Large Cutting Tools at Isimila

isimila aggsbachThis is a large, perfect, “six-hit”- cleaver from Isimila / Tansania made of  Mylonite, a cataclastic microcrystalline rock with a finely divided quartz groundmass of various types and colors (Howell et al. 1962, 64). The Isimila mylonite has good knapping qualities. The best outcrops of this acidic-volcanic-metamorphic rock are found 4–5 miles west of Isimila, but the formation itself can be traced closer to the site.

Isimila  is situated 21 km from the town of Iringa in the southern highlands of Tanzania  and is situated about 1631 m Elevation above Sea Level. D. A. Maclennan (South Africa) discovered the site in 1951 during a car journey from Nairobi to Johannesburg. F. C. Howell, M. R. Kleindienst and G. C. Cole excavated the site for a total of 7 months during 1957–58. An additional season of excavation, directed by Hansen and Keller, took place in 1969, and a small-scale excavation was undertaken by Kleindienst in 1970 (

The Isimila stream runs through a small valley that  was created by tectonic movement. During the Pleistocene the outlet of the basin was  partially blocked, creating an elongated body of water. This body comprised a combination of marshes and small ponds, sometimes with an overflow. The basin was filled by alternating bands of fine, level-bedded gray-green clay and coarser sandy sediments, which Pickering named ‘Isimila beds’ The depth of the sediments is more than 18 m, and the excavators estimated them to have accumulated over a ‘few  thousand years at most’ (Howell 1961; Howell et al. 1962).

Five distinct beds of coarser sands were identified in the Isimila beds,  separated by layers of finer silty clay sediments.  The main “living floors” and the largest quantities of artifacts originate in the upper layers.  As most artifacts are in mint condition and no evidence of water or other means of transport has been observed, it has been suggested that differences in artifact distribution within the sediments of the various sites should be attributed to human activity.

ciidfjddThe short duration of the Isimila bed’s sedimentation process, estimated to be a few thousand years, should be emphasized (Howell et al. 1962), although Hansen and Keller  (1971) have questioned this interpretation. More study is required before a definitive answer can be reached. Typological comparisons with the Late Acheulian assemblages of Olorgesaillie and Kalambo Falls have led Kleindienst to define Isimila as being younger than both (Howell and Clark 1963). Uranium series dating of bones from Sand 4 have yielded a date of 260 k.a. (+40–70 k.a.) but these dates are only a rough estimate. Many scholars feel that Isimila could well be 400 k.a. old. On the other hand late in-situ Acheulian sites with typical LCTs were recently excavated in the Mieso valley in East-Central Ethiopia and radiometrically dated to 212 k.a. The sites are much later than the start of  the MSA in the Etiopian rift valley, beginning more than 60 k.a. earlier! (Gademotta (ETH-72-8B before 276±4 k.a BP; ETH-72-6 after 183±10 k.a BP); (

The earliest Acheulian in East Africa is dated to ca 1.75 million years ago  and is well  documented at Kokiselei in Kenya, and at Konso in Ethiopia.Even the earliest assemblages from the  Konso sites consist of ‘large cutting tools’  (LCTs) including unifacially and bifacially shaped handaxes  and picks, as well as Mode I (Oldowan) cores, and débitage. Although technologically similar, at  Konso a majority of the bifaces were made on flake blanks, whereas at Gona they were made  equally on cobbles as well as large flakes (>10 cm).

The Acheulian the East African Rift valley, which persisted for over one and a half million years, is attested in diverse environments and over wide geographical expanses. The hallmark of many Acheulian sites in this region is its LCTs, made from “giant cores” primarily handaxes and cleavers.  This mode of production was first recognized by Isaac during the 1960ies.

LCTs very likely emerged in East Africa but have been reported from a wide range of areas, spanning South Africa, Israel (GBY), the Caucasus Region, Eastern Georgia to India (and even beyond the Movius line) to the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France. It is only in Europe north of the Pyrenees and the Garonne valley that a substantial Acheulian presence not accompanied by LFB industries is present. Sharon recently compared  assemblages from geographically diverse sites characterized by the production of  LCTs based on large flakes (defined arbitrary as flakes over 10 cm in maximal diameter) in an attempt to assess their technological,  morphological, and typological suitability for grouping together as a common stage within  the Acheulian techno-complex.

Different techniques of flake (blank) removal from larger clasts are described from the LCD Acheulian. These include bifacial and sliced slab method from giant cores, éclat entame (cobble opening flake), Tabelbala-Tachenghit techniques, Kombewa methods and the Victoria West technique. It is a striking and humbling fact that we still do not know precisely when certain technological milestones and cognitive horizons were first reached.

Sharon noted that there appears to have been a shift from non-LFB industries to LFB industries at ca 800 k.a. and then back to non-LFB or cleaver-less at 500 k.a. Given the insufficient chronological control of many African sites this seems to be somewhat hasty conclusion, regarding the early age of Konso and the late age for Isimila or Calambo Falls. There are several non-LCD ensembles from early middle Pleistocene contextes in East Africa (for example at Melka Kunture). In addition, other regions, such as India, have cleavers that were produced along with broad-tipped handaxes at 500 k.a. and later. The Nile Valley and the Oases in the western Sahara seem to have their own trajectories towards the Acheulian.

The Acheulian culture was originally defined and categorized in accordance with finds from W-Europe, which comprise many  types of handaxes, produced almost exclusively from flint nodules and river cobbles. In the next stage of research, an alternative view of the earliest phases of human culture was established in South Africa (Goodwin and van Riet Lowe 1929), but it too was strongly influenced by European views (Breuil 1930). It comes without surprise that the special features of the African Acheulian came in focus only after the WW II when Africanists began to work with this culture from a post colonialist and anti-Eurocentric view.

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A Subtriangular Handaxe from the Loiret

loiret aggsbach

This is a very flat typical MTA handaxe from the Loiret (9,0×4,5×0,4 mm) found near Orleans in the Loiret (central France). It is a good example of the MTA method of shaping bifaces, described by Soressi. Such handaxes were produced by the shaping with a soft hammer of a bi-convex transversal section, which may become plan-convex during repeated renovation. This principle is known both from the N- France and S/W France ensembles. The removals that create the artifacts are generally struck from the lateral sides of the rough out. In most of the cases, the retouch is not absolutely symmetric and often one edge is longer than the other (

The preceding Acheulian in the Loire valley around Orleans is well developed and has many affinities to the Acheulian of the Indre and Loire region ( Acheulian handaxes were found in abundance on the plateau of Briare and Gien and in the sandpits of Châteauneuf-sur-Loire and Saint-Denis-de-Hotel. The two most beautiful bifaces I personally know were already found during the 19th century at Châteauneuf-sur-Loire and Chécy and measure 25 cm and 19 cm respectively. Surface finds are known from the municipalities of Nevoy, Ouzouer-sur-Loire, Bray-en-Val, Saint-Aignan-des-Fords, Saint-Martin-d’Abbat and Germigny-des-Prés Mardie. For sure, well stratified Archaeological sequences, known from other very old sites elswhere in the Loire valley, are still awaiting excavation (

A rich Mousterian deposit was discovered in 1922 by A. Chevillon at the Garenne site near Triguères. Unfortunately we lack of any new publication about the material, which has never adequately described. Its attribution to an MTA is more than dubious. Anyhow, surface finds with cordiform, subtriangular and triangular bifaces can be typologically securely assigned to the MTA of N-France and may date to a timeframe between OIS5 and OIS3.


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Double Patination and Recycling during the Paleolithic


This is a Mousterian point with a double patina from a multilayered Levantine Mousterian site. While the initial knapper produced a broad Levallois point with a fine faceted base, which was later discarded, several hundred or thousand years later, another knapper used the blank for heavily edge retouch, nowadays recognized by a clearly more “fresh” appearance of its patination. The product is a perfect Mousterian point, suggesting that both individuals may have shared a common social tradition of making and resharpening stone tools.  

The recycling of discarded artefacts is a common stone provisioning strategy in the ethnographic record and may have been more common in the past than usually acknowledged. In archaeological studies its importance is probably heavily underestimated, as it is only clearly visible when enough time has elapsed between initial discard and subsequent recycling for the formation of a double patina. Unfortunately it is usually not possible to calculate the time span between the creations of the first, second or even third generations of patina.

Flakes produced during knapping by one individual may have been selected for use or transport by individuals other than the initial knappers. This could include other members of the same social group, members of other social groups, or individuals separated from the original knapping events by vast spans of time. Such “lithic scavenging’” is very common in multi-layered rock shelter sites in Europe. Whether this “scavenging” was the result of laziness, optimized time economy, or a behavior of incoming groups unfamiliar with the raw material resources of new territories, remains broadly unknown. Double patination could even be sometimes the indication for intergroup gifting and exchange. One of the first Prehistorians, who systematically reported artifacts with double patination, was the physician and excavator of La Quina, Henri Martin.

In Africa double patination has been occasional reported from Acheulian material (for example from the Libyan desert).

In the Near East double patination has been contested in the Yabroudian at Yabrud and Hummal, and during the Hummalian, as well as during the following local Levallois-Mousterian (for example from Meyrouba and Mechmiche in the Lebanon).

Double patination on stone tools in Europe are present as early as during OIS 11 (High Lodge) and during OIS 7 (Maastricht- Belvedère Site K assemblage) and in several large middle Paleolithic multilayered sites in S/W-France during the last glacial, such as at La Quina (Charente), Roc de Marsal, Combe Grenal, Le Moustier (Dordogne) and at the Middle Palaeolithic rock shelter of Abric Romaní (Spain).

It has recently reported, that at the  Kebara and Hayonim cave sites in Israel,  the makers of the Aurignacian made use of flint blanks from the Levallois-Mousterian layers, which were at least 10 k.a. older. Upper Palaeolithic morphotypes were modified either on Mousterian tools or Mousterian blanks produced by the Levallois technique.In the Aurignacian assemblage of Layer III  at Raqefet Cave, heavily patinated Levallois and non- Levallois middle Paleolithic y flakes were used as tool blanks, too.

Observations of recycling were made in the Aurignacian strata of the Sefunim and at Skar Akil, but only in strata VII- XI, which are typologically near to the Aurignacian tradition. Interestingly recycling during the Ahmarian was nearly absent.

The Aurignacian in the Levant is suggested to be an intrusive technocomplex and therefore the following suggestion is not without charm: “Thus, trying to explain the recycling of older pieces in the Levantine Aurignacian assemblages, one wonders whether this had to do with the fact that these were incoming foreigners who upon arrival, and before getting acquainted with local hard rock resources, used older pieces for tool making” (Belfer-Cohen & O. Bar-Yosef 2014).

Once again: 


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Yarmukian Sickles


yarmouk aggsbachThe Yarmukian culture (6,4-5,8 k.a. BC) was first distinguished in the late 1940s by M. Stekelis, at the site of Sha’ar Hagolan in the central Jordan Valley. Yarmukian Sickles together with distinct subtypes of  Byblos- and Amuq- and the appearance of  small Haparsa- and Herzliya-projectil points are characteristic for this complex.

In addition, the Yarmukian was one of the oldest culture in the Levant to make use of pottery. Yarmoukian houses were less  standardized than earlier ones, ranging from simple pit-houses to rectilinear houses with one or two spacious rooms and  sometimes smaller storage chambers. At Sha’ar Hagolan, sets  of rooms are arranged around courtyards and streets and alleys  separate the house compounds from one another. These  compounds are candidates for having housed larger social units, such as extended families. Besides the site at Sha’ar HaGolan, some 20 other Yarmukian sites have been identified in Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. These include:

  • Tel Megiddo (Israel)
  • Ain Ghazal (Jordan)
  • Munhata (Israel)
  • Tel Qishion (Israel)
  • Hamadiya (Israel)
  • Ain Rahub (Jordan)
  • Abu Tawwab (Jordan)
  • Atlit Yam (Israel)
  • Wadi Shu’eib (Jordan)
  • Nahal Qanah Cave
  • Nahal Zehora II
  • Rehov Habashan
  • Tell as-Saidiyeh

Although the Yarmukian culture occupied a limited region, Yarmukian pottery has been found outside this core area, including the Habashan Street excavations in Tel-Aviv and as far north as Byblos, Lebanon.

Settlement patterns are divided into two broad categories – core areas and marginal areas, an over-simplification which, however, is useful for summarizing the data. The best known site is Ain Ghazal in Jordan.  Other sites that may date to this time are Atlit Yam and Tel Ramad. Marginal areas are represented by Sinai, Negev and eastern Jordan where the environment was, for the most part, steppic or desert, apart from the central oasis of the Azraq Basin.  In these more marginal zones “Prehistoric human settlement is believed to have been temporary and seasonal, distinct from that in the lusher Levantine highlands or Jordan Valley, where large, permanently occupied early Neolithic sites are found” (Martin and Garrard 1999).

During excavations at Sha’ar HaGolan, large courtyard houses were uncovered, ranging between 250 and 700 m² in area, indicated a well structured and rich society. The courtyard house makes its first appearance at Sha’ar HaGolan, giving the site a special significance in architectural history. This is an architectural concept still found among traditional Mediterranean societies. Monumental construction on this scale is unknown elsewhere during this period. The houses consist of a central courtyard surrounded by several small rooms. The houses were separated by streets, which constitute evidence of advanced community planning. The dig uncovered a central street about 3 m wide, paved with pebbles set in mud, and a narrow winding alley 1 m wide. These are the earliest streets discovered in Israel and among the earliest streets built by man. A 4.15 m well dug to the local water table indicates knowledge of hydraulics. Exotic objects discovered during the excavations include sea shells from the Mediterranean, polished stone vessels made of alabaster, and blades made from obsidian from Anatolian sources. The presence of obsidian points to trade connections extending over 700 km.

Ba’ja, in the Petra mountains, was only inhabited in the Late PPNB.  By this time goat, sheep and pig had been domesticated elsewhere in the Levant.  Results in the semi-desert environment of the southern Levant are consistent with what would be expected in a marginal zone at this time:

  • Some wild goat and gazelle
  • Wild hare, hyraxes, donkey, leopard, fox and other carnivores
  • 90% domesticated small ruminants, with goat dominant
  • Some Bos bones, but uncertain whether domesticated or not

The best known PPNC site from the core area is Ain Ghazal in Jordan, where a distinctive level was found beneath a layer containing the Pottery Neolithic Yarmukian industry and above a PPNB layer.  It covered 13 hectares at around 6750 BC.  Large shaped clay tablets were used, hinting at an administration system which was simply unprecedented for this time period.  There are some signs that the settlement survived general local collapse by changing its subsistence strategy.  A number of sites in the area were abandoned at this time, and infant mortality at Ain Ghazal rose.  Volumes of domesticated goat and legumes increase.  The excavators see this phase as representing a response to increasing stresses in the environment caused by a combination of climatic change and human over-exploitation of the environment.  The growth of the site against this background is suggested to be due to successful changes in the subsistence strategy which involved increasing the pastoral component of the economy at the expense of cereal exploitation.

Ain Ghazal is renowned for a set of anthropomorphic statues found buried in pits in the vicinity of some special buildings that may have had ritual functions. These statues are half-size human figures modeled in white plaster around a core of bundled twigs. The figures have painted clothes, hair, and in some cases, ornamental tattoos or body paint. The eyes are created using cowrie shells with a bitumen pupil. In all, 32 of those plaster figures were found in two caches, 15 of them full figures, 15 busts, and 2 fragmentary heads. Three of the busts were two-headed, the significance of the two headed statues is not clear

Gopher and Gophna suggest that Atlit Yam and similar layers at Tel Ramad may also represent local adaptations to new conditions.  At Atlit Yam, for example, a heavy reliance on marine resources is clear, supplementing both cultivation and hunting.  At Atlit, a stone semicircle, containing seven 600-kilogram megaliths, has recently been found. The stones have cup marks carved into them and are arranged around a freshwater spring, which suggests that they may have been used for ritual (

Very few large sites survived into the Pottery Neolithic.  Bellwood  suggests that Beidha shows similar stress – it was occupied into the PPNC and then abandoned.  Abu Hureyra halved in size. There was less abandonment of settled areas in the northern Levant than elsewhere.

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Synchronisation of Handaxe shapes on a global scale?

allonne aggsbach

This is a “Biface de type micoquien” typologically in transition to a  “Biface lageniforme” according to Bordes` typology,  made by a typical trifacial concept of  façonnage, found during the early 20th century in the important Briqueterie d’Allonne (Oise) in Northern France (

Micoquian Handaxes can be symmetric or slightly asymmetric. They have a massive, often only coarsely or unworked base, slightly pronounced concave outlines and an elaborated tip. At La Micoque the handaxes often follow a trifacial concept.  (

In France, such handaxes are known from the upper strata at La Micoque (Dordogne; maybe 250-300 k.a. old) and from the upper Acheulian in the loess belt of Northern France (MIS 8/7). Although some Micoquian handaxe are known from the “Keilmesser” groups, they are not an integral part of the “Middle European Micoquian”  sensu strictu.

The  Acheulian has been dated to the first part of the Middle Pleistocene in western Europe (mainly MIS 16 to 9; 600-300 k.a.), with some ensembles dating as late as MIS 8/7 ( 300-200 k.a.); ( In Western Europe more structured flaking (débitage) techniques such as the Levallois concept emerge only after MIS 9/8. The famous “Atelier Commont” in Amiens (early OIS8) can be described as a non-Levallois Middle Paleolithic industry with some handaxes, while at other sites the Levallois technique was more abundant. 

The term “Acheulian” was originally coined by G. de Mortillet (1872) to describe the industries from the Middle Terrace of the Somme Valley in northern France. Today the term denotes a large variety of tools, occurring over 1.7 million years on several continents. The link between the numerous occurrences of the Acheulian is solely the handaxe, an entity which is defined technologically and by a façonnage chaîne opératoire. There are certain doubts if the handaxes of Europe were introduced by the humans that entered Europe “Out of Africa” during the Late Early Pleistocene. The handaxe industries of Europe could be an independent innovation.

The same could be suggested for the “Micoquian” shape of handaxes, although such artifacts are certainly a “late” phenomenon during the Acheulian on a global scale. In the Levant, Micoquian bifaces appeared in the Archeological record during the late local Acheulian, which disappeared at about 400 k.a. BP and during the Yabroudian (400-200 k.a.). The Nubian Micoquian bifaces seem to be within this time span. Other African Micoquian handaxes seem to be dated to the middle part of the Middle Pleistocene.

Earlier research concluded that there was a continent wide interdependency of certain handaxe shapes between Europe, South East Asia and Africa. Regarding the important geographical and geochronological gaps and the diversified technological components of “Micoquian”  handaxes this seems to be highly questionable.


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Handaxe from the “Mousterien Chaud” at Montières and the diversification of the Paleolithic in N-France during MIS 8

amiens aggsbach

This is a heavily patinated pointed and elongated, 19 cm long handaxe from Montières in the Amiens region (Somme Valley, N-France).

The Somme Valley is famous for its archaeological sequence, where numerous rich Palaeolithic sites, such as Saint- Acheul, the type site of the Acheulian, have been discovered. The archaeological levels are often directly associated with fossil alluvial sediments of the River Somme or with slope deposits, including loess and palaeosols. In the middle course of the valley, near Amiens, the system of fossil-stepped fluvial terraces is particularly well developed and preserved, and occurs on 10 alluvial formations. These terraces, from +5 to +55 m above the present-day valley bedrock, allow the study of the environmental changes and the human settlement of this area through the Pleistocene.

The Somme valley has a long history of Palaeolithic research (de Mortillet in the 1870ies; Commont about 1900-1914; Breuil and Koslowski between 1931 and 1932; and their many  successors).  It is the location of two Palaeolithic type localities: Abbeville and St Acheul. The latter has given its name to the Acheulian, which accommodates all the Lower Palaeolithic handaxe industries.  The early archaeological discoveries from the Abbeville area are now considered less reliable than the well-dated younger in situ Acheulian assemblages from MIS 12-9, discovered during the last two decades.  The chronostratigraphic interpretation of the 50mme  terrace staircase is based on the recognition of a  cyclic glacial-interglacial pattern within the fluvial sequences  and the overlying loess-palaeosol deposits and has been confirmed by amino-acid geochronology and is  based on mollusc shells from the fluvial sediments, site-specific supplementary data from biostratigraphy and more recently by ESR and  Uranium-series dating.

A short description of the middle and upper terasses of the Somme and their archeological content has allready given during an earlier post ( This handaxe comes from the lower terasse at Montières and is about 200 k.a. old (OIS8).

The low terraces of Northern France, especially those of the Somme Valley, are rich in Palaeolithic ensembles.  Recent researches have provided new facts about their dating through the results of stratigraphical study of the loamy cover and the results of palynological and malacological content of the fine fluviatile deposits. Most of the low terrace complex appears to be older than the Last Interglacial (MIS 5). The lithic industries of the fluvial deposits show an astonishing diversification compared to the ensembles od the middle and lower terasses and belong, for the most part, to the Middle Palaeolithic. The assemblages can be different from a typological point of view, but they are always rich in Levallois flakes.

At Montières, Commont in 1912 described a Middle Paleolithic assemblage, produced from Levallois flakes, which included numerous elongated blades and pointed handaxes. This ensemble was found in sandy and calcareous layers of the Low Terrace, now attributed to MIS 7. This assemblage appears to be one of the oldest Middle Palaeolithic industries of continental north-west Europe where a volumetric laminar débitage is present.

This Middle Paleolithic was been described as “Mousterien Chaud” (and falsely dated to OIS5 e until the late 1980ies) because the fauna (Elephas antiquus, Hippopotame, Rhinoceros mercki, Equus stenonis aff., Equus caballus, Felis leo sp., Cervus elaphus, Cervus sp., Bos priscus, Ursus arctos) found in the same units is typical of temperate conditions.

Other broadly contemporaneous findings are known from Biache, Argoeuves and Étaples.  The Middle Paleolithic from Biache-Saint-Vaast (Scarpe Valley) has been characterized as a rich Ferrassie type Mousterian without any handaxes. The Industry of Argoeuves (Somme Valley) is a Middle Paleolithic industry with some handaxes and a laminar tendency and was classified as an  “Épi- Acheuléen de faciès levalloisien” by French scholars. This ensemble is very near to the Montières industry and indirect proff, that the old findings do not represent a secondary mixed ensemble. Similar industries are known from the Aisne and Aa valleys.

Sugested Reading:


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Mousterian Points in the Levant

levallois israel aggsbach1Mousterian points are defined as triangular flakes, made by Levallois or non-Levallois chaine operatoire, with extensively retouched lateral edges that are either straight or mildly convex in plain view converging to a sharp distal edge. The dividing line between a Mousterian point and a retouched Levallois point is not clearly demarcated. In practice with retouch extending along their lateral edges past the midpoint of the artifacts long axis are usually classified as Mousterian points.

Very thin Levallois points are not appropriate for secondary modification, as exemplified by the razor-sharp Levallois points and flakes from the upper Strata of Kebara cave ( A certain thickness is therefore a conditio sine qua non for the production of secondary modified Levallois points. Other variables that influence the modification of these items are raw material properties, duration of stay at the site and functional requirements.

During the early southern and central Levantine Middle Paleolithic (150-250 k.a. BP), Mousterien points are often elongated (“Tabun D”; “Abu Sif Knifes”; “Hummalian Points”), but non-elongated examples similar to the point displayed in this post, were also present. At Tabun D, only 11.3% of the blanks were modified by abrupt or scaled retouche. No differences among the four most common “diagnostic” blank types—blades, Levallois flakes, short Levallois points, and elongated Levallois points—in terms of the number of retouched edges were found.

During the later phases of the Levantine Mousterian, unretouched Levallois points fairly outnumber the retouched ones. As shown at Tabun, the with/thickness ratio increases from Tabun D to Tabun C/B, and as a consequence the possibility of a secondary modification decreases, but again other than purely technological constraints may have played a role in this process.

At Tabun, the changing /thickness ratios were suggested to be part of a larger “Mugharan tradition” between Tabun D and B (250-40 k.a), but the sequence at this site may not be as representative as initially thought. That Mousterian points may dominate the artifactual spectrum even later than Tabun D ensembles, was recently shown at  Nesher Ramla. The site presents evidence for human occupation or use during MIS 6/5 (190-70 k.a. BP; In this context it is interesting, that at the (non dated) last Levallois-Mousterian strata at Yabrud the same phenomenon was present.

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