Transformations of Upper Palaeolithic Implements in the Dabba Industry from Haua Fteah (Libya)

By Hiscock, Peter | Antiquity, September 1996 | Go to article overview
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Transformations of Upper Palaeolithic Implements in the Dabba Industry from Haua Fteah (Libya)

Hiscock, Peter, Antiquity

Different models of stone-working technology in the Upper Palaeolithic are tested by examining an assemblage from Haua Fteah, on the Libyan coast of north Africa. Evidence that some scrapers have been reworked into burins, while some burins were modified to form scrapers, show how this typically Upper Palaeolithic industry contains morphological transformations between types. This evidence is consistent with a technological continuity from the Middle Palaeolithic.


Ongoing debate about the characterization of the Middle Palaeolithic to Upper Palaeolithic transition often involves opposing claims about the level of continuity or discontinuity displayed in artefact assemblages. Perhaps the most common position is that the transition is marked by increased diversity and standardization of formal implements (see Mellars 1989: 365; Binford 1989: 36). Since the demonstration by Dibble (1984; 1987) that a significant portion of assemblage variability in the Middle Palaeolithic is explicable as morphological transformations of one implement 'type' into another as reduction proceeds, many analysts have used this as a key contrast to the inferred technological structure of Upper Palaeolithic assemblages. Upper Palaeolithic formal implement types have often been seen as being unambiguously defined, functionally specific, and representing the end-product of a sequence of reduction. For example, describing what he calls an 'unstructured feature' of Mousterian behaviour, Marcel Otte (1990: 443) claimed that

These are revealed, for example, in the typology of Mousterian tools, where the tool types are not clearly defined and where one type seems to grade almost imperceptibly into another (Dibble 1988). Seemingly, there is no clear tool standardisation in the Mousterian. Recurrent forms do not appear to correspond to a final stage in the reduction sequence (as in the Upper Palaeolithic) but rather to represent various stages of discard, during repeated phases of reworking or re-sharpening of the tools (Cahen 1985).

Perception of dramatically different technological patterns in the two periods has been used in the formulation of models that posit a rapid development of more complex cultural activity. Depiction of Upper Palaeolithic implements as rigidly defined end products has often been seen as a reflection of modern cognitive patterns. The implications of perceived contrasts in assemblage structure are variously phrased; while Binford (1989: 19) talks in terms of 'planning depth', others relate the variety of specifically designed implements made and used to the presence and complexity of mental typologies. For example, Mellars (1989: 365) characterizes the situation as follows:

The forms of these distinctively Upper Palaeolithic tools appear to show not only a higher degree of 'standardization' than those characteristic of the earlier Middle Palaeolithic industries (see Dibble 1987; 1989; Isaac 1972) but also a more obvious degree of 'imposed form' in the various stages of their production and shaping. In other words, the shapes of the tools not only are more sharply defined but also appear to reflect more clearly conceived 'mental templates' underlying their production.

This depiction of the transition between Middle Palaeolithic and Upper Palaeolithic has not gone unchallenged. Dissenting opinion holds the transition begins within the Middle Palaeolithic and that the initiation of different organizational structures can be perceived in Middle Palaeolithic assemblages (e.g. Lindly & Clark 1990: 61; Marshack 1990: 469; Reynolds 1990: 273). It appears that this perception is often based on technological analyses, which are more sensitive to change than are implement typologies. Differing depictions of assemblage structure, based on whether a technological or typological perspective is applied to the analysis, suggest another challenge. While the Middle Palaeolithic has been redescribed from a technological viewpoint, by Dibble and others, Upper Palaeolithic assemblages often retain a more strictly typological description.

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Transformations of Upper Palaeolithic Implements in the Dabba Industry from Haua Fteah (Libya)


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