Monday 10 December 2012

Ceci N'est Pas Une Barre de Savon: Apologies to René Magritte

Ceci n'est pas une barre de savon 
Behold the lowly bar of soap [albeit somewhat used]. In the past I've used similar objects to make fun of handaxes [here and here]. Although the tone of those essays was tongue-in-cheek, my purpose was serious: a used bar of soap is an excellent analogy to use when theorizing about the lithic reduction sequences that result in what's come to be known as 'the' Acheulean handaxe, and what's called the 'Levallois technique,' the two main aspects of which are the 'Levallois core' and the 'Levallois flake.'
     Some of you may lack an intimate knowledge of Middle Palaeolithic stone artifacts and the history of their interpretation. I must warn you. What I'm about to say will not be well received by Very Serious [Palaeolithic] Archaeologists. These objects have been heavily theorized, going back more than a century, and their 'reality' is a foregone conclusion in the disciplinary 'culture.' As such, my efforts are akin to pissing into the wind.
Me and my Level 4 Biohazard suit 

Never mind about that. Somebody's gotta do it. Might as well be me. Besides, I've taken a face-full so many times I'm ready for anything in my Level-4 Biohazard suit! Regardless, it does get tedious donning and doffing these togs every other day or so. [And guess what? They don't protect against hurt feelings or embarrassment. So, they're not perfect, 'specially when you consider the atmosphere of acrimony that sometimes prevails in  this binness.]
     Back to the matters at hand. By now you may have consulted my previous two outings on this issue. Today I'm hoping to break the argument down into its components so as to make a step-by-step case as to why a used bar of soap is a good analogy for the handaxe and the two genres of Levallois artifacts.
     First of all, let's talk about the functional underpinnings, beginning with a question [and don't get all bent outa shape. This isn't a 'Why did the chicken cross the road' joke!].
     "Why did the bipedal ape bang one piece of rock against another piece of rock with the result that a small, sharp-edged fragment was subtracted from the larger of the two blocks?" Was it to make the large block smaller? Not likely. Was it to prepare the large block for the removal of a second or third sharp-edged fragment? Hmmm. Let's think about that for a moment. It seems rather unlikely, given that this was just about the first time a bipedal ape left such a trace in the palaeontological record.
     Remember that we don't know much about the cognitive abilities of those first 'flintknappers.' All we can say for certain is that they would have been every bit as smart as the last common ancestor that we humans share with chimps. Best guess? A chimp-like brain. So, the cognitive abilities of those first 'flintknappers' were at best equivalent to those of present-day chimpanzees [unless we're to imagine that today's chimps have de-volved from a golden age of chimp cognition, which seems, again, unlikely].
     Do we think that the first 'flintknapper' banged one rock against another because it envisioned a useful sharp bit in the block of raw material and then struggled to work out a way to get it out? I'm gonna say that's also highly unlikely. [By so saying I might be accused of a certain bias against our early progenitors. However, I think it'd take one gigantic heap of special pleading to suggest that the first 'flake' was the result of forethought.] So, if not because of forethought, how do we explain that first act of rock against rock, and the removal of a sharp fragment. Here I'm jumping into the realm of speculation.
     I see a couple of possibilities. First, it could have been accidental, the result of a meaningless, nothing-better-to-do-at-the-moment banging together of two rocks with the unexpected effect that a small, sharp-edged fragment was detached from one of the two rocks. Second, it may have been a cognitive leap based on observation. In this scenario the first flake removal was an effort to replicate the result of two pieces of rock, in nature,  coming into contact with violent force such that a small, sharp fragment was detached. Not much to choose between there. Could go either way. What about that second possibility? How could that have occurred?
     I see at least a couple of ways that our bipedal hominid might have espied pieces of rock coming into contact in such a way that that first 'flintknapper' decided to take a *cough* crack at it. The first possibility is that it was, once again, a natural occurrence. Picture a cliff face from which, at random, fragments are naturally detached and fall to ground level with great force. At some point one block is going to come crashing down on another one resting on the surface and voila! The flake is born. The other possibility is that our incipient 'flintknapper' was out foraging one day with a fist-sized rock that was intended to be used as a missile in case it was surprised by a vicious predator [or to scatter a bunch of scavengers, or something equally as efficacious, in the palaeolithic sense]. Fast forward to the confrontation. Bipedal hominid flings rock at lion and misses, hitting cliff face or rock outcrop. Lion runs off. Our intrepid hominid goes to retrieve missile. It looks different now. There's a chunk missing. Hominid glances at ground. Spies flake. Picks up flake. 'Refits' flake. [Please, please, don't somebody use this scenario to argue for the presence of lithic analysts at 2.6 Ma!] Our better-than-chimp-brained bipedal ape puts two and two together and hominids lived happily ever after...
     So, our choices are 1) meaningless rock banging leads to lithic technology, or 2) observation of the results of rock banging leads to lithic technology. I think 2) is most likely. As for the event that brought about the observation, the possibilities are 1) naturally occurring fracturing, or 2) a rock used as a missile fractures when it impacts a larger rock mass. I think we must begin from this supposition, that our 'flintknapper' observed a natural phenomenon and put two and two together. This is the explanation that requires the least speculation. But, of course, it doesn't rule out the missile scenario.
     Just an aside, here. How did our savvy, soon-to-be 'flintknapper' know that a sharp rock could function as a cutting or scraping tool [which seems the most logical function for the arch flake and its progeny]? I reckon it's a no brainer. [Well, okay, it's a chimp brainer!] Ever bang your head on a sharp overhanging object, whether rock or other material? Hurts. There might be blood. Same with walking barefoot on sharp rocks. It probably didn't take an Oldowan Einstein to see the utility of sharp-edged rock fragments. So, it seems most likely that the first sharp stone flake removed intentionally from a block of raw material was used to cut or scrape something that couldn't be cut or scraped using fingernails or teeth. [It matters little to this discussion which of those two activities was primary in hominid evolution.] What matters is the result: one sharp fragment and one block of raw material from which it was removed.

     By now you're prolly wondering what any of this has to do with soap. I'm getting there. Be patient.
     If the entire archaeological record consisted of a sharp-edged fragment of rock--i.e. a flake--and the lump of raw material from which it was detached--i.e. a core--do you think archaeologists should ignore the flake and try to figger out what the lump might have been used for? Would that same archaeologist look at a used bar of soap and ignore the material that had been removed to wash somebody's hands? They might if they had no idea that any material had been removed in its creation. So, under such circumstances we could forgive the soap analysts if they focussed on the bar and not the lather, and dubbed the used bar a work of art or, well you can see what I'm up to. In the next chapter I'm going to argue that this is just what the earliest palaeolithic archaeologists did, and for much the same reason--at the very beginning the flakes--the lather, if you will, of a lump of rock--were very likely not in the picture.
     For now, I'll just foreshadow that next installment with an example from recent palaeoanthropology. Have a look at the illustration below. These are some of the oldest stone artifacts, from Kada Gona, Ethiopia, at around 2.65 Ma. These were reported in a 2000 Journal of Archaeological Science publication by Sileshi Semaw, "The World’s Oldest Stone Artefacts from Gona, Ethiopia: Their Implications for Understanding Stone Technology and Patterns of Human Evolution Between 2·6–1·5 Million Years Ago." The typological paradigm that's in play in these descriptions is a direct descendent of the first discoveries of Pleistocene stone artifacts in Europe, including those that were described from the very beginning as hand axes. The Kada Gona archaeologists are obviously reluctant to suggest that any of the objects shown are handaxes (although number 2 would be a good candidate for what the Qesem Cave and Kathu Pan 1 teams have described as a "handaxe roughout"--a pre-form, in other words). How number 2 escaped such a claim, and indeed, how the Kada Gona archaeologist missed his chance at claiming the earliest handaxe, is beyond the ability of this little brain of mine to understand. Unless, of course, said archaeologist had been brought up to think that handaxes weren't even invented until the Acheulean stone industry appeared, at about 1.5 Ma.

As you can see in the caption above, the archaeologist makes every effort to downplay the flakes, and to ascribe a meaningful function to the lumps from which the flakes were removed. Number 1 is a "unifacial chopper," while number 2 is inscrutably identified as a "discoid." Number 3 isn't just another unifacial chopper, it's a unifacial side chopper. [Explain that one!] Number 4 is a unifacial end chopper. Doesn't it look like 1 and 3? It does to me. But, then again, I'm not a lithic analyst. The fifth is a 'partial' discoid, presumably because it's not really discoidal at all. So it's an irregular discoid! Criminy! 6 and 7 are called the same thing as 3. UNBELIEVABLE! It's the flake, Stupid! [Recalling the Clinton campaign strategy: "It's the economy, Stupid!"] These so-called choppers prolly couldn't chop a pound of butter without smearing it all over Olduvai! Choppers, my ass. Are we to believe that these Ur-flintknappers, who had just learned to walk for gawd's sake, could possibly conceive of a chopper, or an axe? Good luck with that one.
     On the basis of the foregoing evidence courtesy of the Kada Gona archaeologist, I'm gonna guess that any lumps of stone with fewer than a half-dozen flake removals were simply not considered worthy of discussion [much less illustration in an august refereed journal]. But you and I know that they're there in the assemblage, disguised as 'mere' cores, and giving lie to this preposterous labelling of more heavily used lumps as 'choppers' and 'discoids.' What a load of crap. And I'm talkin' poop of pachydermical proportions.

I'm outa here.

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  1. This is what I was taught in the 90s.
    It's what I teach my own students, although I do so as the established current viewpoint and not as something new and controversial.
    I've yet to meet any lithicist that holds to the chopper, chopping tool interpretation of the Oldowan.
    The artefacts you are referring to are most commonly called chopper-cores and discoidal cores.
    Although discoids have been thought of as cores for so long that there's no need to qualify the term.

  2. Maybe you can debunk this Piltdown Man thing next?

  3. Wait! Anonymous. If what you say is true [and I have no reason to doubt you], I only wish the human palaeontologists, and those who call themselves palaeoanthropolgoists, were all like you. Can I presume that you're asserting Dr. Semaw isn't a 'lithicist,' given that he adheres to those old categories? Have you given any thought as to how your maintenance of reified terms like 'chopper' core contribute to the reproduction of false notions of intended lithic outcomes? Having relegated those old types to the dustbin, are you also prepared to give up the idea of a handaxe [or cleaver or pick or whatever] in later periods? After all, I'm working up to that conclusion in this and what I hope will be subsequent blurts. Thanks for chiming in. I hope you'll stick around for the rest. Oh, and as for Eoanthropus dawsonii, a better straw man I couldn't have thought of. Rob. [Oh, and by the way, I like snide. I use snide myself. Snide works for me.] ;-)

  4. I think for this instance I may have indentified the source of the confusion over nomenclature in this passage.

    "The Gona assemblages consist of cores,whole and broken flakes and a high density of angular
    fragments. Using criteria developed by Leakey (1971)
    for Olduvai Gorge Bed I and Lower Bed II, the Gona
    cores can be classified as choppers, discoids, polyhedrons
    and heavy duty core scrapers"

    So Dr. Semaw identifies the assemblage as being made up of cores and flakes, but identifies the illustrated pieces in terms of Leakey's 1971 classification. In a similar way to the Bordes typology as a shorthand.

    Archaeologists often use and misuse a wide variety of terms which are often descriptive in nature in circumstances where in reality a generalised term should be used.

    I may uncover a circular feature but can only term it a posthole or pit once I've excavated it, and sometimes not even then. Or I may find a biface, rather than handaxe, cleaver, pick, although those terms will give me an indication of the form it takes.

    However as a knapper I'll hold onto my notions of intended outcomes if it's all the same.

  5. And a little later in the paragraphs above and below the illustration there's this full explanation.

    "Current understanding of the Oldowan technology strongly suggests that Plio-Pleistocene
    hominids were mainly after the production of sharpedged
    flakes for use as cutting implements, with no
    predetermined design intended for the shape of the end
    product (Toth, 1982, 1985, 1987). For example, experimental
    replication of the artefacts from Koobi Fora
    has shown that the final shape of the Oldowan cores
    and flakes were dictated mainly by the size and morphology
    of the clasts available, the flaking quality of
    the raw materials and the extent of flaking afforded
    during the course of reduction of the cores (Toth, 1982,
    1985, 1987). In order to avoid the functional implications
    inferred from Leakey’s (1971) elaborate typology,Isaac et al. (1981) outlined a scheme for classifying
    early stone assemblages from a simple technological
    perspective. These were the Flaked Pieces (cores/
    choppers), Detached Pieces (flakes and fragments),
    Pounded Pieces (cobbles utilized as hammerstones,
    etc.) and Unmodified Pieces (manuports, stones transported
    to sites). This is a useful technological approach
    for describing early stone assemblages, but it may mask
    certain details important for examining behavioural
    changes in artefact manufacture and use during the
    Late Pliocene–Early Pleistocene. The use of Leakey’s
    (1971) typology is still important for comparing early
    stone assemblages because most artefacts of this period
    have been described following her conventions (for
    example, Chavaillon, 1976; Merrick, 1976; Isaac &
    Harris, 1997). Further technological studies may be
    essential for devising typological schemes standard for
    classifying early stone assemblages, and for understanding
    significant behavioural changes, if any, in
    Oldowan artefact manufacture through time."

  6. You’re right to point out that Sileshi Semaw appreciates that the flake was the likely objective of the Kada Gona ‘flintknapper.’ However he doesn’t wriggle off the hook entirely, given the tell-tale in the last sentence you quoted:

    “The use of Leakey’s…typology is still important for comparing early stone assemblages because most artefacts of this period have been described following her conventions… . Further technological studies may be essential for devising typological schemes standard for classifying early stone assemblages, and for understanding significant behavioural changes, if any, in Oldowan artefact manufacture through time."

    Unless the author is talking about changes in the flakes through time, what other category could he hope to follow through time that might reveal to him “significant behavioural changes?” None, of course. Thus, the only meaning I can possibly take from that statement is that Dr. Semaw reserves the right to call a core a chopper, and to make observations as to how those reified categories might have changed through time: from chopper to cleaver, handaxe, pick, discoid, prepared core, Levallois flake. As such, he’s hoping that a reified category will eventually be realized.

    Clearly, Dr. Semaw hasn’t heard of what you claim is the consensus lithicist’s view of the Oldowan. Moreover, you and he are happy to continue using reified categories to characterize those assemblages. Aren’t ‘core’ and ‘flake’ interesting enough for you? I suspect not. And so lithicists forge on, employing useless categories to ‘describe’ something when what you are really doing is ‘interpreting’ enthymematically.

    As not-a-knapper I hope you’ll understand why I’m gonna hold onto my notions of intended outcomes. What I’m saying will still have valence, and ‘palaeointentionality’ will still be an empirical question. That will be the case whether or not you and other knappers believe you possess privileged knowledge of the bipedal ape’s cognition through your attempts to ‘replicate’ something you thought was a concept in those ape brains.

    No matter how hard you protest, you’re never going to know what was in the brain of those creatures if you assume, a priori, that you’re ‘replicating’ an meaningful category. After all, up front you’re saying “That’s a handaxe. Let’s see how hard it is to produce one from a block of raw material.” Or, “That’s a Levallois Flake. Let’s see how hard it is to get from a block of raw material to a final flake removal that’s the shape I want.” All you’re really doing is demonstrating what it would take to make something you already think is something! Circular reasoning is inherently fallacious, and I don’t think knappers can escape it.

    Thank you for your comments. You're helping me to better articulate my position. ;-)

  7. This bit again-

    "Current understanding of the Oldowan technology strongly suggests that Plio-Pleistocene
    hominids were mainly after the production of sharpedged
    flakes for use as cutting implements, with no
    predetermined design intended for the shape of the end

  8. Hi Rob, Thanks for the thought provocation and amusing analogies. However . . . I understood the term handaxe had been dropped some time ago in preference to biface in acknowledgement that we don't know how they were used.

    Regarding the first flint knapper, if I walk out of my front door a few hundred yards in any direction I find fields that contain (literally) millions (maybe tens of millions of flint fragments in all sizes from large complete nodules down to small flakes produced by weathering, soil creep, impact etc etc. A palaeolithic man or woman would have found all these, picked up the ones that looked sharpest, and it would have been obvious which ones were most useful and how it might be possible to adapt some of the less useful ones to be the same. No visualisation would have been needed.

    Do keep up the barrage of insults,

  9. Perhaps the misuse of the the term "flintknapping" has led to some confusion. With it's implication of the working of flint.

    The raw material used in this case is mostly trachyte cobbles from stream beds.

    Might I recommend reading through the paper in question Richard.

  10. He is indeed talking about changes in the flakes, and lets not forget the cores in our typology of "flakes & cores", through time, as indicated in several sections of the paper.

    Particularly in the work of Nick Toth.

    I personally find cores and flakes very interesting as each flake represents a snap shot of its production and in many cases of the production flakes before it.
    Cores also record the production of the flakes removed from them.

    My knapping may not let me get into the head of ancient hominids but it does afford me a working knowledge of the flaking properties of stone.

    I know, for example, from experience and by observing certain large brained hominids, that if you pound randomly at a nodule of flint, even one with a shape conducive to flaking to begin with, what you end up with is a lumpen block of flint covered in percussion marks and hinge fractures with a pile of shatter and not very useful flakes.

  11. Dear Anonymous,

    A wise friend of mine once advised me: "Don't write to be understood, Rob. Write so that you cannot be misunderstood." Wise. Like I said.

    I fear that, again and again, my points are being misunderstood, and I must first assume that it is my poor written expression at fault.

    The loyal readers of the Subversive Archaeologist are probably by now tiring of you and I talking at cross purposes.

    For that reason I'm compelled to request that we move this conversation "off line" if you're agreeable.

    I can be contacted at, where we can, if you wish, become better acquainted AND endeavour to crack this nut.

  12. I fear it would prove a rather pointless exercise to discuss bifaces if we can't get beyond the Oldowan which we agree is flake and core.

    Semaw's 2000 paper agrees is flake and core.

    Toth's 1985 paper "The Oldowan reassessed:" makes the technological case for flake and core.

    So for over 20 years the Oldowan has been aknowledged as a flake and core industry.

    Your blog wasn't about a lack of clear labelling of an illustration. Perhaps a label saying "After Leakey" should have been included. Although this was pointed out in the text as I've demonstrated.

    Nor was it about the persistance of old terms which have an implied function.

    It is, and I may misunderstand this, your case for the Oldowan being flakes and cores.

    You can cherry pick the odd reference to chopper cores or discoids out of context, much in the way one can select the prettiest or ugliest biface to show symetry or lack thereof.

    I'm not sure what you have against discoids as that seems to be a descriptive term rather than a functional one.

    But at the end of the day you're presenting the established view of the Oldowan as something new and inflamatory.

    I have found many of your previous blogs interesting, thought provoking, valid and invalid.
    This one however is just, well, unecessary and certainly unecessarily vitriolic towards Semaw.

    And so I shall draw my contribution to your blog to a close with an observation on your bar of soap analogy on lithic reduction.

    It is hardly suprising that your used bar displays such symetry as it was symetrical to begin with.
    This is seldom the case with nodules or blocks of raw material.


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