Varying levels of skill in biface production at Boxgrove?

New research, by Stout et al in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is seeking to challenge the idea of conservatism within the Acheulean. The authors focus exclusively on the large handaxe record from the British Lower Palaeolithic site of Boxgrove. They utilise experimental knappers with varying levels of experience (expert, novice, inexperienced) and compare their knapping results with handaxes recovered from the site. More specifically the data is used to investigate deliberate platform preparation, and hence attempts to assess skill levels amongst these different groups. The research has highlighted that the platform preparation techniques in the expert group as well as in the Boxgrove sample produced thinner flakes than these within the novice and inexperienced group. The authors argue that platform preparation is a difficult technique to master but allows highly skilled knappers to remove relatively thin flakes.

In addition, the authors make another valid point regarding the Boxgrove handaxes. Whilst artefacts from this site are considered to be the product of highly skilled knappers (see also Iovita and McPherron, 2011) this ignores, to a degree, the presence of incomplete or atypical handaxes from the site.  Nevertheless, this analysis of the debitage confirms the skill and experience of the tool makers at Boxgrove, though it is unclear which role the atypical and incomplete specimens played.

The final section of the paper attempts to tie this experimental and archaeological data into a broader framework related to the evolution of cognitive capacity by hominins within the Acheulean. The authors argue that the development, and implementation, of  technological functions such as platform preparation increases the hierarchical depth of tool production. The complexities required to transmit the technique of platform preparation and late Acheulean bifacial thinning, it is argued, could be used to explain aspects of regional variation during the Middle Pleistocene.

Full reference:

Stout, D., Apel, J., Commander, J., Roberts, M. 2014. Late Acheulean technology and cognition at Boxgrove, UK. Journal of Archaeological Science, 41: 576-590.

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