Friday, 25 November 2011

Barton et al. Find Neanderthals Attractive.

This post has been modified.
In "Modeling Human Ecodynamics and Biocultural Interactions in the Late Pleistocene of Western Eurasia," Barton et al. conclude that during the later Pleistocene the Neanderthals responded to increasingly inhospitable conditions by shifting from a generalized residential mobility strategy to one characterized by logistical mobility. In other words, the authors aver, Neanderthals came up with a more resilient, culturally based, strategy that ultimately led those at the margins of their range to come in contact with modern human populations more than they would have had their enormous, culturally sophisticated, brains never decided in the first place to shift their mobility strategy to stay alive. 
     The upshot for the Neanderthals is that through interbreeding whenever and with whomever they got the chance, their genome, once distinct from that of modern humans, was inexorably diluted past the point of recognition. Thus, the unsuspecting Neanderthals only 'appear' to have become extinct, and did so in part because they were so darned clever.
No one has yet figured out how to tell a male Neanderthal from a female, from the neck up, so you get to decide which sex this represents.
I need to say at the outset that I find it difficult to conceive [cough] of the notion that a modern human like me could ever have found a Neanderthal attractive, even after a few drinks (if, that is, my and other anatomically correct reconstructions are eventually proven to be more accurate than the Neanderthal-on-the-New-York-subway version), or even after many. 
     So, in that respect I may not be the most objective of Barton et al.'s potential readers. Nevertheless, I can assure you of this: I can be objective about the degree to which their paper contributes to knowledge of the Neanderthals' evolutionary fate. In so doing I hope to demonstrate equanimity, good faith, and to give you an evenhanded assessment--what's known as mitigated objectivity. [You there! In the back! Stop all that snickering.]

     Barton et al.'s argument might have more heft were it not that the premises underlying their conclusions are based on very problematic assumptions. These include, but are not limited to, the following. 

1) Neanderthals and contemporaneous modern humans interbred in much the same way that two adjacent modern human groups would do.
2) Neanderthals were the cultural equals of modern humans.
3) Neanderthals were the 'authors' of the so-called transitional stone technology known as the  Chatelperronian.
These three assumptions comprise an unstable foundation for Barton et al.'s thesis. Were any one of them to prove untenable, their whole research project would amount to nothing. Unfortunately for Barton et al. there is good reason to conclude that all three are non-starters and that theirs is a house of cards.
     Their paramount assumption is the most difficult to accept because it lacks any prima facie evidence. There is no reason to think that the Neanderthals and modern humans interbred--even if it's theoretically (or even practically) feasible. For all we know it's possible for humans and chimpanzees to produce viable offspring. That doesn't mean it would ever happen! [That whole thing about Kiwis and sheep is just an urban myth. Right?] 
     Which brings me to the next most destabilizing assumption: that Neanderthals and modern humans were cultural equals. As you know I have, for decades, held that the evidence for this premise is, at best, shaky. I'm by no means in the majority for thinking this way, but then again you're not here to listen to a mainstream reaction. If, like me, you accept it that the Finished Artifact Fallacy pretty much erases any notion of high intellect on the part of Lower and Middle Palaeolithic stone workers, and you see that Sandgathe et al.'s recent take-down of the putatitive Neanderthal burial at Roc de Marsal could lend credence to and eventually result in acceptance of my assessment of the entire Middle Palaeolithic burial cohort, and you sensibly ignore the various efforts to artify some very un-art-like discoveries from Middle Pleistocene sites, you'll understand why I think it's still a bit premature to accept the Neanderthals into the modern human fold without some misgivings.
Many would consider the 'handaxe' to be a work of art! This is what's known as the "I-don't-know-what-art-is-but-I-know-what-I-like" principle of aesthetics!

The Divje Babe 'flute.' Codswallop, I say. Actually an almost complete, immature cave bear femur. Thus, couldn't have been the length necessary to be capable of making any noise using the two complete and two partial 'piercings' (carnivore tooth marks) evident on the surface.

The BBC report on this so-called mask is available here. All I can say is "OMG, no one could have predicted that this sort of thing could happen naturally!"
By employing the Chatelperronian 'industry' as a basis for their conclusions, Barton et al. are playing with theoretical fire [a subject on which I've yet to opine in these pages, but it's not far off, let me assure you]. 

'Chatelperronian' artifacts (from Bar-Yosef and Bordes 2011)
For decades the academy has toyed with the idea that the Neanderthals were responsible for the rarely occurring archaeological 'phenomenon' referred to as the Chatelperronian. The consensus among believers is that it's most likely due to acculturation of Neanderthals within the 'Upper Palaeolithic' culture of the modern humans. Although the reality of the Chatelperronian has always remained a question-mark in the minds of most Palaeolithic archaeologists, lately the idea of neanderthal authorship has been pushed hard by some well-respected scholars. At the same time, thorough re-examination of the stratification at the Grotte du Renne at Arcy-sur-Cure (Yonne, France) has demonstrated, unequivocally, that the Chatelperronian is the result of post-depositional mixing of Middle and Upper Palaeolithic levels within the site.  
     This pulls the rug right out from under Barton et al.'s proposal that there was evidence for a shift from residential to logistical mobility among the later Pleistocene Neanderthals. Without the Chatelperronian to underpin their statistics of inferred mobility strategies, the Neanderthals evidently remained 'stuck' in the residential mode throughout their existence. This obviates much of the ecological modelling in Barton et al. 
     That there are these gaping holes in Barton et al.'s arguments may in fact explain two observations that I can make, which might otherwise be labelled as ad hominem, and thus unfair for me to raise. Both can be hypothesized to be the result of a realization that the work might never have been published in a refereed archaeological journal, and, given the press that some recent studies have garnered, might even have precluded publication in Human Ecology.
     My first observation is that the manuscript, as published, is rife with typos that would easily have been spotted with adequate proofreading. This leads me to suspect that it was published in a hurry, or perhaps that the scholars were in a hurry to get it 'turned around.' My other suspicion relates to its publication in Human Ecology. It's unlikely that the editor would have had the wherewithal to be critical of Barton et al.'s problematic presumptions 1 through 3, and would thus have focussed on the computer and ecological modelling as the article's main contribution. 
     As you can see, for a variety of reasons (and not just personal/professional predisposition) I find Barton et al. to be unpersuasive, if not slightly disingenuous given recent scholarship surrounding their subject matter.
Gabriel Stabile photo from the
New Yorker's online only edition, November 23, 2011.
[Cut to Turkey Shoot. Sound of Barton et al.'s highly improbable theoretical bullet ricocheting off, not penetrating, the armour of likelihood. Sorry, no turkey for them.] 

Happy Turkey Day to all my American friends!  

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