Episode 3: Making the Middle Palaeolithic

About 215,000 years ago, Lower Palaeolithic of the Near East transitioned into the Middle Palaeolithic. The overall pattern of life which we saw in the Lower Palaeolithic – moving across the landscape hunting animals and gathering plants – has not changed as we move into the Middle Palaeolithic. However, enough has changed about people and the things which they left behind that this is recognised as a distinct new phase in the archaeology of the Near East.

The tradition of making and using stone tools which we see during the Middle Palaeolithic is no longer the Acheulean tradition of the Lower Palaeolithic, but is the Mousterian. One of the big technical components of the Mousterian which helps to set it apart from the stone tools of earlier (as well as later) time periods is what we call the Levallois technique. This is named for the suburb of Paris where stone tools made using this technique were found in the 19th century. The earlier Acheulean tradition removed excess bits of stone from a core in order to create a handaxe or another tool from the centre. The Levallois technique is a big change from this approach, as now the core is carefully shaped not to make a tool out of the centre but in order to remove a large flake which is then made into a tool. This means that multiple tools can be made out of the same core, and that you can be really flexible with what tools you want to (and are able to) make at each stage of the manufacturing process. Also, as you can see in the linked video below, working a core in order to remove large flakes which are turned into tools rather than removed in order to shape a single tool means that you can now make more tools from a single core.

Shaping a core to remove a large flake using Levallois. From Schlanger 1996: Figure 1 (see bibliography). The rest of the article can be found here.

Some of these Levallois flakes were turned into a new technological achievement of the Middle Palaeolithic – spearpoints. Hunting spears in the Lower Palaeolithic were made with one end of the wooden shaft sharpened to a point. While these would have done the job of sticking animals, adding a razor-sharp stone point to these spear shafts would have improved your ability to stick a spear deep into an animal during hunting. These spear points not only upgraded hunting equipment of the Middle Palaeolithic, but people seem to have worked out a neat new method for keeping these points attached to the spears – they glued them in place. Bitumen is a natural sticky tar that can be found when petroleum seeps to the surface in the Near East. In the Middle Palaeolithic this bitumen was used as a glue to help stick stone spearpoints onto spears, which is the oldest ever case of bitumen glue which we have found.

Of course, the common use of these new techniques for making stone tools were not the only things which made life in the Middle Palaeolithic different from life in the Lower Palaeolithic. At the end of the Lower Palaeolithic we started to see a bit of a change along the coast where people were starting to camp in caves and regularly make fires. This use of caves expands in the Middle Palaeolithic and we now pretty commonly see base-camps in caves across the whole Near East. These may not have been places where people stayed for very long at any one visit, but this did not mean that no one bothered to make them comfortable.

Tor Faraj rockshelter in Jordan as seen during its excavation. Image from Henry 2003, page 44.

A great example of how life camping in caves was made comfy comes from the rockshelter of Tor Faraj in Jordan. Tor Faraj was one of these base camp caves used by people in the Middle Palaeolithic. It was excavated fairly recently (during the 1980s and 1990s) and was used as a rotating base camp by Neanderthals living in the Levant during the later stages of the Middle Palaeolithic, about 70,000 to 50,000 years ago.

Activity areas used by Neanderthals at Tor Faraj based upon evidence from excavations. Image taken from Henry 2012. The rest of the article can be found here.

Thanks to very careful excavation and lots of systematic sampling of the sediments excavated throughout the cave we can see that the people living in Tor Faraj divided the cave up based on what activities they needed to do with each one having its own space. Areas for making sharp stone tools were kept away from areas for sleeping, and even in tool-making areas the larger flakes of stone were collected and tossed against the walls out of the way. This meant that the areas where stone tools were made were full of tiny little flakes of sharp stone which show us where the tools were made, but the big pieces which could cut your feet as you waked around were cleared up and thrown away where they would not be stepped on. Tor Faraj even seems to have had an entrance barricade made of bushes and brush, either to help protect people from predators while they slept or to help with keeping out the wind.

Episode Bibliography:

Bar-Yosef, O. 1998. The chronology of the Middle Palaeolithic of the Levant. In T. Akazawa, K. Aoki and O. Bar-Yosef (eds). Neanderthals and Modern Humans in Western Asia. London: Plenum Press:  39-56.

Boëda, E., Connan, J. and Muhesen, S. 1998. Bitumen as halfting material on Middle Palaeolithic artefacts from the El Kowm Basin, Syria. In T. Akazawa, K. Aoki and O. Bar-Yosef (eds). Neanderthals and Modern Humans in Western Asia. London: Plenum Press:  181-204.

Gibson, K.R. 2007 Putting it all Together: a constructionist approach to the evolution of human mental capacities. In P. Mellars, K. Boyle, O. Bar-Yosef and C Stringer (eds.), Rethinking the Human Revolution: New Behavioural and Biological Perspectives on the Origins and Dispersal of Modern Humans. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs: 67-78.

Goren-Inbar, N. and Belfer-Cohen, A. 1998. The technological abilities of the Levantine Mousterians: cultural and mental capacities. In T. Akazawa, K. Aoki and O. Bar-Yosef (eds). Neanderthals and Modern Humans in Western Asia. London: Plenum Press: 205-221.

Henry, D.O. 1998. Intrasite spatial patterns and behavioural modernity. Indications from the Late Levantine Mosterian rockshelter at Tor Faraj, southern Jordan. In T. Akazawa, K. Aoki and O. Bar-Yosef (eds). Neanderthals and Modern Humans in Western Asia. London: Plenum Press:  127-142.

Henry, D.O. 2003. Neanderthals in the Levant: Behavioural Organization and the Beginnings of Human Modernity. London: Continuum.

Henry, D.O. 2012. The palimpsest problem, hearth pattern analysis, and Middle Palaeolithic site structure. Quaternary International 247: 246-266.

Howell, C.F. 1998. Evolutionary implications of altered perspectives on hominine demes and populations in the later Pleistocene of western Eurasia. In T. Akazawa, K. Aoki and O. Bar-Yosef (eds). Neanderthals and Modern Humans in Western Asia. London: Plenum Press: 5-27.

Lieberman, D.E. 1998. Neandertal and early modern human mobility patterns: comparing archaeological and anatomical evidence. In T. Akazawa, K. Aoki and O. Bar-Yosef (eds). Neanderthals and Modern Humans in Western Asia. London: Plenum Press: 263-275.

Meignen, L., Bar-Yosef, O., Speth, J.D. and Stiner, M.C. 2006. Middle Palaeolithic settlement patterns in the Levant. In **** 149.

Ray, Y. 1998. Does any Mousterian cave present evidence of two hominid species? In T. Akazawa, K. Aoki and O. Bar-Yosef (eds). Neanderthals and Modern Humans in Western Asia. London: Plenum Press: 352-366.

Rollefson, G.O. 2019. The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic of the Southern Levant. In A. Yasur-Landau, E.H. Cline and Y.M. Rowan (eds.), The Social Archaeology of the Levant: From Prehistory to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 9-28.

Sharon, G. 2018. A week in the life of the Mousterian hunter. In Y. Nishiaki and T. Akazawa (eds.), The Middle and Upper Paleolithic Archaeology of the Levant and Beyond. London: Springer: 35-47.

Shea, J.J. 2007. The boulevard of broken dreams: evolutionary discontinuity in the Late Pleistocene Levant. In P. Mellars, K. Boyle, O. Bar-Yosef and C. Stringer (eds.), Rethinking the Human Revolution: New Behavioural and Biological Perspectives on the Origins and Dispersal of Modern Humans. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs: 219-232.

Schlanger, N. 1996. Understanding Levallois: lithic technology and cognitive archaeology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 6(2): 231-254.

Speth, J.D. and Tchernov, E. 1998. The role of hunting and scavenging in Neandertal procurement strategies. In T. Akazawa, K. Aoki and O. Bar-Yosef (eds). Neanderthals and Modern Humans in Western Asia. London: Plenum Press: 223-239.

Zaidner, Y, Centi, L., Revost, M., Shemer, M., and Varoner,O. 2018. An open-air site at Neshler Ramla, Israel, and new insights into Levantine Middle Paleolithic technology and site use. In Y. Nishiaki and T. Akazawa (eds.), The Middle and Upper Paleolithic Archaeology of the Levant and Beyond. London: Springer: 11-33.

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