Use-Wear Analysis


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Lithic Use-Wear Analysis of Early Ahmarian

el-Wad Points: an Example from

Southern Jordan


John K. Williams


A study presented to Professor George Odell in partial fulfillment of the Masters of Arts degree, University of Tulsa, 1997


This study presents the results of a microscopic use-wear examination of el-Wad points from Early Ahmarian occupation in southern Jordan.  The sample consists of a small collection of el-Wad points from three sites: Tor Aeid (J432), Tor Hamar (J431), and Jebel Humeima (J412).  Microscopic wear patterns indicate that the el-Wad points from southern Jordan are multi-use tools predominantly used as projectiles and for cutting and scraping soft material.




            The Early Upper Paleolithic Period (ca. 35,000-28,000 BP) is a time when Homo sapiens sapiens exploited a wide variety of environmental settings throughout the world.  Within the Levant, hunting appears to have played a significant role in the adaptations of Early Upper Paleolithic peoples, judging from a variety of tools possessing the morphological characteristics of projectile points.  Archaeologists have generally agreed that the use of some form of flint-tipped throwing or thrusting spear originated during Middle Paleolithic, and evidence for this has been provided by Shea (1988) via microscopic use-wear analysis of Levallois points from the Levant.  There is equal agreement that the bow and arrow came into play during the Upper Paleolithic, demonstrated by the recovery of nocked arrows attributed to the end of this era (Rust 1943: 190).  Evidence for arrow points in the Early Upper Paleolithic, however, is lacking.  The morphology of Early Upper Paleolithic “points” from the Levant suggests they could have been used in three ways: (1) as arrowheads, (2) as tips for thrower-launched darts or spears (Van Buren 1974: 123-134), and (3) as tips for knives (Aveleyra Arroyo de Anda et al. 1956).

            It is beyond the scope of this paper to distinguish spear/dart points from arrowheads.  The purpose at hand is to explore the full diversity of uses of Early Upper Paleolithic points to establish a firmer grounding for their functional classification.  The specific tools chosen for this study are a collection of el-Wad points from the Early Ahmarian period in southern Jordan.  Ignorance of the use of these Early Ahmarian tools presents a major obstacle to a comprehensive explanation of this industry.  Use and ultimately function is revealed by lithic use-wear analysis, providing insights into prehistoric hominid behavior.  Preliminary use-wear analysis of Early Upper Paleolithic tools by Bergman and Newcomer (1983) and Phillips (1987, 1988) have identified impact fractures suggestive of projectile use, but a thorough microscopic use-wear examination of tools classified as “points” within this temporal span is still lacking.  This study attempts to fill this void by identifying wear patterns on el-Wad points to determine not only their apparently obvious use as projectiles, but also any other varieties of use possessed by these tools.


The Levantine Upper Paleolithic

            The area referred to as the Levant includes most of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula.  Extending southward from the Taurus Mountains, the Levant is bordered on the west by the Mediterranean Sea, and stretches eastward some 300-350 km into vast semidesert regions.

            Until about 20 years ago, our understanding of the Upper Paleolithic in the Levant was largely based on Neuville and Garrod's work at the caves and rockshelters of the Galilee, Carmel, and the Judean Desert (Garrod and Bate 1937).  Their work led to the development of a model of cultural succession for the Upper Paleolithic that was unilinear in concept.  Neuville and Garrod's scheme has since been found unsatisfactory, mainly due to its lineal rigid structure, and an alternative model was proposed independently by Marks (1981) and Gilead (1981) as a result of extensive fieldwork carried out in the arid parts of the southern Levant during the mid 1970's.  Gilead and Marks suggested that two traditions co-existed in the Levant: (1) the Levantine Aurignacian, and (2) the Ahmarian.

The Ahmarian (38,000 - 20,000 BP) is characterized by a stone tool assemblage with an elaborate blade/bladelet technology and a tool kit composed mainly of retouched and backed blades, as well as el-Wad points (Coinman and Henry 1995).  The pronounced longevity of the Ahmarian and certain trends during this time period led researchers to divide the complex into two time periods: early and late (Ferring 1988; 342).

            This paper is concerned with the Early Ahmarian, a term ascribed to the earliest industry in the Levantine Upper Paleolithic shared by a number of sites in the southern Levant dated to ca. 38,000-30,000 BP (Marks 1983:37, Marks and Ferring 1988:Table 3, Haas 1977:261-264, Bar-Yosef 1984:Table 6; Phillips 1987:111).  Various proportions of el-Wad points generally distinguish the Early Ahmarian.  El-Wad points are shaped from bladelets created by soft-hammer percussion, using fine to invasive retouch.  Early Ahmarian sites show some typological dissimilarities, but they generally share very similar single reduction strategies focused on the production of interior blade/bladelets that were often retouched to create El Wad points (Ferring 1988).


The Early Ahmarian of Southern Jordan

            Recent research in Southern Jordan has revealed several in situ sites ranging from the Lower Paleolithic through the Epipaleolithic (Henry 1994, 1995a).  Six Upper Paleolithic occupations were discovered as a result of this research.  Of these sites, three possessed a technology focused on the production of blade/bladelets removed from predominantly single-platform cores, and a typology dominated by endscrapers, burins, retouched blade/bladelets, and el-Wad points, all of which indicate Early Ahmarian occupations.  These sites are: Tor Aeid (J432), 0-60 cm, Tor Hamar (J431), layers F-G, and Jebel Humeima (J412) horizons II-IV.


Settings and Resources

Each of these sites lie within the Jebel Qalkha study area of southern Jordan, a 6 km2 region located some 55 km northeast of the Gulf of Aqaba (Fig. 1).  Ranging in elevation from 960-1,020 masl, the study area lies within the Irano- Turanian phytogeographic zone.  Here silts and sands supporting a steppe vegetation cover sandstone bedrock.  Surface water is restricted to pools located in wadi beds that occasionally flow with winter runoff from rain.  Each of the aforementioned sites are scattered throughout the numerous rockshelters and overhangs in the study area.


            Palynological evidence suggests a relatively moist setting for the Early Ahmarian occupations, indicated by the presence of alder, elm, oak, and abundant grasses (Emery-Barbier 1995).  Standing water is suggested by the presence of pollen spores of ferns and tetrades.  An analysis of the faunal sample from the Early Upper Paleolithic layers at Tor Hamar (J431) identified several species of mammals such as golden jackal (Canis aureus), wild ass/horse (E. asinus), gazelle (G. gazella), and caprine (Capra aegagrus and C. ibex) (Klein 1995).


The Sites


Tor Aeid (J432), 0-60 cm

            Upper Paleolithic artifacts, which composed the majority of the assemblage, were found stratigraphically overlying Middle Paleolithic artifacts at this south-facing rockshelter (Williams in press).  Over 130 cm of in situ cultural deposits have been excavated, and  the tools from 0-60 cm depth are dominated by retouched blades/bladelets, endscrapers, burins, and el-Wad points.  These Upper Paleolithic artifacts are comparable to other assemblages throughout the southern Levant presently grouped under the heading "Early Ahmarian" (Ferring 1988, Marks and Ferring 1988).  The site rests on a gently sloping terrace overlooking a minor wadi to the south that provides a number of seasonal pools.


Tor Hamar (J431), Layers F-G

            This small, southwest-facing rockshelter is formed by the lowest of a series of overhangs that project from the north wall of the Wadi Aghar (Coinman and Henry 1995).  Upper Paleolithic artifacts of an Early Ahmarian nature, most notably el-Wad points, were found stratigraphically underlying a deposit containing Epipaleolithic artifacts.  Layers F and G together yielded 80 cm of in situ deposits ascribable as Early Ahmarian.


Jebel Humeima (J412), Horizons II-IV

            Extending 15 to 20 m along a steep cliff with a southwest exposure, this rockshelter provided 150 cm of in situ cultural deposits (Kerry in press).  Upper Paleolithic artifacts of an Early Ahmarian nature, consisting of mostly end scrapers, burins, and el-Wad points, were recovered from 0-100 cm, stratigraphically overlying Middle Paleolithic artifacts.



            The sample originally consisted of a total of 96 el-Wad points from four sites: Tor Aeid (J432), Tor Hamar (J431), Jebel Humeima (J412), and Tor Fawaz (J403).  After the examination of the points, seven were considered too inconclusive to be labeled as el-Wad points and were removed from the sample.  Also, Tor Fawaz was removed from the analysis because of its insufficient sample size (n=3).  Thus, a total of 86 el-Wad points from three sites (J432, J431, and J412) comprise the final sample that is used for this analysis.  This sample represents every el-Wad point recovered in the Judayid Basin of southern Jordan from surveys and excavations since 1979 (Henry 1995).



            Use-wear analysis was conducted using a Nikon SMZ-10 stereoscopic microscope with reflective lighting and capacities of magnification to 160X.  All of the el-Wad points from each site were examined for use-wear, following the methodology of Odell (1976, 1980, 1981, Odell and Cowan 1986).  Microfracturing, polish, rounding, and striations were observed at these magnifications and recorded for each tool.  Use-wear was identified on those parts of the edges where overlapping concentrations of microfractures and abrasive wear exceeded the minor “background” wear that is commonly witnessed on stone tool edges.  Each el-Wad point that possessed use-wear was registered and described in terms of a series of variables noting the microwear pattern, its location on an 8-polar coordinate system, and certain morphological conditions of the piece such as its completeness (proximal, medial, distal), the location of retouch, and edge displacement.

            The uses of the el-Wad points were reconstructed by comparing archaeological traces of use-wear to those from an experimental reference collection.  These experiments consisted of a personal collection and the collection of points reported by Odell and Cowan (1986), together totaling over 100 pieces.  They were subjected to a variety of uses, including arrow tips, dart tips, hafted knives, hafted borers (all used on dead animals) and a variety of hand-held instruments used on animal and vegetal materials for cutting/slicing, scraping, shaving, graving, and boring.



            Characteristics of edge fractures and abrasive wear in the experimental collection were identified in the archaeological sample, allowing the determination of what activity took place, and the material that was worked.  A total of 90 worn edges have been identified in the sample, as indicated in Table 1.




Five tool use activities were identified in the sample of el-Wad points: hafting, penetrating, cutting, scraping, and boring (Fig. 2).



            The distribution of edge fractures presented by the use of a binding element often consists of a contiguous row of scars restricted almost entirely to one surface (Odell 1981).  Haft contact produces pressures oblique to the margin, causing mostly feather-terminated bending fractures (Fig. 3).  Some instances of abrasive wear were also observed in the form of edge rounding and polish near the hafted edge or on one of the obverse flake scar ridges (Fig. 4).  The hafting wear observed in the sample was restricted to the proximal ends of the points.



            The el-Wad points from Tor Aeid (J432), Tor Hamar (J431), and Jebel Humeima (J412) present three patterns of tip damage referable to penetration.  The most frequent pattern is a single shallow step/hinge fracture extending from the tip across the obverse or inverse face of the tool, resembling “fluting”, although not intentionally manufactured.  Some cases show the removal of transverse step or hinge terminations extending from the tip down the edge of the piece rather than from the surface.  These resemble burin blows, but again do not appear to be intentionally manufactured (Fig. 5).  Another pattern is crushing, identifiable as a small cluster of step- and hinge-terminated fractures located at the distal end of the artifact.

            Odell and Cowan (1986) describe all of these patterns in their collection of experimental projectile points.  In addition, they observed a minor number of points that broke laterally in the form of a “snap” or “mesial breakage” as a result of their use as projectiles (Odell and Cowan 1986: 204).  However, lateral snaps or breakage are not considered indicators of penetration in this study primarily because these types of fractures seem just as likely to result from mistakes during the manufacturing process or from post-depositional damage.



            Many of the worn edges (16.7%) exhibit bifacially symmetrical microfracturing and abrasion, resulting in a marked denticulated profile of the tool margin.  This pattern of edge fracturing results from a longitudinal cutting motion of a tool held in a position nearly perpendicular to the worked material (Odell 1981).


Other Activities

            A smaller number of worn edges (8.9%) feature abrasion and unifacial, contiguous feather- and hinge-terminated microfractures that typically result from edge-transverse “scraping” movements (Fig. 6).  In addition, three tools possessed crushed, abraded tips and hinge fractures on the edges near the tip, indicating their use as “borers”.


Worked Material

            The “worked material” category was divided into soft, medium, and hard substances.  Soft materials are those such as animal flesh/meat, and moist vegetables that act as blunt indenters; in other words, they possess a low indentation pressure resulting in a more yielding material (Odell 1981).  Because the stone tool can easily ingress into soft material, the contact area between the tool and worked material is wide, resulting in a greater occurrence of abrasive wears such as edge rounding, polish, and striations.

            Medium materials represent some of the less-yielding animal parts (e.g., tendons and ligaments), somewhat firmer vegetables, and objects such as fresh bone and wood.  As contact materials become harder, edge damage increases and is characterized by a higher incidence of hinge and step fractures.  Hard materials are typically objects such as dry wood and bone, antler, and unyielding inorganic materials such as stone.




            As suggested by their typological classification and morphology, el-Wad points were used mostly as projectiles.  Penetration activity represents 26.7% of the total use-wear in the sample. It is not surprising then, to find a high percentage of hafting wear within the assemblage (36.7%).  The percentage of penetration wear may be somewhat low due to a bias in the sample: proximal segments are the most frequent form of incomplete points (proximal: 39.5%, complete: 31.4%, distal: 25.6%, medial: 3.5%).  Thus, the presence of hafting wear is disproportionately large due to higher frequencies of proximal point segments (Table 2).


The high frequency of proximal segments is likely to be the result of the use of el-Wad points as projectiles.  When a projectile is broken while it is being used, the distal segment is more likely to be lost (e.g., buried in the animal) or left behind, while the proximal segment has a good chance of returning to the camp in its haft before being discarded or reused.

            The most significant tool use apart from hafting and penetrating is cutting.  A transverse cutting motion (16.7%) represents a relatively high percentage of use-wear observed in the sample.  The material being cut was exclusively soft and medium hardness, which is not surprising considering the fragility and thinness of the tools.  It appears that these tools were being used in their haft as a sort of knife to cut and slice (e.g., butchering).  The high frequencies of penetration, hafting, and cutting motions are likely to be a result of these tools being used as tips for darts that were inserted into a larger spear shaft for hunting purposes.  After the prey was downed, the darts could have been removed from the spear shaft and used for butchering purposes.  In light of this, a dart’s use is not necessarily limited to hunting and butchering; it could have also been used as a knife to process a number of other materials.

            Before it is possible to make a generalizing statement about the function of el-Wad points in southern Jordan, it is important to determine if any variability exists within the sites composing the sample.  Certain morphological differences are apparent between sites, such as the location of retouch (e.g., Jebel Humeima [J412] stands alone as the only site with inverse and alternate retouch) and tool length (e.g., Tor Hamar [J431] has noticeably larger points than both of the other sites).  But do these differences extend to the function of the points?

            To answer this question, use-wear categories were subjected to an Anova single factor test to determine if the number of el-Wad points used for penetration, hafting, cutting, scraping, and boring varied between any of the sites.  No significant differences were identified (alpha=.05, df=2, P-value=0.116994), which can be interpreted as indicating that the function of el-Wad points is the same at J432, J431, and J412.  Thus, early Ahmarian groups in southern Jordan were using el-Wad points in a consistent manner as projectiles and for other tasks involving namely cutting and scraping.




            The morphological characteristics of el-Wad points have evoked the long-held presumption that they were used as projectiles, hence their typological classification as such.  But inquiries into their use have always stopped at this level without considering the entire operational sequence of this tool category.  Lithic use-wear analysis provides valuable information about the operational sequence by identifying the full range of observable use-tasks performed by a tool before its loss or discard. The results of this analysis support the conception that el-Wad points functioned primarily as projectiles, but more importantly, provides evidence they were not limited to this category of use.  Significant frequencies of cutting and scraping use indicate that these activities play a secondary, yet important functional roles in the operational sequence of el-Wad points.

            El-wad points undoubtedly were important for the subsistence strategies of Early Ahmarian groups, due to the fact that these assemblages share remarkably similar reduction strategies focused on a single uniform end-product: small, narrow blade/bladelets that were produced for retouched pieces and el-Wad points (Ferring 1988).  Thus, the high frequency of hunting/predatory use attributed to these points is likely to reflect an important adaptive strategy for their makers.  Hunting efforts appear to have been focused on large game represented by the faunal remains recovered at Tor Hamar (J431) described earlier.  The other notable uses observed on the points such as cutting and scraping are likely to represent stages in the processing of hunted prey (e.g., butchering and hide scraping).  All of this information makes a good case for Early Ahmarian groups that were heavily reliant on hunting.  But without use-wear data from other parts of the toolkit and the debitage category, interpretations must be limited to the “el-Wad point” category.  It is interesting to note, however, that the results of a use-wear analysis of unretouched bladelets from Jebel Humeima (J412) show nearly the exact same uses and frequencies of uses as the el-Wad points in this study (Kerry personal communication).  This implies that the patterns of use for el-Wad points may carry-over to debitage categories with similar morphology.

            Thus, the el-Wad points used by Early Ahmarian groups in this sample functioned as multi-use hunting and processing tools.  No significant use-category differences were identifiable between any of the sites in the sample, so the function of el-Wad points appears to be generalized throughout southern Jordan.  The extent to which this generalization applies to the adaptive strategies of all Ahmarian groups employing the use of el-Wad points cannot currently be stated for certain because of a lack of use-wear data from sites in more arid environmental zones outside of the piedmont and cool desert regions of southern Jordan.  Although the environmental settings from all of these places can be considered “marginal”, minor differences between them may result in varying subsistence strategies that may or may not be observable in the wear patterns of tools.  More detailed models of Ahmarian subsistence strategies must include use-wear results from all categories of tools and debitage from sites throughout the Levant, and show how these large-scale patterns of industrial variability relate to other nonlithic aspects of the archaeological record.




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