Reflections on the Style-Function Debate

Summary of the Style versus Function Debate in Paleoanthropology

About 200,000 years ago hominids began making tools with greater control of the shape of the flakes. The new technique, termed Levallois, is distinguished from its predecessor, the Acheulian, by the ability to produce flakes of a desired shape, a result of preshaping the core. The Mousterian, the tool tradition of the Neanderthals and early modern humans, is a continuation of this technological advance. Mousterian tradition is also much more varied than the earlier Acheulian. Francois Bordes identified five different assemblage groups, which he hypothesized as correlating to five or more distinct cultures (Feder, page 290).

Flake tools found in Old World assemblages from the Lower and Middle Paleolithic were classified by Bordes in 1961 into a typology of 63 tools (Chase 1990, page 443). While Bordes' typology has provided a useful means of describing tools, the basis of this variability has been a major point of disagreement for decades. The debate is significant because the variability of Upper Pleistocene hominid stone tools is applied to behavioral interpretation. The lithics are viewed as a source of information about the lifeways of Pleistocene hominids. Important questions about evolution and adaptation are related to this debate. Yet the extent to which the lithic assemblage variation is indicative of behavior itself remains a point of debate.

Bordes' artifact taxonomy was the dominant language of lithic description by the late 1950's. Typological studies of the variation of artifact morphology dominated Old World Paleolithic research until about 1970 (Kuhn, page 15). In recent decades new explanations for these variations have been offered. In sum, variability of lithic assemblages has been ascribed to cultural (ethnic tradition) differences, functional differences, temporal differences, and utilization differences. (Chase 1990, page 443.)

Lewis and Sally Binford agree that five Mousterian groups are discernible, but they offer the explanation that the five groups represent different toolkits used by the same hominids for different functions. Researchers disagree on the functions of certain types of lithics. F. Bordes, S. R. Binford and L. S. Binford are in agreement that Levallois points and retouched Mousterian points could have been used as weapons. While some researchers maintain that Levallois points were weapon tips, others disagree that hafted projectiles were in use (Kuhn, 9).

Harold L. Dibble questioned the Bordes-Binford debate's initial assumption "that regards tools as desired end products." In 1984 Dibble, in a study of Middle Paleolithic material from Iran, raised the issue of whether these were functional or stylistic types (Dibble 1984). Dibble also presented the question of whether the scraper types might represent stages of core reduction sequence, with intensity of utilization as a major causal factor. In 1990 Rolland and Dibble suggested "that Middle Paleolithic assemblage variability is continuous in nature" and "that raw material variability and intensity of occupation are the principal factors underlying Middle Paleolithic assemblage variability" (Dibble 1990, 240). Dibble raised the question in 1991 of whether Bordes' typology reflects arbitrary temporal slices in a continuum of variability, and also questioned what factors underlie this variability. What Rolland and Dibble argued is "that most of the significantly represented Middle Paleolithic tool types represent stages in the reduction of tools due to resharpening and rejuvenation...." (Dibble 1990, 241). After an edge is dulled the tool is retouched on that edge or yet another edge is sharpened, producing a different tool type. Dibble contends that intensity of utilization is a causal factor of variation, and the result of (a) raw material quantity, accessibility and quality and (b) climate and its effects on group mobility.

Bordes described four main types of side scrapers according to the placement of retouching along the edge of the blank. These differ in the number of retouched edges and their relation to the axis of the flake. The four types are (1) single-edged scrapers with one retouched lateral edge, (2) double scrapers with two non-adjoining retouched edges, (3) convergent scrapers with two retouched edges forming a point, and (4) transverse scrapers with the retouched edge opposite the striking platform. In Dibble's view these can be seen as a sequence of reuse of the same tools.

Temporal differences are another explanation. Mousterian industries occurred for about 200,000 years, during which time great changes in climate and fauna occurred. Adaptation to these changes would have occasioned changes in the toolkits.

According to Trinkhaus, ethnic-tradition interpretation of the Mousterian variation has been replaced by a behavioral model with variation viewed as response to a variety of factors, including raw material availability, transport, tool use and reuse, mobility, climate and fauna (Trinkhaus 1991, 189).

Function versus Style

The function viewpoint, encompassing the intensity of use and core reduction paradigm, seems the most supportable position in this debate for a variety of reasons. The reasons I most favor include (1) the unsupported premise of the style viewpoint, (2) the occurrence of supposedly related styles in geographically diverse and temporally distant settings, (3) the interlayering of the assemblages in particular localities, (4) the need for a variety of toolkits for distinct tasks and diverse survival strategies, and (5) differences in raw material availability. Let us consider each of these points.

1. Evidence for ethnic-tradition causation has not been demonstrated beyond the differences in assemblages themselves. What needs to be demonstrated is a correlation between assemblage variability and other evidence associable with distinct cultural patterns or groups. This has not been accomplished by the supporters of the style viewpoint. Instead, they maintain the fundamental premises that tool types (a) are due to the intent of the creator, not to external circumstances, and (b) therefore variation in assemblages reflects cultural differences. These premises ought be based on some evidence beyond the tool assemblages. These fundamental suppositions are open to challenge. If distinct cultures/ethnic-traditions existed other supportive evidence of such is to be expected, and should have surfaced by now. The fundamental premises fail, particularly when alternative explanations of tool assemblage variability are supportable.

2. The Quina Mousterian in France is similar to the Yabrudian in the Levant, while the Ferrassie of France is similar to the Zagros of southwest Asia (Dibble 1991). It is difficult to support the proposition that these similarities are due to culture, ethnicity or historical relationships because of their great geographical separation as well as enormous temporal displacement (as much as 50,000 years). The alternate explanation, that the typological parallels are due to production of similar shaped facies, is far likelier. This view is reinforced because evidence of differences in technologies are also present. Thus, the typological similarities are the result of the technology of blank production and intensity of use. Long and narrow blanks result in more double and convergent forms in retouched tools, while wider blanks result in more transverse forms (Dibble 1991).

The similarities are easily explained by the technology. The function viewpoint does not require the difficult to support model of cultural/historical relationships to explain such remote occurrences of similar assemblages. This same technology model can then also explain differences in assemblages in the same site or region.

3. At many sites the 'styles' are interlayered, with repeated occurrences of the same assemblages. The style viewpoint would require a model in which the same cultures reappeared repeatedly in the same site. Other data from the Mousterian sites do not support an association of the tool assemblages with the other evidence present. In Combe Grenal Typical Mousterian strata contain a relatively high percentages of red deer, Quina Mousterian of reindeer and Denticulate Mousterian of equids. Yet a comparison of the frequency of the remains of the four prevalent ungulates with climate, percentage of arboreal pollen and lithic industry provided no regular observable relationships (Chase 1986). The faunal and lithic remains appear to be largely independent of one another and do not support the view of association to distinct cultures. If the assemblages were related to distinct cultures some correlation with behavioral evidence, such as faunal preferences, would be likelier. Because the assemblages recur at different levels, they do not evidence a cultural sequence. The various hypothetical cultures would have appeared at relatively the same time, coexisted in the region, and then changed or disappeared at about the same time, rather than evolving one from another.

4. Middle Paleolithic and earlier lithic artifacts are found in a great range of climate areas, from tropical to sub-arctic. Although Mousterian facies have not been consistently shown to correspond to environmental variations, faunal assemblages or different activities, Kuhn found that lithics associated with scavenging are more utilized and have more oversized pieces. Remains with hunted fauna are less utilized and likelier to exhibit parallel core reduction (Kuhn 181). It is obvious that different tasks, mobility regimens, survival strategies, land use strategies and density of population or resources require or result in different toolkits. Not all tasks are evidenced in the archaeological record. The differences in the perishability of materials favors preservation of stone and bone remains, while wood and other soft organic materials readily decompose. While the evidence is scant, obviously different tasks will evidence different tools.

5. Not all areas have the same amount or quality of raw material for tool making. This results is greater intensity of use in areas with fewer raw materials. Reduction of artifacts is a means of extending the resource. Thus resharpening results in a greater variety of tool types.

As a last word, I must offer an analogy with a qualification. I am normally very resistant to time-inverted analogies to explain the past. The past results in the present, not vice versa, and oftentimes using the present to explain the past is insupportable. In the case of this debate my resistance has waned. Modern societies are richly varied and anthropologists can readily determine if tool variation is due to political subdivisions, import and patent laws, language barriers, alliances of corporations, uses and applications, distinct occupations and tasks, ethnic customs, scarcities, which hardware store is in which neighborhood, and also any number of other factors that prevailed in prehistoric time, such as climate, seasons, and faunal availability. Factors that will be missing from the future archaeological record are readily seen to influence who uses which tool for what reason in today's world. We might be well served to examine the complexity and diversity of today's world before supporting simplistic and narrow explanations for the past. Perhaps some of the difficulties in easily resolving this issue are due to the unevidenced complexities of past cultures and lifeways. We need to take into account the fact that evidence for most aspects of Mousterian cultures will never be available. It seems a gross simplification to think that during the entire Mousterian only five cultures would be evidenced by tools. In contrast, the viewpoint that function is responsible for tool assemblage variation does not restrict our paradigms of the cultural complexity of so great a span of our ancient history.


Chase, Philip G., Relationships between Mousterian Lithic and Faunal Assemblages at Combe Grenal, Current Anthropology 27:1, pp. 69-71, 1986.

Chase, Philip G., Tool-making Tools and Middle Paleolithic Behavior, Current Anthropology, Volume 31, Number 4, pp. 443- 447.

Dibble, Harold L., Interpreting typological Variation of Middle Paleolithic Scrapers: Function, Style or Sequence of Reduction? Journal of Field Archaeology, 11:431-436.

Dibble, Harold L., Mousterian assemblage variability on an interregional scale. Journal of Anthropological Research 47:2, pp. 239-57. 1991.

Dibble, Harold L., The Interpretation of Middle Paleolithic Scraper Morphology, American Antiquity, Vol. 51, No, 1, 109-117, 1987.

Feder, K. l. and M. A. Park, Human Antiquity, Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View, 1997.

Kuhn, Steven L., Mousterian Lithic Technology, An Ecological Perspective, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995.

Trinkaus, Erik, The Neanderthals and the Charentian Mousterian, Current Anthropology 32:2, pp. 188-89, 1991


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Published July 4, 2000.