The finds

The archaeological finds from Rodafnidia include stone tools, flakes, and cores from different variants of the Acheulean technological tradition. This industry includes a remarkable number of Large Cutting Tools, handaxes, trihedrals and cleavers. Beyond lithic finds only a few micro-fossil remains, visible under the microscope, have been identified through water-sieving and sediment flotation: the ostracods Candona neglecta και Iliocypris gibba, rodent tooth fragments (taxa Cricetidae, Arvicolidae), gastropod shell fragments and charophyte gyrogonites. The presence of ostracods and charophyte gyrogonites is indicative of freshwater environments in Rodafnidia. Organic remains are exceedingly rare; hence the chemical composition of the sediments and the depositional history of the site do not favour preservation.  

The large Acheulean assemblage from Lesbos is the first ever to be found in southeastern Europe. The earliest evidence for this technological tradition is dated to 1.76 million years ago in Kokiselei, Kenya, and 1.7 million years ago in Konso, Ethiopia (Kuman, 2014). The name “Acheulean” was given by Gabriel de Mortillet in 1869 after the site of Saint-Acheul in France. The characteristic tool component of this tradition is the Large Cutting Tools, which were added to and enriched the existing core and flake stone-tool tradition spectrum. In Graham Clark’s (1969) categorisation, the Acheulean is described as “Mode II”. It is the longest-lasting technological innovation in human history, surviving for 1.5 million years. The Acheulean technology accompanied early hominins in their first out of Africa dispersal events and the initial colonisation of Eurasia. The geographic distribution of the Acheulean covers the full extent of the known world during the Lower Palaeolithic, from South Africa to Britain and from Iberia to China. This is also the earliest technology used by the first inhabitants of the Aegean on Lesbos.

The Acheulean industry from the Kalloni Gulf presents a remarkable variability in size and end products, capable of providing textbook illustrations of the full range of Acheulean stone tools. Operational sequences identified in the material from Rodafnidia reflect three knapping operations. The first includes operational sequences aimed to produce core tools through the modification of the raw material. Also known as façonnage, this operation produces Large Cutting Tools, chopping tools and debitage products (flakes, debris, knapping accidents). The second operation encompasses relatively short, unelaborate sequences with technical actions aimed for flake removal from cores with one or two rectangular striking platforms. Flakes, the circular or oval detached pieces, would be then modified into Large Cutting Tools with appropriate knapping, unifacial (one side of the object) or bifacial (both sides of the object). The third knapping operation includes flake tools whose blanks have been detached from prepared cores.  Operations two and three belong to the debitage methods.

Who were the knappers and users of the Lesbos Palaeolithic tools? To date, no palaeoanthropological remains have been found on the island that could offer an answer. In Africa, Homo ergaster has been identified as the earliest species connected to the Acheulean (in Sterkfontein, South Africa, and in Daka, Ethiopia, fossil remains of Homo ergaster have been found in association with Acheulean stone tools). In Eurasia Homo erectus was initially the bearer of this tradition. Later on, in Africa and Eurasia Homo heidelbergensis also produced Acheulean industries (in Bodo, Ethiopia, Elandsfontein in South Africa, Ndutu in Tanzania, and Broken Hill in Zambia, Homo heidelbergensis remains have been found in association with Acheulean stone tools).   

In terms of function, Large Cutting Tools have been classed as pick, cleaver and handaxe, and in terms of shape, as uniface (modification only on one face), biface (modification on both faces) and trihedral (sharp tip is formed by the convergence of three planes). The pick is a large, crude tool with a plano-convex or triangular cross section, and a thick, robust sharp tip. The cleaver is a bifacial tool made on a large flake. Its distal dorsal face, the bit, is a surface vertically or laterally positioned in relation to the long axis of the object, which ends in a large and transversal cutting-edge,  similar to that of a modern metal cleaver.        

The handaxe is a symmetrical or almost symmetrical tool with centripetal flaking on both faces organized to manage two convexes surfaces. The active, distal part has a sharp tip shaped by the convergence of the two lateral edges, while the non-active proximal part usually fits into a human hand. A handaxe can be made either by knapping the raw material nodule (pebble, cobble, or plaquette), or by modifying a large flake. Initially handaxes were knapped exclusively using a hard hammer, but from 800,000 years ago onwards soft hammers of antler, bone, or wood, have been used for the final retouch.  

As a multi-purpose tool operated by the human hand at close range, a  handaxe may be envisioned as the Middle Pleistocene analogue of  the  modern-day smartphone. Its ergonomics may be one of the reasons for  the wide geographical distribution of this tool over two-thirds of the Palaeolithic  world and its longevity in the history of technology. In its wide spatio-temporal range, the handaxe presents variation in size and shape (almond-shaped, ovate in plan view or flat and tabular forms  versus thick ones in 3D view) (Key, 2019); occasionally there are examples of anti-ergonomic, oversized forms (Wynn & Gowlett, 2018).   

The ability of early hominins to conceive the idea of the symmetrical, bifacial handaxe and actualise it, stems from the social and cultural context. It attests to a cognitive leap related to the development of symbolic and geometric thought. Aside from its use strictly as a cutting and chopping tool, the handaxe was also used as a medium for expressing thoughts and transferring messages (Cook, 2013). Many scholars argue that the handmade symmetry was triggered by the aesthetic quest and fulfilled the need for communication. Many interpretations have been proposed, not necessarily overlapping. Handaxes may have been used as a means of sexual display and for attracting mating partners (Kohn & Mithen, 1999); or as a symbol of identity of a person or of a group (Carbonell & Mosquera, 2006); or as evidence of the knapping skill (Stout et al., 2002) or other qualities of its bearer (Roe, 1981). Even though stone is a hard material, it can gradually be transformed into a malleable matter in which the ability to plan can be captured, along with technical decision-making and actualisation, satisfying the human need for social interaction and status.

In the Acheulean tradition a major novelty appears: the preparation of the core in such a way that the final product would be a detached piece in a predetermined shape. The origins of this trait were first identified in the industries of Victoria West in South Africa (Sharon & Beaumont, 2006), while a large Levallois core made on basalt was unearthed at the archaeological site of Gesher Benet Ya’aqov (GBY) on the Jordan riverbank in Israel, dated to 780,000 years ago (Goren-Inbar, 2018). These finds suggest a conceptual correlation between handaxe production and the Levallois technique (Boëda, 1994), which was to spearhead innovation during the following stage, and was long considered to be a Neanderthal breakthrough.