The handaxe shown here was found at the Monte Sacro, Gargano, Apulia. It is 20 cm long and heavy (1,2 kg) and has been made by a sophisticated technique from local Gargano limestone. It certainly belongs to the advanced Acheulian of the Gargano area (MIS 11 or 9).
As elsewhere, the principal aim of earlier Paleolithic research in Italy has been the identification of different “cultural groups” and the understanding of their evolution in time and space, often at the expense of more functional and techno-typological approaches. This research was heavily influenced by a cultural historical approach and by influential French researchers. As a result most the variations in the Middle Pleistocene Paleolithic record were attributed to cultural factors. Anyhow, there are some obvious other factors, that may have influenced the composition of in-situ ensembles. For example, the lack of handaxes at some Middle Pleistocene sites, for example Monte Poggiolo and La Polledrara, can be easily explained by a lack of suitable raw material.
According to these researchers, different Middle Pleistocene “cultural” entities, defined on a purely descriptive level, until very recently (Comptes Rendus Palevol Volume 5, n° 1-2 pages 137-148 ):
- a “Tayacian” , characterized by small lithic industry, by the presence of dihedral ventral surface, by a high carinal index, by common Quina-type retouch and by a variable percentage of denticulates and scrapers. Tayac and Quinson points are present. Handaxes are rare, or even totally absent (Loreto di Venosa, Visogliano A couches 46-40, Visogliano B);
- a “Clactonian” group characterized by large, thick, but rarely carinated flakes, a large number of scrapers and a few denticulates. Handaxes are rare or absent (Eastern Italy, Sicily and Sardinia)
- an “Acheulian” group, with different subgroups , relying upon the number and form of Handaxes as well as the characters of the flake industry. In Latium and in Notarchirico di Venosa, flakes are small and often carinated; Early Acheulean handaxes from Gargano and the Adriatic area are accompanied by large, massive flakes (mainly scrapers). Late Acheulian findings are often associated with the Levallois technique.
Old excavations and interpretations contribute to a rather confusing picture of the Middle Pleistocene in Italy. However, ongoing research at sites such as Isernia la Pineta is beginning to clarify this and Italy certainly looks to be an interesting area for future research into Middle Pleistocene assemblages. In addition, new excavations at the important Valle Giumentina open air site, located in Abruzzo on the Adriatic side of Central Italy will certainly deconstruct some of the old paradigms about independent “cultural groups” during early Paleolithic times towards to a more technological and functional interpretations of these enesembles.
In recent years, new lithic assemblages with Acheulian features have been appearing dispersed around Southern Europe which, for the first time, date to the end of the Lower Pleistocene. In Spain, the Solana del Zamborino (Guadix-Baza, Granada) and Quípar (Murcia) have been dated to 900 k.a. (these dates being debatable) and La Boella, Tarragona, has been dated to around 700 ka. In France, La Noira has been dated to 700 k.a. and there is also level P of L’Arago (570 k.a.). Other examples have been found at Notarchiricco in Italy, dated to 650 k.a.
Multiple sites have been found in Europe that date to 500 k.a. or later. The evidence currently available indicates that Acheulean handaxes spread in the fluvial basins of Western Europe mainly during MIS 11 and 9, ca 400-300 k.a. ago, associated with Homo heidelbergensis, although a number of early Middle Pleistocene Acheulean assemblages have been dated from MIS 16 onwards. In Italy, besides Giumentina, Valle di Popoli and Svolte, several deposits in stratigraphic context are traditionally assigned to the Acheulean such as Torre in Pietra (MIS 9; recently radiometrically re-dated to MIS 10), Castel di Guido (MIS 9) and Fontana Ranuccio, to name just a few.