Episode 8: Social Networking in the Upper Palaeolithic

Last week we looked at new inventions of the Upper Palaeolithic. We also saw how while many of these new developments appear all over the Near East in the Upper Palaeolithic, much of the evidence that we have for people across the Near East suggests differences between groups of people within the individual regions of the Near East, and that these groups and their interactions changed through time.

This week we have looked at the impact of these new inventions on how people ate, and what they ate, in the Upper Palaeolithic. The new hunting weapons that we talked about last week, the atlatl and possibly the bow and arrow – if it was indeed invented here in the Upper Palaeolithic and not later – are not the only changes to hunting that we can see in this period. In the Middle Palaeolithic both humans and Neanderthals focused much more on hunting large animals, whereas here in the Upper Palaeolithic we see us humans changing to focus much more on hunting more medium-sized animals, like deer, gazelle, and the wild ancestors of sheep and goats. These are still not exactly easy animals to get for the dinner table, but they would have been easier for only a couple of to the whole animal carry home. With larger animals, you would have either needed many people to carry home dinner – as well as needing those people to work together to get it in the first place – or you would have needed to leave some of it behind to go to waste.

So, we may have had Upper Palaeolithic people hunting in smaller groups than Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans did in the Middle Palaeolithic. This would have left more of the community free to either go on other hunting trips – doubling your chances of success that day – or to go and collect plant foods or to do other tasks of daily life. Or, they could have gone to the coast – of they lived near the coast – and collected shellfish or went fishing. We have shellfish turning up very occasionally in the Middle Palaeolithic, but in the Upper Palaeolithic we start to see shellfish and even fish turning up on sites more often, with fish becoming a regular (if minor) part of the diet of people living near lakes or the sea by the end of the Upper Palaeolithic.

Speaking of plant foods, we have a much better idea of what plant foods people were eating in the Upper Palaeolithic than we do for earlier periods. There can be two reasons for this – either the plants collected by Upper Palaeolithic people had a greater change of getting partially burned to preserve them, or because the Upper Palaeolithic is a lot more recent than the Middle and Lower Palaeolithic and even protectively charred seeds might have preserved better from the Upper Palaeolithic than from these much older times. Having these remains means that we can be pretty confident about what Upper Palaeolithic people ate, and that a large part of our diets came from wild plants. This does not mean that we were eating mostly lettuce and nuts. We did eat these, but we also had the wild relatives of wheat, oats and barley, as well as lentils, chickpeas, peas, carrots, onions, and tree fruit like apples, pears and cherries. This means that, while we many not be as familiar with the idea of having to go and collect our food from out in the wild, we would absolutely be familiar with what Upper Palaeolithic people were eating.

Preserved Upper Palaeolithic seeds from Ghar-e Boof Cave in Iran. These seeds were accidentally burned, which gave them a protective charred coating and allowed them to survive in the cave deposits for the last 30,000 years. The grid of blue lines in this picture is a scale of 1 millimetre squares, showing just how tiny many of the plant remains from archaeological sites can be. Image from Baines et al 2015.

We would also have been familiar with the jewellery that people wore. From the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic, we see small sea shells turning up at sites near the Mediterranean which have been carefully pierced through in order to be strung as beads. These holes do not occur naturally in the shells, they have been carefully made by people in order to convert a small and pretty shell into a bead. The specific shell which were in ‘fashion’ changed over the course of the Upper Palaeolithic, and towards the end of the Upper Palaeolithic we see an increase in the range of shellfish which get turned into beads, with even some larger shells being cut down and shaped into long and thin beads rather than using whole shells.

Sea shells found from Upper Palaeolithic layers at Üçağizli Cavein Turkey, showing the holes humans made in the shells in order to string them as beads. Image adapted from Stiner et al 2013.

Of course, not everyone in the Upper Palaeolithic of the Near East lived near the sea, and had good access to sea shells for making beads. In these areas, people took advantage of an odd quirk of anatomy in some of the animals that they were hunting. Red deer have little vestigial canines. These are not your classic long, sharp and pointy canines, but look instead like little teardrop-shaped lumps. We can think of them a little bit like pearls, if maybe not the classic pearl shape. People in the Upper Palaeolithic would carefully drill a little hole through the root of these teeth and could then string these as beads. We see these red deer canine beads all over the Near East in groups with broadly Aurignacian-like stone tools, including communities of the Zagros and Caucasus regions as well as the coastal communities of the Levantine Aurignacian.

Examples of the canine teeth of red deer which have been drilled to turn them into beads. These teeth come from Levantine Aurignacian layers at Hayonim cave, although similar drilled teeth are found in many parts of the Near East during the Upper Palaeolithic. Image adapted from Tejero et al 2020.

In addition to sharing jewellery design and fashion over large parts of the Near East, there are other aspects of the archaeology which suggest that over the course of the Upper Palaeolithic people were interacting with their neighbours and friends in large-ranging social networks. We can see these through the movement of some items as gifts from person to person, eventually covering really long distances. Sea shells in the Levant have been found on Upper Palaolithic sites over 100 kilometers from their original shores. Looking at the movement of stone for making stone tools, we can see some extra-nice types of stone for making tools moving increasingly longer distances. In the Caucasus mountains of Armenia, studies of the stone tools made from obsidian at Aghitu-3 cave has shown that early on in the Upper Palaeolithic (up until about 30,000 years ago), all stone including obsidian came into the site from within the local area. After about 30,000 years ago, though, we start to see some of the obsidian at the site having come from much farther away. While most of the stone tools at Aghitu still come from the local area, some of the obsidian tools comes from multiple stone sources in different parts of Armenia between 100 and 200 kilometers from the site. For stone to have moved this far and from such a range of directions away from Aghitu-3 suggests that the people who visited this cave had friends and neighbours – and their friend and neighbours – and social networks stretching for hundreds of kilometers across the region.

Examples of stone tools made of chert (top) and obsidian (bottom) from Aghitu-3 cave in Armenia. Image adapted from Taller et al 2018.

Episode Bibliography:

Baines, J.A., Riehl, S., Conard, N. and Zeidi-Kulehparcheh, M. 2015. Upper Palaeolithic archaeobotany of Ghar-e Boof cave, Iran: a case study in site disturbance and methodology. Journal of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 7: 245-256.

Bosch, M.D., Buck. L., and Strauss, A. 2019. Location, location, location: investigating perforation locations in Tritia gibbosula shells at Ksâr Akil (Lebanon) using micro-CT data. PaleoAnthropology 2019: 52-63.

Bosch, M.D., Mannino, M.A., Prendergast, A.L., Wesselngh, F.P., O’Connell, T.C. and Hublin, J.J. 2018. Year-round shellfish exploitation in the Levant and implications for Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer subsistence. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 21: 1198-1214.

Bosch, M.D., Wesselingh, F.P. and Mannino, M.A., 2015. The Ksâr Akil (Lebanon) mollusc assemblage: zooarchaeological and taphonomic investigations. Quaternary International 390: 85-101.

Frahm, E., Kandel, A.W. and Gasparyan, E. 2019. Upper Palaeolithic settlement and mobility in the Armenian highlands: agent-based modelling, obsidian sourcing and lithic analysis of Aghitu-3 cave. Journal of Palaeolithic Archaeology 2: 418-465.

Hardy, K. 2018. Plant use in he Lower and Middle Palaeolithic: food, medicine and raw materials. Quaternary Science Reviews 191: 393-405.

Kadowaki, S., Kurozumi, T. and Henry, D.O. 2019. Marine shells from Tor Fawaz, southern Jordan, and their implications for behavioural changes from the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic in the Levant. In Y. Nishiali and O. Jöris (eds.), Learning Among Neanderthals and Palaeolithic Modern Humans: Archaeological Evidence. London: Springer: 161-178.

Kadowaki, S., Tamura, T., Sano, K., Kurozumi, T., Maher, L.A., Wakano, J.K., Omori, T., Kida, R., Hirose, M., Massadeh, S. and Henry, D.O. Lithic technology, chronology and marine shells from Wadi Aghar, southern Jordan, and Initial Upper Palaeolithic behaviours in the southern inland Levant. Journal of Human Evolution 135: 102646.

Kndel, A.W., Gasparyan, B., Allue, E., Bigga, G., Bruch, A.A., Cullen, V.L., Frahm, E., Ghukasyan, R., Gruwier, B., Jabbour, F., Miller, C.E., Taller, A., Vardazaryan, V., Vasilyan, D. and Weissbrod, L. 2017. The earliest evidence for Upper Palaeolithic occupation in the Armenian highlands at Aghitu-3 Cave. Journal of Human Evolution 110: 37-68.

Nadel, D., Piperno, D.R., Holst, I., Snir, A. and Weiss, E. 2012. New evidence for the processing of wild cereal grains at Ohalo II, a 23,000-year-old campside on the shore of the Sea of Galile, Israel. Antiquity 86: 990-1003.

Rabinovich, R. 2003. The Levantine Upper Palaeolithic faunal record. In A.N. Goring-Morris and A. Belfer-Cohen (eds.), More than Meets the Eye: Studies on Upper Palaeolithic Diversity in the Near East. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 33-48.

Snir, A., Nadel, D., Weiss, E. 2015. Plant-food preparation on two consecutive floors at Upper Paleolithic Ohallo II, Israel. Journal of Archaeological Science 53: 61-71.

Stiner, M.C., Kuhn, S.L. and Güleç, E. 2013. Early Upper Palaeolithic shell beads at Üçağizli Cave (Turkey): technology and the socioeconomic context of ornament life-histories. Journal of Human Evolution 63: 380-398.

Taller, A., Gasparyan, B. and Kandel, A.W. 2018. Living on the edge: the earliest modern human settlement of the Armenian highlands in Aghitu-3 cave. In Y. Nishiaki and T. Azakawa (eds.), The Middle and Upper Paleolithic Archaeology of the Levant and Beyond. London: Springer: 119-131.

Tejero, J.-M., Rabinovich, R., Yeshurun, R., and Abulafia, T., Bar-Yosef, O., Brzilai, O., Goder-Goldberger, M., Hershkovitz, I., Lavi, R., Shemer, M., Marder, O. and Belfer-Cohen, A. 2020. Personal ornaments from Hayonim and Manot caves (Israel) hint at symbolic ties between the Levantine and European Aurignacian. Journal of Human Evolution doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2020.102870 Yeshurun, R., Schneller-Pels, N., Barzilai, O. and Marder, O. 2019. Early Upper Palaeolithic subsistence in the Levant: zooarchaeology of the Ahmarian-Aurignacian sequence at Manot Cave, Israel. Journal of Human Evolution doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2019.05.007

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