Sunday 6 November 2011

A Reality-Based Take on Qesem Cave

[Feel free to take whatever arises with a grain of salt, since I'm not, after all, a flintknapper, I'm...okay, no need to repeat The Elephant Man allusion.]

I touched on the Qesem Cave blade assembly-line claims previously on SA. The global science news-writers really took off and ran with this bit of Palaeolithic archaeological mythopoeism! [If you don't believe me, just follow the news ticker up top for a few minutes.] But I can't help but return to the matter for a closer look. There is just so much wrong with Shimelmitz, Barkai, and Gopher that it's really hard to know where to start. 
     For starters, the authors aver that 'blade production' of the kind they see at Qesem is a sign of an 'innovative and thoughtful technology aimed at the systematic and serial production of predetermined blanks.' I, for one, have no idea what a 'predetermined blank' is, but from the context one has to assume that they really mean blanks the shape of which are predetermined. How do they infer this, one wonders? The reader doesn't have to dig [cough] too far to find out.
     They begin by describing the pertinent attributes of the process they claim is purposeful. 
1. The reduction takes advantage of the natural shape of the raw material and does not include pre-shaping and decortication.
2. The continuous use of powerful blows for the removal of items that generally followed through the entire length of the debitage surface.
 3. The frequent removal of laminar items with an overpassing end termination along the reduction in order to control core convexities.
4. The combined reduction of primary element blades (PE blades) and naturally backed knives (NBKs) alongside blades in a single sequence in which the items were both predetermined and predetermining.
With respect to their first point, the local raw material includes '[f]lat flint slabs and round small nodules rarely exceeding 15 cm in length' that were 'commonly selected for laminar [i.e. 'blade'] production.' The authors illustrate the shape of the process that arises from 'selecting' such pieces of raw material, with which this non-flint-knapper can readily agree would be the case whenever such a piece of raw material was 'selected.'

From Shimelmitz, Barkai, and Gopher (2011)
 From their description and this illustration, even someone who knows nothing about flint-knapping, like me, can easily see that all you have to do is pick up a piece of tabular flint, find the only surface that presents a useful platform and start bashing away. Where is the 'innovation' here? Where is the 'thought' involved here? Randomly picking up a block of raw material the shape of which is commonly occurring doesn't quite make it as 'thoughtful' or 'innovative.' I'm sorry.  
     As for their second point, I'd expect nothing less than a powerful blow from Neanderthals or their ilk.
     Point three reiterates the result of the above-mentioned 'powerful blows' and adds that this resulted in only the  'frequent' [i.e. not consistent] removal of laminar items, which they aver must have been to 'control core convexities.' This is quite a claim, considering the difficulty the moderns seem to have had when trying to replicate the process (see below). Moreover, the shape of the flakes removed is both determined by the shape of the raw material and determines the shape of the next flake removed. Hmmm. Sounds to me as if that could have gone without saying...
     Nevertheless, shown below is what the authors call 
"An experimental example of reducing laminar items from a wide flint slab. The blanks are ordered from left to right according to their reduction sequence."
Wow! Impressive! [please excuse the snark] These fine specimens of blade-hood are remarkable in their predetermined non-uniform-ness. Seriously, now, this is the best that modern humans can do using the technique they've inferred from what they recovered archaeologically??? Their claim of a palaeo-production line a couple of hundred thousand years ago at Qesem Cave is, to say the least, a bit of a reach!
     Once again, I ask you to compare the above Acheulo-Yabrudian 'assembly-line' products with real, live [well... not alive, as such], archaeological examples of blades and blade production from a truly prepared core, shown below. Thanks, once again to Anja Roth Niemi, Department of Archaeology and Social Anthropology, University of Tromsö, whose web page displays these beautiful Mesolithic blades and blade cores

Adding insult to injury, have a look at the scale. These are prismatic microblade cores, representing a real blade 'production-line' on a teeny-tiny scale, much like the blade technology seen throughout the tenure of people like us, but taken to its exquisite final expression. No one had to wishfully think these into being, as Shimelmitz, Barkai, and Gopher have done in claiming the existence of purposeful, serial blade production at Qesem Cave (thanks, again, to Dr. Roth Niemi).
The remainder of the Qesem Cave 'production-line' paper relies on the reader's acceptance of the premise that the so-called blades recovered archaeologically were in fact the result of a process that produced flakes of a predetermined shape. As such it's a circular argument that only, ultimately, proves its unwarranted premise. 
     The prosecution rests.

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