In a paper published in the June 1994 issue of ANTIQUITY, Neeley & Barton develop an argument purporting to demonstrate that differences in microlith morphology observed in Epipalaeolithic assemblages from the Near East are the product of technological rather than stylistic variation. If true, their hypothesis would undermine the validity of much of the research in this field carried out during the last 30 years.
Neeley & Barton's paper contains two main arguments:
the microburin technique - a method for sectioning bladelets by placing and deepening a notch until the bladelet snaps (see Tixier 1963: 39-42; Fellner 1995: 53-7) - is not specific to any Epipalaeolithic industry in the Near East, but was used universally;
variation in microlith forms - used by many researchers as fossiles directeurs to identify archaeological cultures - is not due to changes in style but the product of re-sharpening blunted or broken microliths.
Both arguments appear highly questionable.
The microburin technique
Neeley & Barton accept the current evidence that the number of microburins (the waste product of the microburin technique) varies strongly among Epipalaeolithic assemblages; those assigned to Kebaran or Geometric Kebaran A industries contain markedly fewer microburins than those assigned to Mushabian or Ramonian industries. In the traditional view, this variation is additional evidence for the existence of discrete archaeological cultures identified by microlith morphology. Neeley & Barton argue that it is purely a reflection of raw material constraints. They note that the trapeze/rectangles considered typical of Geometric Kebaran A assemblages are slightly shorter (mean 22 mm, SD 4; Goring-Morris 1987: 127-8) than the microlithic points common to Mushabian and Ramonian sites (24 mm, SD 4.5; and 26 mm, SD 3; Goring-Morris 1987: 187-8 and 240-41 respectively), while the trend in bladelet blank length is opposite, with an average of 36 mm for Geometric Kebaran A and 31 mm for Mushabian assemblages (based on a rather small sample; Henry 1989). Neeley & Barton observe that the average Mushabian microlith accounts, in length, for 80% of the average blank size, while Geometric Kebaran A trapeze/rectangles account, on average, for only 61% of the blank. This they take to suggest that 'two (or more) microliths were produced from many Geometric Kebaran bladelets, rather than a microlith and a discarded microburin' (p. 280); they argue that the rarity of microburins in Geometric Kebaran A assemblages does not indicate the absence of that technique: it was simply used without creating waste products.
Neeley & Barton's argument is open to a considerable number of objections: the quality of the numerical evidence on blank size; an analysis based on recognized archaeological cultures while at the same time questioning their reality; raw-material scarcity as an explanatory mechanism in a context where this seems rare; ignoring the traces left by the microburin technique on microliths produced in this way; etc. (see Kaufman, this volume). I will only discuss the most obvious. Trapeze/rectangles, considered typical of the Geometric Kebaran A industry, are microliths with truncations on both ends. The truncations indicate that both the tip and the platform end of the bladelet blank had to be removed to produce this tool type, reducing the workable portion of blank length from an average of 36 mm for the complete object to, at most, 32 mm. How more than one of the 22 mm long (on average) trapeze/rectangles should frequently be produced from one blank seems thus a mystery. To put it differently: 61% is more than half, and certainly more than a third. This being so, the rarity of microburins in Geometric Kebaran A assemblages does indicate that the technique - common in Mushabian, Ramonian and Desert Natufian sites - was not or only rarely used by those producing …