History Files

Near East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Mousterian Culture (Middle Palaeolithic) (Africa, Near East, & Europe)
c.600,000 - 40,000 BC
Incorporating the Micoquien Culture & Nesher Ramla Homo

The Mousterian was a Middle Palaeolithic (Middle Old Stone Age) culture of the Near East which incorporated the Afro-Eurasian region, covering northern Africa, the Near East, and Europe. It was named after its type-site, Le Moustier, a rock shelter in Dordogne in France.

FeatureAssociated primarily with Homo Neanderthalis and with its immediate predecessor, Homo Heidelbergensis (which until recently was also the unquestioned ancestor of Homo sapiens in Africa - see feature link) it therefore lies largely outside the scope of modern human prehistory except that it was this culture which suffered at the hands of modern human migration.

IndexHowever, it is difficult to proceed with documenting the earliest Homo sapiens cultures outside of Africa without also documenting the Neanderthal cultures with which they integrated and ultimately outperformed. This includes the Mousterian in the Near East and Europe, and also its successors in Europe, the Bohunician and Châtelperronian (see the 'Prehistoric World' index for information on pre-modern human Earth, via the link on the right).

The Micoquien culture was an early Middle Palaeolithic (Neanderthal) industry which flourished between 130,000-70,000 BC. Its name was originally coined by O Hauser, who saw the industry of the upper layers at La Micoque in south-western France an independent stage between the Mousterian and the European Aurignacian culture. Sites associated with it are primarily located in western and Central Europe, but similar tools have been found across Eastern Europe and in the Near East.

The overall picture regarding Neanderthal cultures is a confused one, with changing parameters. The Micoquien in Germany has also been referred to as the 'Keilmessergruppen' (KMG) to differentiate it from the more hazy French variation, but overall a single Neanderthal culture with various potential sub-groups can be said to have existed (until more detailed cultural groups can be established by archaeologists).

FeatureIt was into this relatively little-known window of Neanderthal existence that Homo sapiens permanently intruded somewhere around the 70,000-60,000 BC mark, during the most recent 'Out of Africa' migration into the Near East (see feature link, right - a 1904 revision of German spelling produced 'tal' to replace the earlier 'thal', but in English texts the traditional spelling of Neanderthal has been retained, despite some recent revisionist attempts).

Human culture had developed from several industries in Palaeolithic (Stone Age) Africa. At the moment - as with the Neanderthals - the overall picture of this phase of early human cultures seems to be fragmented. There is no clear linear progression between those Stone Age cultures and the first culture of the Near East, the Baradostian (from about 36,000 BC).

The long-lasting Aterian culture in North Africa which was contemporary with Homo sapiens migrating into the Near East was largely a dead end, so the first Homo sapiens in the Near East must have formed their own basic culture which provided the basis for its successors, something which the Aterian failed to do.

What this culture or cultures was or were is yet to be worked out satisfactorily, as is the precise relationship between the various human groups involved, such as the Nesher Ramla Homo of about 100,000 BC (see below), which its discoverers want to establish as a separate species.

Even so, this has to be one of the most fascinating periods in early modern human history. Just how did Homo sapiens react to the Neanderthal populations they found when migrating into the Near East, and how did they interact with them? No one knows for certain. What is known, however, is that the Neanderthal populations were eventually outperformed by the new arrivals, and went into a terminal decline.

Anatolian relief

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Middle Palaeolithic Symbolism: A Review of Current Evidence and Interpretations, P G Chase & H L Dibble (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology No 6, 1987), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Science, and Platform Variability & Flake Morphology, H L Dibble (PDF), and Bradshaw Foundation: Origins. and TalkOrigins, and A Shocking Find in a Neanderthal Cave in France (The Atlantic.com), and Fossilised bones found in Israel (The Guardian).)

c.300,000 BC

The Mousterian is defined by the appearance of a method of stone-knapping or reduction known as the Levallois Technique, named after the type site in the Levallois-Perret suburb of Paris in France. The Levallois Technique is traditionally dated to this period, marking as it does the very beginning of the Middle Palaeolithic (Middle Old Stone Age).

Levallois Technique tool
Levallois Technique tool-making was pioneered by the Neanderthals of the Mousterian around three hundred thousand years ago, at least a hundred thousand years before the first appearance of truly anatomically modern humans

FeatureCloser analyses reveal that Levallois may develop from tools of the preceding Lower Palaeolithic (Early Old Stone Age) universal Acheulean culture (about 1.76 million years ago to 100,000 BC). Levallois involves striking flakes from a prepared core (see feature link).

A knapper takes this core and trims the edges by flaking off pieces around the outline of the intended tool. After a good deal of use, the core acquires a distinctive tortoise-shell appearance. This technique allows greater control over the size and shape of the flake products, but it also indicates a great leap from the cognitive requirements of previous Acheulean technologies.

Although there are still doubts about the significance of the Levallois, examples of cognitive increases become more common and more robust as the Mousterian develops (the North African Aterian culture also exhibits such evolution).

c.140,000 BC

Shortly after the Aterian culture first appears in Africa around this time, rainy spells in what is now Israel match the period which sees the first modern human settlements in the Near East.

FeatureThe wet periods form what, essentially, are climatic windows which allow migration north through the Sahara and up into Asia via a 'land bridge' on the Sinai peninsula (see feature link).

Sahara Desert
The Sahara has undergone a gradual transition from sweeping grassland to dessicated sand on more than one occasion, notably around 30,000 BC (and again around 2000 BC)

c.100,000 BC

Finds announced in 2021 relate to the discovery of fossilised human bones, alongside stone tools, and ox, deer, and horse remains. Nicknamed the Nesher Ramla Homo group, the finds come from the prehistoric site of the same name near Ramla in Israel.

The human bones have a distinctive combination of Neanderthal and early human features. The anatomy of the bones is more primitive than those from contemporaneous Neanderthals in Eurasia and other Homo sapiens groups which have also managed to make their way into the Levant.

Despite claims that the individuals concerned may have played an important role in the human story, it is much more likely that they are simply the product of one of many small groups of early modern humans from Africa managing to make their way into the Levant during a wet period.

More unusually, perhaps, the ancestors of this group seem to have interbred with the southernmost communities of Neanderthals to produce a unique, localised offshoot. Given the primitive nature of the features, it may be the case that these southern Neanderthals are less developed than their cousins across Eurasia, quite possibly part of an isolated community.

Nesher Ramla Homo
The bones were found in an ancient sink hole at the prehistoric site of Nesher Ramla near the city of Ramla in Israel

c.88,000 BC

At Atapuerca in Spain there is evidence of the intentional storing of bones from at least thirty-two people in a cave chamber as early as 300,000 years ago. This behaviour suggests a belief that dead humans are not quite on a par with other animals.

By 88,000 BC years ago, several Neanderthal cave sites provide the first reasonably good evidence of intentional burial of the dead. They presumably bury relatives and friends in shallow graves which have been dug into the soft midden soil of their living areas at the mouths of caves and rock shelters. Bodies are usually coiled into a foetal position.

Frequently, the bones are stained with hematite, a rust-red iron ore. Most likely the bodies are either sprinkled with hematite powder or the powdered pigment is mixed with a viscous liquid medium, such as vegetable seed oil or animal fat, and is painted onto the bodies.

The practice implies that Neanderthals are trying to prepare the dead for their journey into a form of afterlife. Notably, the habit of adding a red powdered pigment to grave burials is adopted (or shared from its origin) by Homo sapiens. Even Neolithic forager cultures of the Black Sea coast practice it (such as the Khvalynsk culture of the fifth millennium BC).

Neanderthals picking flowers for the dead
Neanderthal folk of the Middle Palaeolithic not only buried their dead in shallow graves, in some cases it can be proved that they also picked flowers to lay alongside their dead friends or relatives

c.80,000 BC

Dated to around this time, anatomically modern human remains (teeth - unmistakable identifiers of modern humans) are found in eastern China. To have reached this far east, it is estimated that this group of Homo sapiens may have left Africa around 100,000 years ago, perhaps even earlier.

While this provides a startlingly early 'Out of Africa' migration for fully anatomically modern humans, it does not provide conclusive evidence of anything other than one small migration, perhaps only by a single tribe. Humans of some description are known to have entered the Near East and returned to Africa since at least 130,000 BC.

c.49,000 BC

In support of the general pattern of entering the Near East, modern humans have been doing so since at least 120,000 BC according to fossils of archaic modern humans at the Skhul and Qafzeh caves in Israel. But they apparently skirt the colder climes of Europe and Siberia until much later, about 40,000 to 45,000 years ago.

Instead, their presence remains firmly rooted in Africa, with seemingly occasional forays into the Near East which perhaps only last a few generations at a time before fading out or retreating back.

Teeth of a 185,000 year-old Homo sapiens specimen found in Israel
The teeth in the 185,000 year old Israeli specimens were in the upper size range of what's seen in modern humans, suggesting that some evolutionary experimentation may still have been going on with these specimens

However, researchers still see the Near East as a likely place for early encounters between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. Fossils in Israel, such as a 49,000-year-old Neanderthal at Tabun Cave, may belong to people who are alive at the time of unions between the two groups, or just afterwards.

Could such unions be the way in which Homo sapiens gains a more permanent foothold in the Near East, or have they now become more technically advanced than the Neanderthals who have dominated the hunting here for well over two hundred thousand years?

c.45,600 BC

There is abundant evidence that Neanderthals regularly occupy the mouths of caves and rock shelters in Europe and south-western Asia. Such cave openings often face south, providing the maximum level of direct sunlight and warmth. It is unlikely that Neanderthals often venture deep into large caves since such areas are extremely dark and dangerous.

However, some Neanderthals do leave artefacts many tens of metres into Bruniquel Cave in southern France, and they are still in use around this period. Concentrated smoke residues high on the walls of the cave suggest that torches are being used to light the way.

Bruniquel Cave in France
This hidden chamber in Bruniquel Cave in France was discovered in the nineties - it contained an interesting man-made structure which utilised broken stalagmites, and burnt bear bone was carbon dated to 47,600 years ago - but it was only fresh examination of the stalagmites in 2013 which produced a date of 176,500 years ago for the structure's construction

c.43,000 BC

Suddenly, it seems, populations of Homo sapiens have already colonised areas of Siberia. The discovery in 2008 of fossilised human bones at Ust-Ishim leads to the oldest sequenced human genome to date (as of 2016).

Genetically this human just barely postdates Neanderthal introgression into modern humans (crossbreeding between the two species). Almost as soon as modern humans arrive in northern Eurasia, they make themselves at home in harsh climates. Ust-Ishim is at about the latitude of Stockholm or Juneau in Alaska, and the temperature is comparable with that of today.

FeatureHumans have clearly made an advance which allows them to cope with the colder temperatures, and to hunt and survive in colder climates. However, they are not alone in Siberia. Evolutionary cousins, Homo Denisovan, are already well established there (see feature link).

c.41,000 BC

FeatureStarvation and cannibalism could be part of everyday life for a population of Neanderthals living in northern Spain around this time. Eight Neanderthal skeletons are found in an underground cave system at El Sidron in Asturias, and bones and teeth found here bear the hallmarks of a tough struggle for survival. Signs of starvation or malnutrition in childhood are evident.

Neanderthal Sites
Principal sites showing the most recent evidence of Neanderthals - notice how the later populations are all congregated in Iberia

Neanderthal populations are beginning to find themselves under pressure thanks to competing groups of Homo sapiens, certainly in the Near East, but now also with the same process beginning in Europe.

c.40,000 BC

As Neanderthal populations dwindle between 40,000-30,000 BC, Mousterian implements also disappear from the archaeological record, marking the end of Neanderthal culture in the Near East and into south-eastern Europe, and describing the beginning of replacement modern human cultures.

In the Near East this is in the form of the Emireh and Baradostian cultures. In Africa it is the Khormusan industry of the Nile region.

In Europe it is the early Bohunician culture and then the widespread Aurignacian, while in Asia, and specifically East Asia, it is the Ordosian culture.

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