January 29, 2013

Technological revolution in African Acheulean some 800,000 years ago

Well, maybe the title is a bit of a hype but something like that seems to be the most relevant finding on the Acheulean of Konso (SNPP region, Ethiopia): that the technique stood the same for a million years and then, some 800,000 years ago, became more refined in which was apparently one of the first technological leaps of archaic Humankind. Specifically it is the edges of the handaxes (the archetypal Acheulean finding, which may have been more a knife of sorts than a true axe) which became more refined and apt for its cutting purpose.

Yoyas Beyene et al., The characteristics and chronology of the earliest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia. PNAS 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1073/pnas.1221285110]

Abstract

The Acheulean technological tradition, characterized by a large (>10 cm) flake-based component, represents a significant technological advance over the Oldowan. Although stone tool assemblages attributed to the Acheulean have been reported from as early as circa 1.6–1.75 Ma, the characteristics of these earliest occurrences and comparisons with later assemblages have not been reported in detail. Here, we provide a newly established chronometric calibration for the Acheulean assemblages of the Konso Formation, southern Ethiopia, which span the time period ∼1.75 to <1.0 Ma. The earliest Konso Acheulean is chronologically indistinguishable from the assemblage recently published as the world’s earliest with an age of ∼1.75 Ma at Kokiselei, west of Lake Turkana, Kenya. This Konso assemblage is characterized by a combination of large picks and crude bifaces/unifaces made predominantly on large flake blanks. An increase in the number of flake scars was observed within the Konso Formation handaxe assemblages through time, but this was less so with picks. The Konso evidence suggests that both picks and handaxes were essential components of the Acheulean from its initial stages and that the two probably differed in function. The temporal refinement seen, especially in the handaxe forms at Konso, implies enhanced function through time, perhaps in processing carcasses with long and stable cutting edges. The documentation of the earliest Acheulean at ∼1.75 Ma in both northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia suggests that behavioral novelties were being established in a regional scale at that time, paralleling the emergence of Homo erectus-like hominid morphology.

Fig. 4. Handaxe refinement through time. Upper, dorsal; Lower, ventral.
From left to right, two each are shown from KGA6-A1 (∼1.75 Ma), KGA4-A2 (∼1.6 Ma), KGA12-A1 (∼1.25 Ma), and KGA20 (∼0.85 Ma). In each pair of handaxes from the respective sites, near-unifacial (left) and more extensively bifacial (right) examples are shown (except with the KGA20 handaxes, which are both well worked bifacially).

I am a bit intrigued by the all-covering work style of the last handaxes, which remind somewhat to the later MSA technology, which belongs already to Homo sapiens. Our species may have also evolved in that very area of the Nile Basin, with the oldest specimen known being from nearby Omo River.

Of course that there are hundreds of thousands of years in between and of course that the peculiar orography of the Rift Valley is susceptible of offering archaeological findings from old much more easily than other areas but still...


Other sources: Pileta, NBC News.



Update: much more than just the edges but a whole technological paradigm change:

I was not really appreciating the whole extent of the technological revolution implicit in these changes. I just took note (reading too fast, too many things to do) of the edge refinement but Va_Highlander has correctly called my attention on that it was a much more ample and complex change in the whole technology of stone flaking and not just the edges, maybe even a whole jump in our mental capacities:

In contradistinction to the >1.2-Ma assemblages, the younger ∼0.85-Ma Konso Acheulean is characterized by considerably refined handaxes. Some of these handaxes are refined to the extent that they would qualify as approaching “three-dimensional symmetry” (i.e., symmetric not only in plan view but also in cross-section form) (Fig. 4 and Fig. S2). Some suggest that manufacturing 3D symmetric tools is possible only with advanced mental imaging capacities and that such tools might have emerged in association with advanced spatial and navigational cognition, perhaps related to an enhanced mode of hunting adaptation. It has been pointed out that purposeful thinning of large bifacial tools is technologically difficult, even in modern human ethnographic settings. In modern humans, acquisition and transmission of such skills occur within a complex social context that enables sustained motivation during long-term (>5 y) practice and learning.
 

In light of the above information, it is of interest that our metric analysis shows that there may be a fundamental difference between the handaxe technologies of >1.2 and ∼0.85 Ma. Whereas refinement of handaxe shape did occur from ∼1.6 to ∼1.2 Ma, this refinement did not result in tool thinning and advanced 3D symmetry.

7 comments:

  1. I think the Bantu expansion may have swamped the pattern of adaptation that existed in Africa beforehand - like covering the tracks.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Specifically it is the edges of the handaxes..."

    Not according to the authors of this paper, no.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Did I got that wrong? Because I got stuff from the press articles that was incorrect?

      Still, in a quick search I found the following in the paper:

      The temporal refinement seen, especially in the handaxe forms at Konso, implies enhanced function through time, perhaps in processing carcasses with long and stable cutting edges.

      ...

      This shape refinement is based on more intensive edge flaking, which is numerically reflected in an increase of flake scar count (Fig. 6 and Table 2).

      ...

      Comparing the Konso handaxe assemblages of ∼1.75, ∼1.6, and ∼1.25 Ma, a clear increase of workmanship can be seen in edge modification and tip thinning.


      :/

      Delete
    2. Yes, but the authors state in their, "Discussion":

      "In contradistinction to the >1.2-Ma assemblages, the younger ∼0.85-Ma Konso Acheulean is characterized by considerably refined handaxes. Some of these handaxes are refined to the extent that they would qualify as approaching “three-dimensional symmetry” (i.e., symmetric not only in plan view but also in cross-section form) (Fig. 4 and Fig. S2). Some suggest that manufacturing 3D symmetric tools is possible only with advanced mental imaging capacities and that such tools might have emerged in association with advanced spatial and navigational cognition, perhaps related to an enhanced mode of hunting adaptation. It has been pointed out that purposeful thinning of large bifacial tools is technologically difficult, even in modern human ethnographic settings. In modern humans, acquisition and transmission of such skills occur within a complex social context that enables sustained motivation during long-term (>5 y) practice and learning.

      "In light of the above information, it is of interest that our metric analysis shows that there may be a fundamental difference between the handaxe technologies of >1.2 and ∼0.85 Ma. Whereas refinement of handaxe shape did occur from ∼1.6 to ∼1.2 Ma, this refinement did not result in tool thinning and advanced 3D symmetry."

      So, what is of particular interest is the thinness of these last specimens in the sequence and their 3D symmetry. The general shape, and thus the edge, had been undergoing refinement for some time and seems to approach a somewhat terminal form, at least "in plan view", by as early as ~1.25 Ma.

      By ~0.85 Ma, however, they've developed soft-hammer techniques that permit the removal of long, thin flakes and thus permitting a radically thinner final piece. As an aside, one of the more exquisite examples of this sort of thing are the central flutes of a Clovis point, each created with the removal of a single flake from each face.

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    3. "The general shape, and thus the edge, had been undergoing refinement for some time and seems to approach a somewhat terminal form, at least "in plan view", by as early as ~1.25 Ma."

      Correction: for "~1.25 Ma", please read, "~1.2 Ma".

      Delete
    4. Fair enough. What you mean is that the 'revolution' affects the whole design, working method and even maybe conceptual capability of the knappers, what is broader but not opposed to what I said about the edges.

      I'll see if I can write later an update because it does seem important. Thanks.

      Delete

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