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GEA(Wiley) RIGHT INTERACTIVE

Geologic Contexts of the Acheulian


(Middle Pleistocene) in the Eastern
Sahara
Christopher L. Hill
Ice Age Research Program, 600 West Kagy Blvd., Montana State University,
Bozeman, Montana 59717-2730

The Bir Tarfawi and Bir Sahara East region of northeast Africa contains sedimentary remnants
associated with Acheulian artifacts. The geology of these localities can be used to help ex-
amine paleobiogeographic and taphonomic contexts and paleoclimatic chronologies related
to Middle Pleistocene hominids. Recognized by the presence of handaxes, Acheulian occur-
rences in the Eastern Sahara have been found with paleosols, cemented gravels, and tufas,
and are often found as deflationary lags. In the Tarfawi region, handaxes were found embed-
ded in sands overlain by carbonates, embedded in limestones, and in deflated contexts. These
Acheulian sites likely date to before 300 ky B.P. The lithostratigraphic sequences indicate
that paleoclimatic conditions in the Sahara during the Pleistocene were wetter than in the
Holocene. The geologic context (stratigraphy, sedimentology, dating) of the Acheulian in the
Eastern Sahara seems to indicate wet paleoclimatic intervals during the Pleistocene when
biogeographic conditions were favorable for hominid habitation in the region. 䉷 2001 John
Wiley & Sons, Inc.

INTRODUCTION
Objectives
The geologic contexts of Acheulian (Lower Paleolithic) artifacts from southern
Egypt (Figure 1) provide information useful for evaluating Middle Pleistocene land-
scape (paleobiogeographic) settings and site formation (taphonomic) processes
connected with Middle Pleistocene hominids, as well as paleoclimatic chronologies
of northeast Africa. The objectives of this article are to provide a succinct review
of Acheulian sites in the Eastern Sahara, briefly describe and interpret the geologic
context of Acheulian artifacts in the Bir Tarfawi-Bir Sahara region of southern
Egypt, and place these discoveries in a tentative paleoclimatic chronologic frame-
work.
The Bir Tarfawi-Bir Sahara area (Figure 2) is situated within the Darb el Arba’in
Desert, a term applied by C. Vance Haynes, Jr. to distinguish the most hyperarid
region of the Sahara (Haynes, 1987). The geologic record of this region preserves
strong evidence for dramatic changes in paleoenvironmental conditions. These
changes appear to have had an important influence on Pleistocene biotic popula-
tions that were sometimes able to exist in what is now the driest part of the largest short
desert on Earth (Haynes et al., 1997). standard

Geoarchaeology: An International Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1, 65– 94 (2001)


䉷 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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Figure 1. Map showing locations of some of the documented Acheulian sites in the Eastern Sahara. Bir
Sahara and Bir Tarfawi are located in southern Egypt, just north of the border with Sudan. Inset map
indicates location of the Eastern Sahara in southern Egypt and northern Sudan (in northeastern Africa).

Review of Previous Work


The first systematic investigation of Pleistocene geology and Acheulian artifacts
in the Egyptian Sahara was by Caton-Thompson in the early 1930s, at Kharga Oasis
(Figure 1) (Caton-Thompson, 1932, 1952). At about the same time, Myers studied
an Acheulian site at the Gilf Kebir as part of Bagnold’s 1937 – 1938 expedition (Bag-
nold et al., 1939). In the Bir Tarfawi region, Acheulian artifacts were first studied short
by the Combined Prehistoric Expedition (CPE) in the early 1970s (Schild and Wen- standard

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Figure 2. Map showing the locations of three Acheulian sites at Bir Tarfawi and Bir Sahara East. Site
BS-14 is situated in the southern part of Bir Sahara East. There are two Acheulian localities at Bir
Tarfawi; one is a limestone capped remnant in the central part of the depression, the other, designated
Site E-88-12, is situated in the south part of the depression. There are other deflational basins in the
region, such as Little Bir Sahara. Besides sedimentary remnants with Acheulian artifacts, there are other
Middle and Late Pleistocene remnants associated with Middle Paleolithic artifacts in the Bir Tarfawi
region. Map based on Figure 3.3 in Wendorf et al. (1993).

dorf, 1975, 1981; Wendorf et al., 1976). Acheulian sites have also been reported
from other locations in the Western Desert of Egypt and in the Saharan portions
of Sudan, Chad, and Libya. Figure 1 shows the general locations of selected Acheu-
lian sites.
Acheulian sites from the Dakhla and Kharga region north of Bir Tarfawi (Figure
1) are typically found with fossils springs, indicating a relationship with wetter
climates during the Middle Pleistocene (Caton-Thompson, 1952; Schild and Wen-
dorf, 1977; Wendorf and Schild, 1980; Brookes, 1983; McDonald, 1982; Kleindienst
et al., 1999; Kleindienst, 1999; Churcher and Mills, 1999; Nicoll et al., 1999). As an
example, the Evolved Acheulian assemblage at spring mound KO10 (Kharga Oasis short
10) is estimated to be older than 300 ky B.P. (Churcher et al., 1999). Wetter envi- standard

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ronments are also inferred along the eastern edge of the Kharga depression at Refuf
Pass, where Acheulian artifacts are embedded in gravels capped with tufas (Caton-
Thompson, 1952; Butzer and Hansen, 1968). The gravels seem to indicate increased
wadi deposition (Wendorf and Schild, 1980) while the finer clastics and carbonates
were deposited in slowly moving water, ponds, or springs. Tufa deposits at Refuf
Pass and elsewhere near Kharga seem to be related to spring-fed alkaline stream
environments (Nicoll et al., 1999). The Refuf Pass (Wadi el-Refuf) Acheulian assem-
blages are placed in two categories: an Evolved or Upper Acheulian perhaps older
than 400 ky B.P., and an Acheulio-Levalloisan, older than 300 ky B.P. (Caton-
Thompson, 1952; Churcher et al., 1999; Churcher and Mills, 1999). Higher water
tables and tufa deposition seems to have occurred at Refuf Pass at around 300,
240, 198, 174, 138, and 125 ky B.P. (Nicoll et al., 1997), providing an indication of
when wetter environmental conditions may have prevailed.
Acheulian artifacts are found elsewhere in the Eastern Sahara in geologic con-
texts that also seem to imply paleolandscapes with wetter climates during the Mid-
dle Pleistocene. For instance, in the vicinity of Wadi Midauwara, south of Kharga,
Acheulian artifacts were reported as lags on tufa surfaces or in solution basins
(Smith et al., 1999). North of Kharga, three Acheulian sites (KUWDE 30, 31, and
34) were found on alluvial terraces associated with Pleistocene wadi courses (Sim-
mons and Mandel, 1985) (Figure 1). Closer to the Nile at Kurkur (Figure 1), Acheu-
lian bifaces were recovered from within a tufa (Hester and Hoebler, 1965; Hoebler
and Hester, 1969).
Between Bir Tarfawi and the Nile Valley, Late Acheulian bifaces are found on
the pediments in the Nabta area, in lag position near Bargat el Shab, and on the
surface of a red soil at the top of sands near Kiseiba. Late Acheulian artifacts are
within basal sands along the southeastern bank of the Kiseiba Scarp (Wendorf et
al., 1984), while other Acheulian artifacts are sand blasted (Haynes, 1985). An im-
portant set of sites in geologic context have been documented near Kiseiba, south
of Two Hills playa (Haynes et al., 1997). One of these, Kiseiba Acheulian site no. 1
(KAS-1), contains Acheulian handaxes, cleavers, and other artifacts that do not
appear to have been significantly redistributed by fluvial action (Haynes et al.,
1997). Late Acheulian artifacts have also been reported on top of gravels at Bir
Dibis southwest of Kiseiba (Wendorf and Schild, 1980).
In Egypt, south of Bir Tarfawi, Middle and Upper Acheulian artifacts were dis-
covered near and in Wadi Arid, south of Wadi Arid, and around Bir Safsaf (Figure
1). Some of these sites have been dated, and some are possibly in primary context.
Others are in lag position, such as Middle Acheulian artifacts found on a deflated
petrocalcic paleosol (Haynes, 1985). Carbonate adhering to flakes dated by uranium
series to 212 ky B.P. provides a minimum age for the Acheulian at Site 84f21-7 Area
A (McHugh, 1988b; Szabo et al., 1989). At Site 84f21-7 Area Z (E-85-14 in Wendorf
et al. [1987b]) Middle Acheulian artifacts were found embedded in slope-wash,
which might indicate that, although in stratified geologic context, they have been
transported to some degree. Acheulian artifacts were also found on top of the short
truncated calcified pebble gravel surface and partially embedded in gravels, and standard

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crude handaxes were embedded in the calcified pebble gravel at Wadi Arid
(McHugh et al., 1988b). Middle Acheulian bifaces at Site 84F22-2 (E-85-13 in Wen-
dorf et al. [1987b]) could be in primary context (McHugh et al., 1988a). Uranium-
series-dated carbonate nodules are chronologically inverted and provide ages of
212, 141, and 45 ky B.P. Also in the Wadi Arid region, Site E-85015 contains an early
Upper Acheulian assemblage (Wendorf et al., 1987a, 1987b).
The Bir Safsaf area (Figure 1) contains several Acheulian sites on sandsheets or
gravel covered hills (McHugh et al., 1988b). Site 84M9-12 (or E-85-12 in Wendorf et
al., 1987a) consists of a surface collection of handaxes. Handaxes are embedded
in partially cemented sands and gravels or are on a surface deflated from calichified
(calcium carbonate cemented) alluvium (McHugh et al., 1988b). Late Acheulian
artifacts at Site 84M9-3 in the Bir Safsaf area were found on the surface surrounding
a remnant capped by kunkar (a calcareous duricrust) with rhizoliths (McHugh et
al., 1988a).
At Dagdag basin, southeast of Bir Safsaf, Acheulian artifacts occur on the surface
and within the top of sands and gravels containing calcareous concretions and
plates (Wendorf et al., 1987b). There are two taxonomic components at Site E-85-
2; most of the abraded artifacts are Middle Acheulian, while less weathered and
fresh artifacts are Upper or Final Acheulian. On the northern edge of the Dagdag
basin, slope-wash deposits contain Late or Final Acheulian artifacts; artifacts from
E-85-15 were embedded in slope-wash sands and redeposited gravels (Wendorf et
al., 1987b).
Acheulian sites are known from the Gilf Kebir region and the Great Sand Sea
(Figure 1). Site 1000 is an extensive Late Acheulian scatter along the base of the
Gilf Kebir plateau (Bagnold et al., 1939; Wendorf and Schild, 1980). It lies in the
uppermost stratum of a gravelly alluvial fan (Wendorf and Schild, 1980; Haynes,
1983). The site may be contemporaneous with a period of increased wadi activity
(Wendorf and Schild, 1980). In the Great Sand Sea region, Acheulian artifacts occur
as surface lag and extend under sandy muds and derived sands reflecting playa
conditions (Haynes, 1982, 1985; Roe et al., 1982). Acheulian artifacts are also as-
sociated with the contact between the surface of a dune ridge and alluvium, or
older playa deposits transitional to the alluvium (Haynes, 1982). A handaxe made
of Libyan glass was recovered in the Sand Sea area (Roe et al., 1982).
In Oyo, northwest Sudan (Figure 1), Late Acheulian handaxes and other Early
Paleolithic artifacts have eroded from under lacustrine muds, diatomites, and marls
capping a mesa (Haynes, 1985). The artifacts may have been deflated before the
deposition of the Pleistocene lake sediments. In some places, an erosional contact
of reworked sandstone contains late Acheulian artifacts. These artifacts were sand-
blasted while at the surface prior to burial (Haynes, 1985) or are in fluvial sands
underlying the Pleistocene lake beds (Haynes, 1989). In north central Sudan, se-
verely eroded Lower Paleolithic sites occur in the Laqiya Depression (Figure 1). At
least one Late Acheulian site is known from Prendergast Valley. Handaxes and
other artifacts occur in a soil developed in alluvial sands and gravel (Haynes, 1985). short
In southern Libya and northern Chad, Acheulian occurrences include Upper standard

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Acheulian (?) bifaces from the well at Sarra eroding from the surface of a soil
covered by eolian sands (Arkell, 1964). Arkell found an assemblage that could be
transitional between the Lower and Middle Paleolithic at Little Wanyanga Lake.
Tillet (1985) considers that the sites near Wanyanga Kebir studied by Arkell rep-
resent a very evolved stage of Acheulian.
In summary, artifacts taxonomically affiliated with Middle, Upper, Late, and
Evolved Acheulian have been discovered in both surface and subsurface contexts
in the Eastern Sahara. Where there are unambiguous relationships between arti-
facts and geologic contexts, the pattern that seems to emerge is that Middle Pleis-
tocene hominids lived in the Eastern Sahara during times when the climate con-
ditions were substantially wetter than at present. Populations were widespread
within the region but perhaps usually constrained to habitat settings connected
with reliable sources of water. Acheulian artifacts within stratified deposits are
rare. Detailed sedimentologic or taphonomic studies could help evaluate whether
artifacts found within stratigraphic sequences are in primary context or assist in
determining Pleistocene biogeographic settings.

METHODS
Studies of the geology of Acheulian sites in the Bir Tarfawi region were con-
ducted as part of a broader project designed to (1) evaluate their paleogeographic
setting (“landscape habitat”), (2) assess whether the patterns of artifact taxonomic
composition and distribution could be directly attributed to Pleistocene hominids,
and (3) place the sites within a paleoclimatic-chronologic framework. The field and
laboratory techniques used are described in more detail by Hill (1992). Field ex-
amination and sampling included assessments of texture and composition, Munsell
color (dry, Table I), coherence/cementation, prominent bedding or structures,
thickness of deposits, character of stratigraphic boundaries, fossils, and artifactual
content. Laboratory studies included particle size (wet sieving and pipette using
sodium hexametaphosphate as a dispersent, after removal of carbonates and or-
ganics, Tables I – III), loss-on-ignition (weight loss after heating to 550⬚C and 1025⬚C
to estimate organic and carbonate content, Table II), x-ray diffraction analyses, and
petrographic thin-section studies. The thin-section descriptions follow the carbon-
ate classification of Dunham (1962) and were provided by McGillis (1993).

RESULTS
Acheulian artifact assemblages, recognized by the presence of handaxes (mode
2 of Clark [1977]), were studied from three localities in the Bir Tarfawi-Bir Sahara
region (Figure 2). Several other occurrences or isolated bifaces also were found.
These include a set of handaxes recorded during a walking survey of the area
between Bir Tarfawi and Bir Sahara East by Hill and J. Saunders during 1986, and
Sites BS-5, BS-7, BS-9, BS-10, BS-20 discovered during the 1973 campaign of the
CPE. Excavations recovered Acheulian artifacts in definitive subsurface geologic short
context at Site BS-14, situated at the south end of Bir Sahara East (Figure 2). standard

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Table I. Compositional data.

GEOLOGIC CONTEXTS OF THE ACHEULIAN IN THE EASTERN SAHARA


Loss on Ignition HCl Soluble Carbonate Plastic
500⬚C 10025⬚C Fraction Estimate Component
Sample No. (Organics) (Carbonate) (Carbonate) Average Coarse Fine Munsell Color (dry)
BS 14-T1/88: 015 0.49 0.5 97.0 3.0 10YR 8/2, white
BS 14-T1/88: 016 4.94 5.0 89.0 6.0 10YR 8/4, very pale brown
BS 14-T1/88: 017 0.38 55.33 59.08 57.0 36.5 6.5 10YR 8/4, very pale brown
BS 14-T1/88: 018 28.31 28.5 67.0 4.0 7.5YR 7/6, reddish-yellow
BT-T3/87: 001 2.73 3.0 90.0 7.5 10YR 8/2, white
BT-T3/87: 002 92.83 93.0 3.5 4.0 10YR 8/2, white
BT-T3/87: 003 94.22 94.0 3.5 2.5 10YR 8/1-2, white
BT-T3/87: 004 1.39 93.58 88.61 91.0 5.0 4.0 10YR 8/1-2, white
BT-T3/87: 005 88.27 88.0 1.0 10.5 10YR 7/2, light grey
BT-T1/87: 001 8.45 8.5 84.0 7.5 10YR 8/2, white
BT-T1/87: 002 14.54 14.5 77.5 8.0 10YR 8/1-2, white
BT-T1/87: 003 7.92 8.0 78.0 14.0 10YR 8/1, white
BT-T1/87: 004 1.72 90.56 96.39 93.5 1.5 5.0 10YR 8/1-3, white to very

RIGHT
pale brown
BT-T1/87: 005 17.76 18.0 57.5 24.5 10YR 8/1, white
BT-T2/88: G1 0.12 0.1 95.0 5.0 10YR 8/3, very pale brown
BT-T2/88: G2 0.80 1.0 89.0 10.0 10YR 8/3, very pale brown
E-88-12: A2 0.16 0.2 96.5 3.5 10YR 6/2-3, light brown-

INTERACTIVE
ish-grey or pale brown
E-88-12: A4a 0.40 94.82 97.80 96.0 (4.0) — 10YR 8/2, white

71

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Table II. Particle weight-size distribution data.


Fine
Coarse Siliciclastics Siliciclastics
Very Very
Coarse Coarse Medium Fine Fine
Sample No. Gravel Sand Sand Sand Sand Sand Silt Clay
BS 14-T1/88: 015 0.74 31.05 34.51 17.10 8.58 5.24 1.85 0.93
BS 14-T1/88: 016 5.64 25.88 15.66 21.21 15.56 9.73 2.43 3.89
BS 14-T1/88: 017 3.65 19.24 16.25 18.41 15.27 12.14 5.23 9.62
BS 14-T1/88: 018 0.50 20.27 20.56 21.57 19.26 11.29 1.51 5.04
BT-T3/87: 001 0.00 2.97 10.89 38.44 29.97 10.00 3.00 4.86
BT-T3/87: 002 0.00 0.00 2.55 17.56 16.68 9.65 30.73 22.83
BT-T3/87: 003 0.00 0.00 30.30 9.70 8.48 11.52 18.18 21.82
BT-T3/87: 004 0.00 1.70 6.25 18.75 15.35 11.93 40.00 6.25
BT-T3/87: 005 0.00 0.00 1.39 2.87 2.77 2.78 0.00 90.28
BT-T1/87: 001 0.39 0.77 8.70 27.92 41.25 12.76 3.86 4.35
BT-T1/87: 002 5.10 0.88 10.42 32.49 39.29 2.66 4.06 5.10
BT-T1/87: 003 0.00 1.38 8.43 32.18 28.87 13.95 8.28 6.91
BT-T1/87: 004 0.00 0.00 1.89 7.54 7.55 7.55 66.04 9.43
BT-T1/87: 005 0.00 1.42 7.80 21.45 25.36 14.01 18.61 11.35
BT-T2/88: G1 0.00 0.42 6.94 41.68 36.90 9.04 0.84 4.18
BT-T2/88: G2 0.00 1.57 7.54 29.51 38.93 12.09 4.71 5.65
E-88-12: A2 4.08 19.39 11.22 26.85 27.63 7.38 2.35 1.10
E-88-12: A4a 0.00 0.58 1.92 3.27 5.38 10.00 78.85 0.00

Geologically in situ artifacts were recovered from Site E-88- 12, on the south end
of Bir Tarfawi (Figure 2). In other instances, Acheulian artifacts were found on the
surface, although the artifacts were sometimes unweathered, presumably indicat-
ing their fairly recent erosion from sediments.

Bir Sahara East (Site BS-14 Area)


Site BS-14 is the most thoroughly documented Acheulian locality in the region
(Schild and Wendorf, 1975, 1981; Wendorf and Schild, 1980; Hill, 1992). The sedi-
mentary mound at BS-14 has a substantial (ca. thicker than 80 cm) cap composed
of cemented sandy carbonate (sandy limestone, calcrete). The carbonate cap thins
out toward the edges of the remnant and overlies clastic quartz sands (Figures 3
and 4). Acheulian artifacts were recovered on and in the sands underlying the
carbonate (Figure 4). The excavations of M. Kobusiewicz as part of the CPE ex-
cavations in the early 1970s found ostrich eggshell fragments in these sands. Bifaces
were recovered on top of the carbonate, and bones have been found embedded in
the carbonate (Schild and Wendorf, 1981). Three trenches were excavated into the
carbonate (Trenches 1/73, 2/73, and 9/88, Figure 3). Twelve other trenches
(Trenches 3/73, 1-8/88, and 10-12/88) were placed on the edge of the carbonate cap
or excavated into the sands (Figure 3). Descriptions and profiles of the trenches short
are available in Hill (1992). standard

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Table III. Grain-size statistics.


Sample No. Mean Sorting Skewness Kurtosis
BS 14-T1/88: 015 0.70 1.32 0.28 1.05
BS 14-T1/88: 016 1.18 1.99 0.22 1.10
BS 14-T1/88: 017 1.71 2.56 0.29 1.34
BS 14-T1/88: 018 1.44 2.18 0.27 1.49
BT-T3/87: 001 2.06 1.68 0.35 2.12
BT-T3/87: 002 4.94 2.98 0.21 0.64
BT-T3/87: 003 3.73 3.94 0.17 0.67
BT-T3/87: 004 4.04 2.59 0.20 0.77
BT-T3/87: 005 8.89 1.53 ⫺0.37 2.81
BT-T1/87: 001 2.30 1.59 0.23 20.7
BT-T1/87: 002 1.96 1.87 0.11 2.68
BT-T1/87: 003 2.47 1.92 0.38 1.82
BT-T1/87: 004 5.34 2.32 ⫺0.11 1.02
BT-T1/87: 005 3.69 2.73 0.48 1.07
BT-T2/88: G1 2.06 0.96 0.13 1.10
BT-T2/88: G2 2.35 1.75 0.30 2.28
E-88-12: A2 1.33 1.52 ⫺0.14 0.83
E-88-12: A4a 5.38 1.83 ⫺0.15 0.97

Compositional and textural attributes representative of the stratigraphy observed


at BS-14 are provided in Tables I – III and Figure 4. The lowest deposit consists of
a quartz sand (sample 15, Figure 4) separated from the overlying deposits by an
erosional unconformity. The basal sands are more than 90% coarse fraction clastics
(sand-sized or larger particles).
The basal sands are unconformably overlain by an uncemented, poorly sorted
gravelly sand (sample 16, Figure 4) that contains Acheulian handaxes, retouched
flakes, debitage, and some faunal remains. Laminae suggest that the depositional
energy regime was not uniform. At times, transportational and depositional energy
levels were relatively high; these deposits have more than 3 – 4 times as much gravel
as the basal sand. The detrital component also contains more muds, indicating
lower energy depositional regimes on occasion. A trend from an overall higher
energy to lower energy system is reflected by the decline in gravel content and an
increase in the amount of very fine sand, silt, and clay. This decrease in energy is
also reflected in the increased mean grain size and sorting indices (Figure 4). In
terms of depositional mechanics, the detrital component of these sands represents
a fluctuating, but gradually decreasing, energy regime. These clastic patterns are
consistent with a depositional setting along the margin of a shallow deflational
basin in which sands were being redeposited as wash or colluvium. The decreasing
size of the clastic fraction could be an indication that the upper sediments were
deposited in a quieter setting farther from the effective margin of the basin, possibly
in a groundwater-fed pool. The fining upward sequence could also indicate that
coarse clastics were not being transported into the basin because of increased short
vegetational cover. Trace fossils (rhizoconcretions) are present in the sands con- standard

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Figure 3. Plan view of the Site BS-14 sedimentary remnant (situated in the southern part of Bir Sahara
East, see Figure 2) showing the locations of stratigraphic test trenches. Trenches were excavated into
the limestone cap, along the edge of the limestone, and in the sands surrounding the limestone. Acheu-
lian artifacts were found on the limestone, in deflated position on the surrounding sands, and stratified
within sands underlying the carbonates.

taining Acheulian artifacts, and probably indicate either the presence of plants or
invertebrate fauna.
The upper deposits at BS-14 are sandy limestones. At Trench 1/88, the carbonate
is about 30 cm thick, with medium blocky structure (sample 17, Figure 4). It is
composed of about 60% carbonate. Based on petrographic thin sections (McGillis,
1993), this is a calcite mudstone with 3 – 30% detritial quartz grains. Typically, the
clastic component is bimodal, with smaller angular and subangular quartz grains,
and larger rounded to well-rounded grains. Bivalve fragments, rare calcispheres,
and some ostracods are present. In some instances, the ostracod wall structure has
recrystallized to equant calcite. There are some possible pelecypods, gastropods,
and forams. Patchy hematite stains and equant calcite cement crusts occur on some
of the quartz grains. short
These carbonate-rich sediments could be related to a rising groundwater table standard

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Figure 4. Stratigraphy and sedimentology of Trench 1/88, providing a representative profile for Site BS-
14 (Bir Shara East). Basal sands are represented by sample 15 and contain no artifacts. An erosional
unconformity forms the boundary between the basal sands and the overlying deposits containing Acheu-
lian artifacts. Basin wash sediments (sample 16) contain Acheulian artifacts and Pleistocene faunal
remains. Trace fossils are also present. These sands are gradationally overlain by groundwater-formed
carbonates (samples 17 and 18). See Tables I-III for compositional and particle size data (particle size
statistics refer to clastic or detritial component of the sediments).

within a shallow basin. Based on studies of nearby sediments, Pachur et al. (1987)
used the term “phreatogenic crusts” to distinguish calcareous crusts formed by
groundwater or in lakes from pedogenic calcretes. The sandy limestones at Site
BS-14 seem to be the result of carbonate deposition related to a groundwater seep-
age pool. The relatively high detrital content may indicate that the basin was small,
that the groundwater level was not very high within the basin, or that there was
not much vegetation surrounding the pool. The water level may have been just
slightly higher than the ground surface or perhaps sometimes only saturating the
surface, causing carbonate deposition within the previously deposited clastics. If
the clastics represent ongoing deposition into the basin, they may reflect the ab-
sence of dense plant cover, perhaps indicating relatively low or highly sporadic
local precipitiation.
Other morphologically and lithologically different sedimentary remnants are near short
BS-14, and some have Acheulian artifacts scattered on them. These sedimentary standard

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remnants consist of cemented clastics (mostly sandstones). Issawi (1978) desig-


nated remnants composed of a top section of carbonate as spring mounds, while
those cemented by silica or Fe oxides were named ferrocrete mounds. Issawi sug-
gested that the mounds were formed during a dry phase after a more humid interval
associated with the deposition of carbonates that form the surrounding plateau.
The lithologic differences between the mounds may relate to local deposition of
Fe or carbonate minerals in continuously drying ponds that formed by seepage
(Issawi, 1978). These mounds could represent phreatophyte-induced accretions
around semipermanent pools (Neal and Motts, 1967).
Since the episode of wetter conditions, several processes have modified the sed-
imentary sequence. Some remnants are almost entirely lag features, the results of
erosion by wind. Weathering has altered the top section of BS-14, the sandy lime-
stone caprock. Where the underlying sands were not protected by indurated car-
bonates, the smaller-sized clastics were selectively removed by wind, leaving the
larger particles (mostly handaxes and less resistant cemented rock fragments) as
a deflational lag surrounding the mound. On the margins of the BS-14 mound, this
lag deposit has helped to protect the underlying sands from further erosion.
No direct ages are available for BS-14, but some nearby deposits were dated. For
example, Szabo et al. (1995) provided a uranium-series date of about 277 ky B.P.
on sandy limestone from west of Bir Sahara, although the sample is not directly
associated with artifacts. Churcher et al. (1999) correlate the BS-14 artifacts with
the Upper Acheulian sensu stricto at Kharga dated at over 400 ky B.P., while Schild
and Wendorf (1981) indicated some resemblance to the Acheuleo-Levalloisian from
Refuf Pass. The Acheulio-Levalloisan is estimated to be older than 300 ky B.P., but
it may consist of a mixture of Lower and Middle Paleolithic artifacts in geologic
context (cf. Churcher et al., 1999).

Central Bir Tarfawi


Acheulian bifaces were recovered from the surface of a sedimentary remnant in
the central part of the Bir Tarfawi deflational basin (Figure 2), near several impor-
tant Middle Paleolithic sites (Wendorf et al., 1993). The collection ranged from
nearly unweathered to highly weathered, implying that the artifacts were exposed
at the surface for varying amounts of time. Artifacts were not recovered from the
stratigraphic trenches (Figures 5 and 6).
The remnant is a low plateau capped by very strongly cemented carbonates
(limestones) and surrounded by small mounds composed of sandstones and mud-
stones (indurated, cemented clastics) (Figure 5). Loose to slightly cemented quartz
sands underlie the carbonate cap and clastic-dominated mounds. Acheulian arti-
facts on the limestone and on the slopes of surrounding mounds were first mapped
in 1974 (Wendorf and Schild, 1980). During the 1986 – 1988 CPE campaigns, the
spatial distributions of the Acheulian artifacts were recorded (Hill, 1992) along with
the description and sampling of the stratigraphic sequence and the surrounding short
mounds (Figures 5 – 7). No artifacts were recovered within these deposits, although standard

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Figure 5. Plan view of the Acheulian sedimentary remnant in the central part of Bir Tarfawi (see Figure
2). The limestone plateau is outlined in black. It is interpreted as a remnant of a Middle Pleistocene
lake. Diagonal patterns represent sedimentary remnants composed of indurated clastics on and sur-
rounding the limestone plateau, interpreted as spring mounds. Acheulian artifacts were found on the
surface of the limestone plateau and associated with the spring mounds. Three trenches were excavated
on the plateau under the direction of R. Schild in 1988. Trench 1/87 is on the west edge of the remnant,
Trench 2/87 was excavated between Trench 1/87 and 3/87, and Trench 3/87 was placed further to the
east closer to the center of the remnant. Two test pits (Trenches 1/88 and 2/88) were placed next to the
two spring mound vents along the west side of the plateau (see Figure 6). Compositional and textural short
data for Trenches 2/88, 1/87 and 3/87 are shown in Tables I-III and Figure 7. standard

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Figure 6. Plan view of two spring mound vents situated on the west side of the Acheulian sedimentary
remnant in the central area of Bir Tarfawi. Trench 1/88 is situated on the north side of the south mound
spring vent and Trench 2/88 is situated on the north side of the north spring mound vent. Compositional short
and textural data for samples G1 and G2 are shown in Tables I-III and Figure 7. standard

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Figure 7. Sedimentology and stratigraphy of Trenches 2/88, 1/87, and 3/87, at the Acheulian-related
sequence in the central part of Bir Tarfawi. Sediments from Trench 2/88 (samples G1 and G2) are short
representative of basal sands. Redeposited basal sands are also found in the lower sections of Trenches standard
1/87 and 3/87. The maximum lake stage near the margin of the basin is represented by sample 4 at
Trench 1/87. Clay-rich sediments with high carbonate contents (samples 2-5, Trench 3/87) reflect dep-
osition nearer the center of the lake basin. Vertical and horizontal scales are the same.
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many of the handaxes found on the surface appeared to be slightly weathered and
probably were embedded in sediments until exposed relatively recently by defla-
tion.
The sedimentary sequence appears to represent the remains of a small Pleisto-
cene lake with spring mounds. Compositional and textural information are pro-
vided in Tables I – III and Figure 7. The sequence consists of lower basal sands and
redeposited basal sands, and overlying deposits representing transgressive, maxi-
mum, and regressive stages of a paleolake. The detrital component of the paleolake
deposits appears to be reworked basal sands.
The detrital component and the abundance of carbonate seem to reflect slightly
different depositional regimes within a deflationally formed basin. Initial sedimen-
tation consisted of redeposited basal sands. These lowermost deposits are high in
clastics; they seem to be sand that was washed into a deflational basin during a
time when there was little vegetation. There is an increase in carbonate towards
the center of the basin.
The edge of the plateau remnant (Trench 1/87, Figures 5 and 7) appears to have
been near the margin of a lake. The sequence is dominated by clastics. The maxi-
mum lake stage is associated with high levels of carbonate deposition and ends
with a return to clastic-dominated sedimentation of a regressive lake stage. The
transgressive phase is indicated by a detrital component that shows an increase in
the proportion of silt and clay.
Nearer the center of the paleolake, at Trench 3/87 (Figures 5 and 7), detrital
sediments deposited prior to the maximum lake stage have a substantial portion
of silt and clay. This supports the idea that this area was closer to the deeper part
of the lake, in a lower depositional energy setting than deposits along the edge of
the remnant. The lack of a “transgressive trend” might reflect a more stable depo-
sitional setting than deposits of the same lake stage nearer the lake margin. The
most striking difference between the lake margin and deeper water deposits prior
to the maximum lake stage is the amount of carbonate. Near the lake margin, the
carbonate content is always below 15% while in the deeper part of the lake, car-
bonate content is more than 90%.
The maximum lake phase represented by the high carbonate peak at the edge of
the remnant (Trench 1/87, sample 4, Figure 7) is overlain by sediments that indicate
a higher energy depositional regime and preserve evidence of a regressive lake
stage. These deposits are dominated by clastics and seem to reflect deposition in
shallower waters, perhaps caused by a reduction in the size of the paleolake. The
coarse to fine ratio and the carbonate content of the deposit seem to indicate that
the paleolake was larger than the lake before the maximum lake stage.
Mounds composed of indurated clastics (quartzitic sandstones and mudstones)
surround the limestone remnant (Figures 5 and 6) and appear to overlie basal sands
or slightly redeposited basal sands. In some places where the basal sands are ex-
posed on the surface, an incipient soil horizon has developed. The top surfaces of
these sands have a slightly increased fine fraction and carbonate (sample G2, Fig- short
ures 6 and 7). Acheulian handaxes were found on the surfaces of the mounds standard

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(Figures 5 and 6). Two types of mounds composed of siliceous minerals were
described by Neal and Motts (1967). “Spring mounds” form where mineralized ma-
terial is deposited when groundwater emerges at the surface. These mounds sup-
port vegetation and, ideally, the height of the mound will approximate the piezo-
metric surface (the height of the water table). Small conical mounds composed of
siliciclastics on and adjacent to playas also form as a result of continual accumu-
lation around plants. When the phreatophyte dies, a conical hill remains. The
mounds at Tarfawi are morphologically somewhat similar to ferrocrete mounds
composed of quartz sandstone (Issawi, 1978) in the BS-14 area. Said (1975) de-
scribes freshwater springs in southern Egypt containing carbonates in solution. In
their last stages of activity, these springs produce mounds made of sandstone ce-
mented by carbonate or nodules that form in association with vegetation. Roberts
and Mitchell (1987) describe similar conical hillocks with or without central craters
consisting of carbonate-cemented sand and silt.
An estimate of the age of this sedimentary remnant, and the associated Acheulian
artifacts, is approximately 450 – 500 ky B.P., based on uranium-series dating
(Schwarcz and Morawska, 1993). This is about twice as old as the oldest remnant
in the central area of Bir Tarfawi associated with Middle Paleolithic artifacts, es-
timated to date to around 220 – 233 ky B.P. based on samples 87BTF 21, 32, and 33
in Schwarz and Morawska (1993) and sample 25-73Eg86 in Szabo et al. (1995).

South Bir Tarfawi (Site E-88-12)


Acheulian artifacts in the south area of Bir Tarfawi (Figure 2) were discovered
by the CPE during the 1975 campaign (Wendorf and Schild, 1980; Schild and Wen-
dorf, 1981). The artifact assemblage from Site E-88-12 was analyzed by R. Schild
and Hill (Hill, 1994). The main part of this sedimentary remnant consists of two
types of indurated deposits: limestones and sandstones. Acheulian artifacts were
embedded within both lithologies as well as on the surface of the remnant. The
sandstones (poorly sorted, slightly gravelly sands, sample A2, Figures 8 and 9) are
extremely hard and very strongly cemented by calcium carbonate. Bulk mineralogy
x-ray diffraction analyses indicate that quartz is the principal mineral. The surfaces
are weathered or are covered by a thin clay film.
The limestones contain around 96% carbonate (sample A4a, Figures 8 and 9).
Bulk mineral x-ray analyses indicates that calcite is the dominant mineral. The
residual (clastic) component is a poorly sorted sandy mud. The exposed surface
of these lithified carbonates are abraded and polished. Some surfaces are covered
with a clay film. Impressions of mollusc shells and handaxes were preserved in the
limestones. The mollusc impressions are probably Hydrobia or Melanoides. In thin
section, the calcite mudstones contain bivalve shells and possible ostracods
(McGillis, 1993).
The two sedimentary rock types found at E-88-12 are interpreted as different
depositional regimes, both of which were associated with Acheulian occupations. short
The sandstones, which underlie the limestone remnant, may be sand-sheet depos- standard

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Figure 8. Map showing geology of Site E-88-12, in the southern part of Bir Tarfawi (Figure 2) and
sediment sample locations. Lithologies include limestones (sample A4a) and sandstones (sample A2).
Acheulian handaxes are imbedded in the limestones and sandstones.

its. Postdepositional diagenetic processes cemented the deposits to form sand-


stones. The bimodal grain size distribution of these deposits is similar to sandsheets
described elsewhere in Egypt and usually regarded to be eolian deposits (Bagnold,
1935; Maxwell, 1982; Breed et al., 1987).
The limestone at E-88-12 was probably biochemically precipitated as endogenic
carbonate mud near the center of a freshwater lake or pond. About 79% of the
detrital component consists of silt, indicating a very low-energy depositional re-
gime. The impressions of what appear to be freshwater forms of gastropods may
mean the paleolake had relatively low-salinity levels during at least some lake
stages.
The highly indurated nature of these lithologies, the abraded and polished ex-
posed surfaces, and the low relief of the exposed remnant all indicate that this short
locality has been subjected to a higher degree of weathering and diagenesis than standard

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Figure 9. Compositional content (carbonate and clastic components) and grain-size histograms of the
detritial fraction of sediments from Site E-88-12. Sample A2 is dominated by clastics and has a bimodal
grain-size distribution, while sample A2 is composed almost entirely of carbonates and has a clastic short
component dominated by silt. standard

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other Pleistocene remnants in the region. This could mean that the artifacts are
perhaps some of the oldest recovered from the area. Two dating methods were
used to estimate the age of the E-88-12 sedimentary remnant. Quartz thermolumi-
nescence measurements of sand underlying the limestone provided an age of about
165 ky B.P. (Bluszcz, 1993). Uranium-series determinations indicate deposition of
the limestone prior to 350 ky B.P., perhaps around 600 ky B.P. (Wendorf et al.,
1994). Although both methods indicate a Middle Pleistocene age for the associated
Acheulian artifacts, the older date may be more reasonable, or perhaps even a
minimum age.

CONCLUSIONS
Paleogeographic Settings and Artifact Taphonomy
Based on the association of artifacts with particular geomorphic and depositional
contexts, we can make inferences about (1) the landscape setting and resources
associated with the hominid occupations and (2) the effect geologic processes
might have on transforming the original patterns of the hominid occupations into
the observable record (cf. Rapp and Hill, 1998). Inferences concerning landscape
context, in turn, provide a framework for proposing models of adaptive systems
(such as organizational and resource-use strategies, mobility patterns) employed
by Paleolithic groups in the Eastern Sahara during the Middle Pleistocene. Like-
wise, attempts to determine how the archaeological record has been affected by
postoccupational processes provide a way to evaluate whether the patterns ex-
pressed by artifact assemblages can be reliably attributed to Pleistocene hominid
behavior. If the spatial distributions and artifact forms are probably related to the
initial occupation, and not the result of postoccupation agencies of accumulation,
these patterns can be used to evaluate the duration and intensity of occupation,
and the size of the prehistoric group involved. Furthermore, the meaning of the
absence or presence of specific forms of artifacts may become clear. Through these
methods, it should be possible to begin to assess the prehistoric record in terms
of its implications for Pleistocene hominid activities.
From the perspective of taphonomy and site integrity, some Acheulian artifacts
at Site BS-14 may be essentially in primary context; it is possible that the initial
hominid occupation record has not been severely affected by postdepositional pro-
cesses. It may also be possible to evaluate the paleolandscape associated with the
Acheulian occupations. At Bir Tarfawi and Bir Sahara East, the Acheulian occu-
pations seem to be associated with emergent groundwater pools and the margins
of perennial lakes. These localities are far removed from any known lithic re-
sources, and at Site BS-14 the typology and technology of the assemblage appear
to reflect its characterization as either a base camp or resource procurement lo-
cality (Hill, 1992). The apparent presence of Acheulian lithic assemblages indicating
functionally specific reduction strategies in particular paleolandscape settings, may
reflect Middle Pleistocene resource-based organizational strategies and mobility pat-
terns in the Sahara, although more field studies need to be undertaken to test this idea. short
Acheulian artifacts in North Africa have been found with a wide variety of sed- standard

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imentary deposits (Hill, 1992). These sediments indicate some of the processes by
which the artifact accumulation was formed, and, depending on taphonomic tra-
jectories, the landscape setting, and potential resources associated with the hom-
inid occupation. In addition, some of the artifact accumulations are associated with
other geologic resources, such as rock outcrops usable for obtaining raw material
for the production of artifacts. A continuum of local geomorphic contexts and
specific depositional regimes — ranging from eolian sandsheets to settings associ-
ated with playa and perennial lakes — appear to have been present in the Bir Tar-
fawi region during the Pleistocene (Hill, 1993). Paleolithic artifacts have been found
embedded or associated with almost every kind of depositional setting that has
been studied. These include settings associated with coarse siliciclastic deposition,
with increased levels of mud (fine siliciclastics), and in settings associated with
high carbonate deposition. For example, Acheulian artifacts are known to have
been embedded in both sandstones and limestones.
Sands containing zones of thin, cylindrical calcite-cemented trace fossils occur
in several contexts within the various Pleistocene sedimentary sequences. They
may be the result of biologic activity and seem to imply the presence of nearby
moisture. Trace fossil horizons were observed within basal sands and in basin-
wash deposits. Many of the trace fossil horizons appear to be the lateral facies
equivalents of hydromorphic deposits. These horizons could have developed as the
result of plant root systems (composed of horizontal root mats) formed within or
marginal to a shallow phreatic zone (Mount and Cohen, 1984). Others appear to be
the result of the development of grasses and other vegetation on the edges of water
basins and on nearby eolian deposits (cf. Glennie and Evamy, 1968; Plaziat and
Mahmoudi, 1990). Some of the trace fossil horizons may be the result of aquatic
macrophytes and other biologic activity (including insects and small burrowing
organisms) within shallow lake margins.
Trace fossils were observed in the sands containing Acheulian artifacts at Site
BS-14; these sands were overlain by carbonates related to a groundwater pool. In
terms of palegeographic interpretations, these trace fossil horizons imply stabilized
land surfaces or basinal margin settings. Taphonomically, artifacts embedded in
these bioturbated zones may have been vertically displaced. Thus, as with other
settings containing trace fossil concentrations, there is some question concerning
the temporal relation of these structures and the deposition of the artifacts. The
seemingly unabraded surfaces of the artifacts recovered within the sands, the pres-
ence of a wide range of artifact sizes (chips to handaxes), as well as the apparent
technological coherence implied by the presence of different forms of artifacts,
suggests that this locality could contain a relatively intact record of Acheulian
presence in southern Egypt. If the sands are a result of basin-wash associated with
deposition in a groundwater pool, the artifact record may have been less affected
by postdepositional events than in a spring vent setting.
Coarse siliciclastic-dominated Pleistocene sediments can be separated into sev-
eral sets based on specific microdepositional settings (Hill, 1993). One set consists short
of clastics derived from the redeposition of basal sands and deposits probably standard

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initially derived from basal sands, such as eolian-related sediments. These include
sands deposited along the margins of basins where only pelagic sedimentation
occurred (playa-pan settings and early stage perennial lake settings), as well as
sands deposited within the active beach/shore zones connected to maximum ex-
pansion stages of lakes where carbonate deposition was occurring deeper in the
basin. Clastic deposition can also be related to the formation of dunes along the
margins of the basins and eolian activity during drier climatic conditions.
Coarse-clastic-dominated deposits from the Acheulian Sites E-88-12 and BS-14
contain embedded artifacts. At Site E-88-12, the coarse siliciclastics appear to be
sandsheet sediments deposited in a shallow basin and then buried by limestones.
One set of Acheulian artifacts at Site E-88-12 may have been deposited in sandsheet
deposits unrelated to the subsequent lake deposits, while another set can be di-
rectly connected to the presence of the limestone. At Site BS-14, the artifacts are
embedded in sands deposited within and along the margins of a shallow basin,
probably later submerged by a rise in the groundwater level. A calcareous sand-
stone cap (calcrete) overlies these artifact bearing sands.
Artifacts of various sizes were deposited within the sands at BS-14. These sands
could have been associated with the run-off of sporadic rains or with the edge of
a small groundwater-charged basin. The calcrete cap may be the result of carbonate
deposition after a period of increased moisture when rising water inundated the
artifact-bearing sediments. The carbonate overlies these sands and appears to have
formed as a result of evapotranspiration of a groundwater/vadose zone-formed
pool. The carbonate cap helped protect the underlying sands from erosion.
Along the periphery of the carbonate cap at BS-14, the sands containing Acheu-
lian artifacts were subsequently altered by the accumulation of pedogenic carbon-
ates and reddened by incipient weathering and soil development. Unprotected ar-
eas of these sands were weathered and deflated, forming lag deposits of Acheulian
handaxes around the periphery of the limestone remnant (see Figure 44 in Schild
and Wendorf [1981]). Smaller artifacts (debitage: chips) that were introduced into
the sediments as a result of Middle Pleistocene hominid activity were destroyed or
weathered to various degrees. Artifacts found on top of the BS-14 remnant could
have eroded out from portions of carbonate removed by deflation, or from other
sediments overlying the carbonate that were eroded away, or may remain where
they were left by subsequent hominid activities.
The presence of apparently unabraded artifacts in basin-edge and basin-wash
sands and the occurrence of concentrations of rhizoconcretions suggests that a
relatively undisturbed Acheulian artifactual record may be present at Site BS-14.
The occurrence of both large and very small artifacts within the sands suggests the
likelihood that, assuming a groundwater pool context, the artifacts have not been
substantially disturbed from their initial occupational context, at least in terms of
horizontal displacement. For example, Schick (1992) used the absence of small
debitage (less than 2 cm) as an indication of fluvial sorting at an Acheulian site;
the presence of small debitage at Site BS-14 might support the contention that the short
site was not disturbed by water action. standard

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Some vertical dispersal of the artifacts at BS-14 is suggested by an ascending


vadose zone as well as by the presence of trace fossil concentrations, which indi-
cate subsequent groundwater saturation of the deposits. The trace fossils likely
indicate the presence of a stabilized vegetated surface contemporaneous with ei-
ther the Acheulian occupation episode and the initial deposition of the artifacts or
a period of vegetative cover after the initial deposition of the artifacts. Bioturbation
could have affected the vertical placement of the artifacts.
The artifact component at Site BS-14 that was recovered embedded within the
sands underlying the calcrete cap provides a critical record of the Acheulian oc-
cupation of southern Egypt. It provides an essentially undispersed and, at least,
technologically coherent Acheulian assemblage from the Eastern Sahara. The pres-
ence of a technologically coherent assemblage (that is, an assemblage probably
containing representative materials from all aspects of lithic reduction activities
associated with the occupation at the site) presents an opportunity to compare the
resource and mobility strategies at Site BS-14 with other Acheulian assemblages
from southern Egypt. Succinctly, the artifacts at Site BS-14 could represent Acheu-
lian occupations associated with strategies of raw material use apparently far from
the sources of these materials, reflecting patterns related to mobility and curation.
In contrast, other Acheulian localities reflect patterns associated with the direct
presence of the lithic materials used to form the artifacts. The Site BS-14 Acheulian
assemblage may reflect Pleistocene hominid activities associated with use of pa-
leobiogeographic contexts located away from lithic raw material resources.
The depositional setting directly associated with the biochemical precipitation
of carbonate is similar to the setting associated with the deposition of fine silici-
clastics within a lake basin. Limestones and marls are generally deposited in quiet,
low energy settings except for some types of travertines and tufas and spring vent
settings. The presence of artifacts embedded within lacustrine carbonate sediments
could imply that these surfaces were subaerially exposed at the time Middle Pleis-
tocene hominids were present. Artifacts were found embedded in marls and lime-
stones at the Acheulian locality of Site E-88-12 in the south part of Bir Tarfawi. The
artifacts were buried by other lake sediments implying occupations during
dry seasons, possibly near dry-season pools of groundwater-fed perennial water-
bodies.
The Pleistocene archaeological sites associated with perennial lake contexts
(lake basins containing evidence of chemical deposition) are situated in transi-
tional, potentially high energy, depositional settings along the margins of lake ba-
sins (Hill, 1993). At the Acheulian sedimentary remnant in the central part of Bir
Tarfawi, artifacts were found in several surface contexts. Bifaces were found on
top of the limestone remnant, on the sands surrounding the remnant, and on the
surface of mounds surrounding the remnant. These Acheulian artifacts, as well as
those embedded in limestones at the south area of Bir Tarfawi (Site E-88-12) pro-
vide more evidence indicating that Acheulian occupations were associated with
perennial lakes. The artifactual context at Site E-88-12 implies that some of these short
occupations coincided with regressive lake cycles, probably during the dry season, standard

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when some of the carbonate deposits were exposed and the lake was reduced in
size. These might represent later stages of hominid presence within a major lake
phase, in contrast to the emergent groundwater pool at Site BS-14.

Paleoclimatic and Chronologic Context


The presence of perennial lakes associated with the Pleistocene archaeological
and paleobiotic record in southern Egypt contrasts with evidence for only playa
settings during the early Holocene. While Pleistocene sites are in contexts associ-
ated with both perennial lakes (e.g., carbonates deposited in groundwater-fed sys-
tems) and seasonal playas (dominated by clastic transported by local rains), Ho-
locene sites seem to be confined to playa settings. Thus it seems that Pleistocene
pluvial events may have been connected with wetter climates than the early
Holocene in the Sahara (cf. Haynes, 1980, 1987; Hill and Wendorf, 1991, 1997;
McKenzie, 1993).
The relative and absolute chronologic placement of the Acheulian in the Sahara
has relied on specific local and regional geomorphic/stratigraphic associations, cor-
relations with dated sequences outside North Africa, and coupling (correlation) of
sedimentary sequences with paleoclimatic models. The Lower Paleolithic in North
Africa extends back to at least the early Pleistocene (Clark, 1992; Sahnouni and de
Heinzelin, 1998). In terms of absolute ages, Acheulian assemblages are estimated
to have been present prior to a million years ago (e.g., Isaac, 1972; Clark, 1998;
Dennell, 1998; Rolland, 1998). In Kenya, Upper Acheulian artifacts have been esti-
mated to date to around 230 ky B.P. (Isaac, 1972), and Final Acheulian artifacts
(from near Lake Ziway, Ethiopia) overlain by assemblages “similar to Typical Mous-
terian of Levallois Facies” are in deposits dated to about 181 ky B.P. (Wendorf et
al., 1975). This can be compared to the transition from Acheulian to Middle Pale-
olithic in Europe, which may have occurred during isotope stage 6. Age estimates
for the Acheulian of about 288 – 240 ky B.P. have been correlated with isotope
stages 7 and 8 (Schwarcz and Grün, 1983), while Middle Paleolithic artifacts have
been dated to around 123 ky B.P. and correlated with istope stage 5e (Schwarcz
and Blackwell, 1983). Along the eastern Mediterranean, at Tabun Cave, the latest
Acheulian may date to around 300 ky B.P. while the earliest Mousterian may be
older than 250 ky B.P. (Mercier et al., 1995). Throughout North Africa, Pleistocene-
age sedimentary sequences provide evidence of episodic changes in paleoclimatic
conditions which, when securely dated, provide the potential for evaluating the
chronologic context of Paleolithic artifacts. The chronologic placement of the
Acheulian in the Sahara is complicated by the rarity of stratigraphically superim-
posed artifact sets, as well as the difficulties involved in developing sedimentolog-
ical and paleoclimatological interpretations with adequate age constraints.
At Bir Tarfawi and Bir Sahara East, geochronometric dating has provided age
estimates for deposits containing or related to the Acheulian that are at least 350
ky B.P., and perhaps with the range from 600 – 460 ky B.P. (Wendorf et al., 1994). short
Sedimentary remnants containing or associated with Middle Paleolithic artifacts standard

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range from more than 350 ky B.P. to less than 50 ky B.P.; however, the most feasible
estimates range from slightly older than 200 ky B.P. to around 70 ky B.P. (Miller et
al., 1991; Wendorf et al., 1994).
The potential for interpreting North African sedimentary deposits in paleocli-
matic terms and correlating these with other chronoclimatic sequences has been
recognized and attempted (especially along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts
where direct connections with sea level changes can be made). These correlations
have become more reliable with the increasing dependability of direct dating mea-
surements. Using a model based on external forcing by fluctuations in solar inso-
lation, threshold insolation values can possibly be used to predict the onset of
monsoon conditions in North Africa, which would be recorded in the geologic
record by the presence of lacustrine or other pluvial related deposits (e.g., Rossig-
nol-Strick et al., 1998; Hill and Wendorf, 1991). An alternative approach is to cor-
relate the sedimentary sequences with independently dated paleoclimatic se-
quences; such as the Vostock ice core or the Devils Hole chronology (Winograd et
al., 1997). Based on these types of correlations, any potential succession from
Acheulian to Middle Paleolithic in the southern Egyptian Sahara would have oc-
curred during the interval from about 300 – 200 ky B.P.
A postulated age for the end of the Acheulian and the beginning of the Middle
Paleolithic prior to 200 ky B.P. appears to conflict with other proposed chronolo-
gies for North Africa (Hill, 1999). While not negated by other age measurements
from southern Egypt (e.g., Szabo et al., 1989, 1991; Crombie et al, 1997; Sultan et
al., 1997; Churcher et al., 1999), this age model is different from the chronologies
proposed elsewhere based on direct measurements or paleoclimatic correlations
with isotope stages. For instance, along the Atlantic Sahara Upper and Evolved
Acheulian artifacts are indirectly dated by correlation with isotope stage 5 (ca. 130 –
100 ky B.P. [Barbey et al., 1991). In Libya, the Terminal Acheulian has been asso-
ciated with lacustrine episodes centered on 130 ky B.P. (Petit-Maire, 1991; Petit-
Maire et al., 1991), while in Tunisia the Final Acheulian may date to about 150 ky
B.P. (Ballais and Heddouche, 1991). Whether the apparent differences in the ages
of the end of the Acheulian and beginning of the Middle Paleolithic reflect actual
spatial variation for the transition, the relibility of geochronologic measurements
and correlations, or is a manifestation of the adequacy of existing lithic artifact
taxonomic categories still needs to be resolved. There does seem to be, however,
a growing amount of geochronometric information which links the timing of Sa-
haran pluvial events with interglacial climates; it seems that these pluvials were
the times when Middle Pleistocene biotic communities, including hominids using
Acheulian artifacts, would have been most viable in the Eastern Sahara.

Summary
The three sedimentary remnants from the Bir Tarfawi region associated with
Acheulian artifacts share the following characteristics: They overlie basal sands short
and/or redeposited basal sands constituting the lowermost part of the depositional standard

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HILL

sequences; the boundaries between the basal sands and the basin fill that form the
remnants are at relatively high elevations (ca. 246 – 248 m asl); and the remnants
are composed of extremely indurated limestones or sandy limestones. The char-
acter of the carbonate deposit at Site BS-14 is somewhat different from the lime-
stone deposits at the Bir Tarfawi Acheulian localities. At Bir Tarfawi, the central
basin limestones are indurated lime muds while at Bir Sahara East they contain a
much higher proportion of coarse detrital materials, probably indicating a shal-
lower, smaller water body. Acheulian handaxes are commonly found in lag position
on the surfaces of the indurated detrital remnants. Acheulian artifacts also occur
on the surfaces of the carbonate remnants at all three localities and are embedded
in carbonates at Site E-88-12. Acheulian artifacts were also recovered within sands
at Site BS-14 and E-88-12 and on the surface of sands in central Bir Tarfawi.
U-series measurements indicate that carbonates associated with the Acheulian in
the Bir Tarfawi region may date to before 300 ky B.P. In terms of a paleoclimate
chronology, the Acheulian in the Eastern Sahara seems to be linked to pluvial
intervals associated with marine isotope stage 9 or older.

The studies summarized here were conducted while a member of the Combined Prehistoric Expedition,
which has been jointly sponsored by Southern Methodist University, the Polish Academy of Sciences,
and the Geological Survey of Egypt. The field work could not have been initiated or completed without
the guidance and support of Fred Wendorf and Romuald Schild. George (Rip) Rapp, Jr. kindly allowed
the use of the facilities of the University of Minnesota’s Archaeometry Laboratory. I am very grateful
to C. Vance Haynes, Jr. for providing valuable information pertaining to his studies, as well as B. Issawi
and M. Kobusiewicz for sharing their knowledge about the geology and prehistoric archaeology of the
Eastern Sahara. This study was supported by National Science Foundation Grants BNS-8415650, BNS-
8518574, and BNS-8718908 to F. Wendorf, and grants to C.L. Hill from Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research
Society, the Graduate Student Assembly of Southern Methodist University, the Institute for the Study
of Earth and Man (Southern Methodist University), and Montana State University. Tulane University
provided research assistant support. Funding from Department of Energy Grant DE FG05 90ER61015
to W.A. Woodward, H.L. Gray, and R.F. Gunst provided support for assessment of the paleoclimatolog-
ical and chronological context for a research group studying climatic change. Additional funds were
provided by G. Rapp, Jr. and C.L. Matsch. I am very grateful to A. Freeman, K. Nicoll, V. Holliday, and
R. Mandel for their very useful comments on an earlier version of this article. Special thanks to Cheryl
Hill.

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