MSA point from Lake Tumba: More questions than answers..


msa kongo aggsbach aaFigure 1 shows a MSA point made on a Levallois flake from Lake Tumba, Central Africa (Fiedler and Preuss: African Archaeological Review 3: 179–187). Such unifacial points were found together with material reminiscent of the Lupemban (Tumba-West) and the Tshitolian (Tumba East) on the surface.

Since the 1960ies the Sangoan and the Lupemban are widely acknowledged to characterize the regional MSA-sequence of central Africa. Overall, the Sangoan in central Africa is rare and the regional MSA is mainly represented by the Lupemban, which has been detected in the Congo basin, adjacent river basins and their respective bordering plateaus.

First named after an assemblage of tools recovered along the Lupemba stream in the Kasai province (Breuil et al. 1944), the Lupemban is characterized by fine lanceolates (Fig.2: personal picture of a famous lanceolate from Kalambo Falls: 22 cm long).

The Lupemban overlies the Sangoan industry at the sites of Muguruk, Kenya , Kalambo Falls, Zambia, and in northeastern Angola . The Sangoan itself overlies Acheulian industries at Nsongezi, Uganda  and Kalambo Falls, Zambia. The Lupemban appears to constitute the earliest archaeological signature for the sustained prehistoric settlement of the Congo basin.

lupemban zambiaThe Lupemban comprises both heavy- and light-duty implements, in addition to the large, bifacially-flaked lanceolate points that are the regionally-distinctive “fossile directeur” of the industry. Lanceolate points vary in size and shape, but share fundamental morphological features; they are foliate in planform profile, are pointed at one or both ends, and exhibit careful bifacial retouch along their lateral edges. If these tools been utilized as the tips of hafted spears or were handheld butchery tools or digging implements is the matter of discussions.

The heavy-duty component of the Lupemban toolkit includes core-axes and picks, which are generally more common than lanceolate points. Picks are minimally-worked, large, heavy pieces that may be pointed or rounds ended, and are commonly thought to have functioned as handheld woodworking tools. Core-axes are heterogeneous in form, occurring in parallel-sided, convergent and divergent types, with distal ends that are pointed or round ended. The greater refinement of many core-axes suggests they may have functioned as hafted heavy-duty woodworking tools. The light duty component of the Lupemban toolkit includes small unifacial and bifacial points-the unifacials very similar to the one shown in my Fig.1, backed flakes and blades, trapezia, and rare tranchets, for which hafted projectile functions have been suggested. Pollen samples and paleoclimatic reconstructions correlate the Lupemban industry both with deciduous woodland and open bushland or grassland palaeoenvironment.

At Kalambo Falls and numerous sites in northern Angola, the Lupemban is followed by lithic assemblages attributable to the LSA Tshitolian industry ( < 18 k.a.), which is similarly found across the forested lowland interior . The Tshitolian is a microlithic industry, manufactured mainly on quartz as the predominant raw material. This industry contains segments, tranchets, backed pieces and a small point retouched by pressure technique, and is widely acknowledged as a prehistoric hunting and gathering technology.

Anyhow, sequences with fine grained stratigraphy are poor in central Africa.  The acidic soils of central Africa typically lead to the rapid degradation of organic remains, the Quaternary sediments are poorly, the stratigraphies are usually disturbed by  the growth and movement of tree roots.

The lesions learned from the dating of Aterian ensembles in the North and from MSA ensembles in S/E- Africa are that any estimates of the antiquity by radiocarbon (14C), especially data beyond 40 k.a., have to be taken with extreme caution. Regarding the age of the Lupemban elsewhere in Africa, this techno complex, estimated by Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) and Uranium-Series, may be dated to roughly 400-200 k.a.

OSL dates from Sai Island have yielded a maximum age of 182±20 k.a. and minimum age of 152±10 k.a. The age of the Lupemban-bearing breccia at Twin Rivers by Uranium-series has resulted in a date range of ~170– >400 k.a. , including a date of 270 k.a. for a speleothem sample directly associated with the tool assemblage. Ongoing research at Kalambo Falls, Zambia will certainly give a reliable age estimate of the Lupemban through the application of luminescence dating. At the site of Katanda on the eastern margin of the Congo basin, dates of ca. 90 k.a. have been reported for an undifferentiated MSA associated with  bone harpoons. At Twin Rivers and Kalambo Falls there is the first African indication for backed tool technology, suggestive for hafting these artifacts.

In summary the Lupemban remains one of the most innovative technocomplexes of Homo sp. during the Middle Pleistocene and seems to be an industry well adapted to different habitats. Central Africa offers an immense potential for further evaluation of the Lupemban, which should defined not only by ensembles “from the margins” but also by stratified sites of the Lupemban heartland, yet to be excavated.

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Bifacial Foliates from the MSA of the Nil Valley

bifacial twin

This is a Bifacial-Foliate from the Thebes Region (brown chert; max 12 cm long), found early in the 20th century by selective tool hunting. We do not know the wider context of this finding, which was stored together with some handaxes, Nubian Levallois cores, classic Levallois cores, and hollow scrapers, which shows similarities to the Lupemban, the early Nubian MSA but also to lanceolates from the MSA at the Oases in the western Desert of Egypt.

There is no concise definition for Bifacial-Foliates in the Literature. In fact, Wendorf et al. apparently applied the term “bifacial foliate” to all MSA bifaces that they did not consider to be handaxes or cores. Foliates can be very small- in this case Africanists call them: “foliated points”.  Some of them are up to 20 cm long. Many of them have a pointed end, but others have not. They may be symmetrical, but many of the specimens are asymmetrical.  Some have a fine retouch suggestive for pressure flaking and are relatively thin and others are rather crude without being automatically only “preforms”. The term of a bifacial foliate subsumes forms that were almost certainly modified for hafting by basal thinning or a tang together with forms that were unlikely to have been hafted.

The Sangoan and Lupemban of Central Africa and the Eastern Lowlands are MSA- technocomplexes dated roughly between 400-150 k.a BP. They can be identified on the basis of “heavy duty” core axes and picks (Sangoan) and smaller and parallel sided core axes and bifacial lanceolates, often combined with a blade element and Levallois flake tools (Lupemban). At Twin Rivers and Kalambo Falls there is the first African indication for backed tool technology, suggestive for hafting these artifacts. JD Clark suggested these heavy duty tools were good for wood-working, based on association of Kalambo Falls site in Zambia with deciduous woodland, and preserved wood at site. However, a number of other sites, such as those excavated by McBrearty in Kenya and at Sai 8-B-11 were clearly occupied by open grassland or savannas.

At Sai 8-B-11 in northern Sudan the two lowermost strata can be attributed to the Sangoan because of the presence of core-axes and distinctive flake reduction strategies. Given the evidence of systematic blade production and the presence of a lanceolate in addition to small and regular core-axes, the upper assemblage of this sequence is qualified as Lupemban. This ensemble is overlain by dune sands dating to around 152 k.a. It is suggested, that this ensemble marks the beginning of the MSA in the Nil valley, which is later evolving towards the “Nubian -MSA”, during OIS6/5.

A Lupemban industry also occurs at the site of Taramsa 1, located on the west bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt, where it dates to 165 k.a. At the nearby site of Taramsa 8 this industry predates the Last Interglacial pedogenesis.

The Nubian Middle Palaeolithic is represented in both Egypt and Nubia, but the Egyptian finds so far discovered are not as well preserved as those in Nubia. Arkin 5 is a site that has been identified as Nubian Middle Palaeolithic and has been studied in some detail. Located on the west bank of the Nile on an area of ferruginous sandstone (which was used as the raw material for tool manufacture) Arkin 5 appears, from the large amounts of debitage and unfinished tools surviving, to have been a quarry site.  One of the phases at Khor Musa is possibly contemporary with Arkin – an occupation site with a conspicuous amount of fish remains. Similarly, it is possible that one of the Khartoum sites dates to the same period, with large foliate points.

Bifacial foliates are one important marker of Aterian technology in North Africa, which, unlike tanged pieces, is largely shared with other MSA regional industries.  Bifacial foliates are relatively common in the Egyptian Western Desert, where tangs are scarce. At Dakhleh and Kharga (KO6E) the Aterian is most probably dated to MIS3 and certainly later than the Medium sized MSA at Bir Tarfawi and Refuf VI (Kharga) and associated with Nubian Point cores.  Basally thinned bifacial foliates and tanged pieces may formed part of a hunting system, which may have been linked to early archery. However, it seems that the bifacial foliates often show very different morphological characteristics compared to tanged pieces, and it is unlikely that their place in the technological system was interchangeable. Bifacial foliates are likely part of a hafted technology, that sensu lato includes tanged pieces.

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A “Hollow Scraper” from the Middle Paleolithic / MSA of Ancient Thebes

1 2

Ancient Thebes was home to some of the greatest monuments of the ancient world—built to honor the living, the dead, and the divine. The city, known as Waset to ancient Egyptians and as Luxor today, was the capital of Egypt during parts of the Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1750 B.C.) and the New Kingdom (circa 1550 to 1070 B.C.).

Paleolithic artifacts from Thebes were collected since the 1850ies and are part of many important prehistoric collections in the western world. This is a wonderful example of a “hollow scraper” very characteristic for the Thebes Paleolithic (Fig.1. and 2). The brown patination of the tool is essentially diagnostic for Paleolithic chert tools from the area.

The famous archaeologist Worsaae first drew attention to flint tools discovered on the borders of Egypt in 1867. In the following years Arcelin, Hamy and Lenormant reported further examples. An influential publication came from the famous John Lubbock in 1875:“Notes on the Discovery of Stone Implements in Egypt”.

Despite such reports, several prominent Egyptologists argued that the flint implements recovered had only been used during the Dynastic Period for the construction of tombs or had been employed during mummification rituals.  The man who drew renewed attention to a possible Pleistocene age of “Egyptian Cherts” in 1882 was A.H. Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (On the discovery of chert implements in stratified graves in the Nile Valley near Thebes; 1882).  It was not ignorance, but the insistence on  a certain scientific rigor to insist, that similarity between contextualized Paleolithic European and non- stratified Egyptian artifacts did not suffice to proof a very old age for the latter. It finally took many years  and a century of research of stratified MSA sites in Egypt until the Paleolithic age of these findings was generally accepted.

In addition, early doubts about the antiquity of Egyptian Paleolithic artifacts persisted for a long time because they did not match well with the 19th / early 2oth century idea that humans originated in Europe.

The piece, displayed in this post is a large crescent-shaped flint artifact. It is heavily reworked and retouched all over the concave edge 100 mm across. The artifact is called “hollow scraper” and very characteristic ( if not unique) for the  area around Thebes. The first description comes from Pitt-Rivers 1882 report. Figure 3 shows a nice example of Victorian illustration. Here Pitt-Rivers argued that Paleolithic artifacts were washed down from the high plateaus around Luxor to the great Wadi of the Tombs of the Kings, where these flints were first found. Fine examples of hollow scrapers are displayed on the internet portal of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

aggsbach thebes

MSA assemblages in the Thebes area are usually discovered from surface scatters.  Many of these had been already plundered during the late 19th early 20th century and are nowadays cleared  from the “best pieces”.  In general, the artifacts tend to be large to medium in size. Typologically they include Levallois flakes, Levallois points, various sidescrapers, notched pieces and denticulated pieces. Hollow scrapers are often present in low quantities in such ensembles, while they were never noticed in association with tools from later periods. It therefore seems reasonable to link them to the local MSA.seligman thebes

The MSA of Northern Upper Egypt is manly ascribed to the Nubian Complex, but scatters from the “local” complex are also present. The stratified sites near the Nil and from the Western Oases have a documented Paleolithic sequence from the Acheulian, MSA and Early and late Paleolithic. The MSA was dated to MIS6 and 5, while stratified tools from MIS 4/ early MIS3 are unknown, most probably due to the hyperarid conditions during this time.

Seligman, in 1921 was the first to call attention to the fact, that hollow scrapers were probably prepared cores,  that were reworked for further use after their primary function had been accomplished. An early example of a “chaine operatoire” approach (Fig. 4)!

Seligman’s reconstruction remains very convincing. Judging from the retouches, a scraping function of these tools seems to be very probable, although the functional meaning of “hollow scrapers” remains essentially unknown, because the state of their preservation precludes further evaluation by use ware analysis.

Diffusion of innovation remains a key issue in Paleolithic research, because its reconstruction gives answers to group interaction and evidence of awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, and adoption of technical strategies by our ancestors. Why the production of “hollow scrapers” remained a regional phenomenon of Northern Middle Egypt remains a mystery.

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Mobility during the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe

lenderscheid micoquian aggsbach

This is a elongated Lydite scraper with scalar retouches from the Middle Palaeolithic Lenderscheid site near Kassel, where Neanderthals used an outcrop of fine-grained tertiary quartzite as raw material supply for the production of their artifacts. Numerous  quartzite cores were left at the site, together with a limited number of formal tools, often broken during the production process( The raw material for the scraper, displayed in this post, comes from the Eder valley approximately 20 km away from Lenderscheid. Obviously the scraper was imported as a finished tool.

There is a long-standing question over the nature of Neanderthal mobility, with some authors arguing that Neanderthals moved over long distances during their lifetimes, others arguing that Neanderthals only moved only over a limited area  for most of their lives. The evidence for mobility comes mainly from indirect evidence such as tracing the sources of lithic raw material at Neanderthal sites as well as the presence of “exotic” (non-local) artefacts or objects, such as sea-shells at sites far from the coast.

An almost universal pattern exists for the Middle Paleolithic lithic raw material procurement in Europe. According to the first in-depth studies by Féblot-Augustin (1993, 1997) 60–98 % of all lithic materials including cores and blanks came from within 5 km of all the sites; usually 1–2% of materials came from 5- 30 km distance from the sites and consisted mainly of tools and blanks; A few entirely finished tools consistently were made on materials from 20 or 30 to 100 or even 300 km away. This pattern appears to be fairly consistent across western Europe. The very small number of tools that are made of raw materials from further afield may be tools that were part of a person’s personal gear and “survived” several residential moves.

In contrast, the sites of Early Upper Paleolithic humans generally ignored “second choice” raw material and relied more upon exotic materials often coming from more than 100 km away. In some cases, marine shells from more than 500 km away are present.

The Quina-Mousterian site of Champ Grand in the Loire Valley between the Paris Basin and Massif Central for example  features ten raw materials (1% of the assemblage, but numbering 568 artifacts) that were found to originate from sources >80k m distant in several different directions. The estimated distances include 180-200 km northwards from the site, and c. 240 km southwards, the latter actually a minimum value due to straight-line crossing of mountains and high plateaus. In the case of Abric Romaní (N-Spain), the location of raw material sources was more fixed, with flint available in a radius of 5–10 km and limestone and quartz in the immediate (1 km) surrounding of the rock shelter. During the “Swabian Mousterian”,  lithic raw materials from all the sites are dominated by local Jurassic cherts from within about 3 km, with lesser quantities of radiolarite, quartzites and other raw materials. With the rare exception of examples of Bavarian tabular flint originating from ca. 100 km distance, these raw materials can be found in the sources within ca. 20 km of the Swabian caves.

During the Middle Paleolithic transfers >200 km are more frequent in Central Europe (for example during the “Taubachian” at Kulna / Moravia), which may be linked to a more extreme topography and increased continentality in terms of environmental conditions.

Raw material studies were used to substantiate the hypothesis, that Neanderthals lived in small groups that had little contact with one another, focusing heavily on “magnet-locations” in the landscape (Binford 1984).

But raw material studies are more ambivalent and flawed, than generally suggested. For example we are not able to construct the mentalities of the Neanderthal society. Was there any need or desire for long distance prospection or exchange? Was long distance prospection for Neanderthals with their limited hunting equipment probably more dangerous compared to Upper Palaeolithic times? Did the wish of social intimacy within the local Neanderthal groups prevent the possibility of meeting new friends beyond the “border”? Even today I know a lot of people within rural Southern Lower Saxony; that experience more than 90% of their lifetime within a radius of 30-40 km (except for their holiday trips of course!). This does not mean that these lower Saxonians are non AMHs- they are just conservative.

Some other variables that may affect our perception:

  • The accessibility of raw materials during climatic fluctuations is not known for most of the sites.
  • Site functions, duration of stay, different mobility patterns and settlement systems have a deep impact on the choice of raw materials.
  • Specialization on specific raw materials  is another factor that may influence decisions.

Strontium isotope analysis of from a Neanderthal tooth from the site of Lakonis, Greece at ca. 40 k.a. BP showed that the LHK 1 individual spent a portion of childhood at a location away from the site and region in which the individual was found. This may have been a region 20 km away, or even further. This is a clear indication that Neanderthals did move longer distances over their lifetimes and were not confined to limited geographic areas as suggested by raw material studies, which were evaluated in a mono-dimensional and deterministic manner. There is a clear need for better theories about mobility during Palaeolithic times.

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Down with the “MP-UP Transitional Industries” of Europe !

pech de bourre aggsbch

This is a blank for a Châtelperronian point found at Pech de Bourre by D. Peyrony early in the last century. Pech de Bourre is one of the numerous smaller Abris near the tributaries of the Dordogne, excavated to early to be of importance for current scientific discussions.  Occasional diggings began with Dupiellet (1900) who was followed by M Mortureux (1921) and finally by D. Peyrony (1921). Peyrony described three layers of Mousterian (probably a succession of Charentian-MTA as suggested by Mellars) followed by a Chatelperronian. This succession ended with a typical Aurignacian, contested by a fine carinated scraper [(core); Sonneville-Bordes 1960).

Very different entities and constructs in Europe are subsumed under this label of a MP-UP transitional industry: Althmühlian, Szeletian, Bohunician, Châtelperronian, Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanovicien (LRJ) and Uluzzian. It is generally suggested, that  such industries would combine  Middle and the Upper Paleolithic components  both on a typological and technological level.

Due to a better technological understanding of many of these entities, “MP-UP transitional industries” have become a suspect typological construct, as recently shown for the Châtelperronian and the LRJ, which are by no means “transitional” at all, but fully Upper Paleolithic (

In contrast to older observations of mixed ensembles, the Châtelperronian, as defined from newer excavations, seems to be a pure Upper Paleolithic industry without any Mousterian component. Châtelperronian points, endscrapers, especially semi-circular end-scrapers, and some burins on a break and borers/becs are always present, although the production of Châtelperronian points is always the focus of lithic production (up to 70% of the retouched artifacts) . “Middle Paleolithic” technological components like Denticules and side scrapers, which by the way, are found in small numbers in many Upper Paleolithic industries,  are absent or rare from modern excavations of Châtelperronian layers.

The Châtelperronian blade production differs both from Middle Paleolithic and Aurignacian / Protoaurignacian blade production. The blades are detached by direct percussion with a soft hammer and are relatively standardized in their dimensions and morphology. Chatelperronian points were made from rather straight and slightly curved blanks, as seen in this post.

At Quinçay, Roussel described cores with a asymmetrical volume, that were exploited from  two surfaces, one narrow and one wide, with a triangular section. Blades were subsequently removed by independent unipolar series of blades on the narrow and on wide surfaces of the core. Each surface of a blade core was an independent flaking surface. The goal of the blade production was to obtain blanks, symmetrical or asymmetrical in section for Châtelperron points. Twenty percent at of the Châtelperron points Quinçay have an asymmetrical section with a natural back, ready for further backing by only minimal retouching.

The next picture shows a 6 cm long Jerzmanowice point fro Kleinheppach, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany:

korb kleinheppach er1

The LRJ complex has been identified at 41 sites, dating to ca 40-35 k.a. uncalibrated BP. Most of them are found in Great Britain, assemblages from continental Europe (Belgium, Netherlands, Northern Germany, and Kraków-Częstochowa Upland) being clearly less numerous. Main Features of the LRJ Lithic Industry Jerzmanowice points being the” fossile directeur” On average, they have a length around 9–10 cm, width of 3 cm, and thickness of 1 cm.

No use-wear study has ever been made on Jerzmanowice points. Nonetheless, these pieces being pointed and symmetric, and likely axially hafted as suggested by the importance of proximal shaping  as well as likely impact fractures (burinlike removals, “spin-off” removals, strongly marked bending fractures).  In addition to Jerzmanowice points, LRJ assemblages may also contain bifacial Leafpoints. Other tool types are much less common. However, pointed blades, retouched blades, end scrapers, and burins (dihedral, on truncation or on break), sometimes made on former Jerzmanowice are part of larger ensembles.

The most common knapping method corresponds to blade production using cores with two opposed platforms (bidirectional) of blades from bidirectional debitage, although unidirectional blade production is sometimes also documented. Blade knapping is most of the time done with an organic soft hammer, based on the relative thinness of blade platforms and the frequent presence of a lip. Blade production is volumetric, involving preparation of the cores by different crests.

What is independent from any archaeological discourse is the question, who made these industries. It remains odd that even intelligent researchers often mix this question with the description of “transitional entities” to prove or disprove their personal views about the Neanderthal / H.. Sapiens interaction.

Elongated Levallois point like blades were the desired end product of the Bohunician / Emiran technology. The reduction strategy of these entities may be, according to P. Skrdla reconstructed as follows: the core was shaped as a typical upper Paleolithic prismatic core with a frontal crest and two opposed platforms were created. Consequently a series of blades was removed from both opposed platforms in order to form the frontal face of the core into a shape (triangular, elongated) which allows Levallois point production. Although the end product (Levallois point) has affinities to the older Middle Paleolithic Levallois technologies, the volumetric concept is fully Upper Paleolithic and not a “transitional” industry! The Bohunician / Emiran  dates roughly between 45-32 k.a. BP.

This technology was first independently described at Boker Tachtit 1 and at Brno Bohunice in  Moravia in the 1970ies. Ensembles similar to Boker-Tachtit 1 were found in not only in the Levant (Üçağızlı and Ksar-Akil)., but also in Bulgaria (Temnata  TD2/6,  Bacho Kiro 11), near Brno (Bohunician at Brno Bohunice, Stránská skála Ss-IIIa-4, Brno Líšeň , Tvarožná, and Želeč), in Moravia (Rataje, Ondratice, Mohelno) in eastern Slovakia (Nižný Hrabovec), in the Ukraine,at Obi-Rakhmat Grotto, situated 100 km northeast of Tashkent in the  Republic of Uzbekistan and in the Altai (Kara Bom).

Levallois-like pointed blade from the Bohunician / Emiran:

tachtit aggsbach

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Olorgesailie : Paleo-Landscapes in your mind


This is a 25 cm long lanceolate handaxe from Olorgesailie, a geological formation in East Africa containing a group of ESA (990-500 k.a.)  and MSA archaeological sites. It is on the floor of the Eastern Rift Valley in southern Kenya, 64 km southwest of Nairobi. Olorgesailie is most noted for the numerous Acheulian artifacts, defining one of the largest single assemblages of handaxes in the world. The Olorgesailie basin contains sediments divided into two main geological units, the oldest of which is the Olorgesailie Formation, approximately 80m thick. The basin area is 300 km2, and an abundance of archaeological remains is exposed near the northern base of Mt. Olorgesailie.

Paleolithic artifacts at Olorgesailie were first discovered by JW Gregory in 1919 but excavations under the direction of Mary and Louis Leakey did not start until 1943. Work continued there until 1947. Glynn Isaac took up the excavation in the 1960ies. This eminent scientist was one of the founders of modern landscape archeology.  At Olorgesailie, he made any attempt to characterize landscapes over geographically intermediate scales to a focus on the palaeoenvironmental and geochronological analysis of valley-floor sediments and palaeosols in the immediate vicinity of the site. He also published on the effect of social networks, gathering, meat eating and other factors on human evolution, and proposed a series of models to examine how groups of humans in the ESA would have engaged in acquiring the necessities of life, and interacting with each other. Isaac’s models focused on a “home base” and the importance of sexual division of labor on hominid social organization.

Since the 1980ies, research was continued the Smithsonian Institution in conjunction with the National Museums of Kenya. This work established a secure geological and archeological chronology for the Olorgesailie formation.

Current research uses a GIS-based advanced  landscape archaeological approach for investigation and excavation, providing a means to place their site finds within a much broader context so that they can be understood and interpreted more meaningfully within the geologic and climatological environment within which they existed. Extended excavations follow defined layers across long distances up to 1 km to target where to excavate for fossils and artifacts.

Olorgesailie is best known for an abundance of Acheulean handaxes, associated with several episodes of animal butchering dated to ca 950 k.a. ago. Recent investigations have recovered fossil hominin remains at the site, including a partial cranium KNM-OL 45500 (H. erectus), in the same stratigraphic level with two Acheulean handaxes and several flakes, and adjacent to dense deposits of handaxes.

The Acheulian of East Africa during 1 My and 600 k.a. seems to be more refined than the Acheulian between 1,75 My and 1 My. Important sites are the Kariandusi archaeological site and Kilombe (ca 900 k.a.) in Kenya, the classic site of Olduvai  Bed IV in Tanzania, Olorgesailie (Kenya) , Daka, Buia, Gombore II (Ethiopia) and Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (GBY) in Israel. During “Middle Acheulian” times there are first attempts for the soft hammer technique  and several prepared core techniques were invented (for example the Victoria west technique).

New excavations since 2001 have revealed that Acheulean occupations were followed by a long sequence of Middle Stone Age occupations without handaxes, beginning well before 315 k. a and ending before 64 k.a. Levallois technology was present already in the later Acheulean horizons of Members 11 and 13 of the Olorgesailie formation (between 625 and 550 k.a), which further may substantiate the claims for a “long Levallois chronology” in Africa, first evidenced from the Kathu Pan 1 site in S-Africa, well before its appearance in the Middle Eastern or Europe.

Suggested Reading:

(very informative for any reader!)

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Corded Ware Axe from S-Germany

IMG_5483This is a faceted battle-axe from S-Germany, with unusual decorations of unknown significance.  The German Corded Ware culture is known mainly from flat, single-burial graves, where the body was placed in the classical Corded Ware position: on an east-west axis with the face to the south; women on their left side with the head pointing to the east, men on the right side with the head pointing to the west.

In the first half of the 3rd millennium BC, some regions of Europe shared common elements of material culture, as well as similar ways of disposing of their dead. Vast areas of Central, Northern and Eastern Europe were connected by a certain uniformity of material culture, represented in a special range of symbolic, prestige funeral goods. The various cultural groups of this period have different names in different regions of Europe: Corded Ware, Single-grave culture, Battle-Axe culture, Pit-grave culture or Ochre-grave culture.

Male burial assemblages are characterized through weapons such as battle-axes or mace heads. In male graves, tools are represented by flint knives or flat axes of rock and copper tools in rare cases. The funerary pottery attributed to males display a range of distinctive shapes – beakers or jugs, which are decorated with cord impression or herring-bone motif.


Until recently, it did not seem likely that the appearance of Corded Ware over wide areas of Europe could be ascribed to the immigration of a new population. In this view, Corded Ware does not represent a single monolithic entity, but rather a diffusion of technological and cultural innovations of different, contemporaneous peoples, living in close proximity to each other and leaving different archaeological remains. With ancient DNA, one can establish whether or not migrations occurred, and tie migrations to well-defined archaeological cultures by sequencing DNA from radiocarbon dated skeletons buried with diagnostic grave goods. Thus, it is possible, using ancient DNA, to evaluate directly whether a particular material culture could have spread through migration or whether cultural transmission occurred.

IMG_5486In 2015 researchers reported that, based on the DNA analysis of 98 ancient skeletons from Europe and Russia, there had been a massive migration of Yamna culture people from the North Pontic steppe into Europe about 4500 years ago. These steppe people herded cattle and other animals, buried their dead in earthen mounds called kurgans, and may have created some of the first wheeled vehicles. About 75% of the DNA of late Neolithic Corded Ware skeletons found in Germany was the same as the Yamnana DNA.  This steppe ancestry persisted in all sampled central Europeans until at least 3000 years ago, and is still ubiquitous in present-day Europeans.

Suggested Reading:

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Acheulo Yabroudian Handaxe from Tabun/ Israel

tabun aggsbach mousterien

tabun aggsbach acheulian yabrudianThis is a small (2x4x6 cm) handaxe from the Acheulo Yabroudian from the Tabun cave in the Nahal Me’arot valley, also known as the Wadi el-Mughara at Mount Carmel near Haifa, Israel. The raw material of the layer E at Tabun is mainly homogenous, fine-grained flint. This flint varies in colors and textures, and different types of flint often grade into each other. The raw material used for this handaxe comes from outcrops of Mount Carmel, which are located 2-3 km to the east of the Nahal Me’arot valley.

The development of mining to acquire the best raw materials for producing stone tools represents a breakthrough in human technological and intellectual development. Quarrying by hominines in the Levant is attested since the late Acheulian. According to the determination of in situ-produced cosmogenic  Be-10 concentrations, artifacts from Tabun Cave layer E are suggested to have been made of  raw materials, originating from flint bearing geologic layers that were mined or quarried by early humans at a depth of ca 2 m.

Handaxes from the cave-Acheulo-Yabrudian of the Carmel region are often made from small pebbles. This has been already demonstrated for the Misliya cave handaxes, which closely resembling handaxes from Layer E of Tabun Cave.  Acheulo Yabroudian handaxes at Tabun differ from Acheulian ones from the same site. The latter are larger, more carefully worked and have a smaller cortex cover, although the same raw materials were used.  Whether the small size is a common feature of Acheulo-Yabroudian bifaces as a whole, or represents a special trend in handaxe production at the end of the Lower Paleolithic on the Carmel ridge, remains open for discussion.

Regarding the example shown here, the knapper focused on shaping the handaxe tip rather than its entire circumference, in accordance to published data from other typical Acheulo Yabroudian handaxes from Tabun E and Misliya cave. The function of the piece was apparently of greater importance than its overall eye catching sophistication and /or symmetry.

The tip of the artifact is extremely thin (Figure 2; thickness: 1 mm), made by careful retouches, applied from both sides. Interestingly, the overall thickness of the handaxe was reduced from 20 mm to 1 mm by a controlled abrupt and stepwise approach from the ventral and dorsal surface. The  base remained unworked and exhibits the original cortex of the flint nodule. The lateral edges were rather neglected, obviously not intended to be used for cutting.  Such handaxes are in contrast to many Late Levantine Acheulian bifaces, which were carefully bifacially flaked all around their circumferences.

A microtraceological study about the use of such thin and sophisticated tips should be elucidated by future evaluation of similar pieces.

Suggested Reading:

Ran Barkai and Avi Gopher: Innovative human behavior between Acheulian and Mousterian A view from Qesem Cave, Israel (via

Yossi Zaidner, Dotan Druck and Mina Weinstein-Evron: Acheulo-Yabrudian handaxes from Misliya Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel (via

The best on-line collection of Paleolithic artifacts I personally know: please look at the Archaeological Treasures of Israel to put the artifact displayed in this post into a wider context:

Anyhow I do not appreciate the ultra-nationalistic attitude of renaming the Tabun cave into Me`arat Tannur without any reference to the name of the cave, common to the local Arabian population, before the excavations. (Vae victis).

And certainly this is not an adequate attitude for naming a world heritage site:

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Ferrassie-Ensembles in Europe


These are some typical artifacts from an early 20th century collection from one Mousterian site in the Perigord, which fit the definition of the Ferrassie-Mousterian. Technologically this facies is characterized by a recurrent uni- and bipolar Levallois debitage and typologically by a high percentage of scrapers, especially convergent and double scrapers, Mousterian points and a low percentage of denticulates and notches and the absence of Bifaces. The “Typical” and the “Ferrassie Mousterian” in S/W-France share common technological and typological features, the only difference between such Entities” is a higher percentage of retouched tools for the latter.( Technologically there is a clear succession of Levallois-Quina-Levallois/Discoid systems between MIS5-3 in S/W-France and in Italy which means many of the “Ferrassie Ensembles” are older than MIS4.

The Levallois-system usually creates thin blanks of predetermined shape (e.g. points), ready for intermediate use without or with only light retouches. Depending on various factors (duration of stay, functional requirements, function of the site) even a heavier modification could be created on the blanks, as seen in the artifacts of this post and at the type site, where convergent tools with “Retouche écailleuse scalariforme” were present.

Ferrassie is an eminent Paleolithic site in Savignac-de-Miremont, in the Dordogne department, France. The site, located in the Vézère valley, consists of a large and deep cave flanked by two rock shelters within a limestone cliff, under which there is a scree slope formation. Denis Peyrony and Louis Capitan explored the site in 1905, 1907 and 1912; Peyrony in 1934 (Middle and Upper Paleolithic), Henri Delporte in 1969 and 1984 and Delporte with Tuffreau in 1984 (Chatelperronian, Aurignacian and Gravettian). Ongoing excavations by Dibble et al. are focusing on the chronology of the oldest strata (an Middle Paleolithic ensemble with bifaces) probably dating to MIS5, and the stata, that were used to define the Ferrassie Mousterian facies and that contained the famous “Neanderthal burials”. Interestingly, the Ferrassie Mousterian layers are attributed to MIS 3 by OSL, between 54 ± 3 and 40 ± 2 ka, and thus appear very late in the final Middle Palaeolithic of the region. These data fit to ESR dates, of two Neanderthal teeth which also indicate to an MIS3 age. Regarding that “Ferrassie ensembles” in the Aquitaine are usually said to be MIS5/early MIS4 (at Combe Grenal on geochronological grounds) preceding “Quina ensembles“ which are present during MIS 4 (Roc de Marsal  (F) , Pinaud Jonzac, Quina) – this date would indicate much more synchrony of the different ” Mousterian facies” that previously suggested.

If older “Ferrasie” ensembles  dated to MIS7 (Maastricht-Belvedère [K],  Rheindahlen [„Ostecke“ ; B3], Biache-Saint-Vaast) can be technologically compared with the classic ensembles of the Perigord remains an open question….

Suggested Reading:

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Elongated Handaxes

aisne aggsbach paleolithique biface grandThis is a lanceolate handaxe, an old quarry find from the Aisne, made of quartzite and about 22 cm in length. Even larger lanceolates from this area, unfortunately undated,  have been described by Harper Kelley (Bulletin de la Société préhistorique de France via Persee;

Some handaxes were made much more elongate, than the average bifaces in Acheulian ensembles. As Gowlett recently suggested, it is improbable that this happened by accident: the elongation had to be “constructed”. In one approach, very common in Africa, a large preform or blank is struck by the maker as a single flake, and then trimmed to its final form. The other major approach, common in Europe, is to work the piece from a nodule, often on flint. A series of strikes roughs out the handaxe which may then be thinned in a long process. Again, it is not easy for the maker to maintain length, and it cannot be done without a specific intention.

Excellent raw materials found in large nodules or blocks are the prerequisite of large handaxe manufacture. From a functional point of view, elongated shapes demonstrate a better ratio of cutting edge to overall weight than less elongated shapes, although this is at the expense of a higher likelihood for end-shock to occur during manufacture. The influence of raw materials is most important at the beginning of the process of façonnage, but later steps are more dependent on reshaping and the knappers’ skills. If there were a mental template and the desire for symmetry involved in the creation of handaxes remains an open question- the pros and cons have beeen discussed in much detail during the last 30 years .

A good example of an large handaxe is known from Kathu Pan in the Northern Cape, South Africa, and dated by association with tooth-plates of the extinct Elephas Reckii  to approximately 750 k.a. BP. This handaxe is fully symmetric and measuring about 27 cm in length (

Large handaxes and cleavers, often with a lenght of ca 20 cm, are the halmark of many Middle Pleistocene Acheulian sites in the Rift valley, as already described in this blog

At the Masek Beds, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, were found five finely shaped handaxes in white quartzite, measuring about 27 cm in length and were dated between 600 and 400 k.a. Superposed drawings of their outline shapes show them to be almost perfect matches. Mary Leakey described them as “elongate, with delicately trimmed tips…. In spite of the material being coarse grained, and intractable, these tools have been elaborately trimmed over both faces…. The close similarity in technique, size and form suggests the possibility that they may have been the work of a single craftsman”.

Older publications highlight the large handaxes (“gigantolithes”) from the Maghreb  and the Sahara (for example: Most of them are suggested to be dating < 400 k.a. – but intact deposits with radiometrically dates are still very rare.

The famous Furze Platt hand axe ( dated to MIS 8-10 and was found in 1919. It weighs 2.8 kilos and is 30.6 cm long. Another large handaxe is known from Shrub Hill, UK and is dated to MIS 9 has a length of 29 cm. An important archaeological dig at Cuxton in Kent, dated most probably to MIS7 (250 k.a. BP) uncovered a sharply pointed 31 cm handaxe. The Handaxe was preserved together with a large Cleaver and is in almost mint condition and displays exquisite workmanship in addition to its extreme size (

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