Learning about the Protoaurignacian

… and about the Biocultural Evolution of Paleolithic Technological Systems in General

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

Human adaptation and niche alike are defined in major part by technology. We use our bodies to shape and transform our material surroundings, fundamentally to extract food resources, but often to create things that we then utilize with our bodies to shape other things, including our own bodies. Technology really changes the way our bodies intertwine with and experience the environment.

Bonobo using a stick as a fishing tool to extract termites in the San Diego Zoo. Photograph by Wikipedia user TacoDeposit, licensed under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. It is reshared here under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 International License, acknowledging TacoDeposit’s authorship.

Our tool-using primate relatives–and tool use is quite common in the primate order–mainly employ technologies that are expedient (Bently-Condit & Smith, 2010). Perhaps with the exception of stone hammer-and-anvil nut cracking, observed mainly in some chimpanzee communities (Haslam et al., 2009), primate tool-users do not go out of their way to provision themselves with raw materials or finished, modified tools, as they go about planned foraging tasks over a period of hours. Rather, facing an immediate challenge in extracting food or water, primates take–and sometimes quickly, slightly transform–materials in their immediate vicinity, in order to solve that challenge. This happens in a matter of seconds or minutes.

Today, it is clear that humans are mainly involved in technological production in a complex chain-like system of sheltering and provisioning ourselves for a range of activities, only some of which involve acquiring, processing, and consuming food. Technological activity thus, structures the rhythms of everyday life, in no small part by creating a durable extrasomatic environment through which we actively, cognitively interface with our wider surroundings. Although the earliest archaeological record from Africa also suggests that the first hominin stone-tool users–australopithecines and the early genus Homo–just used a wider range of techniques in a general primate-like expedient way (see Harmand et al., 2015), it is also clear that some early human groups carried stone raw materials or finished tools on substantial walking bouts, occasionally extending more than ten kilometers (Braun et al., 2008; Goldman-Neuman & Hovers, 2012; Maurin et al., 2014; Stout et al., 2005). This is the picture we have of the evolution of early hominin technological capacities. Perhaps more than one million years of stone-tool-use–from more than 3.3 mya (see Harmand et al., 2015) to sometime before 2.0 mya–focused mainly on expedient use of immediately available stone materials and stone tools to solve food extraction and carrying challenges that came up in the process of searching for, capturing, transporting, and processing food.

Members of the genus Homo–continuing to evolve after 2.0 mya–still used materials immediately available in their surroundings to solve extraction and processing problems as they came up. But they more often went beyond expedient tool production and use (Goldman-Neuman & Hovers, 2012). They also increasingly organized and planned stone raw material provisioning and tool production, in order to support anticipated food processing activities at aggregation or camp sites … and possibly in order to equip anticipated foraging activities. One of the best archaeological cases for early, complex technological production for task provisioning structured over periods of days or weeks comes from the Gesher Benot Ya’akov site (Israel), dated to nearly 800,000 years ago (Goren-Inbar, 2011). In the still-very-gradual process of biocultural evolution that followed, we can trace positive feedbacks among:

  • population growth, usually through geographic expansions into previously uninhabited areas
  • networks of social interaction and the resilience of long-term social relationships that constituted them
  • innovative refinements in provisioning highly ambulatory people for diverse foraging and processing tasks–often having to do with handaxes, special techniques of detaching stone flakes and blades from cores, and resharpenable, durable stone scrapers (Bar-Yosef & Kuhn, 1999; Hovers, 2009; Kuhn, 1995)
The radial Levallois prepared core technique allows the handy flintknapper to strike the core precisely with a hammer (usually stone, occasionally antler or bone), in order to control the plan shape of the main removal, while controlling the production of thicker, easily portable flakes that can be used and re-used as knives and scrapers (Hovers, 2009; cf. Kuhn, 1995). This gif file has been shared by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, who licensed it under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 Generic license. It is reshared here under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 International license, acknowledging Álvarez’s authorship.
The convergent Levallois prepared core technique also allows the flintknapper to control the plan shape of the main removal, but it involves producing a pointed flake that can function as a thrusted or projectile spear tip (Shea & Sisk, 2010). This gif file has been shared by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, who licensed it under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 Generic license. It is reshared here under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 International license, acknowledging Álvarez’s authorship.

Now, there’s something really counter-intuitive about this Paleolithic technological system that evolved for 100’s of thousands of years, from around 2 million years ago onward. This system–so different from ours–persisted until after 50,000 years ago in most places that Paleolithic humans had colonized. In its heyday, it was the main culturally-reproduced, life-long strategy individuals could socially learn, master, and utilize to interface successfully with the world. Today, we grow up in a world where technology shapes and encourages anticipation of carrying out particular tasks in a routine way, following activity rhythms, memories, and social identities over days, weeks, months, years, or even across generations. But this ancient Paleolithic system of technological provisioning did not emphasize constraining contingencies, in order to manage the routine and increase the predictability of paths and tasks. Rather, it supported hunter-gatherer preparedness for a range unpredictable manual activities and walking trips–often small-group or solitary activities requiring social mobilization or negotiation in an unpredictable broader population network context, as small highly mobile groups of families joined and split apart.

In fact, the archaeological evidence is quite clear that–after ca. 150 thousand years ago, across large parts of Africa and western Eurasia–primarily anatomically modern human and primarily anatomically Neandertal populations alike had developed technological knowledge that was highly adaptive to an extensively mobile, terrestrial, omnivorous, extractive, and socially dependent niche (TOES). This knowledge was culturally reproduced in socially flexible networks of relationships, which would have been developed and maintained through communication, collective action, reciprocity, conflict, and reconciliation.

Getting down to the nuts and bolts–or rather, the rock outcrops and river and beach cobbles, the cores and hammerstones–of material technology, this adaptive cultural knowledge involved strategies to carry the minimum amount of rock to achieve the maximum amount of cutting and scraping edge. In many contexts, this meant making fewer thick flakes that could easily be carried and resharped. In some contexts, it meant making the maximum number of blades or spear point tips that could also double as knives or scrapers.

This system is counterintuitive to us, because we tend to experience technology as a material means of structuring our lives, defining the mundane. When we take a literal Swiss army knife with us into a survival situation, in order to minimize carrying-weight to handle a range of cutting, sawing and slicing tasks, we still usually have a plan to return within hours or days to our more technologically structured world. We don’t depend daily on improvisationally mobilizing small groups from a larger network of allies, with whom we acquire small amounts of raw materials and efficiently make portable multipurpose tools, which will allow us to hunt and gather so vigorously, so effectively, that we successfully form families and raise offspring, all while maintaining high activity levels demanded by intense ambulatory mobility. That was then. That was what prevailed before the Protoaurignacian and other Early Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age technological systems rapidly evolved after 50,000 years ago.

Before we consider what those more recent Early Upper Paleolithic technological systems are, it is worth remembering this. The earlier socio-technological adaptations to unpredictable, highly mobile, socially flexible small-group foraging evolved between ca. 2 mya and 50-30 kya, and they also constituted the embodied niche that shaped natural selection for our remarkably large brains … dominated by  remarkably large, convoluted neocortices of the cerebrum (Dunbar, 1995). Adult endocranial volumes in the early genus Homo, ca. 2.0-1.5 million years ago, ranged from around 600-900 cubic centimeters. By 100 thousand years ago, when anatomically modern humans had evolved in Africa and Neandertal anatomy had evolved in Europe, the genus Homo consisted of adults with endocranial volumes in our range, from ca. 1200-1700 cc (Holloway et al., 2004).

But–it would seem–the population-level biological success that large-brained anatomically modern humans and Neandertals achieved had its own impact on the hominin “TOES” niche, which was under continuous co-evolution with the hominin populations occupying it. Even by the end of the Middle Paleolithic or Middle Stone Age periods in various parts of Africa and Eurasia, there are indications that some groups of human hunters–possibly including Neandertals–began to have such an impact on large game prey populations that they actually depressed them demographically (Speth & Clark, 2006). At the same time, some studies of long-term change in regional Middle Paleolithic stone tool technological systems suggest a subtle shift occurred after 60 kya. Less emphasis was now placed on making thicker flakes to provision highly mobile foragers, who would have faced undertaking highly contingent, variable daily activities. More emphasis was now placed on making larger numbers of thinner blades and bladelets to mobilize foraging activities or provision planned campsite tasks, perhaps in a seasonally predictable round through a fairly large but socially circumscribed foraging territory (Stiner & Kuhn, 1992; Wallace & Shea, 2006). It may have been particularly important to produce thin, sharp projectile points for planned ambush hunting activities, either in larger social groups, or in more technically challenging, rugged or forested habitats. It wasn’t quite as much about dealing with unpredictable possibilities anymore.

In the final Middle Paleolithic in many regions, technology more pervasively invaded the very activity-structure and social relations of everyday life. And across large parts of western Eurasia, this step-wise shift from flexibility to technologically structured routine set the stage for the Protoaurignacian, along with other Early Upper Paleolithic technological systems. The following post will explain what the Protoaurignacian technological system–and its constitutive, archaeologically recognizable artifact pattern–actually is … and what it has to do with the Early Upper Paleolithic shift toward technological structuration of the mundane … and what that has to do with why we are only a little Neandertal, if at all.


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