Bone Tools- The take-off of a new technology during the MSA and Middle Paleolithic

This are preforms of bone tools, made from Reindeer metacarpal compact bone, found at a famous Gravettian site in the Vézère Valley. The operational sequence begins with flaking technique, aimed to produce a straight or sightly curved fragment of compact bone, usually with two pointed edges. After this first step, different bone tools (awls, points….) were produced by knapping, scraping, polishing and grinding, maybe performed by a single “multi-purpose” stone tool.

Bone industry is a relatively less explored topic in comparison with ceramics, flint and ground stone. Therefore the number of open questions is greater. One of the important problems in analyzing bone industry is the reconstruction of the chaîne opératoire and other questions related to the organization of production, workshops and working areas, since manufacturing debris often remains unrecognized during excavations, i.e. it is either not collected, or it is stored among faunal remains, awaiting identification and a proper analysis. Furthermore, contextual data are often incomplete, especially when it comes to older excavations, when faunal remains were not recognized as important from the viewpoint of research questions and thus attracted limited attention.

The picture heading this post illustrates a short story of bone tools before the LSA / Upper Paleolithic. This story is even more complex than the story of stone tools. As with stone tools, we are dealing with inventions and reinvention made by different Hominines (H. erectus, H. Heidelbergensis, H. sapiens, Neanderthals), and with an enormous variability, both in the operational sequences and tools. In contrast to LSA/ Upper Paleolithic times with their overwhelming richness of bone , ivory and antler tools, during the MSA / Middle Paleolithic, we notice a discontinuous pattern with innovations at discrete sites without much diffusion into other regions. Anyhow, this pattern, which may be related to social, demographic, and climatic factors, is not well understood.

ESA in S-Africa: The Osteodontokeratic (“bone-tooth-horn”, Greek and Latin derivation) culture (ODK) is a hypothesis that was developed by Prof. Raymond Dart (who identified the Taung child fossil in 1924, and published the find in Nature Magazine in 1925), which detailed the predatory habits of Australopithecus species in South Africa involving the manufacture and use of osseous implements. His assumption were later rejected, especially by Bob Brain, who summarized the findings of his research spanning nearly 20 years in the authoritative volume entitled, Hunters or the Hunted?: An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy (1981), which convincingly argued that early Australopiths were not, in fact, responsible for associated fossil accumulations found throughout southern Africa and that the ODK could be easily explained by Taphonomic factors.

It is not without irony, that later numerous bone artifacts dating to around 1.8 MYA have been found in association with P. robustus fossils in South African sites such as Swartkrans, Sterkfontein and Drimolen. Microscopic analysis of original and replica pieces have eliminated specimens created from weathering and faunal gnawing to show that real bone tools conform to certain characteristics: thick bone shaft fragments from medium to large mammals that have rounded tips and marked striations running parallel along the piece.] The striations of these artifacts were compared with those on bone tools used by local Bantu-speaking tribal groups and modern bone tools used in experimentation. Analysis by 2D and 3D computer software found that the artifacts were most likely used for foraging for termites. Although, digging for tubers and processing thick-skinned fruits were also possible uses.

The presence of an intentionally knapped bone handaxe and other knapped bone artifacts in a upper Bed II site at Olduvai  (c. 1.3-1.5 mys) suggests that Homo erectus could be the best candidate for their production. Acheulian Handaxes made from bone are especially well documented from the European continent. Acheulian-type bifaces, made by flaking elephant long bones, are known from three Middle Pleistocene sites in Italy: Castel di Guido, Fontana Ranuccio, and Malagrotta ( MIS11-9).

During the last 20 years an increasing number of bone tools are reported from African Middle Stone Age (MSA) sites and much progress has been made in the reconstruction of the operational sequences and the function of the tools by microtraceological and experimental techniques.

The earliest specimens come from Kabwe (Broken Hill) / Zambia, and are attributed to the early MSA (about 300 k.a. ),  interpreted as two gouges and a point. Anyhow, this interpretation is not shared by all researchers.  Other evidence for bone working in the MSA is provided by barbed and unbarbed bone points from the Katanda sites in the Semliki Valley, Democratic Republic of the Congo, dated 90–60 k.a. Because these sophisticated points were at their time (1995) an isolated finding, they were long suggested to be intrusive from the LSA. Later it became clear that bone tools during the MSA were no abnormality, but  more common, than once suggested.

A point tip, a mesial fragment, an almost complete spear point, a tanged bone point, and 26 awls are reported from M1 and M2 layers (the Stillbay strata) at Blombos Cave,  with ages  84–72 k.a. A single massive point, different from those found in the MSA and LSA layers at Blombos Cave, was recovered in the dune sand layer, with an age of  70 k.a. An awl and a possible flaked shaft fragment come from the Blombos M3 phase, with an age of ca 100 k.a. The morphological variability in the bone points from Blombos Cave, and the size and weight of the one complete specimen, suggests that they were probably used as spear points.

A bone point from Peers  Cave was retrieved from either the Howiesons Poort (HP) or Still Bay layers at the site. A single bone point was discovered at Klasies River in layer 19 of Shelter 1a at the base of the HP. A date of approximately  70 k.a., was suggested for the HP at Klasies River. The only other pointed bone implements known from the MSA come from Sibudu Cave. Sibudu is a site from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa featuring a stratigraphic sequence with pre-Still Bay, Still Bay (SB), HP, post-HP, late and final MSA cultural horizons. Twenty-three pieces from the  pre-SB, HP, post-HP and final MSA were described in detail using use-wear analysis, experimental data and ethnographic analogies. The excavators found “a number of specialized bone tool types (wedges, pièces esquillées, pressure flakers, smoothers, sequentially notched pieces), previously known only from the Upper Palaeolithic and more recent periods, (that) were manufactured and used at least 30,000 years earlier at Sibudu Cave. These tools appear to be part of a local tradition because they are absent at contemporaneous or more recent southern African sites” (d’Errico et al. 2012). A symmetric small bone points from the the end of HP at Sibudu even may signify bow and arrow-technology, together with the classic HP-lunates, that were probably  inserts of arrows.

Middle Paleolithic in Europe: The Abri Peyrony (Dordogne) produced a rich Mousterian of Acheulian Tradition (MTA) industry (calibrated AMS dates: 47,7 to 41,1 k.a. Cal BP). Here, recently three special bone tools, Lissoirs, for leather processing, were excavated and called the oldest “formalized” bone tools made by Neanderthals anywhere in Europe.  Almost identical specimens have been found in the nearby , Pech-de-l’Azé I (Pech I) site.  Lissoirs  are a formal, standardized bone-tool type, made by grinding and polishing, interpreted as being used to prepare hides.

The Micoquian /KMG site of Salzgitter-Lebenstedt, dated around early MIS3, yielded several mammoth ribs modified by percussion and then shaped by grinding. Some modified bone tools had already been described in 1952 and in more detail in 1982 as a part of an excellent monograph by Alfred Tode. Today, the bone tool assemblage consists of 23 intentionally modified bones (pointed elephant ribs and fibulae), a modified antler and a triangular bone point. A reevaluation by modern analytical methods would help to accept these artifacts as genuine, because similar objects have been shown to be the result of natural processes.

Middle Paleolithic bone retouchers: The use of bone or antler bases to retouch stone artifacts is documented at many Mousterian sites from Europe including Combe Grenal, Artenac, and La Quina in France, Riparo di Fumane and Riparo Tagliente in Italy, and on the Crimean peninsula. Recently, a human skull fragment from the Mousterian site of La Quina has been shown to be the oldest evidence of a human bone used as a tool in the form of a retoucher.

Middle Paleolithic Points: In Europe, Bone and antler points are reported from at least 12 Middle Paleolithic sites. Some of the pieces were interpreted as points hafted on throwing or thrusting spears, while others were described as awls and borers. Some of them could be the result of natural processes.

Firm evidence of worked, and in some cases decorated, bone awls comes from the Ahmarian / Protoaurignacian around the Mediterranean and some Châtelperronian and Uluzzian sites in France and Italy – but here we enter into the Upper Paleolithic and therefore this short story now ends.

Suggested Readings:


Illustration about the  Osteodontokeratic bone culture- how a Hyena mandible was thought to have been used by the Australopithecus “Killer-Ape”:

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