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2021-09-20 15:53:58   •   ID: 2270

From Africa to Europe: A Single Origin for the Handaxe?

Figure 1
“Acheulean bifaces are hard to invent - but easy to imitate” (C. Shipton 2022)

For this post I have chosen several Handaxes and Cleavers mainly from the Early Paleolithic, with an appealing design.

Overall, there is a broad consensus among Prehistorians that the appearance of Large Cutting Tools (LCTs) at about 1,5 mya to 1,75 mya, indicated a new level of cognitive competence that was achieved by our ancestors- a new treatment of three-dimensional organized volumetric surfaces, which, although foreshadowed in late Oldowan stages, had not yet been generally achieved before.

Lithic Ensembles, whether they include one, several or many LCT Handaxes and Cleavers and Pics and a sophisticated three dimensional treatment of cores are designated in this post as Acheulian.

If we assume that the occurrence of these lithics requires a certain cognitive level, then a single specimen is sufficient to prove that it has been achieved, by at least one individual.

It is worth noting that there are no prototypes for these tools in Nature, and that recent and fossil large apes were never capable of producing such complex objects. The transition between the Oldowan and the Acheulian in Africa and Europe was rather abrupt.

Furthermore, it is remarkable that the design of a handaxe, whether it was produced by the LTC technology or by the Façonnage Method, remained constant over a period of about 1.5 mya.

Figure 1 shows the ventral and dorsal side of a spatula-like 22 cm long Cleaver, made from Mylonite, found near Iringa in the southern highlands of Tanzania at Isimila- see here: 1216 and here: 1217 . The site consists of abundant multiple ESA sites, but also features MSA and LSA components.

It is one of the most prominent Acheulian Mega Site in East Africa and unfortunately undated with up-to-date methods, but it may be as old as 700-900 k.a. Final results of a multidisciplinary project, that run until 2017 are not available yet.

Figure 2
Figure 2 shows a Lanceolate Handaxe (23,5x9,6x5 cm) from Adrar Bous (Niger) with biconvex invasive retouches made from typical green vitic tuff.

I already reported some details about the groundbreaking work of Desmond Clark at Adrar Bous and the Lithic succession in the area from the lower Paleolithic to the Pastoral „Neolithic“-see here: 2109 , here: 1019 , and here: 1368

Figure 3 displays a rare bifacial Cleaver from Tihodaine (16x9,5x2,7 cm), made from translucent yellow Quartz-The site was already introduced in this Blog-see here: 1447

The fauna and archeology at Tihodaïne has been argued to show correlations to those of Olduvai Bed IV (> 600 k.a. ), as well as to those of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in the Dead Sea Rift dated to 780 k.a.

Here, quartz was truly masterfully worked into large handaxes and quartz is by no means rare as a raw material at the site. During the ESA of Africa it occurred early in the Acheulian (e.g. at the Olduvai Bed II)- see here: Olduvai Bed II . For me it will remain an eternal mystery why quartz, which is so difficult to work, was processed in large quantities throughout the African ESA and MSA. Anyhow it was a conscious choice.

Figure 4 shows a cordiform Handaxe made from quartzite from Murzuq ( 15x9,5x3,5 cm). Murzuq is an oasis in South-Western Libya on the northern edge of the Murzuq Sand Sea (Idhan Murzuq) already discussed in this Blog for its ESA and MSA Material- see here: 1030 , here: 2030 , and here: 2032

Figure 5 shows a thick sub-Cordiform Handaxe (16x9,5x4 cm) from a quarry near Tours (Central France), made from yellow patinated Maastrichian Flint by a Hard hammer method.

Figure 3
Paul Fitte was the one of the first researchers who systematically screened for in-situ Lower Paleolithic stratigraphies around the Middle Loire area, unfortunately without any success.

A site with an intact stratigraphy was eventually found during the 1990ies at the the multilayered La Noira site - 130 km East of Tours. Other sites followed, thanks to a systematic preventive Archaeology.

Comparing our example from Tours with the inventory of the upper strata from La Noira, the Handaxe, shown here, may be about 450 k.a. old.

Figure 6 is an Biface from Villeneuve S. Verberie (10x7x2,5 cm) from the Oise; France) with an asymmetric appearance and affinities to the Middle European KMG-Groups. In the Central European Research Tradition such a tool is called a Faustkeilblatt (Bosinski 1968)

KMG-Eliments are not really rare in the Oise Region, and I know several undated findings from the region, that resemble asymmetric Faustkeilblätter and Keilmesser.

An almost identical piece is displayed in the work of Berrin Cep from the Bockstein Schmiede site in Swabia (Germany) in one of the attached files of this post (Figure 1; Nr.4 for example).

While the example from Villeneuve S. Verberie may be possibly dated late to MIS 5-3; the other Artifacts are from the Middle Pleistocene, with the oldest example tentatively from East Africa.

There is a lively debate whether the idea of hand axe making spread from one region in Africa over further parts of the Continent into the old world, or whether we should rather suggest a repeated re-invention of this tool by Homo sp.

Figure 4
A closer examination has to include above all the chronological data, which may be used for further modeling about this issue, derived from different disciplines.

Geomorphology and Ecology of the African Acheulian: Acheulian sites are found over Africa in a variety of geomorphological settings. They are present, for example, at artesian springs (e.g., Sidi Zin, Amanzi Springs), on the shores of paleo-lakes (e.g. Lake Natron, Koobi Fora), in more dry parts of sedimentary basins (e.g. Olduvai), along rivers (e.g. Melka Kunture, Gorgol River), but also in open grasslands habitats at low altitudes, and even on the flanks of the east African rift valley up to high altitudes (e.g. Gadeb, Isenya).

Huge accumulations of handaxes and cleavers were found all over the Sahara, tentatively along Pleistocene green corridors, that connected the Sahara with the interior of the Continent at different times, over a dense network of rivers and lakes and their swampy environments.

Finally, the makers of the Acheulian reached the coastal regions of the Atlantic or the Mediterranean (for example the different sites at Casablanca).

It remains unclear whether Homo sp. had already permanently invaded tropical rainforest zones before the early MSA (Sangoan and Lupemban) - most probably they did not.

During the Middle Pleistocene, almost all habitats and a great variety of ecological niches were colonized and used over a period of 1.5 mya, which points to an extremely flexible hominin behavioral pattern.

Acheulian Hominins made the step from Scavenging to active hunting, contrary to the hypercritical opinion of Archeologists, that were en vogue some decennia ago. Plant food also played a variable role in the diet. This knowledge is the consequence of new intact sites and high resolution excavations of already known localities as well as improved micro morphological and taphonomic procedures.

There are certainly several geographical differences reflecting regional adaptations to foraging for variable food resources-an indication of an increasing flexibility of Homo exploit a great diversity of different ecological settings, which ultimately resulted in the route out of Africa into the Eurasian sphere.

Dating the African Acheulian: First, we should note that the possibility of absolute dating varies greatly in different parts of Africa. This introduces a certain bias.

Figure 5
The basis of age determination still remain the classic concepts of Stratigraphy, the use of Paleomagnetism and the use of Index Fossils.

Isotopic K/Ar and Ar/Ar -U/Th methods of age determination of Early and Middle Pleistocene volcanic deposits have a decades-old history and are now very reliable. They are widely used in the presence of volcanic tuffs, in the Rift Valley.

The determination of the the Burial Age by Cosmogenic Al-26 and Be-10 has prevailed in South Africa in the absence of a volcanic environment. However there is certainly still a need for further developments until a high degree of reliability will be achieved.

In North Africa, there are only a few sites that have been dated by ESR, and by Geochemical analyses, including the methods of X-ray fluorescence, mass spectrometry and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry for both whole-rock analysis and in situ micro-analysis.These methods have a great potential and will certainly become more important in the future.

The Acheulian first appears to emerge in the eastern Rift in areas such as Konso-Gardula in Ethiopia, and Kokiselei 4 in Kenia at ca 1,75 mya. At Olduvai Gorge Bed II / FLK-Nord in Tansania an very early LCT Acheulian occupation was documented at 1,7 mya. Other early Acheulian localities at Olduvai date around 1,66 mya.

Melka Kunture (Garba IVD) in Ethiopia, initially known as late Oldovan, has recently reassessed as Early Acheulean with dates around 1.5 Mya. Other Acheulian Sites at Melka Kunture are definitively younger (around 1mya-250 k.a.)-see: 2036 , 1192 , 1233 , and 2026 .

The earliest Acheulean sites beyond East Africa seem to be nearly as old as in some parts of the Great Rift Valley: At Sterkfontein in South Africa, the early Acheulean (Member 5 West), is dated to 1,7-1,4 Mya.

Anyhow a new dating program revealed a date of 1,84 Mya see: 2227 . Kuman and Gibbon recently described an early Acheulian located near the well known Rietputs Pit 1, with an age of ca 1,7 Ma-see: 2224 .

Most Saharan sites remain undated, although they can broadly assigned to the Middle Pleistocene, if faunal remains have been preserved.

According to all we know, the Atlantic coast was reached by Acheulian groups around ~ 1.3 Mya (Thomas Quarry I-Unit L at Casablanca in Morocco). The next older site in the Maghreb is Tighennif (Algeria), which is about 1 mya old.

Figure 6
The Levant is one important corridor to Eurasia. Therefore the findings at Ubeidiya are of overall importance: It is located in the Jordan Rift Valley, where "Oldowan" and "early Acheulean" levels in a lake margin context have been dated on biostratigraphic grounds and paleomagnetism, between 1.4 and 1.0 Million years ago.

According to current knowledge, the oldest Acheulian in Africa shows a clear age gradient: from East and South Africa around 1,7-1,5 mya to North Africa and the Levantine Corridor around 1,3-1 mya.

So what happened after the Acheulian-making hominins left Africa? In principle, there were three corridors that might have been used: The Levantine corridor, the Gibraltar route or the Bab al-Mandab.

If we could establish a chronologically and geographic coherent series, in which a route can be reconstructed that proves a spread of the Handaxe concept without temporal interruption, then a single origin might be possible.

If such a series is missing, then it is either due to our insufficient knowledge or the Handaxe was re-invented in different geographical regions again and again.

The European Core and Flake Industries: Since several years Mode I industries are known from South Europe (Italia and Spain), proving that an early immigration into the European Continent occurred. The Pirro Nord site, situated at the north-western margin of the Gargano promontory in Apulia was dated between 1,3 and 1,6 mya on a bichronological basis.

Evidence for Early Palaeolithic industries with an in situ context indicates that Hominins were allready present in the center of France around 1,1mya (Pont-de-Lavaud in the Creuse Valley, Lunery in the Cher Valley and probably Saint-Hilaire-la-Gravelle in the Loire Valley).

The importance of the Atapuerca complex in the context of the Early and Middle Pleistocene human occupation of Europe can hardly be overestimated.

The lower levels of at Sima del Elefante (Units TE-TE14) are an essential reference for understanding the early stages of the colonization of Europe. The TE9c level has provided stone tools (Mode 1), faunal remains, and human fossils dated to 1,22 mya.

The European Acheulian: As already noted for the Mode I industries, the oldest European traces of an Acheulian are also found in Southern Europe (Figure 7).

Figure 7
Anyhow, the sites in southern Europe are either chronologically problematic, they are few in number, and they are moreover poor in artefacts.

First we have one handaxe from Estrecho de Quípar (Murcia, Spain) and another from Solana de Zamborino (Granada, Spain) (Scott and Gibert, 2009).

The initial classification of this findings as Early Pleistocene has been criticized by several authors for good reasons. Besides: One swallow does not make a spring (Jimenez-Arenas et al., Mosquera et al. 2015).

However, the site of Barranc de la Boella (Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain)around 1 mya old, is somewhat different.

It has an intact stratigraphy, together with rich paleontological and archaeological finds in three different places: La Mina, El Forn and "Pit 1“.

Moreover, by several methods (Paleontology of macro and micro-mammals, Paleomagnetism and Cosmogenic Analyses) we have a fairly accurate dating around 1 mya.

Lage cutting tools (LCTs)- a Cleaver and a crude Handaxe / Pic together with Choppers, Chopping Tools / Cores, several Flakes-sometimes retouched (Denticulated tools and Notches) were present.

Morover, the find situation at Pit 1, where the remains of a young-adult Mammuthus meridionals were closly associated with the lithic inventory, speaks for a butchering site that remained intact (P. García-Medrano et al. 2014).

By the way, the inventory of Barranc de la Boella resembles the oldest archaic Acheulian at Casablanca. One gets the impression that the technique, which was already so advanced at the same time in East Africa, had to be reinvented or learned once again.

The time gap between the first core and flake ensembles and the first traces of the Acheulian in South Europe (ca 300 k.a.) is too large to assume an autochthonous development from Mode I to Mode II-industries.

This is also evidenced by the stratigraphy at Barranc de la Boella; where a sharp discontinuity between the Lithics of the Acheulian butchering site and the underlying Mode I Industries was noted (Mosquera et al. 2015).

Instead, one will have to discuss at least two waves of emigration from Africa to Europe, if the origin of the Acheulian is assumed to be in Africa.

If we move to the North the famous the Atapuerca sites, although bearing one of the oldest Mode I Industries in Europe, start rather late with the first Handaxes in the Archaeological Record. The oldest Acheulian lithic assemblages come from the Galería site, specifically the GIIa subunit, dated to ca 503 ± 95 k.a. (Paula García-Medrano et al 2015).

Figure 8
Figure 8 displays a Handaxe (12x6,5x3 cm) from the Venosa Basin in Southern Italy of unknown age. At a nearby site, Notarchirico, new 40Ar/39Ar on tephras and ESR dates on bleached quartz place the Paleolithic occupations, some of them with Handaxes, between 695 and 670 k.a. (Moncel et al 2020). The stratigraphy of the site has been already described in this Blog elsewhere- see: 1104

Around the same time, securely dated Acheulian inventories are found at La Noira-see: 1587 where well executed Handaxes are altrady present in the lower level at about 700 k.a. , at Arago at ca 550 k.a. In Southern France, and on the Somme, at the historically significant site Moulin Quignon around 550 k.a. -see: 1306 . The finds at the Somme have already been described several times in the blog.

These simultaneities speak for a rapid spread of the Acheulian from south to north-west Europe.

After these Beginnings, during MIS16/15, the Acheulian is becoming finally the predominant technocomplex in these regions at least since MIS 13. Figure 9 from a gravel at Châtellerault displays a typical Middle Pleistocene example from Central France.

West of the Rhine and over Eastern Europe, Handaxes within the Acheulian Complex thin out and are not attested before 300 k.a.. The reasons for this observation remain unclear. Nevertheless Bifaces play a role during the Micoquian / KMG-Groups after MIS5.

After this tour de force on the Afro-European Acheulian, I return to the question asked at the beginning: was there one single origin of the Handaxe in East Africa and a continuous spread of this tool to Europe?

First, we must realize that the data on the corridors described above are still insufficient. For example, the corridor leading to Southern Europe via today's Turkey, Greece and the Balkans is insufficiently studied or inaccessible.

Figure 9
Moreover, we know next to nothing about the Great Adriatic plain, which would have allowed diffusion of people or ideas at low sea levels in the late Early Pleistocene to south Italy.

Currently we can neither establish a chronological nor a geographic coherent series, in which a route can be reconstructed that proves a slow and continuous spread of the Handaxe concept without temporal interruption and therefore the single origin hypothesis of Handaxe production can not be verified.

A temporal gap of at least 500 k.a. and large Geographic gaps remain at the moment.

Maybe these gaps will be filled in the Future.

Always remember: - "Absence of evidence is never the evidence of absence".

Suggested Readings and attached Files: Note: I have avoided citations in the text because the ductus of my narrative would have been significantly disrupted. The primary literature can be found in the attached files.

François Djindjian: La préhistoire de la France; 2018

J. Desmond Clark [et al.] Adrar Bous : archaeology of a central Saharan granitic ring complex in Niger; 2009

J.C. Marquet: La Préhistoire en Touraine (Perspectives historiques); 2011.

S.C Jones, B.A.Stewart (ed) Africa from MIS 6-2: Population Dynamics and Paleoenvironments (Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology); 2016

G. Aumassip Préhistoire du Sahara et de ses abords . Editions L'Harmattan-Tome 1 et 2; 2019

Resources and images in full resolution: