At the Shores of Europe: Acheulian in the Gargano


This is limestone handaxe from the Gargano region in Southern Italy. This region is not far away from the Venosa site in the South (see last post).

The Gargano is an almost entirely mountainous headland; it reaches a maximum altitude of 1055 m (Monte Calvo) and extends into the Adriatic Sea for several kilometers. The inner areas are cut by the deep valley of the Carbonara fault, crossing the promontory from West to East; karst processes shaped the calcareous bedrock, creating wide surfaces carved by dolines, the greatest of which is the huge Dolina Pozzatina, near the town of San Nicandro Garganico. The eastern coastline of the promontory shows a number of deeply carved Pleistocene fluvial valleys. During the middle Pleistocene these valleys showed temperate open landscapes with small rivers, crowded with a lot of potential prey.  To give you an impression about the beauty of the region nowadays, I display a picture taken in 2012 from the cliffed rocky coast near Mattinata at the end of this post.

Early, Middle and Upper Paleolithic sites are well represented in the Gargano ( For the Gargano and S/E Italy, the Grotta Paglicci at Rignano Garganico represents undoubtedly one of the reference cave sequences, both for archaeological and palaeoenvironmental implications. The Paleolithic sequence is about 8 m thick, subdivided into 26 units and begins with a late Acheulian (OIS6/7?) followed by a Quina Mousterian, a typical Aurignacian and a wonderful early Gravettian, with the oldest strata dated between 29 and 27 k.a. BP. Several evolved Gravettian and Epigravettian layers complete the stratigraphy.

Numerous (about 400) handaxes of unknown age are reported from surface sites in the Gargano region and some are shown at the charming Archaeological Museum in Lucera (Fogga). For biface production,  our ancestors used the local flint (for example at  Paglicci), but many handaxes shown at the Lucera museum,  are made of local limestone.

Early and Early–Middle Pleistocene archaeological sites provide data about human dispersals into Europe from at least 1.2 Ma. Up to now, the fragmentary archaeological record indicates only sporadic hominid presence, with punctuated migration “waves” not necessarily leading to colonization. A more consistent pattern of colonization in Europa is visible only after 600-500 k.a. BP during the Acheulian.

The oldest handaxes in South Europa come from Murcia (Southern Spain) and are geochronological dated between 780-900 k.a. BP. Interestingly they also were made of limestone, like some flake based contemporaneous industries at Atapuerca. The appearance of such handaxes does not differ from other early handaxes made from chert or quartzite and thus the raw material was not the only determinant for their outlines. It remains unclear if the use of limestone was the consequence of a limited radius of H. Heidelbergensis and the unavailability of other raw materials or if limestone had  characteristics, that made this kind of material attractive for the production of bifaces.

Millstone grit is hard, resistant and impermeable sandstone and was preferable used for handaxes and cleavers at the Noira site in Central France. This site provides evidence of an early Acheulean presence in Non-Mediterranean Europe at ca 700 k.a. BP and modifies our current vision of the initial peopling of northern Europe (

The handaxe shown here has an almost identical pendant, a limestone biface from the Middle Pleistocene levels  at the Grotte de l’Observatoire (Monaco; >230 k.a. BP; succession:  Acheulian-Mousterian-Protoaurignacian). It is obvious, that knapping handaxes from elongated limestone pebbles, produced similar results:

(Siliceous) limestone was rarely used during the Acheulian in Europe, but at some sites limestone was the abundant raw-martial (Terra Amata Site in  present-day Nice, dated to 230-400 k.a. BP: ). Some examples come from Venosa (see the last post). Two examples from the Middle Pleistocene are known from Germany (Steinheim,  Stuttgart Bad-Cannstatt).  Limestone bifaces in abundance were found in India (Hunsgi and Baichbal; maybe 600 k.a. BP) and in North Africa (for example Cap Chatelier / Casablanca). I have no idea, what made this raw material attractive  for early hominids, but siliceous limestone is not always a “soft” material. The raw material from the Gargano handaxe of this post, for example, resembles homogeneous chert, which seems to hold true for the Grotte de l’Observatoire handaxe, too. Otherwise such implements would not have survived some 100 k.a. in the Archaeological record.

Suggested Readings:


1. Near Mattinata 2006

2. Sample from the Acheulian at Grotte de l’Observatoire (source unknown)


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2 Responses to At the Shores of Europe: Acheulian in the Gargano

  1. Eytan Moor says:

    This mail is does not concern the article above directly. I wanted to thank you for putting all this information on the net. As an enthusiast of human evolution, the paleolithic and stone tools, I am always looking for something new to read, and your site has a lot to offer. I am Israeli and especially interested in early paleolithic of the region and the rest of the world. I also have a small but interesting collection of stone artifacts (not trying to sell anything), most of is old and middle paleolithic. Thanks again. I will keep following the discussion and join it if I have anything to add.

  2. Katzman says:

    Hi Eytan,
    Good to know, that there are people outside who share my continuous interest for the Paleolithic / Epipaleolithic of Israel and the adjacent areas. Comments are always welcome!

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