Social memory in action: The use of mnemonic techniques during the Levantine Epipaleolithic


These are microliths from the Early Epipaleolithic of the Mt. Carmel Region /Israel. An original defining feature of the Epipaleolithic is the production of stone tools from small blade blanks less than 5 mm in length, which served as easily replaceable parts hafted into composite multi-purpose tools. The Epipaleolithic of the Near East has sometimes been described as the overture to  the “Neolithic Revolution”.

Historical processes are open ended. In retrospect human groups in the Levant after the LGM until the early Holocene seem to steadily move towards sedentary communities which began with farming at about 12 k.a. cal BP (11,5 k.a. BP). In reality this process was by no means as unilinear as once suggested and the human history of the late Pleistocene in the Near East could have been easily ended with the intensification of mobile foraging instead of switching to farming.

The Epipaleolithic (EP) in the Levant is generally be divided into Early, Middle, and Late EP phases. In general, there is a shift from gracile, narrow no geometric microliths  in the Early EP (Kebaran and other industries; c. 22- 17.5 cal BP) to geometric forms, especially trapezes and rectangles, in the Middle EP (Geometric Kebaran and other industries; c. 17.5-14.5 cal BP), and to small arrowheads and crescent-shaped microliths, called lunates, in the Late EP ( Natufian and other industries) .

Early Epipaleolithic:  While small Kebaran campsites are most common, other contemporary seasonally occupied sites have been identified in eastern and southern Jordan, the Negev and Sinai, and the Azraq Basin.

Large, dense, multi-season, and multi-phase sites in eastern Jordan, which have been interpreted as aggregation sites, do not conform to the model of isolated small, campsites during the eary pipaleolithic.  Jilat 6 and Kharaneh IV both have typical Early and Middle EP occupations, but also exhibit some characteristics unknown elsewhere. The El Kown area of southern Lebanon documents several large Kebaran settlements exhibiting the remains of structure and a high level of site organization. At these sites, the presence of several phases of occupation with living floors, hearths, hut structures, burials, marine shells, worked bone and stone, and extensive refuse deposits, are very similar to some later Natufian sites in density, organization, and reoccupation evidence.

While the organic remains at Kebaran sites are rarely preserved, the early Epipaleolithic at the submerged and water locked Site Ohalo II (Lake Lisan, 19 k.a. BP; 23 k.a. cal BP ) shows how we have to imagine life after the Last Glacial Maximum in the Levant. Excavations revealed the burnt remains of several brush huts, constructed from branches of local trees, shrubs and grasses, several hearths and a human grave. In the largest hut, the living floors have been renewed several times indicating a long and/or repeated occupation. Erect stones under the floors of two brush huts and their arrangement could be taken as an indication for the idea of ownership and continuity at this specific location.

Charred seeds and fruit were recovered in abundance at Ohalo II. The excavators reported the earliest direct evidence for human processing of grass seeds, including barley and probably wheat. An oven-like construction was recovered, suggesting that the cereals were used for the production of dought, which was baked.  Beside a wide range of plants that were used, the human diet at the site was also based on a variety of wild animals (fish, birds, and gazelle).

Geometric Kebaran sites of the Middle Epipaleolithic exhibit the broadest geographical distribution of all Early and Middle EP entities, with expansion into the arid zones and highlands; in some areas, they overlap with other groups, suggesting some form of direct interaction.  Middle EP sites again vary considerably in size and sometimes  include very large encampments. Determining seasonality of use is difficult and based largely on faunal and botanical remains. However, large sites contain dense, diverse artifact assemblages and show several episodes of reuse. For example, along the Coastal Plain of Israel, the Geometric Kebaran site of Neve David displays a highly dense and diverse material culture, as well as burials, a possible stone wall, and distinct activity areas. At Kharaneh IV, several superimposed Middle EP phases are characterized by compact living floors and associated hearths and postholes. Alongside these larger multi-occupation sites are smaller specialized ones. Their small horizontal and vertical extent, as well as low artifact density and diversity, suggest they were more specialized, short-lived camps. These findings suggest that duration of occupation and site function were quite varied.

2The early Natufian period marks the Late Epipaleolithic sequence in the southern Levant at relatively mild and moist climatic conditions during the Bölling and Alleröd interstadials. This phase shows an intensification in  the shift from mobile foragers to sedentary communities in the Mediterranean woodland and the intensified use of wild plants (cereals, acorn, wild grasses, figs, almonds) and animal resources, including the specialized hunt of gazelles and small and fast moving game.

Several distinct cultural markers provide evidence for population growth and increased social complexity in the Natufian period. These include thick archaeological deposits, artistic manifestations, ceremonial behaviour, cemeteries and perhaps even Shamanism (?). Archaeological manifestations typical of the early Natufian in the Mediterranean woodland include large settlements, durable architectural remains, ground stone tools left in place at sites, prolific microlithic stone and bone industries, ornamented objects and large cemeteries. Some 500 burials are known, which vary in composition (multiple or single, age and gender), burial position (flexed, extended) and mode of inhumation (primary or secondary; inclusion of stones or grave goods). Decorated burials are a characteristic feature of the Early Natufian while skull removal is a custom that appears in the later Natufian and continues into the Neolithic.

lunatesIt has to stressed, that in Mediterranean woodland and costal context, there is only a limited number of such large “village sites” inhabited by communities of up to several hundred people. Further east, in the Irano-Turanian steppe, subsistence strategies already established during the earlier Kebaran prevailed. Here we find more mobile hunters and gatherers, less thick archaeological remains, smaller villages, infrequent use of small game and intensified exploitation of cereals and other grasses from the open parklands and steppe.

During the late Natufian, partially triggered by the harsher conditions of the younger Dryas, the mobile strategies that were once established in the early Natufian in the steppe-zones became also the lifestyle in the costal area. There are clear indications that the exploitation of grass seeds became more important, but these strategies did not ultimately lead to the cultivations of cereals during the younger Dryas, as once thought. The Natufians simply successfully adapted to the new environmental conditions, but the advent of agriculture did not take place until the warm and moist Holocene during the PPNA.

Social Memory at work: During the whole Epipaleolithic some sites were temporary campsites of seasonally mobile hunter-gatherers, while others were clearly much more substantial, with evidence of long-term reoccupation, long-distance travel and exchange, and multi-season occupation. Phases of sedentariness and ideas how to manipulate nature emerged and disappeared during the Levantine Epipaleolithic, but certainly were never forgotten in the social memory of  Epipaleolithic societies.  During the early Holocene these ideas and experiences were readily recallable and contributed to the Neolithic transition invariable what were the most eminent contributing factors for the emergence of agriculture.

One eminent question in this process is how we have to imagine  social memory in action. One concise theorywas developed by Lynne Kelly, an Australian  researcher.  Her work focuses mainly on the study of primary orality, as well as the mnemonic  devices used by ancient and modern oral cultures.

Prehistoric societies needed a wide, robust body of knowledge in order to survive. It seems highly probable that such cultures simply would not have done so without mnemonic transmission of knowledge allowing it to span generations without the benefit of writing, using mostly fallible human memory and memory foci. In early societies, the elders had encyclopedic memories. They could name all the animals and plants across the landscape and the stars in the sky too. Using traditional Aboriginal Australian song lines as the key, Lynne Kelly has identified powerful memory techniques used by indigenous people around the world. She explores the notion that memories were or are encoded in ritual, songs, myths and spaces that can be marked by natural or build elements.

Archeologists should be aware for indicators of such behavior-they  need not to be such spectacular as  Göbekli Tepe…..

Suggested Reading

Lynne Kelly:  Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture; Cambridge University Press 2015.

PPNA at Nahal Oren

After the Cold: Kebaran from Kebara Cave

Enigmatic object from the Natufian at Kebara

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One Response to Social memory in action: The use of mnemonic techniques during the Levantine Epipaleolithic

  1. Craig Riedl says:

    Song used to record memories and social history in societies is well know. We all can easily remember lyrics from songs we learned in chilhood. Songs from our teenage years seem to be permanently wired into our brains.

    I have read someplace in the past, I wish I would have recorded it in my memory bank with a song or at least a written note, that there are handknotted carpets, some would call Oriental carpets, that are woven from memory by the utilization of songs. Complex repeated lines of song then results in a pattern of design which shows in a completed carpet. Wonderful to imagine a carpet that is a song.

    Most Oriental carpets have historically been woven, knotted by children using drawn patterns called cartoons. Some are done by copying existing carpets. Patterns and designs are often very local and standardized within certain tribal groups.

    Think of a song with repeating lyrics. Assign a color to each word and a length of color that the word would represent. Repeat the lyrics on the next line after a skipping two beats. Continue to next line. Make a drawing of the song.
    “Lucy in the sky with diamonds. Lucy in the sky with diamonds…….
    Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees (a very good color)

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