General Research Topic

This paper is an extractan excerpt of the agreement of the GDRE PREHISTOS. It should be referred to as follows : Averbouh A. 2006, "« The exploitation of osseous materials and the study of inventions : a highly favorable field" », General Scientific Topic, GDRE PREHISTOS Agreement, CNRS, Paris, France.

The exploitation of osseous materials and the study of inventions:
a very productive field

A. Averbouh (2006)
The study of prehistoric societies in light of their inventions

The history of humanity is nourished by inventions. In prehistory, they span the evolution of societies and permit the identification of cultures through their structured technical system. The analysis of technical or functional innovations is thus an effective research orientation for the study of these societies, which lack writing, since it allows us to understand how innovations upset the preexisting system and forcibly lead to its restructuration. The new stability that results then characterizes a new cultural phase until tensions, originating from inside or outside the society, create the conditions that lead to the emergence of new inventions. By studying this invention/stabilization cycle, we obtain a better understanding of the construction and “periodicity” of prehistoric societies.

Along with the complexity of the mechanism of innovation, another process with very similar archaeological consequences must be taken into account: the process of diffusion. As it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between invention and borrowing, especially when they occur within a short period of time, this issue raised by Leroi-Gourhan is often neglected. Leroi-Gourhan believed that the existence of an “inner” environment, ready to integrate a new technical element was essential, whereas its nature was of minor importance. Nonetheless, the particular nature of each case study must be identified (invention, borrowing, real innovation or new emergence), in order to reach a valid cultural interpretation, referring back to the hypothesis of communication and movement between human groups. It is therefore fundamental to decipher, in each case, the nature of a morphological or technical innovation.
The exploitation of osseous materials and the study of inventions: a very productive field

As it was subject to multiple innovations, the exploitation of osseous materials (bone, ivory, antler) is a very productive field for research on the appearance and diffusion of inventions.

This technology is known starting from the most recent cultures of the Lower Palaeolithic. At the end of the Middle Paleolithic, it was limited to bone fracturation and the direct shaping of easy to elements that are easy to manipulate (teeth and phalanges). At the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic, in the first large techno-complex – the Aurignacian – the exploitation of osseous materials underwent a true revolution: new materials were worked (ivory, antler), new techniques were used (scraping, sawing, grooving, abrasion), and new concepts were applied to manage productions, as is shown by the debitage (segmentation and bipartition) and shaping (from slight, it becomes partial or total) procedures employed (Averbouh 2002). In the Gravettian, significant advances were made: debitage by extraction, which may have briefly appeared in ivory working at a few Russian sites, was then applied to antler and bone (Goutas 2004). As early as the first half of the Upper Palaeolithic, the main inventions that would govern the work of osseous materials during the following periods were therefore acquired since the two major groups of techniques (breaking and shaping), and the five major transformation processes, were developed.

From an analytical perspective, the identified innovations refer back to each end of the analysis grid: the technique and transformation schemes. The technique, considered here in the sense of “technème” ”(Averbouh et al. 1999, Averbouh et Provenzano 1999), represents the first practical technical element (the conjugated action of a gesture, a tool, and a material). The transformation scheme designates the general conception of the exploitation of a block (and thus the main principles of acquisition, transformation and function of the final objects). Situated between the two, processes correspond to the practical part of the work (combining multiple gestures and often multiple techniques aiming at a given goal), and the method of debitage or shaping corresponds to the conception of these major operations (Averbouh et al. 1999, Averbouh 2000).

Techniques and transformation schemes are limited in number since the main rules they represent determine the range of action on the material and the conception of its exploitation (techno-economic). Processes and methods, on the other hand, allow a larger range of possible solutions.

Therefore, the extraction processes involved in producing a blank are potentially numerous; some have already been identified, such as the longitudinal delimitation of “baguettes” by convergent grooving associated with detachment by indirect lateral percussion ( Stordeur-Yédid 1979, Pétillon 2006), or the delimitation by longitudinal parallel grooving and transversal cutting at the end of the blank, associated with detachment by indirect lateral percussion (Averbouh et al. 1999, Averbouh 2000), or extraction without delimitation, but with a marginal preparation of the fracture line by grooving on at least one wedge together with longitudinal detachment of the blank by splitting (Goutas 2003). In the same manner, beyond the particular conception it imparts to the debitage of a block, and thus to the category of blank produced (flat or voluminous) the debitage by extraction method can be applied to a wide range of possible variations, such as the type of blank (baguette, disc, “plaquette”, etc.) or the location of the extraction on the block, the number of blanks produced, the process of debitage used, etc.

Attesting to the solutions chosen by different human groups in function of technical, economic, social, or even symbolic (in the true sense of the term, meaning “sacred”) parameters, these variations represent the cultural identity of their authors. Research leading to the identification of transformation processes and methods thus has, from a palaeohistoric point of view, a tremendous informative potential.

The main orientation of the GDRE PREHISTOS research program will be to follow the history of innovations through their variable applications within prehistoric societies that have made significant use of osseous tools. This research will cover a vast chronological and geographic scale — pre and protohistoric Europe — allowing the identification of recurrences from one period to another, the elimination of certain technical or functional practices, reappearances or appearances that, if not simultaneous, are at least contemporaneous over distances of several hundreds or thousands of kilometers.
General program

It would be unreasonable and unproductive to work simultaneously on the different inventions currently identified pertaining to the transformation and use of osseous material during prehistoric times.

However, conducting extensive research on one or two of the main, but still poorly defined innovations, from a technical, economical, chrono-cultural and geographic point of view, will give access to a higher informative level, unprecedented in the analysis of osseous productions. It will also provide an example of the great potential of a collective and international enterprise.

In June 2007, during the first GDRE PREHISTOS plenary meeting that took place in France, Aix-en-Provence, (Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme), two inventions were collectively chosen.
Research axes

The two inventions – and, therefore, the two preferred research axes – were selected jointly since their respective histories could be linked. They are moreover currently part of a dynamic research trend, resulting from the development of technological (the fabrication of tool) and functional (the use of tools) analyses.

The research of the GDRE follows those two orientations.

Each member conducts research on his/her usual material to obtain a broad transcultural and geographic perspective. This work will be discussed and studied in collective work sessions. However, teams of 2 or 4 researchers, each working on a given period and geographic area, have been set up in order to promote exchange and confrontations on assemblages from the same period, and to give to the team’s investigations a broader vision.


References cited

The bibliographic references cited correspond to a text written in 2006. They refer to a more complete and updated bibliography on this question (publications – bibliography of axes)

AVERBOUH A. (2000) – Technologie de la matière osseuse travaillée et implications palethnologiques : l’exemple des chaînes d’exploitation du bois de Cervidé chez les Magdaléniens des Pyrénées, thèse de doctorat de Préhistoire, université de Paris I, 2 vol., 253 et 247 p.

AVERBOUH A. (2002) – L'industrie en matières osseuses du Paléolithique. Document pour une caractérisation chrono-culturelle des principes de transformation et des productions associées. Tapuscrit établi en vue de la sélection du matériel d’exposition des nouvelles salles du Musée national de Préhistoire des Eyzies de Tayac, 45 p.

AVERBOUH A., PROVENZANO N. (1999) – Proposition d’une terminologie du travail préhistorique des matières osseuses : I – Les techniques, Préhistoire Anthropologie méditerranéenne, vol. 7, Aix-en Provence, p. 7-25.

AVERBOUH A., BEGOUEN R., CLOTTES J. (1999) – Technique et économie de débitage de la taille du bois de Cervidé chez les Magdaléniens d’Enlène (Montesquieu, Avantès, Ariège) : vers l’identifi- cation d’un cycle saisonnier de production?, in M. Julien, A. Averbouh, D. Ramseyer et al. dir., Préhistoire d’os. Recueil d’études sur l’industrie osseuse préhistorique offert à Henriette Camps-Fabrer, université de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, p. 289-318.

GOUTAS N. (2003) – Identification de deux procédés de débitage inédits du bois de Cervidés dans les niveaux gravettiens de Laugerie Haute est et ouest, Paléo, n° 15, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, p. 255-262.

GOUTAS N. (2004) – Caractérisation et évolution du Gravettien en France par l’approche techno-économique des industries en matières dures animales (étude de six gisements du Sud-Ouest), doctorat de préhistoire de l’université de Paris I-Panthéon-Sorbonne, 2 vol., 680 p.

LEROI-GOURHAN A. (1943) – L’homme et la matière, Albin Michel, Paris, 367 p.

LEROI-GOURHAN A. (1945) – Milieu et technique, Albin Michel, Paris, p. 52-91.

PÉTILLON J.-M. (2006) – Des Magdaléniens en armes. Technologie des armatures de projectile en bois de Cervidé du Magdalénien supé- rieur de la grotte d’Isturitz (Pyrénées-Atlantiques), Artefacts, t. 10, CEDARC, 302 p.

STORDEUR-YEDID D. (1979), Les aiguilles à chas au Paléolithique, Paris, CNRS Ed., XIIIe supplément à Gallia Préhistoire, 217 p.