"Oh! Scrapers and Choppers and Picks. Oh My!" Apologies to L. Frank Baum et al.*

A representation of the Movius Line. [Somehow Ubeidiye was translocated to the Indian Ocean, far from its true position near to Ain Hanech in the Levant. Thanks to Norton for the inadvertent loan of this graphic. 

First, R.I.P. [Hallam L.] Movius Line, that 60+ year old invisible boundary between, on the one hand the ‘hand-axe’ Acheulean of Africa, Europe and south Asia, and on the other hand what at one time was conceived of as a ‘hand-ax’-less Lower Palaeolithic of east and southeast Asia. Those days are behind us. We know now that there are rock chunks similar enough to the ‘hand axes’ of the western side of Movius’s line[It seems to me that the ‘absence of hand axes’ in the eastern parts of Asia probably had more to do with Mao’s People’s Republic’s xenophobia and anti-intellectualism than with any empirical observation.]

Anyhoo, today’s phys.org brings us word of recent discoveries in the PRC.

“A Preliminary Report on the Excavation of the Guochachang II Paleolithic Site in the Danjiangkou Reservoir Region, Hubei Province,” by Hao Li, Chao-rong Li and Kathleen Kuman. Acta Anthropologica Sinica 32(2):144–155, 2013.

The open-air early Palaeolithic site of Guochachang yielded 132 stone artifacts from an excavation that covered approximately 500 m2. The swag comprises 9 hammerstones, 14 cores, 69 flakes, 18 chunks, and 22 “stone tools.” Those “tools” are diagnosed as 13 ‘scrapers,’ 5 ‘choppers,’ 1 ‘pick,’ and 3 ‘handaxes.’

A while back, here and here, I unsubtly tried to bang home the final nail in the coffin of the old typology that ascribes function by analogy to shapes that are broadly familiar to modern humans: the chopper, the axe, the pick, the discoid, and the cleaver. With nothing other than shape to use as a determinant of function, those old archaeologists [and the ones that continue to use such typologies in the present] are employing what’s known as a ‘formal analogy,’ i.e. one based purely on shape. Such analogies are often a good place to start, but they are notoriously fickle when it comes down to interpreting the true function of a lump of stone. What’s needed are solid ‘relational’ analogies that use more than resemblance in arguing for a ‘real’ similarity of form

Here’s a quick example. Claiming that a lump of rock is a hand axe because its shape reminds one of an axe head is tantamount to claiming that the item below, on the left, is a cow femur, which is what the item on the right happens, in fact, to be.

By the way, the item on the left is a [nearly anatomically correct] doggy chew toy, if it wasn’t already abundantly clear.
So, Li, Li, and Kuman begin with the unremarkable pieces in the assemblage. A hammerstone, a core, and some small and large flakes. So far, so good.

From “A Preliminary Report on the Excavation of the Guochachang II Paleolithic Site in the Danjiangkou Reservoir Region, Hubei Province,” by Hao Li, Chao-rong Li and Kathleen Kuman. Acta Anthropologica Sinica 32(2):144–155, 2013.

The authors then show us 2 of the 13 ‘scrapers’ [1 and 2 in the drawing below], the solitary ‘pick’ [item number 3], and 3 ‘choppers’ [4, 5, and 6]. Compare the two views of item 2 in the drawing above with the two views of ‘chopper’ number 5 in the drawing below. Both have cortex dorsally and ventrally [whichever is which—take your pick. No, not number 3, the ‘pick’!]. Both have had flakes removed dorsally and ventrally. Yet the one above is called a core [which is a safe inference] and the one below is deemed a ‘chopper,’ not such a secure inference. What, I ask you, is so different about these two rocks that they are classified differently—the one as a source of flakes, and the other as the desired end product? I think most of us would be hard pressed to mount a convincing argument either way. The authors have clearly imbibed the Kool-Aid of the French lithic ‘school’ and that of L. S. B. Leakey.

I don’t read Mandarin Chinese. So, I’m just guessing. I think 1 and 2 are probably the “scrapers”; 4, 5, and 6 are likely the “choppers”; 3 is most likely the “pick.” From “A Preliminary Report on the Excavation of the Guochachang II Paleolithic Site in the Danjiangkou Reservoir Region, Hubei Province,” by Hao Li, Chao-rong Li and Kathleen Kuman. Acta Anthropologica Sinica 32(2):144–155, 2013.
Finally, Li, Li and Kuman trot out the 3 ‘hand axes.’ I dunno. I think it’s a bit of a stretch even to label these three rock lumps as ‘hand axes,’ with or without the implicit functional ascription. These are some pretty sad looking ‘hand axes,’ if you ask me. The shape of number 1, below, could NEVER have been intentional. Unless the ‘knapper’ could foresee where the natural fracture planes were, inside the rock, the shape of very few of the removals could have been predicted. Thus, the shape we see is just the product of happenstance.
Hand axe #1. 
Check out the impressive number of unintentionally shaped removals. Most simply follow the natrual fracture planes of the rock. Can you say that? “Fracture plane?”

The same is undoubtedly true of ‘hand ax’ #2, pictured below.

Hand axe #2
Once again, a good number of unintentionally shaped removals. 

Maybe I lack the imagination required to be an archaeologist of the palaeolithic. Clearly I don’t see whatever it is that the Real Palaeolithic Archaeologists see in these lumps. Jeebuz Murphy!

Hand axe #3.

I have no idea why the authors didn’t label this one a ‘pick.’ From “A Preliminary Report on the Excavation of the Guochachang II Paleolithic Site in the Danjiangkou Reservoir Region, Hubei Province,” by Hao Li, Chao-rong Li and Kathleen Kuman. Acta Anthropologica Sinica 32(2):144–155, 2013.
I won’t be beating this dead equine any further today. I’m sure that there’ll be plenty more opportunities down the track.
One thing’s for sure.The Finished Artifact Fallacy is alive and well and living in east Asia.
Take care. I’ll see you again as soon as I can find some time to work up a critical lather.

* Members of the et al.

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