'Running Ahead of Time' in the Development of Palaeolithic Industries

By Vishnyatsky, L. B. | Antiquity, March 1994 | Go to article overview

'Running Ahead of Time' in the Development of Palaeolithic Industries


Vishnyatsky, L. B., Antiquity


Palaeolithic people could foresee their technological future no more, or even less, than we are able to. They never said, 'The Middle Palaeolithic has gone on quite long enough -- now we'd better get on with a transition to the Upper.' So what is one to make of those precocious lithic industries which prefigure key features of later innovations, the industries which 'run ahead' of their own time?

The present article is devoted to a phenomenon which, in my view, has not yet been assessed by prehistoric archaeologists at its true value. This phenomenon may be called 'running ahead of time' in cultural development. It finds expression in relatively short-term but sharp, sudden and substantial deviations from the normal evolutionary succession. Within comparatively archaic cultures there sometimes have appeared whole complexes of innovations anticipating the achievements of future stages that are distant both chronologically and culturally. Individual instances, known for a long time, are usually apprehended and interpreted as single anomalies. My purpose is to show that this 'running ahead of time' is a repeated phenomenon in primordial culture; its study may prove highly fruitful and useful for understanding the evolution both of Stone Age industries and of cultural change in prehistory.

Definition

Archaeologists distinguish cultural and period units by selecting such aggregates of characteristics which describe the given culture, cultural stage, or period, and separate it from others of the same order. Identification depends not only on unique individual characteristics, but also on unique combination. The units recognized in the Stone Age, at global, regional and local scales, know a great number of cases when the elements defining and distinguishing a stage appear in earlier, preceding periods of development. As early as 1960, Bordes (1960a: 108) called the appearance of many typical Azilian tools in the Final Magdalenian the 'foreshadowing' of the succeeding culture; he considered it 'one criterion of evolution . . . which is safer to apply than any other'.

This 'foreshadowing' is natural, even inevitable if we study the transformation of one industry (or broader: one culture, cultural stage, etc.) into another; otherwise we could not establish continuity of development. Yet foreshadowing may have quite another character, so different from Bordes' use of the term, that a new name is needed. Traits and groups of traits (types, stylistic peculiarities, techniques) foreshadowing future developments can appear in industries which are chronologically and genetically highly remote from those in which the 'foreshadowed' elements will long after manifest themselves in full measure. The elements typical of a developed culture appear within an archaic culture, disappear and, after thousands and tens of thousands of years, reappear again -- now not as an unexpected anomaly, but as widely distributed occurrences considered usually to be the result of gradual development. Borrowing a biological term, this phenomenon is a 'philogenetic acceleration' (Pavlov 1901). I prefer to call it 'anticipation of future development', or 'running ahead of time'. It may be reflected in archaeological materials vaguely, impossible or almost impossible to make out. Striking instances are seen in those Middle Palaeolithic industries where there appear (as if suddenly) complexes of innovations which anticipate cultural attainments of the Upper Palaeolithic and even of the Mesolithic.

Examples in the Middle Palaeolithic/Middle Stone Age

The Near East

At the border of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in the northern and central Levant there exist industries differing perceptibly from the 'normal' Acheulean and Mousterian assemblages and displaying features typical for the Upper Palaeolithic. They are called Pre-Aurignacian (Rust 1950), Amudian (Garrod & Kirkbride 1961) and Hummalian (Hours 1982). While realizing that there are some differences between these industries (Bordes 1977; Jelinek 1990), hereafter I shall use for all of them a common abbreviation -- PAH. …

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