Wednesday 17 April 2024

Earlier and Middle Stone Age tools from Egypt's Eastern Desert.

During the Pleistocene interglacial phases, Hominin and Human groups migrated out of Africa and into Asia through Egypt. For a long while it was presumed that the main route of migration was along the Nile, but in recent years it has become increasingly apparent that the Eastern Desert was also a significant migration route, although little is known about the populations that inhabited this region.

In a paper published in the journal AntiquityAlice Leplongeon of the Center for Archaeological Research of Landscapes at KU Leuven, the Department of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, and Histoire Naturelle de l’Homme Préhistorique and the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle at the Université de Perpignan Via DomitiaMaxence Bailly of the Maison méditerranéenne des sciences de l’homme at Aix Marseille Université, and Gwenola Graff of the Département Homme et Environnement at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, report on a series of new Earlier Stone Age and Middle Stone Age finds in the Wadi Abu Subeira area of the Eastern Desert.

During 2022, Leplongeon et al. mapped 22 new sites, including single artefact sites, sites with scatters of stone tools, and workshops where stone was worked.  All were found either on plateaux tops or plateaux slopes, never in the wadis that separate the plateaux The isolated tools included a large symmetrical handaxe and a cleaver made from coarse ferruginous sandstone. Scatters of artefacts appear to have no pattern to them; the largest being over 500 m long, with an artefact density of between 0 and 10 artefacts per square meter. Tools were made from a variety of rock types, including quartz, silicified wood, silicified sandstone and chert. Of these, only quartz was available in the immediate area, although the other materials could often be found in wadi bottoms or on nearby plateaux. The items were a mixture of Earlier Stone Age tools, such as large axes, and Middle Stone Age tools, such as Levallois cores, probably representing an accumulation of items which had built up over a long period of time, and reflecting several distinct phases of occupation at the same sites, as well as, in places, accumulations of items caused by erosion.

Earlier Stone Age isolated finds: (A) & (B) context and photograph of cleaver L652; (C) & (D) handaxe L672. Leplongeon et al. (2024).

Leplongeon et al. identified five workshops where stone tools were manufactured, each comprising an accumulation of lithic artefacts next to a ferruginous sandstone, although the nature of this sandstone otherwise varied considerably. The highest density of artifacts was found at a workshop on a site referred to as the 'Leaf Plateaux', where there were more than 50 artefacts per meter squared, adjacent to outcrops of fine-grained red and yellow ferruginous sandstone. Blocks of material had apparently been broken from the outcrops, then reduced using a variety of knapping techniques. These include several Levallois cores, as well as blade cores and a few retouched tools including two bifacial points, indicating that this site is of Middle Stone Age origin. 

Middle Stone Age lithic workshop (L618-623). Overview (A) and detail (B) of an area of the workshop; (C) extraction face; (D) Levallois core; (E) bifacial point. Leplongeon et al. (2024).

About 800 m to the east of this Middle Stone Age workshop, an outcrop of a coarser type of ferruginous sandstone, another workshop yielded several large centripetally flaked cores and several handaxes and preforms. All of the artefacts here had a dark desert varnish (indicating age), and appeared attributable to an Acheulean technology. Acheulean sites are rare in northeast Africa, making this a significant discovery.

Earlier Stone Age lithic workshop (L602–603). (A) overview of the site with the two main concentrations of artefacts; (B) detail of area 2; (C) large centripetal core; (D) handaxe preform. Leplongeon et al. (2024).

The presence of two workshops from very different periods shows repeated utilisation of outcrops in the area by different waves of inhabitants, but also that these different peoples with different technologies selected slightly different types of stone as most ideal for their purposes. Notably, workshops and artefact clusters appear to be particularly connected to outcrops of the Nubia Sandstone and in particular the Timsah Formation, suggesting that ancient inhabitants of the Wadi Abu Subeira were capable of following a particular geological formation, apparently for the workable qualities of this material.

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