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Spatio-temporal variation in late Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthal behaviour: British bout coupé handaxes as a case study

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Ruebens, K., Sykes, W., & M., R. (2016). Spatio-temporal variation in late Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthal behaviour: British bout coupé handaxes as a case study. Quaternary International, 411(Part A), 305-326. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2015.04.037.

Recent broad-scale comparative studies of Neanderthal lithic assemblages have contrasted previous views of the Middle Palaeolithic as a period of stasis. Throughout the Middle Palaeolithic, ca. 300,000–35,000 years ago, typo-technological changes can be observed in the Neanderthal behavioural repertoire, including trends that are restricted in time and/or space. Such spatio-temporal diversity seems especially apparent in the late Middle Palaeolithic (MIS 5e–3; ca. 125–35 ka BP) and is widely, though not exclusively, expressed through differing bifacial tool types. An often-quoted example is the restricted distribution of bout coupé or flat-butted cordate handaxes in MIS-3 Britain. This paper provides a broader contextualisation of this bout coupé phenomenon; first, in relation to the general reoccurrence of handaxes in late Middle Palaeolithic Western Europe, including comparisons with the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition (MTA); and second, as a case study to explore behavioural implications of such spatio-temporal variation. Different explanatory factors for the observed patterns are investigated together with potential links to Neanderthal population dynamics. It is concluded that bout coupés represent a genuinely distinct biface form, which was sometimes maintained through the stages of use, and is most parsimoniously explained by regionalised socio-cultural behaviour, implying specific lines of cultural transmission among late Neanderthal groups.