Exactly how archaeologists classify a chipped stone as a core is not,
however, my main concern. It is enough to appreciate that cores are the
result of both fragmentation, knapping a nodule of raw material, and the
consumption of those fragments that is structured in a social technology by
accumulation and enchainment. Cores are also a good example of a
material metaphor where the body provides an understanding of the skills
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 181
figure 7.3. A progressive view of stone technology. Efficiency is measured by an
increase in the amount of cutting edge that different knapping techniques produce
(after Leroi-Gourhan 1957).
and technique involved. The outer covering of a stone nodule is called
the cortex, from the Latin for bark, and has a skin-like appearance. As flakes
and blades are detached from the nucleus, or core, they are described in
terms of two different faces (Figure 7.2), ventral (front) and dorsal (back).
The terms proximal and distal are applied to the head and the foot of
both cores and flakes as determined by the origin of the force applied,
a geographical proxy for the knapper herself (Figure 7.4). The act of
fragmenting is spoken of as leaving scars on the coreâ€™s surface. These are
182 Origins and Revolutions
figure 7.4. Lithic parents and offspring in Prepared Core (flake/blade) Technology.
Top left PCT1 Â¼ Levallois with a flake, and descriptions that refer to the body. The arrows
show the direction from which the offspring were detached by a blow from either a hard
or soft hammer, with or without a punch placed on the striking platform to direct the
blow; PCT2 Â¼ Levallois with a blade; Bottom left PCT3 Â¼ Prismatic core with blades
struck from one direction; PCT4 Â¼ Prismatic core with blades and bladelets struck from
two directions (bipolar) thereby increasing the number of recognisable offspring. Note
how the concave surface of the cores after the flake/blade instruments have been
struck-off forms a shallow container.
ridges and hollows that can on occasion be re-fitted to the struck fragments.
It is the convex and concave shapes of the surfaces that makes the cores
in a PCT both instrument and container (Table 7.4).
The description of actions involving cores and their products abound
in bodily references. The skill of the knapper resides in â€˜re-juvenatingâ€™
the core to extract more material and a spent core is often referred to as
â€˜exhaustedâ€™. A flake with two ventral faces is a Janus flake, after the Roman
guardian of doorways, while there are also waisted blades, shouldered
points and pieces with curved backs and noses.
Cores are regarded as parent material although the â€˜usefulâ€™ fragments,
the flakes and blades, are never called offspring but are given names as
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 183
various types of tools; endscraper, point, awl. Set besides these useful
elements are the by-products of knapping, the chips, chunks and rejects,
that are often called waste; ejecta rather than excreta.
Fragmenting cores is described by Nathan Schlanger (1996:248) as
thinking through the hand, a sequence of bodily techniques that interplay
with the material and are described by Leroi-Gourhanâ€™s term chaÄ±ne
operatoire (Boeda et al. 1990; Gamble 1999:214Ã€23; Julien 1992). PCTs have
been used to indicate forward thinking and the ability to conceptu-
alise the desired object in the stone and realise it through knapping.
Schlanger argues differently. Instead of a prior concept, or mental image,
the product emerges as a suite of gestures that have been learned and
assimilated as body techniques. The evidence of preparation in a PCT is not
therefore in thought but in action. Cores are material metaphors rather
than cognitive templates and refer to the bodies that created them. We
understand them as material culture because they are embodied.
The best known PCT is the Levallois technique (Boeda 1994;
Brantingham and Kuhn 2001; Dibble and Bar-Yosef 1995; Holdaway and
Stern 2004; Schlanger 1996) that is widespread throughout the Old World
and Australia. This PCT is at least 300,000 years old and probably
much older still. The essence of Levallois PCT is the preparation of
a nodule as a core prior to detaching flake-blanks of desired shape and size
(Bordes 1980). Large flake-blades are often produced using the Levallois
PCT, but these differ in size and shape (Figure 7.4) from the blades
described in Table 7.6. Levallois flakes can also be likened to a Swiss Army
Knife (see above) but they would be larger and heavier and there would
be fewer â€˜gadgetsâ€™ than the top-of-the-range blade model.
â€˜Trueâ€™ blades require a prismatic rather than a Levallois core. To pro-
duce one involves bifacial flaking to prepare ridges on the face of the core.
The technique can be recognised by its characteristic by-product the
ridge straightening flake (Fr. lame a crete). The long parallel scars on the
surface of the core look like fingers drawn through sand or wet clay.
With two versions of a Swiss Army Knife on offer it comes as little surprise
to find that the Levallois PCT has also been proposed as the archaeological
marker of the Human Revolution sometime towards the end of technol-
ogyâ€™s long introduction. Using Grahame Clarkâ€™s technological modes
(Table 7.7), bioanthropologists Robert Foley and Marta Lahr (Foley and
Lahr 1997; Lahr and Foley 1998) have proposed that his Mode 3 represents
the emergence and subsequent diaspora of anatomically modern humans.
For Clark, Foley and Lahr the Australian sequence indicates little beyond
a Mode 3 technology even though the continent was first colonised
184 Origins and Revolutions
table 7.7. Technological modes in the Palaeolithic (after Clark 1969:31). Clark offered
the modes as a homotaxial sequence which at least in Africa and Eurasia, at the time he
was writing, followed the progression from Mode 1 to Mode 5. However, although he was
writing a world prehistory Clark never claimed his modes were universal stages (1969:30).
Instead they were his attempt to escape from the historical thorn bushes of what to call
prehistoric hunters and gatherers in different continents. For example, they certainly were
not Palaeolithic in Australia or the Americas. The main problem with these modes is that
they unduly privilege stone tools and all other aspects of technology and material culture
Conventional divisions Examples of
Mode Dominant lithic technologies in Europe PCTs
5 Microlithic components of Mesolithic Bladelet,
composite artefacts Naviform
4 Punch-struck blades with Upper Palaeolithic Prismatic
3 Flake tools from prepared Middle Palaeolithic Levallois
2 Bifacially flaked handaxes Lower Palaeolithic Victoria West
1 Chopper tools and flakes
when Mode 4 was widespread in the Old World. Their argument is that
Mode 3 is a more reliable archaeological signature of Modern humans
than Mode 4 since it can be found with them in Africa at 300,000 or
Australia 60,000 years ago. Furthermore, Mode 3 was available to other
species such as the Eurasian Neanderthals during this quarter of a million
years which implies that the cognitive and evolutionary changes which
began around 300,000 years ago in Africa and Eurasia had significant
consequences for the social technologies of more than one hominin.
In Foley and Lahrâ€™s (1997:26) opinion â€˜blades are regionally not glob-
ally importantâ€™. For them the later development of blades has more to do
with the subsequent differentiation of groups through material culture
and is not indicative of the first appearance of modern human behaviour
(Foley 2001b:192). Consequently both prismatic and Levallois PCTs are
widely cited as evidence for planning and anticipation (Table 7.8) that
would be expected with modern human behaviour (Bar-Yosef 2002).
The case that these two forms of PCT should be treated equally is
reinforced by their long chronological overlap and their patchy presence in
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 185
table 7.8. Binfordâ€™s definitions of forward thinking associated with Modern
humans rather than Neanderthals, blade rather than flake PCTs (1989:19Ã€20)
â€˜The potentially variable length of time between anticipatory actions and the actions
they facilitate, amount of investment in anticipatory actions, and proportion of
activities so facilitatedâ€™
â€˜The variable capacity, based on stored knowledge of mechanical principles,
environmental characteristics, and hence opportunities, to find more than one
way to skin a catâ€™
â€˜The degree to which technology is maintained . . . While planning depth may be
present without curation, it is difficult to imagine curation without planning depthâ€™
many regions. Advances in dating are repeatedly pushing back the anti-
quity of prismatic blades and Levallois flakes. But there are also much older
PCTs such as Kombewa (Tixier and Turq 1999) and Victoria West
(Mitchell 2002) that produces a single large flake from a big cobble.
This serves as a blank for bifaces and cleavers and is common in Africa
(Gamble and Marshall 2001).
For a long time blades simply came and went rather than carried all
before them as a significant technological advance might be expected to do.
Ofer Bar-Yosef and Steven Kuhn (1999) have pointed out there are many
examples of blades which pre-date by a considerable time the European
Upper Palaeolithic (Conard 1992; Revillion and Tuffreau 1994; Tuffreau
1993). For example, the Amudian assemblages of the Near East contain
blades and at Tabun, one of the Mt Carmel caves in Israel, these are now
dated to between 270,000 and 300,000 years old (Bar-Yosef and Kuhn
1999:325; Jelinek 1990). Furthermore, blades are found in large numbers at
early dates in Africa, most noticeably at Kapthurin in Kenya (McBrearty
and Brooks 2000) dated to 240,000 years ago, and in the later Howiesonâ€™s
Poort assemblages across southern Africa, 60,000 to 80,000 years ago
(Deacon 1995; Mitchell 2002; Parkington 1990). Here, Klasies River Mouth
(Singer and Wymer 1982) is the most important locale on account of its long
stratigraphy that shows the fluctuating fortunes of blades and flake-blades
in the technological repertoire. Furthermore, flake-based assemblages
continue long after blades are widespread; for example the Badegoulian
186 Origins and Revolutions
of western Europe (Hemingway 1980), the Ahmarian of Israel (Bar-Yosef
and Kuhn 1999:329) and the many regional traditions in Australia
As a result, Bar-Yosef and Kuhn believe there is no justification for
linking the appearance of blades to changes either in hominin anatomy
or behavioural capacity. Rather the question is â€˜why so many blades, in so
many places?â€™ (ibid.:331) throughout the Old World after 250,000 years ago.
The question they pose is what problem blades solved that other PCTs
such as Levallois could not? Were they, for example, convergent responses
to recurrent environmental problems?
But their question could equally be applied to Levallois flakes after
300,000 years ago. As Nicolas Rolland (1995:351) has shown, Levallois
PCT emerged independently in several regions of Africa and Europe.
Moreover, this PCT involved different knapping routines to produce the
flake blanks that were secondarily retouched into tools. Neither is it the
case that once found such PCTs then became ubiquitous. The frequency
of Levallois technique can, as Francois Bordes (1953; 1968) famously
showed, vary from assemblage to assemblage within a single locale and
between locales within small regions such as south-west France.
The standard view of blades: preparation, planning and anticipation
The most common answer to Bar-Yosef and Kuhnâ€™s question about the
problems which PCTs and especially blades solved is presented in terms
of organisational planning. Levallois PCT shows some preparation, while
the production of blades points to increased planning and anticipation
of future needs.
Traditionally the appearance of blades has been explained as a con-
sequence of adaptation. They are lighter than flakes (hence the description
leptolithic which was once applied) and therefore suitable for hafting
(Churchill 1993). It is argued that composite tools such as arrows for bows
and spears propelled by spear-throwers (atlatls) represent greater energy
investment so that anticipation and foresight are indicated. This reasoning
is underpinned by the currency of energy and the proxies of time and
distance. It is best shown in archaeologist Lewis Binfordâ€™s classic discussion
of technological responses to the geographical distribution of resources
in terms of curated and expedient solutions (Table 7.8).
Binford (1973; 1979; 1989) analysed the organisational differences
between the two forms of PCT. His focus was on the European Middle
and Upper Palaeolithic and what he brought to their analysis was a model
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 187
figure 7.5. Changing measures of edge efficiency in the Southern Levant
(after Henry 1995:Figure 21.4).
of land use (Binford 1980) and technological organisation (Binford 1977)
inspired by his ethnoarchaeological work in northern Alaska. The first
stage in his argument was to propose distinctive biographies for tools.
These range from expedient (pick it up, use it, throw it away) to curated
(recycle, repair, re-use it). Expedient tools provide the archaeologist
with a fine-grained signature of what went on at a locale. Curated assem-
blages are sampling other places in the region and other times of the
At the heart of his distinction lies the currency of energy (Chapter 3).
The time spent in obtaining raw materials, the skill evident in turning
them into tools and the care they received all pointed to curated tools
as having higher energy inputs. The selective pressure behind such invest-
ment is directed towards more secure returns and the route to this goal
lies (Binford 1989:19) in planning depth, tactical depth and curation
However, the efficiency of blades over flakes has been questioned
by Joanne Tactikos (2003) in a study combining archaeological and experi-
mental assemblages. Her goal was to test Leroi-Gourhanâ€™s (1957) claim
that changes in technological efficiency could be measured by the increase
in the ratio of the amount of cutting edge to the mass of the original stone
nodule (Figure 7.3). In her study Tactikos found little difference in values
between flake and blade PCTs until the Mesolithic 10,000 years ago when
microblades dominated. Donald Henryâ€™s (1995) study of edge production
values in the southern Levant (Figure 7.5) comes to similar conclu-
sions with the only significant increase in values occurring after 20,000
years ago when microblades were also common (Goring-Morris 1987).
188 Origins and Revolutions
Since a currency such as energy provides a measure of the artefact proxy
being studied (Chapter 3) then it is not casting much light on the evolution
of prepared core technologies even though they are embedded in the
archaeological literature as the best thing before sliced bread.
Why blades? A frozen accident or the need to relate?
I have dwelt at length on stone blades for two reasons. Not only are they
present in all three technological movements but archaeologists have
also attached particular significance to them for the study of change. At one
time the possession of blades in a Palaeolithic tool-kit was a passport to
modern human status, equivalent to other symbolic markers such as a chin,
art and the habit of burying the dead. By adopting blades a hominin
could challenge their anatomical identity of being a Neanderthal, like
St Cesaire (Leveque et al. 1993), and stake a claim to be a fully modern
human like ourselves (Chapter 2).
Bar-Yosef and Kuhn (1999:332) answer their own question about
what problems blades solved by identifying a dual shift in the allocation
of technological effort and a change in social networks. With blades
technological effort was â€˜frontloadedâ€™ by putting time into planning
and making composite tools well before any return from the use of tools
in hunting or trapping. The co-ordination and co-operation this required
led to the re-casting of social networks in order to support such a signifi-
cant delayed return on labour. However, they are quick to point out that
complex composite tools are neither a necessary nor sufficient condition
for the proliferation of blades, and they conclude by suggesting that the
preference for blades in western Eurasia was a â€˜frozen accidentâ€™ in the
evolution of technology; a trait fixed by historical circumstances rather
than a measure of adaptive success (1999:333).
So what is my solution to the question of blades Ã€ particularly as the
studies by Tactikos and Henry dispel any idea that the Human Revolution
saw a significant increase in technological efficiency that gave an adaptive
advantage to people who wielded blades?
I would start by challenging the assertion that there was a problem to
be solved in such a rational fashion. Of course people needed to eat, keep
warm, identify with friends and oppose enemies. And of course technology
assisted them and some tools did it more efficiently than others, just as rifles
increase hunting success over bows and arrows. The rational arguments
of the standard view are therefore entirely logical and I commend
them to you. However, my point is that there was no problem because
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 189
the inspiration for a corporal life of instruments and containers, the body,
was never itself a problem that needed a solution. Instead, the body was
a source of symbolic force (Chapter 4) when associated with instruments
and containers. There was never a problem to be solved by an external
technology because it was always integral to that creative, social power.
What we understand by changes in lithic technology are not simply
extra-somatic solutions to a capricious environment. Rather they are
intra-somatic expressions of our social agency that because of enchainment
are simultaneously inter-somatic as well.
The Western understanding of the individual who stops at the skin
was examined earlier (Table 5.4) where I showed that concepts of person-
hood range from distributed, where inter-somatic linkages are constituted
through relationships, to the socially separate individual. Neither are these
identities in any evolutionary order. Just as instruments and containers
have always been proxies for corporal and material culture so too have
hominins constructed their identities along this spectrum from distributed
to separate. Since this is the case we must expect variation and change in the
material proxies of the body that express such identities metaphorically.
The differences in technology, for example the changing emphasis
in instruments and containers (Figure 7.1), has to be viewed in relation
to the creative use of the body as a suite of corporal metaphors for material
outcomes, one aspect of which is identity.
I propose therefore that blades do not come and go to meet needs
where weight and versatility, the Swiss Army Knife effect, and a con-
cept of efficiency or risk minimisation provide an explanation. Instead
explanation is to be sought in the production of many more recognisable
progeny from the parent core. These offspring are what marks the
difference and we acknowledge them through attributes of size, symmetry
and standardisation (Elefanti 2003; Knecht 1997; Marks et al. 2001; White
1989). These technologies were therefore local models (Gudeman 1986:37)
that made sense of things and hence the variation in blade or flake numbers
as identities were constructed by enchaining and accumulating
across landscapes and at locales. Hominins never followed a universal
scheme whereby individuals exercised choice in the face of multiple
goals while constrained by scarce means. They never operated as a corner
shop (Chapter 3) whose business plan was determined by the laws of
For these reasons the significance of blades over flake PCTs lies in
the output with the former of many more standardised blanks. They
out-reproduce in a material sense. Unfortunately, information is difficult
190 Origins and Revolutions
table 7.9. Some major forms of PCT (Bradley 1977; Quintero and Wilke 1995) and an
indication of the number of standardised blanks they produce. Knapping, of course,
produces many other products, usually termed debitage or waste, and these less standard
forms were often used. What I am interested in here is the replication of blanks of specific
Numbers of Numbers of
Flake PCT Blade PCT
Levallois 3Ã€8 Prismatic 125Ã€150
Victoria West 1 Naviform 20Ã€40
Middle Palaeolithic/Earlier Upper Palaeolithic/Later Stone Age/Neolithic
and Middle Stone Age
to gather on this matter (Table 7.9) and necessarily hedged around with
caveats such as the size of raw material and whether unstandardised
knapping products should also be counted. More information is clearly
needed. However, in answer to Bar-Yosef and Kuhnâ€™s question, whatever
problem was being solved by these Levallois and prismatic PCTs it
required, as shown by Table 7.9, significantly more standardised blanks,
or offspring, in the case of the latter.
The prismatic PCT was not chosen because it guaranteed more success-
ful eland or gazelle hunts than the Levallois PCT, but because it produced
material elements for enchainment and accumulation that arose from
fragmenting the stone nodule and consuming, in a social sense, its creative
potential. These were social technologies rather than functional answers
to the spatial distribution of resources and the seasonal vagaries of the food
supply. The exponential jumps in blank production (Table 7.9) now take
on a different significance than that of the production of lightweight,
interchangeable components for a hand-crafted compound technology.
Blades in transition in a social technology
Let me give one final example of how to re-interpret blades using
a relational rather than rational approach. This time it is a classic study
using Palaeolithic data from a survey of the Negev desert undertaken
by archaeologists Anthony Marks and David Freidel (1977). Here the
distinctions between PCTs, flakes and blades are elided at locales such
as Boker Tachtit (Marks 1983) dated to 45,000 years ago where identical
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 191
blanks were, on occasion, produced by different knapping strategies from
the same nodule of raw material. They literally began knapping with
a Middle Palaeolithic technique and finished the job with an Upper
From a detailed technological study of the refitted pieces Marks
and Freidel concluded that, â€˜Blade technology is . . . more efficient relative
to the objectives of the tool makers, the objectives being tool curation
rather than core curationâ€™ (ibid.:153). In other words, Upper Palaeolithic
knappers were indeed extracting more edge per nodule (see Figure 7.5).