The Aterian: Do not forget the tangs!

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These are Aterian artifacts from a surface scatter at Jbeïlat mountain in Mauritania (a tanged point, a thick non-Levallois blade and a foliated artifact).

Historically, the “Mousterian” of North Africa was classified as a Middle Paleolithic including side scrapers, notches and denticulates, and occasionally Mousterian points, burins, and endscrapers. The Levallois and Discoidal techniques are well attested. The Aterian, which reportedly extends from the Atlantic coast almost to the Nile Valley and from the Mediterranean coast to the southern Sahara, includes these same elements, but also exhibits types not seen regularly in other “Mousterian” contexts, namely tanged or stemmed artifacts, and some bifacial foliates, not dissimilar to those that occur in the Nubian Mousterian and in the Still Bay and Lupemban industries of sub-Saharan Africa.

What is most amazing, that the highly specific tanged technology of Aterian ensembles, that was never used again during prehistory after the demission of this technocomlex, appeared and repeatedly reappeared over ca 100 k.a. This should kept and not discussed away (in the sense that this specific tanging  is meaningless) when new paradigms about the Aterian are formulated. An explicit theory about the  Maghrebian Mousterian should explain the fact of specific tanging over such a large time frame.

 During the last decade of research it became clear that:

  • The Aterian In N-Africa is older than previously thought (145-40 k.a. BP).
  • The Aterian was created by early H. sapiens and the material culture displays some of the same intriguing characteristics seen in contemporaneous sub-Saharan assemblages, including the use of perforated Nassarius shells, distinctive and sophisticated lithic elements and the use of ochre.
  • The Aterian and “Mousterian” in the Maghreb are interstratified and the succession of an “undifferentiated” Mousterian towards a “differentiated” Aterian has been falsified. Therefore many researchers propose, that the Maghrebian Mousterian should be considered as a type of Aterian without tanged pieces and foliates.

  There remain a lot of open questions for further research:

  • We need a better definition of the operational sequences both of “Mousterian” and “Aterian” ensembles including refitting strategies.
  • What exactly is the behavioral meaning of producing tanged artifacts and foliates?
  • We need a technological and typological comparison between the Maghrebian Middle Paleolithic and the European Mousterian, Levantine Mousterian, Nubian Complex and MSA using ensembles from modern excavations. This will help to clarify, together with genetic data, the genesis of the  Maghrebian technocomplexes.
  • We need more surveys for open air sites with intact stratigraphies.
  • In what sense are the “Maghrebian Mousterian” and “Aterian” parts of a larger MSA phenomenon? 

After I had written this post I got access to a great paper, addressing some of these questions: Eleanor Scerri The Aterian and its place in the North African Middle Stone Age 

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