Control of Fire by Archaic Humans

The common sense suggest, that fire must have invented very early in human evolution because fire use and control offers a lot of advantages: It acts as a source of warmth, making it easier to get through cold temperatures and allowed our ancestors to survive in colder environments.  Fire also played a role how Homo sp. obtained and consumed food, primarily by the  practice of cooking. This caused a significant increase in hominid meat consumption and intake of calories.

Therefore early researchers suggested that, immediately after fire use and control was “discovered,” it subsequently became a universal and ubiquitous component of all hominin populations.

However, the history  of humans has always a way of turning out differently as evidenced by the results of excavations during the last 50 years.

First, there are some things  we will newer know:

  • Did our ancestors learn first how to tame natural fires or did they start with the invention of fire-making techniques either using friction or tools that create sparks or  techniques employing chemicals?
  • After they learned to handle fire- was this knowledge transmitted to other people as a continuous process or was the knowledge of fire making  lost after few generations and had to be reinvented again and again?

Secondly many assumptions from older textbooks are obviously wrong:

Early research often misinterpreted non-burnt sediments in search of  hominin fire use. At a number of important localities this led to the misidentification of the presence of fire, based on sediments that were in fact unrelated to burning. For example, at the site of Fontechevade in the Charente in Southwestern France patches of manganese dioxide were mistaken for charcoal, and at Zhoukoudian, China, lenses of organic matter and layers of very fine silts from Middle Pleistocene contexts were mistaken for charcoal and ash. Similar misinterpretations occurred at South Africa’s Cave of Hearths , and more recently at the the important Schöningen site in Lower Saxony. 

Goldberg, Miller, and Mentzer recently with more conceptual rigor  formalized three basic questions that should comprise the identification and interpretation of early Homo fire use: “(1) Are the sediments or objects in question actually burned? (2) If they are burned, what was the nature and context of their deposition? (3) Were they burned by hominins?”

Innovative  methods of excavation and data processing have improved the identification of latent structures like combustion areas, hearths and clusters of human activity in archaeological sites,  providing a more unequivocal evidence for fire making

Advanced micro-morphology and and micro-spectroscopy were developed that both provides evidence of fire, in the form of burned bone and ashed plant remains, even without the macroscopic presence of combustion areas.

Data about intact sediments at Wonderwerk, probed with such techniques, gave secure evidence that  burning took place  in the cave during the early Acheulean occupation, approximately 1.0 Ma. ago. Anyhow it can not be proven, that it was enflammed by human activity.

The presence of burned seeds, wood, and flint at the Acheulian site of Gesher Benot Ya`aqov (GBY; Fig 2: East African Cleaver) in Israel is also very  suggestive of the control of fire by humans nearly 800 K.A. years ago. “The distribution of the site’s small burned flint fragments suggests that burning occurred in specific spots, possibly indicating hearth locations. Wood of six taxa was burned at the site, at least three of which are edible—olive, wild barley, and wild grape”.

But: GBY and Wonderwork cave remain the only secure sites with fire use by hominins during the Early Pleistocene. The Archaeological record remains patchy and limited, without evidence that the use of fire quickly became an universal and ubiquitous component of all hominin populations.

The examples of fire use remain rare but more unequivocal during the early Middle Pleistocene in the Levant. The most impressive findings come from the excavations of the Qesem Cave, Israel, where the remains of ash and charcoal have been identified in primary deposition using micromorphological techniques. Moreover, burnt bones have been identified with certainty. Other mineralogical, geochemical, and microscopic techniques were used to identify the stable derivatives of wood ash and burnt clays.

The excavators  show that the 7.5-m sedimentary sequence exposed by excavation in Qesem Cave consists predominantly of lithified ash remains, sometimes preserving intact hearths. The Amudian deposits in Qesem Cave therefore rank among the earliest well-documented examples of the habitual use of fire. In the Yabrudian layers at Tabun cave (Figure 3: small handaxe from Tabun), fire use was also “regular or habitual” by 350–320 k.a., but burned flints were scarce or absent during at least 50 k.a.

From these data, it has been concluded that fire-building in the Levant became a regular activity at ca 400-200 k.a. and that its use was associated with an increase in human social and intellectual complexity. The control over fire may also have contributed to organizational shifts in hominid settlement and land use systems, as expressed by ‘‘home bases’’ or residential camps.

However even during  this period,  evidence of fire is sporadic. Early uses of fire may have heating, cooking/roasting, illumination, and protection from predators. The control over fire may have been important for colonizing unfamiliar cool environments although this proposition remains to be tested.

After 200 k.a. BP, the Levantine (Levallois)-Mousterian layers at sites such as the caves of Tabun, Kebara, and Hayonim (Israel), Shanidar (Iraq) show an important stratigraphial record with the presence of in situ hearths and ash levels throughout most of the layers. In Kebara cave, for example, ash layers have been well preserved through 4 m of section in the center of the cave.  Many caves present indications that social activities centered around these  hearths.

In Europe we have no secure evidence for anthropogenic fire before 400 k.a. BP. European Lower Paleolithic sites such as Dmanisi, Atapuerca, La Caune d’Arago, and Boxgrove show thousands of unburned bones but no burned materials. Early and even late Neanderthal communities often did not use fire.

It is not before the second half of the Middle Pleistocene onward (MIS5-3) that we  observe  several Middle Paleolithic cave and open-air sites with multiple successive levels representing a long time span with clear evidence of fire. For example the combustion structures in the many levels of Abric Romani in Spain and of Ksiecia Jozefa in Poland, the multiple levels of El Salt, St. Marcel, Esquilleu Cave, Peyrards, La Combette, La Quina, St. Césaire. Les Canalettes, France, is a well-documented Middle Paleolithic site where lignite was repeatedly imported as fuel from a distance of 8–10 km.

Stone-lined or stone-delimited fireplaces are not as common as in the late Upper Paleolithic but they have been documented at a number of Mid- dle Paleolithic sites: Vilas Ruivas, Les Canalettes, La Combette, Bolomor layer XIII, Port Pignot, Abri du Rozel, Pech de l’Aze II, Grotte du Bison, and Abric Romani.

Hearth- centered activities have been suggested at the rock shelter site of Abric Romani  at the open-air sites of La Folie (France) and Ksiecia Jozefa (Poland).

But we also know important exceptions from this pattern like the Quina Mousterian from the rock-shelter site of Chez Pinaud Jonzac (Charente-Maritime, France; Fig 4: Quina artifact), recently excavated, and excellent preserved, offers an opportunity to pursue issues of hunting and cocking . At Jonac at least 18 reindeers were hunted by Neandertals during the fall through winter and butchered at the site.The excavators were surprised  that “in the excavated sample, the absence of hearths and the almost complete lack of burned bones or stones suggest that Neandertals were not using fire to assist with processing the reindeer carcasses”

Jonzac is no exception. Numerous archaeological Neanderthal sites before the Upper Paleolithic challenge the cooking hypothesis because there is simply no evidence for the control of fire.

The pattern emerging  from these data seems to be clear and surprising.  Homo did not need the control of fire technology to leaf Africa and settle northern latitudes. On contrary, Homo in Europe survived without the systematic control of fire, on raw meat and vegetal food for hundreds of thousands of years. There are any clear traces of the habitual use of fire until the second half of the Middle Pleistocene. This absence of evidence, 150 yrs after intensive research can not be ignored. It was only much later, that fire-use became part of the habitual repertoire of some (not all) Neanderthal societies.

(Picture 1: source: Wikipedia; GNU Free Documentation License; User:Fir0002)

Early controlled Fire use in Africa and the Levant

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Eyed Bone Needle from the Rochereil cave,

Bone needles represent an important Paleolithic innovation that made a sewing technology and tailor-made hide and leather clothing possible,  designed to cope with harsh environments. It is not by chance that many of these needles date to the LGM

The example, shown here, is a Magdalenian Bone Needle from the Rochereil site in the Dordogne. At this site, several strata of a late and very late Magdalenian were found with an overwhelming production of bone-tools, figurative art and abstract decoration. The Magdalenian strata were followed by an early Azilian (Bipointe-phase).

The needle shown here, exhibits the distinctive micro-wear  pattern which is produced when such an artifact is used as a sewing needle, already shown decennia ago in the classic monograph: Danielle Stordeur: Les Aiguilles à chas du paléolithique (13e supplément à Gallia préhistoire;1979).

Specialized bone technology first appears in the MSA of Africa and became widespread in Western Eurasia after 40 k.a. Cal BP. Standardized bone tools were not only produced by H. sapiens, but also by late Neanderthals (Lissoirs from several MTA sites in S/W-France).

Eyed bone needles, another group of highly formalized bone tools may also be considerable old. Currently it is claimed that the the earliest eyed bone needle found so far dates to ca 50 k.a. BP. It was found in Denisova Cave and was probably produced by the Denisovans and not by H. sapiens.

Anyhow, without direct dating of the Denisova artifact and more information  about the site formation process, the suggestion that “The Upper Paleolithic settlement of Eastern Europe and Siberia may be described as the eyed-needle zone, because it contains the earliest known eyed needles” remains purely speculative.

Many open questions too, remain on eyed needles reported from Kostenki 15 (35-30 k.a. BP), from Tolbaga (southeast of Lake Baikal) in deposits dated to 35 to 28 k.a. and eyed needles reported from Mezmaiskaya in the EUP (“Ahmarian like”) layers 1A and 1B, which are said to be at least 33-36 k.a old. In all these cases we are missing adequate publications and even high quality pics, to get an idea about we are talking about…

That such findings can be published with a high scientific standard was recently shown by a joint group of Harvard and Chinese researchers. They published an eyed bone needle fragment from the Shizitan 29 site, Shanxi Province, dated to ca. 23-26 k.a. Cal BP.

In China, where the systematic evaluation of the Paleolithic just has started, Upper Paleolithic examples of bone eyed needles were already published from the  Shuidonggou Locality 2 (ca 30 k.a.) Cal k.a. BP, from the Upper Zhoukoudian Cave dated to 36-28 Cal k.a. BP. BP and at the Xiaogushan Site dated between 30-20 k.a. Cal BP.

In Europe, after 150 yrs of intensive research, beside some isolated  examples from the “Aurignacian III” at La Ferrassie,  the earliest eyed needles come from the LGM and were found in larger quantities in late Solutrean layers (Badegoule, Laugerie-Haute- Est, Jean Blancs, Isturitz) and some Epigravettian sites of Central / South Europe.

During the Magdalenian, especially during its late stages (“Magdalenian V/VI”, the use of eyed bone needles became a mass phenomenon. At the Rochereil cave alone, about 200 examples were found …

Needles from La Madeleine

Eyed Bone Needle

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“Oldowan” from the lower Omo valley

This is a chopping tool / core from the lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia made from a quartz pebble  (maximal diameter: 7 cm).

All  studies from this location, published so far, point out that the early lithic artifacts, found in situ,  are mainly flakes, made from quartz pebbles, similar to the example shown here, in an overwhelming majority of cases.

Pioneering research in the Lower Omo Valley was early initiated by Arambourg in 1933, and was continued by the International Omo Research Expedition between 1967 and 1976. These expeditions have produced one of the best-documented bio-environmental and chronostratigraphic Plio-Pleistocene records for the study of human and faunal evolution. Fortunately, the transdisciplinary Omo Group Research Expedition project is continuing.

Beginning with the 1970ies, very old lithic ensembles (“Oldowan”) were found in the Omo area. These findings placed the first appearance of stone tools prior to 2 Ma, some hundreds of thousands of years before those found at Olduvai Bed I, which until then were thought to be the oldest human artifacts anywhere.

The Shungura Formation in the Lower Omo Valley is currently  the most complete sequence of sediments from the Plio-Pleistocene in Africa, dated from 3.6 Ma and ca. 1 Ma. Within the Omo Group, all early documented archaeological material comes from the Shungura Formation, (Member F deposits) dating from 2,32 Ma to 2,23 Ma.

While the discovery in the late 1970s of artefacts dated to ca. 2,6 Ma in the Hadar Formation demonstrated that the Omo lithic record is not the oldest-known lithic industry, it still represents an exceptional cultural heritage for assessing Early Pleistocene hominin behaviors. Nowadays we have several industries from the time horizon between 2,4-2,3 Ma (Gona, Hadar, Lokalalei and Kanjera) which are far from being techno-typological uniform.

The earliest Omo assemblages share a number of features with Gona, Hadar, Lokalalei and Kanjera and indicate  the mastery of basic principles of stone knapping by our ancestors. With regard to assemblage composition, all these sites show similar percentages in which cores and flakes predominate, standardized forms are absent and retouched tools are not abundant.

Recurrent reduction of the same exploitation surfaces of cores is well attested, although there is substantial inter-assemblage variation regarding the use of unifacial, bifacial and multifacial methods. Core striking platforms are usually unprepared and rejuvenation products aimed to reactive flaking, although some- times documented (e.g. Lokalalei 2C), are not abundant; once knapping surfaces lose the necessary convexities, cores are discarded.

Raw material selectivity has been reported in most of the early sites , and it is likely that raw material factors played a major role in the length of reduction sequences; the quality, large size and abundance of cobbles in areas such as Gona , West Turkana  and Hadar could have facilitated long sequences of core exploitation, whereas the smaller size of raw materials available in Omo and Kanjera  conditioned the number of flaking series.

In sum, even the the earliest assemblages show a well- reasoned technological process which began with the preferential selection of suitable raw materials, continued with an understanding of the volumetric concepts required to exploit such raw materials and a successful application of that know-how in the reduction of cores, followed by an optimal production of flakes.

Until recently there was general agreement in positioning the earliest Oldowan evidence at ca. 2,6 Ma, hypothetically related  to climatic changes, the living of our ancestors in savannah grassland environments, new hominin species (Homo sp.) and dietary shifts.

Nonetheless, the  discovery of cut-marked fossils in Dikika that could be older than 3, 39 Ma and discovery of the earliest known stone tools at Lomekwi 3 (LOM3) from West Turkana, Kenya, dated to 3, 3 Ma, raises new questions about the mode and tempo of key adaptations in the hominin lineage.

If we still define Homo as stone tool making creature, it must have existed earlier that currently substantiated by the Paleoanthropological record. Anyhow, fossils dating to before 2, 8 Ma have not yet been found.

Alternatively we could say goodby to the  “Homo the toolmaker” -paradigm  and  attribute the first stone artifacts from LOM3 to an earlier hominin like Australopithecus or even to an extinct large ape.

The oldest traces of Human Culture in the Rift Valley: The Oldowan

MSA Omo Kibish Foliates: The art of Thinning

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A Rare Paleolithic Artifact: a “star-shaped” percoir


This is a “star-shaped” micro percoir, coming from a 19th century  collection from the La Madeleine site in the Vezere Valley. Peyrony described some Badegoulian tools from the basal layers, but the stone tool could also come from later Magdalenian strata (III-VI; see below).

The Old-World Paleolithic knows several Upper Paleolithic technocomplexes characterized by single or multiple Micropercoirs or small becs. While in Western / Central Europe the Badegoulian and the Magdalenian after 20 k.a. Cal. BP are the technological substrate for such an evolution, we find multiple Micropercoirs in the Epigravettian of Mezine at 15 k.a. Cal. BP certainly indicating some technologically convergence.

Here I use the definition of the Magdalenian, created by Breuil in 1912 and modified by Bordes and Sonneville-Bordes, Allain, Bosselin and Djindjian and Kozłowski.

The Post-Solutrean in the Greater Aquitaine beginns with a Magdalenian 0 which was defined according to observations by F. Bordes at the rock shelter of Laugerie-Haute Est and preceded the Magdalenian I (sensu Breuil). Both entities are now referred to as Badegoulian.

Technologically, the Badegoulian lithic industry differs considerably from the Solutrean one. Bifacial retouche disappears and tools were made on flakes, which gives the Badegoulian industry a crude and coarse appearance. The lithic raw material in the Badegoulian assemblages is dominated by local sources often of poor quality, which has been usually procured in a 30 km radius of the site. Unlike the more exotic procurement strategy, which is observed in the Magdalenian. The preferred raw material in the Badegoulian is various types of flint, but they have also used quartzite in their tool production.

Typologically, the Badegoulian is characterized by the frequent use of flakes for tool production, multiple raclettes and the occurrence of transversal burins, multiple, “star-shaped” percoirs and becs, as well as  carinated scrapers, and side scrapers. Dihedral burins and backed bladelets are rather scarce, and lithic triangles are virtually absent. J. Allain emphasized the separation between Magdalenian and Badegoulian based on his works at the Fritsch rock shelter and subdivided the Badegoulian into two phases: an older phase without raclettes and a younger one with raclettes. There are several sites besides Abri Fritsch such as Laugerie-Haute, Badegoule, Cassegros, le Cuzoul and Pégourié, where both the early and late phase of the Badegoulian culture has been observed.

Blades and an independent bladelet production ( with secondary products:“pièce de la Bertonneare”) were present during the Badegoulian, but in smaller quantities compared to the Magdalenian.

The definition of the early and middle Magdalenian has also underwent several modifications during the last 50 years. In 1985, J. Allain, R. Desbrosse, J.K. Kozłowski, and A. Rigaud introduced an additional Magdalenian facies, the Magdalenian à navettes, which is mainly characterized by the occurrence of a specific organic artifact, the so-called navette. Chronologically, this tool appears to be contemporaneous with organic points of the type Lussac-Angles and with lithic triangles  and thus to be restricted to the period before the advent of barbed points phase(the Late Magdalenian).

The Middle Magdalenian of S/W-France has therefore several facies:

  • Magdalenian with navettes,
  • the Magdalenian with Lussac-Angles points
  • and the Magdalenian with triangles and lamelles scalenes.

One of the most substantial critiques of the six-phase classification was expressed in a 1988 study by B. Bosselin and F. Djindjian on the chronological significance of Magdalenian and Badegoulian lithic tool types. For a profound evaluation of the archaeological record, they calculated an extensive Correspondence Analysis using data on 19 tool types from 103 sites in France.

According to Bosselin and Djindjian’s analysis, only four groups of lithic tool types could be found which possess a temporal significance. The oldest group corresponds to an older Badegoulian with transversal burins and a low proportion of raclettes, while the second group corresponds to a younger Badegoulian and shows high proportions of raclettes. The two remaining groups are attributed to the Magdalenian and differ mainly in terms of the presence (older group, M0) and absence (younger group, M1) of lithic triangles.

While the combination of multiple raclettes, transversal burins, multiple, “star-shaped” percoirs and becs (5-15%), and  carinated pieces, is certainly very typical for a Badegoulian, isolated findigs of multiple Percoirs are not diagnostic for this entity. We even do not know the functional status of these artifacts.

Typically, they occur in the “Magdalenian 0/1″ at Laugerie haute in a Badegoulian context, but also in the “Magdalenian III” at Abri Reverdit at Segeac, certainly a site without any Badegoulian affinities. The same holds through at the Middle Magdalenian at the Grotte de la Marche with 286 single or multiple small  and often multiple perçoirs.

At the Abri de Duruthy, 4 Magdalenian levels have been distinguished, overlaid by an Azilian and a Chalcolithic layer. The Magdalenian III and IV levels  between 17,4 Cal BP and 16,4 cal BP show single and multiple micropercoirs, indistinguishable  from Badegoulian ones. Even the upper layers of Beauregard (late Magdalenian) show very similar multiple geometric micropercoirs.

Going to Central Europe, the Grubgraben-Kammern site dated around the LGM (C-14 non calibrated: 18-19 k.a.) and remains the best example for a Middle European Badegoulian with multiple percoirs (4%) and raclettes (Archaeologia Austriaca, Band 100/2016, 225–254). The site of Wiesbaden-Igstadt in the central Rhineland , the Kastelhöhle-Nord Middle Horizon in the Swiss Jura and the Zoitzberg scatter close to Gera in Thuringia reveal great similarities to the early Badegoulian and may indicate an extension of the technocomplex to central Europe during short episodes at ca. 20 k.a. Cal BP.

After the Great Cold: The Epigravettien in Austria and the Grubgraben site

The Badegoulian: Ugly Technocomplex- or Sophisticated Adaption?

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MSA Omo Kibish Foliates: The art of Thinning

Figure 1,2,3: These are MSA Implements, found during a geological survey in the 1940ies in the Omo Valley / S-Ethiopia. The artifacts are made from an opaque Chert and display a  very characteristic Orange Brown Earthen Patina, known from other surface and excavated material from the Omo Kibish site. Sampling was highly selective, because cores and debitage are not present in this series. Bifacial foliates (the largest is 7 cm long) were the most eye-catching artifacts for the collector. Holding the artifacts in my hands, I can feel the knappers  intention to  thin the tips of these points as much as possible.

The Kibish formation of the Lower Omo River of southwestern Ethiopia, located approximately 400 km from the early MSA sites at Gademotta and Kulkuletti, has been a major location of both paleontological and archaeological finds. Both early anatomically modern human fossils and early MSA archaeological remains  have been found in this region.

The Omo Valley is part of the Turkana Basin, which is a hydrographic and sedimentary system encompassing about 131,000 km2 of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia.  In its present configuration, the basin is hydrologically closed and dominated by alkaline Lake Turkana, with the Omo River as its primary source of water. As recently as the middle Holocene, it had connections to adjacent rift basins and an outlet to the Nile River.

The Omo Kibish Formation or simply Kibish Formation  is named after the archaeological site of Omo Kibish, where it was first studied. Richard Leakey’s work there in 1967 found some of the oldest remains of Homo sapiens. In Omo 1, the occipital is strikingly modern (rounded), the parietals have their maximum breadth relatively high, there is only a weak supraorbital torus, and a chin is present. On the other hand, Omo 2,  has a more angled occipital, the maximum breadth of the skull is lower, but the calvarium is high and arched .

30 years after the original finds in 2004, a detailed stratigraphic analysis of the area surrounding the fossils was done. The fossiliferous I layer was 40Ar/39Ar dated to 172-196 k.a., and the (higher layer) Member III was dated to 105 k.a.. Numerous MSA lithics were found in  Members I and III. Basic lithic techno-typological systems remained stable over that time.

For a long time,  the Omo fossils remained the oldest known Homo sapiens remains. Ethiopia / East Africa was therefore among the main proposed locations for the cradle of Homo sapiens. Fossils excavated at the Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco have since been dated to an earlier period, around 300 k.a. ago, arguing against a linear evolution of H. sapiens in East Africa and fit better to prevailing genetic data.

Recently, John Shea and Matthew Sisk have presented important new data derived from the analysis of the lithic assemblages at archaeological localities in the Kibish formation. Their research has focused on three such localities with substantial accumulations of stone tools: KHS, which belongs to Member 1; AHS, which also belongs to Member 1; and BNS, located at the boundary between Members 2 and 3. Thus, the KHS and AHS sites are comparable in age with the Gademotta and Kulkuletti sites, whereas BNS dates to a somewhat later period.

Although not directly associated with the fossils, the lithics from both excavated and surface collections at Kibish are characteristic East African MSA, with Levallois and discoid reduction strategies, and a number of bifacial pieces that vary from foliates to handaxes, the latter are uncommon.

The Omo Kibish sites shares some features with other Eastern African MSA complexes:

  • Large core-tools (hand axes, picks, core-axes, and large lanceolates) are present but relatively rare.
  • Levalloisian debitage is present in all assemblages in different quantities. The same holds through for Discoidal core reduction
  • Foliates are present in many assemblages, although their frequency varies.
  • There is little evidence for the systematic production of geometric backed pieces, which are characteristic for MIS4/3 sites further south than, including Mumba Cave in Tanzania and Enkape Ya Muto in the southern Kenya.

To focus on excavated foliates, there was only one complete foliate point discovered during Shea’s excavations (found at the BNS site), in addition to 16 foliate point fragments. It is likely that the category of broken points combines those that were broken during the process of their manufacture and those that were broken during use-which would be especially likely if, as Shea and Sisk  have suggested, such foliate points were elements of projectile weapon systems, resulting in the breakage of points through impact. Thus, broken foliate points may occur in elevated frequencies in quite distinct organizational contexts for different reasons.

Furthermore, bifacial points represent complex forms of technological organization by virtue of the reductive properties and their tendency to shift in terms of both formal and functional properties over the course of their use-lives. For these reasons, the early occurrence of foliate points in the MSA of East Africa deserves the increased attention it has received in recent years.

Throughout the Eastern Africa MSA the Levallois technology played an eminent role in the production of stone artifacts. Discoidal and single- and multiple-platform cores are also widespread at MSA sites  Blade or bladelet production occurs at early MSA assemblages at Gademotta/Kulkuletti, at Omo Kibish  and putatively Late MSA assemblages at Aduma and Porc Epic in Ethiopia  and elsewhere. Porc Epic is  a highlight of MSA-variability in the region. The fine lanceolate Foliates in my post from Omo are very similar to “Type 20” at Porc Epic in the techno-typological study authored by David Pleurdeau (2oo3).

Along with the frequent use of Levallois technology, points are a defining element of the MSA. Point forms at eastern African sites are highly variable in size and shape. “Point”  refers to a broad category of artifacts made of stone including unretouched, unifacial, and bifacial implements made on Levallois and other flake blanks. The term is both a morphological description (a pointed artifact) and an ethnographically based functional inference (as the tip of a spear or other hunting implement). Studies of point shape, microwear patterns, and mastic traces from sites in eastern Africa and adjacent areas indicate that many, but not all points were hafted and probably used to tip spears, darts, or even arrows. Others were used as butchering tools and for more domestic actions.

Clark and McBrearty and Brooks have emphasized geographic variation among MSA points at the subcontinental scale, although formal definitions or tests of the extent of many of these variants remain to be done. Foliates, similar to the pieces from Omo, shown in this post, sometimes broad and short or even small and elongated are very characteristic for the early to late MSA in Eastern Africa. The Lupemban points are one of the most distinct MSA regional point variants, characterized by large (>10 cm), thin, bifacially flaked lanceolate points . Originally defined from sites in central Africa, Lupemban lanceolates are found as far east as the Lake Victoria region of Kenya. Although poorly dated in eastern Africa, the large size of Lupemban lanceolates suggests attribution to the Early MSA, consistent with U-series age estimates of 170–270 ka for Lupemban assemblages in Zambia.

Foliates and Lanceolates in Africa

Bifacial Foliates of the Nil Valley

Who made the MSA?

Kibish Formation: Courtesy: National Science Foundation


About Omo Kibish:…/Shea-2008-JHE-MSA-Kibish.pdf

McDougall, I., Brown, F. H., & Fleagle, J. G. (2005). Stratigraphic placement and age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia. Nature, 433(7027), 733-736;

Brown, F. H., & Fuller, C. R. (2008). Stratigraphy and tephra of the Kibish Formation, southwestern Ethiopia. Journal of Human Evolution.

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Middle Magdalenian with Lussac-Angles points



















After 150 years of research, the Middle Magdalenian in S/W-France and Cantabria (formerly Magdalenian III of the classification of H. Breuil) can be characterized  by an enormous diversity of archaeological remains, and by ideas and objects that circulated over long distances.

At the very end of the Palaeolithic, symbolic productions (portable and cave art, ornaments) allow, together with the lithic and bone industries, to define precise chrono-geographical groups.The early middle Magdalenian in S/W France is characterized by three prominent “facies”: the

  • Magdalenian with navettes,
  • the Magdalenian with Lussac-Angles points
  • and the Magdalenian with scalenes .

The 5,7 cm long point (Figure 1 and 2), shown in this post, was found during the early 20th century at Laugerie haute and is a typical Lussac-Angles point from the “Magdalenien III” , which was first defined at this site.

Lussac-Angles points, first described by Mortillet in “Musee Prehistorique,” as early as 1881, are strictly defined as relatively short and wide single-beveled points (length: usually ~5,5-80 mm) with a triangular or quadrangular cross-section, a longitudinal groove on the upper side and sometimes a second one on the lower side, no decoration, a bevel without hafting striations, and mesial proportions that often result in the distal end showing a “carinated” profile (Figure3). Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) antler is the primary raw material utilised in the manufacture of these items.

These points  characterize the early phases of the Middle Magdalenian (c. 19–17 k.a. cal. BP or 15,5-14,5 k.a. BP), between the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the rapid climatic deterioration of the Heinrich 1 event). This particular point showed an especially wide diffusion encompassing a large part of the Middle Magdalenian cultural area—from Tito Bustillo (Spain) in the west to Gazel (France) in the east and  to Roc-aux-Sorciers (France) in the north. Till now, Lussac-Angles points have been recognized in 22 sites from the Cantabrian coast, the northern Pyrenees, and the western margins of the Massif Central. Important sites are Le Roc-aux-Sorciers à Angles-sur-l’Anglin (Vienne) et La Marche at Lussac-les-Châteaux (Vienne).

Of course, single and double-beveled points are also components of the Magdalenian III weaponry, but they have a wider chronological meaning. Half round rods (“baguettes demi-rondes’”) become important only after the Magdalenian with Lussac-Angles points- phase of the Middle Magdalenian, but have occasionally found in some sites of this facies , also.

The symbolic production from the Middle Magdalenian is very original, too. We find Mammoth ivory beads called “stomach beads” Engraved horse incisors covered with fine geometric engravings and other animal teeth which were drilled and engraved.

The Magdalenian is by far the most important cultural unit of the European Upper Paleolithic offering various and outstanding examples of parietal and mobile art. As for the latter, the cave site of La Marche in Lussac-les-Châteaux, Vienne, offers about 1500 of engraved stones . What is exceptional, that human figures, which are rare in Paleolithic art production,  were found in about 140 cases. Whereas human representations in Palaeolithic art often bear stereotype characters, the engravings of La Marche show personal streaks, as if the artists wanted to create portraits of specific individuals. The engravings were clearly from the Magdalenian III of the site, where traces of a late Magdalenian were also present.

Roc-aux-Sorciers: The sculpted frieze on the walls of the rock shelter of Roc-aux-Sorciers was discovered in 1950. Unfortunately,  this extraordinary frieze, featuring animals (Ibex, horses,Bison) and human figures (among them small faces or masks and a series of realistic but headless woman bodies with clearly defined pubic triangles), carved in relief, is not open to the public for conservation reasons.

What are the technological Hallmarks of Lithics, normally in focus at Aggsbachs blog, during the  Middle Magdalenian? The reconstruction of the chaînes opératoires always highlights a dissociation of the blade and bladelet production. Blades are intended for the manufacture of domestic tools (Scrapers, Burins, Becs). Bladelets are used as blanks for backed hunting weapons (truncated backed bladelets, scalene bladelets, backed points,Figure 4).

Meticulous techno-typological analyses revealed much more interesting details: The middle Magdalenian site of the “Rocher-de-la-Caille” which is located in the high valley of the river Loire, and part of the sites, that were flooded to make way for the Villerest dam has revealed an early example of pressure flaking in Europe.  Pressure debitage was clearly used in the production of certain bladelets preferably on translucent blond flint blade blanks imported from the Cher valley. The technique used the arrises of the upper side of laminar blanks diversely retouched in this intention of bladelet production, specially by an inverse truncation to be used as the pressure platform.

The same debitage method, but using percussion, was identified in the Early Middle Magdalenian from the Roc-au-Sorcier and at La Marche. The debitage method from the Rocher-de-la-Caille appears as another  cultural marker within the Middle Magdalenian of the centre of France.

Needles from La Madeleine

La Madeleine / Vezere

3-D Mikrotopographie at La Marche

The official site of Roc-aux-Sorciers

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Curved and Backed : Azilian / Federmesser of the North European Plain


This is a 3,5 cm long pen-knife (Federmesser) from the Leudal area in South Limburg / NL, an area already introduced during an earlier post (see below). The Federmesser complex is part of the Pan-West and Central European Azilian. The length is within the normal range of such artifacts from the Leudal area and larger than the average Federmesser in the German Middle Rhine area-at Kettig for example, points are significantly shorter, with an average length of 28mm).

After the end of the “Golden Age” of the Upper Palaeolithic (Gravettian); during the maximum ice advance of the Last Glacial Maximum, North Western Europe was an ice desert and abandoned by human populations. Humans would not return the area for a period of several thousand years. After the LGM, recolonization of N/W-Europe started from Refugia in the South.

It has been widely accepted, that the North European Plain was recolonized after the LGM first by humans of the Magdalenian technocomplex coming from their Franco-Cantabrian refugia. However, their expansion towards the North may have been an episodic process, taking several thousands of years. Several explanatory “push” and “pull” scenario have been proposed for explanation of this scenario.

During the late Magdalenian we find several modifications of the original Franco-Cantabrian toolset like the Long-blade Magdalenian in the Paris basin, the Creswellian in N/W-Europe, the Hamburgian, the“facies Cepoy-Marsagny”.

The Azilian has long been considered an abrupt event. Recent work shows that the development of this technocomplex was not sudden but occurred progressively. Whereas for the Paris Basin this process is comparatively well investigated and commonly termed “Azilianisation” , the passage from the Magdalenian, Creswellian and Hamburgian to the Late Palaeolithic industries in North- Western and Central Europe during the late Azilian remains poorly understood owing to a general lack of stratified and well-dated sites.

The “Azilianisation” process of cultural change began during the GI-1e/d (end of the Bølling) with the Early Azilian (Bipointe – Phase), not present in the Netherlands or in the German Rhine area. This early transformation probably finds its roots at the end of the Magdalenian during the GS-2b-a (Oldest Dryas) or is rooted in Epigravettian traditions transferred via the Rhone valley. The finalization of this process is the so-called Late Azilian,  lasting from the Allerød until probably the  first half of GS-1 (Younger Dryas).

In the Netherlands and Belgium the appearance of the Federmeser-groups marks a major shift in subsistence strategy and settlement patterns. We notice a shift from large game hunting to a more broad spectrum subsistence. Sites become more numerous, reflecting both demographic success and the tendency toward more permanent occupations.

Compared to the Magdalenian, the Federmesser Groups used a more simple, less standardized lithic technology materialized in Azilian points and short end-scrapers. The symbolic culture of the Magdalenian was radically transformed into another system of ideologies and beliefs , as mirrored in the known examples of Azilian “art” production, focused on abstract graphic production Anyhow, recent discovery of 45 engraved schist tablets from archaeological layers at Le Rocher de l’Impératrice attests iconographic continuity with the late Magdalenian, together with special valorization of aurochs. This discovery again points to a gradual change between the Magdalenian and Azilian.The amber elk figure from Weitsche (Lower Saxony) is another example of figurative art, maybe foreshadowing the famous amber sculptures of the Scandinavian Mesolithic (Figure 2; Photograph 2017 with permission of the NLM).

In the Leudal area projectile point types are largely indicative of the typical late Federmesser-assemblages, with straight backed points and curved backed points being the dominant types. These these are sometimes found together with Creswellian and Cheddar points, Tjonger/Gravette points and  Krems points- a (secondary?) spectrum of mainly surface ensembles, which gave these ensembles the name: Creswello-Tjongerian. In southern Netherlands and Belgium these projectiles are accompanied by domestic tools, like unstandardized burins and small flake-endscrapers.

Figure 3 From: Hermann Schwabedissen: Federmesser-Gruppen des nordwesteuropäischen Flachlandes : Zur Ausbreitung des Spät-Magdalénien; Neumünster : Wachholtz, 1954.

Azilian from the Roc d’Abeilles rock shelter

Azilian / Federmesser from the Reinhausen Forest (Lower Saxonia)

Mousterian from the Leudal area in southern Limburg

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Hafting during the late European Middle Paleolithic

This is an unusual mono-facial scraper (7×5 cm) from Saint-Brice-sous-Rânes (Orne department; France. Figure 1 and 2: ventral side; Figure 3: dorsal side).What makes this scraper special is the carefully executed spine on the right side and traces of hafting )

Macrotraceology reveals that the ventral right side is partially polished and smoothed to a certain degree with some rough remnants of the original cortex, while  the left side is still sharp with evidence of several reshaping retouches (better seen on Figure 2). In addition, the patination of the two functional units is different. Therefore we can conclude that the polished part was the prehensile / hafted edge which was modified by a spine, working like a pin for better stability in an organic handle.

Tl-data for the non-Levallois series at Saint-Brice-sous-Rânes scatter around 40 k.a. BP (MIS3). Although the site is a large workshop with many rough outs and unfinished tools, the presence of highly curated tools, like the one introduced in this post, suggest also other interpretations for parts of the site.

During the European Middle Paleolithic, traces of hafting have been repeatedly observed on convergent tools (Biache-Saint-Vaast, OIS 7; La Cotte-Saint-Brelade-layer 5, OIS 7; Staroselje, OIS 4; 9, Buran-Kaya III-Level B1,OIS3, Königsaue OIS 5d or 3).

In Königsaue (Germany) a birch-bark pitch displays imprints of a bifacial tool and a wooden haft. Inden-Altdorf near Jülich in the Rhineland (Germany) was dated to OIS 5e.The artefact assemblage from Inden Altdorf is said to be Micoquian, but a final publication is missing.  It is one of the rare Paleolithic sites where 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.

During MIS 3 hafting was clearly a systematic practice at the Sesselfelsgrotte G (Bavaria; Germany).  G Rots (2009) described that hafting was preferable used for projectiles and percussion tools. Scraping tools were also preferentially used in a haft, possibly as a way to increase the exerted pressure, while for other artifacts no particular prehensile mode is vital for their use, and traces of hafting are usually missing.

Tl-data for the non-Levallois series at Saint-Brice-sous-Rânes scatter around 40 k.a. BP. Although the site is a large workshop with many rough outs and unfinished tools, the presence of highly curated tools, like the one introduced in this post, suggest also other interpretations for parts of the site.

Yes-There are traditions and “culture” in Neanderthals-Victoria!

The bifacial Mousterian of the the Amorican Massif

Bifacial tools from Saint-Brice-sous-Rânes

Adhesives for composite Tools during the Acheulian?

The invention of Hafting and Backing

Hand-held or Hafted?

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Shouldered Pieces: Signature of interactions around the great Adriatic plain during the LGM


This is a shouldered piece from the early Epigravettian in Arezzo. It is not necessary a shouldered point, but during the Epigravettian of Italia, shouldering was applied to several classes of artifacts.

The LGM led to the shrinking of the Adriatic Sea, opening a large land bridge, known as the Great Adriatic Plain, between Italy and the Balkans.

Mussi (2001) once described the plain as a cold, windswept flatland impoverished in game and lithic raw material that was more or less avoided by Epipalaeolithic groups until the end of the Pleistocene .

Scientific work of the last 15 years showed finally that the contrary is true. In fact the northern Adriatic Plain was a zone of high resource productivity. A zone rich in game, water, and other resources, and hence a focus for settlement by Epipalaeolithic groups.

The northern Adriatic basin around 24 k.a and 21 k.a. calBP is now perceived as an area where highly, logistically mobile  human groups, sharing a single cultural identity, built an archaeological landscape composed of discrete areas and activities, both temporally and spatially distinct. This landscape included what should be regarded as a broad residential settlement area, currently inaccessible, which probably also constituted a node for cyclical human aggregation and cultural transmission. This was surrounded by a series of provisioning areas, destinations of short-duration specialized expeditions.

It is suggested, that this newly gained territory and the worsening of environmental conditions leading to the LGM might have prompted, at the peak of glacial conditions, actual movements of human populations from the Middle Danube Basin, where well-established early Gravettian communities are known (e.g., at Willendorf II, Pavlovian sites), to the areas of southern Europe, with certain parts of the Balkans and Italy, and in particular the Great Adriatic Plain, serving as refugia for both animal, plant and human communities.

The signature of such population movement may be the spread of distinct techno- morphological traits in lithic types characteristic of the central and east European late Gravettian traditions (Willendorf 1-Nord, Willendorf 2/9, Spadiza, Moravany, Trencin, Nitra, Avdeevo, Kostenki, Chotylewo, Zaraïsk, Molodova, Mitoc)-the so called “Shouldered Point Horizon” .

Shouldered pieces during the LGM in Italy and the Balkans are most frequently points (pointes à cran), but other tool morphologies (e.g., burins, endscrapers) are also found with retouched bases.

Importantly, the production of  shouldered points is very probably linked with the introduction of new more efficient hunting tactics and projectiles. Such shouldered projectiles, used either with bows or spear-throwers, may have allowed for the targeting of prey at larger distances.

In northern Italy, industries with à cran pieces have been found at Grotta delle Arene Candide and Grotta dei Fanciulli in Liguria and at Grotta Paina in Venetia. In the south-eastern part of the peninsula the key sequence is the site of Grotta Paglicci in Puglia, which has yielded the most complete Epigravettian stratigraphic sequence for the wider Adriatic region.

At Paglicci, shouldered pieces are found in Early Epigravettian layers (from layer 18 to 10). The presence of shouldered pieces is also attested in the caves of Taurisano, Mura and Cipolliane in Salento, Grotta Niscemi and Cani- cattini Bagni in Sicily, and Riparo del Romito in Calabria. This widespread distribution suggests that shouldered pieces are well established in all southern regions of Italy.

Early Epigravettian cave settlements are also known also in the Apennine Mountains, in Marche and Abruzzo regions. Shouldered pieces are also found at the sites of Cavernette Falische (Cenciano Diruto, Lattanzi, Sambuco), Grotta del Sambuco , Cenciano Diruto , and Grotta delle Settecannelle in Lazio.

At the Balkans and in Greek a similar Epigravettian technocomplex has been dated to 21-15 k.a. BP at Sandalja, Kadar, Orphel, Kastrisa and Klisoura.

Some of the earliest sites with shouldered points in the Balkans are found in Istria, and Croatia and in western Greece (at 19 k.a. BP), but new excavations have pushed the occurrence of this tool typ in the Balkans to even earlier times. Vrbicka cave located in western Montenegro is currently under excavation.  One shouldered point was found and  AMS-dated to 23.k.a. Two shouldered pieces have also be found in western Serbia and are said to date to the same period  but the actual dates from this site have not been published yet.

The late Gravettian of Western Slovakia

Balzi Rossi (Rochers Rouges) caves and the Ligurian Epigravettian with shouldered Points

Lost and Found: Epigravettian Point from the Gargano peninsula

Moravany: Shouldered point (Willendorf-Kostenki culture)

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Early Upper Paleolithic of the East European Plain



The East European Plain  is a vast interior plain extending east of the North/Central European Plain, and comprising several plateaus stretching roughly from 25 degrees longitude eastward. It includes the westernmost Volhynian-Podolian Upland, than the Central Russian Upland, and on the eastern border, encompassing the Volga Upland. The plain includes also a series of major river basins such as the Dnepr Basin, the Oka-Don Lowland, and the Volga Basin. Along the southernmost point of the East European Plain are the Caucasus and Crimean mountain ranges.Together with the North European Plain covering much of north-eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, it constitutes the European Plain, the mountain-free part of the European landscape

This is a carinated burin, an end scraper, both with lateral retouches, suggestive for hafting, and a biconvex Leafpoint from the Early  Upper Paleolithic of the East European Plain. The leaf point is 8 cm long.

In Western Europe, the early Upper Paleolithic (EUP) is characterized by the (Proto) Aurignacian and several  local entities like the Chatelperronian in S/W-France, the Uluzzian in Italy and Greek, the Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician in N/W- Europe and the Bohunician in the Brno Basin with several isolated scatters  further East like Kulichivka (western Ukraine).  The Szeletian seems to have been developed from the Middle European Micoquian and remains the only “transitional” industry.

While the structure of the EUP in Western and Middle Europe became considerable clear during the last 20 years, the integration of the east European EUP into the wider European context remains challenging. The most important reason is related to the scarcity of natural shelters on the East European Plain resulting in a low visibility of burried sites.

On the East European plain it seems that bifacial elements (Streletskian, “Eastern Szeletian”) define one important component of the EUP. Recently some key sequences were recently re-dated and other remain to be reevaluated in depth. The primary data of most of these industries remain debatable, especially their taphonomy and exact dating.

At Kostenki 1/V the lower chronological limit of the Streletskian is about 42 k.a. old (44-47 k.a. cal. BP). The Streletskian or eastern Szeletian at Buran Kaya III/C on the Crimean Peninsula has a similar age. If we accept, that the  new direct AMS C-14 dates on Sungir human burials are representative for the Streletskian at this site (33,3- 36,3 k.a. cal BP), this would indicate a considerable time depth of this techno complex . In addition, the Streletskian has a very wide spatial distribution from the Middle Urals (Garchi 1) to the Pontic steppe (Biriychaia balka 2, Vys), without relations to any environmental conditions.

In contrast to the upper Paleolithic bifacial tradition, the Aurignacian of the East European plain is rather rare: presently the Kostenki group of sites provides evidence both for the northeast and most ancient manifestation of the Aurignacian /~35,0 k.a .(cal: 39,3-40,9) k.a. BP.

Excavations of the last decade of the lowermost cultural layer (IVb) at Kostenki 14, under the CI tephra (~39.6 k.a.), also provided evidence for an assemblage without typical Aurignacian and Streletskian elements.

This Initial Upper Paleolithic (IUP)  appears to be comparable to the Proto-Aurignacian of the western Mediterranean, the Fumanian of North Italy, and the Middle East early Ahmarian.

Such IUP ensembles may  represent a “pioneering” Upper Paleolithic wave that was realized both as migrations and/or as cultural transmission.

Up to now, Siuren 1 is the only known Aurignacian site in Crimea. It has nine different Aurignacian occupational layers in primary positions, which are attributed to the early/Protoaurignacian (units H and G; Dufour bladelets subtype Dufour; Krems-Points, St. Yves  Points, ) and the late Aurignacian (unit F; Bladelets of subtype Roc-de-Combe ) due to techno-typological reasons. Within all Aurignacian horizons, the assemblages are characterized by bladelets and microblades, which constitute the majority of tool supports as well.

In general Siuren 1 looks like a replication of the West and Middle European evolution: a Protoaurignacian is followed by an evolved Aurignacian, but according to the C-14 data the site is only 30 k.a. old.

As it is improbable that the East Europe lagged behind the general lithic trend for ten thousand years after the (Proto)-Aurignacian started in West and Middle Europe, it is reasonable to reject all C-14 data from this site.

Denominating Lamelles during the Proto / Aurignacian in S/W-France and Eurasia

A Ksar Akil Point from Kebara

Emireh points and the Levantine Initial Upper Paleolithic

The Initial Upper Paleolithic of the Negev

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