Adhesives for composite Tools during the Acheulian?


Two late Acheulian Handaxes (ca 7 cm long) made from Quartzite from the  Tassili n’Ajjer (Arabic: طاسيلي ناجر‎) is a mountain range in the Algerian section of the Sahara Desert. It is a vast plateau in south-east Algeria at the borders of Libya and Niger, covering an area of 72,000 km2. The range is composed largely of sandstone. Erosion in the area has resulted in nearly 300 natural rock arches being formed, along with many other spectacular landforms. Intensive research was conducted in the area during the 1950ies by several French “equipes”, who assembled huge material from the Early Paleolithic, the local MSA and the Holocene lithic industries.

Around  1960 a multidisciplinary French team, among them Archeologists and Geologists, screened the Algerian Sahara for prehistoric artifacts by Trucks and Helicopters and brought more than 2000 kg of artifacts back to Algiers four weeks later (“recherché pure”). This enormous collections were never published and may are stored in Algiers and Paris. Most of these ensemblenow are stored untuched for more than 60 years

What is of interest are is a black substance occurring on  surface of one of these handaxes, The shape of this black substance suggests that the organic traces are remnants of a hafting material used by early Homo sp. during the late ESA. In a sample of ca 400 Handaxes and Cleavers from the same region, I found a second artifact (a large Cleaver) with similar traits.

In Africa and the Near East there are several examples of hafting materials found on MSA artifacts. A scraper and a Levallois flake, were discovered in the Mousterian levels (dated around 40k.a. BP) of the Umm el Tlel site in Syria in 1992. Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) analyses of both C15+ alkanes and C15+ aromatics confirmed that the black substance is highly weathered bitumen, the source of which remains unknown. The scraper and the Levallois flake  were the first reported examples of Middle Palaeolithic artefacts hutted with bitumen to handles.

traces1In 1992 Boëda et al. published new findings from the same site, from the Mousterian complex VI 3, dated to 71-72k.a. BP, which has yielded fragments of black cobbles and eleven Levallois artefacts with traces of black material demonstrated to be bituminous. Thus, rather than being a material used occasionally, bitumen is shown to be of key importance in the technological system of these populations, hypothesized to have been used as an adhesive to attach hafts made of organic matter to tools.

To date it is suggested that Hafting during the early Paleolithic, a technology that dates back at least 300,000 years in Africa and Europe  was not made by the use of adhesives. Examples include the probable wooden clamp shafts from Schöningen, Germany and the hafting of Sangoan core axes from Saï Island, Sudan.

In this evolutionary model, Adhesives should  represent a later phase of innovation. Starting in the Middle Paleolithic and Middle Stone Age, three geographic areas of adhesive use can be identified: 1) in Europe the earliest evidence for use of birch pitch comes from Campobello, Italy (ca. 200 k.a.), Inden-Altdorf, Germany (ca. 120 k.a.), Königsaue, Germany (ca. 40-80 k.a.) and Les Vachons, France (ca. 30 k.a.); 2) in the Levant the use of bitumen is reported at Umm el Tlel and Hummal in Syria (ca. 40-80 k.a.), and 3) in Africa the use of multicomponent glue made of gum, ochre and fat is documented from Sibudu, South Africa (ca. 70 k.a). While bitumen can be found naturally, birch pitch and gum ochre glue has to be produced in multistage processes that require complex knowledge, experience and control of several factors.

It would be worthwile to screen for possible Adhesives on the surface of Early and Middle stone tools in the large “forgotten” collections stored in  Museum magazines in France and the Maghreb. For me it would be no surprise, that hafting with the help of adhesives was rather common at such an early time point.

Usually we imagine that handaxes were used as hand hold devices. But this remains to be proven . Rots in her seminal work showed, that for example Keilmesser, which are usually suggested to be used non-hafted show subtle microwear traces of hafting under the microscope (

The last picture shows a 25 cm Handaxe from the Western Sahara with an abrupt oblique change in the patination on one side, maybe indicative for an hafting device, that did not survive the last 300000 yrs on the base of the artifact


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One Response to Adhesives for composite Tools during the Acheulian?

  1. Craig Riedl says:

    In this article it was stated that over 2000 kg of material was removed and the collections were never published.
    This collecting of artifacts by institutions and not publishing the results is pervasive and can be compared to looting. How is this collection of artifacts without published records be justified by the archaeological community on one hand and the collecting of surface finds by interested individuals so scorned on the other hand by the archaeological community?
    I feel that if a site is to be trenched and the artifacts stored that it is imperitive that the dig should be published and recorded for the public. Before permission to dig it should be written into the contract by the State that the dig be published and the artifacts be available for viewing by the public.
    Surface collecting, not digging, by interested parties should only be done where it is legal, such as on private land with permission of the land owner. Any unusual or historical items should be recorded, documented and the location noted for further study by professional archaeologists. Here in the USA it is important to note any Clovis finds in particular for the professional archaeologists. It is good pratice for the private collector as well as the professional archaeologist to catalog all articles. Note that many surface finds in the western United States are found in areas that cattle range freely and many finds are broken. Yes there is still open range in the west.

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