Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Out of Arabia? The Levallois Technique in Oman. No Biggy. Right? Marks and Rose Claim Otherwise. Why?

This is the original document, published November 30, 2011. I subsequently removed some of the vituperation. But by publishing a retraction of sorts, I inadvertently 'unpublished' a comment. For the record.

It's not for me to say what others should make of their archaeological discoveries. I should just listen and synthesize human history accordingly. Trouble is...when I do, it makes no sense and it really hurts my brain!
     I'm looking at the news ticker again. And I see that CBS News dot com today runs a story from LiveScience dot com, which recounts today's peer-reviewed [sic] publication of recent discoveries from the Arabian Peninsula, specifically Oman. The LiveScience dot com byline reads 'Arabian Artifacts May Rewrite "Out of Africa" Theory.' Showing startling creativity, the CBS version reads '"Out of Africa" theory may need a rewrite.'

     Regardless of which you read, or even if you read the peer-reviewed article, you'll be treated to a confused account of what I guess is someone's conflation of some true facts. Both media outlets and the article reproduce the following (intensely beautiful) image of a flint artifact from Oman that is said to be more than 100K years old. 
I can easily believe that. However, I have trouble with the assertion that this discovery is the oldest occurrence of this stone industry outside of Africa. The authors presumably think they can get away with this tripe, since this artifact is typical of an assemblage type referred to among northeastern African archaeologists as the 'Nubian Middle Stone Age.' Thus, the scholars aver that their discovery represents the first occurrence of this type outside of Africa! 
     Contra the authors, and quite irrespective of whatever it's called in northeastern Africa, this creamy, lustrous object is a Bordesian dream: it's the second of the two Levallois Point cores that François Bordes named in 1980. You remember, it's the one with two final flake removals, both triangular (and both, according to the pundits, conceived ahead of time and carefully prepared for by wasting dozens of useful flakes). [Somebody please tell me to stop!] 
     In truth, there is nothing unique about the existence of this kind of artifact outside of Africa! As you all now know, the Levallois technique (or rather the fanciful archaeological construct of the same name), occurs in southwestern Asia (of which, you'll recall, the Arabian Peninsula is part) and across Europe. It's everywhere. And it's been there for at least 150K years...more like 250K. So, this object rewrites no story. It's the archaeologists who're rewriting the story, and I have to ask why. 
     A claim like this, for the oldest anything outside of anywhere, will garner you at least 50K more on your next grant proposal, and it might even get you tenure if you play your cards right. Good on you, Jeffrey Rose and Anthony Marks. Good on you, Plos One for accelerating publication of this level of disingenuity.
     Give me a break! No. Give me a strong drink!

Icelandic Archaeologist Could Teach Dr. Conard Something About Scientific Decorum

I'll admit it. I was drawn to click on the news ticker up top when I saw the headline about archaeology in Iceland. That's because of my mother's father. He may have been born in Manitoba in the late eighteenth century, but his older brother and sister, his mother, his father, and all of his ancestors were born in Iceland. My Grandpa's name was Gustave 'Gus' Adolf Finnsson. Never mind the 'Adolf.' Gus was born at least fifty years before the butcher Hitler became a household name. Thanks to Grandpa I used to fantasize about being a horn-helmeted, fur-coat-wearing, swashbuckling ravener of a Viking. 
[You wouldn't know it to look at me, but Leif Ericson is a direct ancestor of mine. Not the rock star. The Viking. King of Iceland. Explorer who really 'discovered' the New World around 1000 CE, of which I'm reminded every time Columbus Day rolls around in the U.S. Yikes! Talk about a 'masking ideology' in the Mark Leone sense. This one's a bit blatant given what archaeologists have known for at least the last 50 years.]
Animal and human bones were discovered in the same pit at this Viking settlement in the Þegjandadalur Valley (Suður-Þingeyjasýsla county, northeast Iceland). Photo by Bernhild Vögel.
It's not long or detailed, but the article in the Iceland Review online tells of animal and human skeletal remains found together in a context where they might not otherwise have been expected. The byline reads 'Archeological Discovery Indicates Human Sacrifice,' but the copy contains no such unalloyed claim. In fact, the archaeologist who's quoted is Lilja Pálsdóttir, who said this to the reporter:
'I wouldn’t say that one can confirm anything about human sacrifices, although the combination of bones is interesting. We don’t know whether it indicates a ritual sacrifice as not much is known about sacrifices in Iceland at this time'
When I'd finished the article I thought, 'Geez, one of archaeology's geographically marginal practitioners could teach geographically, culturally and scientifically mainstream Nick Conard a lesson in talking to the papers.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Cave Bears, Pod Hradem Cave, and Me. Part I

Dr. Karel Valoch at Pod hradem cave
In July 2011 I travelled to the Czech Republic for the second time. The first was the summer of '92. I was in grad school at the time, and I'd been looking for material for a thesis topic that required palaeontological animal bone excavated and documented with archaeological precision. Dr. Karel Valoch of the Moravian Museum was the only one of my contacts with access to material that satisfied my criteria, and very kindly invited me to examine the assemblage of cave bear bones thatin the 1950s, he and Professor Rodolf Musil had excavated from Pod hradem cave. Pod hradem lies in the Moravian Karst (Moravske Kras), a carbonate massif in eastern Czechia with, at last count, over 2000 individual caves, many of which are manifold and ramified. Pod hradem is not one of those. 
A very pretty map showing the whereabouts of Pod hradem cave.
Early in 2011 Masaryk University's Dr. Ladislav Nejman invited me to visit during renewed excavations at Pod hradem, aimed at fleshing out the paleoecological picture of the last 30,000 years or so in that part of Central Europe. 
     I had some very powerful personal reasons for travelling there. I was finally going to see the cave that yielded the collection of animal bones I used for my Ph.D. dissertation.* I knew that I would meet Dr. Karel Valoch again after 19 years, who was now 92. Finally, I would again be able to see the family that befriended me in 1992, the same family that nursed me after a classic dissertation fieldwork illness, and which, to my shame, I'd more or less allowed to think I'd fallen off the edge of the Earth.
Brno, Czech Republic. Capital of Moravia.
Given the choice, I decided not to stay in Brno, the nearest big city, and instead found lodging within about 100 m of the cave, near a small tourist centre called Skalní mlýn, which once boasted a water-wheel mill, and which now hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. The main attractions in this mini-resort are a river cave tour and views of the deepest gorge in Europe. Pod hradem is a relatively small void in the carbonate rock, but it looks across the narrow valley at Punkevni cave where it disgorges the Punkva river from one of its passages. The underground system is part of the system that created the Macocha Abyss, 138 m deep, formed when the ceiling of the cave collapsed. It's the deepest such topographical feature in all Europe.
     Skalní mlýn and Punkevny cave have been hosting tourists since long before the breakup of the Soviet bloc. However, good old-fashioned entrepreneurs have tarted it up a bit. There was a miniature train on wheels

and a gondola to the summit of the massif. 
There was an expensive hotel with a restaurant, with a few souvenir shops nearby, a couple of walk-up food bars, and two (!) pay toilets.
Hotel Skalní mlyn.
And a reasonably priced hostel--the only other accommodation--rounded out the tourist amenities, Chata Macocha.
Macocha Gorge in the early twentieth century, with Chata Macocha atop the escarpment.
Chata Macocha today.
Chata Macocha, Skalní mlýn.
Chata Macocha's Terrace Bar.

I'll say more about the 2011 Pod hradem project and about my visit with Dr. Valoch and others in another post. For now, I gots ta go ta work!

* 'Taphonomy and Spatial Analysis of a Cave Bear (Ursus spelaeus) Fauna from Pod Hradem Cave, Czech Republic: Implications for the Archaeology of Modern Human Origins.' [I can proudly state that said dissertation became a book that you might just be lucky enough to find in your library. It's been out of print for years.] 

Monday, 28 November 2011

A Face Only a Palaeoanthropologist Could Love: H. Neanderthalensis

First point of the day.
Although I'm technically practicing without a licence, I'm nonetheless giving Neanderthals a long-overdue face-lift. I'm doing it without anaesthetic for the Very Serious Palaeoanthropologists (VSPs) of the academy who've completely missed the point over the years. From the First Flower People to the Neanderthal Enigma and everything in between. It's they who've been under anaesthetic all this time! I think it fitting now to lift the mask, let some fresh air in, and they can then regain consciousness.
Second point of the day.
I'm very grateful to the readership of SA for hanging in there, and for the implicit support of your mouse/trackpad/trackball finger. Speaking of fingers. I'd have thought that by now, with my middle digit upraised in most of my posts, one or two VSPs would have chimed in with a 
'Tut, tut, Robert. Mustn't say these sorts of things. Be scientific. The people who've come before you knew what they were doing. They were good people, with lots of prestige and a well-paying professorship. Appeal to authority, Robert, and you'll never be unhappy.' 
Hardly likely. All eight of my fingers will keep chip, chip, chipping away at the crumbling mortar, and one bright morning...

[You just keep thinking like that, Rob. We're certain that your dreams will come true, and one day you'll be standing on the Olympus of the anthropology world, glass of wine in one hand and a beautiful Neanderthal in your other, with the whole tribe oogy, oogy, ooing at your feet.]

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Wine for a Santa Cruz Warm Sunday Afternoon in November

My porch and the canyon it overlooks, pointing north.
OK, maybe today I'm being smug. I haven't bothered to include different pictures, 'cause they'd be identical with the ones that appeared in yesterday's post! It's 21 degrees (70 Fahrenheit) at noon on November 27 in Surf City (Santa Cruz), California. For those in the Antipodes or anywhere else in the temperate Southern Hemisphere I probably still need to remind you that, here on California's Central Coast, we're less than a month from the shortest day of the year. 

'Nother perfect afternoon. Just a breath of wind because the summer-like weather has invited the marine fog to venture close to shore and it sets up a temperature gradient. Otherwise, much the same as yesterday.

Same porch. Mine. Pointing south toward Monterey Bay, which is visible as the lowest darker blue patch near the treetops in the centre of the picture.
 And another perfect afternoon for a different California Pinot Grigio--Crane Lake. Pardon the plug. [I get no revenue, just the satisfaction of having fine wine at, in today's case, well below cat-pee prices.]
This bit of wine chat is from Wine Legacy: 'Shows how refreshing Pinot Grigio can be. It’s got subtle citrus, white peach and almond blossom aromas on the nose. Soft pear, apple and citrus flavors follow through on the palate; the wine finishes with a crisp, clean lemony snap.'
All true, and all because of the Crane Lake Winery, Napa and Sonoma Valleys, California. [If it weren't for them I'd prolly be broke!] Just a nice hint of toasty oak, and at under $3 I ain't complaining 'bout this one either. What's up, Docs?

National Geographic Calls Neanderthals "Victims of Love"

I hope the Eagles aren't reading the popular anthropology literature!
     It was only a matter of time...
     National Geographic Daily News ran a story a day or so ago that touted Barton et al.'s effort to model the sexual interactions between Neanderthals and modern humans, on which I've previously opined. [Why do they and others like them get positive press and never me? Hey, they elected George W. Bush, didn't they? Both could be said to have been decisions made without the critical faculties in evidence. Sour grapes? Me? You must be joking!]
For the bare bones of their female Neanderthal reconstruction, artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis feminized a cast of a composite male Neanderthal skeleton originally put together from various specimens by scientists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. For instance, in place of the male pelvis from Kebara, Israel, used in the AMNH skeleton, they substituted a female Neanderthal pelvis from the nearby site of Tabun. Other body parts were rescaled to female dimensions. Paleoanthropologist Steve Churchill [with whom yours truly worked in the summer of '89 at Kebara Cave in Israel] of Duke University made calculations to reduce male bone sizes to female dimensions. For the head the Kennis brothers combined skull parts from a female specimen from a cave in Spy, Belgium, with the face of a famous female Neanderthal skull from Gibraltar. Found in 1848, but not identified as Neanderthal until 1864, the Gibraltar specimen was one of the first Neanderthal skulls ever discovered, and it still ranks among the most complete. Working with replicas of the bones, the Kennis brothers assembled the skeleton at their studio near Arnhem, Netherlands (From National Geographic Daily News).
To illustrate their account NG rolled out a recent reconstruction, that of the Kennis brothers. You'll notice right away that the nose is, once again, dipping at 45 degrees from the horizontal. However, I'd hasten to add in this case it's anatomically correct. That's because the part used to model the nose was the os nasalis (nasal bone) of the Forbes Quarry Neanderthal, which is less like the so-called 'Classic' morphotype, and more in keeping with that of Homo antecessor, the Middle Pleistocene hominid from northern Spain that in all likelihood gave rise to the Neanderthals. It's quite possible that if one were to take a closer look at the Forbes Quarry individual, a case could be made that it was indeed not a vrais Neanderthal, but a very early one, or a late member of the H. antecessor grade. 
[Physical/biological anthropology. Now there's job security for you!] 
And just to emphasize a point I've made before, in the frontal view below I've as best as possible indicated the actual sizes of the orbits and nasal aperture using the Forbes Quarry specimen as a guide. As you can easily see, even though the profile of her nose conforms to the Forbes Quarry fossil remains, the flesh of the nose could easily fit inside her nasal aperture. That's just wrong. Moreover, they've ignored the volume of those enormous eye orbits and pencilled in eyeballs and pupils like yours and mine. It gives her a modern human gaze, but I hardly think that an eyeball triple the volume of ours would have functioned with a pupil the same size as ours. The Neanderthal face almost certainly did not undergo such profound evolutionary changes only to house an eye with the same visual acuity as yours and mine.
Living 'rough' in the Pleistocene, where the only makeup was ferrous oxide and every day was a 'bad hair' day! Venus of Willendorf, she ain't. If Neanderthals were so much like us, why are they ever portrayed as unkempt and surly? Kinda reminds me of a come-back I once heard at the suggestion that chimps are just like us: 'If they're so much like us, why do you need to keep them in cages?' [I just adore all of the ingrained dirt!]
So, I leave you again with my sincere apologies for harping on and on about these distant relations of ours. But as you know, the other kids won't stop blathering about them either. So I'm demanding equal time. 
[Let's see. Several hundred of them. Carry the three. Minus the number of fingers on my left hand. I reckon I should be able to blog once a day for the next 250 or so years if I'm going to put the equal time rule to best use. 250 years oughta do it!]

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Levallois Take-down, Part Deux

Clockwise from lower left: tortoise core, ventral flake, Levallois point, proximal points.

Clockwise from lower left: Levallois tortoise core and flake, direction of 'preparation' flakes and the final removal of the presumptive desired end product, a Levallois point, a Levallois core in the wild, numerous pieces of Levallois debitage, again in the wild.

The Levallois technique, as it's modelled by the majority of lithic analysts [of which, as you know, I'm not one], is a way to reduce a large block of usable flint to obtain one or at most two unifacial flakes that have the desired outline (viewed dorsally or ventrally). The illustration below is my 'paste-up' of François Bordes' nine 'types' of Levallois cores and flakes, which he envisaged in a 1980 article.
Bordes, François. 1980. Le débitage Levallois et ses variantes. Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 77:45-49.
These Bordesian types are idealized (if not reified) categories. In an earlier post I argued that the Levallois 'blades' from Qesem Cave in Israel were anything but ideally shaped. Nor were they, evidently, uniformly shaped. The story is much the same for the other eight Levallois flake 'types' that Bordes bequeathed to us. As opposed to the stereotyped images shown above, the reality is much more complex and includes far less regularity than Bordes' classification would suggest. So complex and so variable are the products of the Levallois technique that one wonders how many Prof. Bordes needed to look at before deciding on just those nine shapes as emblems of what the Middle Palaeolithic (MP) hominids were aiming for. I can suggest that he searched his own experience of the world to settle on those nine types, as shapes that just might approximate shapes that would be useful to a modern human--e.g. a projectile point, a knife, an 'ulu,' a scraper.
     Do me a favour and scrutinize the objects displayed below, which are some of the Levallois cores recovered at Douara Cave, in Syria. The presumed desired outcome--the final, 'Levallois,' flake removals--are outlined in red. See how many you can assign to one of the nine Bordesian types shown above. Difficult? That's an understatement! 'Impossible' gets my vote.
Levallois cores from Douara Cave (Credit Akazawa in Suzuki and Takai 1974). 
I suppose you could argue, as many no doubt would, that the Doura Cave Levallois cores aren't good Levallois cores, and say that only those that conform to Bordes' typology can be called good Levallois cores. I hope you can see why I think such a view would be begging the question. ['Begging the question,' for those of you who didn't take that Critical Thinking course at university, is A.K.A. 'circular argument.'] 
     Just to show you that I'm not cherry-picking my evidence, have a look at the following illustration from a paper by Vallin et al. published in Paleo dealing with Levallois flake variability. This is an assemblage-level comparison of flake outlines that have been identified as Levallois flakes. You don't have to be a statistician to see that there isn't one dominant outline, much less evidence of any of the nine that Bordes 'identified.' It's clear to me, at least, that you'd have to be thinking like a Neanderthal to see the variability in products of the Levallois technique as anything other than continuous.   
Outline of unbroken Levallois flakes from Hermies-Le Tio Marché ; hinged flakes  in red, plunging flakes in green (CAD : L. Vallin).
With all due respect to François Bordes and Eric Boëda, the Levallois technique is nothing but the product of some very elastic modern human minds, and, contrary to received wisdom, was never the incredibly wasteful and counter-intuitive behaviour of MP hominids. A GREAT deal of modern human brainpower went into its creation as an archaeological construct, and I fear that a great deal more will be expended before a counter-argument such as mine meets wide acceptance.
     Some would call that job security. I can't see any up-side in that. I'd call my project Sisyphean in proportion, and in its likely outcome.

Friday, 25 November 2011

So Few Postdocs; So Many Talented PhDs

I came across this on the news ticker. It's so rare to hear of postdocs in our discipline. J'espère que mes ami(e)s du Québec aussi cela auront vu.

Poste pour doctorant(e) en géoarchéologie.  Appel d'offres, Calenda, publié le mardi 08 novembre 2011

Shame On You, Peter Rowley-Conwy!

As Sherman Potter used to say on the TV series M*A*S*H*:

The article in question.
The material in question.
The paper to which P. R.-C. refers.

The source. Published by the Cambridge University Press (2001).

Peter Rowley-Conwy states flatly, as if it were as factual as the sunrise, that 
'the number of individuals is more than could accumulate by chance'
I said it in the maligned paper and no one including P. R.-C. listened. So I figure I'm safe in saying it again. 
There is NO WAY OF KNOWING the PRIOR PROBABILITY of the NUMBER and CONDITION of animal or hominid skeletal remains that will be discovered in an archaeological site. 
There is, however, ONE THING FOR SURE: 
the chance of finding fossilized Middle Palaeolithic hominid remains in caves is MANIFESTLY GREATER than the chance that they'll be found in the open air. 
Rowley-Conwy's pronouncement is hardly what I'd call the scholarly evaluation of an argument.
     This is an example of the pathetic state of some archaeological discourse in the twenty-first century. In other words, not much different from that of the twentieth century, from my perspective. Granted, Rowley-Conwy's  drivel was published ten years ago and I'm just now finding out about it. But cut me some slack. I left the academic stage at the same time this was published. It's intellectual dishonesty such as his that ensured my career in archaeology would be starved of oxygen--by a general inability or (worse) disinclination to seriously engage my arguments about Middle Palaeolithic burial; through bullying, and closed networks (old boys and others), and a  general disdain for anyone who questions the orthodoxy.
     I had intended to publish this yesterday, so forgive me if the turkey meme is getting stale (or was that 'putrid'). Still, the aim is the same. Need I say more?
Gabriel Stabile photo from the
New Yorker's online only edition, November 23, 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!  

Thursday, 24 November 2011

You. Just. Can't. Make. This. Stuff. Up.

You have to see this! The upshot is: this is why our discipline should be factory-installed equipment for every human being. This ancient Andean child's remains have been touted by persons (unidentified) as those of an alien! And somebody believed it long enough for it to become media fodder. Increíble!
Photo from the International Business Times, November 24, 2011. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that the child's left eye has been 'shopped'.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot Tomorrow!

Gabriel Stabile photo from the
New Yorker's online only edition, November 23, 2011.
I'm home alone tomorrow, America's Thanksgiving Day. No distractions. It'll be a Turkey Shoot. So, no archaeological myth, recent or ancient, will be immune to the acerbic keyboard of the SA. First up: Barton et al.'s new modelling of Neanderthal population dynamics. I can't wait!

Meet Your Cognitive "Betters," the Neanderthals. Or not.

The Telegraph's headline reads: 
Neanderthals died out because they were too clever for their own good, research  suggests.
This mildly counter-intuitive and credulous-sounding statement was made in reference to a newly unveiled article in the journal Human Ecology. Michael Barton and Julien Riel-Salvatore are claiming that the Neanderthals were actually better at looking after themselves in frigid, ice-age Europe than the modern humans who, most would say, outlived the burly human relatives. Shown below is the image that accompanies the Telegraph article. This glowering, rough-looking individual, it's supposed, is a contributor to the modern human genome [well, maybe not him/her, but nonetheless a member of the same species]. However, say the authors of the piece in Human Ecology, the Neanderthal's physical distinctiveness was, if you will, genetically 'swamped' by the more numerous modern humans. 
From The Telegraph (BBC photo)

Without any credible evidence that, for example, Neanderthals were capable of preparing animal skins to use for clothing (or simply to keep warm), such a  claim makes me chuckle. But for the time being I'll have to give the authors the benefit of the doubt.
     And why not? Any informed comment from me will need to wait until I can get my hands on a reprint. [This being an "Independent Researcher" really sucks. It's not as if we're "independently wealthy," after all, and can afford the cost of a pdf from the publisher every time we see something interesting in the literature!] 
     By the way, I can't resist [and who among my (now) ten faithful 'followers' could blame me?]. The presumed ancestor in the picture lacks nasal cartilage, like all of the other Neanderthal 'mock-ups' we've ever seen. ['Curious,' he said, somewhat coyly.] Perhaps if an anatomically correct illustration had been included in The Telegraph's article the audience would be more reluctant to accept the result of Barton and Riel-Salvatore's modelling of Late Pleistocene Europe population ecology
     Alas, a more fully formed assessment of their argument, courtesy of yours truly, will have to wait. As the ex-Governator of California once famously quipped: "I'll be back" [ deal in depth with this claim].

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

What I'm Working On (To Whet Your Appetite)

Round 2 of the Levallois Take-down
A comment on Messrs. Michael Barton and Julien Riel-Salvatore's latest in Human Ecology, of which I learned by gazing at the news oracle, and which was mentioned in a completely credulous article in The Telegraph.
Neanderthal anterior dental attrition
Busy, busy.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Face It! Neanderthals Were Adapted to Carnivory

Relative to my previous posts* on the subject of the Neanderthal face, I've had an epiphany in the last couple of days. So, I thought I'd do a wee comparison between a modern day "top" carnivore and our cousin's, the Neanderthal, face. Do you see what I see in the image below? It looks as if the felid and the Neanderthal face have more in common than either has with the modern human. 
Top: Neanderthal (Forbes Quarry), modern human
Bottom: African lion
The lion has a keen sense of smell. Which of the bipedal cousins do you think has the better sense of smell? Relative to the rest of the face, the big cat has a nasal aperture that's equivalent in size to that of the Neanderthal. Not so that of the modern-day hominid on the right. 
     A cat can spot its prey from 3 km away. Can you? Do you think the Neanderthal could? 
     The cat has dagger-like fangs and molar teeth that would put a deli meat-slicer to shame. "Aha!" you might say, "that chap from Forbes quarry couldn't be as effective as the lion--it doesn't have the appropriate dental accoutrements!" Umm. It's possible, isn't it, that all those flint flakes lying about came in handy for more than whittling?
To my (admittedly impoverished compared to a carnivore's) eyes, it's as clear as the nose on your face day that the Neanderthal was well adapted to carnivory. 
     I've been accused before now of beating a dead horse. Is the "Neanderthals-are-just-like-us" horse dead yet? 
* Those earlier posts

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Egyptian Palaeolithic Rock Art

My hometown newspaper, The Vancouver Sun, ran a story the other day about some petroglyphs 600 km southeast of Cairo that were recorded 50 years ago by Canadian archaeologist Philip Smith, but which were undated until now. 
Extinct fauna on a cliff face above the banks of the Nile River at Qurta are estimated to be between 15,000 and 19,000 years old (image from The Vancouver Sun November 18, 2011).
The new dates would place these carvings smack dab in the middle of the time that the famous Lascaux paintings were being executed. These in Egypt include fish, gazelle, hippopotamus, and an extinct oxen. They were dated using the inherently problematic OSL technique. So the skeptic in me wants to remain open-minded about their true antiquity. Nevertheless, long-denied κῦδος to Professor Smith!

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Face-off: Neanderthal Nouveau and Me

 Either I need a better napkin, the back of which to use for illustration purposes, or I need a John Gurche to work some fresh magic with my working hypothesis that Neanderthal carnivory was behind the autapomorhphies* of the mid-face, specifically the larger-than-life nasal aperture and the eye orbits that look like goggles. In this brief addition to my previous two posts on this matter, I will embarrass myself silly while trying to depict the Neanderthal nose in side view, compared to that of people like you and me.
     First, I did a quick reconnaissance at Google image to find the size comparison seen in the first illustration shown below. Neanderthals had only a slightly larger brain and brain case than we did, which is clear from the photo. However, if you look at the distance between the forward-most point of the browridge and that of the upper jaw, you can easily see the great size difference. The Neanderthal nose and upper lip were on the order of twice as tall as ours!  
Size comparison of a Neanderthal and a modern human to scale (image gleaned from the web, no ascription was found).
I couldn't use the above  image for comparison, because as with so many Neanderthal fossils, the nasal bones were missing in this one and the entire area is a plaster reconstruction. Instead I went back to the Shanidar 5 skull, which retains the nasal bones, and then attempted to show the generalized (European) modern human face in relative proportions.

Shanidar 5 reconstruction (after Trinkaus 1983) and Gray's modern human to same scale as above.
Now the process gets embarrassing. After downloading GIMP (free, open-source photo imaging software) at the urging of a friend, and making a number of false starts, I managed to (roughly) describe the outline of the Neanderthal and modern human faces based on the above skeletal outlines. I attempted, as best I could, to model the eyes, nasal bones, and nares as honestly as I could. The results are meekly presented below. Have a look at the faces, which are to scale, and for which the soft tissue has been approximated in both cases. [I even tilted the Neanderthal below the Frankfurt plane** because I didn't want to accidentally overemphasize the near horizontality of the bridge in the Shandiar 5 specimen, the cranial outline of which I couldn't reconcile with that of the comparative photo, at the top. However, I believe that a more horizontal bridge is actually the case, which would result in a far-more vertical naris. I've also downplayed the vertical size difference, again because I didn't want to appear to be making too much of a trait that's likely to vary considerably within and between species. In all likelihood the two faces would be even more disproportionate.] 
Gargett's embarrassingly  poor attempt to model the Neanderthal upper face and that of a modern human using the Shanidar 5 reconstruction and Gray's modern human using the same relative size as in the first illustration above.
Now have a look at my (admittedly crude) illustration of this face from the front.
It's likely that you wouldn't buy a used car from this man. Put a hat on him and you'd still think twice about giving him a ride in your car, unless you have one of those K-9 Corps-type meshes between you and him. And you'd probably be right to do so, if, that is, you wanted to keep all of your limbs intact, especially if he likes the way you smell!
     I think you'd also agree that there's a considerable difference between the Neanderthal profile that I've constructed and any of the artistic attempts that I've stolen borrowed from the web for this exercise, and which are laid out below. I would go so far as to say that the differences would warrant a separate generic status for this hominid, but then I'm not a flint-knapper member of the club that gets to do that fun stuff.

You'll probably recognize the Australian Museum's model in the upper left. The lower left I'm calling the New Age Neanderthal. Upper right is, I think, a game rendering. And the lower right is a fairly traditional, shuffling brute, 'hairy ape' concept.
* This is me using a bit of  biological anthropology jargon so the grown-ups will know that I can walk the talk walk the walk walk and chew bubble-gum at the same time. So are all the other high-falutin' words that I use. It's important to switch linguistic code when you're trying to get in with the cool kids.
** The Frankfurt Plane is the specified position of the head in what's known as the correct anatomical position.

Artificial intelligence finds fossil sites

It's Friday night and my brain's dead. But! I can still find something to chuckle about while mindlessly watching the news ticker reveal the news to me like one of those magic cubes that can tell your future [They really can!]. Tonight it's this: 

Artificial intelligence finds fossil sites

I can't tell if it's tongue in cheek or not. First of all, there's going to be no artificial intelligence until we know what the real stuff looks like. Second of all, there have been some truly clueless vertebrate palaeontologists in history, and I wonder if they could have done any better with artificial intelligence. Finally, if artificial intelligence can find fossil sites, why have we been wasting our time all these years? With real intelligence going for us, shouldn't we have been able to foresee a time when we could set an artificial intelligence do the prospecting and just sit back and sip gin and tonics in the shade?

Friday, 18 November 2011

The Nose Knows More Than You Think

In keeping with my previous post, I'll attempt to flesh out [cough] a similar argument with respect to the side view of the Neanderthals that we're used to seeing in so-called artist's conceptions or facial reconstructions.  First of all, have a look at the Australian Museum's attempt from the side. The black outline is the silhouette of the fleshy side. Notice how the bridge of the fleshy nose thins out as it gets to the tip of the nasal bone and follows on from that to approximate a nose such as you or I might see on a modern human with an unfortunately big nose, like that of famous anthropologist Milford Wolpoff. 
But wait! What happens if you take account of the nasal cartilage, which in mammals conforms to the line described by the articulation of the right and left nasal bones.  
     It's easier to imagine if you have a model to work from. In the illustration on the right from Gray's anatomy, you see the Cartilage of Septum and the Lateral Cartilage begin at the end of the nasal bones and form most of the nose's bridge. The Greater Alar Cartilage is what gives our nose its 'flare.' The Oz Museum has ingnored the cartilage altogether, as if it didn't exist, with the result that they can fudge the angle of the bridge. If you think about where the cartilage would articulate, and its likely length (i.e. at least as long as the nasal bone), you can see that the Neanderthal nose would be a prodigious honker, at a minimum. 
Shanidar 1 in norma lateralis (photo source)
Many of the Neanderthal skulls that we've seen pictures of include reconstructed (read 'imagineered') nasal bones. The real ones are relatively fragile and are easily removed by any number of post-mortem processes. For example, look at where the nasal bones would be on Shanidar 1, shown above, and the model from the Australian Museum seem to have nasal bones that would not be out of place on a large-nosed modern human. BUT THEY'RE NOT REAL! They're plaster fantasies put there by the excavator or the anatomist/physical anthropologist who 'described' them in the scholarly literature. And, thus, whether the result of a 'facial reconstruction,' an artist's conception, or just the audience's imagination, the Neanderthal is made out to look more like one of us than it ever could have in reality.
     Now check out the lines made by the nasal bones in the Shanidar 5 specimen, one of the few with the nasal bones intact, and those of the modern human on the right. The Neanderthal's is almost horizontal, while the modern human's dips about 45 degrees from the horizontal. 

Shanidar 5 VS. the Subversive Archaeologist (after Trinkaus 1983)
Now gaze at the two views of the nasal anatomy, below, which I've oriented according to the plane of the nasal bones in the Neanderthal nose on the left and ours on the right. Are you getting the picture? [Gad, I wish I had PhotoShop and knew how to use it! Never mind.] Unless you think that the Greater Alar Cartilage suddenly became the Greater Alar plus garage-door-effect Cartilage, you've got an almost vertical naris (the hole you breathe throught). The result would be that if you were to see a Neanderthal on the New York subway it would look anything but usual. It's a radically different Neanderthal face that I'm suggesting, one that's likely to be much more realistic than any that you or I have seen before. And, I suggest, it all has to do with carnivory.