Transport of raw materials during the Middle Paleolithic

fontmaure aggsbach reviewThis is a 5 cm long  Handaxe from Fontmaure ( Vienne; France). The large and intensively occupied site was located directly on exposure of high quality jasper (secondary colored Upper Cretaceous flint; color oscillating from red to yellow, often multicolored). The coincidence between raw material and the occurrence of the richer and intensively occupied open-air sites is one of the most striking characteristics of Middle Paleolithic site distributions in SW France (Turq 1988).

The Fontmaure site was first recognized in 1905, plundered by amateurs until 1935, and finally destructed by quarry operations. Artifacts from the site represent a long time span between the Acheulian and the Neolithic. Many non patinated blades in collections for example are not from the Mousterian but rather from the Neolithic.

While the modern viewer is fascinated by the beauty of Fontmaure-artifacts, made from local jasper, it has to be questioned if the Neanderthals were equally intrigued by this inhomogeneous material, which is difficult to knap. Pradel noticed that the flint of Grand Pressigny (about 35 km away from Fontmaure) was also used in remarkable quantities at the Fontmaure site. During the earlier MTA about 2/3 of the artifacts were made from jasper while almost all Mousterian “points” were made from Grand Pressigny flint. During the “Mousterien a lames” 4/5 of the artifacts are from local jasper and about 50% of the “points” are made from Grand Pressigny flint (Pradel 1967).

It was clearly the Grand Pressigny flint, which was easier to work, that had a larger distribution, during the Middle Paleolithic in the Vienne area. Only a hand full of Middle Paleolithic tools made from Fontmaure jaspers are known distant from the site and they were found to be situated never more than 50 km away. Most of these findings are from a radius of 5 km around the site (for example: Leigné-sur-Usseau ).

This distribution fits exactly into the almost universal pattern that exists for the Middle Palaeolithic lithic raw material procurement in Europe. According to Féblot-Augustin (1993, 1997) 60–98 % of all lithic materials including cores and blanks came from within 5 km of all the sites; usually 1–2 of materials came from 5- 30 km distance from the sites and consisted mainly of tools and blanks; A few entirely finished tools consistently were made on materials from 20 or 30 to 100 or even 300 km away.

The Quina-Mousterian site of Champ Grand in the Loire Valley between the Paris Basin and Massif Central for example  features ten raw materials (1% of the assemblage, but numbering 568 artifacts) that were found to originate from sources >80km distant in several different directions (Slimak and Giraud 2007). The estimated distances include 180-200 km northwards from the site, and c. 240 km southwards, the latter actually a minimum value due to straight-line crossing of mountains and high plateaus.

Anyhow, during the Middle Paleolithic  transfers >200 km are rare, and more frequent in Central Europe, which may be linked to a more extreme topography and increased continentality in terms of environmental conditions.

What does this pattern mean? The abundance of raw material import from the immediate vicinity is understandable from a practical point view and the assumed absence of containers for transport during the Middle Paleolithic. If we concentrate on long distant transport, I would suggest, that the very small but consistent number of finished  paleolithics derived from more than 50 km, even up to 300  km is most likely the signature of episodic interactions between Neanderthal groups , e.g. during multi-band aggregations or alliance visits. Researchers, who prefer the “cognitively
impaired Neanderthal” model should consider that Neanderthal groups were not as isolated as predicted by their approach.

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