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Another One Bites the Dust

27 September 2014

The consensus turned upside down and a wriggling in the aisles. This time it is the consensus view on how to read ancient stone tools found in sediments such as river gravels and fossil soils. When archaeologists look at stone tools (assuming they are tools rather than bits of fractured and broken stone that look like tools) as used by early Palaeolithic peoples they look at them through the lens of an assumed Darwinian evolution in the technology. This view is fostered at university and in text books and even in examples of tools found in museums, and so on. They are programmed to interpret stone tools as subject to advance in technique over long periods of time. How on earth can they distinguish between a tool fashioned 800,000 years ago and one made just 300,000 years ago (on the uniformitarian time scale). Hence, in order to create some sense of order out of a lot of stone objects, and to define a Lower and a Middle Palaeolithic as part of the process of that evolution in technique, they have created the impression that one group was more sophisticated than another group. They have even invented a separate movement Out of Africa between the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic periods as progress is thought to have occurred only on that continent – the genesis of humanity.

The chickens have come home to roost at a site in Armenia that is turning out to have all sorts of setbacks for mainstream – as reported last year – see http://phys.org/print330871722.html. The idea developed that Levallois technology was considered to be the more advanced and where evidence of this was found it was assigned a Middle Palaeolithic date, whereas simple axes were considered to be Lower Palaeolithic. The use of an obscure term such as Levallois technique also tends to cloud the issue and confuse the person with a casual interest in prehistory. Basically, if you take a lump of stone you can make a number of things out of it. For example, an axe or pounder, a club or a hammer, all require a rather solid lump of stone as the finished product, and stone is chipped off it to achieve the desired shape and feel (and to fit individual hands). However, it you want of make something that is sharp such as a scraper (to dress animal skins) or a sharp edge (to use like a knife to cut sinew and animal flesh away from bone) you produce a slender flake of stone, two techniques that involved chipping away at a core of stone. One uses the core of the stone as the final product and discards the flakes while the other discards the core and uses the flakes (which are the product desired and chipped away in order to fashion them to a specific shape). The idea that one came before the other may in part be true but they were obviously in use at the same time over the greater period of time. Instantly we have a Lower and Middle Palaeolithic that may be re-defined as pre-modern human Palaeolithic (and include Homo erectus and Neanderthals). In fact, recent discoveries in Armenia also suggest different early human groups were actually co-existing with each other – which appears to contradict the idea of delineating species in spacial time by small changes in skulls.

The surprise may really be why archaeologists would think that being able to cut things was more developed than being able to bash other people on the head – but education is all about implanting information into the heads of students and pupils, and once embedded these things are difficult to let go. You only have to read Phil Plait's blog to realise that. The fact this has been going on for a long time is easy to explain as stone tools are usually found in contexts with no human bone material and the eagerness to catalogue and compartmentalise information made it necessary to distinguish technique to fit the different known skull groups (from other contexts). The fact that very little Palaeolithic bone material has survived is neither here nor there. It was decided stone tools of one type defined Homo erectus and stone tools of a different kind defined Neanderthals (or what ever). Sorted. That goes in one box and that goes in another. The story can be found at www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-09/uoc-sas091914.php and is derived from a paper in the journal Science (Sept 2014). A site in Armenia preserved between two lava flows contains an ancient soil horizon and various sediments that have been dated 325,000 years ago. People living there were using both Lower and Middle Palaeolithic technologies. The findings of the paper throw cold water at the idea the Levellois flake technique was invented in a time capsule separate from humans outside Africa. It was clearly being used by humans in Armenia at an early stage of development.

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