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2019-08-30 11:42:04   •   ID: 2115

Why are flint tools retouched?

Figure 1
Figure 1 shows some flakes from different Mousterian Sites in the Vezere Valley, using the same raw material.

It was Alfred Tode, the Excavator of the late KMG site Salzgitter-Lebenstedt, dated to ca 50 k.a., who made a little but, in my view, important experiment, not described in the official Excavation report.

He asked an experienced butcher to disassemble carcasses of different animals by the site's most common stone tools (scraper, Handaxes, simple Levallois flakes without retouches).

Everyone in the excavation team was astonished that after a few test cuts, the butcher preferred the non-retouched Levallois flakes to all the others.

With these sharp and flat instruments, the disassembly of the carcasses worked most easily- just if the butcher would have used modern knifes.

Other sites in Germany point to a similar strategy of Neanderthals dismembering and deboning carcasses of large Mammalians like Elephants.

At the Lehringen site in Lower Saxony (Germany), an elephant skeleton was buried at a lake-side together with a 2,4 m long wooden spear and 27 unretouched Levallois flakes.

Whether humans actually hunted the animal or just killed it when already trapped in the swamp, remains open to discussion.

Figure 2
It was certainly butchered, as is equally attested for an elephant skeleton found at Gröbern, again at a lake-side, and again along with 27 Levallois artefacts.

This mode of disassemble carcasses has a considerably time- depth: Currently the oldest stone tools that are widely accepted date to 2.6 million years ago (Mode I Industries / Oldowan) and the use of unretouched flakes was present at least until the end of the Paleolithic, proven by a prolifering data set of microtraceological data.

The tools were simple core and flake tools that generally consisted of on a few removal flakes. It is thought the hominin to use these was probably Homo habilis, although there is some debate that it may be a late Australopithecine. The function of Oldowan tools is likely to be plant matter processing and slaughtering activities.

Figure 3
If simple flakes can successfully be used for cutting and scraping soft and hard materials, why are so many implements during the Paleolithic retouched?

Retouch is the act of producing controlled scars on a stone flake or blade. There is almost no literature about the the need of Retouching and possible advantages of such a technology.

In general I suggest, that retouching is an indication of increasing skills and specialisation during the evolution of Homo sp.

It is interesting that every scientific discipline has some basic issues, that never have been systematically evaluated, because researchers assume that such work has been certainly already done....

Some basic assumtions may serve as a starting point:

  • thick flakes or another unfavourable geometry may often not usable for immediate use without further modification (Quina Scraper in Figure 2)

  • Retouching can be done on one or more edges of an implement in order to make it into a tool, serving for specific functions, as shown by a classic Lacam Burin from the late Magdalenian at La Madeleine in the Vezere Valley in Figure 3

  • Retouch can be a strategy to resharpen an existing lithic tool, like the tranchet blow technique, present in the Old World since the Middle Pleistoceine, but most common in Central European KMG Ensembles

  • Retouch can be a strategy in the implimentation of hafting devices, known since the Middle Pleistocene in the Old World. Figure 4 shows a typical double Endscraper from the "Aurignacian I" at Les Cottes with lateral retouches, that were certainly useful in a hafting context

  • Retouching can be used to transform one lithic artifact into another tool

  • Although I am talking about flakes and blades in this post, the same suggestions on Retouching can be made on Bifaces; for example a classical Handaxe maybe transformed into a core.

    A biface can be used as a tool blank ”(biface support d’outil)". Here the façonnage of a volume is done to create a bifacial artifact with functional different working edges.

Suggested reading:

Alfred Tode: Mammutjäger vor 100000 Jahren. Natur und Mensch in Nordwestdeutschland zur letzten Eiszeit auf Grund der Ausgrabungen bei Salzgitter-Lebenstedt; 1954.

Figure 4
André Debénath and Harold L. Dibble: Handbook of Paleolithic Typology: Lower and Middle Paleolithic of Europe; 1994.

François Bordes: du Paléolithique ancien et moyen; 1988

Peter Hiscock: "Looking the other way: a materialist/technological approach to classifying tools and implements, cores and retouched flakes", In S. McPherron and J. Lindley (eds). Tools or Cores? The Identification and Study of Alternative Core Technology in Lithic Assemblages; 2007

John Shea: Stone Tools in the Paleolithic and Neolithic of the Near East: A Guide; 2013