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Middle Stone Age Humans in North Africa


Aterian Tanged Point (Pedunculate)

Aterian Tanged Point (Pedunculate)

José-Manuel Benito

The Aterian is the name given to a distinctive stone tool industry made by anatomically modern humans between about 80,000 and 40,000 years ago. The tools are found on sites in northern Africa between the Atlantic coast to the Kharga Oasis and the western edge of the Nile river basin.

As first described by Caton-Thompson in the 1940s, the tools of the Aterian include distinctive tanged projectile points-triangular blades with skinny, squared-off hafting elements-and foliates or leaf-shaped projectile points. Other tools exhibit typical Levallois technology, and include endscrapers, perforators and burins. Like the similarly-dated Howiesons Poort in South Africa, Aterian assemblages often include perforated Nassarian shell beads. Nassarius gibbosulus (marine tick) shell beads were found at Oued Djebbana in Algeria, and Grotte des Pigeons in Taforalt, Morocco, at about 80,000 years BP.

Dating the Aterian

The Aterian was originally thought to be dated between 40,000-20,000 bp, in part because of the similarity of some of the point styles to the much-later Solutrean, and in part because 40,000 is about as far back as radiocarbon dating can go. New dates using new methods such as electric spin resonance, Uranium/Thorium, OSL and thermoluminescence on sites such as Grotte des Pigeons and Rhafas Cave suggest the Aterian reaches well into the Middle Paleolithic, perhaps as much as 82-90,000 years ago, and probably ended about 40,000 years ago, similar in age and complexity to that of Howiesons Poort/Stille Bay in South Africa, and a good 25,000 years before the Solutrean.

Aterian Sites

This glossary entry is part of the Guide to the Middle Stone Age and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Barton RNE, Bouzouggar A, Collcutt SN, Schwenninger JL, and Clark-Balzan L. 2009. OSL dating of the Aterian levels at Dar es-Soltan I (Rabat, Morocco) and implications for the dispersal of modern Homo sapiens. Quaternary Science Reviews 28(19-20):1914-1931.

Garcea, Elena A. A. 2004 Crossing Deserts and Avoiding Seas: Aterian North African-European Relations. [Journal of Anthropological Research 60(1):27-53.

Mercier, N., et al. 2007 The Rhafas Cave (Morocco): Chronology of the mousterian and aterian archaeological occupations and their implications for Quaternary geochronology based on luminescence (TL/OSL) age determinations. Quaternary Geochronology 2(1-4):309-313.

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