A Handaxe from the Provence: The long way to the Middle Paleolithic in Southern France


provence handaxe aggsbach

This artifact (8,5×6,5×2,5 cm) comes from a surface scatter near Gordes, a typical old town in the Luberon. It can be described either as a “Pebble Tool” or a partial Biface and is made from a smaller cobble of local flint. It was found with several other “choppers” and chopping-tools, made from the same material.

The Vaucluse is the heart of Provence, a region full of light where the sun shines on the landscape all year long. Today, it’s a region of contrasting landscapes from crop lands and vineyards to cedar and oak forests.  The area covers the lower Rhône valley, around Isle sur la Sorgue and Fontaine-de-Vaucluse valley, Mont Ventoux and finally the uplands of the Lubéron, which has a maximum altitude of 1,256 m and an area of about 600 km. Villages like Gordes were often built nestled into the hillsides or on top of hills. Houses were built around the château, and crops and vineyards were planted alongside or in the plains (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordes#mediaviewer/File:Gordes_pano.jpg).

When was Southern Europe reached by our ancestors leaving Africa?  After the “short chronology” of the European colonization has been recently falsified, the Grotte du Vallonnet (1.07 – 0.99 million years), located near Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, between Monaco and Menton, is now generally accepted as one of the earliest sites attesting this colonization process. Such early  sites were detected in the southern half of Europe south of ~48.5° northern latitude and were  characterized by a simple “mode 1” industries comprising hard-hammer flaked cores, flakes and mostly only a few, simple and not standardized flake tools. Homo lived at this time in early Pleistocene Mediterranean habitats or in grassland environments (sites of the Middle Loire valley such as Pont-de-Lavaud, La Chaudronnière, Lunery-Rosières and Pont-de-la-Hulauderie [some examples are: (1.2 – 0.9 million years), France; Ca’Belvedere di Monte Poggiolo (1.0 – 0.8 million years), Italy; levels TD 4-6 from the Gran Dolina at Atapuerca (0.86 – 0.78 million years) Spain].

The “Hinterland” of the Liguro-Provencal costal arch is rich of “chopper / chopping tool”-ensembles with rare bifaces suggested to be of Middle Pleistocene age. Over the time they may increasingly move to industries with bifaces are to ensembles with flake tools, which become abundant at some sites. Although these industries, made on limestone, quartzite and quartz, look “archaic” they may not be as old as formerly thought (certainly not as old as Vallonet).

Acheulean and Mousterian human occupations left an abundant record of lithic productions in the Liguro-Provencal region. An advanced (non-dated) Acheulian ensemble near the Mont Ventoux, rich in Levallois debitage, with convergent scrapers and a laminar component is known from Les Sablons.

Other Acheulean sites in the Largue Valley are equally rich in Levallois debitage. The handaxes are elongated and sometimes follow a Micoquian concept. Elongated Mousterian Points, convergent and déjeté scrapers often with a “Retouche écailleuse scalariforme” (http://www.aggsbach.de/2010/09/the-pitfalls-of-using-scalar-retouches-as-a-cultural-marker/ ) are present.

The site of Carros-le-Neuf is dated to OIS6 and represents a Acheulian rich in Levallois debitage and an ensemble very similar to the Largue Valley sites.  A non-Levallois Acheulian is also present in the non-coastal Provence, for example at la Bastide. It remains open if the absence of the Levallois technique has any diachronic meaning.  In Northern France for example Levallois and Non-Levallois debitage in Acheulian industries is often a synchronous phenomenon.

There is much regional diversity in the archeological record of the Provence already before OIS5 as exemplified by the long stratigraphy of the La Baume Bonne  site. La Baume Bonne site is composed of a rock shelter and a cave, adjacent to each other, on the right bank of the Verdon River. It is located in the Verdon middle gorges, near the Quinson village. It was excavated during three series of field seasons: 1946-1956, 1957-1967 and 1989-1997, under the direction of respectively Bernard Bottet, then Henry de Lumley and finally Jean Gagnepain and Claire Gaillard. Each phase of the work has been published in synthetic articles.

The main interest of la Baume Bonne abodes in its long chrono-stratigraphic and cultural sequence ranging from OIS 10 to OIS 4 and yielding industries from Lower Palaeolithic to typical Middle Palaeolithic. As fauna is rarely and badly preserved, analysis of the very rich lithic material, including nearly 60000 artefacts, provides the essential part of the archaeological data on this site.

The pre-wurmian assemblage  has been described as a “Tayacian” industry (re-designed as: “non-Levallois Acheulian with rare hand-axes” or simply “early Middle Palaeolithic”) characterized by a lack of Levallois production, rare blades, many scrapers, Quina retouch, Tayac points, Quinson points, notches, denticulates and becs, proto-Limaces and choppers. Elaborated handaxes are rare (75 out of over  60000 artefacts) but well made. The artefacts are primarily made in flint/chert which is locally available from the river; however in the lower levels limestone is more common. This  lithic industry appears to show a transition from an scraper rich ensemble with limited Levallois technique  and characterized by a Discoid and Quina system during OIS 8 to one with no bifaces increased quantities of scrapers and more dominant Levallois. The Levallois method first appears at the end of OIS 8, but its main development took place in the second half of OIS 6 and is associated by the use of better quality raw materials.

In the Liguro-Provencal coastal region, which includes the Alpes-Maritimes, Monaco, and the Italian Liguria, many Middle and Upper Pleistocene sites have yielded abundant lithic assemblages attributed to the Acheulean and Mousterian complexes, enabling a synthetic view of the development of these industries and human behaviour.

The main Acheulian sites are in Nice (Terra Amata and Lazaret Cave), Monaco (Observatoire Cave) and Italy (Prince Cave). The last site have yielded only a few lithic artefacts, which did, however, include bifaces.

The open air site of Terra Amata, dated to about 400 k.a. (MIS 11), has been interpreted as a hunting camp for elephant and deer, occupied by a group who had mastered the use of fire and produced an industry where the dominant shaping technique co-existed with essentially unipolar or orthogonal reduction (not yet Levallois). The heavy-duty tools include abundant choppers/chopping-tools, but also picks, bifaces and cleavers, essentially shaped on marly limestone pebbles collected directly at the site. There was, however, a preference for siliceous limestone to produce flakes and as blanks for light-duty retouched tools, as well as non-local flint and even rhyolite which came from rather distant sources, more than 60 km away in the Haut-Var for certain flints and about 40 km away for the Esterel rhyolite.

Lazaret Cave is located on the French Mediterranean coast, in Nice (Alpes-Maritimes), on the western slope of Mount Boron. It is a vast cavity of some 40 m long and 15 m wide, with a ceiling height of 15 m. The archaeological sequence (stratigraphic complex C) is about 5 m thick, and is constituted by a succession of gravel with blocks in a red clayey silt matrix. Excavations conducted by Octobon between 1950 and 1965, and by de Lumley since 1967, have yielded ten hominid remains assigned to pre-Neanderthals (de Lumley, 1973), associated with abundant lithic artifacts and faunal remains. This stratigraphic complex C is divided into three units: CI; CII; CIII. Units CI and CII contain an Acheulian lithic assemblage rich in bifaces. Above this deposit, unit CIII is attributed to a Acheulian-Mousterian transition, with many flake tools without bifaces (de Lumley, 1976; Darlas,1994). The combined U-Th/ESR dating applied to red deer enamel indicates an age between 170 k.a. (CII unit) and ca 130 k.a. (CIII unit), corresponding to MIS 6.

The Acheulian-Mousterian transition at Lazaret shows well elaborated and diversified, are already of Mousterian types. These various characteristics reflect the transition toward the Mousterian technocomplex, a transition that has already been established at some open air sites in the Vaucluse and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence as described before.The origin of some microquartzites from the CIII unit is more than 70 km away, and for the red jasper, more than 180 km away, in the northern Italian Apennines indicate long distance contacts and networks.

provenceSpeaking about general trends in the Provence during OIS8-OIS6 there is a disappearance handaxes and the evolution of flake based techniques and especially the introduction of the Levallois system during OIS6.  The development of long, complex, and varied core reduction sequences is suggested to be the best indicator of changes in the relationship between humans and raw materials, and these changes are considered the best criteria for describing a gradual transition rooted in older flaking traditions.

The handaxe shown here is certainly not a “Pebble tool” but a partial biface. Its small dimension is due to the small size of the raw material. It can be tentatively dated to a time well before the Acheulo-Mousterian transition during OIS 6.

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