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Stone Age site challenges old archaeological assumptions about human technology

The analysis of artifacts from a 325,000-year-old site in Armenia shows that human technological innovation occurred intermittently throughout the Old World, rather than spreading from a single point of origin, as previously thought.

Stone Age site challenges old archaeological assumptions about human technology
The artifacts were discovered in 2008, after the Armenian military bulldozed 
a road and uncovered the ancient stone tools [Credit: Daniel S. Adler]
The study, published today in the journal Science, examines thousands of stone artifacts retrieved from Nor Geghi 1, a unique site preserved between two lava flows dated to 200,000-400,000 years ago. Layers of floodplain sediments and an ancient soil found between these lava flows contain the archaeological material. The dating of volcanic ash found within the sediments and detailed study of the sediments themselves allowed researchers to correlate the stone tools with a period between 325,000 and 335,000 years ago when Earth's climate was similar to today's.

The stone tools provide early evidence for the simultaneous use of two distinct technologies: biface technology, commonly associated with hand axe production during the Lower Paleolithic, and Levallois technology, a stone tool production method typically attributed to the Middle Stone Age in Africa and the Middle Paleolithic in Eurasia. Traditionally, Archaeologists use the development of Levallois technology and the disappearance of biface technology to mark the transition from the Lower to the Middle Paleolithic roughly 300,000 years ago.

Archaeologists have argued that Levallois technology was invented in Africa and spread to Eurasia with expanding human populations, replacing local biface technologies in the process. This theory draws a link between populations and technologies and thus equates technological change with demographic change. The co-existence of the two technologies at Nor Geghi 1 provides the first clear evidence that local populations developed Levallois technology out of existing biface technology.

Stone Age site challenges old archaeological assumptions about human technology
Levallois and biface tools [Credit: Royal Holloway/University of London]
"The combination of these different technologies in one place suggests to us that, about 325,000 years ago, people at the site were innovative," says Daniel Adler, associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, and the study's lead author. Moreover, the chemical analysis of several hundred obsidian artifacts shows that humans at the site utilized obsidian outcrops from as far away as 120 kilometers (approximately 75 miles), suggesting they must also have been capable of exploiting large, environmentally diverse territories.

The paper argues that biface and Levallois technology, while distinct in many regards, share a common pedigree. In biface technology, a mass of stone is shaped through the removal of flakes from two surfaces in order to produce a tool such as a hand axe. The flakes detached during the manufacture of a biface are treated as waste. In Levallois technology, a mass of stone is shaped through the removal of flakes in order to produce a convex surface from which flakes of predetermined size and shape are detached. The predetermined flakes produced through Levallois technology are the desired products. Archaeologists suggest that Levallois t echnology is optimal in terms of raw material use and that the predetermined flakes are relatively small and easy to carry. These were important issues for the highly mobile hunter-gatherers of the time.

It is the novel combination of the shaping and flaking systems that distinguishes Levallois from other technologies, and highlights its evolutionary relationship to biface technology. Based on comparisons of archaeological data from sites in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, the study also demonstrates that this evolution was gradual and intermittent, and that it occurred independently within different human populations who shared a common technological ancestry, says Adler. In other words Levallois technology evolved out of pre-existing biface technology in different places at different times.

This conclusion challenges the view held by some Archaeologists that technological change resulted from population change during this period. "If I were to take all the artifacts from the site and show them to an archaeologist, they would immediately begin to categorize them into chronologically distinct groups," Adler said. In reality, the artifacts found at Nor Geghi 1 reflect the technological flexibility and variability of a single population during a period of profound human behavioral and biological change. These results highlight the antiquity of the human capacity for innovation.

Source: University of Connecticut [September 25, 2014]

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  1. Thanks for this: another article confirming our view that Pleistocene Homo did not run over open plains, but simply followed coasts & rivers, see the coastal sites as far as Java (Mojokerto amid barnicles & shells, Flores min.18 km oversea), S-Africa (the Cape, whale-butschering site Dungo V Angola) & England (Pakefield, Boxgrove).
    Initially (early-Pleistocene?), Homo beach-combed, waded & dived for waterside & shallow aquatic foods, later Homo gradually (seasonally) ventured inland along rivers. This fits the floodplain at Nor Geghi 1, and also the use of "obsidian from as far away as 120 km ... suggesting they must also have been capable of exploiting large, environmentally diverse territories": "waterside" rather than "diverse"?
    I guess bifaces & flakes had different purposes, e.g. cutting wetland cattails or waterlilies (e.g. eaten by neandertals) vs opening coastal shells or nuts?? See my talk at the conference with Don Johanson & David Attenborough on human waterside evolution in London 8-10 May 2013: "The Aquatic Ape Evolves: Common Misconceptions and Unproven Assumptions about the So-Called Aquatic Ape Hypothesis" Hum.Evol.28:237-266, 2013.

  2. My entire contention is that if you follow the trails of migratory mammals, there you will find the most Palaeolithic homonid sites.

  3. Yes, Jeff, this is often believed, I know, but it's incorrect. First we have to discern between australopiths & Homo. Australopiths typically lay in swamp forests, papyrus swamps, wetlands, lagoons etc. (which some like to call savanna in the broad sense), but they have nothing to do with Homo's special evolution. Homo's Paleolithic sites appeared also outside Africa, e.g. the oldest sites (about 1.8 Ma) were Mojokerto in Java (amid barnacles & shellfish), Aïn-Hanech in Algeria (tools, coastal plain), Dmanisi in Georgia (confluence of large rivers near the Black-Caspian connection at the time), Turkana Lake (where H.erectus appeared together with stingrays: large marine connection). No migratory mammal goes from Dmanisi to Mojokerto. But a comparable dispersal is seen in the pakicetids: the earliest pakicetids were found in Pakistan, but as soon as they became pachyostotic (i.e. got heavy bones for shallow diving) they soon dispersed globally, and even appeared in the Pacific Ocan coasts. In archaic Homo, we see something comparable: as soon as Homo got littoral characteristics (e.g. pachostosis, platycephaly, platymeria, external nose, drastic brain expansion) we see them all along the coasts from Indonesia to Algeria. I guess that when glacial sea-levels dropped, vast shellfish-rich & tree-poor areas came available on the continental shelves for intelligent, tool-using, handy human ancestors: they colonised the "new" territories, gradually learned to dive deeper, developed lithic technology to open shellfish, and spread all over the warmer coasts of the Old World. Most of these places are 100 or so metres below sea-level today, but where there was geological uplift, we can sometimes find their fossils or tools. Soon Homo populations ventured inland, following the rivers, and used their tools for a lot of other purposes.
    The coasts also allowed the evolution of human language: early hominoids already produced "musical" songs, not unlike duetting gibbons, but as soon as they started eating seafood, they got a lot of brain-specific nutrients (e.g.DHA), they developed oral adaptations for swallowing (instead of biting) soft & slippery foods, so they could close the mouth at different places: lips, teeth, palate, uvula (cf.labial, dental, palatal, uvular consoantns), and in order to dive for shells, they had to control their breath, another preadaptation to human speech, e.g. see our 2011 paper: M Vaneechoutte, S Munro & M Verhaegen "Seafood, diving, song and speech" pp.181-9 in M Vaneechoutte, A Kuliukas & M Verhaegen eds 2011 "Was Man More Aquatic in the Past? Fifty Years after Alister Hardy: Waterside Hypotheses of Human Evolution" eBook Bentham Sci.Publ.
    Human evolution is not difficult if we only treat humans like all other animals, and don't fabricate just-so stories of humans losing their fur to run over hot savannas and then having to develop sweat-glands to cool (sweat = water & salt is scarce in savannas)...
    FYI, "The Aquatic Ape Evolves: Common Misconceptions and Unproven Assumptions about the So-Called Aquatic Ape Hypothesis" Hum.Evol.28:237-266, 2013.


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