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Céline Thiébaut, Émille Claud et Sandrine Costamagno
Cet article est une traduction de :
Introduction [fr]

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1The Middle Palaeolithic in Western Europe is characterized by a mosaic of lithic industries, with sometimes different techno-economic characteristics. Since its identification by De Mortillet in 1872, the Mousterian itself appeared to be a complex group comprised of diverse industries. In 1948, following the works of Boulon (1907) and Peyrony (1930), Bordes unveiled a new method for studying lithic assemblages and proposed a classification of the industries according to qualitative criteria, determining the creation of a typology of the various tools, and quantitative criteria, which corresponded to the proportion of each of the types present within an industry. Typological analysis of several reference archaeological assemblages thus led to the identification of five principal facies in Western Europe:

  • the Quina Mousterian (Bordes, Bourgon, 1951);

  • the Ferrassie Mousterian (Bordes, Bourgon, 1951) ;

  • the Typical Mousterian (Peyrony, 1930; Bordes, 1948);

  • the Mousterian of Acheulian Tradition, or MTA (Peyrony, 1930; Bordes, 1948);

  • the Denticulate Mousterian (Bordes, Bourgon, 1951; Bordes, 1953a).

2Regional variants have also been identified, such as the Vasconian (Bordes, 1953a), the Asinipodian (Bordes, 1981) and the Pontinian (Blanc, 1937; Taschini, 1979).

3Various hypotheses have been proposed to explain the variability of Middle Palaeolithic stone tool industries. This has been interpreted as a reflection of cultural groups (Bordes, 1961b, 1973; Bordes, de Sonneville‑Bordes, 1970), or as so many socio-economic expressions of Neanderthal groups. The different tool types have also been thought to correspond to a specific activity (Binford, Binford, 1966; Binford, 1973). For Mellars, typological assemblages represent the various phases of chronological evolution, with the various Mousterian groups succeeding to each other over time (Mellars, 1969, 1986). For Rolland, they were directly related to the environment and the climate (Rolland, 1981, 1990), and the type of settlement (Rolland, 2001). These different hypotheses have been discussed, and sometimes called into question, but none has been retained. It seems reasonable to imagine that the diversity of Middle Palaeolithic industries was not the result of a single factor (Jaubert, 1994; Otte, 1996; Thiébaut et al., 2014). The meaning of this diversity in industries dated to the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe is therefore still very much a subject of debate.

4For the last thirty years or so, the analytical method proposed by Bordes has seemed too reductive for describing Middle Palaeolithic industries, as this approach does not enable us to understand certain techno-economic behaviours related to site functions, for example, or the potential technical choices made by Middle Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers. It also leaves out the large technological assemblages from the North of France which are almost completely devoid of retouched tools.

5Following the progress made in lithic technology and a better understanding of the gestures made and the knapping methods conceptualized by Middle Palaeolithic knappers, numerous studies attempted to characterize, from a technological point of view, the groups proposed by Bordes; including the Quina Mousterian (Bourguignon, 1997; Turq, 2000; Slimak, 2004), the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition (Soressi, 2002), the Denticulate Mousterian (Thiébaut, 2005, 2007b, 2010) or the Vasconian (Deschamps, 2014). In the wake of these works, some syntheses were proposed and constituted an appraisal of what these authors called the technocomplexes of the Middle Palaeolithic (Delagnes, Meignen, 2006; Delagnes et al., 2007). The term “technocomplex” was defined as “all of the knowledge and practices which apply to the chaînes opératoires of lithic production and which are shared by an ensemble of human groups” (Delagnes et al., 2007: 214 [translated from the original French]). A technocomplex is thus characterized by the recurrence of features and of technical knowledge shared by several human groups in distinct places, or at least identified in different assemblages. A technocomplex cannot, therefore, be defined based on a single assemblage. As regards technical knowledge, this is understood through the identification of preferred means of production, i.e., the knapping methods employed and the tool types produced.

6As a result, the definition of the term “technocomplex” is absolutely clear. However, the precise characteristics of the various Middle Palaeolithic technocomplexes remain, on the whole, rather hazy and appear to echo Bordes’ earlier facies, such as the Denticulate or Discoidal-Denticulate Mousterian, the Ferrassie, the Quina or the Mousterian of Acheulean Transitation (MTA) (Delagnes et al., 2007; Jaubert et al., 2011). The MTA technocomplex, in particular, is characterized by the use of a large diversity of debitage concepts and methods (Soressi, 2002), which is incompatible with the very definition of a technocomplex. Others, such as the “Discoidal-Denticulate”, appear to be so restricted that they can only be illustrated by a small number of assemblages, which are disconnected from a group that may be larger that we can relate to a Discoidal debitage sensu stricto or lato (Mourre, 2003a; Thiébaut, 2013). While we do not have an immediate response to the archaeological reality of the technocomplexes, it nevertheless seems too limiting to examine the behaviours of Neanderthals through the lens of the technocomplexes proposed by some researchers for ease of sorting.

7Ethnographic studies show that the organization of current and recent hunter-gatherer societies is largely dependent on both climatic and even seasonal fluctuations, and the ethology of prey animal species (see in particular Kropotkine, 1902; Mauss, 1950; Cashdan, 2001; Collard, Folley, 2002). For instance, in harsh climatic contexts, the seasonality of activities may be very pronounced (Victor, Robert‑Lamblin, 1989). Similarly, Testart, in his work entitled Essai sur les fondements de la division sexuelle du travail chez les chasseurs‑cueilleurs (‘Essay on the foundation of the sexual division of labor amongst hunter-gatherers’), underlines that the social organization of activities is dependent on the taboos and beliefs of the group, but also on its economic organization, which depends, in turn, on the types of resources, which are dominant in the economic system of hunter-gatherer populations (see in particular Testart, 1986, 2014 for a summary). According to the ethnographic data, it seems that while cultural traditions dictate a very large number of technical features, environmental and climatic conditions also play an important role in the economic and social organization of human groups and consequently in the technical behaviours of hunter-gatherers. Neanderthal societies must be considered as complex systems whose socio-economic organization and technical responses were influenced by multiple factors, which were interconnected within one or several systems that remain to be characterized (figure 1).

8In our research program, we decided not to begin with pre-established technical groups or technocomplexes, but rather with technical features that were related to each level studied, whether these features pertained to lithic technology (debitage method and concept, blanks produced and tool types, mode of use) or to the techniques used and the gestures made during the processing of animal and plant resources. We proposed to understand stone tool production as responses to specific needs and precise objectives linked with a local environment. These needs are identified through the reconstruction of activities carried out at a given location. Once the objectives are identified, it is then possible to examine the influence of technical traditions on stone tool production, by way of the means preferred by Neanderthal groups for a given activity.

Figure 1 - Interconnected elements that influence stone tool production

Figure 1 - Interconnected elements that influence stone tool production

CAD: C. Thiébaut

9We took the decision to explore the activities carried out by Neanderthal groups at various sites in the south-west of Western Europe, by attempting to identify the techniques used (i.e. the tool used and the gestures made) and to demonstrate the potential existence of skill or different traditions between the groups studied. With this aim, our approach focused for the most part on the wear-traces present on the lithic toolkit and the faunal remains (micro- and macro‑wear on the edges linked with use, butchery cutmarks on the bones, impacts from projectiles, evidence of percussion, …), which are direct evidence for the activities conducted by Neanderthal groups. This identification required the creation of a reference collection of wear-traces resulting from activities carried out, by means of replicas of prehistoric objects. In order to associate them with a particular activity or action, we therefore, initially, created a reference collection of wear-traces, which enabled us to reconstruct all of the stages of two interacting chaînes opératoires; one linked with the procurement and processing of plant materials, and one that reconstructs the various stages of procurement and processing of an animal carcass. The experimental approach was therefore at the heart of the PCR.

10The PCR was designed with various themes (see our website:, which we fi in Part I, dedicated to the experimental reference collection. The archaeological results, presented in Part II, were the subject of a reconstruction that combined zooarchaeological, use-wear and technological data, favouring a dynamic interpretation of the various modes of procurement and processing of wood materials (Part II, chapter 4.2) and animal resources (Part II, chapter 4.3) adopted by Neanderthal groups. This reconstruction enables us to investigate the potential links between function and tool types (Part II, chapter 4.4) in addition to an interpretive approach in terms of site functions and on the mobility of human groups (Part II, chapter 4.5). This final discussion feeds into the current debate surrounding the existence of technical traditions within Middle Palaeolithic technical groups.

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Titre Figure 1 - Interconnected elements that influence stone tool production
Crédits CAD: C. Thiébaut
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Céline Thiébaut, Émille Claud et Sandrine Costamagno, « Introduction », Palethnologie [En ligne], 10 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2019, consulté le 16 décembre 2019. URL :

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Céline Thiébaut

University Toulouse Jean Jaurès, UMR 5608 – Traces

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Émille Claud

University of Bordeaux, UMR 5199 – Pacea / INRAP

Sandrine Costamagno

University Toulouse Jean Jaurès / CNRS, UMR 5608 – Traces

Articles du même auteur

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Palethnologie est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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