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Neandertals, Handaxe Traditions, Social Landscapes

Just a quick post as my good friend and colleague Karen Ruebens has been hitting the headlines with the publication of her PhD research, which I've mentioned in previous blog-posts. Amazingly the Daily Mail has managed to cover her work with some very restrained and mostly accurate reporting (bar a strange map that says Middle Pleistocene instead of Middle Palaeolithic, and spelling Karen's surname wrong).

Her paper, in the Journal of Human Evolution (not open access), covers the main results of her thesis, which attempted to examine the apparent divide between West and Central/East Europe in the types of handaxes, or bifaces (tools worked on two sides, with sharp cutting edges extending around the perimeter), made by Neandertals. Karen's work is excellent and thorough, and does support what the different research traditions in Europe had previously suggested: Neandertals had clear regional diversity in the way they produced handaxes, which were major parts of their toolkits (although not everywhere). Furthermore, the morphological differences are not explicable through "practical" considerations, such as the influence of using different stone types or what the handaxes were used for.
This suggests that the different ways of making and re-sharpening these handaxes were instead involved with the social side of tool production- in other words, aesthetics are part of the cultural norms of making things. Because the regional variation in the handaxes continues over a long period, it is likely that these different styles of tool were passed on generationally within groups that were part of a larger population, but which also had cultural barriers between themselves and populations in other regions. This is something I've written about myself in a consideration of the emergence of Neandertal cultural diversity and social landscapes (pdf of this paper) and also the distinctive nature of the handaxes found in Britain (pdf here).

So congratulations to Karen... and fingers crossed for the paper we have written together to be as well received!


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