Sheesh! Handy Items, Handaxes. Or Maybe Not. Beyene et al. and the oldest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia

From: “The characteristics and chronology of the earliest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia,” by Yonas Beyene et al.
PNAS, published online before print January 28, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221285110

I hafta hand it to the early stone age archaeologists and their enablers. They persist in identifying artifacts such as the one shown above as “tools” [in this case a hand axe] without ever having demonstrated that these artifacts were used as tools. It’s the conventional wisdom. Who can blame them? The latest voodoo archaeology comes to us from the pages of PNAS, in an article claiming the earliest Acheulean assemblages ever discovered—1.75 Ma! That’s a fab result on the dating side, but not so much on the artifact typology side. [You might have expected me to say as much.]
     In the case of the unit shown above, it’s a wee bit of a reach to call this a ‘hand’ axe. It might better be described as a two-handed axe or, perhaps, a two-fisted axe. Or, better still: a mangler. It’s on the large side, it seems to me, to have been used one-handed. Most of the other so-called hand axes illustrated in the Bayene et al. article are similarly size grande, as are the so-called cleavers and picks. The image below is a montage that I made from three of Beyene et al.’s figures. I’ve adjusted their sizes to present them at the same scale [plus or minus my ability to observe when the red smudges lined up in the three photographs]. I’ve also oriented them with what I infer is the distal [or bulb of percussion] end of the original flake at the bottom.
     I’ve chosen to present these artifacts in this way so it might be easier for the reader to observe that the range of variation in dorsal outline amongst these three classifications—‘hand axe,’ ‘cleaver,’ and ‘pick’—could easily be a function of the number of times the original flake was whacked, as opposed to the ultimate intention. For example, if the so-called handaxes in the top row were in fact just cores, it’s easy to see how one attempt more or less to remove useful flakes could easily result in a shape that would be considered more like a cleaver or a pick. I’d love to see those inevitable lumps of bifacially flaked rocks from Konso that the excavators didn’t view as ‘tools.’ I’m fairly certain they were there, and sufficiently amorphous that they were simply deemed cores and not tools. They would very likely fill in the gaps in the range of shapes, producing a continuum from discoid through to pick-oid.

Upper row: Dorsal view of a chronological series of artifacts classified as Tools/hand axes. Earliest at left. Bottom row, from the left: Dorsal view three artifacts classified as cleavers; Dorsal view of six artifacts classified as picks (From “The characteristics and chronology of the earliest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia,” by Yonas Beyene et al.PNAS, published online before print January 28, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221285110) [scale in cm]. 

In the past I’ve received a little back-chat having to do with the Oldowan classification, which still retains the vestiges of the formed tool paradigm. I think it’s fair to say that those classifications are still present in the minds of lower palaeolithic archaeologists. To give you an idea of how far back in time such categories as handaxe, cleaver and pick are pushed, have a look at the illustration below, from CJ Lepre, et al. “An earlier origin for the Acheulian.” Nature 477(7362):82-5, . 2011. doi: 10.1038/nature10372. I’m fairly sure that to call this assemblage Acheulean is a bit fantastic.

Supplementary Figure 2: World’s oldest known Acheulean (ca. 1.76 Ma) from KS4, West Turkana (Kenya). Photo P.-J.Texier © MPK/WTAP, from Supp. Ref. 5. Top: Partial crude handaxe made on a flat large phonolite cobble. Middle: Pick-like tool with a trihedral section, made on a thick split phonolite pebble. Bottom: Partial crude handaxe made on a thick split phonolite pebble. From CJ Lepre, et al. “An earlier origin for the Acheulian.” Nature 477(7362), 82-5, 2011. doi: 10.1038/nature10372.

“Partial crude handaxe? You’ve gotta be joking! Pick-like tool?? Then another partial crude handaxe!? This was the best they could come up with as examples of the Acheulean at 1.76 Ma? No wonder Beyene et al. are a little suspicious of Lepre et al.’s characterization of the Kokiselei assemblage as Acheulean. If this is the best they’ve got… they really have no leg to stand on. From what their readers are presented, there’s nothing here but a few Oldowan cores. The point here is that the archaeologists imbued these crudely flaked lumps of rock with the finished artifact paradigm that permeates the post-Oldowan periods, and as a result they’ve fallen prey to their own presuppositions.

I’m going to stop now. Cross your fingers that the next Very Important Article that comes within my sight has something to do with an area and a time other than the Pleistocene of Africa and Asia.

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist‘s facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett’s news feed), on Robert H. Gargett‘s page, Rob Gargett‘s twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog’s RSS feeds. You can also become a ‘member’ of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You’re the reason I do this.

Ceci N’est Pas Une Barre de Savon: Apologies to René Magritte

Ceci n’est pas une barre de savon 

Behold the lowly bar of soap [albeit somewhat used]. In the past I’ve used similar objects to make fun of handaxes [here and here]. Although the tone of those essays was tongue-in-cheek, my purpose was serious: a used bar of soap is an excellent analogy to use when theorizing about the lithic reduction sequences that result in what’s come to be known as ‘the’ Acheulean handaxe, and what’s called the ‘Levallois technique,’ the two main aspects of which are the ‘Levallois core’ and the ‘Levallois flake.’
     Some of you may lack an intimate knowledge of Middle Palaeolithic stone artifacts and the history of their interpretation. I must warn you. What I’m about to say will not be well received by Very Serious [Palaeolithic] Archaeologists. These objects have been heavily theorized, going back more than a century, and their ‘reality’ is a foregone conclusion in the disciplinary ‘culture.’ As such, my efforts are akin to pissing into the wind.

Me and my Level 4 Biohazard suit 

Never mind about that. Somebody’s gotta do it. Might as well be me. Besides, I’ve taken a face-full so many times I’m ready for anything in my Level-4 Biohazard suit! Regardless, it does get tedious donning and doffing these togs every other day or so. [And guess what? They don’t protect against hurt feelings or embarrassment. So, they’re not perfect, ‘specially when you consider the atmosphere of acrimony that sometimes prevails in  this binness.]
     Back to the matters at hand. By now you may have consulted my previous two outings on this issue. Today I’m hoping to break the argument down into its components so as to make a step-by-step case as to why a used bar of soap is a good analogy for the handaxe and the two genres of Levallois artifacts.
     First of all, let’s talk about the functional underpinnings, beginning with a question [and don’t get all bent outa shape. This isn’t a ‘Why did the chicken cross the road’ joke!].
     “Why did the bipedal ape bang one piece of rock against another piece of rock with the result that a small, sharp-edged fragment was subtracted from the larger of the two blocks?” Was it to make the large block smaller? Not likely. Was it to prepare the large block for the removal of a second or third sharp-edged fragment? Hmmm. Let’s think about that for a moment. It seems rather unlikely, given that this was just about the first time a bipedal ape left such a trace in the palaeontological record.
     Remember that we don’t know much about the cognitive abilities of those first ‘flintknappers.’ All we can say for certain is that they would have been every bit as smart as the last common ancestor that we humans share with chimps. Best guess? A chimp-like brain. So, the cognitive abilities of those first ‘flintknappers’ were at best equivalent to those of present-day chimpanzees [unless we’re to imagine that today’s chimps have de-volved from a golden age of chimp cognition, which seems, again, unlikely].
     Do we think that the first ‘flintknapper’ banged one rock against another because it envisioned a useful sharp bit in the block of raw material and then struggled to work out a way to get it out? I’m gonna say that’s also highly unlikely. [By so saying I might be accused of a certain bias against our early progenitors. However, I think it’d take one gigantic heap of special pleading to suggest that the first ‘flake’ was the result of forethought.] So, if not because of forethought, how do we explain that first act of rock against rock, and the removal of a sharp fragment. Here I’m jumping into the realm of speculation.
     I see a couple of possibilities. First, it could have been accidental, the result of a meaningless, nothing-better-to-do-at-the-moment banging together of two rocks with the unexpected effect that a small, sharp-edged fragment was detached from one of the two rocks. Second, it may have been a cognitive leap based on observation. In this scenario the first flake removal was an effort to replicate the result of two pieces of rock, in nature,  coming into contact with violent force such that a small, sharp fragment was detached. Not much to choose between there. Could go either way. What about that second possibility? How could that have occurred?
     I see at least a couple of ways that our bipedal hominid might have espied pieces of rock coming into contact in such a way that that first ‘flintknapper’ decided to take a *cough* crack at it. The first possibility is that it was, once again, a natural occurrence. Picture a cliff face from which, at random, fragments are naturally detached and fall to ground level with great force. At some point one block is going to come crashing down on another one resting on the surface and voila! The flake is born. The other possibility is that our incipient ‘flintknapper’ was out foraging one day with a fist-sized rock that was intended to be used as a missile in case it was surprised by a vicious predator [or to scatter a bunch of scavengers, or something equally as efficacious, in the palaeolithic sense]. Fast forward to the confrontation. Bipedal hominid flings rock at lion and misses, hitting cliff face or rock outcrop. Lion runs off. Our intrepid hominid goes to retrieve missile. It looks different now. There’s a chunk missing. Hominid glances at ground. Spies flake. Picks up flake. ‘Refits’ flake. [Please, please, don’t somebody use this scenario to argue for the presence of lithic analysts at 2.6 Ma!] Our better-than-chimp-brained bipedal ape puts two and two together and hominids lived happily ever after…
     So, our choices are 1) meaningless rock banging leads to lithic technology, or 2) observation of the results of rock banging leads to lithic technology. I think 2) is most likely. As for the event that brought about the observation, the possibilities are 1) naturally occurring fracturing, or 2) a rock used as a missile fractures when it impacts a larger rock mass. I think we must begin from this supposition, that our ‘flintknapper’ observed a natural phenomenon and put two and two together. This is the explanation that requires the least speculation. But, of course, it doesn’t rule out the missile scenario.

     Just an aside, here. How did our savvy, soon-to-be ‘flintknapper’ know that a sharp rock could function as a cutting or scraping tool [which seems the most logical function for the arch flake and its progeny]? I reckon it’s a no brainer. [Well, okay, it’s a chimp brainer!] Ever bang your head on a sharp overhanging object, whether rock or other material? Hurts. There might be blood. Same with walking barefoot on sharp rocks. It probably didn’t take an Oldowan Einstein to see the utility of sharp-edged rock fragments. So, it seems most likely that the first sharp stone flake removed intentionally from a block of raw material was used to cut or scrape something that couldn’t be cut or scraped using fingernails or teeth. [It matters little to this discussion which of those two activities was primary in hominid evolution.] What matters is the result: one sharp fragment and one block of raw material from which it was removed.

     By now you’re prolly wondering what any of this has to do with soap. I’m getting there. Be patient.
     If the entire archaeological record consisted of a sharp-edged fragment of rock–i.e. a flake–and the lump of raw material from which it was detached–i.e. a core–do you think archaeologists should ignore the flake and try to figger out what the lump might have been used for? Would that same archaeologist look at a used bar of soap and ignore the material that had been removed to wash somebody’s hands? They might if they had no idea that any material had been removed in its creation. So, under such circumstances we could forgive the soap analysts if they focussed on the bar and not the lather, and dubbed the used bar a work of art or, well you can see what I’m up to. In the next chapter I’m going to argue that this is just what the earliest palaeolithic archaeologists did, and for much the same reason–at the very beginning the flakes–the lather, if you will, of a lump of rock–were very likely not in the picture.
     For now, I’ll just foreshadow that next installment with an example from recent palaeoanthropology. Have a look at the illustration below. These are some of the oldest stone artifacts, from Kada Gona, Ethiopia, at around 2.65 Ma. These were reported in a 2000 Journal of Archaeological Science publication by Sileshi Semaw, “The World’s Oldest Stone Artefacts from Gona, Ethiopia: Their Implications for Understanding Stone Technology and Patterns of Human Evolution Between 2·6–1·5 Million Years Ago.” The typological paradigm that’s in play in these descriptions is a direct descendent of the first discoveries of Pleistocene stone artifacts in Europe, including those that were described from the very beginning as hand axes. The Kada Gona archaeologists are obviously reluctant to suggest that any of the objects shown are handaxes (although number 2 would be a good candidate for what the Qesem Cave and Kathu Pan 1 teams have described as a “handaxe roughout”–a pre-form, in other words). How number 2 escaped such a claim, and indeed, how the Kada Gona archaeologist missed his chance at claiming the earliest handaxe, is beyond the ability of this little brain of mine to understand. Unless, of course, said archaeologist had been brought up to think that handaxes weren’t even invented until the Acheulean stone industry appeared, at about 1.5 Ma.

As you can see in the caption above, the archaeologist makes every effort to downplay the flakes, and to ascribe a meaningful function to the lumps from which the flakes were removed. Number 1 is a “unifacial chopper,” while number 2 is inscrutably identified as a “discoid.” Number 3 isn’t just another unifacial chopper, it’s a unifacial side chopper. [Explain that one!] Number 4 is a unifacial end chopper. Doesn’t it look like 1 and 3? It does to me. But, then again, I’m not a lithic analyst. The fifth is a ‘partial’ discoid, presumably because it’s not really discoidal at all. So it’s an irregular discoid! Criminy! 6 and 7 are called the same thing as 3. UNBELIEVABLE! It’s the flake, Stupid! [Recalling the Clinton campaign strategy: “It’s the economy, Stupid!”] These so-called choppers prolly couldn’t chop a pound of butter without smearing it all over Olduvai! Choppers, my ass. Are we to believe that these Ur-flintknappers, who had just learned to walk for gawd’s sake, could possibly conceive of a chopper, or an axe? Good luck with that one.
     On the basis of the foregoing evidence courtesy of the Kada Gona archaeologist, I’m gonna guess that any lumps of stone with fewer than a half-dozen flake removals were simply not considered worthy of discussion [much less illustration in an august refereed journal]. But you and I know that they’re there in the assemblage, disguised as ‘mere’ cores, and giving lie to this preposterous labelling of more heavily used lumps as ‘choppers’ and ‘discoids.’ What a load of crap. And I’m talkin’ poop of pachydermical proportions.

I’m outa here.

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist‘s facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett’s news feed), on Robert H. Gargett‘s page, Rob Gargett‘s twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog’s RSS feeds. You can also become a ‘member’ of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You’re the reason I do this.