Digging deeper into the earliest Acheulean

I've been ranting on Twitter all day about the new paper on the "earliest Acheulean" by Christopher Lepre and colleagues Lepre:Acheulean:2011, published in Nature today. The first time I read through the paper, I really thought they'd miffed it. I mean, really, they published a paper on the earliest Acheulean artifacts without putting a picture of them in the paper.

What actually bothered me more was the lack of any discussion at all about why the assemblage is Acheulean as opposed to, say, Developed Oldowan. The word Oldowan appears only in the context of saying that many localities within the same Kokiselei site complex have only Oldowan-typical assemblages. This started bothering me less as I ran through the citations to earlier work on the Kokilelei localities. But that raised another point of irritation: This Acheulean locality was briefly described already, a long time ago. Why is this news? And given that both descriptions are so superficial, where's the fuller account?

I had to stop and think about why I was finding this all so irritating. I mean, it's a paper about dating an archaeological locality. It's a perfectly good paper about dating an archaeological locality, full of details about the local geology, methods of sampling and analysis. My reactions weren't a criticism of the paper, really -- although if you're going to write a high-profile paper about your site, maybe you should actually feature the archaeology of the site?

I've been digging through references all afternoon, trying to get straight exactly why this paper doesn't mention the Developed Oldowan at all. I'm not saying I favor the Developed Oldowan -- just that we deserve some kind of thoughtful review of what constitutes an "earliest Acheulean" site. Is it a purely typological definition based on the presence of bifaces made on large flakes, or is there something more here? That's going to take me a bit longer to review, so I'll just report on some of what I found.

This isn't news. Hélène Roche and colleagues reported on this locality in 2003, in Comptes Rendus Roche:Nachukui:2003, including a date range between 1.79 and 1.65 million years ago. They describe it as "without doubt, one of the oldest Acheulean assemblages in Africa." That's right, if you can read French, you're eight years ahead of Nature.

This paper adds precision to the earlier estimate, and it's really important to do this well. But if you've been reading about the archaeology of Plio-Pleistocene Africa, finding a date of 1.76 million years for this locality with an Acheulean assemblage is totally expected.

Roche and colleagues Roche:Nachukui:2003 provided only a short description of the KS4 assemblage. Even so, it's more than provided in the current paper by Lepre and colleagues Lepre:Acheulean:2011. Here is what the current paper includes about the assemblage:

The KS4 assemblage (Supplementary Fig. 2) is characterized by the presence of pick-like tools with a trihedral or quadrangular section, unifacially or bifacially shaped crude hand-axes, and a few cores and flakes, all derived from the same mudstone bed. A single subsurface, in situ origin for KS4 is ensured by excavations at the main test trench that recovered several spectacular sets of refitted lithic artefacts (Supplementary Fig. 3). To the exception of a few cores made on basalt, the rest of the assemblage has been knapped from large cobbles or tabular clasts of locally available aphiric phonolite.

The supplementary information does include photos of three bifacial artifacts and two refits. But there is no technical analysis of the artifacts beyond the paragraph above. There's not even a summary of the number of artifacts found at the site.

Roche and colleagues added more details (my translation of the French):

Kokiselei 4 is a highly eroded site in which a series of more or less extensive trenches (total 19 m2) were dug. Among these only one (KS4A) yielded in situ artifacts in sufficient numbers to form an archaeological horizon, with a vertical dispersion limited to only fifteen centimeters, and no faunal remains. Some objects, distributed in a more diffuse fashion, were found in two other test pits (KS4B and KS4C); these are lower in elevation than the main horizon. In parallel to the test pits, a systematic surface collection across 104 m2 (metric grid) was performed, which comprises the total sample of lithic material from KS4 (n = 167). It is characterized by robust, rough pieces of varying sizes, often very large, some scrapers and notches made on cobbles or flakes, by very large cores, by proto-bifaces or bifaces, and by picks with a trihedral section. Two thirds of the proto-bifaces or bifaces are manufactured on oblong pebbles, relatively flat, some quite large, whole or broken into two in the middle according to the major axis and very few retouched. Only a few are free of cortex and / or shaped enough to be called bifaces, the proto-bifaces in turn are made more coarsely, as if the concept of an elongated shape and sharp point was well integrated, but the operating scheme was inadequately implemented. All the tools characterizing a very early Acheulian are present, and it is to this cultural period that we attribute KS4.

Roche and colleagues also described the other localities, all Oldowan, at a similar superficial level of detail. The conclusion that Acheulean and Oldowan were two industries overlapping at the same time in this area was suggested in that paper.

That, obviously, leads to the real scientific story here. How could there be two different stone tool traditions overlapping across some fairly large area for more than 300,000 years? If we count Developed Oldowan, that makes three. Some people would count two Developed Oldowans A and B!

I'm inclined to think that the scenario is false. These really aren't distinct cultural traditions. Archaeologists have created definitions of archaeological assemblages, and the definitions have changed over time. Initially the definitions were entirely typological -- you have a handaxe, you've got Acheulean. Over time, the definitions have become less typological and more inclusive of technical elements -- you make bifacial artifacts on very large flakes, you've got Acheulean. But these technical categories are not unique or necessarily difficult to invent, and may have been repeatedly invented in different groups, just in the way that different groups of chimpanzees have invented nutcracking and termite fishing methods. For these early assemblages, we don't have any way of telling who made what -- the only hominin fossils from Kokilelei, for example, are teeth of A. boisei. We don't know how many different kinds of hominins there were. Maybe there was only one.

Early Homo is a bundle of mysteries, in other words, and the archaeology doesn't help. Can we make any sense of the development of early stone tool technology, from its initial beginnings to the handaxe-dominated assemblages? What does it mean that both Oldowan-like and Acheulean-like industries dispersed widely throughout the Old World? This is a really interesting scientific problem, involving information transfer, emergent sets of behaviors, invention and creativity, and their effects on survival.

The paper by Lepre and colleagues discusses the problem of Oldowan and Acheulean coexistence briefly, reviewing the idea that Homo erectus may be tied to Acheulean, leaving open the question of whether more than one toolmaking species existed before 1.5 million years ago. The paper is noncommittal, but I would frame the question very differently. It's self-evident that Acheulean cannot have been a culture, because no human or animal culture exhibits its spatial and temporal properties -- appearing episodically across three continents over a span of 1.5 million years. The real question is whether we can make sense of the many different Acheuleans, and whether other Oldowans (possibly Developed Oldowans) might have similar heterogeneity. Asking whether an Oldowan-bearing population in Africa first dispersed to Dmanisi is begging the question.

Finding these answers is surely a lot more interesting than what the press has done with this article.

That's probably what irritates the the most about this: how boring the article and reporting seem to make this topic. When I did the Google News search this afternoon, there are no fewer than 165 news articles worldwide. Nature made its cover image this week a photo of one of the bifaces. You can't get much more of a press push than that for an archaeology story. None of the stories go beyond the very simple "oldest Acheulean" story. Now, I'm used to seeing the "oldest X" storyline a lot in paleoanthropology, it's a perennial favorite of journalists who can't think of anything more interesting to write. But in this case, it's the worst angle -- because it's the part that isn't actually news!