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The Western European Acheulian Project

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - WEAP (The Western European Acheulian Project)

Reporting period: 2017-09-01 to 2019-08-31

The Western European Acheulean Project (WEAP) has tried to understand the occupational pattern of western Europe during the Middle Pleistocene from 700,000 to 300,000 years ago through the study of handaxe technology and morphology in Spain, France and Britain. It is in western Europe that the earliest handaxe sites occur (from c. 700,000 years ago), which recent research shows may be due to the more oceanic climate compared to eastern Europe Through this period there are repeated changes in climate with glaciations and interglacials on an approximately 100,000 year cycle. For this reason northern Europe was frequently depopulated and then recolonized probably from source areas in southern France and Iberia. These regions should therefore have evidence of the cultural links between north and south. From 1 million to 700,000 years ago there seem to have been brief incursions by pioneering populations into north-west Europe, but by 600,000 occupation seems to have been more sustained with an increasing number of sites and larger assemblages. Alongside handaxe production there is also the first evidence of other technologies such as wood-working, bone tool manufacture, with possibly clothing, shelters and fire-use. Fire would have been critical for survival in northern latitudes and was the beginning of adaptation to cold, long winters. Understanding of the driving forces and mechanisms for periodic occupation and retreat is important for human evolution and adaptation to cooler climates.

Although there has been much research and new sites excavated over the last 20 years, there has been little integration between the work in Spain, Britain and France. In addition, there are different systems of lithic analysis, making it difficult to compare stone tool assemblages. The principle aim of the project has been to create an integrated methodology, using the best aspects of each system of recording. The objective has been to use this methodology in conjunction with new 3D scanning technology and robust statistical analysis to improve understanding of behavioural patterns in order to build models of human dispersals from south-west to north-west Europe.
The initial work was to bring together the different systems of lithic analysis as used in Spain, France and Britain. There were not only problems of language, but also different philosophical foundations, which has resulted in different meanings for the same terms. To resolve this problem an initial proposed method was produced drawing together the best aspects of each approach, which was then pre-circulated for discussion, prior to a workshop to discuss and iron-out any issues. This has led to a successful system of analysis, which was subsequently used in the handaxe analyses for the project.

For the analyses 10 sites were selected from Spain (Galería and TD10.1 of Gran Dolina, both in Atapuerca), France (La Noira, Cagny la Garenne, Menez Dregan and Saint Pierre les-Elbeuf) and Britain (Brandon Fields, Boxgrove, Elveden and Swanscombe), which were representative for the time period from c. 700,000 to 300,000 years ago. The British sites were all curated at the British Museum, while for the French sites secondment to Paris at Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle. Additional trips were made to Rennes and Amiens for further collection study. Assemblages from the Spanish site of Atapuerca had already been achieved as part of the PhD of the PI, although additional information was needed to conform to the new system of analysis.

The technological analyses were complemented by the use of structured light scanning with training at Bradford University. The 3D models were used to extract metrical information as well as to apply the geometric morphometrics methodology to analyse the shape of tools. The resulting datasets required robust statistical analysis, with training at IPHES in Tarragona.

The results show how handaxe morphology can be used to show common underlying connections between regions, or on occasion semi-independent development perhaps caused by isolation:
- The earliest Acheulean occupation has fewer sites, perhaps reflecting smaller, isolated populations. There seems to be a technological shift between La Noira (at c. 700,000 years ago) and Brandon Fields (at c. 600,000 years ago), but with a clear standardisation of tool types at each site.
- There is a further technological transition between 500,000 and 400,000 years ago, where larger populations seem to be occupying western Europe. Although there is clear adaptation to different raw materials and local environments, which produce morphological differences, there is still a common underlying technological pattern.
- Atapuerca, Menez Dregan and in some cases Cagny la Garenne and Swanscombe, share technological and morphometrical features between them, showing a pattern of uniformity along the Atlantic coast at about 400,000 years ago.

The project has been disseminated through three papers with one more in preparation. In addition, the new method and the preliminary results have been presented in 12 International conferences and 2 invited seminars. In addition, there has been a final Conference: 'Humans in Transition, the occupation of Western Europe, 600-400ka', British Museum 18th October 2019. There were 12 papers from specialists from Britain, France and Spain, covering changing environments, human evolution and the stone tool assemblages, which focused on better understanding of the dynamics of the human occupation of Western Europe during this period.
There have been two main outcomes from the results of the work. The first has been the successful production of a common system of stone tool analysis between workers in Spain, France and Britain, which has been tested on a variety of assemblages and approved by leading specialists through wide dissemination. It promises to have an impact in the development of Lower Palaeolithic studies in Europe for decades to come. Furthermore it is an example to other disciplines where differences in approach have hindered study, but shows that common systems of analysis can be achieved.

The second outcome is the application of the new system to a selection of handaxe assemblages in western Europe, which show potential links in material culture between different areas. With this new method it has been possible to detect regional patterns, but also common aspects between sites. With the exception of La Noira, the results in France and Spain suggest continuity in the occupation, by contrast to Britain where geography (isolation) and climate had a greater impact on occupation.

The project has also attracted wide interest by non-specialist audiences. A further public conference has been held at the British Museum on the 19th October 2019, which attracted 460 participants. The project website (hhtps://weap.es) has had 20,000 hits, with wide interest through social media. Collectively, it shows the wide interest in deep history and the fundamental question of what it means to be human.
Example of Handaxe from Elveden (UK)
Example of Handaxe from Swanscombe site (UK)
Example of Handaxe from La Noira, Upper Levels (France)
Scanning process at Frank House, British Museum
P. García-Medrano with extended materials from Brandon Fields at Franks House, British Museum
1st Meeting at British Museum. P. García-Medrano with N. Ashton, M.H. Moncel and A. Ollé