Thursday, March 01, 2012

Bitumen used as hafting material in the Middle Paleolithic of Romania

Cârciumaru and colleagues (2012) report on artifacts from Gura Cheii-Râşnov Cave (Romania), of which a couple bear residues of a blackish material on their surfaces. One comes from the one of the site's Upper Paleolithic levels, while the other comes from its Mousterian deposit which date to between roughly 33.3-28.9 kya (uncalibrated radiocarbon ages).

The reason this is noteworthy is that the authors identify the black residue sticking to the surface of these tools as bitumen (albeit heavily weathered), which they interpret as evidence for those tools having been hafted. This is not a first. The use of bitumen as hafting material in the Middle Paleolithic is known from the Levant, at the site of Umm el Tlel, in levels ranging from 40-70kya in age (Boëda et al. 2008). What is significant, however, is that these new data from Gura Cheii-Râşnov Cave provide the first evidence of using bitumen as a hafting material in the European Middle Paleolithic. From a behavioral standpoint, this joins the evidence for birch pitch tar documented at several Middle Paleolithic sites as old as 125ky bp in Germany (see Pawlik and Thissen 2011) and maybe even older in Italy (Mazza et al. 2006) as evidence for hafting material. This is significant because it reflects the Neanderthal capacity to come up with different solutions for the same problem, namely finding an adhesive to help in crafting composite weapons. In areas where bitumen sources were present and accessible, it makes sense that Middle Paleolithic hominins would not have bothered to go through the time-consuming process of birch pitch tar production detailed by Pawlik and Thissen (2011) when they needed an adhesive and a naturally occurring one was readily available.

Another interesting dimension of the study by Cârciumaru et al. (2012) is that it tells us something about the potential geographical range of the site's occupants. While the precise location where the bitumen was procured remains an open question, the authors indicate that there are deposits of bituminous limestone located about 20km away from the site, and that these deposits were definitely used by the Gravettian occupants of the site who procured high-quality flint from the region where they are found. Alternatively, the also mention a source of bitumen located about 100km to the south of the site. While a local procurement of any material can reasonably be argued to be the null hypothesis of any behavioral interpretation for the Paleolithic, should additional information eventually indicate that the more distant source was used, it would make this the longest distance over which bitumen was procured in the Middle Paleolithic, since the bitumen found at Umm el Tlel came from a source 40km distant from that site (Boëda et al. 2008). Additionally, as mentioned in other posts, Neanderthals are known to have procured lithic material over much longer distances than that, so it wouldn't really be all that surprising if they also collected bitumen from distant sources - especially considering that unlike stone, bitumen doesn't break irreparably and can be re-used and re-shaped over time, which makes its overall utility and use-life much greater than that of stone, thus perhaps justifying traveling long distances to procure it.


Boëda, E., Bonilauri, S., Connan, J., Jarvie, D., Mercier, N., Tobey, M., Valladas, H., al Sakhel, H., Muhesen, S. 2008. Middle Palaeolithic bitumen use at Umm el Tlel around 70 000 BP. Antiquity 82: 853-86.

Cârciumaru, M., Ion, R.-M., Niţu, E.-C., Ştefănescu, R. 2012. New evidence of adhesive as hafting material on Middle and Upper Palaeolithic artefacts from Gura Cheii-Râşnov Cave (Romania). Journal of Archaeological Science, doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.02.016

Mazza, P. P. A., Martini, F., Sala, B., Magi, M., Colombini, M., P., Giachi, G., Landucci, F., Lemorini, C., Modugno, F., Ribechini, E. 2006. A new Palaeolithic discovery: tar-hafted stone tools in a European Mid-Pleistocene bone-bearing bed. Journal of Archaeological Science 33: 1310-1318.

Pawlik, A., Thissen, J. 2011. Hafted armatures and multi-component tool design at the Micoquian site of Inden-Altdorf, Germany. Journal of Archaeological Science 38:1699-1708.


andrew said...

The distances are in accord with the estimated Neanderthal geographic range for a band at the low end and for a "megaband" at the high end according to a recent paper summarizing Neanderthal culture as best we can discern it.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Andrew -
True, though those reconstructions need to be taken with due caution. Are you referring to the Hayden study in OJA?