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Mousterian Culture

Middle Paleolithic tool industry
Levallois Technique, Mode 3
technology by Neanderthals

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Levallois projectile points, made during the Mousterian Culture
Levallois points from Beuzeville, France. The Levallois technique of flint knapping, part of the Mousterian stone tool industry, was developed by Neanderthals around 250,000 BC, during the Middle Paleolithic. Image by Didier Descouens. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Levallois-Mousterian Culture

Mousterian culture is a style of stone tools (a tool industry), introduced primarily by Neanderthals in Europe, and by the archaic variant of Homo sapiens in North Africa and West Asia.

It is closely associated with the Levalloisian flint-knapping technique, and is often described as the Levallois-Mousterian.

The culture, named after Le Moustier in the French Dordogne, lasted roughly from 300,000 to 45,000 BC, and is coterminous with the Middle Paleolithic.

For a slightly older Mousterian site, see La Micoque in the Vézère valley of the Dordogne.

Chronology

During the Stone Age, tool cultures evolved as follows:

Note: Pure Mousterian culture runs from roughly 160,000 to 40,000 BC.

For Upper Paleolithic tool industries, see: History of Stone Tools.

Mousterian Tool Technology

According to the classification system devised by British archaeologist Grahame Clark (1907-95), the Mousterian was a Mode 3 technology.

It was seen by many archaeologists as marking a clean break from the older Mode 2 tools of the Acheulean industry, although recent analysis suggests that Levallois-Mousterian technology may owe a great deal to Acheulean methodology.

A study in Kenya, for example, looked at a sequence of Acheulean and Middle Stone Age hominin sites between 500,000 and 200,000 BC, and concluded that Levallois techniques emerged out of local Acheulean technologies in piecemeal fashion.

The Mousterian was in turn superceded by the Mode 4 technologies of the Aurignacian: the first culture introduced exclusively by modern humans, like Cro-Magnons.

Mousterian Toolkit

The tool style was named after the type-site of Le Moustier, a shallow cave complex in the Vézère valley of the French Dordogne.

Diagnostic tools of the Mousterian toolkit include:

Many of the flake tools were produced using the Levallois flint-knapping technique.

Whereas previously, flakes were knapped from cores and then reworked, the Levalloisian method was to carefully shape the core before striking it, in order to dislodge a perfectly shaped flake.

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Cognitive Advance

Paleoanthropologists consider that because the tool-maker needed to have a clear idea (in advance), of the shape of the intended tool, it revealed the structured and goal-oriented flaking process of the Mousterian toolmaker, and signalled a key cognitive advance over Acheulean toolmaking.

Neanderthals versus Moderns

Although first identified in Western Europe, the Mousterian tool industry spread throughout Europe, through the Middle East and even into Northern Africa.

Neanderthals dominated tool-making in Europe, but later overlapped with early H. sapiens in the Levant, at which point the issue of 'who made which tools?' becomes muddled.

The story of Neanderthal emergence, dominance and - ultimately - displacement by Cro-Magnons, makes the Middle Paleolithic a key period in the evolution of early humans, in terms of both technological and cultural innovation.

Mousterian Cave Art

There is little if any paleolithic art in Mousterian caves. Neanderthal communities would not have been large enough to invest the labour and resources needed, even if Michelangelo had arrived by time machine.

One exception is La Roche-Cotard Cave engravings - finger-drawn images in soft limestone. Dated to 55,000 BC they are the world's oldest Neanderthal engravings.

Tools As Art

We are not encouraged to view tools as prehistoric art, but is this fair?

After all, measuring cultural advancement is a difficult process, not least because the adjudicator is rarely free of bias.

For instance, when we judge the cultural sophistication of early hominins like H. neanderthalensis, we're not likely to rank a small sharp stone tool in the same category as the dramatic cave painting at Lascaux, or the prehistoric sculpture at Cap Blanc.

True, tools aren't high art, but they are a vital part of Stone Age culture, without which we might still be living in caves!

The truth is, a huge amount of thought, creativity, dexterity and physical effort - as well as communal resources - went into the invention, testing and production of tools during the Lower and Middle Paleolithic.

The art of toolmaking was literally a life-saver for many Stone Age communities, and far more important - culturally - than cave art, however beautiful.

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Famous Mousterian Sites

The best-known paleolithic caves found to contain Mousterian toolkits, include:

Creswell Crags and Lynford Quarry (UK); Bruniquel Cave, La Ferrassie and Arcy-sur-Cure (France); Cueva del Boquete and Santimamiñe Cave (Spain); Divje Babe I (Slovenia); Krapina Cave, Velika pećina, Veternica, Mujina pećina and Vindija Cave (Croatia); Gorham's Cave and Devil's Tower rock shelter (Gibraltar); Haua Fteah (Libya); Jebel Irhoud (Morocco); Azykh Cave (Azerbaijan); Teshik-Tash (Uzbekistan); and Denisova Cave (Siberia).

Neanderthal Artistry

One final note. Lest Neanderthals be considered incapable of artistic thought, here is a short selection of their artist offerings from the Middle Paleolithic.

For more about the chronology of Stone Age tools and toolmaking, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "In Search of the Neanderthals." Stringer, Clive; Gamble, Clive (1993). Thames and Hudson. p. 159. ISBN 978-0500278079.
(2) "A Dictionary of Archaeology." Ian Shaw, Robert Jameson, ed. (2008). John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9780470751961.
(3) "Why Levallois? A Morphometric Comparison of Experimental ‘Preferential’ Levallois Flakes versus Debitage Flakes." Metin I. Eren,Stephen J. Lycett. PLos ONE January 23, 2012. 7(1): e29273.
(4) "The Missing Mousterian". Dibble, Harold L.; McPherron, Shannon P. (October 2006). Current Anthropology. 47 (5): 777–803.
(5) "The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age". Richter, Daniel et al; (2017-06-07). Nature. 546 (7657): 293–296.

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