Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Aterian artifacts at 175,000 BP at Ifri n’Ammar, Morocco

The Moroccan Ministry of Culture has a press release (in French) about the cave site of Ifri n’Ammar, about 50km south (i.e., away from the coast) of ResearchBlogging.orgNador, indicating that the Moroccan-German team that has been working there for the past seven years has identified Aterian levels dating to about 175,000 BP. If these dates are correct, they push back the age for the earliest Aterian assemblages by some 65,000 year, since to date, the oldest Aterian levels had been identified at the Moroccan site of Dar es-Soltan, where they date to as old as 110,000 BP (Barton et al. 2009) . This is significant in and of itself by showing that the Aterian industry may be much longer than had previously been believed. And based on the press release, the Ifri n’Ammar does look very credibly Aterian, whose stone tool technology is generally defined by the presence of distinctive 'tanged' artifacts, especially points:

This is also significant because of what the Aterian is usually taken to mean in terms of prehistoric human adaptations. For some, it is associated with some of the earliest evidence for projectile technology, which confers the advantage of allowing prey to be brought down at a distance, hence minimizing the risks of hunting to whoever uses it (e.g., Shea 2006). Other researchers have also argued that some of the bifacial points associated with the Aterian "may be adaptive systems focused on hunting in grassland ecosystems" (Banks et al. 2006: 76, 78). Specifically, these authors have argued that such grassland ecosystems are established in North Africa (where the Aterian is found) beginning with Oxygen Isotope 5e, some 130,000 years ago, while before that bifacial lanceolate points are mostly found clustered much further to the SW. if the ages from Ifri n’Ammar are correct, then, this provides some evidence against a simple link between ecology and the emergence of the Aterian industry.

Also of interest is that the Aterian sequence at Ifri n’Ammar is reported to be some 6.3m thick, with much more recent Aterian levels as well. Here, it bears emphasizing that Aterian deposits about 82,000 years old elsewhere in Morocco, have been associated with pierced shells most likely used as personal ornaments, the earliest evidence for that behavior anywhere in the world (as I discussed previously on this blog). It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the site has yielded in more recent levels

"two Nassarius gibbosulus et Nassarius sp. shells used as ornaments by the Aterians. They are older than 80,000 years BP. Both are similar in size and display identical intentional perforations. Microscopic and mineralogical analyses have revealed wear traces clearly resulting from their having being worn as ornaments, and traces of red ochre with which they had been intentionally covered" (my translation).

Pierced Nassarius shells from Ifri n’Ammar. © Moroccan Ministry of Culture.

Overall,if the preliminary findings reported in this press release are borne out by future publications, Ifri n’Ammar definitely looks like it offers the potential to greatly refine our understanding of the Aterian and its origins as a whole.


Banks, William E., Francesco d'Errico, Harold L. Dibble, Leonard Krishtalka, Dixie West, Deborah I. Olszewski, A. Townsend Peterson, David G. Anderson, J. Christopher Gilliam, Anta Montet-White, Michel Crucifix, Curtis W. Marean, María-Fernanda Sánchez-Goñi, Barbara Wohlfarth, and Marian Vanhaeren. 2006. Eco-Cultural Niche Modeling: New Tools for Reconstructing the Geography and Ecology of Past Human Populations. PaleoAnthropology 2006:68-83

Barton, R., Bouzouggar, A., Collcutt, S., Schwenninger, J., & Clark-Balzan, L. (2009). OSL dating of the Aterian levels at Dar es-Soltan I (Rabat, Morocco) and implications for the dispersal of modern Homo sapiens Quaternary Science Reviews, 28 (19-20), 1914-1931 DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.03.010

Shea, J. (2006). The origins of lithic projectile point technology: evidence from Africa, the Levant, and Europe Journal of Archaeological Science, 33 (6), 823-846 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2005.10.015


Lord Blagger said...

As a child I lived in Libya. There were lots of Aterian points to be found.

I can also remember someone lining their garden borders with stone axe heads


Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Nick -
I don't doubt it - Libya has yielded several key sites that have been critical in helping understand both the geographical and the chronological distribution of the Aterian. Elena Garcea's work (and that of her colleagues), especially, is very interesting and consistently very good.