Wednesday, 5 October 2011


In August of this year a team of (mostly) American archaeologists published a report on their excavations at Roc de Marsal (Dordogne, France). As far as I'm aware the media have shown no interest. Odd, considering it's the first peer-reviewed description of the first investigation of its kind in the history of archaeology and palaeoanthropology
     Recall that since the early twentieth century the received wisdom in our discipline has been that the Neanderthals buried their dead and took part in other kinds of mortuary ritual. Such behaviour, understandably, would make anyone perk up and say, "Hey, they're just like us!" So, when a team of respected archaeologists raises their hands and says, "Hey, the Neanderthal kid they dug up at Roc de Marsal probably wasn't purposefully buried," you might expect at least a "News and Views" in Nature, or a New York Times science column opining on the matter. It's not as if they're hiding their talent under a bushel, either—they published in the Journal of Human Evolution, the highest impact journal in the field! 
You have to understand that I'm more than a little bemused by these circumstances because in 1989, fresh out of university with an Archaeology BA in hand, I had the temerity to publish my original research and argued that there were perfectly good, natural explanations for all of the putative Neanderthal burials. At the time the response to "Grave Shortcomings: The Evidence for Neandertal Burial" made me feel a bit as if I was being handed my head on a platter. This quote pretty much sums it up.
We have difficulty finding any scientific merit in this paper. ...why should anyone take seriously this paper written from the armchair? 
—David W. Frayer and Anta Montet-White
And the hits just kept on coming. Most were arguments ad hominem. None that I'm aware of took on my arguments—most simply rejected them out of hand. 
     Time passed. My UC Berkeley PhD in Anthropology came in 1994, and a position at a research university in Australia was mine two years later. It was there, in 1999, after two rounds of peer review, that the Journal of Human Evolution reluctantly published what might be termed the dropping of the other shoe: "Middle Palaeolithic Burial is Not a Dead Issue." In that paper I laid it on the line: what we could expect to happen to a hominin carcass in a cave or a rockshelter, what we should expect to observe when we excavate the remains, the startling concordance between relatively rapid deposition and relative completeness of hominin skeletons, and some case studies that illustrated my argument.
     More crickets. And more frustration that my 'theories' weren't being engaged in any serious way. As far as I'm aware my 'contributions' have been in a kind of scholarly limbo—officially dead, but awaiting some final arbiter of archaeological truth to point the thumb up or down when "all the data are in." 
     I've been in a kind of limbo myself since leaving Australia in 1999. So I missed the harbingers of the Roc de Marsal work, such as the 2010 episode of "The Human Spark" in which Alan Alda visits the excavations and has the issue explained to him, which verified the prediction I'd made in 1989—that the skeleton had most likely been naturally buried in a karstic solution cavity. Believe me, it was surreal to hear those archaeologists uttering words that would have been unthinkable 22 years earlier.
     Through it all, there wasn't an anthropology department in the world that didn't have at least one member of the academic staff who thought I was nuts! Safe to say I didn't think I'd have a snowball's chance to investigate the sites where the putative burials were recovered. I didn't even bother to ask. Perhaps I should've been thick-skinned and persevered. Friends will tell you that I'm just not that kind of guy.
     So, you can probably guess why I'm both pleased and disappointed to find, 22 years after publishing "Grave Shortcomings," that someone else has done it at Roc de Marsal. And not just any someone else—the author list includes Paul Goldberg, who was on the équipe that claims the Kebara Cave 2 partial skeleton was purposefully buried. Jammy! And, while Sandgathe et al. cited my work, to read their paper gives a reader the impression that they were employing orthodox methods and constructs—those methods and constructs for which I was pilloried and for which my career suffered and suffers still. 
     I've always said that my scholarly fate was sealed by the very nature of my argumentif others had simply accepted my work the discussion of Neanderthal burial would've vanished from view, along with any mention of me; if they chose not to accept my work, regardless of the reason, I remain invisible. I can't decide if that describes a double-edged sword or a bittersweet irony.

My thanks to Iain Davidson for suggesting that I start this blog. I'm hoping that he'll agree to make his mark on The Subversive Archaeologist. I'm also hoping that there'll be one or two others who might wish to contribute from time to time.

I couldn't leave this inaugural post without admitting that I've been inspired by some truly brilliant and influential bloggers who are out there telling truth to power in other realms: Jane Hamsher (progessive politics against the status quo), Marcie Wheeler (politics and the law, and the lawbreakers who go unpunished), Paul Krugman (Reality-based, Nobel Prize-winning economist whom no one in the Obama administration, it seems, sees fit to hear), Ian Welsh (Wall Street explained and exposed), and many others. All, in their way, work in our interests against the Corporatist oligarchies that are the real governments in our nations. I can only hope to be as eloquent and as impassioned about this far less momentous (and almost altogether intellectual) battleground—how we construct knowledge of the past—and what happens when we disagree about it. It remains to be seen if, at the end of the day, my efforts will achieve even so much as comparability with those I emulate.


  1. Congratulations and well said. By all means push on! Your work was and remains extremely relevant. If we do not truly understand our past, we have no true hope of shaping our future. Our "family trees" have repeatedly grown misshapen and twisted, allowing the least evolved and most voracious of our species to flourish at the expense of the rest. The cycles repeat. Over time the dominants become increasingly isolated, in-bred, and dependent upon the less fortunate below, and are ultimately sustained only through some form of inhuman and often cannibalistic slavery. Meanwhile increasingly large sections of the population in the lowest branches fail and fall from the protective environment to either die of starvation or fall prey to the carnivorous perils of the ground, huddling together for safety and survival in growing numbers around the base of the trunk. Eventually the entire structure becomes so unbalanced and unstable that cataclysm is inevitable. Sometimes those in the lower branches rise up and eject the the dominants who fall to their collective deaths only to be replaced by their behavioral counterparts from the insurgency. Sometimes those on the ground and hanging dangling from the lowest branches poison the tree, dig up its roots and tear away at its trunk until it topples, killing many in the upper branches and creating a chaotic scramble to the nearest sturdy tree where the whole process repeats itself. Sometimes the tree itself simply collapses, killing almost everyone inside and beneath it and the cycle begins from scratch elsewhere. But in every case, the growth of the tree and the its primate population is a disorganized, accidental, and unintelligent process. Archeology and history give us an opportunity to understand that process and its failures, and to cultivate new trees in a way that can withstand our weight and provide safety and sustenance for all. Only then will we break this idiotic cycle of imbalance and injustice. Only then can we begin migrating to a permanent future where all are safe and can flourish, and so doing abandon those creatures at the top who, for the first time in natural history will be forced to either join the human race or rapidly fade into extinction at their own hands, at which time we carefully memorialize for future generations and then dismember the old "family tree", lest it fall upon us from the past and once again damage and misdirect our future.

  2. So what about the Shanidar IV 'flower burial'? Was this also not a burial? I gave a lecture on it this week, as an early Middle Paleolithic possible piece of evidence for plant use and paleoethnobotany. But I did at least balance it out with a theory I read somehwhere about a rodent called the Persian 'jird' taking seeds and flowers (how quaint!) into its burrow and that this is what caused the flowers-on-the-grave theory... Do I have to update my students on Neanderthal burials?

  3. @sbestel
    Well, no, I concluded that there is insufficient evidence to claim, unequivocally, that Shanidar IV was a purposeful burial, and plenty to suggest that its location and depositional circumstances were ripe to bury it naturally, along with the other skeletal bits above and below it. As for the plant macrofossils, etc., Mme. Leroi-Gourhan also found charcoal, a portion of a butterfly wing, wood and other detritus in the soil that she examined. For some reason she and Solecki apparently decided not to include those in their flower burial scenario. I could go on...

  4. As an grad student I excavated a Neandertal burial. Clear margins around the grave, and flexed position (fetal position), as in so many other cases. We all know about your interpretive caution, but you have to had been there to understand how clear it was. As hard as it might be to swallow, the 'armchair' critique that has been aimed at you must be factored.

    Anonymous for privacy...sorry!

  5. Dear Anonymous. Unless you're extremely old, I'm guessing by the terminology you're using that you're talking about Moshe, the Kebara 2 Neanderthal. If you have read my 1989 paper on that putative burial you'll know that there is nothing straightforward about what you and the others have called the margin of the pit. If you an be a little patient, I'd like to blurt about this on the Subversive Archaeologist, since I have some photographic evidence that has, I think, rarely seen the light of day, and which might convince even you of the ambiguity that's associated with the so-called margins of the so-called pit. And, even if I'm wrong and you're not referring to Kebara 2, please visit when I post. I'll leave a link here when it's ready. Thanks for taking the time to drop in and comment. Anonymity is fine with me. As you know, I'm well aware of the social pressure that exists in our discipline, and I can empathize. Rob

  6. As promised, I've put up something about the Kebara Cave Neanderthal. It's at


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