Pebble Tools from the Terrasses of the Roussillon

rivesaltes 2 aggsbach

These Artifacts (a “Chopper” and a Polyhedron) were found at the Pleistocene Terrasse de Llabanere near Rivesaltes in Southern France (Pyrénées Orientales).  They come from a larger collection consisting mainly of quartzite and quartz tools, which at first glance look very “archaic” and of course some researchers wanted to describe such ensembles as “Preacheulian” and suggested that they were produced during the Lower/Middle-Pleistocene boundary by the earliest hominides entering South Europe. Anyhow, convincingly, the terasse of Llabanere was formed during the Middle Pleistocene, and therefore the many artifact concentrations of the terasse may not be as old as initially suggested (Giret 2014).

Surface findings from river terasses are notoriously difficult to date. These terasses can only be used as a terminus ante quem. Anyhow, excavated and dated nearby Archaeological sites show (often ambiguous) analogies for an age determination of surface collections. Fortunately the nearby Caune de l’Arago can help us to get an idea about the dating of such artifacts, which were in abundance found at other river terrases in the Roussillon (Terrasse de Cabestany, Terrasse de la Butte du Four, Terasse de Mas Ferreol…).

lllabaniereThe Caune de l’Arago is a large cave site (35 m long and 10 m wide) at Tautavel in southern France, near the town of Perpignan and has been systematically excavated for more than 40 years now and is a model for defining  some characteristics of Middle Pleistocene cave habitats in Southern Europe. The significance of the Cave has been known since 1828, when the famous paleontologist Marcel de Serres found animal bones, and classified them as “antediluvian”. In 1963, following the discovery of prehistoric tools by Jean Abelanet, Henry de Lumley decided to begin excavations at the Arago Cave.

Important climatic fluctuations have been recorded within the cave’s thick stratigraphical sequence, which covers a period from MIS 14 through 5, beginning with a basal stalagmitic floor (700 k.a.). The infill of the cave, most of which is correlated to MIS 14, 13 and 12, has yielded numerous distinct occupation floors, exceptionally rich stone implements and animal fossils, while some of the levels have also yielded hominin remains attributed to Homo Heidelbergensis.

chopper aggsbachThe environment changed over such a long time. We observe humans in harsh climatic conditions and a steppe like environment, populated with reindeer, musk ox and even arctic fox but also warmer and moister condition characterized by fallow or red deer. Large herbivore carcasses were brought into the cave by humans and their bones often show traces of human intervention such as cut marks and systematic breakage whose interpretation reveals the characteristics and evolution of hunting and butchering techniques over time.

Archeologists have tracked several different modes of using the cave by early humans: the long duration habitat, where the cave was used as a home base; the temporary seasonal habitat, in which case the cave served as a secondary campsite; the hunting stopover, during which the cave was used as a refuge for short term stays. Behavioral patterns appear to be directly related to the type of habitat and oriented towards a principal activity: hunting.  Each of these modes is correlated with different modes of land use, procurement of raw materials and lithic production. Silex, quartz and quartzite, coming mainly from nearby procurement areas (5-20 km), were simultaneously used as raw materials. Traces of fire have been found only in the upper part of the sequence at Arago, in archaeological layers that are younger than 350 k.a. No charcoal, no burnt bones, nor any other evidence of fire have been reported from any of the assemblages from the lower levels (dated to MIS 14-12).

Deborah Barsky recently drew attention to the relationship of raw materials and tool types:

  • the largest supports were systematically chosen for the  shaping of retouched tools. This may be explained by the overall scraper dominance in the toolkits and by a  preference for long retouched cutting edges
  • the initial knapping stages for most rock types occurred outside ofthe cave, regardless ofthe distance from which the raw material was collected. Exception is made for limestone, a material reserved for pebble-tool manufacture which does appear to have taken place inside the cave;
  • vein quartz was the preferred raw material among alltechnological and typological groups, in spite ofthe availability of other kinds of rocks nearby. The only exceptions are pebble-tools, made mostly from limestone, and handaxes, made mostly from hornfel;
  • more complex and longer knapping sequences (globular, multiplatform or discoidal core types) were executed on best quality raw materials (flint, quartzite, translucent quartz).


polihedron aggsbachRecently, excavations have reached the so-called ‘‘P’’ levels, attributed to a series of occupation floors accumulated during short-term stays by hominin groups during a cold, dry phase of MIS 14.  It is interesting to consider the precise handiwork and care with which raw materials were selected for the confection of the fine quality instruments typical of the ‘‘P’’ levels” assemblages, whose “Acheulian” character is underlined by a relative abundance of symmetrical and remarkably well-worked handaxes.  “Choppers”, “Chopping tools”, polyhedrons and flake tools (Tayac Points, Quinson Points, Denticulations, Scrapers, some “Protolimaces”) , produced by a non-Levallois technique (“Clacton” , opportunistic and discoidal) were present during most of the  Middle Pleistocene layers. It was not before the Levels G-D (440-400 k.a.), that a technique which could be called “Protolevallois” began to arise.  A poor Mousterian was present during OIS7-5 with incontestable Levallois connotation. Handaxes, although in small numbers (1-5%) , were found during most of the Middle Pleistocaine deposits.

The Mode-2 sequence  and the gradual evolution of an early Middle Paleolithic at Arago has some counterparts in S-Europe:  In France, the industries from the Middle Loire Basin , the lower levels (H, I and K) of Aldène Cave, la Baume Bonne at Quinson and Orgnac 3 show similarities in their structural development to the Caune de l’Arago. In Spain, The Atapuerca Middle Pleistocene sites of Galleria and Gran Dolina show a similar evolutionary trend in sites ranging from around 500-300 k.a.

If we look for analogies of our  artifacts with those of Arago, the Llabanere material may be dated to a wide Middle Pleistocene time frame of 500-300 k.a.

polihedron aggsbach

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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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