The Levallois Technique: Human Evolution or Intelligent Design?


I’m feeling my oats, today. I’ve been thinking about my efforts to overturn ideas about the Levallois technique of chipping stone. For a great many archaeologists it represents a technically complex process that is governed by the desired end product. This view is so deeply entrenched in palaeolithic archaeological theory that it is tantamount to orthodoxy. I’ve tried to dispel this idea using sarcasm, innuendo, irony, satire, and . . . oh, yeah . . . empirical observation, to no avail. A few days ago, sitting on the porcelain throne, it came to me that there’s an almost one-to-one correspondence between the way the Levallois is viewed and . . . *waits while the room becomes suddenly, deadly quiet* Intelligent Design [ID]. If you’re not familiar with this so-called scientific theory, all you need to know is that ID is the movement formerly known as Creationism [or the theory of Special Creation]. Yup. ID is the same old poppycock about the ultimate goal of a Christianized supernatural being that has been a pain in the ass for science since the nineteenth century [where it should have remained], and is now very much favoured by Christian Supremacists in North America. Same bull; different moniker. So I’d like to bring my novel argument to the intertubes—run in up the flag-pole, as it were—to see if anyone salutes.

Speaking of saluting. Let’s hope that if someone metaphorically ‘salutes’ my newest brain-child, it won’t be in the same manner as these youthful citizens were doing in May 1942 while the group was reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America, in Southington, Connecticut ;-)]. This tiny slice of US history was brought to you by the Subversive Archaeologist‘s irony allele.

This was,  indeed, the posture prescribed when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance of the United States, from the time American socialist Francis Bellamy wrote it in 1892, until it was replaced in 1942, for fairly obvious reasons. This image was captured in May 1942 by photojournalist Charles Fenno Jacobs, who was at the time employed by the US government. The US Congress formally adopted the Pledge in 1942. At that time a new-and-improved approved salute was written into law. Photograph in the Library of Congress.

I found it on this web site

Now, back to our story.

[If you’re in need of a Levallois technique refresher, I’ve created a special Subversive Archaeologist Primer that recaps my past arguments, and provides links to SA articles that bear on this matter.]

You may know that I’ve repeatedly called for the revision of palaeoanthropological thought on the Levallois technique. You remember? The Levallois method of knapping stone is claimed to be a way to reduce a block of stone in a complicated sequence that achieves a desired end-product [that even modern humans have a lot of trouble replicating]. Of course, being able to replicate a stone artifact cannot, logically, stand as evidence that the object being replicated was manufactured with the same end point in mind. It’s the fundamental fallacy of stone artifact-replication experiments.

François Bordes

Nevertheless, on the basis of François Bordes‘s ingenious ‘reverse-engineering’ of Middle Palaeolithic artifacts, French archaeologists have, for over half a century, described the presumed Levallois technique as très pensée [~ingenious]. I’ve prattled on about the [very real] possibility that, rather than its being a really ingenious method, it’s ingenuity is entirely in the minds of the archaeologists that construct its use in this way. There’s another logical fallacy at work here, too. It’s this: the orthodox view of the technique was constructed from a experience-near, source-side analogy* to the way modern humans have prepared stone tools over the past 40 ka or so. It’s completely bass-ackwards. We should be trying to understand the Levallois technique from the point of view of what came before. That’s crucial if we’re ever to achieve a more objective understanding of the cognition behind this behaviour. [Notice I didn’t say, merely, “objective.” At best we can hope for an objectivity mitigated by our understanding of the intellectual and cultural ‘baggage’ that we carry with us in our quest for knowledge of our past.]

This proposition, while independently theorized by your favourite subversive archaeologist [but not in print], isn’t original. In the early 90s Iain Davidson and Bill Noble recognized the same theoretical bias, calling the phenomenon the ‘Finished Artifact Fallacy.’ Indeed, most palaeolithic archaeologists labour under the anachronistic and erroneous mind-set that imagines a stone-worker’s intent can be directly inferred from an artifact’s morphology. It’s not just bad inference-making; it’s bad science!

Schematic representation of the Levallois technique, involving removal of a 
great number of preparation flakes intended to set up for removal of a 
final flake with a morphology that was envisioned before the process began.  

Kayso, in the Levallois Technique the two major claims are 1) that it first demands careful preparation to produce what’s called a tortoise shell-shaped core, and 2) that the tortoise-shell core is the platform from which will be struck one and sometimes two flakes that have a morphology akin [only akin] to an artifact shape for which modern archaeologists claim a certain function based on its topological resemblance to stone artifacts known from the ethnographic record [and a lot that aren’t]. It’s . . . pardon my French . . .absurde, in the first place, to think such thoughts, and in the second place, abracadabrantesque, simply to assume it was so. As the basis for one’s inferences of Middle Palaeolithic bipedal ape behaviour and cognitive complexity, we need a bit more than weak argument and a leap of faith!

The Levallois Point is a perfect example. I took the photograph below while excavating at Kebara Cave, Israel, in 1989.** Well, actually,*** the original depicted only the Levallois Point in the middle. I’ve superimposed a Dalton Point  and a generic fluted point, from North America’s Archaic and Paleo-Indian Periods, respectively. I’ve brought them in to illustrate how patronizing it seems to me to look at the one in the middle and say that it bears enough of a resemblance to the generic type category, ‘projectile point,’ to be considered one and the same thing. In fact, it’s downright condescending to point *cough* to the item in the middle and say that it must be such a tool—sub-text: “We all know those big, lovable blockheads, the Neanderthals, couldn’t quite get the symmetry in the way that modern humans can, nor, for that matter the idea that a simple flake can be turned into such a shape through judicious application of retouch.” Patronizing? I’ll say! And so 1990! [Aside: at the end of the day, ‘retouch’ may be seen as the only, real, Middle Palaeolithic innovation in stone-tool making. Just sayin.]

Left, Dalton Point; middle, Levallois Point; right, fluted point.

That brings us to today’s matter. A lesson in how to talk to dyed-in-the-wool advocates for a genius behind the so-called Levallois technique. Forget highfalutin talk about equifinality, and misplaced formal analogy.**** Forget trying to show them that Bordes’s Levallois core and flake types are a load o’ hooey. Instead, get straight to the point *coughs [again!]* and embarrass the Hell outa them. How? Let me count the ways! Well, actually, the way. One. Just one.

It’s rather easy. You need only point out to them that their view of the so-called Levallois technique uses the same ill logic as the theory of Intelligent Design promoted by Christian Supremacists as the holy alternative to evolution by natural selection.

That’s it, Rob? That’s the best you can do? You said as much in the first paragraph! What gives?

Need I say more?

Oh, all right! I’m really sorry for dragging you this far, and having said so very little about my novel idea. What I’ve said is all there really is to say about it. Seriously. So, I ask you again, “Need I say more?”

All right! No need to yell! My last word? OK. Today’s final word will be a riddle. What do you get when you prepare a Levallois tortoise-shell core but don’t remove the final flake? Answer: a hand axe, of course!


* Gotcha! Experience-near, source-side analogy means those that are based on knowledge constructed in the present, and which are then used to infer that a process or phenomenon from the past is the result of the same process or phenomenon in the present. Or, words to that effect. Sort of.

**Thanks again, Ofer and Paul, and the rest of the équipe for letting me play in the dirt with you at Kebara! Sorry about the whole burial thing. Nothing personal!

*** There’s a strange harmony between what the English say to contradict or to affirm the reality—actually—and what the French say in a similar social context—en verité, [literally ‘in truth’]. In fact, the French word actuellement [literally ‘actually’] is actually used to signal something that is happening ‘as we speak,’ as it were. My mischievous, satyrical historical–satirical side thinks this may reflect the long-standing [but for the past couple of centuries, simmering] antipathy between the French and the English over who owns what, where. 

****  A formal analogy is made when two things—whether processes or phenomena—that share some similarities—usually readily observable—are claimed to be more or less the same, by presuming other—usually unobservable—similarities.  It was Alison Wylie who first brought to my attention the distinction between formal analogies and relational analogies, those analogies in which causal relationships between different processes or phenomena that can be observed or inferred. For me, formal analogy is like inferring that a doggy bone in the shape of a real bone is, in fact, a real bone; while relational analogy describes the reasoning behind identifying once-living organisms from their fossils. 

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Those Awesome Neanderthals

How many ways can I express these thoughts without you, Dear Reader, getting totally tired of hearing them? 

I have no choice, since the message doesn’t seem to be sinking in for a great many Very Important Palaeoanthropologists. If you’re one of those readers, read on and be joyful.
I’ve had an epiphany. I’ve come to realize that the oft-maligned Neanderthals were really truly brilliant bipedal apes. Let me count the ways.
had bigger brains than us;
made stone tools using a technique that most contemporary human flint-knappers find difficult, if not impossible, to emulate, and which was so awesome that they and their predecessors did it the same way for upwards of 250,000 years, and produced more stone tool types than the Midas Muffler Man has Craftsman wrenches;  
knew how to dry-distill birch bark to produce a very sticky substance that they used to glue an incredibly-difficult-to-produce pointed piece of stone to a piece of wood with which to thrust into or hurl at prey animals, large and small. In a pinch [one presumes] they used asphalt for the same purpose;
made pointed sticks that are like javelins;
buried their dead;
made and used fire, with which to cook food and, as foreshadowed above, to dry-distill birch bark to make birch tar;
were able to copy the artifacts of us skinny bipedal apes;
knew about the medicinal qualities of various plants in their environment;
were smart enough to rule the world and all its creatures for more than 50,000 years;
made dugout canoes, but strangely, not birch-bark canoes;
lived in the Holy Land, but without all the wars and shit;
buried their dead;
made useful items out of animal skin, such as clothing and ditty bags;
turned naturally occurring objects into works of art;
talked like you and I;
built amazing structures inside caves and rock shelters, and even more amazing ones out in the open that they made out of mammoth bones;
had dentists and social security;
charmed the skinny newcomers to Europe, and made babies galore, from which you and I are descended.
were so attractive that they bred so often with us as to water down their genome such that no modern people have big faces, retro-molar gaps, huge noses and eyes, big fat cortical bone in their legs, and so many other traits that distinguished them from us for their entire existence up ’til about 40,000 years ago;
and they buried their dead;
collected dark-coloured feathers, probably to make capes for the important Neanderthals;
dismembered birds of prey to acquire their talons, prob’ly to use as symbols of power, or to guard against evil spirits or, Bush-like, Evil-doers;
liked shiny, colourful things, like seashells and red ochre;
sometimes ate each other, like the Donner Party, when there was nary an edible anything in their environment;
wouldn’t have looked out of place on a New York subway train;
were really, really strong. So strong that they’d have kicked ass as wrestlers, boxers, or football players (whichever way your culture construes the term football);
Oh, yeah, they buried their dead, often in invisible graves, and sometimes used natural depressions to save time and energy for more important stuff, like . . .  everything else;
I can prob’ly stop there. As I said, there’s no longer any doubt in my mind that the Neanderthals and their contemporaries were excellent at everything we are, and better than us in so many ways that it’s almost embarrassing at the species level.