The Levalloisian tradition is a Lower and Middle Paleolithic method of stone tool production whereby stone flakes are removed from a carefully prepared stone core in such a way as to predict the size and shape of the flakes removed and to maximize the number of flakes produced per core. The evolution of the Levalloisian tradition is significant not only because it marks an important technological change from simple core tools to more complex flake tools but also because it reflects changes in hominid cognition in that the complexity of a stone tool tradition is taken by archaeologists to be an index of cognitive complexity.
The Levalloisian tradition gets its name from a quarry in the northern Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret. As an archaeological concept, it is less than 100 years old, and for much of that time it was viewed as a monolithic typological construct where the final products of the flaking process were of paramount concern. Although what exactly constitutes a final Levalloisian product is debated, it is generally agreed that there are three basic final products: flakes, blades, and points. Flakes vary in shape but are generally oval or rectangular in outline, blades are long and narrow and usually twice as long as they are wide, and points are triangular. Levalloisian stone cores are sometimes referred to as “tortoise-shaped” cores due to their distinctive dome-like appearance.
In contrast to earlier ideas, recent research has documented a wide range of morphological variability among Levalloisian cores and flakes in time and especially space. This tradition has now been identified in Europe, Africa, Asia, India, Australia, and most recently Japan. Archaeologists became concerned with Levallois variability after an analysis of classic Levalloisian end products from Levels 1 and 2 of the Boker Tachtit site in the Negev desert of Israel were discovered to have been produced from an atypical Levalloisian flaking and core preparation sequence. This realization led archaeologists to understand the Levalloisian tradition as a dynamic process that varied regionally, temporally, and perhaps culturally.
The Levalloisian tradition was first thought to have originated as a single invention at a single place in a single time and to have eventually spread throughout the Old World by diffusion. The continental geography of its invention is an issue of debate. Some monocentrists argue for European origins, where the evolution of the Levalloisian tradition is seen as an accidental development, whereas others look to Africa for its origins. Proponents of the African hypothesis argue that the Levalloisian tradition is a distinctly African phenomenon that spread to Europe and other parts of the Old World some 250,000 years before the present as anatomically modern humans migrated out of Africa. Still, the widespread geographic variability observed in Levalloisian assemblages throughout the Old World provides strong evidence for polycentric origins and suggests independent invention in multiple places and times. The ultimate cause of such widespread regional variability is currently unknown, but archaeologists hypothesize that it may be the result of the combined effects of migration events, diffusion, stone raw material variability, and variations in use.
The archaeological concept of the Levalloisian tradition has been in a near constant state of transformation since its recognition nearly 100 years ago. Consequently, archaeologists are simply not sure how to interpret its temporal, spatial, and formal variability, let alone its origins. To combat this, archaeologists have outlined the major problems facing Levalloisian scholars in an effort to direct future research toward the resolution of these issues. The first problem questions the Levalloisian tradition itself as a unified analytical concept. That is, is Levalloisian technology only one of many technological solutions within a single flaking strategy, or is Levallois the only possible outcome? The second problem concerns the definition of intended Levalloisian end products in the sense that archaeologists must decide what constitutes an end product as well as the role of predetermination in its production. The third problem challenges archaeologists to deal with variability in the Levalloisian tradition, especially in terms of the role that individual cognition and standardization play in the flaking sequence. Finally, archaeologists must also deal with Levalloisian terminology; for example, is the Levalloisian tradition only a method of core preparation, or does it also refer to the specific organization of flake scars and ridges on the surface of the core? These questions, among others, will continue to drive the archaeological understanding of the Levalloisian tradition for the next 100 years.
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