Thursday, August 02, 2007

Long-distance raw material procurement in the Mousterian

There is a new paper by L. Slimak and Y. Giraud in the "in press" section of the Comptes Rendus Palevol about raw material exploitation patterns in the Mousterian assemblage from Champ Grand, in the Loire Valley (France). Slimak and Giraud use lithotype characterization (visual id, microscope and SEM) to establish that the assemblage contains pieces made on lithic raw materials available 250km to the north and 180km to the south as the crow flies, meaning that the effective distances were probably even greater as these straight lines cover some relatively difficult terrain to cross on foot. While these exotic raw materials account for only about 1% of the assemblage, the fact that such distant sources were exploited during the Mousterian (and, by extension, by Neanderthals) suggests:

"... a contact between different basins, the Loire and the Rhone ones, and therefore between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. It is certain that these diffusions, whether they proceed directly or are the result of exchanges between populations, do not agree with the image of societies isolated in a territory. Indeed, the displacement of objects at such distances can only suggest the existence of networks structured between human groups and the existence of specific complex frames to these Middle Palaeolithic societies. The complexity of these behaviours also applies to the relationship with the raw material, in the suggested management of these mobile materials. This analysis documents circulations of lithic raw materials on geographical spaces as vast as those recognized during the Upper Palaeolithic..." (Slimak and Giraud 2007: 2-3).

Exotic raw materials were found in the assemblage mainly as retouch flakes, retouched tools and exhausted cores. The retouched tools - especially limaces - appear to have served both as tools with usable edges and as portable packages of raw material, as indicated by ventral thinning of those pieces in addition to clear retouch on the edges. This is in keeping with how exotic, prized lithotypes are managed among 'modern' hunter-gatherers.

An interesting discussion in the French part of the paper is that the Mousterian raw material procurement territory at Champ Grand is similar to that of nearby Magdalenian assemblages (i.e., much later and clearly made by modern humans), even if the frequency of exotic stone differs between the two periods is dissimilar. As the authors argue, "the differences between [the Middle and Upper Paleolithic] are to be found in the technological behavior and how lithic production was operationalized, as opposed to differences in the extent of their respective territories" (Slimak and Giraud 2007: 9; my translation).

This is a nice, succinct article that provides a nice counterpoint to typical assessments of Mousterian raw material procurement patterns and derived discussion of the smaller social geographies of Neanderthals relative to Homo sapiens sapiens (e.g., Féblot-Augustins 1997). Further proof that 'one-size fits all' characterizations of Neanderthal behavior are generally unwarranted.

References cited:

Féblot-Augustins, J. 1997. La circulations des matières premières au Paléolithique. Synthèse des données. Perspectives comportementales. Liège, ERAUL 75.

Slimak, L., Y. Giraud. 2007. Circulations sur plusieurs centaines de kilomètres durant le Paléolithique moyen. Contribution à la connaissance des sociétés néandertaliennes, C. R. Palevol , doi:10.1016/j.crpv.2007.06.001


Unknown said...

I saw this article too, really interesting. Two things I thought of:
1) Perhaps, without the use of SEM etc, the practice by researchers of using the nearest POSSIBLE source to a site as the distance artefacts have been moved, may be masking larger-scale transport patterns
2) It's very interesting that a core, even if exhausted, was one of the 'exotics', given the oft-cited trend for exotic artefacts to be more often products from late in the chaine operatoire. The only real difference with Upper Pal is a lack of 'raw blocks' being transported/moved large distances, although I'm not sure how often this actually is present in U-Pal.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Becky -
I agree, though I'll also say that linking raw materials from archaeological sites to their nearest possible sources provides at minimum baseline according to which one can assess lithotype transfers. While it's always a minimum estimate, even that yardstick has useful interpretive connotations. As you say, the worst this does is underestimate transport distances - at least, the ambiguity linked to overestimating it (which would be a greater problem, given how people have tended to interpret long-distance transfers) is greatly reduced.

As concerns the form under which these units of 'exotic' stone, an exhausted core is precisely what's expected from a behavioral perspective grounded on middle range theory and behavioral ecology. It really tied very well into the authors' argument here, though it may well reflect a different kind of procurement landscape from that established in later moments of the prehistoric human occupation of the region.