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2015-04-16 20:02:17   •   ID: 1235

Tan Tan and the Early Paleolithic of Morocco

Figure 1
These are some Chopper / Cores from Quaternary Deposits at Tan Tan in Southern Morocco. Tan Tan is famous for a geofact / artifact, called the Venus of Tan Tan (, which will not discussed here. The stratigraphy of this multilayered site is unfortunately less known than the "Venus", which in my view is just an odd stone.

I suggest that the choppers displayed here were originally part of an Acheulian ensemble. The earliest lithic artifacts attributed to Mode I that are presently known are from Eastern and South Africa and are dated roughly between 2, 6 and 1,5 Mio years.  These artifacts are generally assigned to the Oldowan Industrial Complex, named for Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania. The Oldowan technology is simple but required mastering by early hominids of some fundamental stone-flaking techniques.

Figure 2
Oldowan assemblages incorporate cores and core-tools (choppers, polyhedrons, subspheroids, and spheroids), debitage, and less-frequent retouched pieces as well. In Eastern and South Africa there is a long and continuous succession from Oldowan to Acheulian (after 1,7 Mio years) and MSA (after 0,5 Mio years) industries. In Atlantic Morocco, Mode I assemblages recovered from investigated sites in the vicinity of Casablanca allowed Biberson (1961) to construct a typological chronological sequence showing the evolution of the pre- Acheulean industry over time.

He divided the pre-Acheulean (previously labelled ‘pebble-culture’) into four successive stages. Stage I includes the oldest artefacts from simple technological gestures (unidirectional). Stage II incorporates ‘pebble tools’ characterized by bidirectional flaking. In Stage III the multidirectional technique appears where the artefacts are considered to be more evolved. The last stage (IV) is characterized by the emergence of the first Acheulean tools. Stages I and II constitute the ‘Ancient Pre-Acheulean’ while Stages III and IV depict ‘Evolved Pre-Acheulean’ forms .

However, Raynal and Texier (1989) and Raynal et al. (1990, 2004) revised Biberson’s stratigraphic sequence casting doubts on the antiquity of his ‘pebble culture’. They claim that the ‘pebble culture’ assemblages are either surface finds, reworked materials, from polycyclic colluviums, or even pseudo-artefacts generated by high-energy deposits. The authors concluded that the earliest Manifestation of the Paleolithic in Atlantic Morocco is the Acheulian beginning roughly 1 Mio yrs ago. The same seems to hold true for the rest of the country, as there is no single site with an unequivocal Oldowan industry. Usually Chopper and Chopping tools are part of larger ensembles with Handaxes.

In Algeria, the situation is different: Located on the edge of the eastern Algerian High Plateau, the site of Ain Hanech contains the oldest North African archaeological occurrences. Ain Hanech was discovered by Arambourg (1970; 1979) and yielded a Plio- Pleistocene fauna associated with Oldowan artifacts. Since 1992 this major site is subject to systematic investigations (Sahnouni et al. 2002; 2004).

Ain Hanech is not a single site but rather a Plio-Pleistocene site complex with several paleontological and archaeological localities, including Ain Boucherit, Ain Hanech and El-Kherba. The Oldowan site of Ain Hanech may be viewed as a spot for short-term occupations by early hominids. The site was near a shallow river embankment, where raw materials were accessible from nearby river beds, and with plenty of game for acquiring meat. The technology used by Ain Hanech hominids is simple (Mode I technology), expedient and characterized by a low degree of standardization. There is no evidence for long-distance raw material transport.

Recent excavations showed the association of Mode-I artifacts with cut marked bones from these Early Pleistocene deposits (Ain Boucherit Members P and R ca. at 2,3 and 1,9 Ma, Ain Hanech classic and El Kherba (Member T) ca at 1,8-1,7 Ma.

Some researchers have questioned these very old datings and suggest a more conservative age of only 1,1 Ma, but the adherents of a long chronology seem to make up ground...

The industry is primarily composed of core-tools/choppers, flakes, fragments and occasional retouched pieces that are the main characteristics of early stone artefact assemblages assigned to the Oldowan. Bones belonging to different animal taxa such as equids, large and small bovids, hippo and elephant were recovered in association with the lithic artefacts. Whole flakes and retouched pieces were used to process soft animal tissue, suggesting that meat was a major component of early hominid diet in  North Africa.

Another potentially important in situ Oldowan site is Monts Tessala in north-western Algeria where the localities of Douar Kailia near Oued Tlilat and Douar El Ouennene near Sig have yielded in situ Oldowan artefacts (Thomas 1973). These localities are situated at the limits of the sub-coastal valleys and the southern Tell (Tessala and Oulad Ali Mounts) of the Oran region. The lithic assemblages totaling 237 pieces included 48 artefacts recovered from Kailia and 187 from El Ouennene. According to Biberson`s classification system, the industry could assigned to the ‘pebble culture’ Stages III or IV.

Oldowan-like artefacts have also been found in at least four localities in the vast Algerian Saharan landmass. These include Aoulef (Hugot 1955), Reggan (Ramendo 1963), Saoura region (Alimen and Chavaillon 1962) and Bordj Tan Kena (Heddouche 1980).

While the specimens from Aoulef and Reggan are surface collections, those from the Saoura region and Bordj Tan Kena were excavated in situ. Until now the Algerian Oldowan sites may be viewed as  short-term occupations by early hominids. The early Paleolithic of the Maghreb seems to lack the continuity of the East African record.