Question 3 Indian Acheulian is Large Flake Acheulian

“If the Chirki assemblage was found in Africa, it couldn’t be younger than 1 million years”

– Gudrun Corvinus, to Dr Rajaguru and me on her first visit to Pune after she left in the 1970’s (1987?1988?)

“Why do you call it Acheulian? Where is the shaping?”

–  Claire Gaillard, to me, looking at 2000 Morgaon collection, sometime in 2002

These  statements by colleagues, both who have worked extensively in India but who have also worked outside of India, Gudrun in Africa and later Nepal and Claire in France have deeply impacted my understanding of the Indian Acheulian.  The first led me to expect an age for the Indian Acheulian comparable to that in Africa and the second alerted me to the differences between the Indian and European Acheulian.  Perhaps I had never even thought of these differences before Claire pointed them out to me (I only knew Indian Acheulian, I assumed the European Acheulian was like Indian Acheulian!).  The discovery and study of the Bori assemblage led me to the conclusion that there was a close connection between the African and Indian Acheulian and the study of the Morgaon assemblage led me to many ideas as to how the Indian/African Acheulian differs from the European Acheulian.

From 2002 therefore I was trying to think of a term for the Indian Acheulian which would express both the difference from “Acheulian” as well as the connection to “Acheulian”.   Gonen Sharon, an Isreali archaeologist working for his PhD on camparing assemblages with cleavers to the cleaver rich Acheulian site of Gesher Benot Ya‘aqov (GBY) came up with such a term (Sharon 2007, Sharon 2010).  Sharon studied the LCTs from a number of sites in India, Northern Africa and Southern Africa and introduced the term “Large Flake Acheulian” (LFA) for these assemblages.  Actually Sharon 2007 called them LFB – Large Flake based Acheulian – which I mistakenly changed to “Large Flake Acheulian” (Mishra et al. 2010).  However Sharon (2010) also seems to have switched to the term “Large Flake Acheulian”, which is the same, but a bit less awkward.  The defining characteristic of LFA, according to Sharon 2007 is that the LCT blanks are large flakes (>10cm) detached from giant cores (also defined as >10 cm).  Shaping of LCTs is minimal, especially on the ventral face.  This is because the flake blank was predetermined prior to detachment, making extensive post detachment “shaping” unnecessary.  Cleavers are always a significant percentage of the LFA.  In comparison in non LFA assemblages cleavers rarely exceed 3%.

Sharon also defined the LFA as a distinct stage in Acheulian.  He suggests that the European Acheulian is a stage succeeding the LFA.  He also notes a dichotomy between ovate handaxes and cleavers (ie either one or the other occurs) and suggests that “these tool types comprised different solutions to a similar functional need for a wide, sharp and thin cutting edge”  Thus the handaxe dominated European Acheulian dates later than the cleaver dominated Acheulian of Africa and Europe with ovate handaxes replacing cleavers.

Thus the “handaxes” of the LFA are not the precursor of the European handaxes.  Again Sharon points out that there is actually not a lot of variability in shape in the LFA handaxes which are almost all pointed.  While in the European Acheulian a handaxe is both a pointed tool as well as a cutting tool, in the LFA the cleavers are cutting tools, while the working edge of a handaxe is a robust point, often  described as “trihedral” or “pick”.  These handaxes have no “cutting” edges.  Thus it seems that separate functions of sharp, cutting edges and pointed edges have resulted in two separate tools in the LFA (handaxes and cleavers) while in the later phase they are combined.  To some extent the robust trihedral edges seem to be less common or more sporadically present in the later Acheulian.

Sharon considers the LFA to be a “middle” phase of Acheulian with the earliest phase lacking cleavers. The sites he cites for this cleaverless stage are ‘Ubediya, Konso-Gardula, Sterkfontien, Thomas I Quarry, and “a few other East African sites”.

In this I disagree with Sharon. The only site where cleavers are not mentioned is ‘Ubediya.  This is puzzling and must be the reason Sharon has come to his conclusion.  Konso-Gardula is still published very sketchily.  I got an afirmative reply from Jonas Beyene however when I asked him if cleavers are present.  I also asked Ignacio de la Torre, who has worked on many East African sites whether cleavers are absent in the earliest Acheulian.  His reply was no (ie no they are not absent) although they are not as frequent or well made as in later assemblages.  The site of Sterkfontien has just a few artefacts so absence is not significant.  Gravel bearing Acheulian artefacts from the Rietputs formation of the Vaal river, includes at least 1 cleaver (illustrated)(Gibbon et al. 2008) and has been dated to 1.57±0.22 Ma by cosmogenic dating putting it in the earliest Acheulian time.  The paper cited by Sharon for Thomas I Quarry (Raynal et al. 2001) illustrates two handaxes from the lowest Acheulian level but is more concerned with the dating of the sites and I could not find any assertion that cleavers were absent in my reading of the paper.

In the Indian context, the LFA  sites without cleavers, like Satpati, Dina and Jalapur and sites in the Didwana area (except Singi Talav) have more of a “Late Acheulian” character than Early Acheulian.  Thus, if indeed, a phase of Acheulian precedes cleavers it is probably not present in India.  The only trihedral handaxe dominated assemblage I know is that of Bori.  However at Bori an isolated cleaver underlies the handaxe level and another one is found in the overlying sediments.  In my view LFA is the beginning of Acheulian.  There may be technological changes through time within the LFA but at the moment, not enough is known for it to be discussed.

The common view is to consider the “Acheulian” advancement in technology as being the “shaping” of the tools, “imposing forms” etc.  However little shaping is evident in the LFA.  Nevertheless high skills and intelligence do seem to be evidenced by the economical, efficient, flexible methods of achieving desired functional tools types.  I conceive of the LFA as conceptualizing size of the tool in relation to the hand, with “hand sized” sharp edged tools–(cleavers, and other large flakes), pointed hand sized tools (handaxes) and finger sized sharp flakes.  Although these smaller flakes do not show secondary flaking, it can still be inferred that they were a desired product as small cores from which only small flakes could be detached are present in all LFA assemblages.  A variable percussion component is also present in many assemblages.

The LFA tools are made in short chaine operatoires.  Little core preparation or maintainance is documented and debitage is rather low.  The complexity of the tool production in the Oldowan and Acheulian may not be significantly different.  Never the contrast between the Oldowan and LFA is huge.

We (Mishra et al 2010) have identified the major contrast as complete chaine operatoires in the Oldowan versis fragmented chaine operatoires in the LFA.  In excavated Oldowan sites complete chaine operatoires are usually present.  Cores, flakes are present in ratios close to that expected for the entire core reduction.  High numbers of refits are often present.  There may be a selection of the most suitable raw material locally available and preference of different raw material for different tool types.  However the limited transport and the size limitation to smaller than 10 cm pieces indicates that the Oldowan hominins carried the stone in their hands.  In contrast the Acheulian hominins found it much easier to carry material and transported larger amounts.  The fragmented chaine operatoire of the LFA exists because of a very significant change in hominin behaviour.  The Acheulian hominins, in contrast to the Oldowan hominins were manufacturing, using and discarding stone tools at different places.  Cores rarely occur with tools.  Single artefacts, discarded after significant transport and use are the most “typical” LFA occurance.  Large accumulations of tools are usually an indication of long period of accumulation or conflation of originally separate horizons.  Thus Oldowan “primary” sites are vast accumulations of flaking debris while LFA “primary” sites are single cleavers or handaxes scattered over the landscape.

The technological shift from Oldowan to LFA therefore is not generated within the lithic technology but a by product of developments in subsistence, technology in other materials.  Invention of a means to carry objects (a bag?) is behind the LFA fragmented chaine operatoires.  However this invention was probably not driven by the need to carry cleavers, but rather related to the gathering of plant foods, which might require preparation to make them edible.

It is astonishing that even papers published in 2010 (Chauhan 2010, Petraglia 2010) don’t refer to Sharon (2007).  Indian Acheulian does resemble African Acheulian but neither is much like European Acheulian.

Chauhan, P. R. 2010. “The Indian Subcontinent and ‘Out of Africa I’,” in Out of Africa I, vol. 0, Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology. Edited by J. G. Fleagle, J. J. Shea, F. E. Grine, A. L. Baden, and R. E. Leakey, pp. 145-164-164: Springer Netherlands.

Gibbon, R. J., D. E. Granger, K. Kuman, and T. C. Partridge. 2008. Early Acheulean technology in the Rietputs Formation, South Africa, dated with cosmogenic nuclides. Journal of Human Evolution 56:152-160.

Mishra, S., C. Gaillard, S. G. Deo, M. Singh, R. Abbas, and N. Agrawal. 2010. Large Flake Acheulian in India: Implications for understanding lower Pleistocene human dispersals. Quaternary International 223-224:271-272.

Petraglia, M. D. 2010. “The Early Paleolithic of the Indian Subcontinent: Hominin Colonization, Dispersals and Occupation History,” in Out of Africa I, vol. 0, Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology. Edited by J. G. Fleagle, J. J. Shea, F. E. Grine, A. L. Baden, and R. E. Leakey, pp. 165-179: Springer Netherlands.

Raynal, J. P., F. Z. Sbihi Alaoui, D. Geraads, L. Magoga, and A. Mohi. 2001. The earliest occupation of North-Africa: the Moroccan perspective. Quaternary International 75:65-75.

Sharon, G. 2007. Acheulian Large Flake Industries:Technology, Chronology, and Significance. BAR international series. Oxford: BAR.

—. 2010. Large Flake Acheulian. Quaternary International 223-224:226-233.

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3 Responses to Question 3 Indian Acheulian is Large Flake Acheulian

  1. Bishnupriya Basak says:

    Am in total agreement.
    I am also interested to know about a few aspects of the LFA apart from its composition and status in Indian stone age.
    1.) Regional variations, if any. What is for ex, the difference between Morgaon material and those found from Attirampakkam and Isampur?
    2) Possibilities of understanding early hominin cognition and intelligence from the assemblage. I am sure there is immense scope. Tied with this will be their differential use of landscape.
    I feel these questions need to be addressed to in greater detail

  2. Shanti Pappu says:

    SOME COMMENTS
    I agree with Dr. Sheila Mishra, that there is a need for rethinking issues in Indian prehistory, e.g. classification, technology, etc., but have some reservations on changing terms at present.
    THE LARGE FLAKE ACHEULIAN
    I agree with S. Mishra’s points on the nature of many Indian Acheulian sites, which are largely characterized by similar technology to that described by Sharon, i.e. representing techniques based on detaching large flake blanks through varied core reduction strategies. It is also clear that the Indian Acheulian differs from that noted at European sites, and that the LFA does appear to have been present right from a very early age, at least in India (based on available evidence), with cleavers present right from early phases onwards. Despite some differences in interpreting core reduction strategies (e.g. at Isampur by Shipton et al. 2009, and Sharon 2007), no one would disagree that bifaces were primarily made on large flake blanks. To that extent, this nomenclature may be used, but again, perhaps the term Acheulian is good enough as long as we clearly define it in the Indian context.
    MIDDLE PALAEOLITHIC
    Although I agree with many of Dr. Sheila Mishra’s observations on the nature of the ‘Middle Palaeolithic’ as currently defined in India, I am not so sure about discarding this term right now.
    Based on our work in Tamil Nadu, and evidence from other regions in India, no one would disagree that there is a gradation in types and techniques from the Acheulian to the MP. Acheulian assemblages include a component of small flake tools, similar types of which continue into the ‘Middle Palaeolithic’; there is also a continuity in the use of handaxes which in most cases may be reduced in size (although not always). In fact, it is interesting to note that F.E.Zeuner, suggested calling such assemblages the ‘Flake Culture of the Lower Palaeolithic’, rather than the Indian Middle Palaeolithic when commenting on K.D.Banerjee’s thesis on MP assemblages in the Deccan.
    We also agree that in most parts of India as per published data, such sites occur as surface scatters, and are undated. However, stratified occurrences are noted at many sites. This is so in our work in Tamil Nadu, in particular as seen in deposits at Attirampakkam. Other published articles do report tools in stratified contexts, although these may vary in thickness, and do not represent as long a time span as that of the Acheulian. I also agree, as I’m sure others do, that there is no reason to assume that it should be similar to the MSA of sub-Saharan Africa (which it is not, as you have mentioned). It does not resemble European or southwest Asian MP assemblages, and there is no reason to assume that it should.
    In the case of many surface scatters, it is true that distinguishing very late Acheulian from early ‘Middle Palaeolithic assemblages’ is very difficult, especially in areas where the raw material used is the same (i.e. mostly quartzites). This is often done arbitrarily, where we place assemblages into one or the other categories based on a range of variables: raw material changes, changes in tool types, weathering and patination, etc. However, this problem is a something we have to lump, and accept that not everything can be answered right now.
    We know too little on problems in transitions between the MP and UP, and issues regarding transitions and continuity of some elements. It is difficult to identify or discuss issues of transitions and change, unless clear evidence is obtained from stratified sites (such as Patne), rather than putting together a composite picture from regional surveys. Thus, issues such as differential preservation of deposits in different regions, might lead one to conclusions on stratigraphic or cultural ‘discontinuities’, which may not be so.
    Having said that, I believe that these assemblages do represent a phase which neither fits into the Acheulian (although displaying continuity), and are distinct from assemblages with standardized blade technology. While differences between the MP and UP are more distinct than that between the LP and MP, does this justify discarding the term MP? Even if we regard it as a final phase of the Indian Lower Palaeolithic, we need to classify it somehow, and I’m not sure how this will work out:–Phase 1, 2, etc.? Will this not create more confusion? I don’t think radical changes in classification will eliminate this problem, but it is certainly worthwhile to discuss further.

    Re: Samnapur Assemblage

    There is only brief published information on the assemblage from this site. From what is published and based on similar assemblages in Tamil Nadu (either lacking or with sparse Levallois component, or bifaces, presence of both large and small flake tools, etc.), the it appears to fit into what may be termed a very Late Acheulian. As a typical Acheulian is noted in the underlying gravels elsewhere in the region, it may be reasonable to expect continuity in some components. However, the excavators correlate an ash bed within an alluvial facies, (occurring nearby at Pawla, 10 km upstream) with the artefact bearing rubble at Samnapur. If one agrees with this correlation, and with the fact that the ash may be YTT, then the argument for it being MP may well stand true. One can’t speculate further on this.

    More comments later …..

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