anthropological about it (although kind of outdatedly anthropological about it, because these things were defined in the 1970s), a tribe is a particular small-scale form of political organization with small groups or communities organized around lineages. Or it can refer to tribal communities in the sense that indigenous people around the world use tribe. In none of these senses of the word is "stone age tribe" an appropriate descriptor.

I think the closest thing to what you want is to call them, as you do in the title, "Current cultures using stone tool technology." Keep in mind that these are current cultures and they are every bit as much a part of the modern world as you are. Uncontacted groups manage their relationships with modern nation states and live in environments degraded by climate change, pollution, and are really vulnerable to disease transmission. Modern hunter-gatherers tend to live in the most marginal environments because they've been pushed off of more productive land by agricultural societies. It's very easy to see the world today, and the ways people live in it, as being the way things are, but basically every culture and group has been shaped by the geopolitics of existing in 2016 (and 2015 and 1999 and 1953 and 1871 and so forth).
posted by ChuraChura at 10:59 PM on August 27, 2016 [11 favorites]

Pre Metal technology?
posted by boilermonster at 11:25 PM on August 27, 2016

I have been turning this over in my head, and I have a few suggestions. How about "technologically isolated societies?" Both the Amish and "Stone Age People" control the influence of technology and globalization on their societies by choosing the amount of contact they have with outside groups. The Amish however are not geographically isolated from modern technology, their barriers to globalization are purely cultural so we could consider them outside of being a true technological isolate.

If you want to go for a really simple term, how about modern lithic societies? After all, lithic means "relating to stone" so I think it's an apt descriptor that doesn't have the cultural baggage of Stone Age.
posted by TungstenChef at 2:57 PM on August 28, 2016

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