The Long and Short of It: Reviewing and Discussing the Position of the ‘Diminutive’ Biface in the South Asian Palaeolithic

Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, India

The overlap between the Lower and the Middle Palaeolithic is evidently increasing with emerging chronological data that is revising the intervening boundary. In addition, technological innovations that are considered characteristic of the Middle Palaeolithic now seem to have their roots in the Lower Palaeolithic. Compounding the problem is the dearth of temporally assignable hominin fossils and well stratified archaeological assemblages that could help differentiate the Middle from the Lower Palaeolithic. South Asia with its long history of prehistoric research is particularly riddled with such ambiguity. While it has some of the oldest Acheulean and Middle Palaeolithic sites in the world, most of the assemblages from the subcontinent have been classified on the basis of typology. A type fossil of the Acheulean, the handaxe, is often (and almost uniquely) considered to persist into the Middle Palaeolithic of South Asia, especially in its ‘diminutive’ form. While some, albeit not without debate, evidence of a linear trajectory exists for biface refinement through the Middle Pleistocene the 10cm criteria that divides the Acheulean Handaxe from Middle Palaeolithic ones in South Asia is currently arbitrary. This paper reviews the South Asian data for diminutive handaxes and compares the results with global evidence, including from other parts of Asia, that have conventionally been seen as lacking a well-developed bifacial technology. It also explores reasons for miniaturization, including increased refinement, shift in intended tool function or production behaviour and random drift, amongst others. In conclusion the difficulties of relying on typological classification for tempo-cultural ascriptions will be discussed in the context of Palaeolithic surface sites in South Asia.