Palaeolithic division of labour

Stone tools unearthed from a cave in Jordan, reveal clues about how humans may have started organising into more complex social groups and dividing tasks according to technical skills.

The artifacts from Mughr el-Hamamah, or Cave of the Doves, show a mix of techniques for making points, blades, scrapers and cutting flakes.

“These toolmakers appear to have achieved a division of labor that may have been part of an emerging pattern of more organized social structures,” Aaron Stutz of Emory University, who led to study, says.

The findings appear to confirm the theory that greater social division of labour became important at about this time, first put forward by anthropologists Steven Kuhn and Mary Stiner. The current study was published in The Journal of Human Evolution.

“Our work really seems to support that idea,” Stutz says.

“The finds from Mughr el-Hamamah give us a new window onto a transitional time, on the cusp of modern human cultural behaviors, bridging the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic.”

The era also marked the ebbing of Neanderthals as a last wave of anatomically modern humans spread out from Africa and into the Near East.

They would likely have encountered human populations that arrived earlier in the eastern Mediterranean – the crossroads of western Asia and northeast Africa – and may also have interbred with Neanderthals.

“Our find sits right in the Levantine corridor, midway between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, where each generation expanding into Eurasia would have foraged for food and made campsites,” Stutz says.

“We don’t know if these toolmakers were mainly Neanderthals or anatomically modern humans, but recent evidence from other studies now raises the possibility that they were a mix of different populations.

“What we see at the Mughr el-Hamamah site is that individuals were starting to live, work and form families in larger, more culturally structured social networks.”

Mughr el-Hamamah is located in a limestone outcrop 75 metres above sea level. It overlooks the Jordan Valley, opposite the Nablus Mountains.

The relatively undisturbed Upper Paleolithic layer included fireplaces stacked on top of one another that yielded chunks of well-preserved charcoal from hearths associated with the tools.

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