Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Quartz, Cretan handaxes and Paleolithic seafaring

A couple of months ago, I posted on the recent discovery of quartz hand axes on Crete by Strasser and Runnels. That post spurred quite a bit of discussion, and I also provided some additional thoughts shortly thereafter, based on the colonization of Cyprus. Since then, we've ResearchBlogging.orglearned that these implements will be described in detail in the June issues of the journal Hesperia, and some decent photographs of some of the implements in question were published, which provides some more convincing data to sink your teeth into. Spurred by a paper I recently read (Broodbank 2006 - free pdf here), I figured I'd post my last impressions on this discovery until the paper actually comes out.

First, here's what one of those handaxes looks like (views from the front, two sides and back of the piece):

More photographs are also available in a nice slideshow provided by Boston University press release, and they give you an idea of the size of the handaxes and of how they might have been handled. The thing with quartz, however, is that it's very hard to see flaking landmarks on photographs. For what it's worth, I still think that at least that handaxe looks very rough in craftsmanship (e.g., uneven thinning, apparently no basal thinning, very sinuous edges). Although that's not too unusual for pieces on quartz, I really hope that this one's not their best looking one!

To summarize the debate a bit, Strasser, Runnels and company have found these quartz implements whose morphology is reminiscent of that of handaxes in deposits dating to ca. 130,000 years BP on Crete. This is significant because Crete appears to have remained an island detached from the European mainland for most of the Pleistocene, which implies any tool maker on the island must have originally arrived there through some form of seafaring.

The record of Lower Paleolithic finds on Mediterranean islands is largely unconvincing. As Broodbank (2006:204) states:

"Claims of Lower and Middle
Palaeolithic finds on the islands divide, as
Mussi (2001: 86) notes, into those that are
reliably documented but derive from locations
that were not insular at the time (such
as Capri [Mussi 2001: 86]), and those found
on definite palaeo-islands but that are contentious
in terms of their identification as
artefacts rather than geofacts, or whose dating
is uncertain, due to either the low diagnosticity
of the material itself, or the lack of a
scientifically dated context. A few cases, such
as a possible Lower Palaeolithic find from
Corfu (Kourtessi-Philippaki 1999: 283-84; cf.
Runnels 1995: 235 n. 48), fit both categories.
Where such claims have been subjected to rigorous
analysis, including re-examination of the
material and findspot, the conclusions have
tended to be negative."
Perhaps not insignificantly, one of the authors Broodbank cites as urging caution about accepting some of these early find uncritically is C. Runnels, who's one of the discoverers of the Cretan handaxes. Given their age, however, these implements are not really relevant to the question of a Lower Paleolithic settlement of Crete. However, they are very relevant to the question of Middle Paleolithic settlement of those landmasses. On this topic, Broodbank (2006:204-205) proposes that:

"Slightly more convincing, and therefore
intriguing, are a handful of findspots of probable
Middle Palaeolithic stone tools from
several of the smaller Greek islands, notably
in the Sporades (Efstratiou 1985: 5-6, 56-59)
and Ionian islands (Dousougli 1999; Kavvadias
1984; Kourtessi-Philliapaki 1999), but
potentially also on Melos in the Cyclades
(Chelidonio 2001). In the first and second
cases, the findspots lie close to foci of Middle
Palaeolithic activity in, respectively, Thessaly,
and Epirus/Albania/Dalmatia (Runnels
1995: 238-39; Runnels et al. 2004). In most
instances—probably all of the Sporades, save
the perhaps erroneous case of Skyros, for
which the only report is a newspaper article
written almost half a century ago (Cherry
1981: 44), plus Corfu and Lefkas in the Ionian
group—the islands concerned were almost
certainly joined to the mainland at the lower
sea levels that existed after the last interglacial
(Oxygen Isotope Stage 5e, dated to 128-
118,000 years ago). More interesting is the
case of Kephallonia (and probably conjoined
Zakynthos [Kourtessi-Phillipaki 1999: 284-
86]), where the tools, albeit not associated
with dated contexts, do seem bona fide, and
the island, although in a fault zone subject
to massive vertical movement, is likely on
bathymetric grounds to have been separated
from the mainland by one or more gaps of a
few kilometres (less than the 20 km reported
in Cherry 1990: 171). Still more surprising, but
unsupported by detailed study of material and
context, or independent dating, are the finds
from Melos, which would have been attainable
only via a chain of inter-island links, including
sea-crossings in the order of 10 km at average
Middle Palaeolithic sea level stands."
There therefore seems to be some prior evidence of potential evidence of a Middle Paleolithic on some of the Greek islands, albeit somewhat debatable and mostly found on islands relatively close to the mainland. That being the case, it may be that, if the Cretan material is shown to be unambiguous, it represents one more instance of fleeting island hopping. No matter, how fleeting, however, this behavior has profound implications for the behavior of the hominins (most likely Neanderthals) who engaged in it.

"Could it be that
the markedly indented coastline and mass of
offshore islands in the Ionian and Aegean seas
triggered a slight ‘stretching’ of behaviour?
Visits to the nearby Ionian islands from the
large base camps identified on the opposite
mainland are certainly compatible with what
we know of Neanderthal short-range mobility
(Gamble 1999: 239-43, 266), and also with
some simple propelled floating technique, but
visits as far afield as Melos are less so in
both respects. The potential implications for
the earliest Mediterranean maritime activity
and, equally, for Neanderthal cognitive and
learning abilities (Stringer and Gamble 1993;
Mithen 2005), are therefore quite substantial.
A thorough investigation of the Kephallonian
and Melian finds, combined with scientific
dating of their contexts, is clearly essential.
(Broodbank 2006:205)"
This echoes (and explains!) a lot of the press coverage that's been focused on these finds, and clearly underscores the potential significance of these stone tools. With that in mind, then, the Hesperia paper will need to clearly do the following in order for the finds to be considered credible:

  1. Provide some radiometric ages of the deposits in which the tools were found;
  2. Explain how the tools ended up in these deposits (i.e., are they in primary or secondary context? If secondary, where was the primary context?);
  3. Discuss why quartz seems to have been the raw material of choice when there are other sources of better quality workable stone on the island, which were exploited by later occupants;
  4. Present some information on the production sequences of these implements showing patterned human action;
  5. Distinguish this material from later (i.e., post-agricultural) occurrences of 'rough' stone tools made on coarse-grained raw materials; and
  6. Explain why a Middle Paleolithic industry should be comprised predominantly of Lower Paleolithic type implements (unless, of course, the handaxes got all the glory in the press reports and there actually is more to this assemblage).
Personally, I'd be very excited if these turned out to be credible, as it would provide further evidence of the flexibility of Middle Paleolithic hominins and force us to rethink how they engaged with their larger ecological realities. Also, it'd probably spur some new research on Paleolithic-age deposits in Mediterranean islands. This last point would be especially important, in my view, because even with the Cretan evidence, the record of Lower and Middle Paleolithci island living remains very scant, which begs for an explanation, since hominins should now be assumed to be capable of seafaring in the deep past.


Broodbank, C. (2006). The Origins and Early Development of Mediterranean Maritime Activity Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, 19 (2) DOI: 10.1558//jmea.2006.v19i2.199


Maju said...

"Explain why a Middle Paleolithic industry should be comprised predominantly of Lower Paleolithic type implements"...

This seems to be the key issue (provided everything else is correct). However I don't think the researchers will be able to explain that easily, considering that H. sapiens in North Africa (and seemingly Palestine) was then using Mousterian tech (and later Aterian), and so were Neanderthals in West Eurasia, while H. sapiens further south were already heavily involved with MSA and related technologies.

So can we speculate about an H. erectus offshoot? If so, why were these "primitive" members of the Homo genus the first ones to cross the seas (as far as we can tell)?

There is anyhow, as far as I know, at least another "out of place", or rather "out of age", Acheulean site in SW Europe: Las Gándaras de Budiño (Porriño, Galicia), C-14 dated to 26,700-18,000 BP (ref. F. Jordá Cerdá 1989). Just for the record.

CamArchGrad said...


After seeing the tools and the contexts I have to go back to SH Warren and the problem of self selection. Just because it looks like a tool (and those certainly look like tools) doesn't mean it is a tool. Especially from a context like a colluvial deposit on a steep slope in amongst a bunch of cobbles.

Of course with the Lower Paleolithic of Alberta. All is possible.