13-2018 115, 3, p. 439-453 - Damien PESESSE – Segmentation technique, segmentation sociale ? Tester l’hypothèse au Paléolithique supérieur

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13-2018 115, 3, p. 439-453 - Damien PESESSE – Segmentation technique, segmentation sociale ? Tester l’hypothèse au Paléolithique supérieur

Pour le Paléolithique supérieur, il est parfois proposé que la division des activités au niveau de la production lithique et en matière dure animale reflèterait une division sociale, largement structurée autour de l’opposition armes/ outils domestiques. Nous dénommons ceci l’hypothèse de la double segmentation, induisant une partition symétrique entre division technique et sociale. Pour tester cette hypothèse, nous mettons en place une grille d’analyse permettant de définir dans quelles conditions il est possible de démontrer que les supports destinés à ces deux grandes classes d’acti­vités ont été taillés simultanément, successivement ou indépendamment et ainsi de préciser comment ces activités sont agencées au niveau de la séquence opératoire, de la chaîne opératoire et du système technique. Il en ressort que cette hypothèse s’avère peu opérante, sinon fausse. Quel que soit le mode d’agencement des productions reconnu, aucun argument ne permet de le relier symétriquement à un mode d’organisation des activités.

Parmi les facteurs expliquant l’agencement des activités au sein de la chaîne opératoire, nous proposons d’intégrer l’objet lui-même comme acteur. En effet, de manière récurrente, la production de grandes armatures induit une certaine configuration de la production lithique. À partir de ce constat, il apparaît que l’hypothèse de la double segmentation concentre plusieurs biais liés à la « Constitution moderne » (Latour, 1991), mettant par exemple en opposition sujet et objet, technique et social. Penser l’objet comme l’un des acteurs permet de faire la jonction entre ces entités abstraites et d’observer de manière pragmatique comment sont réalisés les rapports sociaux, dans une approche largement influen­cée par l’anthropologie symétrique.


Mots-clés : chaîne opératoire, technologie lithique, agency, anthropologie symétrique, catégories.


The description of lithic assemblages focuses carefully on describing how functional aims are organized. These aims are often considered as a system of binary opposites: weapon/tool, domestic/hunting. Gradually, the idea that the partition between the production of weapons and collective tools reflects a form of social partition took root (Bon, 2009). We call this hypothesis double segmentation. It entails a direct correspondence between these two modes of organization. This partition cannot be demonstrated for the transformation or the use of tools, but it can be considered for the production of blanks. We will thus test this hypothesis here. It is based on the pretext that the Upper Palaeolithic involves “a clearer individuation of the social actors” in comparison with the Middle Palaeolithic (Valentin and Bon, 2012, p. 180). These authors draw on the idea that objects participate in stabilizing intersubjective relations, following the work of S. Strum and B. Latour (1987/2006).

Several integration methods exist for assessing Upper Palaeolithic functional aims. A methodological framework was thus established to incorporate these different methods, based on the theoretical organization of the products in the operational chain and the operational sequence. This first grid shows that neither the partition of production activities or their imbrication allows us to directly link both parts of the hypothesis. A second grid was thus established. It lists the operational configurations established for the Chatelperronian and the Laborian in the southwest of France to define how these two records of activities are linked. This is the first overall synthesis of the organization of production at the scale of the Upper Palaeolithic in France. It brings to light a wide diversity of solutions and shows that the separation between weapons and tools is not the dominant configuration at this level of analysis. However, we cannot infer that there is no social partition of activities during this long period. As we cannot link both sides of the hypothesis, this appears to imply that it is false. It is thus appropriate to explore the current paradigms leading to this proposal.

Several pitfalls have been observed. The first concerns the binary system of categorization: weapons versus common tools, which is a limiting factor (Tartar et al., 2006). In certain cases, this does not necessarily involve the production of two different categories of blanks, but of an assemblage that is differentiated after production (Perlès, 1991), which then becomes “a weapon by destination”. It is thus the use of the blank that defines its role rather than the pre-existence of distinct categories. This appears to be true for several categories of objects, such as the Chatelperron blank (Pelegrin, 995; Baillet, 2017). The very generic weapon/tool distinction thus masks very different conceptions of the toolkit during the Upper Palaeolithic. These categories do not exist a priori and do not have a stable significance.

This emic/ethical problem is linked to the debate on intentionality/rationality. According to rather circular reasoning, the rationale of technological analysis is mixed up with the rationality of the studied technical organization, demon­strating in turn, the accuracy and the rationality of the study. The scientific approach is thus spread out in the past, if we follow the approach adopted by B. Latour (1991). In order to implement this interpretation, we thus have to introduce additional notions: investment, complexity, hierarchization, economy, norm…, so that the assemblage is in keeping with our frameworks. It is necessary to maintain a strict subject/object distinction in the present and in the past in order to carry out such an analysis (Shanks and Tilley, 1992).

This a posteriori rationalization also involves the complete intentionality of the knapper (Boissinot, 2015). The knapper is a craftsman fully conscious of the rationality and the perfect ergonomy of the system he uses. There are no frictions within these systems, so it is not necessary to change them. Any later developments of the system would thus come from external factors.

This double segmentation counter-intuitively implies that the social aspect is not in the technique but facing it, thereby relaunching a structuring debate (Guille-Escuret, 2003). According to this assumption, the technique is produced by social factors. If we follow this reasoning, technical organization reflects social organization. This would thus be directly deducible from the former through analysis. The technique is thus not rooted in the social domain but is the reflection of an organization that exists without it (Latour, 1994, 2006). Naively, we could thus approach the social dimension directly through our system of studying the technique.

If we agree on a definition of the technique integrated in the social system, and therefore on the fact that non-humans participate in this organization through the links they establish, then we can see cases in a very different light. In these cases, the focus on making relatively large axial points creates what could be construed as a paradox in our way of looking at the assemblages: the functional specialization of certain points is opposed to an operational specialization. If a study of the object aims to “locate an interaction” (Latour, 1994), then these points fully participate in creating interaction between the human actors, by concentrating on the production of blanks.

The production of large points is sometimes associated with the idea that they are a visible marker and can convey the identity of the user. If we follow this line of reasoning, once again, it creates a paradox: displaying the identity of an individual or a group of individuals would involve pooling the toolkit during production. This apparent paradox could be avoided in order to deduce on the contrary that the process of displaying the individual would also appear through the centralization of production (Valentin, 2008, p. 217).

What does a lithic point do? Does it differentiate individuals? Does it link agents? Does it simultaneously produce these effects among others? In any case, it does a lot more than simply turn an object into a weapon. Interpretation can no longer be imputed to the only positive observation inferred from the operational chain. At last, we reach a satisfactory realm of reflection: objects raise problems. They are no longer the reflection of social norms (Latour, 2006), but the problematic conditions of social relations. Any possible contradictions between production and use, for example, pro­vide a perfect illustration of this aspect. In this case, the object is at the centre of interactions because it provides some of the conditions of the technical system. This is not a case of replacing social determinism by technical determinism, as these two terms are confounded (Latour, 1994). Simply, the project does not determine all the conditions of its imple­mentation beforehand. This tension in the systems thus becomes a source of innovation. Factors of change can then be sought out in collectives associating humans and non-humans. The objects thus have more than merely representational or functional meaning, and constitute genuine agents (Blandin, 2002; Houdart and Thierry 2011; Bonnot, 2014).

With the starting assumption (Valentin and Bon, 2012), if we can agree on the idea that the multiplication and the sta­bilization of types of objects is linked to a form of stabilization (but which?) of intersubjective relations in the sense proposed by Strum and Latour (1987/2006), then it is the integration of non-humans that contradicts the hypothesis that this is built around a weapon/tool dichotomy.

We have not presented any new information in this criticism. We have simply attempted to deconstruct the current line of thought from the inside. It would have been possible to proceed in a different way, as all the tools for criticism were already present. They are based on the rejection of our modern Constitution (Latour, 1991). They come from diverse disciplinary fields, from partially overlapping trajectories (Van Oyen, 2014). They come from the tradition of Techniques & Cultures and the evolution of the social versus technical controversy, from the Latourian sociology of techniques and symmetrical anthropology, from agency, from material culture studies ... These pitfalls have been recognized separately, but they are designated simultaneously in symmetrical archaeology (Witmore, 2007). All these pathways are united by the desire to bring these objects back to life, to free them from our categories.


Keywords: operational chain, lithic technology, agency, symmetrical anthropology, categories.