The oldest handaxe industry in northwest Europe?

The earliest occupation of Europe is generally seen as having had two main phases. The first one relates to sites with simple core and flake assemblages (Mode 1) with no handaxes or other bifacial technologies (e.g. Pakefield, Orce, Pirro-Nord). The second phase relates to the spread of the Acheulean handaxe technology, seen as having reached Southern Europe around 600,000 years ago (e.g. Arago) to then have spread all over northwest by 500,000 (e.g. Boxgrove). A new site in central France, however, seems to contradict this general view. In a recent paper in PlosONE Moncel et al. claim that the Acheulean at a site in central France dates back to 700,000 years ago, pushing back the age of the earliest Acheulean in northern Europe.

Noira

LCT on a millstone flake with large removals on the upper part and thinning by shorter removals and final retouch of the distal cutting edges and tip
Credit: Moncel et al. 2013. PlosONE

At the site of la Noira lithics are found in association with a slope deposit. The sediments were cryoturbated after hominin occupation and subsequently the layer was sealed by a fluvial deposit. The quartz grains of this fluvial horizon were dated by a large number of ESR dates, resulting in an averaged age of 665 ± 55 ka BP. With this date la Noira becomes the oldest Acheulean in northwest Europe. The archaeological assemblage consists of 340 lithic artefacts but, unfortunately, there are no bones preserved. The lithics include cores, flakes, core tools and large cutting tools (LCT). 90% of these are made on the locally available millstone slabs. The 20 LCT’s illustrate a broad morphological variability, ranging from pieces which are intensely shaped to pieces with just a few removals.

The site of la Noira therefore alters current understandings of the initial peopling of Europe. However, a word of caution is needed with interpreting this date. When applying a double standard deviation, resulting in a 98% probability interval, the layer can date to anywhere between 555,000 and 775,000 years ago. Therefore headlines such as ‘Acheulean at 700,000 years’ may seem a little sensationalist  but overall la Noira does provide interesting food for thought about the dynamics behind the earliest colonisations of Europe.

Reference: Moncel M-H, Despriée J, Voinchet P, Tissoux H, Moreno D, et al. (2013) Early Evidence of Acheulean Settlement in Northwestern Europe – La Noira Site, a 700 000 Year-Old Occupation in the Center of France. PLoS ONE 8(11): e75529.

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