A New Approach to Interpreting Late Pleistocene Microlith Industries in Southwest Asia

By Neeley, Michael P.; Barton, C. Michael | Antiquity, June 1994 | Go to article overview

A New Approach to Interpreting Late Pleistocene Microlith Industries in Southwest Asia


Neeley, Michael P., Barton, C. Michael, Antiquity


Archaeologists have long assumed that morphological variability in microliths primarily reflects cultural differences among the makers. This forms the basis for differentiating major cultural/temporal traditions in the late Epipalaeolithic of southwest Asia. An alternative explanation for morphological variability is proposed which emphasizes the dynamic aspects of lithic technology in hunter-gatherer societies and questions current explanations of culture change.

Currently, the earliest known evidence for the appearance of both food-producing economies and social complexity is found in southwestern Asia. In the belt of forest and steppe at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, known as the Near Eastern Levant, the transition to food production began between 14,500 and 10,000 b.p., in the context of late Pleistocene foragers known collectively as the Levantine Epipalaeolithic.

Although a considerable body of floral and faunal remains provides direct economic evidence for this time period, the cultural framework within which these data are interpreted largely derives from explanations of variability in assemblages of chipped stone artefacts. Furthermore, while radiocarbon dates are available for a few sites, the major chronological divisions of the Levantine Epipalaeolithic also are defined predominantly on the basis of morphological variability in the lithic assemblages.

Many Levantine prehistorians see variation as essentially stylistic in Epipalaeolithic chipped stone assemblages, permitting the identification of discrete ethnic groups (Bar-Yosef 1991; Henry 1989). For example, Henry (1989: 175) has argued for ethnically distinct band clusters on the basis of variations in microlith frequencies among Geometric Kebaran assemblages. The more homogeneous Natufian industry that follows is felt to indicate the coalescing of these ethnic groups into socially more complex societies in which agriculture is believed to have originated (Henry 1989: 175; see also McCorriston & Hole 1991).

Especially important for cultural and chronological divisions of the Epipalaeolithic are the frequencies of microliths and their production residues. Serving as cutting edges of compound tools, Levantine microliths occur in geometric (e.g. triangles, rectangles, and lunates) and non-geometric (e.g. arched backed, straight backed and scalene bladelets) forms. Typologically, the most distinctive residues from microlith production are the small segments that result from a method of sectioning bladelets known as the microburin technique.

Currently, the Levantine Epipalaeolithic is organized into three major cultural divisions, the Mushabian, the Geometric Kebaran and the Natufian. The Mushabian is characterized by high frequencies of arched backed bladelets, scalene bladelets and La Mouillah points, and high microburin frequencies (Henry 1989: 91-3). Most Mushabian sites are in the arid regions of the southern Levant, particularly the central Negev and northeastern Sinai, and date to c. 14,000-12,000 b.p. Geometric Kebaran industries are defined by high frequencies of straight backed bladelets and trapeze/rectangles, and very low microburin frequencies (Henry 1989: 93). The Geometric Kebaran is generally contemporaneous with the Mushabian, at c. 14,500-12,500 b.p., and sites are found in both arid and Mediterranean zones of the southern Levant. Natufian assemblages are characterized by high frequencies of geometric microliths (predominantly lunates), arched and straight backed bladelets, and high microburin frequencies (Henry 1989: 94). This industry dates to 12,500-10,000 b.p., and most sites are situated in the Mediterranean zone of the southern Levant.

TABLE 1. Sites and assemblages used in this study.

GEOMETRIC KEBARAN ASSEMBLAGES

A 302 Azariq II Azariq II Azariq VIIa Azariq VIII Azariq XVI Azariq XVIII Halutza 5 Lagama North IV Lagama North VIII Maaleh Ziq Mushabi XIV L2 Mushabi XVII Mushabi XVIII Nahal Lavan 105 Nahal Rut 48a Nahal Rut 48b Nahal Rut 48c Nahal Rut 48d Nahal Rut XI Nahal Rut XIII Nahal Rut XVII Nahal Sekher 22 Nahal Sekher 81/M Qadesh Barnea 8 Shunera I Shunera III Shunera XII Shunera XIIa Shunera XIIb Shunera XXV Wadi Sayakh Zin D 5 Zin D 101C

MUSHABIAN ASSEMBLAGES

Azariq III Azariq IX Azariq VIIb Azariq X Azariq XII Azariq XIX Azariq XX Ein Qadis II Ein Qadis VI Haj Halutza 5B Halutza 83 Halutza 84 Halutza 87 Halutza 89 Halutza 93 Halutza 94 all Hamifgash IV Har Harif G IX Har Harif HF Ia Har Harif HF Ib Har Harif HF II Har Harif K5 Har Harif K6 Har Harif K7 Har Harif K9 Har Lavan II Kurnub Maaleh Ramon West II Mitzpeh Shunera I Mitzpeh Shunera III Mushabi V Mushabi XIV/1 Mushabi XIX Nahal Lavan 106 Nahal Lavan 107 Nahal Lavan 116 Nahal Lavan 1003 Nahal Lavan 1009 Nahal Lavan 1010W Nahal Nizzana II Nahal Nizzana VIII Nahal Nizzana X Nahal Nizzana XI Nahal Nizzana XII Nahal Nizzana XIV Nahal Rut IV Nahal Rut VII Nahal Sekher 23 Nahal Sekher 81/M1 Nahal Sekher 81/M2+ Nahal Sekher 81/M3 Ramat Matred II Ramat Matred III Shluhat Qeren I Shluhat Qeren II Shunera II Shunera IV Shunera VII Shunera VIII Shunera XXI

NATUFIAN ASSEMBLAGES

Ain Mallaha Ib Ain Mallaha Ic Ain Mallaha IV Azariq XV Beidha El Wad B1 El Wad B2 Erq el-Ahmar A2 Fazael IV Givat Hayil I Halutza 7 Halutza 82 Halutza 83 Hayonim Cave B lower Hayonim Cave B upper Hayonim Terrace loc.

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A New Approach to Interpreting Late Pleistocene Microlith Industries in Southwest Asia
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