On the Origin and Significance of Microburins: An Experimental Approach

By De Wilde, David; De Bie, Marc | Antiquity, September 2011 | Go to article overview
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On the Origin and Significance of Microburins: An Experimental Approach

De Wilde, David, De Bie, Marc, Antiquity


At the end of the last ice age the average temperature in north-western Europe gradually increased and the fauna and flora underwent major changes. After the final, relatively short, colder period of the Younger Dryas, the Holocene finally commenced. During the consecutive warmer periods humans needed to adapt to a changing, generally more forested, environment. One of the major innovations in this process was undoubtedly the (re)introduction of the bow and arrow (Rozoy 1992: 177; Caspar & De Bic 1996) during the Final Palacolithic, and its systematic employment and improvement during the Mesolithic.

While the environment during the Late Glacial Allerod and the early Holocene Preboreal must have been rather similar in this region, some apparent differences can be observed in the hunting equipment of the Final Palaeolithic and early Mesolithic. Microlithisation of early Mesolithic points is probably the most obvious change, and the orientation of the point tip on the blank is another. The vast majority of Final Palaeolithic points have their tip on the distal part of a blade, while the tip of most Mesolithic points is prepared on the proximal part.

One of the most important differences, however, is the introduction of the microburin blow technique. This technique, mostly used for the production of microliths, aires to fracture a blade in a controlled way by creating and deepening a notch on one of its sides. In this notch, an oblique fracture can originate, which, when successful, is also obliquely oriented to the dorsal face of the blade. A microburin is the typically created waste product. The greatest advantage of the microburin blow technique is obviously not the production of a microburin, but the trihedral scar on the remaining part of the blade, called piquant triedre (trihedral point), generating a sharp extremity that cannot be obtained by simple retouching (Tixier 1963: 39-42; Neeley & Barton 1994: 278; Inizan et al. 1999: 82-4).

Important questions on the origin of this technique remain unresolved. When, where exactly, and how was it introduced? Was it truly a Mesolithic (re)invention or rather the outcome of a gradual development? On a broader level, these questions interrogate the significance of this eye-catching technological innovation as a 'culture- defining' element across the Pleistocene-Holocene transition in Western Europe. Are 'technological guide fossils' such as microburins meaningful cultural markers? Do these artefacts, and therefore the use of the technique, somehow represent a conscious choice of prehistoric communities? Were they possibly experienced as idiosyncratic features? Or should we look at it quite differently?

In this article, results from new experimental research will be discussed. We argue that the appearance of microburins is a consistent side-effect of a functional improvement in bow and arrow technology, i.e. the inversion of the point tip on the blade(let). The prevalent manifestation of the microburin blow technique subsequently seems to be the outcome of gradual adoption and integration rather than a swift creative event. In our view, this has wider significance for the way we generally perceive and explain technological change.

Origin hypotheses

Even though much has been written on the possible cultural significance (e.g. Octobon 1935a; Neeley & Barton 1994; Kaufman 1995) of (the use of) the microburin blow technique, the question of its origin remains insufficiently answered. The leading idea is that the microburin blow technique originates from a common knapping accident. One of the first authors to thoroughly examine this idea, Jean-Jacques Tixier (1963: 42), wrote: 'Le coup du microburin est une technique qui a certainement ete decouverte, apres quelques accidents de taille du genre microburin Krukowski, par plusieurs peuplades eloignees dans le temps et dans l'espace.' Two aspects are very important.

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