The functional significance of Sauveterrian microlithic



The functional significance of Sauveterrian microlithic
The functional significance of Sauveterrian microlithic assemblages:
broadening the focus of investigation
Hugues Plisson,a Laure Dubreuil,b Raphaëlle Guilbertc
UMR 6130 du CNRS – Sophia Antipolis, Valbonne, France
Université McGill– Montréal, Canada
UMR 6636 du CNRS – Aix en Provence, France
Summary. Microlithization is one of the most intriguing trends in the evolution of lithic industries. In Europe, studies of this
phenomenon have particularly focused on the Sauveterrian, a major facies of the Mesolithic. In a recent synthesis of use-wear data,
it has been suggested that the Sauveterrian flint industries reflect a minimal technical system produced by groups with simple social
This view is in sharp contrast with the general perception of the Natufian, a period marking the transition to agriculture in the Near
East characterized by increased sedentarization and extensive production and utilization of microlithic tools. Yet, Natufian and
Sauveterrian flint tools are very similar and appear to have been involved in a similar range of tasks.
A reduction in tool size and assemblage diversity seems to have been initiated at the end of the Upper Palaeolithic. Functional
studies suggest that during this period some categories of flint tools were replaced by less elaborated macro-tools, as seems to have
been the case in the Natufian. The Natufian illustrates the dichotomy between micro and macro-tools, each category involving
distinct raw materials and concepts. These observations stress the necessity to reassess the functional significance of Sauveterrian
Résumé. La microlithisation est l’une des tendances évolutives les plus étonnantes des industries lithiques. En Europe occidentale,
le Mésolithique de type Sauveterrien constitue un exemple particulièrement typique de ce phénomène. Les outillages de silex
sauveterriens ont récemment été interprétés comme les produits de systèmes techniques simples, reflétant une organisation sociale
relativement peu complexe.
Cette hypothèse contraste avec la perception que nous avons du Natoufien, une période durant laquelle s’amorce au Proche-Orient
un processus de sédentarisation des populations. L’industrie de silex associée à ces groupes est essentiellement de nature
microlithique. Elle comprend des types d’outils fortement semblables à ceux attribués au Sauveterrien, objets qui semblent en outre
avoir été utilisés dans les mêmes registres techniques.
On observe à la fin du Paléolithique une diminution de la taille des outils de silex et une moindre diversité de types. Un macrooutillage semble s’y substituer, comme l’indiquent certaines analyses tracéologiques. Le Natoufien constitue un exemple
particulièrement frappant de cette dichotomie entre formes micro- et macro-lithiques, chaque catégorie impliquant des matériaux et
des concepts distincts. Les nombreuses similarités fonctionnelles documentées entre les assemblages Natoufiens et Sauveterriens
soulignent la nécessité de reconsidérer la signification fonctionnellle de ces derniers assemblages.
Key words: macro-tools, Mesolithic, microliths, Natufian, Sauveterrian, tool function, site function, use-wear analysis.
Microlithization has raised much attention in
archaeology, as it represents one of the most important
and interesting patterns in the evolution of material
culture. However, because microliths developed in a great
variety of ecological, geographical, cultural, and
chronological contexts, it has proven difficult to explain
this multifaceted phenomenon using a single explanatory
model (Elston and Kuhn 2002). In Western Europe,
microlithization has generally been approached focusing
on the Sauveterrian, a Mesolithic facies.
One of the strengths of Semenov’s functional and
technological approach to past material culture is that he
considered the entire technical system without limiting
his analysis to a narrow range of tool types or raw
In Western archaeology, use-wear analysis initially
developed as a ramification of typological studies. For a
long time, the focus was on flint industries and beautiful
artefacts (Maigrot and Plisson in press). It seems fair to
say that in these developments, little interest was paid to
the theoretical implications of the use-wear method. As a
result, the potential of the approach originally developed
by Semenov was rarely fully exploited. In this paper, an
effort is made to consider use-wear data in a broader
perspective, while discussing some aspects of human
adaptation during the late Pleistocene and early
Holocene. More particularly, we explore the significance
of the increase of microlithic tools in the assemblages
made by the last hunters-gatherers of south-western
Based on use-wear analyses, it has recently been
suggested that the Sauveterrian flint industries reflect
groups with minimal technical systems and simple social
structures (Philibert 2002). The aim of the present paper
is to reassess functional interpretations of the
Sauveterrian by comparing this industry with Palaeolithic
and Epi-Palaeolithic assemblages from Northern Europe
and the Near East. Moreover, we would like to broaden
the scope of the discussion by considering all categories
of lithic tools, including microliths and ad hoc
Since the general trend towards microlithization began at
the end of the Palaeolithic, examining assemblages from
this period may improve our grasp of this phenomenon.
In this perspective, a comparison of Magdalenian and
Azilian assemblages in regions differing markedly in raw
material abundance has yielded interesting results.
Technological and use-wear analyses demonstrated that
the scarcity of raw materials affected considerably flint
tool management, use, and discard during the
Magdalenian, but not during the Azilian (Plisson 1985).
These results suggest that this new concept of the flint
toolkit, based on the production of fewer tool types, tools
of smaller size, and on a simplification of the
manufacturing techniques, contributed to reduce
dependency on raw material availability. This proposition
is in agreement with the hypothesis of changes in
mobility patterns at the end of the Palaeolithic, as argued
for Poland (Schild 1976, 1979, 1984), and, more recently,
Northern France (Valentin 2005b).
The onset of post-glacial climatic conditions during the
Epi-Palaeolithic induced important changes in the
landscapes. The current consensus view is that the human
diet during the late glacial period consisted of a low
diversity of resources. Consequently, a broader range of
resources became available to prehistoric populations. As
pointed out by Semenov (1961, 2005), developments of
abrading and grinding technology might have been
especially critical in these new environments. Therefore,
examining grinding and abrading implements may be
particularly informative for determining subsistence
strategies during the Epi-Palaeolithic.
Abrading and grinding tools include, among others,
abraders, polishers, shaft straighteners, mortars, pestles,
grinding slabs, handstones, as well as used pebbles and
blocks. Most commonly, these implements were made of
limestone, sandstone, basalt, and granite, raw materials
that are quite distinct from those used for cutting tools.
Because most grinding and abrading implements tend to
be larger and heavier than flint tools, the term “macrotool” is generally used to refer to them. In the Near East,
a significant increase in the proportion of macro-tools and
a florescence of microliths are observed during the EpiPalaeolithic.
It has been suggested that in a few Azilian sites faunal
and/or chronological data demonstrate that the technical
changes observed in the Epi-Palaeolithic preceded
environmental changes. However, none of the
assemblages associated with reindeer used to support this
claim are derived from secure stratigraphic contexts.
Moreover, the oldest reliable dates obtained for the
Azilian come from regions in which reforestation
occurred particularly early, for instance the Swiss
piedmont (Leesch et al. 2004). Because they are in
continuity with regional traditions and observed over a
wide geographic scale, the modifications in lithic toolkits
at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary cannot be reduced
to local phenomena. This supports the hypothesis that
these modifications were mediated by global
environmental changes affecting subsistence and mobility
Studies of the emergence of macro-tool technology are
still few. To the contrary, the microlithization of flint
tools has been for long a major focus of archaeological
research. Yet, despite the accumulated knowledge on this
last issue, the significance of the trend towards tool size
reduction remains a tricky question to address.
Why microliths? Two insightful case-studies
With the warming conditions of the post-glacial, a
general trend towards tool size reduction, accompanied
by an apparent decline in knapping abilities, is observed
in European and Near Eastern sites. The nature of the
relationship between these cultural patterns and climatic
change remains obscure. Schild’s (1976, 1979, 1984)
study of the Final Palaeolithic in the Polish plains
provided insightful observations regarding this problem.
Climatic fluctuations seem to have been more
pronounced in this area than in Western Europe.
According to Schild, late glacial periods, characterized by
reindeer hunting in open landscapes, were associated with
Upper Palaeolithic-like industries. During the more
forested interstadial phases, territories were smaller and
the industry Azilian-like, as indicated by the presence of
short scrapers and backed points. Subsistence was
probably based on the exploitation of more sedentary
species. This case study suggests rapid reorganization of
group mobility, hunting strategies, and material culture in
response to changes in resource availability. Such cultural
flexibility might have permitted adaptation to small-scale
environmental changes and fostered the colonization of
new territories.
It seems to us that the available data sustain the view that
microlithism was one of the many strategies used by
prehistoric groups for managing risk (Elston and Kuhn
2002). In the particular context of the end of the Upper
Palaeolithic, microlithism appears to be a response to
dramatic changes in mobility patterns induced by the
replacement of Pleistocene fauna by less gregarious and
non-migrant species, and to the development of more
forested landscapes.
This assumption is examined further in the remainder of
this paper while investigating Sauveterrian adaptation. An
emphasis is placed here on the use-wear approach.
However, departing from a strictly materialist standpoint,
we will consider the evolution of the symbolic
dimensions of stone implements, along with
transformations of the production and subsistence
Fig. 1: Azilian micro-tools and macro-tools from La Tourasse cave, France. Objects drawn at the same scale. Drawings: M. Orliac.
Fig. 2: Sauveterrian flint and hyaline quartz tools showing use-wear, from Vionnaz, rockshelter, Switzerland (Pignat and Plisson,
2000). Drawings: H. Lienhard.
A use-wear perspective on the Sauveterrian flint
several industries from the end of the Palaeolithic and the
The Sauveterrian emerged around 10,000 BP in southeastern France and Northern Italy, and then progressively
spread to other regions of Western Europe where it
replaced the Azilian tradition. This industry is
characterized by highly standardized geometrical
microliths, produced using different knapping and
retouch methods (Guilbert, 2003), and a gradual
simplification of the methods of microlith blank
production. The Sauveterrian toolkit also includes small
irregular flakes and few retouched artefacts (Fig. 2),
mostly scrapers.
Very similar patterns in tool use and discard are
found between the Final Palaeolithic industries (Azilian
and Federmesser) and the Sauveterrian. Indeed, all these
industries present evidence of a narrow range of
processed materials and low proportions of utilized
artefacts (Célérier and Moss 1983; Moss 1983; Plisson
1985; Ibañez Estévez and González Urquijo 1996; Caspar
and De Bie 1996; De Bie and Caspar 2000). These
similarities are noted despite differences in methods of
blade production (more elaborated in the Azilian and
Federmesser), and projectile point size and morphology.
The Sauveterrian also shows many typological and
functional similarities with the Natufian, an industry
associated with the emergence of sedentary societies in
the Near East. With respect to assemblage composition
and production techniques, these contemporaneous
industries present the same basic structure: an expedient
toolkit manufactured on irregular flakes and rough
blades, some of which were retouched, and the presence
of notches and denticulates (Fig. 3). In addition,
assemblages from both periods contain very similar
proportions of elaborated geometric microliths. However,
contrary to what is observed in the Sauveterrian, burins
appear to be more common than scrapers in the Natufian.
A use-wear study of 500 flint implements from Hayonim
Terrace (Israel) shows patterns of artefact use and discard
similar to those described for the Sauveterrian (Valla et
al. 1989; Valla et al. 1991): the edges are mostly
unretouched and use-wear indicates light work and short
use-life for the most abundant tools; in general, geometric
microliths and retouched bladelets were hafted
projectiles. Two distinctions can be made between the
Natufian and the Sauveterrian, based on use-wear and
typological data: the scarcity of hideworking flint tools in
the Natufian; the use, at least in some Natufian
assemblages, of burin sides and small notches for light
boneworking and woodshaping, possibly for making
points or shafts. Tiny bone points that could have been
produced with these burins and notches were also found
at Hayonim.
Even though functional studies of Sauveterrian flint
assemblages are fewer than those for the Upper
Palaeolithic, use-wear data (approximately 5000
artefacts) are now available for a dozen sites (Lemorini
1990, 1994; Martinet 1991; Rodriguez Rodriguez 1993;
Philibert, 1999, 2002; Pignat and Plisson 2000;
Khedhaier 2003; Juan Gibaja in press). Despite variation
in artefact surface preservation and sampling methods,
these studies yielded similar results. In the Sauveterrian,
patterns in the use and discard of flint tools can be
characterized as follow:
a very low proportion of artefacts were used;
a limited range of activities is documented. These
activities are mostly related to the procurement and
processing of soft animal matters, such as meat and
hide, and involved microliths, flakes, blades, and
woodworking is poorly represented in the use-wear
sample, and is mostly associated with unretouched
a relative scarcity of traces associated with bone
working is noted.
In the following section, these patterns are compared with
earlier, contemporaneous, and succeeding industries in
Europe and the Near East.
The Sauveterrian in a wider perspective
Overall, in spite of the few differences mentioned above,
Natufian and Sauveterrian toolkits show a common core
set of features in tool management. These similarities are
particularly striking, as these industries were produced by
groups with very different social organizations: semisedentary groups occupying permanent houses in the
Levant and mobile hunters-gatherers living in forests and
mountains in Europe. In this case, dramatic differences in
adaptations are not reflected in the flint toolkits.
On one hand, there are striking contrasts in the use and
discard of Sauveterrian flint tools compared with the
Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic. In general, Upper
Palaeolithic assemblages differ from Sauveterrian ones in
showing more diverse toolkits and higher percentages of
utilized and recycled implements. In addition, tools were
probably involved in a wider range of activities. Neolithic
toolkits contrast with those of the Sauveterrian in
presenting evidence for new activities, processed
material, and tool categories (some of which had a very
long use-life).
Broadening the focus: A look at the macro-tools
Two important cultural changes have been attributed to
the end of the Natufian: the emergence of plant
domestication (e.g., Moore et al. 2000; Belfer-Cohen and
On the other hand, several similarities are observed in
flint tool management between the Sauveterrian and
Fig. 3: Natufian micro-tools and
macro-tools from Hayonim Terrace
(1–15) and Mallaha (a–g). Flint
artifacts enlarged with respect to
macro-tools. 1-3: cortical flakes used
for cutting flesh; 4, 5 and 6: notches
used in plant, wood, and bone
scraping; 7: denticulate used to
scrape wood; 8-9: burins used to
scrape and groove bone; 10 & 15:
microliths used to cut plants; 14:
microlith used to cut meat; 11-13:
microliths used as projectile barbs
(from Valla, et al., 1991). a: pestles;
b-d: handstones; e: grinding-slab;
f: mortar; g: shaft straighteners
(drawings from D. Ladiray).
While the emergence of macro-tools during the EpiPalaeolithic may stemmed from resource intensification,
the trend toward microlithization seems to be linked to
the optimization of resource procurement through mobile
strategies. Flannery (1986) proposed that mobility, a
strategy long used for coping with resource variation, was
no longer possible in the context of the Late Pleistocene
to Holocene transition in the Near East, due to increased
demographic pressure. It is suggested that the role of the
flint technology became less central in the subsistence
system during that episode.
Bar-Yosef 2000; Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen 2002; Bird
2005), and a shift from a semi-sedentary to a more
nomadic adaptation (e.g., Goring-Morris and BelferCohen 1997; Belfer-Cohen and Bar-Yosef 2000; BarYosef 2001; Valla et al. 2001; Bar-Yosef and BelferCohen 2002; Munro 2004). With the exception of a
reduction in microlith size (Valla and Plisson, 2005),
these changes occurred in a context of relative stability of
the flint tool assemblages (e.g., Valla et al. 2001).
While flint toolkits were apparently relatively stable
during the Natufian, other classes of objects seem to
document changes in the technical system. More
particularly, a significant increase in the abundance of
grinding implements is observed (Bar-Yosef 1980, 1981;
Wright 1992, 1994). This increase is striking when
compared with previous periods. A functional study of
these tools showed that some specimens were used to
process plants, more specifically, legumes and cereals
(Dubreuil 2002, 2004). The use-wear study also
suggested that changes in grinding implement
morphology during the Natufian are probably related to
intensification of plant processing. This conclusion
appears in line with other changes observed in
subsistence and settlement patterns during the end of the
Social representations: The symbolic dimensions of
The study of the Sauveterrian raises the issue of the
evolution of the role and symbolic dimension of flint
industries during the early Holocene. At the beginning of
the Epi-Palaeolithic, microlithism can be explained as a
strategy used to cope with variation in raw material
availability in relation with new patterns of mobility
resulting from smaller territories and more diverse
resources. However, the study of the Natufian suggests
that, just prior to the decline of microliths, flint
technology was not a vector of major innovations. This
may be related to the specialization of flint implements
for game procurement and processing, in continuity with
the Kebarian. The similarities noted between the Natufian
and Sauveterrian toolkits leave us with the impression
that the flint tool repertoire was strongly associated with
high residential mobility, and possibly, an egalitarian
ideology. The technological changes observed during the
neolithization process are most conspicuous in non-flint
implements. Macro-tools, which represent a significant
proportion of non-portable implements, are, at least for
some of them, partly related to the exploitation of vegetal
resources. This macro-tool versus micro-tool dichotomy
was possibly reinforced by a sexual division of
production activities, as suggested by ethnography
(Testart 1986) and the study of Natufian human remains
(e.g. Peterson 2002; Bocquentin 2003). It has been
proposed that the sexual division of labour played a
significant role during the rise of plant domestication
(Rohrlicht-Leavitt 1975; Forest 1993, in preparation).
Despite the probably growing significance of macro-tools
in subsistence activities, the efforts devoted to the
production of microliths during the Natufian seems to
indicate that these tools were in response symbolically
overinvested (Valla and Plisson 2005).
An additional finding of the use-wear analysis of
Natufian macro-tools is that some of the artefacts
commonly classified as grinding implements were
actually used in activities unrelated to plant-food
processing (Dubreuil 2002, 2004). For instance, hidecurrying implements, rare in the flint assemblages of
Hayonim Terrace, are documented in the macro-tool
sample. Furthermore, some macro-tools may have been
used for woodworking. Also, stone implements seem to
have been involved in bone abrasion activities, as
suggested by bone tool studies (Stordeur 1991), and
residue analysis of shaft straighteners (Christensen and
Valla 1999). Based on these data, it can be suggested that
non-flint implements replaced flint tools, at least in
certain activities, in Natufian assemblages. It is suspected
that this shift also occurred in Mesolithic industries of
Europe, as mentioned by Rozoy (1978).
In sum, along with the development of a flint industry
based on small flakes and bladelets, and a trend toward
microlith size reduction, flourished a macro-tool
technology differing in raw materials and concepts (Fig.
3). Use-wear data indicate that at least some of the
Epipalaeolthic macro-tools were associated with the
exploitation of vegetal resources. In contrast, flint tools
appear to be designed specifically for the procurement
and processing of game. The transformation of plants by
grinding and pounding constitutes a mean for maximizing
caloric returns (O’Dea et al., 1980; Stahl 1989; Wright
1992). Therefore, the emergence of macro-tool
technology may have been particularly important in a
context of increased sedentarity and faunal resource
overexploitation (Stiner et al. 1999, 2000; Monroe 1999).
Back to the Sauveterrian
The development of macro-tools in many microlithic
industries is not surprising, given that these often lack—
or show a very low proportion—of heavy-duty tools.
Because microliths, bladelets, and most flakes have thin,
small, and fragile edges, these implements were not
designed for the transformation of large volumes of raw
material. The Mesolithic dugout canoes of Noyen-surSeine and Nandy (Bonnin 2000), for instance, were
structure of a coherent system. In this framework, usewear analyses may yield very valuable information on
early Holocene adaptations.
certainly not manufactured with these tools! Therefore, it
is almost tautological to argue that the Sauveterrian
microliths were involved in a narrow range of activities.
As a result, it is difficult to accept the proposition that the
limited range of activities seen in the Sauveterrian
reflects a concomitantly simple technical system
(Philibert 2002). Moreover, models that attempt to
establish a direct link between the complexity of a
technical system and the complexity of the social network
that produced this technical system are likely to run into
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To better understand the Sauveterrian, it is critical to
broaden the scope of analysis by including macro-tools.
In the Natufian, these implements are characterized by
high archaeological visibility, possibly because sites of
this period were occupied intensively. Although poorly
documented, similar tools exist in more expedient forms
in Palaeolithic (de Beaune 2000) and Mesolithic (Rozoy
1978) contexts. For instance, J.E. González Urquijo and
J.J. Ibáñez (2002) showed that in the late Magdalenian
and Azilian sites of the Spanish Basque country, pebbles
were not only used as flintknapping hammers and mineral
crushers, but also for hide rubbing and for pounding
organic matters. Evidence of hide rubbing with ad-hoc
implement has been found in south-western France as
well (Lenôtre et al. 2003). Used pebbles were also
reported for the Azilian levels of the La Tourasse cave in
France (Orliac and Orliac 1972) (Fig.1). The Federmesser
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macro-tools showing evidence of use, ranging from
hammerstones and other heavy-duty tools, to
spokeshaves and grinders (De Bie and Caspar 2000).
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the Sauveterrian. This is possibly the result of the low
visibility of these tools in sites produced by highly
mobile groups. However, the scarcity of macro-tools in
Sauveterrian assemblages may be also due to biases in
recovery methods. Indeed, these implements were
generally ignored by archaeologists in past excavations.
Another important source of bias comes from our
incomplete knowledge of Sauveterrian settlement
patterns. For instance, certain types of sites, such as those
found in specific biotopes or those peripheral to zones of
high occupation density, are probably overrepresented in
the archaeological record (Guilbert 2001) and particularly
in the functional studies. In addition, the sexual division
of labour may have mediated spatial distribution of tool
types, as suggested by the specialization of flint
implements for game procurement and processing
activities. Comparing contemporaneous assemblages and
sampling all types of habitats may allow us to overcome
biases induced by the differential spatial distribution of
tool types and to detect patterns in flint versus non-flint
For Semenov, use-wear analysis was not limited to the
study of a selected range of artefacts or raw materials.
Rather, it was for him a method aimed at unravelling the
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