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The transition from the Lower to the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe and the incorporation of difference.


In the last 30 years the gaze of palaeoanthropology has been drawn to the issue of the evolutionary transition from 'archaic' to 'modern' humans in Europe and Africa (e.g. Mellars & Stringer 1989; Klein 1995; McBrearty & Brooks 2000; Stringer 2002). As far as Europe is concerned, this has focused attention on the transition from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic, so much so that the earlier transition from the Lower to the Middle Palaeolithic has been largely overshadowed. Indeed, some authorities have argued that this transition in Europe was of limited evolutionary significance (e.g. Gamble 1986: Table 4.8) and that the division of the earlier Palaeolithic into these two great periods is of doubtful validity. More recently there has been some reassertion of the discreteness of the Middle Palaeolithic (papers in Roebroeks & Gamble 1999), but relatively little attention has been paid to the possibility that it might represent gross developments in hominin behavioural capacities relative to the Lower Palaeolithic.

The Lower-Middle Palaeolithic boundary is today placed at around 300 kyr (thousand years ago). Although the taxonomic attributions of European Lower Palaeolithic hominins are the subject of some dispute, the current consensus is that, from around 500 kyr, they can be placed in the species Homo heidelbergensis, and that the European Middle Palaeolithic is associated with their evolutionary descendants, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) (Stringer 2002). Historically, the Middle Palaeolithic has been distinguished from the Lower on the basis of the decline of the handaxe and the appearance of Levallois and related 'prepared core' techniques of chipped stone flake production, and by the first occupation of mountainous regions (Grahmann 1952).

White & Ashton (2003) have shown that the Levallois reduction technique, in which a core is shaped by preparatory flake removals in order to manage the production of subsequent preferential flakes, represents the conceptual and practical fusion of two approaches to knapping stone. Faconnage entails the shaping of a core by the removal of flakes, the shaped core being the target object. Debitage, on the other hand, entails the production of sharp-edged flakes from a core, and it is the flakes that are the intended products (Boeda et al. 1990). Both were practised in the Lower Palaeolithic, but as discrete alternative strategies (Figure 1). Their fusion in Middle Palaeolithic Levallois technology (Figure 2) therefore represents an incorporation of difference (Hopkinson 2001).


This paper examines the geography of European occupation in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic and presents evidence that the incorporation of difference was a feature of the Middle Palaeolithic not only in lithic technology but also in the realm of settlement ecology and landscape use. It is argued that this does indeed represent a major transformation in hominin cognition and behaviour across the Lower-Middle Palaeolithic transition.

Lower and Middle Palaeolithic occupation in Central and Eastern Europe

Lower Palaeolithic archaeological sites in France, Spain, Italy and southern Britain are numerous (too numerous to catalogue here), but they are very much rarer in Central and Eastern Europe. Table 1 presents a catalogue of significant archaeological sites older than 200 kyr in Europe east of the present-day Rhine, west of the Black Sea and north of the Alps and Balkans. The choice of 200 kyr as the temporal boundary is not meant to coincide strictly with the Lower-Middle Palaeolithic transition; instead it reflects the paucity of deposits, and thus archaeological sites, dating to MIS (Marine Isotope Stage) 7 (c. 242-186 kyr) in Central and Eastern Europe, and serves as a convenient point for a 'before and after' comparison that best reveals temporal patterns in the Pleistocene human occupation of the region.

Sites were selected for inclusion according to the following criteria:

1. Undoubted authenticity of the lithic artefacts. Sites at which the artefactuality of stone objects has been challenged were excluded. Several such sites figure prominently in the literature on the European Lower Palaeolithic, including Stranska Skala I in Moravia, but have failed to gain wide acceptance as anything other than deposits of naturally flaked pieces (Roebroeks & van Kolfschoten 1995).

2. Number of artefacts. Sites that have produced fewer than 100 lithic artefacts were excluded. A number of small assemblages of undisputed lithic artefacts are known from sites in Central and Eastern Europe, such as Cerveny kopec in Moravia. However, the contrast with Western Europe, where larger assemblages from before 200 kyr are common, would be diminished if all such impoverished collections were included.

3. Robust dating. Only sites unequivocally older than 200 kyr have been included. This condition excludes sites of uncertain date and a considerable number of undatable surface finds.

The results are revealing. The review identified only 12 sites that meet the above criteria in the entire study area. Of these, nine are in Germany, the westernmost region of Central Europe. There are many more in southern England alone (Wymer 1999). Seven of the 12 sites are certainly or possibly datable to 300 kyr or younger and are better thought of as early Middle, rather than Lower, Palaeolithic. Fossil remains, such as those from Mauer and Steinheim, are testimony to hominin presence in Central and Eastern Europe before 200 kyr. Nevertheless, the paucity of sites meeting the specified criteria demonstrates that, before that time, the hominin occupation of Europe was very strongly concentrated in the west of the continent (Figure 3).


This pattern changes radically, however, after 200 kyr. From MIS 6 (c. 186-130 kyr) occupation proliferates in Germany (e.g. Hannover-Dohren, Hundisburg, Reutersruh and Weddersleben), Silesia (e.g. Bohuslavice, Odrou and Polanka), southern Poland (Piekary IIb) and Bohemia (Becov and Stvolinky). From the Upper Pleistocene around 130 kyr, settlement intensifies in Poland (e.g. Raj, Zwolen, Zwierzyniec), Moravia (Kulna, Predmosti), Slovakia (Ganovce) and Hungary (e.g. Tata, Budospest, Subalyuk). The systematic occupation of Croatia (Krapina Cave) begins with an early Upper Pleistocene Middle Palaeolithic (Rink et al. 1995). The same might be true of Romania (Borosteni Cave), although radiometric dates could support a later commencement (Carciumaru et al. 2002). Neanderthals reach the Levant by 70 kyr and possibly earlier (Shea 2003).

Lower and Middle Palaeolithic occupation of upland regions

The pattern of settlement in Europe before 200 kyr also reveals that hominin groups tended to avoid upland regions with broken terrain. None of the German sites shown in Table 1 are located in the southern uplands. Likewise there are none in the Carpathians or the Moravian Karst. Crucially, this pattern is repeated in Western Europe. The great preponderance of French and British sites of this age are found at low and moderate elevations in river terraces. There are no undisputed occupation sites in the Massif Central before the Middle Palaeolithic (Raynal et al. 1995), although there is a small number of cave and rock shelter sites with archaeological horizons older than 200 kyr in the Dordogne. At Abri Vaufrey a typologically Middle Palaeolithic assemblage lies beneath a stalagmite floor dated to 200 kyr (Gamble 1986: 149). The archaeological layers at La Micoque are certainly older than 200 kyr, but they accumulated when the locality was a gravel bar in a river floodplain, and not a rock shelter in a steeply-incised river valley as it is today (Turq 1999).

Similarly, Lower Palaeolithic sites in Iberia are located very largely in the plains of the central plateau. The cave sites at Atapuerca are associated with a limestone massif, but it is an inselberg situated in a rolling plain, and the locality with the best evidence of early occupation, Gran Dolina, is located at its base (Carbonell et al. 1999). There is no demonstrable hominin presence before 200 kyr in any of the peninsulas mountainous regions (Raposo & Santonja 1995). The abundant Lower Palaeolithic of the Italian Apennines (Mussi 1995) is an apparent exception to this more general pattern; it is discussed further below.

The systematic occupation of Europe's high-relief upland regions in fact begins in the Middle Palaeolithic. Many of the Central and Eastern European sites dating to 200 kyr or younger are in caves, for example, in the Carpathian Arc (e.g. Borosteni) and the Moravian Karst (e.g. Kulna). The earliest datable traces of Palaeolithic occupation in the Upper Danube, such as the lowest levels at the Sesselfelsgrotte, refer to the early part of the last glacial after 120 kyr (Weissmuller 1995). Other upland regions occupied after 200 kyr include Wallonia (Straus & Otte 1995), the Massif Central and the Cantabrian Mountains.

The European archaeological record therefore demonstrates a radical shift in hominin settlement ecology across the Lower-Middle Palaeolithic boundary. Before 200 kyr, occupation was strongly, though not absolutely, tethered to the middle and lower reaches of river drainage systems in the west of the continent. After that time there was a major extension of occupation by Neanderthal populations eastward and into high-relief uplands. The paucity of Lower Palaeolithic sites east of the Rhine cannot be ascribed to inadequate survey effort since countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic have long traditions of intensive Palaeolithic investigation. Large tracts of the region never experienced glaciation and its associated destruction of archaeological traces. Erosional processes might have contributed to an under-representation of Lower Palaeolithic sites in hilly and mountainous landscapes, but not sufficiently to account for the patterns outlined here, as the Lower Palaeolithic record of the Apennines shows. The shift in the geography of European Palaeolithic settlement described therefore seems to be real.

Resource proximity in time and space: seasonality

The key environmental factor that distinguishes Central and Eastern Europe from the west of the continent is climate. Being distant from the Atlantic, in the Pleistocene as today, summers in the continental centre and east are and were hotter, and winters colder with a longer and deeper period of resource dearth. The weakness of Lower Palaeolithic presence in the climatically continental regions of Europe suggests strongly that high levels of seasonality were the critical barrier to their settlement. Further support for this contention is to be found in the analysis of mollusc remains from the Achenheim loess, which has shown that climatic conditions in the Rhineland have alternated between oceanic and continental over the last 300 000 years (Rousseau et al. 1990). This raises the possibility that at least some Lower Palaeolithic excursions into Central Europe, and Germany in particular, might have occurred during episodes of reduced seasonality.

Seasonally-recurring food shortages are associated with malnutrition and increased levels of parasite infection, morbidity and infant mortality even in modern agricultural peoples with limited technologies of food storage and preservation (Johnston 1993). In Pleistocene European winters this was compounded by an increased requirement for calorific intake to maintain body temperature, and by short daylight hours which reduced the time available for foraging. The winter survival of a sufficient number of individuals to maintain a reproductively viable regional population was therefore a major challenge. Lower Palaeolithic populations could achieve this in the milder winters of Western Europe (with the exception of full glacial episodes before MIS 8 in the north; Klein 1999: 326), but were much less successful further east where resource distribution in time was markedly more discontinuous.

This does not appear to have been merely a technological limitation. Fire and dietary access to large and medium game, both of which are crucial to survival in high-latitude winters, are known from Lower Palaeolithic sites throughout Europe. Fire is attested from at least 400 kyr at Beeches Pit, Terra Amata, Vertesszollos, Schoningen and Bilzingsleben (Gowlett 2006). Convincing early evidence for large game hunting is found at Boxgrove, England (Roberts & Parfitt 1999), Miesenheim I (Turner 1995) and Schoningen 13 (Thieme 2005). The barrier to the long-term settlement of highly seasonal environments must instead have been social, cognitive or both.

Resource proximity in time and space: landscape spatial structure

The weakness of Lower Palaeolithic settlement in broken upland regions appears puzzling since these environments in the Holocene are associated with altitudinally-zoned vegetation patches and the close spatial packing of ecotonal boundaries. If this were so in the Pleistocene then hill and mountain country would have afforded high levels of biodiversity, and therefore resource availability, in close spatial proximity (Gamble 1995: 280) and would seem to have been ideal habitats for hominins that required resources distributed relatively closely and evenly in time and, by extension, in space.

The solution is to be found in Pleistocene landscape ecological dynamics. A wealth of fossil evidence exists demonstrating the existence in Pleistocene Europe of high-diversity plant and animal communities that have no analogues today (Huntley 1996) and which imply Pleistocene ecological dynamics very different from those of the Holocene. A critical factor here is the operation in the Pleistocene of high-amplitude oscillations in temperature with periodicities of between one and three millennia, as are visible in Greenland ice core oxygen isotope curves for the last 118 kyr (Dansgaard et al. 1993; Grootes et al. 1993). These Dansgaard-Oeschger (D-O) events were episodes in which mean annual temperatures above the Greenland ice sheet rose by as much as 10[degrees]C in the space of 50 years or less, followed by a slower cooling (Figure 4, Curve B); they are known to have occurred in the Lower (Raymo et al. 1998) and Middle (McManus et al. 2003) Pleistocene, and to have been global phenomena (e.g. Chen et al. 1997; Roucoux et al. 2001; Genty et al. 2003). In the Holocene (Figure 4, Curve A), and possibly in earlier interglacials, climate was less unstable (Bond et al. 1997; McManus et al. 2003), but glacial and intermediate episodes subject to very high levels of millennial-scale climate instability comprised 90 per cent of Pleistocene time. Radical, even catastrophic, climate change on millennial wavelengths was therefore an environmental fact for the great bulk of the Palaeolithic.


Millennial-scale climatic cycles are a key factor in understanding the spatial structure of Pleistocene European landscapes. Guthrie (1990) has referred to the Pleistocene 'mammoth steppe', organised not in latitudinal, climatically-forced vegetation zones as in the Holocene, but as a 'plaid' in which many vegetation patches were distributed in close proximity as a fine-grained mosaic in a grassland matrix. This was a consequence precisely of millennial-scale climatic instability which precluded the establishment of optimally adapted, low-diversity communities by competitive exclusion (Lister & Sher 1995; Hopkinson 2001). Plant and animal distributions were instead patchy, fragmented and in constant flux, and sustained high levels of species diversity within the landscape.

To understand the differential impact of repeated catastrophic climate change on the spatial structure of landscapes in uplands and lowlands, however, we need to consider the ecological dynamics of mosaic landscapes. The size, number, distribution and shape of vegetation patches are critical causes and consequences of landscape spatial structure and its response to catastrophe. Forman (1995) has described patch dynamics in considerable depth, and the key elements are summarised as follows:

1. Patch size and number. By comparison with a large patch, a small patch has a relatively insignificant centre and is dominated by its edge. The smaller the patch, the more important the role of the edge becomes. Small patches support edge-specialist species, but few patch-interior specialists; therefore they generally do not harbour a high diversity of species. In contrast, large patches, unless they are elongate in shape, have a much lower edge:interior ratio. Generally, they support larger animal populations including obligate patch-interior species and exhibit greater plant and animal species diversity. Patch persistence in the face of catastrophic disturbance increases with size through the buffering of the centre by the edge, and this confers upon large patches an important role in maintaining species diversity in the wider landscape.

The number of patches is also important in determining landscape species diversity and ecosystem resilience. Landscapes with many small patches are resilient since the risk of catastrophe is spread in space, and because the high incidence of contact edges in such landscapes promotes ecological connectivity. This enables ecosystem flows to bypass localised disturbance or catastrophe and spreads the risk of extinction.

2. Patch distribution. However, mosaic landscapes with many small patches display resilience only if the patches are closely distributed. If they are widely spaced, inter-patch interaction is weak and the re-routing of ecosystem processes and flows through nearby patches is impossible. Mosaics of this spatial structure display very low levels of resilience and are at high risk of catastrophic destruction and species loss.

3. Patch shape. A large patch will have a high edge:centre ratio if it is elongate in shape. It may therefore be unsuitable as a core habitat and support few centre-specialist species. As with small patches, the dominance of the patch edge promotes high levels of connectivity and flow between the patch and other spatial elements in the mosaic. Compact patches, on the other hand, have a length:width ratio close to unity. This minimises the edge:interior ratio for a given patch area and confers upon compact patches some of the properties of large patches, including high species diversity, limited interaction with the surroundings and some resistance to catastrophe and extinction.

Together with the history of catastrophic events, topography is a key determinant of patch configuration (Pietrzak 1989). In plains, patches tend to be compact, especially at the floodplain bottom. On slopes elongate patches are much more common. This has important implications for the ecological contrast between lowlands and broken uplands under Pleistocene conditions of high-amplitude millennial-scale climate cyclicity. The tendency towards edge-dominated elongate patches in steeply-cut valleys and broken terrain depressed within-patch species diversity, reduced edge-buffering of patch centres and increased vulnerability to patch destruction and species loss in these environments. The conditions for a resilient and persistent fine-grained mosaic spatial structure are unlikely to have been met as patch and species loss limited the potential for the re-routing of ecosystem nutrient and energy flows and population regeneration. Landscape resilience and persistence would have depended on the development of larger, if elongate, patches with buffered centres. Equilibrium spatial structure in Pleistocene uplands is therefore likely to have been a coarse-grained mosaic in which particular plant and animal communities, and therefore particular resources for hominins, were widely dispersed.

In Pleistocene plains, however, compact patches maintained both species diversity and resistance to catastrophic disturbance and species loss. The spatial structure of the mammoth steppe, in which large numbers of small patches were in close proximity and interactions between them only minimally inhibited by distance, enhanced landscape resilience in the face of climate instability as ecosystem flows could be rerouted around lost or damaged patches. The conditions for a persistent, resilient landscape were met in a high-diversity, fine-grained mosaic in which resources for hominin foragers were closely packed.


In this light the scarcity of evidence for hominin presence before 200 kyr in highly seasonal regions and in high-relief uplands forms a coherent pattern. Lower Palaeolithic hominins in Europe were restricted to habitats in which resources were distributed closely in space and time. The severe winter resource dearths of Central and Eastern Europe, and the distances between resources in coarsely-structured upland landscapes, presented problems of spatiotemporal scale in resource distribution that Homo heidelbergensis appears to have been unable to solve with sufficient success to maintain anything other than episodic occupations. The apparently exceptional Lower Palaeolithic occupation of the Italian Apennines is the exception that proves the rule in that it is strongly associated with localities that were indeed fine-grained mosaic landscapes at that time. Where palaeoenvironmental evidence indicates otherwise, as with the dense extensive forests of the Riano Valley for example, there is no evidence of Lower Palaeolithic occupation (Mussi 1995). It is possible that the active vulcanism typical of the Apennines was responsible for its exceptional habitability in the Lower Palaeolithic. Repeated volcanic eruption has been shown to have generated fine-grained landscape spatial structure in the Turkana Basin, East Africa, between 1.7 and 1.5 myr (Rogers et al. 1994).

The Neanderthals of the Middle Palaeolithic, on the other hand, were much more successful in incorporating larger scales of heterogeneity in their world into effective systems of landscape exploitation, as their colonisation of both highly seasonal and upland environments demonstrates. Like the incorporation of debitage and faconnage into a unified technological concept with the emergence of Levallois reduction strategies, so the geography of Middle Palaeolithic occupation in Europe represents the incorporation of difference. The sustained occupation of spatiotemporally coarse-grained environments depends upon the predication of action in the here-and-now on future action in the there-and-then, and on multiple scales of time and space. Evidence from lithic raw material transfers in the Middle Palaeolithic demonstrates that Neanderthal groups were not restricted either to plains or to uplands but practised mobility strategies that integrated both (Feblot-Augustins 1997: Figures 33, 39), possibly seasonally. Logistically organised mobility, involving the harvesting of patchily-distributed resources through the temporary fissioning of task-specific parties (Binford 1979) was certainly a feature of the later Middle Palaeolithic (Hopkinson 2004) The Middle Palaeolithic differs from the Lower precisely in this incorporation of summer and winter, of plain, valley and plateau, of the here-and-now and the there-and-then, into effective strategies for life lived on larger spatiotemporal, conceptual and practical scales than those of the Lower Palaeolithic.


The transition from the Lower to the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe was not an evolutionary non-event, and the two periods together do not constitute a vast temporal expanse of behavioural conservatism and stasis. The Middle Palaeolithic is distinguished from the Lower by the emergence, over tens of millennia, of new, larger scales of hominin action, conceptualisation and organisation that were manifest in both lithic technology and in the geography of settlement, and which have been glossed here as the incorporation of difference. This entailed an anticipatory reach and spatiotemporal depth to knowledgeable social action that is quite undocumented in the Lower Palaeolithic. It is not clear whether this transformation was enabled by evolutionary developments in hominin cognitive capacities associated with the transition from Homo heidelbergensis to Homo neanderthalensis, or whether it was an emergent property of factors such as population growth and enhanced transmission of ideas and practices between local groups (Hopkinson & White 2005), although biological and social explanations need not be mutually exclusive. One might add that the possibility of a similar process of the incorporation of difference in the contemporaneous transition from the Early to the Middle Stone Age in Africa might be a fruitful matter for future research.

What is clear is that trajectories of behavioural and cognitive evolution were not the sole preserve of our own African Homo sapiens ancestors. The hominins of Lower and Middle Palaeolithic Europe might be extinct without issue, but they were capable and skilful people whose cognitive and practical worlds underwent a dynamic transformation in scale. This fact has important implications for our understanding of pattern and process in human evolution, and for the boundaries we erect to police the uniqueness of humanity.


The author wishes to thank the University of Leicester for its kind support in granting him a period of study leave, during which this article was written.

Received: 26 April 2006; Accepted: 24 August 2006; Revised: 28 September 2006


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Terry Hopkinson, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK (Email:
Table 1. Sites older than 200 kyr from Central and Eastern Europe.

Region/Site Date *

Memleben c. 500 kyr
Schoningen 12 > 400 kyr
Schoningen 13 > 400 kyr
Wallendorf MIS 11 - 430-360 kyr, or
 MIS 9 - 340-301 kyr
Ariendorf 1 MIS 8 - 301-242 kyr
Markkleeburg MIS 8 - 301-242 kyr
Bilzingsleben II,
 Travertine 350-320 kyr (U-Th)
 414-280 kyr (ESR)
Ehringsdorf 225 [+ or -] 26 kyr (ESR)
Bad Canstatt MIS 7 - 242-186 kyr
Rozumice C MIS 8 - 301-242 kyr (OSL)
Vertesszollos 350-245 kyr (U-Th)
Korol'evo VI, VII, VIII VI: 360 [+ or -] 50 kyr (TL);
 VII: 650 [+ or -] 90 kyr (TL)
 VIII: 850 [+ or -] 100 kyr (TL)

Region/Site References

Memleben Mania 1984
Schoningen 12 Thieme & Maier 1995
Schoningen 13 Thieme & Maier 1995
Wallendorf Mania 1988

Ariendorf 1 Turner 1991
Markkleeburg Mania & Baumann 1980
Bilzingsleben II, Schwarcz et al. 1988;
 Travertine Mania 1995

Ehringsdorf Cook et al. 1982
Bad Canstatt Wagner 1984
Rozumice C Foltyn et al. 2004
Vertesszollos Kretzoi & Dobosi 1990
Korol'evo VI, VII, VIII Gladilin 1989

* Stratigraphically derived dates unless otherwise specified.
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Title Annotation:Research
Author:Hopkinson, Terry
Article Type:Table
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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