Homo neanderthalensis is a hominin that most of you would be familiar with. Palaeoanthropologists are busy, repairing the tarnished reputation of this once dominant creature.
It was arguably the best equipped species of human to tackle the harsh environmental conditions of most of west Eurasia for nearly 400,000 years. It used the Mousterian stone tool industry to cope with the tundra conditions. This technocomplex is made up of flakes, for the most part, produced using a technique called Levallois. This used the structure of stone to its advantage to produce a near symmetrical flakes, usually large a bulky.
It got its name from the Parisienne suburb of Lavallois-Perret, where a lot of these flakes were found in the 19th century. This a prepared core technology, involving the knapping of flakes around the core and the creation of a key striking platform, which, when struck will produce a flake with a noticeable plano-convex profile. Retouch can then be conducted on the newly created flake. Levallois can be found throughout Europe and in the Levant. Initial hypotheses pointed to this technocomplex being associated with a group of humans, a culture. This however has not been supported by the evidence and such a hypothesis has been laid to rest since the early 1990’s.
Palaeoanthropology and prehistoric archaeology are ever changing fields, quite dynamic, evident in the hypotheses that come and go in light of new research. The latest paper on the Levallois technocomplex aimed to date the stratigraphic layer in which the stone tools were found. The dating technique used, optically stimulated luminescence or OSL, for short, examines the wavelength of light given off by the defects within the lattice structure of the rock being tested.
Basically, the number of electrons determines the wavelength of light, so for example the sodium has 11 electrons contained within three shells. The exciting stuff begins here. Using green, blue or infrared lighting, the electrons are excited (photoexcitation), resulting in the emission of light. This light is detected by the machine and calculated to determine the age of the rock.
Take a flint flake, it is knapped and is eventually discarded on a campsite fire. Over thousands of years burial runs its course, until palaeoanthropologists or geologists find it. Care must be taken to seal the artefact in appropriate opaque bags to prevent sun radiation from interfering with the electrons in the mineral structure. What we are dating here is the last time the mineral was exposed to 400o of heat and in order to do that we need to assess the extent of radiation damage within the structure. The rock absorbs the radiation and throughout its burial, the radioactive materials within damage the rock, leaving unstable electrons and it is these that are excited. The stronger the signal the older the rock.
There are some major problems with this and one rather massive problem is assumption. Not something you particularly want in scientific analysis, but when there is little else to date more difficult archaeological sites, we use what we can. We assume the mineral has been exposed to enough sun radiation. If there is not enough exposure of the stone tool to adequate sunlight, the clock is not reset and we would be dating the previous time it was exposed to large volumes of radiation. The Lake Mungo skeleton was dated using OSL. Enough, what about this new mousterian site?
We are in Nesher Ramla, Israel, an open-air site located in an interesting geological landscape, which has presented archaeologists with a rather special treasure trove of zooarchaeological and lithic deposits. The karstic landscape in which this site is situated, has numerous depressions characteristic of chemically eroded carbonate rocks. An 8m thick depression at the site revealed a collection of stone tools and animal remains. While the team of scientists say something about the lithics and their accompanying animal remains, the aim of the paper involves the need to firmly date the remains.
The bottom of the 8m sequence was dated to 170,000 years ago. If you are not well up on your prehistoric Levantine archaeology, that makes Nesher Ramla the oldest Middle Palaeolithic site in this part of the world. The site was occupied by Homo neanderthalensis for about 30,000 years on a regular basis, with the remaining 40,000 years seeing much less activity. How do we know this? Well, increase in the presence of artefacts, coupled with the manuport and bone concentration lends some support to such a hypothesis. So what can we say about the stone tools. Well quite a lot actually, thanks to the 81,000 strong assemblage recovered. As mentioned earlier there is more intensive activity the further back in time you go and this is evident from the intensity of lithics, increasing from 20 artefacts per 10 cm to 300 artefacts (in some places) per 10 cm.
The most common method of flaking at the site is Levallois, exhibiting short, squat flakes, unlike those laminar and longer Levallois flakes of other European sites. Retouch is a notable feature of the Nesher Ramla Flakes, with the odd discarded side scraper rejuvenated (reused) using retouching processes. Until the publication of this article there were no Levantine Mousterian sites with rejuvenation activities, making Homo neanderthalensis (if indeed it is that species that occupied Nesher in the later part of the sites history) more Homo sapien-like. As we reach the 100,000 year mark, the stone tool kit has changed remarkably (in the context of the small size of the assemblage), with an intensity of denticulates and irregularly retouched flakes.
The stone tools of trench three were analysed with a total assemblage number of 4224 artefacts in that one trench. More analysis has yet to be conducted and could reveal more about the nature of the Nesher Ramla assemblage. The manuports included ochre, small amounts of it, scattered throughout the sequence. This makes it the third Levantine site including the famous caves of Skhul and Qafzeh to possess ochre chunks. Little more can be said for these. The faunal remains tell us a great deal and appear to bust a few myths about the animals we might expect at cave sites or open-air sites. Let’s get into the myths, first. A Levantine cave will usually produce gazelles or deer, small ungulates in general. Open-air sites usually produce aurochs remains usually in small numbers. Nesher Ramla produce an unexpected and enormous amount of faunal remains (similar to the quantity you might expect at a cave site), but unsurprisingly dominated by Aurochs.
Based upon the unbutchered fauna, the complete bones, presence of Aurochs and the standard nature of the stone tool kit, the palaeoanthropologists suggest that the site was an initial processing site, where some consumption did take place. But the team wish to put this hypothesis through further testing. The site saw extensive activity over its 70,000 year use. For whatever reason it lost its importance about 100,000 years ago. The site is very intriguing and boasts a few interesting twists in our understanding of Levantine Middle Palaeolithic open-air sites. The site does not follow the norm as far as the faunal assemblage is concerned, the stone tools change over time in form, but did not follow the classic Levallois knapping technique of the Mousterian technocomplex, Nesher Ramla is the third site to possess ochre chunks and it is the oldest Levantine Middle Palaeolithic site known (provided you are happy with OSL Dating).
Header Image : Homo neanderthalensis : Wiki Commons
Written by Charles T. G. Clarke