The Middle Paleolithic of the North German Plain

Nearly the entire North German Plain lies less 100m above sea level. The lowland is drained by the north-flowing Rhine, Ems, Weser, Elbe, and Oder rivers; nowadays a network of shipping canals and inland waterways connect the rivers from east to west. Glacial action formed the region’s landform patterns, which can be divided into three major areas of relief from west to east: the alluvial deposits of the Lower Rhineland, the flat glacial sands and gravels of Lower Saxony west of the Elbe River, and the series of morainic uplands and troughs extending eastward from Schleswig-Holstein along the Baltic Sea.

Fig 1. shows a large core from LübbowLüchowDannenberg, Lower Saxony, dated to the Saalian (MIS 6). The  Saalian, which directly follows the Holsteinian in N-Germany, is a complex stratigraphic unit. Recently the Holsteinian interglacial was correlated on the basis of radiometric dates with MIS 9,  300 k.a. old, not 400 k.a.  as formerly thought. Therefore, the Reinsdorf interglacial from the Schöningen opencast mine, where the famous spears were found is most probably 300 k.a. old (correlated with MIS 9a) or even 240 k.a.  old (correlated with MIS 7). The Saalian sensu stricto (MIS 6) lasted from 230-120 k.a. with Drenthe and Warthe ice advances, between 150 and 140 k.a.

The Early Middle Paleolithic in the North-German Lowlands, defined by the use of the Levallois technique, comprises sites which are stratigraphically underlying the Drenthe and Warthe ice advances. In general such ensembles are now dated younger than some years ago, and therefore younger than early Middle Paleolithic ensembles in France, Italy and the Iberian Peninsula. Most ensembles are small, except Markkleeberg (near Leipzig) with thousands of artifacts found so far. Here, the Middle Paleolithic archeological horizon is underlying the Drenthe gravels, which previously gave reason to date the archeological find horizon to early MIS 8, but might now be either as young as MIS 6. The Markkleeberg assemblage combines rare bifacial tools (handaxes and bifacial scrapers) with developed Levallois products of various kinds (Levallois points, scrapers). Moreover an important laminar component with volumetric blade cores has early identified in the Markkleeberg assemblage.

Another important site from the penultimate Glacial period was discovered in 1993 at Ochtmissen, Landkreis Lüneburg.  Until 1994 large numbers of flint artefacts were excavated from a 420 m2 sand layer, ca. 1.25 m beneath the surface. The ice wedges in the upper layers date back to the latter part of the penultimate Glacial period (ca. 150-130 k.a.) . The assemblage is interpreted as an Up- per Acheulian inventory including Levallois-technique. Fifty-six evenly worked hand-axes distinguish this find material, which is a quite unusual rate of recurrence for this tool.

The skeleton of a forest elephant with a yew lance is an outstanding piece of evidence that hunting took place in the Neanderthal period. This site from the Eem-interglacial was discovered in 1948 near Lehringen, Landkreis Verden. Detailed analysis of lance fragments by Thieme and Veil (1985) demonstrated the skill and care with which the weapon had been made; it featured no less than 40 knots and all the bark had been removed from the shaft.

Hundisburg near Neuhaldensleben, northwest of Magdeburg, now dated to MIS 6 shows a similar artifactual spectrum: Handaxes are rare (2 handaxes /270 artifacts) and a sophisticated Levallois technology is present. This ensemble also compromises some bifacial scrapers and Keilmesser. Renewed excavations at Hundisburg since 2005 recovered mostly sharp edged artifacts combined with the remains of large mammals and rich microfauna, while such contextual information is not available for Markleeberg.

Other findings most probably from MIS6 are only indirectly dated. The most important sites in Northern Germany  come from the Pleisse gravels near Leipzig (Cröbern, Zehmen), Gravels near Magdeburg (Magdeburg-Rothensee, Magdeburg-Neustadt, Gerwitsch).
In 1949 K.H. Jacob-Friesen published Paleolithic material from the gravels of Hannover-Döhren, Hemmingen and Rethen.  Fig 2 shows an handaxe found in the gravels of Döhren during the 1930ies. This was followed by a second publication of a handaxe rich ensemble in  1978 by Zedelius- Sanders.  The material of the Leine valley south of Hannover increased during the last 20 years by the work of  numerous voluntary helpers and assistants. While earlier studies allocated the artifacts to Pre MIS-5 times, new considerations take into account a Post MIS-5 embedding of the artifacts. The ensembles include many bifacial tools (handaxes, bifacial scrapers, some Blattspitzen and Keilmesser) and may be related to the Central European Micoquian (KMG), well attested at Lichtenberg and Salzgitter. The last Figure (Fig. 3) shows a bifacial piece from the Lichtenberg site (early MIS3). Regarding the Middle Paleolithic of the last Glaciation of the North German plain (and the North European plain, too: for example the Zwolen site) it is interesting to note the long persistence of classic handaxes in these ensembles-very different to the MTA/ non-MTA ensembles of N-France.

Three cranial fragments were recovered from coarse-grained deposits dug up by a suction dredge from gravel pits on the Leine river flats in the vicinity of Sarstedt. Also recovered were a number of artefacts which, upon careful inspection, could be assigned to the Middle    Paleolithic with  KMG affinities. The geological pattern of the Leine Valley in this region suggests that these fragments were deposited in the lower terrace during a yet undetermined warm period—possibly Brörup or Odderade—during the Weichsel glaciation. However, attribution to the Eemian period or a Saale interstadial cannot be ruled out.

The Prądnik (KMG) complex in Central Germany revisited

Salzgitter-Lebenstedt: an important Paleolithic site in N-Germany

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Out of Africa II- Buried under Arabian Sands?

This is a 7 cm long MSA-Bifacial foliate-from our African ancestors. Stone tools have been repeatedly used to reconstruct the “out-of-Africa II” event(s) and Arabia which had a marginal mention in human evolutionary discussions in the past, is now suggested to be the most probable gateway for such dispersals.

One  model of dispersal is based on the archaeological site of Jebel Faya in the United Arab Emirates. Here, stone tools dating to the last interglacial are reported to show strong affinities to MSA lithic technology in eastern and northeastern Africa. The authors base this assessment on the presence of reduction by façonnage which was used for the production of small hand axes and foliate tool forms.As the eastern African MSA around this timeframe was made AHMs, the technological affinities between these regions are interpreted as early dispersals from Africa across the Red sea during times of low sea level and increased rainfall which facilitated the early colonization of Arabia until the Persian Gulf at around ~120 k.a. If true, this would represent one of the earliest identified populations of AHMs outside of Africa, and a support for arguments for an southern migration route of Homo sapiens into Asia and Oceania .

Documentation of so-called “Nubian cores” in southern and central Arabia has been used to infer demographic exchange across the Red Sea, suggesting that modern humans entered the region with this particular technology before 100 k.a.

The hypothesis maintains that the “Nubian technocomplex” in both northeast Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, defined largely on the presence of Nubian cores, reflects the same group of people using this specific reduction technology. While the chronological control over many sites is weak, the slightly later presence of Nubian cores in Arabia is interpreted as evidence for modern humans dispersing from their source area in northeast Africa.

Finally, Mellars  has used the occurrence of microlithic technologies with backed segments in southern and eastern Africa (from HP or “HP- like” sites in these regions) and a later appearance of similar tools in India and Sri Lanka (at Jwalapuram, Patne and Batadomba-lena) to infer population movements out of Africa and along a coastal route by ca. 60–50 k.a.

In all of these cases, the MSA record and its tool stones are used as a baseline “African” signal for the source populations of modern humans that later dispersed to other continents. In other words, supposedly “African” elements of stone artifact technology in non-African contexts are used to infer dispersals out of Africa.

The degree to which lithic artifacts can actually help in tracing migrations in general – and early dispersal of modern humans from Africa to Eurasia in particular – is an open debate.  Recent studies emphasize that a major problem facing such approaches is the fact that similarities in material culture between different areas can arise by three principle pathways: convergence (independent invention; similar local adaptations), diffusion (movement of ideas and objects; cultural exchange) or dispersal (movement of people).

What’s the Nubian Levallois-core technology got to do with “out of Africa ” dispersal and Boker Tachtit?

Paleolithic Foliates in Africa


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Bronze Age razor : Masculinity, the Horse and the Sun Chariot

This is a Bronze Age razor with a horse- and waterbird-handle from Denmark, maybe from a funerary context-but contextual information is not known from this 19th century finding. The outlines of the artefact are suggestive of a ship corpus with animal applications, three elements which played their role in the Ideological and Beliefs systems of North Europe during the Bronze Age.

Razors with horse head handle are especially well known from the Middle/Late Bronze Age of Denmark:  Grisby, Løve, Grave 204, Sperrestrup, Grave 42, Broholm, Lundtofte, Grave 101 Trappendal (Grave 13). The bronze razor with the horse-head handle appeared in Scandinavia in the fifteenth century BC. The razor had some antecedents in the Aegean, although none of these objects were imported to the north. It is suggested that the Scandinavian warrior class consciously adopted elements of the Mycenaean warrior package, including a clean-shaven face.

The warrior aristocracies from the Aegean to Scandinavia shared the same basic appearance and body culture, reflected in the employment of similar dress, weapon types and combinations, similar instruments for body care – razors and tweezers – and similar rituals in burial. This demonstrates the acculturating force of the new institution of warrior aristocracies during the Bronze Age in Europe.

Razors in male graves during the Bronze Age were initially interpreted as having a purely functional purpose in the context of male personal hygiene. However, razors are mainly found in burials and hoards and their appearance in such contexts suggests that they played a symbolic as well as functional role should not be regarded as an isolated object, but as part of a larger ideological or social statement.  It seems that razors served men during this time as personal symbols of identity and were a means of facilitating the construction of a primarily male identity.

The article “The Warrior’s Beauty” by Paul Treherne (1995) presents the emergence of a warrior elite in the Bronze Age as linked to change in the expression of identity as well as material culture. The Bronze Age warrior elite are identified based on “personal consumables” found in male burials during the Early Bronze Age, centered around warfare (weaponry), alcohol (drinking vessels), riding/driving (horse harness/wheeled vehicles), and bodily ornamentation (personal hygiene equipment and dress).

Treherne highlights the fact that “‘toilet articles’ appear to have been exclusively ‘male’ funerary goods at this time”. In fact, by the late Bronze Age in some regions items of personal hygiene appear to be “the main male status item in graves”. He also argues that the primary “ideology” of the middle Bronze Age revolved around the “male (gendered) individual and the display of his personal accoutrements acquired through inter-regional exchange and emulation, with novel themes of drinking, driving/riding, body decorating, and fighting”. This change in burial practice, according to Treherne, mirrors the change in identity and social status of certain individuals. Since the corpse was only visible for a short time, as opposed to a longer display after death, “the message communicated by the body and its accoutrements to the audience had to be unambiguous and this lent itself to highly formalized or stereotyped representation”.

The “warrior package” in northern Europe in the Bronze and Iron Ages is associated with weapons, personal hygiene paraphernalia, drinking and feasting equipment, and horse trappings. Although none of these object categories on their own (apart from the razor) communicate a strictly “male” identity and many of the same objects can be found in high status female burials, it is the combination of these objects that creates an identity of maleness.

Masculinity, while continuing to be closely associated with weaponry, horse trappings, and drinking and feasting equipment, changes its association with personal hygiene paraphernalia at the beginning of the Iron Age. Razors in particular are no longer found in burials and hoards in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia in the Iron Age, although “warrior” graves are still present. However, the “warrior package” Terherne describes is only associated with a few select men of the community and does not necessarily represent the concepts of masculinity applied to most of the population.

Other applications on this artifacts are symbols of the sun. The razor also has the form of a  Sun Chariot (Fig. 2).

The journey of the sun across the sky was an important element in  Scandinavian Bronze Age religion. We find the motif on bronze objects such as razors but also  on rock carvings in N-Europe, but the finest example of them all is The Sun Chariot. The pictures can be interpreted as a narrative about the sun’s journey across the vault of the heavens by day and through the darkness of the underworld by night.

The framework of existence was the eternal cycle with its constant alternation of light and darkness. This was illustrated by The Sun Chariot, where a divine horse pulls the sun. The horse was not the sun’s only helper. The imagery of the period is full of ships. On its journey the sun was also transported by the Sun Ship. Other mythological helpers of the sun were fish, snakes and swimming birds.

John Coltran: Sun Ship! 

“Almost Cut My Hair”: A Razor from the German Bronze Age

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Bifacial Scraper from Montguillain / Goincourt (Oise)

This is a 9 cm long excellent bifacial scraper from Montguillain (Oise), found during the 19th century. A very similar artifact can be found in F Bordes` Typologie du Paléolithique ancien et moyen.

Gabriel De Mortillet’s 1873  described several locations, that he thought to be characteristic for the Mousterian, among them the multilayered site of Montguillain (Oise). Together with other sites, which were early recognized in the 19th century by their abundant material and eye-catching artifacts, such as:

  • Le Moustier (“Moustiers”; Dordogne), 
  • Chez Pourré-Chez Comte” (Corrèze)
  • Grotte de Néron (Soyons; Ardèche)     
  • Grotte abri de l’Ermitage, Lussac-les-Châteaux (Vienne)
  • Chez Pourré-Chez Comte” (Corrèze)
  • Grenelle and Levallois-Perret (Paris).

tools from Montguillain  found their way into  important Museums (such as the Musée d’Archéologie nationale at Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington). Artifacts from  Montguillain are displayed in important textbooks (Mortillet’s Musée préhistorique and  Bordes’ Typologie du Paléolithique ancien et moyen). Of course some of them cumulated in the collections of early collectors.

In his book: “Le préhistorique: Antiquité de l’homme” G. de Mortillet gave the first (and last) account about the material from Montguillain. He wrote:

“Dans la vallée de l’Oise, une localité célèbre qui a donné de très belles pièces, avec une magnifique patine toute particulière, est la ballastière de Montguillain à Goincourt (Oise). Les silex moustériens y abondent : racloirs, pointes, types Levallois, scies, lames, nucléus et percuteurs ; industrie complète. Mais il y a certainement divers niveaux dans cette ballastière. On y trouve d’assez nombreux instruments chelléens. La belle collection Baudon, à Mouy, en contient depuis 51 millimètres jusqu’à 318 millimètres de long. On y rencontre aussi des lames et grattoirs qui doivent être rapportés au magdalénien, et même quelques grattoirs et pointes de flèche du robenhausien. Malheureusement cet important gisement a été exploité par de simples ouvriers, sans qu’on l’ait jamais étudié sérieusement”.- this remains unfortunately true till now…..

Bifacial scrapers are components of the European Middle Paleolithic  and incorporated into different systems- especially into the Quina system in S/W-France (Fig.2) , the Quina Mousterian of the Rhone Valley, the bifacial Mousterian of N/W- France and the Keilmessergruppen (KMG) of Central and East Europe.

Most classic “Mousterian” assemblages, both in western and central Europe, are characterised by a almost completely lack of bifacial tools. In some assemblages bifacial scrapers or handaxes may be present, but never in large number (Gouzeaucourt layer G;  MIS8). Only from MIS5 onwards, in the MTA, are handaxes and other bifacial tools more common . The MTA handaxes are thin, symmetric and (sub)cordiform or (sub)triangular in shape . Several regional MTA variants can be recognised represented by cordiform handaxes in southwestern France, triangular handaxes in northern France  and bout-coupé handaxes in England. Furthermore a rich bifacial Mousterian with small handaxes is recognised in western Europe. In the  latter bifacial scrapers are rather common (Saint-Brice-sous-Rânes, la “Bruyère” (Orne), Saint-Julien de la Liègue (Eure)).(

In contrast to the Mousterian, which almost totally lacks bifacial elements, a high occurrence of bifacial tools is the defining character of the Keilmessergruppen (KMG). In general the KMG “type fossils” are Keilmesser (asymmetric bifacial backed scraper-knives) together with Faustkeilblätter (artefacts with a finely retouched point, blunt base and one face which is flat and covering retouched), Halbkeile (elongated unifaces with a D-shaped cross-section) and Fäustel (small bifaces (<6cm) ). These bifacial elements are most often asymmetric. Besides handaxes, bifacial scrapers and leaf-shaped bifacial scrapers (Figure 3: from the Lichtenberg site; MIS3)are also very common whilst leaf points only appear sporadically.

Most of the KMG sites of central Europe were excavated long ago and lack high resolution data (except data from the Sesselfelsgrotte,  the Kulna cave and from recent excavations from Poland). In contrast, sites on the Crimean Peninsula  and northern Caucasus, excavated more recently give a much more differentiated picture of this  technocomplex.

The Eastern KMG assemblages of the Northwestern Caucasus and the Crimean Peninsula, excavated and analyzed during the last 25 years were widespread in these regions in the time range from late MIS 5/MIS 4 through MIS 3, from ~90 to 40 ka BP. Many studies indicate that local Neanderthal groups were well adapted to various local environments, including cold and dry steppes, upper mountain wood zone, forest-steppes with mid-mountain woods, and broad-leaf woods . During this long period, the local Neanderthal population preserved a strict lineage of socially transmitted behaviour related to manufacturing of bifacial scraper-knives.

At Kabazi V, a site on the Crimean Peninsula with interstrartifications of Levallois-Mousterian and KMG strata, the dynamic transformation of the shape of bifacial tools, and therefore their typological definitions was reconstructed. Bifacial Leaf-shaped bifacial scrapers where the second common artifacts in some KMG-strata. Some of them look very similar to the one example shown in this post. After production, which could start with a reworked bifacial knife of small handaxe, the were used, mainly for butchering and reutilized after they were broken in the course of production and/or exploitation and this transformation resulted in important changes of the initial typological structure of tool-kits.

In other words, the categories of handaxes, KMGs, partial bifaces and bifacial scrapers are in fact inseparable parts of an underlying chaîne opératoire of biface manufacture and the typological results vary according to the precise social and economic circumstances of each technical act.

Bifacial scrapers are present in  Quina ensembles of S/W-France  but never in large number. Quina ensembles are usually dominated by single side-scrapers and transverse scrapers with typical Quina- type, stepped retouch. The function of large bifacial “scrapers” within the Quina system was recently studied at Chez-Pinaud Jonzac in the Charente- Maritime department of southwest France. What was particularly striking, however, about the scrapers was that many of them are made on bifacial blanks. Therefore these implements served as cores.

These data fit well with the results of Émilie Claude, who compared MTA bifaces with bifacial Quina scrapers:  MTA bifaces were often used as butchering instruments while bifacial Quina scrapers were mainly used as cores.

Handaxe from Le Bois-l’Abbé at Saint-Julien de la Liègue: Is the “Moustérien à petits bifaces dominants” an Archaeological Reality?

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500 k.a. of human settlement of the Atlantic façade of Iberia


This is one of the many non dated handaxes made from quartzite, found in the Tagus valley in Portugal.  Although the Lower Paleolithic occupation of the Iberia peninsula is now well documented in several contexts, particularly by the archeological findings of the Sierra de Atapuerca region, the early Paleolithic, located in Portugal  is characterized mainly by surface assemblages. This holds true for “Chopper / Chopping tool” sites on the Portuguese littoral (Acafora, Magoito, Praia da Aguda, Laredo das Corchas, and Leifio) that are said to be Lower Pleistocene and numerous, putatively Middle Pleistocene, handaxe ensembles.

The Almonda karstic system opens the window for reviewing 500 k.a. of human settlement of the Atlantic façade of Iberia. The Almonda karstic system is located in the Central Limestone Massif of Estremadura, formed by an ensemble of interconected cavities associated with the spring of the Almonda River. Here, collapsed cave entrances connected to a  network of underground passages document the successive stages of the spring’s downward migration. These ancient outlets were identifed through geophysics-aided speleo- archeological exploration of the system, and some of them have been meretricious excavated. Speleothems formed in the interior passages through the Pleistocene and can be dated by U-series (Diffusion/Adsorption). The Middle Pleistocene is a crucial time period for studying human evolution in Europe, because it marks the appearance of both fossil hominins ancestral to the later Neandertals and the Acheulean technology. Nevertheless, European sites containing well-dated human remains associated with an Acheulean toolkit remain scarce. The Almonda karstic system is one of these sites.

So far, the excavated and dated loci relate to: three moments of the Lower Paleolithic (Entrada Superior, Entrada do Vale da Serra, Gruta da Aroeira), the  Middle Paleolithic (Gruta da Oliveira), the Solutrean and the Magdalenian (Galeria da Cisterna and Lapa dos Coelhos), later Prehistory (Galeria da Cisterna), and a Pleistocene hyena den (Gruta do Pinheiro).

The Galeria Pesada Cave (Gruta da Aroeira) in the Almonda karstic system is located in a south-facing cliff. The excavation of this site started in the early 1990ies and the currently published data indicate the existence of a series of geological units within the brecciated deposits. These units present five stratigraphic layers that yielded a dense quantity of lithic and bone remains. The abundant faunal assemblage records species that suggest a late Middle Pleistocene age for the upper part of the Galeria Pesada deposits, indicated by the presence of Corvus cf. antecorax, which became extinct at the end of the Middle Pleistocene.

The numerical dates of a Equus aff. and Mosbachensis tooth which provided an ESR date of ca 241  k.a. corroborate these assumptions. The bone record of this site contains  human remains (Aroeira 1 and 2) . Two archaic human teeth, a mandibular canine and a maxillary third molar, have been recovered and considered has being similar to those of other Middle Pleistocene European humans, though no more precise identification on a species level has been accomplished. The lithic assemblage of Galeria Pesada, essentially made on local raw materials (quartzite, quartz, flint and limestone) contains some Handaxes considered as typical Acheulian. The Levallois method is present, but not as extensively as the discoid one and the excavators underline the important component of small asymmetric bifacial tools, partly bifacial tools and bifacial retouched knives, that are, from a morphological point of view, typical of the Micoquian (Keilmessergruppe; KMG) of central Europe. Despite the striking morphological resemblance, the excavators stated that ‘‘while it may be tempting to proclaim possible connection, such seem highly unlikely”. Within Iberia, there are simply no comparable assemblages of any age. At the moment, the Galeria Pesada assemblages stand alone. According to the extensive cut marks and other modifications found on faunal bones, extensive butchering and defleshing took place in the site; the assemblages may represent the material remains of, if not base camps, than of camp sites where a range of activities took place.

Deeper in the stratigraphy, during MIS11, a human cranium (Aroeira 3)  dating to 390–436 ka provides important evidence on Acheulean-bearing hominins. The human remains were found together with a classical Acheulian. This cranium ( Aroeira 3) is represented by most of the right half of a calvarium (with the exception of the missing occipital bone) and a fragmentary right maxilla preserving part of the nasal floor and two fragmentary molars. The combination of traits in the Aroeira 3 cranium with affinities to H. Heidelbergensis,  Homo steinheimensis  and the hominin from Bilzingsleben points to a high diversity in the European Middle Pleistocene hominin record.

Plains animals, namely horse, aurochs, rhino and red deer, form the bulk of hunted game through the entire Paleolithic. Rabbit, birds and tortoise are present through both the Aroeira and the Oliveira sequences, but so far only the tortoise remains from Oliveira show evidence of having been collected and processed by humans. Burnt bone is found in association with anthropogenic faunal assemblages in the basal deposit of Aroeira, ca. 400 ka, and is ubiquitous through the 70,000 years covered by the Middle Paleolithic sequence of Oliveira.

Gruta da Oliveira was discovered in 1989, the site was excavated until 2012 by J. Zilhão. Its 9 m-thick archaeo-stratigraphic sequence is sealed by a thick colmatation breccia and the stone tool assemblages found therein are of Middle Palaeolithic technology from top to bottom. Made on flint, quartz and quartzite, these assemblages are associated with abundant faunal and microfaunal remains. Fragmentary Neandertal fossils were also found in a number of stratigraphic units.Combined with the results of radiocarbon, TL and U-series dating, stratigraphic constraints suggest that the upper part of the sequence (layers 7-12) is of MIS3 age, its middle part (layers 13-14) of MIS4 age, and its lower part (layers 15-27) of MIS5 age.

Hearths were found at the base of layer 14, dated to MIS4, and in layer 21, stratigraphically constrained to MIS5. The layer 21 feature has a diameter of ca.1.5 m, was excavated into the underlying sediment along half of its periphery, and contained large amounts of burnt bone.

The percentage of formal tools, mostly notches and denticulates, is very low. The Levallois method is common. A nearly complete Levallois reduction sequence could be refitted from the lithics scattered around the layer 21 hearth, corroborating the integrity of the context.

Cleavers made on flakes, and hand-axes — are selectively found in low numbers in layers 19-17 (MIS5). This pattern suggests that their production is a temporally discrete phenomenon and, hence, a distinctive feature of the late MIS 5 stone tool assemblages of the region, with possible relationship with the cleaver-yielding assemblages from Northern Spain. Here  numerous sites with flake cleavers ( the “Vasconian”) have been assigned to MIS 5 based on geological or sedimentological evidence and MIS3 by AMS C-14 , TL or OSL.

The Galeria da Cisterna yielded an ensemble of human remains in Pleistocene remnant deposits radiocarbon–dated to the later part of the Magdalenian, in good agreement with their scarce stone tool and faunal content. The archeological context also includes a set of perforated shell beads, suggesting that the human remains entered the site as a result of burial practices.

Chopper from Praia da Agudan

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Backed Handaxes during the Acheulian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in the southern Beqaa valley the assemblage of Joub  Jannine 1 exhibits trihedrals, some cleavers, cortical backed bifaces and may be 500k.a. old. This age estimation of surface material is based on typological consideration.

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

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

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

The Acheulian of the Menashe Hills (Israel)

The invention of Hafting and Backing

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The complex use-life of Middle Paleolithic tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Early Dynastic / Predynastic Flint Animal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested Readings: 

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

Gebelein in: Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt

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Silkrete MSA Artifact from Tankwa Karoo (South Africa)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story of Levallois Points

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


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The MTA of the Plateaux near the Middle Vézère Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested Readings:

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

A small Handaxe from Fontmaure (Vienne)

A thick retouched Aurignacian blade from Meyrals / Périgord Noir

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