Saturday 12 May 2012

Kathu! Gesundheit! More Archaeologists With Rocks On Their Brains

This blurt is aimed squarely at the archaeological aristocracy and their supplicants, who rely on increasingly tenuous classifications, such as handax and Levallois technique to paint the past in a way that cannot, for much longer, stand up to the scrutiny of serious scholars. In this case the issue is the notion of a blade, and what two sets of authors have recently claimed is evidence for what's called a 'blade industry' half a million years ago.
     I hope to challenge the cognoscenti to confront my criticism with cold hard data, as a way of getting them to contemplate entire assemblages of artifacts rather than just those they recognize as belonging to an arbitrary system of classification.
     This blurt has been festering inside me ever since I had some rather unflattering things to say about Wilkins and Chazan (2012) 'Blade production ~500 thousand years ago at Kathu Pan 1, South Africa: support for a multiple origins hypothesis for early Middle Pleistocene blade technologies' [which you may remember was posted on the Subversive Archaeologist back in February]. The Wilkins and Chazan article had been published online in advance of the papyrus version, which is now available. Although some might think that I had quite enough to say about the claims for blade manufacture at 0.5 Ma, I find that there is some unfinished business to take care of.
     Two bits of unfinished business, in fact. The first is methodological; the second is empirical. Method precedes analysis.
      These authors are making a similar claim to the one we heard coming out of Israel last year--from Qesem Cave [and about which I have opined here, here, and here]. In what follows I'll briefly synopsize my methodological quibble with Wilkins and Chazan [cited above], and Shimelmitz, Barkai and Gopher (2011) Systematic blade production at late Lower Paleolithic (400—200 kyr) Qesem Cave, Israel.
     And it goes something like this. And a one, and a two and a one, two, three, four... These authors profess to be dealing with blades, a specific category of stone flake that, traditionally, is associated with the Upper Palaeolithic and people like you and me. Somewhere along the line, someone seems to have forgotten what a blade truly is, and instead these authors seem to think that any flake that is twice as long [or more] than it is wide is a blade. This is poppycock! As I pointed out previously, and as every undergraduate in archaeology understands, blades are defined as follows [courtesy of Wikipedia--who else?]
Blades are defined as being flakes that are [A] at least twice as long as they are wide and [B] that have parallel or subparallel sides and at least two ridges on the dorsal (outer) side. Additionally, a tool must be [C] part of an intentional blade industry in order to properly be considered a blade; tools which show the characteristics of blades through variation but are not intentionally produced with those characteristics are not considered true blades [emphasis mine]. 
The papers mentioned above play fast and loose with this notion of blades [which I'll remind you is bog standard descriptive lithic analysis speak for blade]. These authors more or less ignore the [B] and [C] criteria in favour of a simplistic definition based on [A] that allows them to argue that they have evidence of the tricky but necessary [C] criterion--that they must be part of an intentional blade industry to be considered blades. What do traditional lithic analysts consider evidence of a 'blade industry?' Here's a good example, taken from a site of Mesolithic antiquity. 

As you can see, each of the complete flakes is in most cases three, four, five, and in one case six times as long as it is wide. They all have more or less parallel lateral margins. Many have two dorsal ridges [the sharp crests that you can see running along the body of the flake parallel to the lateral margins. This set of examples includes some elongated flakes that possess only one such ridge. Under the circumstances the archaeologist is correct in ascribing blade status to them simply because there is an undeniable abundance of 'true' blades here, and because the assemblage from which these blades came also includes the carefully prepared cores from which blades such as these are struck [and only from such carefully prepared cores can a flintknapper repeatedly remove such flakes successively, which is the essence of what's called a 'blade industry.'

Each of the cores shown here is radially symmetrical, meaning that if you turned them over you'd see the same effect on the opposite side. They've been carefully chosen and carefully prepared by creating a relatively plane surface at what in this image is the top of each core. Once the core is prepared the flintknapper can remove, serially, flake after flake that's well more than twice as long as it is wide, and parallel-sided--over and over again until the core is exhausted, as is the one in the second row from the top, second in from the left.
     Contrast this assemblage with what Wilkins and Chazan and Shimelmitz, Barkai and Gopher consider to be 'blades' based on morphology.
     First Wilkins and Chazan's 'blades' followed by their 'blade cores'. In the photo immediately below you can see a number of flakes that are at least twice as long as they are wide [ignore the core-ish piece in the lower left]. As you can see, calling their lateral margins 'parallel' would be a bit of a reach. You might also have a frustrating experience trying to find more than one that has anything like the parallel ridges seen in the Mesolithic blades above. So why are we being shown these artifacts as evidence of a 'blade industry'?  Good question. Some of these flakes even have cortex dorsally. You wouldn't get a serious lithic analyst to accept a 'blade' with cortex on the dorsus. As anyone can plainly see from this photo and the line drawings that follow it, these so-called blades are anything but. Catch up with me below, where the prepared 'cores' from Kathu Pan 1 are illustrated.

One thing I might remind you before I say anything about these cores--Wilkins and Chazan wouldn't be showing us these artifacts if they weren't the best of the lot. Imagine what the other 900 or so 'blades' must look like! 
     On to the 'prepared cores.' Wilkins and Chazan say that the flake removals indicated by the arrows below represent the intention on the part of the 500,000 year old hominid to remove 'blades' in a systematic fashion, and that thus they stand as evidence [along with the abovementioned 'blades'] of a 'blade industry.' Their claim is preposterous. Where do they find the referees to vet this stuff?

I think I'll leave it there for the time being, and return to bring out the finer points of Wilkins and Chazan's pseudo-argument at a later date.
     Good night, All.


  1. Well I agree with you that these are poor proofs for blade production in LP. Indeed the images show what we could define as Levallois Blade production. In the last years I have been working in a research team with French colleagues (L. Bourguignon, M. Soressi, I. Ortega or J.L. Locht among others) trying to define the real existence of blade production in European MP. We discovered that there are major differences between Levallois Blade Production (LBP) and Blade Production (BP) developed in some areas as Northern France (MIS6-5) or SW France (MIS3). We decided then that LBP was an elongated flake production with almost no technical procedures orientated versus the management of cores to produce real blades (elongated, sub-parallel edges, continuous production, etc.). In the same analysis we discovered that MP BP (in sites as Fresnoy-au-Val) has no technical differences with UP blade production (it was strikingly similar to Gravettian bipolar blade production) but it has a CLEAR difference regarding the objectives of this production: butchery knives for de MP, multiple tool blank (Endscraper, burin, sidescraper, truncated pieces, backed points, etc.) in the UP.
    So, not every elongated blank production can be defined as blade production, there is blade production in MP (Qsem cave one is quite similar) and blade production objectives are different in MP and UP.
    Some remarks: there is a huge variability in blade production even in the UP. Sometimes cores are well prepared, sometimes it’s made in a more opportunistic way. There are, of course, cortical blades obtained in the beginning of the exploitation or when core sides have not been completely prepared. Many blade products in UP have not perfectly parallel sides, and sometimes convergent (triangular) shapes are searched (for the fabrication of Chatelp, Gravettian or Azilian points for example).

  2. Joseba,
    Thank you! It is very encouraging to hear of the results that you and your colleagues are achieving. However, if you have seen my posts on the Levallois technique you will know that I think there is a huge need for a more realistic review of the presumed intentionality on the part of the hominid knapper. I'll have more to say about Qesem in posts to come. Finally, I agree with you that sometimes UP blades are opportunistic or ad hoc. However, there can be no doubt of the ability of UP knappers to produce real blades in a systematic and carefully planned way at times, where in fact it is far less clear that MP knappers were ever capable of the kind of technical sophistication that we see in the UP. I hope we can agree to disagree on these matters without feeling any acrimony.
    Thanks again for dropping by!

  3. I suppose almost piece of chipped stone derived from striking platform on one end with its edges then trimmed by removing flakes from around the platform could rightfully be called a blade if its length more than twice exceeds its width. In California, we commonly call any formed tool at least twice as long as its wide a 'blade' but then we don't have a million years of prehistory to deal with and most of us know to what we refer. I'm not a lithic analyst nor do I aspire to be such. I do however read...a lot. And when someone tells me they have a blade industry, I think of the Mode 4 technocomplex; for example, that which characterizes the Upper Paleolithic Aurignacian. The photograph Rob presents represents what I think of as blades. Now, I have no problem if folks wish to employ the term blade to describe single artifacts but when describing a blade industry then they perhaps need to consider another term since it has already been co-opted for the UP. Rob is correct that a fortuitous blade could be created by almost anyone, any time. But not an entire industry. And blades with cortex? Huh? Again, I'm not a lithic analyst but even I know true 'blades' don't have cortex. True blades? Can we agree at least that true blades have been recognized in the UP for some 60 year? I'm looking at the Qesem Cave blade cores and frankly, they sure look like simple heavy percussion flakes to me, the kind we find in Western Pluvial Lakes Tradition Early Holocene deposits in the Western US. What makes these cores other then the fact the authors tell us they are? I haven't read the article so perhaps they explain themselves therein. It seems to me that what the authors have done is borrow a term because it seemed to fit...twice as long or more then wide. Heck, we use the term in California so why not in the Lower Paleolithic? Simple: In California we know the artifacts were made by human beings and the concept doesn't imply a level of technological development that didn't exist. This article seems yet another example of archaeological taxonomic abuse. If words have meaning, then can we try to apply words in ways that might help retain that meaning? MP and LP blade industries? WTF? Call them anything you but any archaeologist that doesn't comprehend that the term blade when used in the Old World is full of pre-existing connotation should perhaps be doing something else with their time besides digging up Paleolithic cave deposits. But what do I know about lithics?

  4. @Roger
    I couldn't have said it better myself. Welcome aboard!


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