The forgotten Paleolithic heritage of Tunisia


aggsbachs gafsa

This post displays several chert MSA tools from different surface scatters from the Gafsa area (Literary Arabic: قفصة Qafṣah ; Tunisian Arabic: ‎ [ˈqɑfsˤɑ] Qafṣa , southern accent: [ˈɡɑfsˤɑ] Gafṣa ), originally called Capsa in Latin, which is the capital of Gafsa Governorate of Tunisia. It lends its Latin name to the Epipaleolithic Capsian culture.  MSA / Aterian scatters are also common in this area.

Many Paleolithic sites in Africa are located at artesian springs or groundwater upwellings. The wetter climates may have provided preferred landscapes that were periodically inhabitable by Pleistocene hominids.

A unique Acheulian spring site was found at Amanzi, near Uitenhage in the south-eastern Cape; South Africa. Several occupations, in part relatively undisturbed, were located around marshy and well-vegetated spring eyes, at a time of accelerated artesian discharge.

Much work has been conducted in the dating of spring sediments in the Oases of the Western Desert in Egypt. The episodes of higher humidity and consecutive  lake expansion and regression suggest the presence of habitable landscapes from around 400,000 years ago until after 100,000 years ago, corresponding to fluctuating global climates between OIS 11-OIS 3.

Iron-rich sediments in Dakhleh Oasis, Western Desert of Egypt, have been recognized as spring mounds and as archaeological sites where Paleolithic materials (Acheulian and Middle Paleolithic /MSA assemblages) have been recovered.  The spring mounds of Dakhleh Oasis represent a shallow-water, bog-like environment that existed prior to lacustrine development in the oasis. This landscape was utilized in some manner by all Paleolithic groups, as indicated by the recovery of artifacts from spring mound vents and sediments.  In the eastern basin Acheulian and MSA materials have been found within spring sediments at several different vents, whereas in the western basin artifacts belonging to several different Middle Paleolithic phases have been excavated from a single vent.

At Bir Tarfawi, southern Egypt, Acheulian and MSA artifact assemblages were typically found in sands that underlie deposits composed of high amounts of carbonate or fine muds indicative of expanding lakes and wetter climates. At Kharga oasis, first discovered and analyzed by Gertrude Caton-Thompson in the 1920s, the same holds true for the Acheulian and MSA deposits.

Sidi Zin, in Northern Tunisia, is a site where rich “Upper Acheulian” assemblages (undated) and fossil faunal remains were recovered by Gobert from deposits laid down in and around the pool of a spring at the confluence of two ravines. There are three Acheulian horizons plus a MSA horizon in the capping tufa. The Acheulian assemblages differ from each other in a manner that seems to involve both style and perhaps activity and function. The faunal remains, which seem to be food-refuse, include elephant, rhinoceros, an equine (Equus mauritanicus), aurochs, gnu, Bubalis, gazelle and barbary sheep.The small number of rather crudely made artifacts ascribed to the Middle Stone Age include side-scrapers, thick points, three small bifaces and several abruptly retouched pieces of flint. Here 2 pages of Gobert’s report from 1960 (Fig 2: E.G. Gobert: Le gisement Paléolithique de Sidi Zin avec une notice sur la faune par le Pr. R. Vaufrey. Carthago, n°1, 1950).


Several important Tunisian MSA-sites are associated with artesian springs and certainly provide an exceptional archaeological potential. Data from renewed excavations at these sites  are urgently awaited.

A enigmatic structure of approximately 60 spheroidal stone balls which formed a regular cone 75 cm high and 1,50 m in diameter was recovered from a fossil spring at the site of El-Guettar. Mixed in with it were a large number of retouched flint tools and manufacturing waste together with many teeth, splinters and pounded fragments of bone. The circumference at the base appeared to have been ringed by a number of larger stones. While a few flint balls had been placed on at the top of the pile; all others were limestone spheres. They had diameters ranging between 4·5 and 18·0 cm. The smaller and more regular were at the top while the stone heap base, larger, were only roughly spherical. Most of these spheroids were natural, and only a few had been regularized by picketing. . Notably, the excavator did not find such pebbles in the immediate vicinity of the deposit. It is suggested that the pile could indicate some ritual / symbolic behavior.  Less appealingly, but not impossibly, it could be an accumulation of occupation waste that had either fallen into the eye from an adjacent living-floor, or been intentionally piled in the spring since, if this lay within a fissure well below the surface, it might have been necessary to have a place to stand to collect the water.

Several MSA strata were reported from the site. Levallois cores, Levallois flakes, blades  and retouched tools were present in varying amounts: Scrapers (simple, double, convergent, dejete), Mousterian points, denticulated tools and a single tanged Aterian point in the lowermost level. Leaving the one tanged point aside the technocomplex would be described as a Levallois Mousterian (in European terms: type Ferrassie). Some small Handaxes, similar to the one shown in this post,  were also present.

The pollen diagram from the El-Guettar clearly shows that the Mediterranean vegetation was able to spread into southern Tunisia during MSA times whereas the site today is on the border between plateau and desert steppe. This holds also true for the  Pollen counts from the Oued el-Akarit site, east of El-Guettar and on the coast, which similarly show the presence of Mediterranean-type forest.

tunisia aggsbachIn Tunisia, there are several very similar MSA assemblages without any or with a negligible quantity of “Aterian (tanged) ” tools, found stratified within chott (salt lake) deposits, partly cut through by spring activity and intercalated with the sandy deposits. The most prominent is that from Ain Metherchem.

Here different methods of the Levallois technique were used (preferential, recurrent, un- and bipolar and centripetal) for the production of simple, convergent and double scrapers, Mousterian points and only two pedunculated  tools.

Recent field prospecting and tests in the Meknassy Basin (Central Tunisia) have revealed many prehistoric sites; among these, some belong to the MSA. The potential of these new sites seems to be promising.  Maybe these new and renewed excavations of the “old” sites will help to resolve open chronological questions and help to clarify the old question if the “Aterian” is only a facies of  a general North African MSA or has to be seen as an independent  technocomplex.

Fig. 1: Biface  and triangular scraper  (also shown in Fig. 3) on  Levallois flake (patinated Flint)

The enigmatic stone heap at El-Guettar:

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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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