Thursday 31 January 2013

Sheesh! Handy Items, Handaxes. Or Maybe Not. Beyene et al. and the oldest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia

From: "The characteristics and chronology of the earliest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia," by Yonas Beyene et al.
PNAS, published online before print January 28, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221285110

I hafta hand it to the early stone age archaeologists and their enablers. They persist in identifying artifacts such as the one shown above as "tools" [in this case a hand axe] without ever having demonstrated that these artifacts were used as tools. It's the conventional wisdom. Who can blame them? The latest voodoo archaeology comes to us from the pages of PNAS, in an article claiming the earliest Acheulean assemblages ever discovered---1.75 Ma! That's a fab result on the dating side, but not so much on the artifact typology side. [You might have expected me to say as much.]
     In the case of the unit shown above, it's a wee bit of a reach to call this a 'hand' axe. It might better be described as a two-handed axe or, perhaps, a two-fisted axe. Or, better still: a mangler. It's on the large side, it seems to me, to have been used one-handed. Most of the other so-called hand axes illustrated in the Bayene et al. article are similarly size grande, as are the so-called cleavers and picks. The image below is a montage that I made from three of Beyene et al.'s figures. I've adjusted their sizes to present them at the same scale [plus or minus my ability to observe when the red smudges lined up in the three photographs]. I've also oriented them with what I infer is the distal [or bulb of percussion] end of the original flake at the bottom.
     I've chosen to present these artifacts in this way so it might be easier for the reader to observe that the range of variation in dorsal outline amongst these three classifications---'hand axe,' 'cleaver,' and 'pick'---could easily be a function of the number of times the original flake was whacked, as opposed to the ultimate intention. For example, if the so-called handaxes in the top row were in fact just cores, it's easy to see how one attempt more or less to remove useful flakes could easily result in a shape that would be considered more like a cleaver or a pick. I'd love to see those inevitable lumps of bifacially flaked rocks from Konso that the excavators didn't view as 'tools.' I'm fairly certain they were there, and sufficiently amorphous that they were simply deemed cores and not tools. They would very likely fill in the gaps in the range of shapes, producing a continuum from discoid through to pick-oid.
Upper row: Dorsal view of a chronological series of artifacts classified as Tools/hand axes. Earliest at left. Bottom row, from the left: Dorsal view three artifacts classified as cleavers; Dorsal view of six artifacts classified as picks (From "The characteristics and chronology of the earliest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia," by Yonas Beyene et al.PNAS, published online before print January 28, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221285110) [scale in cm]. 
In the past I've received a little back-chat having to do with the Oldowan classification, which still retains the vestiges of the formed tool paradigm. I think it's fair to say that those classifications are still present in the minds of lower palaeolithic archaeologists. To give you an idea of how far back in time such categories as handaxe, cleaver and pick are pushed, have a look at the illustration below, from CJ Lepre, et al. "An earlier origin for the Acheulian." Nature 477(7362):82-5, . 2011. doi: 10.1038/nature10372. I'm fairly sure that to call this assemblage Acheulean is a bit fantastic.
Supplementary Figure 2: World’s oldest known Acheulean (ca. 1.76 Ma) from KS4, West Turkana (Kenya). Photo P.-J.Texier © MPK/WTAP, from Supp. Ref. 5. Top: Partial crude handaxe made on a flat large phonolite cobble. Middle: Pick-like tool with a trihedral section, made on a thick split phonolite pebble. Bottom: Partial crude handaxe made on a thick split phonolite pebble. From CJ Lepre, et al. "An earlier origin for the Acheulian." Nature 477(7362), 82-5, 2011. doi: 10.1038/nature10372.
"Partial crude handaxe? You've gotta be joking! Pick-like tool?? Then another partial crude handaxe!? This was the best they could come up with as examples of the Acheulean at 1.76 Ma? No wonder Beyene et al. are a little suspicious of Lepre et al.'s characterization of the Kokiselei assemblage as Acheulean. If this is the best they've got... they really have no leg to stand on. From what their readers are presented, there's nothing here but a few Oldowan cores. The point here is that the archaeologists imbued these crudely flaked lumps of rock with the finished artifact paradigm that permeates the post-Oldowan periods, and as a result they've fallen prey to their own presuppositions.

I'm going to stop now. Cross your fingers that the next Very Important Article that comes within my sight has something to do with an area and a time other than the Pleistocene of Africa and Asia.

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  1. Dear Rob,

    Thank you for the posts. I find them interesting and thought provoking. Some comments on which i would like to hear your views.

    If we accept the cutmarks on bone from Dikika the use of flakes were in use prior to 2 mya.

    In South Africa is know of a number of sites where part skeletons of large animals were present at sites dated around 2 - 1.8 mya. Hippo and Pelorovus as examples. I read your comments on the geology of some of the pans near Kathu and the implications to dating methods.
    As an aside there is a site near Kathu/Sishen where the ground is littered with thousands if not millions of so called Acheulean and 'developed Oldovan tools'. The same applies to the gravels of the Vaal river which according to conventional wisdom was linked to some other rivers stretching to the Congo.
    What always puzzled me was how these people killed these very large animals. Hippos create deep trenches when they leave the water at night to feed obviously using the same exit and entry points. If one had to block such a trench after the animals have left the water and then wait for them to return and of cause be trapped where they cannot turn around the only possible way to kill them would be with a very large sharp pole or a sharpened (handaxe) stone attached to a handle. (I accept of course without proof that these animals were killed by hominids merely because the bones and 'axes' are associated.

    I will at some stage do a literary search to find some data but from memory i recall numerous sites associated with skeletons of large animals. Small prey became more numerous in yougner sites.

    Some of these 'axes' are in fact shaped like an ax with a straight sharp edge instead of a point. I also have a knife blade around 200 mm long that is beveled on one side with two simmetrical bevel on the opposite side...obviously much younger. Perhaps ill take a photograph sometime and send it to you.


  2. Hi, Johann.
    Thanks for dropping in and for your kind words. With respect to the hippo and Pelorovis, I think the association of stone artifacts and very-large mammal carcasses near ancient waterholes is intriguing. However, so far as I'm aware there's no real evidence that Homo sp. was hunting them. That they were hunted is sufficient to explain the observations, but it's not the only possibility. I think it would be impossible to find evidence that a hippo (for example) was trapped in its own mud hole, irrespective of unequivocal cut marks on its bones. As for the shape of some so-called hand axes, it's true that they can have straight edges and can be remarkably symmetrical [Frere's Hoxne hand axe comes to mind]. I've already said quite a bit about the possibility and the 'evidence' proposed for hafting in the Middle Pleistocene. So I won't bore you with what I think in that regard. Finally, if you're able to provide me with adequate stratigraphic and temporal information on the "knife blade," I'd be happy to take a look at a picture. As you probably know, an artifact removed from its archaeological context is nearly worthless if what you're looking for is a behavioural or cognitive assessment of its maker.
    Thanks again for your comment! Rob

  3. Kathu Pan has not millions but billions of Acheulian lithic artifacts. A recent excavation of a section (now under a mall) showed solid lithic artifacts for 2m. Nothing but tools and flakes, and a little sand, but not enough sand for dating. The site is really big, too. It stretches over several hectares. I've been there. And it's not all hand axes but includes various other tools (cleaver, scraper), as well as a vast number of discarded fails.

    There are sites near Barkly West (Canteen Koppie and Pniel) which also have huge hand axes in vast numbers. It has been suggested that they were used to break open hippo bones for extraction of marrow, but this seems unlikely to me.

  4. Hi, Anonymous. Can you just tell us a little (well probably a lot) about the "vast number of discarded fails". The whole business of interpreting the past will never be able to make progress so long as the archaeologist already know what they are going to find. Have you considered the possibility that the "discarded fails" were actually the tools and that they are only called "fails" because they do not fit into the observer's preconceptions of what an artefact should look like.

    I look at things the other way around and think of the heavily retouched tools as the discarded fails. They had got so far from being usable that they were discarded. But their life as tools often started off as a flake from which successive other flakes were removed as the edge became blunted.


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