Episode 9: Distinguishing the Early Epipalaeolithic

The Epipalaeolithic is a bit of a tricky period in the prehistory of the Near East. This is especially the case for the first half of the Epipalaeolithic. As a period, the Epipalaeolithic in the Near East runs from the Last Glacial Maximum at the end of the Pleistocene (beginning about 24/23-20,000 years ago), through the change from the Pleistocene to the Holocene and into the first part of the Holocene up until the beginning of the Neolithic, about 11,500 years ago. Not only does this mean that the Epipalaeolithic covers a little over ten thousand years, it also covers the change from the last ice age in the Pleistocene to the much warmer climates of the early Holocene.

The Epipalaeolithic was also identified a long time ago. This means that a lot of the features which were used as hallmarks of the Epipalaeolithic (microlithics and microbladelets, shell beads, emphasis on eating a wide range of resources in particular from plants, and the burial of people with grave goods) have since been found to originate before the Epipalaeolithic. In some cases, these start long before the Epipalaeolithic.

This expansion of our knowledge about the Upper Palaeolithic has meant that the line between the Palaeolithic and the Epipalaeolithic has become pretty blurred in archaeology. As a result of this, a lot more attention is given to the later part of the Epipalaeolithic, when the change from the Pleistocene to the Holocene is accompanied by more significant changes in lifestyle for people across the Near East. There is no call for playing favorites in archaeology, and thus many researchers have worked to ensure that equal attention is paid to the earlier part of the Epipalaeolithic, so that we can understand how we moved from the Upper Palaeolithic into the end of the last ice age. Changes in the earlier part of the Epipalaeolithic may not be as clearly defined as we once thought, but the differences are still there if you look.

Microlithics are a big part of the Epipalaeolithic. These come in different shapes, and in some parts of the Near East the change in which shape is most popular can be used to divide the up the first part of the Epipalaeolithic into the Early and Middle parts, or into the Kebaran (long and thin bladelets) and the Geometric Kebaran (bladelets in geometric shapes). In other parts of the Near East, such as on sites of the Zarzian technocomplex in the Zagros mountains, the shape of bladelets doesn’t mean as much and very little change is seen in which shapes are more popular between the early and late Zarzian.

Different shapes ofbladelets from the Near Eastern Epipalaeolithic. In Zarzian sites of the Zagros there is little difference through time between the long and thin bladelets (left) and the geometric bladelets (right). In the Levant the change in popularity from one of these types to the other is used to divide the Kebaran (c.23,000-17,5000 years ago) from the Geometric Kebaran (c.17,500-14,000 years ago). Image adapted from Asouti et al 2020.

So, while we see some significant changes between the earlier half of the Epipalaeolithic and the later half, we don’t see so much of a dramatic change between the end of the Upper Palaeolithic. What we see instead are increases in the scale of developments that we saw in the Upper Palaeolithic. In the Upper Palaeolithic we have a few sites with grinding stones for processing plant remains. In the first stage of the Epipalaeolithic we have grinding stones turning up fairly commonly across sites, and during the earlier half of the Epipalaeolithic we also see mortar and pestles (which are much harder to make than flat grinding stones) appearing on sites. Taken together these suggest that, while people were eating plants in the Near East long before the Epipalaeolithic, people in the Epipalaeolithic were putting more effort into processing plants – and presumably therefore also putting more effort into getting these plants, meaning that they were more important than they were before.

In the Upper Palaeolithic, we see shell beads and other types of jewellery turning up at sites all over the Near East. In the early Epipalaeolithic we still see these shell beads, but they – like the grinding stones – have moved on a bit. We now see shell beads all over the Near East, even in areas really far from the coast. Some of these beads are made out of freshwater shellfish or land snails, but some of these are Mediterranean shellfish beads that have just traveled a really long way to get to eastern Iraq or western Iran. Shell beads are pretty common all over the Near East, and they often now have been made out of only part of a shell (rather than just piercing a hole into a complete shell) and shaped into what we would typically think of as a ‘bead’ shape.

Shaped sea shell beads found in recent excavations at Palegawra gave in the Zagros mountains of Iraq. Image from Asouti et al 2020.
Some of the goodies which moved around the Near East during the Epipalaeolithic.
Mortar and pestle from Wadi Hammeh 27 (1) and fragments of flat grinding stone from Hayonim Terrace (2), both basalt. Examples of trade objects are also here, including obsidian from ‘Eynan (3) and Antalis shells from Wadi Hammeh 27(4). Image adapted from Delage 2018.

It’s not only shells which are travelling long distances in the Epipalaeolithic. Obsidian was moved around in some parts of the Near East (like the Caucasus) in the Upper Palaeolithic. As with the shells and plant processing, this trend has grown as well in the Epipalaeolithic. Obsidian is found across the Near East. In the earliest part of the Epipalaeolithic this is mostly just moving around in the inland parts of the Near East (like the Caucasus and the Zagros), although it is still moving several hundred kilometres (a couple hundred miles). Soon we also see obsidian from the old volcano sources of Anatolia and the Caucasus moving even into the Levant, where obsidian could be moving 500-1000 kilometres (300-600 miles) from its source. There are even some indications that the basalt used to make mortar and pestles in the Levant was being moved around the landscape as well (although distances are less certain because basalt is a lot harder to identify to source)

These difference show that the change from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Epipalaeolithic was not a dramatic revolution, but it was a change in degree. Bladelets and microlithics were a part of the tool kit in the Upper Palaeolithic, but in the Epipalaeolithic they have grown to become the dominant part of the toolkit. Plant foods were eaten all through the Upper Palaeolithic, but in the Epipalaeolithc they seem to have become a bigger part of the diets of communities, who at the very least were putting a lot more effort into processing them. Objects of value – like beads and obsidian – were moved across pretty long distances in the Upper Palaeolithic of the Near East. By the Epipalaeolithic these also have increased in degree, with more things moving even longer distances.

Episode Bibliography:

Asouti, E., Baird, D., Kabukcu, C. Swinson, K., Martin, L., Garcia-Suarez, A., Jenkins, E. and Rasheed, K. 2020. The Zagros Epipalaeolithic revisited: new excavations and 14C dates from Palegawra cave in Iraqi Kurdistan. PLOS One 15(9): e0239564.

Barge,O., Kharanaghi, H.A., Biglari, F., Moradi, B., Mashkour, M., Tengberg, M. and Chataigner, C. 2018. Diffusion of Anatolian and Caucasian obsidian in the Zagrosmountains and the highlands of Iran: elements of explanation in ‘least cost path’ models. Quaternary International 467: 297-322.

Baysal, E.L. and Erek, C.M.2018. Material movement in the Near Eastern Epipalaeolithic: implications of the shell and stone beads of Direkli Cave, Turkey. Journal of Field Archaeology 43: 591-603.

Dubreuil, L. and Nadel, D. 2015. The development of plant food processing in the Levant: insights from use-wear analysis of Early Epipalaeolithic ground stone tools. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 370: 20140357.

Delage, C. 2018. Revisiting rolling stones: the procurement of non-local goods in the Epipalaeolithic of the Near East. Quaternary International 464: 159-172.

Frahm, E. and Tyron, C.A. 2018. Origins of Epipalaeolithic obsidian artifacts from Garrod’s excavations at Zarzi cave in the Zagros foothills of Iraq. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 21: 472-485.

Martin, L., Edwards, Y. Garrard, A. 2010. Hunting practices at an Eastern Jordanian Epipalaeolithic aggregation site: the case of Kharaneh IV. Levant 42(2): 107-135.

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 23000-year-old campsite on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Israel. Antiquity 334: 990-1003.

Richter, T. and Maher, L. 2013. Terminology, process and change: reflections on the Epipalaeolithic of South-West Asia. Levant 45(2): 121-132.

Stutz, A.J., Munro, N.D. and Bar-Oz, G. 2009. Increasing the resolution of the Broad Spectrum Revolution in the southern Levantine Epipalaeolithic (19-12 ka). Journal of Human Evolution 56: 294-306.

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