Bifacial Foliates from the MSA of the Nil Valley

bifacial twin

This is a Bifacial-Foliate from the Thebes Region (brown chert; max 12 cm long), found early in the 20th century by selective tool hunting. We do not know the wider context of this finding, which was stored together with some handaxes, Nubian Levallois cores, classic Levallois cores, and hollow scrapers, which shows similarities to the Lupemban, the early Nubian MSA but also to lanceolates from the MSA at the Oases in the western Desert of Egypt.

There is no concise definition for Bifacial-Foliates in the Literature. In fact, Wendorf et al. apparently applied the term “bifacial foliate” to all MSA bifaces that they did not consider to be handaxes or cores. Foliates can be very small- in this case Africanists call them: “foliated points”.  Some of them are up to 20 cm long. Many of them have a pointed end, but others have not. They may be symmetrical, but many of the specimens are asymmetrical.  Some have a fine retouch suggestive for pressure flaking and are relatively thin and others are rather crude without being automatically only “preforms”. The term of a bifacial foliate subsumes forms that were almost certainly modified for hafting by basal thinning or a tang together with forms that were unlikely to have been hafted.

The Sangoan and Lupemban of Central Africa and the Eastern Lowlands are MSA- technocomplexes dated roughly between 400-150 k.a BP. They can be identified on the basis of “heavy duty” core axes and picks (Sangoan) and smaller and parallel sided core axes and bifacial lanceolates, often combined with a blade element and Levallois flake tools (Lupemban). At Twin Rivers and Kalambo Falls there is the first African indication for backed tool technology, suggestive for hafting these artifacts. JD Clark suggested these heavy duty tools were good for wood-working, based on association of Kalambo Falls site in Zambia with deciduous woodland, and preserved wood at site. However, a number of other sites, such as those excavated by McBrearty in Kenya and at Sai 8-B-11 were clearly occupied by open grassland or savannas.

At Sai 8-B-11 in northern Sudan the two lowermost strata can be attributed to the Sangoan because of the presence of core-axes and distinctive flake reduction strategies. Given the evidence of systematic blade production and the presence of a lanceolate in addition to small and regular core-axes, the upper assemblage of this sequence is qualified as Lupemban. This ensemble is overlain by dune sands dating to around 152 k.a. It is suggested, that this ensemble marks the beginning of the MSA in the Nil valley, which is later evolving towards the “Nubian -MSA”, during OIS6/5.

A Lupemban industry also occurs at the site of Taramsa 1, located on the west bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt, where it dates to 165 k.a. At the nearby site of Taramsa 8 this industry predates the Last Interglacial pedogenesis.

The Nubian Middle Palaeolithic is represented in both Egypt and Nubia, but the Egyptian finds so far discovered are not as well preserved as those in Nubia. Arkin 5 is a site that has been identified as Nubian Middle Palaeolithic and has been studied in some detail. Located on the west bank of the Nile on an area of ferruginous sandstone (which was used as the raw material for tool manufacture) Arkin 5 appears, from the large amounts of debitage and unfinished tools surviving, to have been a quarry site.  One of the phases at Khor Musa is possibly contemporary with Arkin – an occupation site with a conspicuous amount of fish remains. Similarly, it is possible that one of the Khartoum sites dates to the same period, with large foliate points.

Bifacial foliates are one important marker of Aterian technology in North Africa, which, unlike tanged pieces, is largely shared with other MSA regional industries.  Bifacial foliates are relatively common in the Egyptian Western Desert, where tangs are scarce. At Dakhleh and Kharga (KO6E) the Aterian is most probably dated to MIS3 and certainly later than the Medium sized MSA at Bir Tarfawi and Refuf VI (Kharga) and associated with Nubian Point cores.  Basally thinned bifacial foliates and tanged pieces may formed part of a hunting system, which may have been linked to early archery. However, it seems that the bifacial foliates often show very different morphological characteristics compared to tanged pieces, and it is unlikely that their place in the technological system was interchangeable. Bifacial foliates are likely part of a hafted technology, that sensu lato includes tanged pieces.

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