Saturday 26 November 2011

Levallois Take-down, Part Deux

Clockwise from lower left: tortoise core, ventral flake, Levallois point, proximal points.

Clockwise from lower left: Levallois tortoise core and flake, direction of 'preparation' flakes and the final removal of the presumptive desired end product, a Levallois point, a Levallois core in the wild, numerous pieces of Levallois debitage, again in the wild.

The Levallois technique, as it's modelled by the majority of lithic analysts [of which, as you know, I'm not one], is a way to reduce a large block of usable flint to obtain one or at most two unifacial flakes that have the desired outline (viewed dorsally or ventrally). The illustration below is my 'paste-up' of François Bordes' nine 'types' of Levallois cores and flakes, which he envisaged in a 1980 article.
Bordes, François. 1980. Le débitage Levallois et ses variantes. Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 77:45-49.
These Bordesian types are idealized (if not reified) categories. In an earlier post I argued that the Levallois 'blades' from Qesem Cave in Israel were anything but ideally shaped. Nor were they, evidently, uniformly shaped. The story is much the same for the other eight Levallois flake 'types' that Bordes bequeathed to us. As opposed to the stereotyped images shown above, the reality is much more complex and includes far less regularity than Bordes' classification would suggest. So complex and so variable are the products of the Levallois technique that one wonders how many Prof. Bordes needed to look at before deciding on just those nine shapes as emblems of what the Middle Palaeolithic (MP) hominids were aiming for. I can suggest that he searched his own experience of the world to settle on those nine types, as shapes that just might approximate shapes that would be useful to a modern human--e.g. a projectile point, a knife, an 'ulu,' a scraper.
     Do me a favour and scrutinize the objects displayed below, which are some of the Levallois cores recovered at Douara Cave, in Syria. The presumed desired outcome--the final, 'Levallois,' flake removals--are outlined in red. See how many you can assign to one of the nine Bordesian types shown above. Difficult? That's an understatement! 'Impossible' gets my vote.
Levallois cores from Douara Cave (Credit Akazawa in Suzuki and Takai 1974). 
I suppose you could argue, as many no doubt would, that the Doura Cave Levallois cores aren't good Levallois cores, and say that only those that conform to Bordes' typology can be called good Levallois cores. I hope you can see why I think such a view would be begging the question. ['Begging the question,' for those of you who didn't take that Critical Thinking course at university, is A.K.A. 'circular argument.'] 
     Just to show you that I'm not cherry-picking my evidence, have a look at the following illustration from a paper by Vallin et al. published in Paleo dealing with Levallois flake variability. This is an assemblage-level comparison of flake outlines that have been identified as Levallois flakes. You don't have to be a statistician to see that there isn't one dominant outline, much less evidence of any of the nine that Bordes 'identified.' It's clear to me, at least, that you'd have to be thinking like a Neanderthal to see the variability in products of the Levallois technique as anything other than continuous.   
Outline of unbroken Levallois flakes from Hermies-Le Tio Marché ; hinged flakes  in red, plunging flakes in green (CAD : L. Vallin).
With all due respect to François Bordes and Eric Boëda, the Levallois technique is nothing but the product of some very elastic modern human minds, and, contrary to received wisdom, was never the incredibly wasteful and counter-intuitive behaviour of MP hominids. A GREAT deal of modern human brainpower went into its creation as an archaeological construct, and I fear that a great deal more will be expended before a counter-argument such as mine meets wide acceptance.
     Some would call that job security. I can't see any up-side in that. I'd call my project Sisyphean in proportion, and in its likely outcome.


  1. I believe that you may change some of your views on levallois technology if you were in possession of enough levallois artifacts to actually see and understand the "industry". No I am not a scholar, which usually disqualifies any input among the academic elite, but I am in posession of such an assemblage which does qualify an opinion at the very least. To see the "industry" one must have one or have access to one. It takes hundreds of cores and thousands of tools and flakes to "see" the "industry", without such volume it is only speculation as to what the goal of the technique was. Again, I have that, and the mystery of levallois is really no mystery at all and I can say very confidently the desired end was not simply a "point". It is a very complex technology that I refer to as a "well planned adlib" system of tool production.....doubt it? feel free to contact

  2. This is a fascinating blog post, and the follow-up comment is fascinating as well. The the commenter: I take it you are a collector? Do you buy these pieces? Would love to know the extent and nature of your collection.

  3. Really just a guy who stumbled on to a couple sites that have been exposed naturally, revealing an industry which only has parallels in the Mousterian abroad. I have thousands of actual tools and cores in virtually every stage of the levallois reduction. I have points, cores, blades, burins, and axes as well as ochre crayons and bone tools. I can be contacted at doninger@SBC


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