Mousterian - A Middle Stone Age Technology That May Be Outmoded

Should archaeologists ditch the Mousterian category of stone tools?

Silex Mousterian Side-Scraper from Grotte du Noisetier, France
A classic Mousterian side-scraper made of Silex from the Grotte du Noisetier site in France. V. Mourre

The Mousterian industry is the name archaeologists have given to an ancient Middle Stone Age method of making stone tools. The Mousterian is associated with our hominid relatives the Neanderthals in Europe and Asia and both Early Modern Human and Neanderthals in Africa.

Mousterian stone tools were in use between about 200,000 years ago, until roughly 30,000 years ago, after the Acheulean industry, and about the same time as the Fauresmith tradition in South Africa.

Stone Tools of the Mousterian

The Mousterian stone tool production type is considered a technological step forward consisting of a transition from Lower Paleolithic hand-held Acheulean hand axes to hafted tools. Hafted tools are stone points or blades mounted on wooden shafts and wielded as spears or perhaps bow and arrow.

A typical Mousterian stone tool assemblage is primarily defined as a flake-based tool kit made using the Levallois technique, rather than later blade-based tools. In traditional archaeological terminology, "flakes" are variously shaped thin stone sheets knapped off a core, while "blades" are flakes which are at least twice as long as their widths. 

The Mousterian Toolkit

Part of the Mousterian assemblage is made up of Levallois tools such as points and cores. The tool kit varies from place to place and from time to time but in general, includes the following tools:

  • Mousterian point / convergent scraper: short, broad triangular projectile points struck from prepared cores
  • Levallois flakes with retouch: sub oval, subquadrangular, triangular, or leaf-shaped flakes struck from cores, which may have been retouched, that is to say, a series of small purposeful flakes have been removed from the flake to create an edge which is either sharp for cutting or blunted to make it safe to hold
  • Levallois blades: elongated oval or rectangular blanks removed from cores with basal preparation and correction of the core convexity
  • Levallois cores: include two types, pebble and bipolar. Pebble cores are clasts or angular rock fragments from which a series of flakes have been detached by percussion; bipolar cores are those created by placing the clast on a hard surface and striking it from above with a hard percussor

History

The Mousterian tool kit was identified in the 20th century to solve chronostratigraphic problems in western European Middle Paleolithic stone tool assemblages. Middle Stone Age tools were first intensively mapped in the Levant where British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod identified the Levantine facies at the site of Mugharet et-Tabün or Tabun Cave in what is today Israel. The traditional Levantine process is defined below:

  • Tabun D or Phase 1 Levantine (270-170 thousand years ago [ka]), laminar blanks from Levallois and non-Levallois unipolar and bi-polar cores, higher frequency of retouched pieces
  • Tabun C or Phase 2 Levantine (170-90 ka) oval or rectangular blanks from cores, Mousterian points, side scrapers, notches, and denticulates
  • Tabun B or Phase 3 Levantine (90-48 ka), blanks from Levallois cores, Mousterian points, thin flakes and blades

    Since Garrod's day, the Mousterian has been used as a point of departure to compare stone tools from Africa and southwest Asia.

    Recent Critiques

    However, United States archaeologist John Shea has suggested that the Mousterian category may have outlived its usefulness and may even be getting in the way of the ability for scholars to effectively study human behaviors. The Mousterian lithic technology was defined as a single entity in the early 20th century, and although during the first half of that century a range of scholars tried to subdivide it, they were largely unsuccessful.

    Shea (2014) points out that different regions have different percentages of the different tool types and the categories are not based on what scholars are interested in learning. Scholars would like to know, after all, what was the tool making strategy for different groups, and that is not readily available from the Mousterian technology in the way it is currently defined.

    Shea proposes that moving away from the traditional categories would open up paleolithic archaeology and enable it to address the central issues in paleoanthropology.

    A Few Mousterian Sites

    Levant

    • Israel: Qafzeh, Skhul, Kebara, Hayonim, Tabun, Emeireh, Amud, Zuttiyeh, El-Wad
    • Jordan: 'Ain Difla
    • Syria: El Kowm

    North Africa

    • Morocco: Rhafas Cave, Dar es Soltan

    Central Asia

    • Turkey: Kalatepe Deresi
    • Afghanistan: Darra-i-Kur
    • Uzbekistan: Teschik-Tasch

    Europe

    Selected Sources