Open-air preservation of miniaturised lithics: Experimental research in the Cederberg Mountains, Southern Africa

Contributors:
  1. alex mackay
  2. marika low

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Description: Open-air archaeology plays a limited role in southern African late Pleistocene research, with most studies focused on rock shelter assemblages. Recently, archaeologists have noted discrepancies in the composition of late Pleistocene lithic assemblages between some of the region’s open-air and rock shelter sites. For example, bipolar cores, relatively abundant in rock shelters, are rare at late Pleistocene Later Stone Age (LSA, c. 44 – 12 kcal. BP) open-air sites. In this paper, we test whether this results from differential preservation of specific artefact classes and sizes in semi-arid open-air sites. We placed a replicated assemblage of miniaturised cores and flakes on an archaeologically-sterile sediment surface in the Doring River Valley (South Africa) and recorded their movements over 22 months. Our results indicate that lithic class (core/flake) and surface slope are the strongest predictors of miniaturized tool movement and that bipolar and freehand cores moved comparable distances within the study interval. We also show that 1) relatively flat stone tools move disproportionately more and 2) random artefact orientations do not preclude local (ie., metre) scale artefact transport. In terms of the archaeology of our study area, the observed clustering of surface artefacts on sediment bodies likely results from their recent exposure through erosion. Our data suggest that the paucity of open-air bipolar artefacts in late Pleistocene LSA assemblages may have more to do with human behavioral variability at landscape scales than differential preservation. Southern Africa’s rich rock shelter record is, therefore, unlikely to represent the full suite of prehistoric hunter-gatherer behaviors.

License: Mozilla Public License 2.0

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