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Middle Palaeolithic projectile weapon TIPs: a regional and assemblage scale perspective on Neanderthal POINT technologies across Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TIP-N-POINT (Middle Palaeolithic projectile weapon TIPs: a regional and assemblage scale perspective on Neanderthal POINT technologies across Europe)

Reporting period: 2017-11-01 to 2019-10-31

Identifying the origin and widespread use of projectile technologies, one of the most significant technological innovations in human evolution, remains a key challenge of Palaeolithic archaeology. Reconstructions of early weapon technologies do not only allow assessing past hunting strategies, but also the technical and cognitive capacities of Palaeolithic hominins. In this framework, the appearance of stone-tipped spears has been described as a tipping point in human evolution, facilitating an important advancement in prey acquisition through distance hunting. The exact timing of the appearance and subsequent spread of hafted hunting weapons remains a point of contention, but claims for Neanderthal projectile technologies are frequent.

Neanderthals occupied large parts of Europe and western Asia from ca. 300,000 to 40,000 years ago (a period known as the Middle Palaeolithic (MP)). Across this large spatio-temporal range thousands of find spots with stone tools and animal bones have been recovered. Recent zooarchaeological studies and isotope analyses continue to demonstrate that Neanderthals were skilled hunters, with a hunting strategy targeted on prime aged large and medium sized animals. Due to unfavourable preservation conditions remains of organic spears and hafts from Palaeolithic contexts are sparse. Hence, recognising Neanderthal hunting technologies is reliant upon the identification of lithic weapon tips in the archaeological record. So far the predominant focus has been on in-depth analyses of individual points to assess their specific use as a weapon tip. Conversely, TIP-N-POINT aims to contextualise pointed elements within the framework of the entire stone tool assemblage, assessing characteristics used to imply projectile use or hafting across both pointed and non-pointed blanks. TIP-N-POINT further aimed to integrate datasets from various disciplines (zooarchaeology, lithic analysis, dating methods, biomolecular approaches) to provide an enhanced perspective on Neanderthal hunting practices.
TIP-N-POINT focussed on a detailed typo-technological analysis of two stone tool assemblages rich in points from the Neanderthal site of Abri du Maras (southeast France). A series of metric and technological attributes were recorded across all blank types. This includes attributes which have been suggested to be indicative of projectile use, including damage at the tip, thinning to facilitate hafting and edge damage distributions, to name just a few. At an assemblage level we compared the pointed and non-pointed blanks. In both assemblages there is a lot of technological variability and in general attributes indicative of projectile use of hafting were rare. The edges of the artefacts are most damaged in the middle part of the artefacts. Damage at the tips occurs across both pointed and non-pointed blanks and it remains a methodological challenge to assign tip breakage specifically to hunting impact. Secondly, comparing across assemblages some striking differences became apparent. While in both assemblages Neanderthals reduced flint cores to produce points, in one of the assemblage they further retouched the edges of the points, while in the other assemblage they were used without further modification. For the former assemblage we studied a museum collection from an old excavations and to maximize the data we could obtain from this assemblage we teamed up with other scientists at MPI-EVA. S. Talamo obtained new radiocarbon dates for the assemblage while V. Sinet-Mathiot applied collagen fingerprinting (ZooMS) to taxonomically identify small bone fragments which were could not be identified to species based on morphology alone. This showed that the retouched points were associated with a diverse spectra of animals (bovids, equids and cervids). Assessing the links between lithic variability and faunal diversity remains a key avenue for further research. At a broader regional scale it is clear that points are not ubiquitously present in the Neanderthal archaeological record in western Europe and hunting with stone-tipped spears was not practiced by all Neanderthal groups. Understanding the reasons behind the presence or absence of lithic weapon tips in an archaeological assemblage, during a specific time slice or geographic region remains a major challenge in Neanderthal archaeology.

The results of this project are detailed in a series of papers in open-access peer-reviewed journals (published, in press, in preparation) and have also been presented at various international conferences. The researcher also ran a virtual seminar series on Neanderthal hunting, which was targeted at both academics and the general public. All talks are available online (https://neanderthalseminars.wixsite.com/home). On this website an activity pack for kids on the topic of Neanderthal hunting which was created as part of this project is also freely available for download.
Insights into Neanderthal behaviour are crucial for understanding the processes underlying human evolution and especially the florescence of our own species. New discoveries and new methods are constantly refining our view on Neanderthals and many aspects of their behaviour, including how they hunted animals, remains unclear. Differences in hunting strategies have been claimed as one of the reason why modern humans successfully spread across the world. An improvement in hunting strategy, e.g. throwing spears, the use of spear throwers or even bow and arrow technology, would have facilitated a diversity in diet. Understanding the way Neanderthals hunted is an important puzzle piece in understanding to which extent behavioural differences played a role in the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans. Furthermore, understanding regional differences in Neanderthal behaviour, acknowledging that they were doing different things at different times in different regions, is of importance to understand their behavioural flexibility which can help us understand how they responded to the arrival of modern humans into Europe ca. 45,000 years ago.

TIP-N-POINT is just a first step in comparing modifications linked with hafting or projectile use across entire stone tool assemblages. This assemblage level methodology can be applied to other Middle Palaeolithic assemblages to assess if the pointed blanks were produced and treated differently than the rest of the stone tools. Even though Neanderthal assemblages rich in points are sparse in western Europe there is scope for further applications to other Neanderthal sites and for further methodological development (including geometric morphometrics and GIS based assessments of edge damage distributions). Moreover the multidisciplinary approach, integrating lithic, faunal and chronological analyses, which was applied in TIP-N-POINT to the site of Abri du Maras
demonstrated the potential of such an integrated multi-methodological approach to maximise the behavioural information that can still be recovered from existing museum collections.
virtual seminar series on Neanderthal hunting
examples of points with ventral retouch from Abri du Maras layer 1
Neanderthal activity pack for kids