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2015-08-19 17:17:00   •   ID: 1246

Are Middle Paleolithic Knifes really the Forerunners of Châtelperronian Points?

Figure 1
Figure 1&2: This is a backed artifact from the W-European Mousterian. Backed artifacts, either used by “free hand” or as hafted tools, are designed for cutting with the opposite edge, regardless of whether the tool has a bifacial design (“Keilmesser”) or is made  from flake or a blade blanks, with either a natural (cortical) back, or by blunting the back by steep retouches.

The discovery that an artifact can be used to cut either plants or animal carcasses opened a new niche for hominids during their evolution. Cutting is an behavior, is not known from other free living primates (Ian Davidson). In the Archeological record of Europe, backed knives appeared first during the Acheulean (for example: in the “Atelier Commont” at St. Acheul- very similar to the artifact shown here). 

During the last glaciation, backed artifacts from flakes and blades play a certain role, in the Quina system and especially during the “Moustérien de tradition acheuléenne”  in S/W-France. In central and east Europe, such tools are almost unknown, with some remarkable exceptions (for example in the upper strata of at Buhlen /Hesse, Germany). D. Peyrony described two organizational classes of Mousterian assemblages: the Typical Mousterian and the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition (MTA). The former was characterized by the high frequencies of scrapers and the latter by the presence of of cordiform handaxes reminiscent of the earlier Acheulean.

Figure 2
F. Bordes in his “Essai de Classification des industries « moustériennes »” (1953) initially identified the Denticulate, Typical, and Charentian (Quina, Ferrassie) groups, but later added the Mousterian of Acheulean (MTA) as a fourth facies. The MTA was subdivided into two additional groups (MTA sub-type A and sub-type B). MTA Type A has been characterized by the production and use of mainly bifaces, while MTA type B has been defined by a low frequency of handaxes, higher frequency of "Upper Paleolithic  tools", and by the production and use of backed pieces and elongated flakes. In S/W-France, the two sub-facies, MTA type A and MTA type B, are two successive episodes.

Their relative chronology is based on the Archeological succession at several key sites: Pech-de-l’Azé I and IV, Le Moustier (now questionable) and La Rochette. Note that this definition, contrary to the definition of all other Mousterian industries, highlights qualitative and not quantitative aspects for the definition of the MTA. Backed pieces /knifes during the MTA have an enormous variability. The blanks (flakes and blades) were either produced by a Levallois (Le Moustier) or non- Levallois technique (Pech de l'Azé I and IV) . In addition, blade cores appeared (La Rochette).

Soressi in her thesis, dealing with the MTA at Moustier, La Rochette, Pech de l'Azé  and Grotte XVI, showed that the makers of these artifacts tried to selected the more elongated and symmetrical blanks. Nevertheless many backed pieces / knifes were simple flakes with a rather irregular steep retouch on one edge. Judging from publications, only a minority of these tools can be assigned to the Abri Audi category, defined by an asymmetrical appearance and a curved back with more or less continuous steep retouches (Sonneville- Bordes and Perrot 1956).

Limited microtraceological observations indeed indicate the use of Middle Paleolithic backed pieces as knifes. Since Breuil`s times the Mousterian of Acheulian tradition is considered by many to be a forerunner of the Châtelperronian . This suggestion is mainly based on the presence of backed pieces during the MTA-B, some of them (the Abri Audi knifes) resemble Châtelperronian points.

However, most of the MTA-B backed pieces do not resemble Upper Paleolithic backed points at all! In publications, postulating the continuity between the  MTA-B and the Châtelperronian, the broad category of backed pieces during the MTA is broken down to highly selected "fine" examples of Abri Audi knifes. This biased view should be checked against the reality by quantitative approaches on unbiased samples of the MTA and the Châtelperronian in order to evaluate the effective overlap between backed pieces on one hand and Châtelperronian points on the other. In addition, many “backed knifes” from the MTA, especially those on elongated blanks show rather semi-abrupt retouches, which would in another context never being qualify these artifact as backed tools.

Judging from the publications, such retouching is not really comparable to the backing of Howiesons-Poort, Lupemban, Klissoura Cave 1 / Uluzzian ensembles, arched backed blades at Krakow-Zwierzyniec, Chatelperronian or Gravettian points.

Further Suggestions:

Figure 3
Evaluation of the grade of similarity / differences between the chaine operatoire of Chatelperronian points and backed MTA implements.

The detailed re-evaluation of  MTA- ensembles, not mentioned in the text.

Handaxes: (Figure 3) Contrary to what is reported triangular bifaces, a hallmark of the bifacial Middle Paleolithic in N-France, occur during the MTA of the Dordogne also. I have seen some excellent triangular examples from the Perigord, displayed in the  musée d'art et d'archéologie du Périgord in Perigueux, during a visit in 2006.