A cultural Perspective on the Acheuleans

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A Cultural Perspective on the Acheuleans


  • Comparing and integrating sites with no direct connection one to another,

  • No extant complete site systems

  • Integrating results for sites distributed over wide geographical

  • Integrating results for sites occurring within a very long period of time

  • Perspective tied necessarily to stone tool technology

Overview of Acheulean

  • Sites and Settlement Organization

  • Subsistence Practices

  • Organization of Technology

  • Man-Land Relations

  • Demography

Site Type and Architecture

  • Sites and Structures:

  • Terra Amata (France): Beach settlement with a series of possible oval huts ( 8-16m long, 4-6.5m wide). Two central ridge pole supports, thinner posts around perimeter (controversial)

  • Lazaret Cave (France): Cave site with central hearth, defined work areas, and swept sleeping areas. Lean-to like structure against interior cave wall. Much flint debitage outside structure, but little within

Terra Amata Hut

Lazaret Cave Lean-To

Site Type and Architecture

  • Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania): Stone circles in Bed I

  • Torralba-Ambrona (Spain): Linear arrangement of mammoth bone and stones suggestive of temporary windbreaks.

Olduvai Bed 1 Stone Circles

Acheulean Technology

  • Stone tool technology based on large bifaces (handaxes) and a well developed assortment of flake tool types.

  • Wood tools

  • Well made throwing spears (Hoxne, Schöningen)

  • Wood levers for manipulating carcasses (Torralba)

  • Fire

Early Acheulean

Middle Acheulean

Late Acheulean

Specialized Stone Working Sites

  • Cagny-la Garenne (France):

  • Manufacturing site for handaxes and flake tools, including ‘rough outs and blanks’

  • More than 540 bifaces recovered, also numerous identifiable types of flake tools

  • Use of Levallois technique

  • Atelier Commont (France):

  • Large assemblage of handaxes, exhibiting a variety of forms

  • Rich and well developed flake industry

Site Seasonality

  • Season of Occupation (frequent, thin occupation layers suggest brief and repeated site use) :

  • Terra Amata: Late Spring, Early Summer

  • Lazaret Cave: Late Autumn to Late Spring

  • Torralba-Ambrona: Spring and/or Autumn


  • Evidence for economies based on big game hunting:

  • Torralba-Ambrona: Elephant ambush site

  • Olorgesailie (Africa): Baboon kill site

  • Boxgrove Quarry: Rhinoceros butchering site

  • Although some concentration on particular species:

  • Spectrum of large mammals utilized: Hippo, bovids, pigs, rhino

  • Utilization of non-mammals: birds, reptiles

Torralba and Ambrona

  • Ambush point along Ambrona Valley, along seasonal migration route for elephants

  • Site divided into discrete functional areas

  • Primary Kill Site:

  • Marsh edge

  • Larger animals stripped of meat on one side, then flipped over using wood levers

  • Smaller animals cut up into large chunks and transported to processing stations

  • Few stone tools found here, although wood spears and levers were recovered

  • Primary Processing Areas

  • Located back from marsh edge

  • Additional dismemberment performed here

  • Bone heavily broken up (marrow extraction?)

  • Complementary of bone here and missing from kill area (ribs, long bones, scapulae, pelvi, skulls (broken in for brain extraction)

  • Secondary Processing Areas

  • Area with most heavily broken up bone

  • Most of the recovered flake tools

  • Area with hearths and temporary structures

Torralba and Ambrona

  • Now demonstrated that Torralba and Ambrona Sites were not contemporary.

  • Some sorting of bone elements at Ambrona may be the result of taphonomic processes and not human activity


  • Plant Utilization:

  • Terra Amata: Nuts and plant seeds

  • Kalambo Falls (Africa): various wild fruits

  • Ethnographic expectations:

  • considerable reliance on gathered foods

  • less reliance in more northerly latitudes (or near to ice front)

  • Possible evidence for Storage:

  • extensive processing at Torralba given estimated population sizes

Man-Land Relationships

  • Acheulean adaptation appears to favor open country/grasslands rather than more closed forest vegetation

  • Best suited to large mammal procurement

  • Selection of site locals near rivers, lakes and springs

Man-Land Relationships

  • Impact on faunal populations probably negligible

  • Alteration of floral communities

  • Evidence for woodland burning

  • replaced by parkland grasses and weeds

  • Pollen finds from Hoxne (England) suggest intentional modification

  • Long-term impact negligible compared to further glacial activity.


  • Evidence is very sketchy and limited

  • Among modern hunter-gatherers, bands of 25-50 persons the norm (similar for Chimps).

  • Some evidence for this size group at Olorgesailie

  • Some evidence for this size group in huts at Terra Amata

  • Necessity of larger cooperative groups for big game hunting and kill processing.

Settlement System

  • Organization of defined territory into base camps and temporary camps that were repeatedly used.

  • Existence of a series of special purpose extractive sites

  • Kill sites

  • Processing stations (also potentially storage sites)

  • Tool manufacture and caching sites

  • Stone quarrying sites

And So...

What was Acheulean life and culture like?

Acheulean Life and Culture

  • Patterns of spatial use and organization more recognizably human

  • More complex and standardized technology, but less flexible and less innovative than among modern humans

  • Above all, an adaptation that was highly successful, and which enabled wide and varied new regions to be colonized.

Persisting Chopper/Chopping Tool Industries?

  • In Asia:

  • Industries based on relatively rough choppers and chopping tools, probably supplemented with tools of wood and bamboo, persist in some areas with no development toward biface industries.

  • In Europe:

  • Continuation and development of early pebble industries, coupled with new industries contemporary with Acheulean

Chopper-Chopping Assemblage

Acheulean and H. erectus

While H. erectus is clearly associated with the Acheulean (handaxe) industries, non-handaxe stone industries in Europe and Asia were also the product of H. erectus.

The Clactonian

  • Relatively coarse chopper industry, contemporary with Acheulean, found primarily in southeastern Britain

  • Characterized by assemblages of very large, thick flakes with prominent platforms and bulbs of percussion, and very large flint nodules from which flakes are struck

  • ~ 10% choppers, 10% flake tools, 80% waste

  • Very wasteful of flint, but in area very rich in high quality and easily obtainable flint

Clactonian Flakes

  • In addition to stone tools

  • Clacton Spear: shaped spear with fire hardened tip

  • Microwear studies suggest many Clactonian tools used primarily on wood

  • Relatively little existing evidence regarding subsistence

So What is the Clactonian

  • Persisting Mode I technology and subsistence system?

  • Expedient tool production and use in area of abundant flint resources?

  • Specialized tool assemblage associated with exploitation of woodland areas?

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