The Transition from the Lower to the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe and the Incorporation of Difference

Article excerpt


In the last 30 years the gaze of palaeoanthropology has been drawn to the issue of the evolutionary transition from 'archaic' to 'modern' humans in Europe and Africa (e.g. Mellars & Stringer 1989; Klein 1995; McBrearty & Brooks 2000; Stringer 2002). As far as Europe is concerned, this has focused attention on the transition from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic, so much so that the earlier transition from the Lower to the Middle Palaeolithic has been largely overshadowed. Indeed, some authorities have argued that this transition in Europe was of limited evolutionary significance (e.g. Gamble 1986: Table 4.8) and that the division of the earlier Palaeolithic into these two great periods is of doubtful validity. More recently there has been some reassertion of the discreteness of the Middle Palaeolithic (papers in Roebroeks & Gamble 1999), but relatively little attention has been paid to the possibility that it might represent gross developments in hominin behavioural capacities relative to the Lower Palaeolithic.

The Lower-Middle Palaeolithic boundary is today placed at around 300 kyr (thousand years ago). Although the taxonomic attributions of European Lower Palaeolithic hominins are the subject of some dispute, the current consensus is that, from around 500 kyr, they can be placed in the species Homo heidelbergensis, and that the European Middle Palaeolithic is associated with their evolutionary descendants, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) (Stringer 2002). Historically, the Middle Palaeolithic has been distinguished from the Lower on the basis of the decline of the handaxe and the appearance of Levallois and related 'prepared core' techniques of chipped stone flake production, and by the first occupation of mountainous regions (Grahmann 1952).

White & Ashton (2003) have shown that the Levallois reduction technique, in which a core is shaped by preparatory flake removals in order to manage the production of subsequent preferential flakes, represents the conceptual and practical fusion of two approaches to knapping stone. Faconnage entails the shaping of a core by the removal of flakes, the shaped core being the target object. Debitage, on the other hand, entails the production of sharp-edged flakes from a core, and it is the flakes that are the intended products (Boeda et al. 1990). Both were practised in the Lower Palaeolithic, but as discrete alternative strategies (Figure 1). Their fusion in Middle Palaeolithic Levallois technology (Figure 2) therefore represents an incorporation of difference (Hopkinson 2001).


This paper examines the geography of European occupation in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic and presents evidence that the incorporation of difference was a feature of the Middle Palaeolithic not only in lithic technology but also in the realm of settlement ecology and landscape use. It is argued that this does indeed represent a major transformation in hominin cognition and behaviour across the Lower-Middle Palaeolithic transition.

Lower and Middle Palaeolithic occupation in Central and Eastern Europe

Lower Palaeolithic archaeological sites in France, Spain, Italy and southern Britain are numerous (too numerous to catalogue here), but they are very much rarer in Central and Eastern Europe. Table 1 presents a catalogue of significant archaeological sites older than 200 kyr in Europe east of the present-day Rhine, west of the Black Sea and north of the Alps and Balkans. The choice of 200 kyr as the temporal boundary is not meant to coincide strictly with the Lower-Middle Palaeolithic transition; instead it reflects the paucity of deposits, and thus archaeological sites, dating to MIS (Marine Isotope Stage) 7 (c. 242-186 kyr) in Central and Eastern Europe, and serves as a convenient point for a 'before and after' comparison that best reveals temporal patterns in the Pleistocene human occupation of the region. …