Middle Paleolithic Tool and Subsistence Patterns

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Stone tool industry[edit | edit source]

Flint tool found in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt

Neanderthals and their contemporaries seem to have been associated everywhere with similar stone tool industries, called the Mousterian (after Le Moustier Cave in France). Therefore no fundamental behavioral difference is noticeable. The implication may be that the anatomical differences between Neanderthals and near-moderns have more to do with climatic adaptation and genetic flow than with differences in behavior.

Archaeological sites are dominated by flake tools. By contrast, Acheulean sites are dominated by large handaxes and choppers. Handaxes are almost absent from Middle Paleolithic sites. Oldowan hominids used mainly flake tools as well. However, unlike the small, irregular Oldowan flakes, the Middle Paleolithic hominids produced quite symmetric, regular flakes using sophisticated methods.

The main method is called the Levallois and it involves three steps in the core reduction:

  1. the flintknapper prepares a core having one precisely shaped convex surface;
  2. then, the knapper makes a striking platform at one end of the core;
  3. finally, the knapper hits the striking platform, knocking off a flake whose shape is determined by the original shape of the core.

Mousterian tools are more variable than Acheulean tools. Traditionally tools have been classified into a large number of distinct types based on their shape and inferred function. Among the most important ones are:

  • points;
  • side scrapers, flake tools bearing a retouched edge on one or both sides;
  • denticulates, flake tools with a succession of irregular adjacent notches on one or both sides.
Flint points found in Loiret, France

Francois Bordes found that Middle Paleolithic sites did not reveal a random mix of tool types, but fell into one of four categories that he called Mousterian variants. Each variant had a different mix of tool types. Bordes concluded that these sites were the remains of four wandering groups of Neanderthals, each preserving a distinct tool tradition over time and structured much like modern ethnic groups.

Recent studies give reason to doubt Bordes' interpretation. Many archaeologists believe that the variation among sites results from differences in the kinds of activity performed at each locality. For example, Lewis Binford argued that differences in tool types depend on the nature of the site and the nature of the work performed. Some sites may have been base camps where people lived, while others may have been camps at which people performed subsistence tasks. Different tools may have been used at different sites for woodworking, hide preparation, or butchering prey.

Recently, however, microscopic studies of wear patterns on Mousterian tools suggest that the majority of tools were used mainly for woodworking. As a result, there seems to be no association between a tool type (such as a point or a side-scraper) and the task for which it was used.

Mousterian points and scrapers

Microscopic analyses of the wear patterns on Mousterian tools also suggest that stone tools were hafted, probably to make spears.

Mousterian hominids usually made tools from rocks acquired locally. Raw materials used to make tools can typically be found within a few kilometers of the site considered.

Subsistence Patterns[edit | edit source]

Neanderthal sites contain bones of many animals alongside Mousterian stone tools. European sites are rich in bones of red deer, fallow deer, bison, aurochs, wild sheep, wild goat and horse, while eland, wildebeest, zebra are found often at African sites. Archaeologists find only few bones of very large animals such as hippopotamus, rhinoceros and elephant, even though they were plentiful in Africa and Europe.

This pattern has provoked as much debate at similar ambiguity as for earlier hominids, regarding the type of food procurement responsible for the presence of these bones: hunting or scavenging.

Several general models have be offered to explain the Mousterian faunal exploitation:

Obligate Scavenger Model[edit | edit source]

Some archaeologists (such as Lewis Binford) believe that Neanderthals and their contemporaries in Africa never hunted anything larger than small antelope, and even these prey were acquired opportunistically, not as a result of planned hunts. Any bones of larger animals were acquired by scavenging. As evidence in support of this view, the body parts which dominate (skulls and foot bones) are commonly available to scavengers. Binford believes that hominids of this period did not have the cognitive skills necessary to plan and organize the cooperative hunts necessary to bring down large prey. Mousterian hominids were nearly as behaviorally primitive as early Homo.

Flexible Hunter-Scavenger Model[edit | edit source]

Other scientists argue that Neanderthals likely were not obligate scavengers, but that during times when plant foods were abundant they tended to scavenger rather than hunt. At other times, when plant foods were less abundant, Neanderthals hunted regularly. Their interpretation is of a flexible faunal exploitation strategy that shifted between hunting and scavenging.

Less-Adept Hunter Model[edit | edit source]

Other scientists believe that Neanderthals were primarily hunters who regularly killed large animals. But they were less effective hunters than are modern humans. They point out that animal remains at Mousterian sites are often made up of one or two species:

For example, at Klasies River, vast majority of bones are from eland.

The prey animals are large creatures, and they are heavily overrepresented at these sites compared with their occurrence in the local ecosystem. It is hard to see how an opportunistic scavenger would acquire such a non-random sample of the local fauna. One important feature of this model is that animal prey hunted such as eland are not as dangerous prey as buffalo. Middle Paleolithic hominids were forced to focus on the less dangerous (but less abundant) eland, because they were unable to kill the fierce buffalo regularly.

Fully Adept Hunter Model[edit | edit source]

Finally some scientists argue that scavenging was not a major component of the Middle Paleolithic diet and there is little evidence of a less effective hunting strategy. Skeletal element abundance and cut mark patterning would be consistent with hunting.

Overall, there is currently no evidence that Middle Paleolithic hominids differed from Upper Paleolithic hominids in scavenging or hunting, the most fundamental aspect of faunal exploitation. The differences that separate Middle Paleolithic hominids from modern hominids may not reside in scavenging versus hunting or the types of animals that they pursued. Differences in the effectiveness of carcass use and processing, with their direct implications for caloric yield, may be more important.

Neanderthals lacked sophisticated meat and fat storage technology, as well as productive fat rendering technology. At a minimum, the lack of storage capabilities and a lower caloric yield per carcass have forced Neanderthals to use larger foraging ranges to increase the likelihood of successful encounters with prey.

Cannibalism[edit | edit source]

Marks on human bones from Middle Paleolithic can be the result of two phenomena: violence and cannibalism.

Violence[edit | edit source]

Violence can be recognized on bone assemblages by:

  • marks of weapons;
  • cutmarks on skull produced by scalping;
  • removal of heads and hands as trophies;
  • breakage of faces;
  • much less "body processing" than in case of cannibalism.

Evidence for violence in the Middle Paleolithic is extremely rare.

Body processing and cannibalism[edit | edit source]

By contrast, evidence of body processing and cannibalism is becoming more widespread at different times and in different geographical areas.

Chronology[edit | edit source]

Lower Paleolithic
Sterkfontein (South Africa): cannibalism
Bodo cranium (Ethiopia): cannibalism
Atapuerca (Spain): cannibalism
Middle Paleolithic (Neanderthals)
Krapina (Croatia): body processing
Moula-Guercy (France): cannibalism
Marillac (France): cannibalism
Combe-Grenal (France): cannibalism
Middle Paleolithic (Homo sapiens idaltu)
Herto (Ethiopia): body processing
Upper Paleolithic (with Neanderthals)
Vindija (Croatia): cannibalism
Zafarraya (Spain): cannibalism
Fontbrégoua (France): cannibalism

Criteria[edit | edit source]

Criteria required for a "minimal taphonomic signature" of cannibalism:

  • breakage of bones (to get at marrow and brain);
  • cut marks suggesting butchery;
  • so-called anvil abrasions left where a bone has rested on a stone anvil whilst it is broken with a hammer stone;
  • burning (after breakage and cutting);
  • virtual absence of vertebrae (crushed or boiled to get at marrow and grease);
  • "pot polishing" on the ends of bones which have been cooked and stirred in a clay pot.

These criteria must be found on both hominid and ungulate remains. Finally the types of bones usually broken are the crania and limb bones.

Patterns[edit | edit source]

Different behavioral patterns toward the dead among Middle Paleolithic Neanderthals:

  • Cannibalism: Moula-Guercy
    • Human individuals defleshed and disarticulated.
    • Bones smashed for marrow and brain.
  • Mortuary practices with body processing: Krapina, Herto
    • Postmortem processing of corpses with stone tools, probably in preparation for burial of cleaned bones.
    • No evidence of marrow processing.
  • Mortuary practices without body processing: Southwest Asia (Amud, Kebara, Shanidar)
    • Intentional burials; dead bodies placed carefully in burial pits with tools and grave goods.