Barely scratched the surface: Development and future directions of lithic use-wear analysis in Island Southeast Asia

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Use-wear, microwear, or traceological analysis is a method for the identification of prehistoric tool use and associated activities. While this method can be applied to any lithic and some non-lithic materials, use-wear analysis plays, in particular, an important role in understanding amorphous flake tools from Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) during the Late Pleistocene. The absence of formal tool types, including those that are considered as ‘projectiles’ or ‘hafted’ implements, may have hindered our views regarding the actual role these tools played in the development of cognition, behavioural capacity, and complex technologies in the region. Use-wear analysis of unretouched flakes, however, indicate that these were used in a variety of activities, beyond simple actions such as cutting or scraping. In this paper, we provide an overview of the beginnings and development of use-wear analysis in ISEA. Then, we discuss its role in addressing issues such as the bamboo hypothesis, the interpretation of the apparent absence of ‘complex’ lithic technologies from a functional point of view, and in the context of the chronological development of lithic technology. Technological and traceological studies in the region often highlight the presumed presence of a bamboo technology in the past. However, there seem to be limited recurring microscopic wear traces that would allow to verify the hypothetical presence of a ‘vegetal technology’ that would make up for the seemingly simple lithic technology in ISEA. An evaluation of the current state of the art and future directions of use-wear analysis attempts to provide context for the current understanding of prehistoric technology in ISEA. In general, this paper critically examines the development of use-wear analysis as a specialisation in archaeology that was established and developed in the region out of necessity.