Ahead of the Times: Blade and Bladelet Production Associated with Neandertal Remains at the Bau de l’Aubesier (Mediterranean France) Between MIS 7 and MIS 5d
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Middle Paleolithic blade production is documented in north-western Europe as early as 250 ka between the Seine and the Rhine valleys. If Middle Paleolithic blade production is now a well-established fact, it is still unclear whether bladelets – or microlithic blade production – were intentionally produced during the Middle Paleolithic. Evidence suggesting Middle Paleolithic bladelet production is sparse, often debatable, perhaps unrecognized in the old collections and usually dated to MIS 3 and, less frequently, to MIS 4. Here, a detailed chaîne opératoire analysis is applied to more than 100,000 lithic artifacts (including the microlithic elements collected through sieving) excavated in fourteen different layers at the Bau de l’Aubesier rock shelter in south-eastern France. The Bau de l’Aubesier contained several Neandertal and (pre) Neandertal remains, and Electron Spin Resonance (ESR), Uranium-Thorium (U-Th), Thermoluminescence (TL), and biostratigraphy indicate that the oldest layers are at least 200,000 years old, while the top of the sequence is ~110,000 years old. We found blade production in several layers, constituting direct evidence for laminar reduction strategies in the south of Europe from MIS 7 to MIS 5d and as early as 200 ka. Blades show distinct morpho-technical features that result from using both volumetric and non-volumetric reduction strategies. We also document the earliest independent bladelet production to date in a sedimentary context (level 4) radiometrically dated to MIS 5d and containing six Neandertal teeth. Bladelet cores on flakes and maintenance bladelets are found in the MIS 5d level only, and only rare irregular bladelets are found in levels older than MIS 5d—suggesting that recurrent bladelet production was not used at the Bau de l’Aubesier before MIS 5d. Our results support the idea that detailed and exhaustive technological analyses of the entirety of lithic assemblages are required to identify Middle Paleolithic bladelet production, which would otherwise go unnoticed. We suggest that Middle Paleolithic bladelet productions still remain to be discovered, especially in the old collections, and that a better understanding of their variability through time and space is a prerequisite to reconstructing the significance of these technologies some 50 to 200 ka and before the proliferation of Upper Paleolithic blade and bladelet technologies.