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Journal Articles Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française Year : 2016

La technologie lithique, de part et d'autre de l'Atlantique

Catherine Perlès
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The famous debate between François Bordes and Lewis Binford on the interpretation of Mousterian facies is a cornerstone in the development of technological approaches, both in France and the United States. However, the paths followed immediately diverged, and, forty to fifty years later, the gap has not been bridged. Mutual ignorance or incomprehension remain predominant. The present essay was undertaken to try to understand what appears to be a rather unique situation, since scientific exchanges are common in many other domains of prehistoric research. In France and in North America, technological approaches were essentially developed to address the question of the variability of lithic assemblages. North American specialists, in accordance with the development of the ‘New Archaeology’ during the 70’s and 80’s, undertook to develop middle range theories based on ethnographic data, and heavily relied in their interpretation on concepts derived from the ‘Optimal Foraging Theory’. The factors of variability thus brought to light, such as mobility patterns or time stress, were transcultural and always related to environmental conditions, whether directly or indirectly. In the meantime, French scholars, before trying to explain lithic variability, were developing analytical tools able to bring to light the whole range of this variability, from the conception to the production of the tools, going beyond the static typological categories used thus far. The distinction between ‘technique’ and ‘method’ and the concept of ‘chaîne opératoire’ led, quite logically, to search for the primary ‘intention’ of the stone knapper, in an apprehension that was essentially qualitative. A similar notion of intentionality, this time at the level of the group, also underlay concepts developed a decade later and based on the notion of strategy: ‘stratégie de débitage’, ‘économie des matières premières’. This is perhaps when, in the early 90’s, French and North American lithic technological approaches missed a first opportunity to converge. In reaction to the simplistic ecological determinism of the first models, several North-American technological approaches — ‘Behavioral Chain’, ‘Design Theory’, ‘Organization of Technology’ — now view technical choices as compromises between aims and constraints, in terms closely parallel to those of the French ‘cognitive approaches’. At the same time, new and long-lasting concepts were explored on both side of the Atlantic: knowledge and know-how, transmission and apprenticeship, individual variability. But cross-references would be short lived: developed in answer to different questions, these concepts were investigated differently and applied to different scientific perspectives. The notion of transmission comforted the French culturalist perspective, while the spatialisation of the ‘chaîne opératoire’ led to a formidable development of techno-economic and socio-economic perspective, both at the scale of the settlement and the regional scale. These French approaches, despite their widespread applications, do not refer to specific theories and were never given a theoretical name. This may be one of the reasons why they were not adopted in the States. Indeed, the various approaches developed in the States on the basis of the same concepts are clearly labelled: ‘Behavioral Archaeology’ explicitly rests on the notion of intergenerational transmission, on analysis of the ‘behavioral chain’, and on the notion of strategy (‘design’). ‘Practice Theory and Social Agency’ refers also explicitly to concepts developed by French sociologists (Bourdieu, Lemonnier) and initially used the data from French prehistoric excavations (Pincevent, Verberie, Etiolles) to demonstrate the possibility of individualizing ‘agents’ and their ‘agency’. How the latter differ from the French ‘individus’ with their ‘intentionalité’ is not altogether clear. The notion of transmission, sometimes coupled with those of apprenticeship and know-how, is again central in the recent branches of Evolutionary Archaeology, whether ‘Dual Inheritance Theory’ based on Darwinian evolution, ‘Human Behavioral Archaeology’, or the recent development within the conceptual framework of ‘Organization of Technology’. These last two approaches are certainly closer to French sensibility and scientific questioning, but they retain from earlier developments of Anglo-Saxon technological approaches the will to validate the interpretations through quantitative models and continue to give important weight to the notion of optimisation, totally foreign to French interpretative frameworks. This leads us to insist, in conclusion, on two points. First, the lack of explicit theoretical references in French lithic technological research, despite the importance of Mauss’s and Leroi-Gourhan’s thoughts in their development, appears to be a major handicap for Anglo-Saxon colleagues. However, behind these terminological issues, the divorce rests even more on methods and aims. In North America, the elaboration of interpretative models always seeks, in fine, to bring to light transcultural and transchronological regularities, validated, if possible, on formal or quantitative models. In France, to the contrary, research on technical variability has been mostly tuned to demonstrating the singularity of each (pre)historic regional development. In addition, the hierarchization of the different parameters under study, based on a qualitative evaluation, impeded any global statistical treatment, however complex. I mentioned at the start the opposition between Lewis Binford, who viewed the Mousterian facies as functional responses to environmental conditions, while François Bordes considered them as cultural. Beyond the fantastic developments of lithic technological approaches on each side of the Atlantic, the remarkable progress and the feeling of profound changes, this initial dichotomy remains, in reality an in-depth structure, reflecting diverging ‘cultural traditions’.
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hal-01529059 , version 1 (30-05-2017)



Catherine Perlès. La technologie lithique, de part et d'autre de l'Atlantique. Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, 2016, 113 (2), pp.221-240. ⟨10.3406/bspf.2016.14622⟩. ⟨hal-01529059⟩
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