Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Mousterian wooden spade from Abric Romani, Spain

A group of researchers from the IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) reports on the discovery of a handheld wooden implement from Mousterian deposits at Abric Romaní, Spain. The tool was found in Level P which dates to about 56,000 years BP, and its morphology suggests that it might have been a small spade/shovel, or perhaps a poker, given its association to a hearth. In the interest of clarity, let me emphasize that what was recovered is actually a travertine impression of that tool. However, that impression is so detailed that it was possible to identify the precise morphology and dimensions of the spade- or poker-like object (I actually think it looks more like some kind of spatula or knife - it'd be interesting to run some experimental work on the functional and ergonomic properties of this object), as well as the fact that it was made out of the wood of a coniferous species, likely pine.

A view of the travertine impression found in Level P, along with a reconstruction of the wooden object that left it.
© Jordi Mestre/IPHES.

Detail of the impression of the Level P wooden object. © Jordi Mestre/IPHES

This is not the only wooden object that was recovered from the Mousterian levels of Abric Romaní. For example, last year, I discussed the finding of a worked wooden pole that was likely used as part of a structure in level N dating to ca. 55kya (Vallverdu et al. 2010). In that case, the impression indicates that the object was over 5m in length, and shows clear evidence of having been whittled down to a specific morphology, namely that it is devoid of branches, and that it shows a slight tapering from 6cm in width at its base to 3cm in width at its top. This pole-like morphology suggests to Vallverdu et al. (2010: 143) that it was probably used as part of a structure like a fairly simple lean-to.

What I didn't discuss in that post is that there are other levels at Abric Romaní that have yielded evidence of wooden implements: Level H (~45-49kya) contained two dish-like wooden objects (one  32cm by 22cm in dimensions, the other about 22cm by 17cm and elliptical in outline). The larger object was made of juniper wood, and it was flat on its underside and bore a depression in the center of its top surface, reinforcing the idea it might have been a vessel of some sort. That level also yielded a third wooden object. This one was also flat, but displays a pointed end. This odd morphology made it more difficult to attribute it a possible function, but it certainly suggest that it had been worked by humans. These finds are described in details by Carbonell and Castro-Curel (1992). 

Three years later, the same researchers reported on the existence of wood pseudomorphs from Level I at Abric Romaní (Castro-Curel and Carbonell 1995). This layer dates to about 46-49kya, again the tail-end of the Mousterian in the region. In contrast to Level H, it wasn't wood fragments per se that were recovered in Level I, but rather hollows in the travertine that were later filled with plaster to produce casts of the objects that decayed and left their (very detailed) impression in the travertine at the site. Here, one of the pseudomorphs was a worked, tapering tree trunk (3.5m in length, 109cm wide at its base, 45cm wide at the top - both ends of the tree had been hacked off in the Mousterian). But the most striking recovery in that level is that of Pseudomorph 2, which was a set of three straight, rod-like pieces of wood recovered in a roughly triangular arrangement overlying a hearth. It was interpreted by the authors as most likely representing a tripod used in 'food processing' - probably cooking/boiling  (Castro-Curel and Carbonell 1995: 378). 

So, what's the big deal about this new find? Well, a few things. First, it's the only object like it known from the Paleolithic. There are other wooden implements known from a few sites - for instance, the well-known Schoeningen spears (Thieme 1997) - but this is, to my knowledge the first evidence of such a portable pointed object clearly intended to be used in one hand. Its morphology is also unique: according to a report in El Mundo that provides additional information on the find, its handle was 17cm long by 4cm wide, while its 'blade' was 15cm long by 8cm wide, and triangular and pointed in outline. Given that there is now plenty of evidence that some stone tools were hafted by Neanderthals, it should come as no surprise that there are functionally distinct components in this tool. However, what is really striking is that, in spite of Paleolithic archaeologists' obsession with stone tools, Neanderthals seem to have been perfectly content to use wood as the 'active' component of at least some of their tools.

Second, along with the other evidence for use of wooden objects at Abric Romaní, it suggest that the use of wood as a building material was a constant of Neanderthal adaptation. The importance of this is not fully appreciated since wood only rarely preserves, but the peculiar sedimentary conditions at Romaní (especially the conspicuousness of carbonate/travertine accumulations) give us an unparalleled look at the prevalence and diversity of how wood was used by Neanderthals for other things than fueling fire and hafting stone tools. Although naysayers will point out that one of the most common traces of use identified on stone tools has been linked to woodworking, I've never felt that researchers gave those observation their full consideration. Finding actual wooden implements shows what Neanderthals might have been making out of wood, and the range of these objects found at Romaní broadens our view of how diverse and important wood technology must have been for Middle Paleolithic foragers.

Lastly, it tells us something about how Neanderthals considered some of their material culture. In this instance, there is no indication that the object was broken. Yet, it seems to have been discarded rather unceremoniously by tossing it into a smouldering and partly extinguished fire (per El Mundo) that only partly carbonized it instead of consuming it completely. While we lack information about how Level P was occupied (i.e., was it occupied, say, long-term as a base camp, or fleetingly as a task site), the find indicates that there were certain contexts in which Neanderthals were perfectly OK with the notion of discarding objects that were still usable. Maybe spade/pokers like this one were relatively easy to manufacture and were considered unimportant or too bulky to be worth carrying from one site to another. Whatever the case may be, it suggests some labor-intensive objects could be considered disposable at least under certain circumstance, and it provides us with a really provocative glimpse into the nature and breadth of Neanderthal technology and how they thought of it.

Via: Millán Mozota.


CARBONELL, E., & CASTRO-CUREL, Z. (1992). Palaeolithic wooden artefacts from the Abric Romani (Capellades, Barcelona, Spain) Journal of Archaeological Science, 19 (6), 707-719 DOI: 10.1016/0305-4403(92)90040-A  

Castro-Curel, Z., & Carbonell, E. (1995). Wood Pseudomorphs From Level I at Abric Romani, Barcelona, Spain Journal of Field Archaeology, 22 (3), 376-384 DOI: 10.1179/009346995791974206  

Thieme, H. (1997). Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany Nature, 385 (6619), 807-810 DOI: 10.1038/385807a0  

Vallverdú, J., Vaquero, M., Cáceres, I., Allué, E., Rosell, J., Saladié, P., Chacón, G., Ollé, A., Canals, A., Sala, R., Courty, M., & Carbonell, E. (2010). Sleeping Activity Area within the Site Structure of Archaic Human Groups Current Anthropology, 51 (1), 137-145 DOI: 10.1086/649499


Millán Mozota said...

thanks for linking my Blog, Julien (but maybe you linked the wrong post?)
I completely agree with your thoughts about the implications of the finding.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Thanks Millán, and glad you liked the post - the Romani discoveries are really broadening the way we ought to think about Neanderthal technology specifically, and Paleolithic technology more generally, if you ask me.


PS: Corrected the link - it should now bring you to the right post!