Aterian is a Middle
Stone Age (or Middle Palaeolithic) stone tool
industry centered in North Africa, but also possibly found in
the Thar Desert. The earliest
Aterian dates to c. 145,000 years
ago, at the site of Ifri n'Ammar in Morocco. However, most of the
early dates cluster around the beginning of the Last Interglacial,
around 130,000 years ago, when the environment of
North Africa began
to ameliorate. The
Aterian disappeared around 30,000 years ago and it
is currently not thought to have influenced subsequent archaeological
cultures in the region.
Aterian is primarily distinguished through the presence of tanged
or pedunculated tools, and is named after the type site of Bir el
Ater, south of Tébessa. Bifacially-worked, leaf-shaped tools are
also a common artefact type in
Aterian assemblages, and so are
racloirs and Levallois flakes and cores. Items of personal adornment
(pierced and ochred
Nassarius shell beads) are known from at least one
Aterian site, with an age of 82,000 years. The
Aterian is one of
the oldest examples of regional technological diversification,
evidencing significant differentiation to older stone tool industries
in the area, frequently described as Mousterian. The appropriateness
of the term
Mousterian is contested in a North African context,
2 Associated behaviour
3.1 North Africa
4 See also
Aterian nosed point.
Aterian nosed end-scraper.
The technological character of the
Aterian has been debated for almost
a century, but has until recently eluded definition. The problems
defining the industry have related to its research history and the
fact that a number of similarities have been observed between the
Aterian and other North African stone tool industries of the same
date. Levallois reduction is widespread across the whole of North
Africa throughout the Middle Stone Age, and scrapers and denticulates
are ubiquitous. Bifacial foliates moreover represent a huge taxonomic
category and the form and dimension of such foliates associated with
tanged tools is extremely varied. There is also a significant
variation of tanged tools themselves, with various forms representing
both different tool types (e.g., knives, scrapers, points) and the
degree tool resharpening.
More recently, a large-scale study of North African stone tool
Aterian assemblages, indicated that the
traditional concept of stone tool industries is problematic in the
North African Middle Stone Age. Although the term
Stone Age assemblages from
North Africa with tanged tools, the
concept of an
Aterian industry obfuscates other similarities between
tanged tool assemblages and other non-
Aterian North African
assemblages of the same date. For example, bifacial leaf points are
found widely across
North Africa in assemblages that lack tanged tools
and Levallois flakes and cores are near ubiquitous. Instead of
elaborating discrete industries, the findings of the comparative study
North Africa during the Last Interglacial comprised a
network of related technologies whose similarities and differences
correlated with geographical distance and the palaeohydrology of a
Green Sahara. Assemblages with tanged tools may therefore reflect
particular activities involving the use of such tool types, and may
not necessarily reflect a substantively different archaeological
culture to others from the same period in North Africa. The findings
are significant because they suggest that current archaeological
nomenclatures do not reflect the true variability of the
archaeological record of
North Africa during the Middle
Stone Age from
the Last Interglacial, and hints at how early modern humans dispersed
into previously uninhabitable environments. This notwithstanding, the
term still usefully denotes the presence of tanged tools in North
Stone Age assemblages.
Tanged tools persisted in
North Africa until around 30,000 years ago,
with the youngest sites located in Northwest Africa. By this time, the
Aterian lithic industry had long ceased to exist in the rest of North
Africa due to the onset of the Ice Age, which in North Africa,
resulted in hyperarid conditions. Assemblages with tanged tools, 'the
Aterian', therefore have a significant temporal and spatial range.
However, the exact geographical distribution of this lithic industry
is uncertain. The Aterian's spatial range is thought to have existed
North Africa up to the Western Desert, with no
known from the Nile Valley. Possible
Aterian lithic tools have
also been discovered in Middle
Paleolithic deposits in
Oman and the
Aterian is associated with early Homo sapiens at a number of sites
in Morocco. Some studies of comparative skeletal morphology have
suggested that these people exist on the same morphological continuum
Jebel Irhoud specimens, currently thought to date to 160,000
years ago. The 'Aterian' fossils also display similarities to the
earliest modern humans found out of Africa at Skhul and Qafzeh in the
Levant, and they are broadly contemporary to them. Apart from
producing a highly distinctive and sophisticated stone tool
technology, these early North African populations also seem to have
engaged with symbolically constituted material culture, creating what
are amongst the earliest African examples of personal
ornamentation. Such examples of shell 'beads' have been found far
inland, suggesting the presence of long distance social networks.
Studies of the variation and distribution of the
Aterian have also now
suggested that associated populations lived in subdivided populations,
perhaps living most of their lives in relative isolation and
aggregating at particular times to reinforce social ties. Such a
subdivided population structure has also been inferred from the
pattern of variation observed in early African fossils of Homo
Associated faunal studies suggest that the people making the Aterian
exploited coastal resources as well as engaging in hunting. It has
so far been difficult to estimate whether
Aterian populations further
inland were exploiting freshwater resources as well. Studies have
suggested that hafting was widespread, perhaps to maintain flexibility
in the face of strongly seasonal environment with a pronounced dry
season. Scrapers, knives and points all seem to have been hafted,
suggesting a wide range of activities were facilitated by
technological advances. It is probably that plant resources were also
exploited. Although there is no direct evidence from the
plant processing is evidenced in
North Africa from as much as 182,000
Ifri n'Ammar (Morocco)
Dar es Soltan I (Morocco)
El Mnasra (Morocco)
Kharga Oasis (Egypt)
Uan Tabu (Libya)
Oued el Akarit(Tunisia)
Adrar Bous (Niger)
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