Backed Handaxes during the Acheulian

This is a asymmetric backed biface found in the Gargano region, belonging to MIS 9 or 11. If it had been found in the Swabian Jura, it would have called a “Bocksteinmesser” , but these belong to a time after MIS5e and are common in some inventories of the Middle-East European Micoquian (Keilmessergruppen).

Such handaxes are rare in S-Europe. The best documented ensemble comes from the late Middle Pleistocene cave site of Galeria Pesada in Portuguese Estremadura. The lithic assemblages are all similar and consist of a combination of a few classic Acheulean tools, a rich series of bifacial „Micoquian“ tools (foliates, small asymmetric bifaces, Keilmesser, and backed handaxes), and a large number of scrapers, often on quartz.

We have no indications that Acheulian handaxes were used as hafted tools. The most simple solution of using a biface with two sharp edges is the use the precision grip, that minimizes the risk of cutting the hand and is also effective for using a handaxe as a knife.

The precision grip is when the intermediate and distal phalanges and the thumb press against each other. Being able to touch the index fingertip with the tip of the thumb – pulp to pulp contact – is one of the unique characteristics of our species (Homo sp.). Homo erectus used a precision grip 1.7 million years ago, while A. afarensis, lacked a full precision grip 3.1 million years ago, although this species had developed several but not all of the traits in its hand bones that are associated with the precision grip required for habitual toolmaking.

Wrapping a hand axe in thick hide or bark is also a practical solution that allows to grasp the tool if it is to large and heavy for a simple precision grip. Alternatively one could use a backed handaxe, but this comes at the expense of the length of the cutting edge. Maybe this is the explanation, that examples of this solution are rare in the Archaeological record. The systematic production of backed Acheulian handaxes is mainly known from the Near East.

The handaxes from the Menashe plateau in Israel, in the region of Nahal Daliya and Nahal Menashe, have been repeatedly related to the Late Acheulian in the literature, because artifacts with a clear Yabrudian character have not been reported from the Menashe workshop sites. This definition ex negativo may not be sufficient to describe handaxe variability. Many smaller handaxes would metrically fit into the Acheulo-Yabrudian group as well. Sites with handaxes were found on the tops of hills, divided from one another by wadis. The total number of handaxes collected was above 2000. The Cordiforms-Amygdaloids amounted to between 40% – 50% in each site. The second group in importance was the Ovaloids-Discoidals.In all the sites Cleavers were few in number and Cleavers on flakes were entirely absent. A feature was the high precentage of Backed Handaxes at Daliya 1 as compared with the lower percentage at Ramot Menashe 1. Fig 2 shows a partial biface with a natural back from the Menashe Plateau.

The Upper Galilee hosts a few world-famous prehistoric sites, like the Lower–Middle Palaeolithic Amud Cave and the Lower Palaeolithic Gesher Benot Yaakov, and a few less well-known, such as Baram and Yiron in the Dishon Basin, and Zuttiyeh and Shovach caves in Nahal Amud. Especially at Baram, backed handaxes and other rare bifaces like handaxes with combined convex /concave edges were recognized.

In Egypt, assemblages from Kharga, Dakhla (Fig.3), Bir Tarfawi and Bir Sahara in the Western Desert show distinctive characteristics (e.g. single and double backed Handaxes and “Prodniks” at Dakhla; well executed lanceolated bifaces and large cordiforms at Kharga; small, thin and well-executed Handaxes at Bir Sahara East and Bir Tarfawi). Many of these assemblages are associated with fossil springs in the floor of oasis depressions in the playa deposits. It is generally assumed that these desert sites were established during periods of more humid weather conditions which would have been attractive to visitors. Geochronometric dating of the Acheulean deposits in the oases of the western desert suggest a minimum age of 350-400 k.a. BP while recent work on the geochronology of the fossil-spring tufas of the Kharga Oasis have provided U-series minimum ages of 300 k.a. B.P.)

Similar handaxes, but made of Obsidian and putatively of late Middle Pleistocene age are also known from Göllü Dag within the Central Anatolian Volcanic Province.

In other regions of the Near East and Africa, backed handaxes are virtually absent. Backed tools and hafting concepts mark the beginning of a new era- both in the Middle East (during the Jabrudian) and in East Africa (during the early MSA). We do not realy know why our ancestors began to reduced the lenght of total cutting edge per artifact and switched to a new technology. Maybe new tasks requiered a more precise target power performance, that could better achieved by backing and hafting.

The Acheulian of the Menashe Hills (Israel)

The invention of Hafting and Backing

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The complex use-life of Middle Paleolithic tools

This is a bifacial scraper from the Quina-Mousterian in the Charente (9 cm long)

We do not know if Neanderthals ever recognized a dichotomy between unifacial and bifacial stone tools. Archaeologists since Lartet and Christy  proposed that this dichtomy would be important in recognizing specific  “cultures” and their sucessors suggest, that uni-versus bifacial production could still serve as indicators for certain techno- complexes. In this view  unifacial and bifacial technologies and tools are often treated as separate entities

From a technological point of view, it has been suggested that the basic operations of tool making are Façonnage  and Débitage.

Façonnage is a knapping operation finalized to obtain only one tool shaping a  raw material block according the wanted shape. This term is applied to the production of choppers, polyhedrons, bifacially shaped tools  whatever is the dimensions of the blanks and of the final products. Generally, the façonnage of a tool is characterized by a preliminary rough phase, followed by a second phase which gives the final shape and it can utilize different techniques. Even if the façonnage can give a lot of flakes and debris, it differentiates itself from the débitage because it is finalized to the transformation of a blank in a tool and not to the production of flakes (Fig. 2: MTA Handaxe from the Beune Valley, Dordogne, France). The product of Façonnage , for example a handaxes, can be the starting point for a new operational sequence, were the handaxe serves as a core.

Débitage is a knapping operation conceived to break the raw material by percussion or pressure in order to obtain flakes and blades which can be subsequently transformed (Fig. 3: unifacial Quina scraper from the Quina Type-site, Charente; France). There are two categories of débitage objects: the cores and the débitage products (flakes, debris, knapping accidents). They are complementary between them. Generally, the main phases of the débitage are represented by the shaping out of the flaked surfaces, the striking platform or the pressure platform, then by an initial débitage phase and a full débitage phase, finally by an eventual exhaustion phase. During these reduction phases new preparations can be necessary to reshape the flaked surfaces.

During the European Middle Paleolithic, a  bifacial instrument is usually  produced by Façonnage: for example the Prądniks from the Buhlen Site in Germany were made from Lydite pebbles by Façonnage. The flat MTA handaxes of France were usually made from larger flakes by the same principle.

Anyhow, typologically bifacial tools have sometimes a use-life that is  technologically much more complex. M. Kot (Quaternary International 428 (2017) recently showed that most of the bifacial tools from the Ehringsdorf site near Weimar / Germany (MIS7) were initially made as unifacial side scrapers. During subsequent phases of modification the tools were  sometimes reworked on both edges and after several phases of rejuvenation, the tools became fully bifacially worked „Blattspitzen“.

In this case, bifacial treatment of initial unifacial tools seem to have been the flexible response of Neanderthals to prolong the use-life of initial unifacial artifacts.

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Early Dynastic / Predynastic Flint Animal

This artifact comes from an Italian collection, assembled during the 1930. It was stored together with some artifacts from the late Nagada-period from Gebelein. Gebelein (Arabic: الجبلين, Two Mountains; Egyptian: Inerty or Per-Hathor; Greek: Pathyris or Aphroditopolis) was a town in Egypt. It is located on the Nile, about 40 km south of Thebes.This piece is formally a handled scraper, but  has the appearance of a bird.

Fig. 2 shows a very similar piece, photographed during an exhibition in the Metropolitan Museums many years ago. There are more sophisticated pieces of flint animals, than the examples shown here, exhibited in several important Egyptian Museums worldwide  (search via google : flint & animal & Egypt).

Flint animals are a halmark of late Predynastic and early Dynastic times, when flintknapping in old Egypt was at its height . Hendrickx et al. (1997–1998) list some 56 provenianced flint animals, mainly from these Periods.

Flint animals are usually classified as non- utilitarian. However, it is difficult to see any overarching ritual purpose for them. To summarize the findings:– As over half the examples known are attributable to Hierakonpolis), Friedman (2000) has suggested this may be a local industry. It is possible that, although most are found on burial sites, they may not have been destined for the grave. They are not a normal feature of burials, but rather occur in a limited number of royal graves. Hendrickx concludes that they may serve multiple purposes. Those from elite tombs are perhaps politico-religious (e.g. the bulls’ heads, falcons, hippopotami and giraffes); some may be apotropaic (e.g. the crocodile, snakes and scorpions); others may be offerings (e.g. fish and birds). It is even possible that they may be toys, but wooden toys would surely have been easier to make.

As there appears no utilitarian reason for their manufacture, their relevance may lie in the non-utilitarian aspects surrounding either animals or flint. Animals are often associated with particular gods and goddesses, and in themselves animals portray a variety of traits. They may also represent particular nomes. The wide variety of animal forms represented by the Pre-Early Dynastic flint animals makes any generalisation impossible.

The ideological significance of animals has long been studied in Egyptology and these items could have any number of meanings. One cannot deduce any special link with flint, particularly as during the Predynastic  many items were still made of flint.

Suggested Readings: 

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?– Simple Predynastic lithic industies from Upper Egypt–

Gebelein in: Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt

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Silkrete MSA Artifact from Tankwa Karoo (South Africa)

This is a MSA truncated blade with lateral retouches 4 cm long and made of heated Silcrete, an isolated surface finding, found at Tankwa Karoo (South Africa). It has the characteristic lustrous red patina, which can only produced by heat treatment-a innovative transformative technique which was invented in South Africa during the Post-MIS5 MSA. Similar pieces are known from the the Howiesons Poort material of Klipdrift complex (Rock Shelter and cave)  in the De Hoop Nature Reserve, southern Cape, South Africa.

Today, Tankwa Karoo National Park is a Scientific National Park in South Africa. The park lies about 70 km due west of Sutherland near the border of the Northern Cape and Western Cape, in one of the most arid regions of South Africa, with areas receiving less than 100 mm of average annual precipitation and is classified as semi-arid desert.  Moisture-bearing clouds from the Atlantic Ocean are largely stopped by the Cederberg. It encompasses the Succulent Karoo Biome – an internationally recognized hotspot and the world’s only arid hotspot – which stretches 116 000 km2 from the southwestern Cape into southern Namibia. Tankwa’s landscape offers vivid seasonal contrasts of colored wild owers and stark desert, set against the backdrop of the Roggeveld Escarpment to the east, Klein Roggeveled to the south and the Cederberg to the west. Consequently, the landscape is sparsely vegetated, featuring succulents endemic to the Karoo biome.

The most prominent MSA open air site  in Tankwa Karoo, Tweefontein contained a very large Middle Stone Age unifacial point assemblage reported from either open-air or rockshelter sites in the Western and Northern Cape regions. The specific preferential Levallois strategy used for point production, together with the unusually high use of silcrete, marks this as a site of importance for our understanding of Middle Stone Age adaptations to an arid, marginal environment. The ensemble could be post-Howiesons Poort (HP).

Silcrete is a pedogenic silica rock available along South Afri- ca’s west and south coasts. In its raw form never has the lustrous red and gray coloring seen after intentionally heat-treating. When Silcrete is heated, it undergoes several physical and chemi- cal transformations. From 250°C upward, chemically bound ‘water’ (SiOH) is lost from the structure, allowing for the formation of new Si-O-Si bonds that transform the mechanical properties of the rocks. These modifications of the material properties produce a tool-stone that can be worked more easily, as a result of various altered fracture properties including decreased fracture toughness. After heat treatment, the fracture behaviour of silcrete becomes closer to the one of finer grained silica rocks like chert and flint.

Untreated Silcrete is coarse-grained rock is great for making large flakes, but it is difficult to shape into small, refined tools, such as the typical backed Lunates during the HP-phase. Such artifacts can only be produced after pretreatment, as experimentally demonstrated.

Heat treatment of Silcrete has been documented at several southern African sites. At Pinnacle Point, on South Africa’s south coast, the majority of the silcrete from between 71 and 60 k.a. was heated. This time interval corresponds with the production of microlithic technologies at the site which are similar to Howiesons Poort  occurrences elsewhere. During the two so far analysed occupation phases in the HP at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, on South Africa’s west coast, heat treatment was a ubiquitous technique, applied to almost all silcrete before knapping.   At Blombos Cave, heat treatment was applied to the tips of some of the bifacial points from the Still- Bay (SB) phase, dating ~74–71 k.a.Here the tips were  prepared by heat treating for final retouch with a pressure flaking technique.

Documentation of silcrete heat treatment in the HP and SB reflects the fact that both of these periods are unusually silcrete-rich in the context of the broader MSA; in most sites through most of the MSA outside of the HP and SB silcrete is a marginal assemblage component which has received less archaeological attention, but it is not unknown during the Post-HP phase (for example at Sibudu – a rock shelter in a sandstone cliff in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa).

Heat treatment of Silcrete was also detected through the Howiesons Poort and post-Howiesons Poort of the rock shelter site Mertenhof, located in the Western Cape of South Africa. The site is known to contain high proportions of a diversity of fine grained rocks including  hornfels and chert at various points through the sequence. The excavators found a strong inverse correlation between frequency of heat treatment in silcrete and prevalence of chert in the assemblage, and a generally positive correlation with the proportion of locally available rock. This could mean that, at Mertenhof at least, heat treatment may have been used to improve the fracture properties of silcrete at times when other finer grained rocks were less readily available. As such, heat treatment appears to have been a component of the MSA behavioral flexible adaptive repertoire. This does not exclude a symbolic meaning of the red color or of the transformative process itself.

The systematic evaluation of heat treatment, not known from MSA sites in East or North-Africa contributes to a growing body of evidence that Homo Sapiens-MSA populations in South Africa were capable of far more sophisticated behaviour than previously realised.

Anyhow, we should very careful  to call this technique an indicator of  (self-referential) “modernity”. Transformative techniques were also invented by Neanderthals in Europe and clearly earlier than during MIS4. A Micoquian camp of Inden-Altdorf near Jülich in the Rhineland (Germany) has been securely dated to OIS 5e. Here birch pitch residues were found on tools and offers evidence for the production of synthetic pitch for the use of composite tool technology from the Neanderthal world. Two flakes with birch tar residues from Campitello, Central Italy, dated before OIS 6 are the earliest indication for this technology so far.

The Story of Levallois Points

A Handaxe from Kathu Pan and the chronology of the ESA /MSA in South Africa


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The MTA of the Plateaux near the Middle Vézère Valley

The Middle Vézère valley in the Dordogne, south-western France, is a key area of world prehistory, well-known in palaeoanthropology for the high density of Paleolithic sites in caves and Rock shelters, amongst which are eponymous ones such as La Micoque, Le Moustier, La Madeleine and the abri of Cro-Magnon. 

The Vézère is entrenched in a deep valley with steep limestone cliffs. The gradual incision of the meandering river resulted in the formation of different terrace levels along its inner bends. Five different terraces, from top to bottom, Fv, Fw1, Fw2, Fx and Fy1, and the recent floodplain (Fz) have been distinguished . As shown, these terraces show clear differences in heavy mineral content, and some of the terraces have been dated: a series of ESR and U-series dates performed at La Micoque suggest that the deposits of Fw1 date to MIS 12 and Fw2 to MIS 10 (Texier 2009).  During the Pleistocene the river regime had predominantly  an erosive nature, in which downcutting and erosion dominated. Sand was deposited during floods that covered the channel gravels. Most of these sandy deposits have been eroded later, although at several locations they have been preserved below a pile of Holocene overbank loams.

Caves and rock shelters usually preserved deposits of post Eemian  age, while older strata where destructed by erosion. In contrast, we do know allmost nothing about open air sites in the floodplain, where erosion and /or Holocene overbank deposits had negative consequences on the preservation of traces of human activities. Therefore our view on the settlement systems is certainly biased.

Keeping this limitations in mind, systematic data about the setlement systems during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic could be of interest, because a species specific landscape use in the Middle Vézére valley seems to emerge.

Upper Paleolithic sites in main or secondary river valleys are found significantly closer to the river and at low elevation sheltered locations (for example: La Madeleine). They are more likely to be near river fords and offer a good view to the valley ground. During the Upper Paleolithic, there does not appear to be a strong correlation between site locations and sources of lithic raw materials.

This is thought to represent the increased importance of the rivers themselves in Upper Paleolithic settlement as compared to that of the Middle Paleolithic. One of the most striking patterns is a strong correlation between sites and the location of natural shallows, or fords, in the river. In general, these observations indicate a pattern that is strongly focused on the river, with natural fords potentially playing a role in the groups’ subsistence adaptations.

Interestingly, although it is a significant feature on the landscape, the river itself does not appear to be an important component of Middle Paleolithic settlement. Cave and rockshelter sites are more commonly found at moderate elevation in tributary valleys and are less often  located in the main or secondary valleys. Middle Paleolithic sites tend to be well protected from the elements, located above the flood plain and to provide access to open plateau areas. Additionally, many authors have observed higher densities of open air sites in the plateau areas between the main valleys within a short distance from multiple biomes.

Even these open air sites are observed to have a slight southern orientation and to be frequently located in a depression which would provide some protection from wind and weather. All of these patterns are usually distilled into a view of Middle Paleolithic settlement being controlled by a need for protection from a harsh environment and with easy access to lithic raw materials.

While AMH (Upper Paleolithic) settlement systems seemed to be focused on specialized exploitation of a single resource, often at places where migrating reindeers would be at a disadvantage, Neanderthal (Middle Paleolithic) societies  preferred heterogeneous environments where diverse resources would be available.

 The artifacts of this post are two MTA handaxes (13 and 9 cm long) from sites that have been reported by Rigaud at a number of localities on the Meyrals plateaux between the valleys of the Vézére and the Dordogne. A similar handaxe from the Meyrals site had been acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in 1932 (shown in: Michael Petraglia and Richard Potts: Old World Paleolithic and the Development of a National Collection; free on the internet). Other MTA sites are also known of the high plateaux areas between the Dordogne and the Lot. To the north of the Perigord similar examples of extremely rich, extensive open-air sites have been reported at Fontmaure in the Vienne.

At Meyrals, Early Upper Paleolithic was also present, as already shown in an earlier post, but such findings are rare. Beyond the different settlement systems of AHMs and Neanderthals one should consider the time frames we are talking about: The Aurignacian lasted  7-10 k.a. The MTA  lasted consinderably longer, about 20 k.a. Much more time for Cordiform Handaxes to accumulate than for Aurignacian artifacts….

Suggested Readings:

Matthew Learoyd Sisk: Settlement and Site Location in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic of the Vézère Valley, France

A small Handaxe from Fontmaure (Vienne)

A thick retouched Aurignacian blade from Meyrals / Périgord Noir

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Enigmatic Object from the Central Sahara


This is an isolated Y-shaped flint object (51 x 46 mm) from the central Sahara, part of a Belgian Collection assembled during the 1930 ies. H. Breuil described these instruments as a special form of a double, or more often triple notch-more or less in the form of a T or Y made on flint or quartzite. He suggested that they were part of the local “Mostero-Aterien”. Breuil liked such analogies-the piece reminded him on peculates from the local MSA.

It has been suggested, that the functional important parts of such artifacts, if interpreted as utilitarian objects, are undoubtedly constituted by the the deep notches which are carefully retouched. Therefore their functional classification as scrapers, first proposed by M. Nougier, seems plausible. It is very likely that we are dealing with a combined tool, a sort of a trifacial scraper for various purposes  which in no way precludes  their use for other purposes.

Some rare observations indicate that “pieces en forme de “T”  from the Sahara belong to an MSA context.  They have indeed found as isolated pieces in Aterian contextes, but others researchers argue, that they were found in much larger quantities among Neolithic surface material of the central and northern Sahara. In the valley of the Guir for example, Paul Fitte discovered a large quantity of T or Y artifacts owning an extraordinary freshness. Fitte suggested, that they  could be relatively recent, neolithic, or post-Neolithic. In addition, to my knowledge, T or Y forms are totally absent in stratigraphic intact MSA / Aterian deposits of the Maghreb and the pre-Saharan zone. Anyhow, pieces with similar morphology sometimes appeared during the late Neolithic of M/W- France (Fig. 4).

It can even not be excluded that such artifacts were reworked Aterian tools, produced during late prehistoric or early historic times. Even  the speculation about their use as “jouets chameau” , which referres to the observation, that similar pieces, made from flint, were used as toys by Tuareg children is not wholly impossible.

Suggested Reading:

P. Fitte: Etude d’une station d’objets en forme de T de la vallée moyenne de l’oued Guir (Sahara occidental). La Station 458. (via Persee).

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“Nubian Point” from the Lower Nil Valley

This is a Nubian (Levallois) Point, very different from the European or Levantine Levallois Points (10x6x0,5 cm). Such broad pointed Flakes are the end product of an operational chain, usually starting with the production of Nubian 2-mode cores.

Nubian points are part of the Middle Paleolithic / MSA Nubian complex in the lower Nil valley. A number of tool types are present in this assemblages, such as bifacial foliates and thick Nubian scrapers (only during the early Nubian complex), Nubian Points, as shown in this post and Nazlet Khater points (Nubian points with inverse retouching of the tip) and truncated­-facetted pieces. Several diachronic phases can be distinguished in the Nubian Complex. Among the oldest are those that are characterised by the presence of thin bifacial tools, in addition to the Nubian technique. These assemblages belong to the Early Middle Palaeolithic, and are of Middle Pleistocene age. The Late Nubian Complex is present from about 100 k.a.BP, in the Early Late Pleistocene.

The Nubian cores were first described by Guichard and Guichard, which separated two types. The Type 1 its a  Levallois pointed core prepared by two unidirectional divergent removals undertaken from the distal part of the core. Type 2 cores are marked by an elaborated centripetal preparation arranged perpendicularly to the central axis of the triangular silhouette of the Levallois surface from which a Levallois point, unlike the ‘‘classical’’ Levallois point,  is struck. Guichard and Guichard  did not consider the objective of this second scheme as a Levallois point sensu stricto, given that the preferential removal does not follow a central guiding ridge. However, all Researchers conclude that the product of this reduction is a triangular Levallois flake.

At some sites, for example at Dhofar (Oman) an overlap between the preparation methods, which culminate in the shaping of Nubian Type 1 and Type 2 cores, may be identified as ‘‘Nubian Type 1/2’’. This plasticity in core dorsal surface preparation is also present at the Hadramawt region in Yemen. Concerning the plasticity within the Nubian technology and the interchangeability between the Nubian Type 1 and Type 2 cores, Chiotti et al. argue in favor of condensing these preparation methods into a general Nubian technology.

The Nubian Complex

The Early Nubian Complex

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An Ovate Handaxe from the UK

During the 1960ies Dereck Roe was engaged to quantify  artifact variation across the Acheulian world.  Of all of the ratios and measurements calculated by  Roe, the essence was the tripartite division of handaxes into Pointed, Ovate and Cleaver forms. The genesis of this paradigm is seen when Roe demonstrated that a typical ficron, ovate and cleaver can have the same figure for the width/length ratio despite their obvious differences in shape. He identified that the major difference between these three shapes is in the position of the maximum width (L₁). ‘From this simple fact emerges the very promising index L₁/L as an indicator of shape’. This classification, which is measured on the basis of the relative position of maximum width of the tool, stems from an arbitrary division of the L₁/L. Ovates were defined by their ratio  between 0.351 – 0.550. The wonderful executed 12 cm Long ovate from S-England shown here has a ratio of 0,47. Ovates were common in Britain especially during OIS 11 (Hoxnian).

The significance of morphological variation in Acheulean bifaces has been a central issue in Paleolithic research for over a century. For much of that period interpretation has been dominated by culture-historical models and it is only in the past 20 years that other explanatory factors have received adequate attention.  These factors include raw materials, site function, and reduction intensity. These questions  have especially been discussed in the UK.

In 1964 Dereck Roe, categorized 38 British sites either belonging to a predominantly ovate or pointed “tradition”. Roe was an “intentionalist”, who proposed that “Traditions” were created by the intention of their makers. This pattern has been repeatedly confirmed by other researchers. Anyhow, it is important to note that each assemblage contains a mixture of both forms. Pointed handaxes comprise, in most cases, no less than 30% of an assemblage, even in ovate dominated sites. In assemblages devoid of cleavers, a group to which all of the UK sites belong, the dominance of either pointed or ovate shapes suggests that the picture is probably much more complex than a clear-cut ‘‘pointed’’ vs. ‘‘broad’’ handaxe shape dichotomy.

We should also remember that Roe used  museum collections, which particularly in Britain and France, have been heavily biased by the past practices of both collectors and sometimes excavators where often only the finer bifaces, or those made of more easily identifiable raw materials such as flint, have been retained. Despite Britain having a rich Lower Paleolithic record, the number of recent large-scale excavations is low compared to other parts of Europe. The debate over this UK dichotomy and its sources is ongoing, principally between the proponents of the ‘‘raw-material’’ model and those advocating the ‘‘reduction’’ model.

White examined the British bifaces and noted the type of raw material from which they were made. He found a consistent pattern that led him to suggest that variability in raw material size, shape, and quality is behind the shape patterning in these assemblages. Pointed forms tend to be made on smaller, poorer quality raw materials obtained from secondary deposits on river terraces. In these instances, the shape of the nodules often placed constraints on the type of form that could be manufactured. Conversely, rounded forms were generally made on larger, high-quality raw materials obtained from primary sources. Because pointed or ovate forms could have been manufactured in these instances, White takes the analysis a step further, arguing that ovate forms were in fact the preferred form of Britain’s hominids and that pointed forms were simply an accommodation to inferior raw material.

Mc Pherron argues that the bifaces of an assemblage represent different stages of the reduction process. Some will be in the earlier stages of reduction when they enter the archaeological record and others will be nearly exhausted. The model links the intensity of bifacial reduction with variability in biface shape.

If a particular shape was important to these hominids, then one would expect the shape to remain relatively constant despite the diminishing size of the biface. On the other hand, if factors other than shape were more important for their makers, then one might expect shape to gradually change as the biface diminished in size. Mc Pherron argues for the latter assumption: In the reduction sequence large pointed handaxes were eventually resharpened into smaller ovate forms. It remains somewhat unclear, how the reduction process should be quantified without the presence of the complete reduction chain in the archaeological record.

All models of variability in the British Acheulian have their flaws and refer to the simple and abitrary dichotomy of pointed vs. ovate handaxes. While the reduction model fits to some assemblages, it has been falsified on others.  Raw material size, shape and quality as the primary factors influencing the form of handaxes seems to fit better to the observed pattering in the UK.

Anyhow, such results can not be easily extrapolated to other regions: Sharon showed that these models are irrelevant to the tools’ morphological variability, at least as far as the Large Flake Acheulian (LFA) in the Middle East and Africa is concerned. It has been demonstrated that raw material constraints had minimal impact on biface shape and size, and that the morphology of LFA handaxes and cleavers cannot be explained by the reduction sequence model, since their minimal retouch shaping strategy ruled out intensive resharpening.

Overall  it is hoped, that a multi-modal synthesis of analytical techniques that incorporate a variety of methods may resolve such questions in the future.

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A Truncated Blade of the Early Upper Paleolithic from Kebara / Israel

kebara newtoolkebaranewtool1

This is a broad blade (7×2,7×0,7 cm) with a straight, steeply retouched (around 90◦) edge aligned more or less perpendicularly to the long axis of the tool- a piece with streight truncation from the lower layers (Early Ahmarian) of Kebara cave. Such pieces, often with  a faceted platform, which is also present on the artifacts shown here, are present since the very early beginnings of the Levantine Upper Paleolithic.

A Review in Azouris publication of the lower strata at Ksar Akil  (IUP)( shows straight truncations, oblique truncations and concave truncations and many burins on strait or oblique truncations, in Strata 24-21 (IUP) together with end scrapers and chamfered pieces. They continue to be present until the early Ahmarian of Stratum 18.

Truncations could be instruments on their own right, anyhow truncation was also  a method for segmenting larger blades into smaller ones, especially during the later Levantine Epipaleolithic, or even  preforms for burins, as seen at Ksar Akil 24-21. Unfortunately, functional studies about their status are not available till now.

The “Initial Upper Paleolithic” (IUP) of the Levant refers to assemblages characterized by essentially Upper Paleolithic inventories of retouched tools (burins, endscrapers, truncations on blades and retouched blades) sometimes with still a significant number of Middle Paleolithic types (sidescrapers and broad points). They demonstrate a dominant hard hammer blade production from core reduction strategies following the Levallois and/or Laminar (volumetric) concepts.

Most of the blades (frequently with convergent edges) are wide, not very regular, with facetted platforms, indicating still the use of hard hammer technique in large proportion. In some cases, systematic bladelet production has been described (Umm el Tlel, layer III2a’ and II base). These Initial Upper Paleolithic assemblages are widespread in the Levant (for instance, Boker Tachtit levels 1–4, Ksar Akil XXIV–XXI, Tor Sadaf A–B, Uçagizli I–F, Intermediate Paleolithic in Umm-el-Tlel). Moreover, in a few sites with good organic preservation, bone tools and ornaments are already present (Uçagizli, Ksar Akil), demonstrating a developed tradition of ornament-making that continued in the following Ahmarian.

The geographic and temporal dispersal of IUP technology poses a fundamental question. What range of processes that can lead to the repetition of a constellation of technological features over time and space? Dispersal of a single group bearing a particular technological tradition is one such process, arguably the first one that many archaeologists think of. However, technologies can also disperse across existing social networks without people actually moving with them. A third, less frequently-considered possibility is that the broad dispersal of some characteristics of the IUP represents frequent convergent evolution.

The loose configuration of attributes that define the IUP may simply represent an “easy” pathway from late MP Levallois to UP prismatic blade technology.  The variability observed could represent a series of radiations or distinct dispersal events, at various geographical scales, occurring within a narrow time window. Although one should be very cautious in interpreting radiocarbon dates greater than 37 000 14C years, the existing corpus of dates  is inconsistent with the hypothesis that the global IUP represents a single dispersal event. There is a broad time trend in dates within the IUP range, running from southwest (the Levant) to the northeast (Mongolia and northwest China) but the trend is hardly clear or monotonic. For example, the dates from Kara Bom in the Siberian Altai are among the oldest in the entire sample, approaching the current age estimates for the base of Boker Tachtit.

In the broadest sense of the term, the industries defined as Initial Upper Paleolithic share only a few basic traits. They are united mainly by the use of hard hammer percussion, facetted platforms and relatively flat exploitation faces on some cores, all of which are tightly linked traits from a technological point of view. Locally, other features are highly variable.  In some assemblages, (Üçagızlı FeI, Ksar Akil, Boker Tachtit 4) blank production is almost exclusively unidirectional. In others (Boker Tachtit 1, 2, the Bohunician sites, Kara-Bom (OH5eOH6), Tolbor 4 (OH5eOH6), Shuidonggou 1, 2, blank production involves bidirectional removals.  Even bidirectional technological systems are not homogeneous. Sometimes bidirectional cores have platforms on opposite ends of the same broad face of the core (e.g Bohunician), but often the reduction took place on a broad flaking surface and at the intersection with a narrow face or lateral edge (e.g. Kara-Bom). These variants can sometimes coexist and may at times represent different stages of reduction.  Some IUP technological systems appear to have been oriented toward production of pointed pieces, others toward the production of blades or even elongated flakes.

Suggested Reading:

Fundamental Text about the IUP at Ksar Akil:

Kebara Upper Paleo:


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The Top 5 of Aggsbach’s Paleolithic Blog

During the last year about 220000 readers visited my blog. These are the top five of their interest:

  1. Interpersonal Violence in Paleolithic and Mesolithic Societies
  2. Down with the “MP-UP Transitional Industries” of Europe ! 
  3. At the same time?
  4. The Prądnik (KMG) complex in Central Germany revisited
  5. Race?- what Race?

This is a North European, late Mesolithic transverse projectile point (1,3 cm long).

We are living in an new age of fear and are threatened by increasing ideological and religious motivated violence. More and more individuals abandon the discourse of democratic agreement. Instead, elected or self-empowered defamatory and vulgar “leaders” resume power at a terrifying rate worldwide. It is no surprise, that even in a blog about stone-artifacts, the issue of violence has become the number one during 2016.

Anyhow, I hope that the number five was read by people who agree that we must clearing up ideological myths about the condition humaine in a “postfactic world”.

Two topics are dedicated to the Middle/Upper Paleolithic transition of the old World, a key period of change in the prehistory of the Old World and one of the most studied issues in anthropology, as the nature of the transition(s) is still, after at least a century of archaeological research, largely unknown. Around the Mediterranean we have either Middle Paleolithic / MSA-Industries or fully developed Upper Paleolithic industries. Although tremendous progress has been made in building a reliable chronology, we still do not know where the Protoaurignacian / Ahmarian and the Aurignacian started and we still do not know who were the makers of these Early Upper Paleolithic entities.

The late Middle Paleolithic in Europe is associated with a general increase in the use of bifacial technologies across Western and Central Europe. These artifacts are often described as multifunctional, curated, mobile tools with extended use-lives, giving them a specific status in the Neanderthal tool kit. The Keilmesser-Group (KMG, Central European Micoquian) seems to be of special interest for my readers outside Germany, maybe because many fundamental texts about this topic were never published in English language.

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