To Be or not to Be Aterian

Middle Paleolithic (Middle Stone Age) Ensembles of Northern Africa have been found over a vast area, reaching from the Mediterranean to the Southern Margins of the Sahara, and from the Maghreb to the Nile Valley. Nowadays there is a broad agreement, that the local MSA has been produced by early modern Humans. Toolkits with tanged instruments and bifacial foliates are called “Aterian” Ensembles. It is entirely unclear if ensembles without this traits indicate populations with a  behavour different from the Aterians, or not.

aterianAlthough a great number of surface scatters are known in Northern Africa, the Middle Stone Age chronology of this region is poorly known because of the paucity of sites with a long stratigraphy and the limited number of available radiometric dates.

According to early C-14 results, the North African MSA / Aterian was originally dated to only 40-20 k.a BP, which perfectly supported the Eurocentric interpretation that the major transitions of humanity occurred in Europe and were later adapted by African people. In addition many C-14 dates were < 40 k.a. BP, mainly by the shortcomings of the early C-14 technique, which required large samples of organic remains and a inevitable contamination of these bulk samples by younger  material.

The important site of Haua Fteah provided dates for an Aterian occupation at 47 000 +/ – 3200 BP, but these dates were considered as an anomaly  at their time. Only the younger dates were thought to be reliable because they fitted well into the “Europe first” paradigm.

Triggered by new results from about the age of the MSA elsewhere in Africa and with the advent of adequate and C-14 independent dating techniques (OSL, TL and Uranium), which were applied to some of the most promising North African sites, the situation changed fundamentally. I will review important results of these investigations :

  •  Grotte des Pigeons (Taforalt, Morocco): Cave with 10m thick deposits spanning over 100 k.a. At the base , of the MSA sequencean Aterian industry is dated to > 82 k.a. Over 40 perforated Nassarius beads are known from these layers.
  •  Mugharet el ‘Aliya (Atlantic coastal Morocco 9 km west of Tangier): Layer 10: Sterile  sand deposition; Layer 9:  “Levallois-Mousterian” without tanged pieces ; Layer 6/5: a typical and rich Aterian. The TL-dates are beyond the limits of the C-14 technique and at least 35-60 k.a old.
  • Rhafas Cave (northeast Morocco approximately 50km from the coast): Cave with a 4.5-m stratigraphic sequence. A basal MSA without tanged artifacts was dated between > 100 k.a and 90–80k.a. The first tanged tools appeared at about 70-80 k.a (layer 3a), at the end of OIS 5 or during early OIS 4. Layer 3a is followed by layer 2 (Aterian)  . One Nassarius bead in situ has been recorded from layer 3a.
  •  Ifri n’Ammar (Morocco): A cave located 59 km from the Mediterranean coast, close to Hassi Ouenzga. A consistent series of TL-dates are available for the long MSA sequence. Layer “Upper OS”, 1 meter thick, contains tanged items as well as Nassarius beads and is dated to 83.3 ± 5.6 k.a. Layer “Lower OS” is 0.7-m thick, lacking tanged pieces, and is dated to 130.0 ± 7.8 k.a. “Upper OI”, 0.3-m thick, which again contains tanged items, is dated to 145 ± 9 ka. The base of the sequence (Lower OI) again lacking tanged objects is dated to 171 ± 12 ka.
  • Contrebandiers cave was discovered in 1956 is located on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, along the coastal highway connecting Casablanca and Rabat. This site is near to other important caves in the Temara Region including: Dar es-Soltan I/II, El Mnasra and El Harhoura I/II.  The Aterian levels at Contrebandiers are about 110 k.a. old. Recently the skull and partial skeleton of a 7- or 8-year-old child were found in these layers, belonging to an early Homo sapiens.
  •  Dar es-Soltan I was excavated by Armand Ruhlmann of the Inspection des Antiquities du Maroc in the 1930s. Excavations were continued in the 1990ies. The cave is situated on the Atlantic coast of Morocco near the Rabat. It is at least 43 meters deep with a thickness of at least 8 meters of deposits. Occupations in the cave include three MSA layers and one Neolithic occupation. The lower two MSA include tanged points and foliates (“Aterian”), while the younger occupation did not. Radiometric dates from the last excavations, showed that the Aterian started much earlier than once thought. The oldest occupation has an 0IS 5 age (110-120 k.a. BP).
  • Dar es-Soltan II, discovered in 1969 is another west facing cave 80 meters from Dar es-Soltan I with MSA material. 
  • El Mnasra was discovered in 1960. The Aterian levels, dated are dated between 80-110 k.a. BP. These levels contain many well preserved closed fireplaces and the first bone industry ever found in a secure Aterian context.
  • El Harhoura I was discovered in 1976 and El Harhoura II in 1977. While the lower strata of El Harhoura I revealed only few MSA artifacts, the archaeological material from El Harhoura is abundant. Levels 3 to 11 are assigned to the MSA (Aterian).
  •  The Jebel Gharbi (also known as Jebel Nafusah) is located in North-Western Libya on the Tripolitanian plate. The stratigraphy was studied at Wadi Ghan, Ras el Wadi, and Shakshuk. Here an earlier MSA without tanged points is followed by a hyperarid period, most probably representing OIS 4 (70-60 k.a.). The Arterian is older than 43,5 k.a BP and associated with OIS 3 deposits
  • At Uan Tabu rockshelter in the in the Tadrart Acacus, Libyan Sahara, The deepest deposits (Unit 3) indicate the sporadic presence of Aterian hunters, between approximately 90 and 69 k.a BP. according to TL and OSL dates.
  • The Bir Tarfawi depression in the western Desert in Egypt has a long stratigraphic sequence showing a series of wet periods separated by arid episodes of varying magnitude. The Bir Tarfawi during the time of the Middle Paleolithic was a landscape containing permanent lakes. Acheulean tools have been found around 250 k. a (OIS7). The earliest Levallois-Mousterian is dated to 200 k.a BC. The Aterian has been dated to > 45 k.a BP
  •  Kharga Oasis in the western Desert has a long history of research originally published by Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Elinor W. Gardner (Caton-Thompson 1952). Beginning in 1987, members of the Dakhleh Oasis Project,  have relocated many of the prehistoric sites originally published by Gertrude Caton-Thompson. They were able to establish a radiometric dating program with the following results:
  1. Refuf “Locus V” (REF-002), “Upper Acheulian” sensu stricto in gravels underlying “Tufa 1”; capping tufa >400,000 Uyrs (beyond dating range).
  2. Refuf “Locus IV” (REF-004), “Lower Levalloisian” in sediments associated with, and underlying “Tufa 3”; tufa lens in section, 198,000 ± 5,000 Uyrs; capping tufa, 240,000 ± 5,000 Uyrs; Isochron = 220,000 ± 20,000 Uyrs.
  3. Refuf “Locus VII” (REF-003), “Upper Levalloisian” in sediments underlying “Tufa 4”; capping tufa 125,000 ± 1,600 Uyrs.
  4. Matana,“Site G” (MT-002), later “Upper Levalloisian” (speculatively, “proto-Aterian”) in sediments between tufas; capping tufa, 103,000 ± 14,000 Uyrs (Fig. 4).
  5. The Aterian Unit is dated between 100-50 k.a. BP. (After: Maxine R. Kleindienst et al.)
  •  Dakhleh Oasis in the western Desert: The results are very similar to the findings at Kharga

These new data tell us, that the MSA in North Africa can be dated back to at least 200 k.a and the Aterian began at least at 145 k.a BP. The oldest trace of an archaic Homo sapiens is a 160,000-year-old skull from Jebel Irhoud in Morocco.

During the OIS 5e, 120-130 k.a BP, the landscape changed dramatically. The Sahara Desert became a land of lakes and rivers. Libya, Chad, Tunisia, and Egypt were dotted with huge “megalakes” connected with a dense network of river corridors which could have supported human migrations across the landscape. This situation resembles the conditions during the early Holocene, already described in an earlier post. During the OIS4 dry conditions returned and the last Aterian sites in the Sahara are dated to about 60 k.a BP. At the Mediterranean coast, the MSA persisted until about 40 k.a BP.

The “Aterians” seem to be as behaviorally sophisticated as other early modern humans in other parts of Africa. They produced tanged artifacts whith a strong laminar component, which makes only sense when if used as a part of composite tools. In addition the Aterians provide some of the first examples of symbolic behaviour during the human evolution and used  pierced shells most likely as personal ornaments. If these populations contributed to the genetic pool of modern Humans  that  moved “out of Africa” at 50 k.a BP is unknown, but possible.

Suggested Reading:–Balter+Science+news.pdf?SGWID=0-0-45-1058837-p173624756




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