Yarmukian Sickles


yarmouk aggsbachThe Yarmukian culture (6,4-5,8 k.a. BC) was first distinguished in the late 1940s by M. Stekelis, at the site of Sha’ar Hagolan in the central Jordan Valley. Yarmukian Sickles together with distinct subtypes of  Byblos- and Amuq- and the appearance of  small Haparsa- and Herzliya-projectil points are characteristic for this complex.

In addition, the Yarmukian was one of the oldest culture in the Levant to make use of pottery. Yarmoukian houses were less  standardized than earlier ones, ranging from simple pit-houses to rectilinear houses with one or two spacious rooms and  sometimes smaller storage chambers. At Sha’ar Hagolan, sets  of rooms are arranged around courtyards and streets and alleys  separate the house compounds from one another. These  compounds are candidates for having housed larger social units, such as extended families. Besides the site at Sha’ar HaGolan, some 20 other Yarmukian sites have been identified in Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. These include:

  • Tel Megiddo (Israel)
  • Ain Ghazal (Jordan)
  • Munhata (Israel)
  • Tel Qishion (Israel)
  • Hamadiya (Israel)
  • Ain Rahub (Jordan)
  • Abu Tawwab (Jordan)
  • Atlit Yam (Israel)
  • Wadi Shu’eib (Jordan)
  • Nahal Qanah Cave
  • Nahal Zehora II
  • Rehov Habashan
  • Tell as-Saidiyeh

Although the Yarmukian culture occupied a limited region, Yarmukian pottery has been found outside this core area, including the Habashan Street excavations in Tel-Aviv and as far north as Byblos, Lebanon.

Settlement patterns are divided into two broad categories – core areas and marginal areas, an over-simplification which, however, is useful for summarizing the data. The best known site is Ain Ghazal in Jordan.  Other sites that may date to this time are Atlit Yam and Tel Ramad. Marginal areas are represented by Sinai, Negev and eastern Jordan where the environment was, for the most part, steppic or desert, apart from the central oasis of the Azraq Basin.  In these more marginal zones “Prehistoric human settlement is believed to have been temporary and seasonal, distinct from that in the lusher Levantine highlands or Jordan Valley, where large, permanently occupied early Neolithic sites are found” (Martin and Garrard 1999).

During excavations at Sha’ar HaGolan, large courtyard houses were uncovered, ranging between 250 and 700 m² in area, indicated a well structured and rich society. The courtyard house makes its first appearance at Sha’ar HaGolan, giving the site a special significance in architectural history. This is an architectural concept still found among traditional Mediterranean societies. Monumental construction on this scale is unknown elsewhere during this period. The houses consist of a central courtyard surrounded by several small rooms. The houses were separated by streets, which constitute evidence of advanced community planning. The dig uncovered a central street about 3 m wide, paved with pebbles set in mud, and a narrow winding alley 1 m wide. These are the earliest streets discovered in Israel and among the earliest streets built by man. A 4.15 m well dug to the local water table indicates knowledge of hydraulics. Exotic objects discovered during the excavations include sea shells from the Mediterranean, polished stone vessels made of alabaster, and blades made from obsidian from Anatolian sources. The presence of obsidian points to trade connections extending over 700 km.

Ba’ja, in the Petra mountains, was only inhabited in the Late PPNB.  By this time goat, sheep and pig had been domesticated elsewhere in the Levant.  Results in the semi-desert environment of the southern Levant are consistent with what would be expected in a marginal zone at this time:

  • Some wild goat and gazelle
  • Wild hare, hyraxes, donkey, leopard, fox and other carnivores
  • 90% domesticated small ruminants, with goat dominant
  • Some Bos bones, but uncertain whether domesticated or not

The best known PPNC site from the core area is Ain Ghazal in Jordan, where a distinctive level was found beneath a layer containing the Pottery Neolithic Yarmukian industry and above a PPNB layer.  It covered 13 hectares at around 6750 BC.  Large shaped clay tablets were used, hinting at an administration system which was simply unprecedented for this time period.  There are some signs that the settlement survived general local collapse by changing its subsistence strategy.  A number of sites in the area were abandoned at this time, and infant mortality at Ain Ghazal rose.  Volumes of domesticated goat and legumes increase.  The excavators see this phase as representing a response to increasing stresses in the environment caused by a combination of climatic change and human over-exploitation of the environment.  The growth of the site against this background is suggested to be due to successful changes in the subsistence strategy which involved increasing the pastoral component of the economy at the expense of cereal exploitation.

Ain Ghazal is renowned for a set of anthropomorphic statues found buried in pits in the vicinity of some special buildings that may have had ritual functions. These statues are half-size human figures modeled in white plaster around a core of bundled twigs. The figures have painted clothes, hair, and in some cases, ornamental tattoos or body paint. The eyes are created using cowrie shells with a bitumen pupil. In all, 32 of those plaster figures were found in two caches, 15 of them full figures, 15 busts, and 2 fragmentary heads. Three of the busts were two-headed, the significance of the two headed statues is not clearhttp://www.farhorizons.com/trips/MiddleEastandArabia/GrandeurofPetra/images/AinGhazalstatues.jpg).

Gopher and Gophna suggest that Atlit Yam and similar layers at Tel Ramad may also represent local adaptations to new conditions.  At Atlit Yam, for example, a heavy reliance on marine resources is clear, supplementing both cultivation and hunting.  At Atlit, a stone semicircle, containing seven 600-kilogram megaliths, has recently been found. The stones have cup marks carved into them and are arranged around a freshwater spring, which suggests that they may have been used for ritual (http://www.zed.fr/tv/distribution/videos/182/the-mystery-of-atlit-yam/).

Very few large sites survived into the Pottery Neolithic.  Bellwood  suggests that Beidha shows similar stress – it was occupied into the PPNC and then abandoned.  Abu Hureyra halved in size. There was less abandonment of settled areas in the northern Levant than elsewhere.

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Synchronisation of Handaxe shapes on a global scale?

allonne aggsbach

This is a “Biface de type micoquien” typologically in transition to a  “Biface lageniforme” according to Bordes` typology,  made by a typical trifacial concept of  façonnage, found during the early 20th century in the important Briqueterie d’Allonne (Oise) in Northern France (http://www.aggsbach.de/2013/06/before-combe-grenal-the-early-scientific-work-of-f-bordes-and-the-allonne-brickyards/).

Micoquian Handaxes can be symmetric or slightly asymmetric. They have a massive, often only coarsely or unworked base, slightly pronounced concave outlines and an elaborated tip. At La Micoque the handaxes often follow a trifacial concept.  (http://www.aggsbach.de/2013/07/micoquian-bifaces/).

In France, such handaxes are known from the upper strata at La Micoque (Dordogne; maybe 250-300 k.a. old) and from the upper Acheulian in the loess belt of Northern France (MIS 8/7). Although some Micoquian handaxe are known from the “Keilmesser” groups, they are not an integral part of the “Middle European Micoquian”  sensu strictu.

The  Acheulian has been dated to the first part of the Middle Pleistocene in western Europe (mainly MIS 16 to 9; 600-300 k.a.), with some ensembles dating as late as MIS 8/7 ( 300-200 k.a.); (http://www.aggsbach.de/2014/06/handaxe-from-montieres-and-the-diversification-of-the-paleolithic-in-n-france-during-mis-8/). In Western Europe more structured flaking (débitage) techniques such as the Levallois concept emerge only after MIS 9/8. The famous “Atelier Commont” in Amiens (early OIS8) can be described as a non-Levallois Middle Paleolithic industry with some handaxes, while at other sites the Levallois technique was more abundant. 

The term “Acheulian” was originally coined by G. de Mortillet (1872) to describe the industries from the Middle Terrace of the Somme Valley in northern France. Today the term denotes a large variety of tools, occurring over 1.7 million years on several continents. The link between the numerous occurrences of the Acheulian is solely the handaxe, an entity which is defined technologically and by a façonnage chaîne opératoire. There are certain doubts if the handaxes of Europe were introduced by the humans that entered Europe “Out of Africa” during the Late Early Pleistocene. The handaxe industries of Europe could be an independent innovation.

The same could be suggested for the “Micoquian” shape of handaxes, although such artifacts are certainly a “late” phenomenon during the Acheulian on a global scale. In the Levant, Micoquian bifaces appeared in the Archeological record during the late local Acheulian, which disappeared at about 400 k.a. BP and during the Yabroudian (400-200 k.a.). The Nubian Micoquian bifaces seem to be within this time span. Other African Micoquian handaxes seem to be dated to the middle part of the Middle Pleistocene.

Earlier research concluded that there was a continent wide interdependency of certain handaxe shapes between Europe, South East Asia and Africa. Regarding the important geographical and geochronological gaps and the diversified technological components of “Micoquian”  handaxes this seems to be highly questionable.

Black Basalt Handaxe

Large Acheulian Handaxe from S-Italy

Handaxe from the “Mousterien Chaud” at Montières and the diversification of the Paleolithic in N-France during MIS 8

Large Cutting Tools at Isimila

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Serrated tool from the Fontmaure site: Authentic artifact or a hoax on a Mousterian Blade?




Serrated blades and bladelets first appeared during the Pavlovian and to a lesser exted during the Gravettian of France. Lartet in the 1860ies already noted that the tiny “Magdalenian saws” may have been used for the production of ivory needles at La Madeleine and Bruniquel. Serration is a common feature and one of the the “fossile directeurs” of the late Magdalenian, especially in S/W-France.

Serrated blades and bladelets also became a  part of artifact ensembles during the Upper Paleolithic and the Epipaleolithic of North Africa and the Levant. Serration is a common feature on Neolithic / Early Bronze Age stone sickles over the old world. It has been shown experimentally with modern sickles that the sharpness of serrated sickles is more stable than non-serrated ones and that serration of sickles significantly reduces the work load of the harvester.

This is a serrated blade from the Fontmaure site (13,5 x 2,6 cm). The margin opposite to the serrated working edge shows some crude backing, that may indicate a hand hold use of the artifact, while the back is too thick (up to 2, 5 cm) to be inserted into a hafting device. Similar pieces are known from the „neolithique de tradition campignienne” in France. Like many of the larger pieces from Fontmaure, this artifact is made from the homogenous yellow jasper variant, while multicolored jasper was only used for smaller tools, because of its unfavorable knapping properties.

The Campignian was named for the site at Campigny, Haute-Normandie, France during the late 19th century. Campignian ensembles are characterized by picks and tranchets and large scrapers and are sometimes associated with pottery.

It was suggested for a long time that the Campignian represented a widespread European crude stone toolmaking “culture”, beginning during the Mesolithic, but developing in the Neolithic,  spreading throughout most of northern and central Europe and the British Isles.

Nowadays it has been recognized that different ensembles with crude implements appeared and disappeared most probably independently during different times at different places over the old world  (The “heavy Neolithic” in the Orontes valley in Lebanon, the “Ertebölle” complex in Northern Europe , the “Asturian” in Span and Portugal, Middle and Late Neolithic ensembles in France). In this view, the Campignian refers rather to a technique than to a “cultural” unit.

I have to admit that the “Campignian-connection” of the tool is not very convincing. I did not find a really parallel in the Campignian ensembles. Therefore another possibility arises: the artifact could be a fake.  Neolithic pieces from Fontmaure are notorious rare. There is no parallel among the thousand artifact known from the site to the tool of this post. The ad-hoc probability to have a unique tool in my small collection is low. People who know the materials from the site better than me, told me that this  type of jasper, when newly retouched has almost the same  patination as the old surfaces.

The blade itself looks typical for the Mousterian of Fontmaure. Most of these blades are said to be considerable thick. Many of them have a triangular cross-section and are backed. People who studied such blanks insist that they never noticed any serration on such blades. They also insist that such a backed serrated piece would be easy to make by pressure flaking on the edge and secondary polishing by soft wood and grasses.

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Mousterian Points in the Levant

levallois israel aggsbach1Mousterian points are defined as triangular flakes, made by Levallois or non-Levallois chaine operatoire, with extensively retouched lateral edges that are either straight or mildly convex in plain view converging to a sharp distal edge. The dividing line between a Mousterian point and a retouched Levallois point is not clearly demarcated. In practice with retouch extending along their lateral edges past the midpoint of the artifacts long axis are usually classified as Mousterian points.

Very thin Levallois points are not appropriate for secondary modification, as exemplified by the razor-sharp Levallois points and flakes from the upper Strata of Kebara cave (http://www.aggsbach.de/2012/01/razor-sharp/). A certain thickness is therefore a conditio sine qua non for the production of secondary modified Levallois points. Other variables that influence the modification of these items are raw material properties, duration of stay at the site and functional requirements.

During the early southern and central Levantine Middle Paleolithic (150-250 k.a. BP), Mousterien points are often elongated (“Tabun D”; “Abu Sif Knifes”; “Hummalian Points”), but non-elongated examples similar to the point displayed in this post, were also present. At Tabun D, only 11.3% of the blanks were modified by abrupt or scaled retouche. No differences among the four most common “diagnostic” blank types—blades, Levallois flakes, short Levallois points, and elongated Levallois points—in terms of the number of retouched edges were found.

During the later phases of the Levantine Mousterian, unretouched Levallois points fairly outnumber the retouched ones. As shown at Tabun, the with/thickness ratio increases from Tabun D to Tabun C/B, and as a consequence the possibility of a secondary modification decreases, but again other than purely technological constraints may have played a role in this process.

At Tabun, the changing /thickness ratios were suggested to be part of a larger “Mugharan tradition” between Tabun D and B (250-40 k.a), but the sequence at this site may not be as representative as initially thought. That Mousterian points may dominate the artifactual spectrum even later than Tabun D ensembles, was recently shown at  Nesher Ramla. The site presents evidence for human occupation or use during MIS 6/5 (190-70 k.a. BP; http://www.aggsbach.de/2014/02/retouched-tools-from-the-middle-paleolithic-in-israel/). In this context it is interesting, that at the (non dated) last Levallois-Mousterian strata at Yabrud the same phenomenon was present.

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Don’t follow leaders. Watch the parkin’ meters: Levallois technique at Melka Kunture and Africa

garab III aggsbach

This is a delicate and very thin (3 mm at the base, <1 mm at the tip), partially retouched Levallois Flake (8 cm long)  from  Garba III (Melka Kunture near Addis Abeba);  (http://www.aggsbach.de/2011/11/early-middle-stone-age-from-garba-iii/).

Contrary to mainstream thinking, technological innovations during the Paleolithic occurred across the borders of different forms of the Genus Homo as exemplified by the evolution of the Levallois technique in Africa, evidenced in Africa since MIS 10-9, or the simultaneous use of this technique by H. sapiens and Neanderthals in the Near East. Progress in human culture was by no means strictly correlated with brain volumes or a suggested level of intelligence. The glorious “Human Revolution” and “Behavioral Modernity” are chimeras that heavily hinder a real understanding of the human cultural evolution.

Increased intelligence may be one factor of this cultural evolution, but is not a conditia sine qua non. Combination of earlier inventions and increased intra- and intergroup communication may have played a much larger role than increased intelligence or a sudden “Great Leap Forward” (another chimera).

The Levallois Technique in East Africa appears in a sequence of Acheulian and MSA sites from the Kapthurin Formation of Kenya dated to ∼200–500 k.a. Evidence from these sites suggest that MSA Levallois technology developed from local Acheulian antecedents, and support a mosaic pattern of lithic technological change across the Acheulian-MSA transition. However, Acheulian and early MSA sites show important differences among several technological variables: 1) Flake size decreased over time, 2) Acheulian Levallois flakes  were produced exclusively by the preferential method, while both preferential and recurrent methods are present in the MSA assemblages, 3) Acheulian Levallois flakes were made almost entirely of a single variety of phonolitic lava, whereas the early MSA material showed the use of wider range of lavas, some of them finer grained.

These observations are consistent with evidence from other African sites indicating that Levallois technology is a late or final Acheulian phenomenon dating to the later portions of the Middle Pleistocene. Within the Atlantic coastal Moroccan sequence, Levallois production of handaxe and cleaver blanks is dated to ∼300– 350 k. a by ESR age estimates at the Grotte des Rhinoceros and by OSL at Cap Chatelier. A similar age is estimated for rare examples of handaxes transformed into Levallois or Levallois-like cores from the mound-spring site of KO10 at Kharga Oasis, where U-series dates on tufa of ∼300–400 k.a are reported. New chronological data from stratified Fauresmith sites in S-Africa suggest that this industry, which combines small refined handaxes with technological components characteristic of the MSA (prepared cores, Levallois cores, blades, Levallois points, convex scrapers), maybe as old as 542–435 k.a. (Wonderwerk Cave MU4, Kathu Pan 1). Although these dates have been assembled by several lines of evidence (Kathu Pan: minimum OSL age of 464 ± 47 k.a. and a combined U-series–ESR age of 542−107+140 k.a) , some scholars suggest a mixing of the Fauresmith strata with older ones. A very polemic, nevertheless serious critique can be found in Bob Gargetts blog (http://www.thesubversivearchaeologist.com/2012/11/there-ya-go-again-part-one-putative.html): “they (the authors of the Kathu Pan paper) ignore very basic principles of stratigraphy and geomorphology, to say nothing of informal logic”.

In Egypt (Western Desert) and East Africa, the data indicate the beginning of the Levallois technique in a fully developed MSA context at roughly 250-300 k.a. BP.  The important sites at Gademotta near Lake Ziway, Ethiopia, where prior K/Ar age estimates of >180 ka have been revised to >235 k.a show the presence of recurrent and preferential Levallois cores at a similar time depth at site REF-4 at Kharga Oasis, Egypt, in assemblages underlying a tufa dated by U-Series to 220 k.a.

Compared to the Oldowan and the Acheulian, the MSA at Melka Konture MSA is poorly known. We have unfortunately no final reports about the MSA at Garba III and only some, partially contradictory short communications about the site and the MSA from the nearby Gondar locality, without any detailed description and illustration. Garba III is dated to late OIS6 or early OIS5. The basal MSA levels from Garba III show some small handaxes and cleavers together with uni- and bifacially retouched points.

The recurrent Levallois flaking method (centripetal and unipolar) on smaller blocks of obsidian was well established. The unipolar method, which is predominant, was recognized in more than half of the Levallois blanks according the reevaluation of the site and publication by Mussi et al. in 2013. During the sequence an abundance of relatively thick denticulates, with either accurate semi-step retouch or with a retouche écailleuse producing a denticulate delineation of one or more edges, has been observed. Scrapers, on rather thick blanks, are less numerous, with either minute or écailleuse retouch which often grades into denticulation. The production of points, often abundant at other early MSA sites in Ethiopia, was clearly not the intention of the knappers.

In Eurasia, Guado San Nicola (Monteroduni, Molise) was recently dated to the MIS 11-10 boundary by the 40Ar/39Ar method and provided an ensemble of Levallois products within an Acheulean context. This is older than the recently reported “earliest Levalloisian from Eurasia” at Nor Geghi 1, Armenia (OIS10/9e boundary). This site shows the synchronic use of bifacial and Levallois technology outside Africa. Units 5 to 4 at this site are correlated with late OIS 10/early OIS 9e, whereas Units 3 to 2 with OIS 9e (335 to 325 k.a.)

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Subterranean Homesick Blues

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It’s somethin’ you did
God knows when
But you’re doin’ it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin’ for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap
By the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten
Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the D.A.
Look out kid
Don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tiptoes
Don’t try “No-Doz”
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows
Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin’ to sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write braille
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail
Look out kid
You’re gonna get hit
But users, cheaters
Six-time losers
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool
Lookin’ for a new fool
Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parkin’ meters
Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
’Cause the vandals took the handles


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Some like it hot: The Origin of Spicy Food

knoblauchrauke aggsbach Garlic mustard from the herbal of Johann Wilhelm Weinmann: Phytanthoza iconographia (1737)

Recently, phytoliths of garlic mustard seed (Alliaria petiolata) were found in carbonized food deposits on prehistoric pottery from the western Baltic dating from 6,1 k.a  to 5,7 k.a cal BP (Ertebölle Complex). This archaeological evidence suggests a much greater antiquity to the spicing of foods than previously thought within a hunter-gatherer context (http://www.aggsbach.de/2011/07/papaver-somniferum-during-the-european-neolithic/).

Garlic mustard or Hedge garlic (Alliaria petiolata) is a inconspicuous plant, found in large tuffs in light deciduous forest, which belongs to the Brassicaceae family. It is native to Europe, western and central Asia, and northwestern Africa. The leaves, flowers and fruit are edible as food for humans. They have a mild flavor of both garlic and mustard. The green seed-pods of A. petiolata are fried, the crushed seed is a condiment, and the garlic-scented leaves are added to savory dishes. Garlic mustard produces a variety of secondary compounds including flavonoids, defense proteins, glycosides, glucosinolates, particularly Sinigrin, a breakdown product allyl isothiocyanate (AITC) that reduce its palatability to herbivores. The total glucosinolate content may differ significantly among populations and over continents. Sinigrin is not only the main compound for the characteristic aroma of Garlic mustard, but also of black mustard and Japanese horseradish, which are better known in the modern kitchen.

Electrophysiological records in both peripheral and central nervous system show that primate sensory taste system is basically organized around two major clusters of fibers and their cortical projections. Co-variation between the neural responses to various compounds was observed for sugars, on the one hand, and for tannins and alkaloids on the other hand. The human taste perception system is not basically different from that of the other primates, with this dichotomy allowing discrimination of noxious vs beneficent substances as a result of evolution. A growing body of evidence shows that animals such as insects, birds and primates use plant parts with secondary compounds to improve their comfort or their health. The concept of self-medication now generally accepted in primates but also in other vertebrates was first proposed by D.H Janzen (1978), an ecologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Taste perception may be a major clue for such a specific choice. Bitterness is suggested to represent a reliable signal of toxicity for animals and humans. A number of secondary compounds are bitter tasting (Saponins, Alkaloids and some Sesquiterpenoids, Terpenoids and Steroid Glycosides) and many of these substances possess important pharmacological activity(http://www.aggsbach.de/2012/08/molecular-archaeology/).

A number of flavors involve a burning or tingling which is picked up by mechanoreceptors in the mouth rather than by the chemoreceptors of physiological taste. Evolution has taught us, that this sensations come with the  intake of pharmacological substances, significant for our health. Sinigrin, for example, has strong antimicrobial effects, prevents postprandial hypertriglyceridemia and is an inhibitor of several cyclooxygenases (anti-inflammatory) and of tumor cell proliferation. If such effects are really of significance in the long term in human health remains to be proven.

Anyhow, from an evolutionary point of view,  “Acceptance of food depends not only on taste, but also on olfactory, tactile and visual signals, as well as memories of previous, similar experiences and social expectations. Food palatability and hedonic value therefore play central roles in nutrient intake. As a result, ancestral humans who liked spicy food—and therefore gained from its health benefits—might well have had longer, healthier lives and more offspring” (Nilius & Giovanni 2011)

Suggested Reading:



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Twisted Obsidian Handaxe from Melka Kunture (Gombore II)


melka-sinoidalThis is a twisted handaxe made of Obsidian from the 800 k.a. old, early middle Pleistocene,  Gombore II site. The handaxe shown here is heavily patinated, but the non hydrated raw material is clearly exposed by small chips at the edges. Twisted Acheulian Handaxes (usually Ovates and Cordiforms) have a very particular pattern. They often have a symmetrical and rounded butt and a twisted shape if viewed from the side, usually in the form of a backward S shape. At Gomore II, they seem to be mainly produced from Kombewa flakes.

East Africa is one of the few African areas with abundant Obsidian sources. Apart from Ethiopia, most of the other sources are located in Kenya, close to the Lake Naivasha basin and Mount Eburru. Relatively minor sources of volcanic glass are present in the northern portions of Kenya, east of Lake Turkana and in the southern end of the Suguta Valley. The southern Kenyan rift zone and northern Tanzania near Mount Kilimanjaro may also have been a significant source of obsidian.

In East Africa, Obsidian was frequently used only since the Middle Stone Age and is generally dominant in Late Stone Age lithic assemblages in the region. In this framework, the assemblages of Melka Kunture document the only known example of obsidian use during the Oldowan. During the Acheulian, the intense exploitation of obsidian has only been documented at Melka Kunture and at the Kenyan site of Kariandusi (around 700-900 k.a.). 

Melka Kunture is a valley site, which extends for almost 6 km in both Awash River banks in Etiopia, with superimposed terraces whose remains are preserved to a maximum of 100 m of sediments. Melka Kunture is located 50 km south of Addis Abeba and part of the East African Rift Valley. At Melka Kunture there have been identified more than 70 archaeological levels so far. This sequence is only comparable with the archaeological record at Olduvai Gorge and span the times of the Oldowan, Acheulian and early MSA. The excavators suggest that there is good evidence for a general continuity in the development of technological and other cultural patterns during the whole sequence. This essential behavioural continuity seems also to correspond to the paleoanthropological evidence at Melka Kunture: Human remains associated to the Oldowan at Gombore I and to the “Developed Oldowan” (rather an early Acheulian) at Garba IV have been both referred to Homo erectus, while an early AHM is present at 120 k.a. at Garba III ( early MSA: http://www.aggsbach.de/2011/11/early-middle-stone-age-from-garba-iii/).

Obsidian twisted bifaces are present in all the excavation sectors of the Gombore II site at Melka Kuture. They are a unique not only within the archaeological sequence at Melka Kunture but also in a pan-African context, although some twisted bifaces, made of Quarztit are known from surface scatters in the Sahara and from obsidian at non stratified sites in Etiopia.

In Europe, twisted bifaces are known from the upper loam at Swanscombe, dated to the Hoxnian (http://www.aggsbach.de/2013/02/swanscombe-during-the-hoxnian/). Other assemblages with concentrations of twisted ovates in Britain appear to demonstrate a strong chronological correlation toward late MIS11. Twisted ovates are virtually absent from sites of a pre-Hoxnian age, such as High Lodge, Boxgrove or Warren Hill. They also do not appear to occur in significant numbers in assemblages younger than MIS 11/10, such as those recovered from Purfleet, Wolvercote and Furze Platt, but they are known from OIS 9 and 8 from Northern French Acheulian sites. Mousterian industries from OIS 5-3 in the Normandie and Bretagne show many examples of twisted  bifaces: especially at Saint-Brice-sous-Rânes

Gallotti et al. recently demonstrated, that the  conceptual scheme of the twisted bifaces is indeed different from that of the classical ones. Anyhow, there are many unresolved questions about the rare occurence of twisted handaxes during the old world Paleolithic:

  • Are twisted bifaces the result from reduction strategies of classical bifaces?
  • Are Kombewa flakes a prerequisite for producing such handaxes?
  • Is the use oftwisted bifaces related to a specific function?
  • If so, does a functional difference exist between a sinusoidal edge and a
    rectilinear one?

Update 2016:

” In the Acheulean layer of Gombore II, somewhat more recent than 875±10 ka, two large cranial fragments were discovered in 1973 and 1975 respectively: a partial left parietal (Melka Kunture 1) and a right portion of the frontal bone (Melka Kunture 2), which probably belonged to the same cranium. The  analysis suggest that the human fossil specimen from Gombore II fills a phenetic gap between Homo ergaster and Homo heidelbergensis. This appears in agreement with the chronology of such a partial cranial vault, which therefore represents at present one of the best available candidates (if any) for the origin of Homo heidelbergensis in Africa”

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Bifacial tools from Saint-Brice-sous-Rânes

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A Handaxe made of Ignimbrite



Early humans were inventive when appling their techniques to new materials. This handaxe from an Acheulian scatter was produced from ignimbrite.

Ignimbrite is a pumice-dominated pyroclastic flow deposit formed from the cooling of pyroclastic material ejected from an explosive volcanic eruption. As the pyroclastic material settles it can build up thick layers, and if the temperature is sufficiently high (> 535°C) it can weld into rock. Ignimbrites are made of a very poorly sorted mixture of volcanic ash (or tuff when lithified) and pumice lapilli, commonly with scattered lithic fragments. The ash is composed of glass shards and crystal fragments. While most volcanic rocks are found close to the eruptive source, ignimbrite of reasonable thickness can often be found tens to hundreds of kilometers from the site of eruption.

Ignimbrites may be white, grey, pink, beige, brown or black as shown in this post, depending on their composition and density. Many pale ignimbrites are dacitic or rhyolitic. Darker colored ignimbrites may be densely welded volcanic glass or, less commonly, mafic in composition.

Ignimbrites were used in East Africa, allways in small quantities since the Oldowan, especially at Melka Kunture, but also at Gona, Ethiopia and East Turkana (Koobi Fora), Kenya. During the Earliest Paleolithic, volcanic rocks in general, allways coming from small distances, such as lavas, were common, and in many areas basement quartzes and quartzites were also used. In North Africa, as at Ain Hanech, fine-grained limestones were also a major source of raw material. At some sites, cherts/flints were also locally available in larger quantities (some Bed II sites at Olduvai and at Ain Hanech), but generally their frequency is rather low. During the Acheulian and the MSA, ignimbrites in Africa were still constantly in use, but in negligables quantities.

In Europe, the only published handaxe made from ignimbrites is known from the assemblage at Pontnewydd; Wales / UK (ca 250 k.a.). Two fine Middle Paleolithic”Keilmesser” from the Middle European Micoquian, made from Dalarna-ignimbrite were found at Salzkotten-Oberntudorf near Paderborn in Westphalia (ca 80-40 k.a.). The handaxe displayed here is a perfect small cordiform  made of this volcanic raw material, indicating that some fine grained ignimbrites were appropriate for producing even the finest handaxe, comparable to much later examples from the MTA.

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Non Utilitarian Objects collected by Early Humans: The Archaeology of Curiosity


This is a fossilized shark tooth from the Gravettian strata of the Abri Pataud at Les Eyzies in the French Dordogne. Sharks have been living on earth for about 400 million years. When a shark dies and its cartilage dissolves, the teeth fall to the bottom of the ocean and get covered with sandy sediment and fossilizes. 

Non-utilitarian items, collected by early humans comprise:

  • Pigments were in use since the MSA in Africa. The evidence for ocher use even extends back to the beginnings of the MSA, for example in the Kapthurin Formation, Kenya, dated to >240 k.a, at Twin Rivers, Zambia dated roughly to the same time interval. Excavations at Sai 8-B-11 in northern Sudan show yellow and red pigment lumps associated with grinding tools with traces of pigments and vegetal materials. The associated Sangoan core axe lithic ensemble is dated to 200 k.a BP. In addition ca 40 Mousterian sites in Europe, especially Pech de l’Aze I (Dordogne, France), have provided series of coloring materials (hematite, ocher, manganese), whose physical and chemical properties do not appear useful for daily life.
  • Collection of Quartz Crystals by early hominids is first observed during the Lower Paleolithic. For example, in India, the Singi Talav in Rajasthan (dated to 800 k.a.) is located a few kilometers from the occupation site where they were discovered. In the Near East, the site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (dated to 800 k.a.) also contains unmodified quartz crystals. In China, at Zhoukoudian (dated to 400 k.a.), unmodified quartz crystals were discovered in the Lower Paleolithic strata.
  • Fossils are items which frequently suggest some sense of non-utilitarian activity among early prehistoric populations, or at the very least, an interest in strange or unusual objects. Studies indicate that these fossils could not have been brought to the sites by natural processes alone. Some items are already known from the Acheulian (Gesher Benot Ya’aqov) and many more are known from the European Middle and Upper Paleolithic. They are rarely modified like the famous fossil, silicified nummulite, from the late OIS5 Micoquian of Tata, Hungary. This partially translucent disc is dissected by a natural fracture, the second one was engraved on both sides at right angles to the fracture.

What the motivation was for collecting extraordinary non-utilitarian items from the natural world is impossible to assess in early hominids, and even in modern humans. Picking up sich an item and bringing it back to a base camp may be related to various individual or collective concerns like play, aesthetic feeling, emotion, symbolic communication or magical religious practice, among others. Apart from that, an overarching explanation may be that such a behavior is a strong indicator for Curiosity, as a basic characteristic of all primates. Without curiosity, our ancestors would not have been invented culture and would not have succeeded in niche broadening, which finally, on the long term, led to the conquest of the earth by our species. 

Curiosity is the impetus to explore the world beyond the existing knowledge.  Curiosity is the desire to learn about what is unknown.Curiosity is a cornerstone of human cognition that has the potential to lead to innovations and increase the behavioral repertoire of individuals. Curiosity  compensates for the shortomings of the human condition, that men is an „incomplete being“ (that means: a non-specialized, developable and adaptive social being), an idea that has been put forward by the German philosopher Herder (1744-1803). Curiosity in this way is a creative act: The vast majority of innovations come about through curiosity.

Extrinsic motivated curiosity arouses not by an internal state in the individual, but rather by a novel external stimulus. It refers to the fact, that experiences that are novel and complex create a sensation of uncertainty in the brain, a sensation perceived to be unpleasant. Curiosity acts as a means in which to dispel this uncertainty. By exhibiting curious and exploratory behavior, organisms are able to learn more about the novel stimulus and thus reduce the state of uncertainty in the brain. However, this model does not account for the observation that organisms display curiosity even in the absence of exciting and new stimuli.

Intrinsic motivated curiosity refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. Intrinsic motivated curiosity in humans, different from many animals, is the intrinsic desire of humans to know and understand. Such intrinsic motivation mechanisms are observed during the whole life, from infants spontaneous exploration of their body and external objects to adults that are still eager about new information of the world. Experimental work has indeed demonstrated that acquisition of knowledge is emotionally pleasing. The satisfaction of curiosity through acquiring knowledge brings pleasure and reward. This confirms the hypothesis that curiosity or need for knowledge is a fundamental and  on a par with other Basic needs, such as sex or food.

The act of wanting new information involves mesolimbic Dopamine activation, which assigns an intrinsic value to that new information that the brain then interprets as a reward. This is the neurobiology that motivates exploratory behavior. In addition, Opioid activity in the nucleus accumbens evaluates stimuli and attaches an immediate value to the novel object, a sensation known as “liking”. This liking stimulates pleasure. The chemical processes of both wanting and liking play a role in activating the reward system of the brain, and perhaps in curiosity as well.

The roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species called Neoteny. This term means the “retention of juvenile characteristics”.  It means that as a species we are more child-like than other mammals. Our lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a behavioral characteristic of neoteny. Whereas in most animal species , the curiosity behavior disappears at puberty , it usually persists for a lifetime in humans. Our lifelong capacity to learn is the reason why neoteny has worked so well during the evolution of humans. Our extended childhood means we can absorb so much more from our environment compared to our primate cousins, including our shared culture. Even in adulthood we can pick up new ways doing things and new ways of thinking, allowing us to better adapt to new circumstances.

Think on that: 

“I have no special talents , I am only passionately curious ” (Albert Einstein)



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Handaxe from Le Bois-l’Abbé at Saint-Julien de la Liègue: Is the “Moustérien à petits bifaces dominants” an Archaeological Reality?

aggsbach st julien This is a small Handaxe (Fig.1; 6,5 x  5,2 x 1,5 cm) from Le Bois-l’Abbé at Saint-Julien de la Liègue a commune in the Eure department in Haute-Normandie in northern France. Four find spots of Paleolithic artifacts are known from the Saint-Julien de la Liègue vicinity since the 19th century, first announced in 1893 by L. Coutil. A first study of the material, today mainly stored in the departmental museum at Evreux and in large private collections, was published by R. Daniel in 1936.  Further techno-typological evaluation was performed by D. Clinquet in 1988 (both reports are to be found via persee) and more recently by K. Ruebens (via academia.edu).  Four sites with almost identical inventories were reported by Coutil and Daniel:

  •  Les Bruyères-Capri, commune de St-Aubin-sur-Gaillon
  •  Les Gros-Grès, commune d’Ecardenville
  •  Le Bois-l’Abbé, commune de la Croix-St-Leufroy
  •  Les Buissons – Brûlés, commune de St – Julien – de – la -Liègue

The artifactual spectrum of these sites comprises thousands of Handaxes (average size ca. 6 cm) These bifaces have often a plano-convex or, more rarely a biconvex cross section and are made from flakes. There are amygdaloidal, ovatale and discoidal handaxes as well as cordiforms and some foliated pieces (ca 75% of the assemblages). Tools on flake blanks (mainly non-Levallois) comprise about 25% of the collections. Among these, simple side scrapers are the most common form, followed by notches and denticulates. Bifacial scrapers are present in small quantities. Upper Paleolithic tools are present, but not very frequent, especially backed pieces are extremely rare. There are some raclettes with some affinities to the Middle European Micoquian. The sites are  dated by geochronological arguments between MIS5 to MIS3. muret eure aggsbachClinquet (2001) originally called the industry at Saint-Julien de la Liègue and some other sites in the Normandy and Northern France (Bois-du-Rocher, Fontmaure, Saint-Julien de la Liègue, Muret: Figure 2, and Clos-Rouge): the “Moustérien à petits bifaces dominants” (http://www.aggsbach.de/2010/08/the-mousterien-a-pieces-bifaciales-dominantes/). This designation was based on large surface collections and characterized by small handaxes (5-7 cm long) and the generalized application of a bifacial retouch on the majority of blanks. He separated this entity from other Middle Paleolithic “facies”:

  • Mousterien a bifaces triangulaires plats
  • Mousterien a bifaces non-triangulaires
  • Micoquian (which means a late Acheulian with Micoquian handaxes of considerable size)
  • Moustérien à pièces bifaciales dominantes

From Clinquet`s publication in 2002 about bifacial inustries in Northern Franc, it became immediately clear, that  these “entities” were rather the scientific artifacts of biased old surface collections. Similar classification systems without based on a secure database, assured by modern excavations, were and are equally used in Germany (for the Micoquian). It was time for a deconstruction of such traditional views, when Ruebens in her thesis (via academia.edu) asked for the reality of the “Moustérien à petit pièces bifaciales dominantes”. She showed, that ensembles dominated by small bifacial tools, are not confined to the Normandy, but occur across all Western Europe.

cornac aggsbach bifaceSmall average lengths of handaxes are therefore not a region- specific feature. Similar small bifaces are for example known from S/W-France in abundance belonging to the MIS3 MTA (Corgnac: Fig.3). In addition, as far as known, the causes of small dimensions of handaxes during the late Middle bifacial Paleolithic are neither securely related to raw material characteristics, the amount of reduction or resharpening or site function. This brings me back to the important work of Héloïse Koehler. She showed, for well excavated Middle Paleolithic industries  across Northern France during the Early Weichselian, that knowledge and interpretations of Archaeological patterns depend on choice of analytic tools. She showed that the use of different analytic frames revealed different interpretative results (2002). While the lithic assemblages are quite similar at a general scale of analysis, they look very different at a fine scale, at which five groups could be distinguished. Koehler proposes that these groups may reflect distinct technological traditions, included within similar cultural areas.

Ruebens, with a similar epistological approach,  showed that the most reliable scenario for the Late Bifacial  Middle Paleolithic in (North) Western Europe is a dichotomy of the MTA and the Middle European Micoquian (KMG) during MIS3. These entities are the smallest common denominators, when looking for differences of bifacial Middle Paleolithic industries accross Europe. These industry are defined by their own concept of tool production, core territories and a characteristic artifactual spectrum. Interestingly tool types and concepts from both entities have been intermixed at the “contact zones” of the MTA and KMG.

Fig 3: Two handaxes (triangular from the Charente; cordiform from the Dordogne; each ca 6 cm long, the lower one is made from Bergerac flint)

small perigord and charente

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