Wednesday 29 February 2012

Good News For the Kimberley and Rock Art in Australia

From the Bradshaw Foundation
Rock art buffs and archaeologists everywhere will no doubt treat this as great good news. The Kimberley region of Western Australia is world-renowned for its so-called Bradshaw paintings or Wandjina figures, very ancient pictographs that abound in that part of the world. Nothing like them exists elsewhere in Australia. They speak to a past which is as far as we know incommensurable, even to the aboriginal people of the area. $1.5 million is a lot of dollars to get for 'significant' research into rock art! And that's just for starters. From Past Horizons
The Kimberley Foundation Ian Potter Chair in Rock Art will be established with the gift from Melbourne-based not-for-profit organisation, the Kimberley Foundation Australia (KFA).
The partnership between the Foundation and the University was formalised this week. The partners will endeavour to raise a further $500,000 through philanthropy and the University will provide matching funding of up to $2m to provide a total of $4 million to fund the chair on an on-going basis. The Ian Potter Foundation, a long-term supporter of KFA’s research has contributed to the project.
Wandjina figures from the Kimberley Range in northwestern Australia (From Past Horizons)
I know a good number of people in Australia who are going to be thrilled at the news (even if much of the money stays at UWA). 
Kimberley landscape. Image: yaruman5 (From Past Horizons) 

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Peopling of the Americas: Stanford and Bradley's Across Atlantic Ice

Dennis Sanford has his Pre-Clovis people at last? Thanks to Mark Collard for sharing this article from The Independent on facebook.
New evidence suggests Stone Age hunters from Europe discovered America

It's probably news to no one but me, as usual, but they're claiming to have found, among other tantalyzing items, French flint on the Atlantic continental shelf of North America.
     I'm calling that intriguing! More soon.

Okay. Time out. The faithful readers of SA have spoken and there is skepticism in the air. [Big surprise.] Has anyone actually seen whatever published findings gave rise to this claim of Solutrean-tool-making Europeans migrating across sea ice or along it, just to stake a claim on a place they'd never seen before and had no reason to know even existed?

Me neither. Here's your homework. Go find it! And if Dennis is out there... man, you gotta point us in the direction of the primary literature. [Or, barring that, someone's gonna haveta bite the bullet and click on the link at the right and buy the danged book just to find out. Hey, a girl's gotta make a living! And the Pod hradem cave collection plate is still disappointingly nearly empty.]

I Must Be Doin' Somethin' Right!

I caught this on John Hawks blog just now. Apparently a couple of very smart people from the London School of Economics (important Alumni include Mick Jagger) think that blogging is the most important thing that an academic can do at this time in intellectual history!   
Thanks to Iain Davidson for suggesting that I do this. And thanks to all of you for looking in. I'll try to keep making it worth your while. [Now, if I could just get everyone to agree with me, life would be perfect!]

Journal of Archaeological Pseudo-science: Middle Pleistocene Mythopoeism from Kathu Pan 1

J. Wilkins, M. Chazan / Journal of Archaeological Science xxx (2012) 1-18

I don't know whether to scream or pull my hair out. So I guess I'll do both. 

Jayne Wilkins and Michael Chazan, Blade production ~500 thousand years ago at Kathu Pan 1, South Africa: support for a multiple origins hypothesis for early Middle Pleistocene blade technologiesJournal of Archaeological Science  39, 1883-1900, 2012.

The authors seem to think that they have indisputable evidence of a blade industry at give-or-take 500 kya (i.e. the product of Homo beforeneanderthalensis, no less). But when I went looking for their empirical basis I came up, well, virtually empty-handed. I won't go into the details of what they see as the implications of their findings, but I'm gonna reveal their findings for what they are--air and angels. In brief, my finding is that their findings are going to founder on the rocks of the Sea of Reality. Here's why.

     Wilkins and Chazan looked at 3,786 pieces of rock (out of the more-than 2 metric tonnes of lithics culled from the site!). Of the 3,786 bits, 955 were categorized as complete flakes and 972 were called blades. A 50:50 ratio of 'flakes' to 'blades' will be important later in this discussion. So, keep 1/2 and 1/2 in mind.

     The average length-to-width ratio for the blades is 2.5 (s.d. = 0.4). Therefore, approximately half of the blades are in the upper part of the range (i.e. 2.5:1 to 2.9:1) of length to width. The other 50% of the blades would just make it into the 'blade' category (i.e. between 2.0:1 and 2.49:1). Given that a) the minimum ratio to qualify as a blade is 2.0:1, b) the mean is 2.5:1 and c) the standard deviation is 0.4:1, it's impossible to say on the basis of the date presented whether the distribution of 'blade' length to width is uniform, platykurtic, normal, or leptokurtic. That's a crucial datum, as you'll see in a moment. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the distribution is somewhat skewed toward the upper end, given that the actual range of 'blade' length-to-width ratio goes from 2.0:1 to 4.5:1, strongly suggesting that it's more platykurtic than not. 
     You see, a mystery as to the shape of distribution for 'blade' length to width casts a deep, dark cloud over Wilkins and Chazan's whole argument, because it's quite possible that the length-to-width ratio for the entire assemblage (i.e. flakes + blades) is uniform or unimodal, with a mean closer to 2.0:1 than 2.5:1. That would call into question the wisdom of creating the flake/blade cutoff in the first place. Actually, it would make it seem silly.

Once more, an example of how well-meaning archaeologists cherry-pick (never disingenuously) their assemblages for specimens that put their claims in the best light. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't N technically a Levallois point and not a blade? I really, really like M. That must have been one fine flint-knapper to have prepared a core to take off that one at the end of the sequence!
     What of the complete flakes? Alas, Wilkins and Chazan provide no metrics for those flakes that had a length-to-width ratio of less than 2:1. However, I'll take my usual place on a limb. I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of complete flakes in any assemblage are at least as long as they are wide (i.e. >1:1). That would mean that most of the non-blade flakes in the Kathu Pan 1 sample are between 1:1 and 2:1 in a comparison of length to width. Therefore, when compared with the entire collection of 'flakes' and 'blades' the authors examined for this studynearly 1/2 are just on the shy side of being blades
    On that basis alone, I'm willing to bet the farm that, were it not for the arbitrary 2:1 cutoff between flakes and blades, the complete flakes and blades would more than likely form a continuous and uniform distribution of length to width from near 1:1 up to 2.9:1 (with the rest of the range scattered with outliers). If that be the case (and neither you nor I have any reason to think otherwise in the absence of sufficient descriptive metrics in Wilkins and Chazan's article) it would be very difficult for the authors to sustain their inference that the blades they find at 500 kya, and in such abundance, are anything other than artifacts of the arbitrary line drawn between a 'flake' and a 'blade.' 
     If the authors had so much as a shred of evidence that there was preferential blade manufacturing going on at Kathu Pan 1, I'd very much like to see it. In fact, this observer wonders at some of the data presentation decisions the authors have made, such as presenting a histogram of the widths of their 'blades' rather than their lengths, and leaving out the metrics for the non-blade flakes altogether. [It was unfair of me to say this, but I didn't want to revise history by expunging the record. So, I'll leave it in as a sort of persistent mortification of the flesh The lacunae are mysterious, to say the least.]
     If my criticism has any merit, all of the additional analyses contained in their paper (i.e. core analyses and comparisons with other MSA assemblages) would add up to nothing. Chalk up another big miss for the Journal of Archaeological Pseudo-Science and its referees. Is it possible that they didn't ask to see the overall distribution of length to width for the entire sample to make certain that this article wasn't all about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Way. To. Go!
     At the outset I promised I wasn't going to say anything about the implications of a paper like this. What the Hell! I can't forbear saying something. Because, once a story like this gets into a refereed journal there are many impressionable minds that'll just consume it without looking closely, and the myth will just continue to grow. There are also those very serious archaeologists out there who're predisposed to expecting stories like this one. Any chance they're gonna be critical? Hardly likely. The referees who gave this paper a thumbs-up ought, truly, to be ashamed of themselves. The Editors of the Journal of Archaeological Science oughta be ashamed of themselves, too. One of them is Robin Torrence, who should know better. Elsevier, the publisher, ought to be asking why this paper was accepted when, presumably, the vast majority of submissions are rejected for better reasons. And then there's me. I'm certainly not ashamed to call a three dressed up as a nine just that. It's so hard to keep an open mind [as my well-meaning colleagues often counsel] when there's so much seriously specious argument about, so much patently silly empirical observation spread around. Whatever happened to critical thinking? Whatever happened to common sense? Oh, yeah, well, it's never been all than common.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Alas! It's Not Up To Me: OSL Dating South African Caves

It seems almost foolish to say such things. But, if I ran the world (even if only the archaeological world), there'd be some calling up on the carpet during my reign.
     For example, I'd make sure that people claiming great antiquity for modern human behaviour in southern Africa were called out for using optically stimulated luminescence to date cave sediments. After all. The assumption of OSL is that the mineral grains subjected to stimulation were, at some point, exposed to the direct sunlight for long enough to allow all of the trapped electrons in their crystal lattices to have escaped, and the 'clock' effectively set to zero. Otherwise the OSL age determination is going to be older than the reality by some indeterminate amount. How, I ask, is it possible to know that grains found in a cave where, presumably, direct sunlight is at a premium could ever be presumed to have been exposed long enough? Complex 'correction' algorithms notwithstanding, how do they know? If I were the monarch of all things archaeological they wouldn't be able to report age determinations without serious caveats accompanying them. And, I ask, what's the point if you have to say, 'but they might be wrong?'
     Furthermore, given that, regardless of location, daylight gives way to night at least half the time, how do we ever know that mineral grains were exposed to daylight long enough to 'zero the clock'? Really. Half the lifetime of any given mineral grain has been spent in darkness. What are the odds that any given (especially) sand grain was exposed, eroded, deposited and buried in a single night? Happens all the time in the desert. No? Well, then it can happen to a cave or a rockshelter. And in the case of sandstone rockshelters, how do you ever decide what's a sand grain from somewhere else, or a sand grain that was exfoliated from the bedrock? Pray, tell me. 
     So, if I multiply an error-prone estimate by an error-prone estimate, what do I get? It very well could be an accurate age determination. But who's going to know?
     Help me on this one, folks! There are claims for modern human behaviour beginning upwards of 75 to 100 kya in South African caves and rockshelters. What happened between then and about 45 kya, when Europe and indeed the entirety of Asia including Australasia were sprouting human populations almost simultaneously, where no humans trod before? Tell me. Someone. Please. Why a 30 to 65 kyr lag? Hmmmm?
     I guess you'd have to call than an open question. Well, you might. But I think there's nothing open about it. I think the dates are suspect. Pure and simple. Suspect and then some.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Nothin' But Net

I've been busy behind the curtain readying a paper that draws together my critiques of hafting in the Middle Palaeolithic. So, forgive me if I take a minute this Friday evening to reflect on the matter, on my counter-arguments, and my prospects for making it into the literature for the first time in fifteen or so years.

Basketball was never my sport. Then again, I never played a sport, so I guess that goes without saying. Still, I'm ever impressed when someone sinks one of those field goals that flies through the hoop and the only thing it touches is the net. It's like a stealth fighter. It says, 'You can't touch me. I own this hoop. I own you.'
     Yeah, it's Friday and I'm feeling ... frisky. So I'll let you in on a little secret. When I popped Böeda et al.'s Umm el Tlal hafted flake inferential balloon the other day on the Subversive Archaeologist it felt like I imagine it must feel like to drain one of those nothin'-but-net field goals at the end of a close game. 
     You can call me conceited if you want. Hell, you can even say I'm wrong about the pain-in-the-ass flake. But you can't touch me. I know: 'Cause. I'm. Right. 

Friday 24 February 2012

Like Taking Candy From A Baby: The Lagoa Santa Earliest American Rock Art

PLEASE NOTE: The Subversive Archaeologist has published a retraction of this post, which can be accessed by clicking here.

From Neves et al. (2012)
How funny is this? Just about an hour ago I was musing on the absence of any lunacy from PLoSone in the past while. Then up pops this on the news ticker. Earliest rock art in the Americas!
     Wow! This one definitely required all the despatch and prompt publishing that PLoSone offers! Just one thing. They published it so promptly they didn't have time to look at the so-called work of art. If this is a petroglyph I'll eat something unpleasant. They're calling it anthropomorphic! The only anthropomorphizing that's revealed here is in the (vivid) imagination of the excavator. 
     This 'figure' is on the bedrock in a limestone rockshelter in Brazil. Superposed sediments have been dated to plus or minus 11 kya. It's described as a human figure, male, with an oversized phallus. Poppycock! Horse-hockey! Oldest art in the Americas? Hardly.
    Let's see... Limestone is predominantly calcium carbonate, which dissolves, even in the presence of only mildly acidic water--that's how caves and sinkholes form. Let's see... What natural process could possibly have produced what appears like a connected series of peck marks? Wait, wait, I know this one... Water? Too right. Acidic water. Dripping from the roof of the rockshelter. Or carried along as part of a root system as the sediment gradually accumulated over the years. Or... well, you get the point.

     This is not a petroglyph. And PLoSone doesn't have a referee worth the intrinsic value of this laughable claim.
     Give me a break.


Thursday 23 February 2012

Touchstone Thursday: W. W. Taylor's Old Wine and New Skins: A Contemporary Parable

Before the Subversive Archaeologist, before Shanks and Tilley, before Ian Hodder, before Michael Schiffer, before Lew and Sally Binford, there was W. W. Taylor. 
[Who let those owls in here?] 

This Thursday's touchstone is an article he wrote for an anthology published in 1968, called Contemporary Archaeology: A Guide to Theory and Contributions, edited by Mark Leone. And just so you know. Even though I began studying archaeology only two years after its publication, I didn't encounter that volume until the mid-80s. So, no shame if you haven't seen this until now.
     In 'Old Wine and New Skins: A Contemporary Parable,' Taylor refers frequently and substantially to his earlier monograph, A Study of Archaeology (1948), which was never widely accepted. The traditional archaeologists ignored it (those against whom Lew Binford railed), and the New Archaeology eschewed it in favour of a scientistic approach that sought grander outcomes than those they thought Taylor's 'historical science' called for (too 'particularistic,' as Lew would have said). Indeed, such was Taylor's influence that most archaeologists practicing in the late twentieth century had never heard of him, much less read him. 
     Without asking you to find a copy of A Study of Archaeology and read it (it's a slim volume and wouldn't be onerous to ask, but just the same), I'm suggesting instead that you have a look at Taylor's reflections, written in 1968, which recall his original work and juxtapose it against the New Archaeology of the time. I think you'll agree that Taylor's wisdom, virtually ignored twenty years earlier, eerily prefigures the reaction against processualism--what the New Archaeology came to be called when it was no longer 'New'--that became post-processualism--almost single-handedly engineered by Ian Hodder. Reading 'Old Wine' again, it's easy for me to view it as if the patriarch of anthropological archaeology is trying to herd his cats get his twenty-year-old children to share with one another and do so productively and amicably.
     I imagine there are many among you who 'grew up' hearing that culture was [humanity's] extrasomatic means of adaptation [like me]. There'll be as many who've learned about 'contextual archaeology' and more. And there'll be some who've embraced a fuller set of goals than that promised by either. I think Taylor's work demonstrates that there has been a coherent aim in late twentieth-century archaeology, despite the tendency of many of its practitioners to advocate for one, and one only way (their way or the highway) of attaining its anthropological goals.
     Don't skim this paper. Every bite needs to be chewed 32 times to extract the maximum nutritional value. Only then, I think, will you come to realize what a giant W. W. Taylor was.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Whacky Wednesday: A Claim for the Earliest Art, Not the Earliest Art!!!

Tha's what I'm talkin' 'bout. It doesn't take much to get the media stenographers buzzing. This story has been running elsewhere, but I thought it odd that Gizmodo should be throwing this up, and in several languages, too. The claim is being made that these seals are 40+ kyr old, which would be astonishing. But those in charge of studying the images at the Cave of Nerja (Málaga, Spain) are saying these beautiful seals must have been painted by Neanderthals. I kid you not! 
From Diaria Córdoba
     Have they dated the pigment???? NO! They've dated charcoal smears in proximity to the pictographs. At best, it suggests that someone with a torch brushed against the travertine that long ago. The paintings could have been installed at any time since then.
     I wouldn't be so exercised if it weren't that the story's gonna get into the mainstream (mordant) media and then the Cheshire Cat'll be out of the bag! And we both know how hard it is to get such myths back into the proverbial bag.
     Better yet, because there's no archaeological record of early modern humans in that precise part of Spain, they're claiming that they must therefore have been rendered by the local Neanderthal population. There's a leap for you! As far as I'm aware, the archaeology of modern humans has its beginnings in Spain between about 41 kya and about 47 kya. So, tell me again why these paintings MUST have been made by Neanderthals!
     A. Crock. Of. It.

My Viking Ancestors Did This!

   Crazy. I told you once that I couldn't be considered a real archaeologist until I put up a picture of Stonehenge. Well, the same's true of a viking ship! 'Cept this prolly isn't exactly an archaeological find. But it's old, and that's almost as good. Right?
The Viking warship replica Havhingsten of Glendalough (the Sea Stallion of Glendalough) makes its way from Dublin Bay into Dublin Port,Ireland, on Aug. 14, 2007. The ship left the Viking Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, on July 1. Photograph by: Reuters File , Agence France-Presse
It turns out that the Vikings could probably see the sun even through the northern, northern hemisphere's cloudy gloom. They could navigate by the sun's position even when there was no visible light coming from the sun. Crazy.
    This is exciting news, 'cause my Great to the nth power granddaddy was Erik the Red, and his son was Leif Eiríksson, the intrepid Norseman that founded a colony at L'Anse aux Meadows in what's now Newfoundland. But don't let my awesome maternal ancestry awe you too very much. Oh. Allright. If you must be awed, it's ok with me!
     And this isn't at all about me. It's about the Vikings that used compasses and this little bit of geological sorcery, the sunstone (AKA Iceland spar--a very pure form of calcite crystal). 

And it comes from my hometown newspaper, too. What great good fortune. [I think I'm gonna go out and buy a lottery ticket...] 'Scuse me. BRB. From the Vancouver Province:
     An international team of researchers led by Guy Ropars of the University of Rennes in Brittany, marshalling experimental and theoretical evidence, says they have the answer.
Vikings, they argue, used transparent calcite crystal - also known as Iceland spar - to fix the true bearing of the sun, to within a single degree of accuracy.This naturally occurring stone has the capacity to "depolarize" light, filtering and fracturing it along different axes, the researchers explained.Here's how it works: If you put a dot on top of the crystal and look through it from below, two dots will appear."Then you rotate the crystal until the two points have exactly the same intensity or darkness. At that angle, the upward-facing surface indicates the direction of the sun," Ropars said."A precision of a few degrees can be reached even under dark twilight conditions. Vikings would have been able to determine with precision the direction of the hidden sun."The human eye, he added, has a fine-tuned capacity to distinguish between shades of contrast, and thus is able to see when the two spots are truly identical.The recent discovery of an Iceland spar aboard an Elizabethan ship sunk in 1592 - tested by the researchers - bolsters the theory that ancient mariners were aware of the crystal's potential as an aid to navigation.

Eat your hearts out, Pirates! Vikings Rule!

Tuesday 21 February 2012

I'm All Fired Up!

As I was saying to one of my astrophysicist friends today, there are enough questionable claims in the archaeological literature that I'll go to my grave before I even have a chance to put a dent in the lot of them.
     But I think I've been a little unfair in picking the low hanging fruit like pesticidal bedding and chemically engineered hafting goo. When I started in the archaeology game back in the 70s there was always, at any given time, at least one good North American 'Early Man' site that needed taking down. Remember Calico Hills?Sandia Cave? Meadowcroft? And, while it is my major area of interest, Middle Palaeolithic archaeologists make it almost too easy to find the howlers. With one exception, that is. Fire. To me, it makes as much sense that a Neanderthal could start a fire as it ever did that they buried their dead. But as anyone knows who looks at that sort of thing, it's gonna be tricky to go after fire, 'cause they use chemistry and stuff. I'm kind of old fashioned. They can Fourier-transform the dirt all they want, but all it's gonna tell 'em is that there was a fire. Sure, they find phytoliths and stuff like that, but plants grow in the lit portions of caves, so if there's gonna be a fire, it's just as likely to involve the plants as not.
     Fire, as everyone knows, is a universal in modern human cultures. So is cooking (at least some even among the groups north of the tree line). So, fire is something everyone knows something about. I'm not talking about palaeolightning strikes, or spontaneous combustion. I'm talkin' about makin' it from scratch. So, there needs to be a way to rule out the natural fire-making from the sort of thing you or I would do to keep warm or cook a Chateaubriand.
     So, soon as I get done with writing up my take-down of MP hafting, I'm going straight from that frying pan (as it were) into the fire. I might get a little singed, but at least I'll have tried. It's just too attractive. I'm feeling very moth-like.
     In the here and now I have a couple of very kewl news items to alert you to, which I'll get to in a few hours. For now, you can content yourself with the prospect of me getting all fired up in the near future.

Monday 20 February 2012

Child's Play ca. 11,500 BP

It's embarrassing to have to admit this, but it's always been difficult for me to 'keep up' with the world's archaeological literature. And for the past fifteen years or so I've been 'away' from the discipline to such an extent that each time I come across something I missed that's of rock-star status in my mind, my response is every bit as genuine as it would have been at the time, and excitement is hard to curb. This Past Horizons story popped up on the news ticker recently (tardily, because I widened its scope to include, among others, the term PaleoIndian [Don't ask me why I didn't start off with a comprehensive list of search terms. But if you do, I'd tell you that unless the term is one that's only used in the context of stories about our discipline, the ticker puts up some odd sorts of news. Example? Levallois brings up oodles of stories about a French rugby player! And if you do as I do, and spend time watching the stories come and go whilst eating breakfast, you'll know what I mean, even with carefully vetted search terms.] 

Credit: Ben A. Potter/Universty of Alaska, Fairbanks and Past Horizons

It's with great pleasure that I can now be excited publically about this research (alas, a year old), published in America's answer to Nature, Science. This is very cool news for the Palaeo-Indian archaeologists who read SA
     It tells of excavating a wood-framed house-pit (very much like the ones I mentioned in a recent post) that was occupied 11,500 years ago in eastern Beringia, at the time the world was awakening from the last big chill of the Pleistocene. It's not the first time that archaeologists have recovered archaeological remains in that part of the world, nor is it the first time they've found human remains of that antiquity in that biome. However, to my knowledge this is the first time that anyone's found good evidence of a substantial residential structure from that epoch--and a house-pit, no less! 
From Potter et al. (2011) Science 
Coming across this research is doubly cool for me, because one of my long-time interests is the cultural processes that can give rise to socio-economic inequality. It's why the Northwest Coast has always held a great fascination for me. There you have foragers in materially complex, stratified societies, living in huge villages--Chiefdoms, much like those presumed to have been in place in Europe at the time of Stonehenge.
     This Tanana River discovery is evidence of one thing. The people who built this structure were there to stay. They were not semi-nomadic like the ethnographic Inuit people of the high north latitudes. How can I say that? Well, I'll admit some might think it's a bit of a reach. But, practically speaking, pithouses are capable of sustaining a comfortable living space year 'round. There'd be no point in raising the roof on one of these structures if the people weren't sedentary. And, if sedentary, they were exploiting an ecosystem that provided abundant and predictable food sources year 'round. It would have been a perfect substrate for development of materially complex societies that would soon infiltrate the vast areas south of the ice sheets, and leave as their signature a symbol drawn from their recent cultural roots. I'm talking about the fluted points of the early PaleoIndian period in the lower 48 and lower, the ultimate expression of which was the Clovis 'point'.
Although it's to be found in various places on the web, I'm pretty sure that this was originally in National Geographic. However, in the present case I found this image at the University of Montana web site.
Something to chew on.

Saturday 18 February 2012

The Inadvertent Non-Conformist

I could just as well have named this blog The Inadvertent Non-Conformist. It wouldn't have attracted as many anti-establishment archaeologists, or them as wants to watch a slow, train wreck of an academic career, but it would have been a truthful admission, just the same. Non-conformity, as an example of what Marxian philosophers (especially Pierre Bordieu) have called praxis, has a long and glorious history. Think Protestants. Puritans. Suffragettes. Conscientious Objectors. Beatniks, Hippies, Punks, Goths, 99%ers. I don't think I'm in their league because I believe I never made a conscious decision to be this way. Others made that decision for me while I was still young, by pushing me away because they thought I was 'different' or by foreclosing on any form of discourse because they didn't like what I said.

And, in contrast to those heroic groups I mentioned a minute ago, mine's been rather an inglorious non-conformity. It's no doubt the reason I'm sitting here right now, at The Subversive Archaeologist's World Headquarters (amidst a virtual pile of papers I've written that'll more than likely never make it into the canon of archaeology and palaeoanthropology) instead of being the fossil hunter they profile in National Geographic magazine, or the presenter you see on the History Channel telling you what to think about the Neanderthals, or moderating an NPR radio broadcast on the question of who came first, the chicken or the egg.

In fact, I believe that I came to be this person who tries to undermine silly, or illogical, or false knowledge claims because, all those years ago, I was marginalized, brutalized, bullied, and beset by other children who were, in reality, making false claims about the worth of my person. I've received the same treatment in the academy, as many of you know. Always remember: I never went looking for a fight with my discipline or its practitioners because I learned on the playground and in the neighborhood that you gain nothing from physically confronting your abusers--you merely become like them. Instead I fight their ideas, which is much more satisfying, and situates the fight where it belongs, in the realm of ideas and not feelings.

If I have a purpose in this life, it's to remind people that they aren't infallible, or always right, or entitled to Lord it over the weak and powerless. This perch of mine, on the web, free to say virtually anything I want, is a most happy platform, where anyone can see who I am and what I think, unvarnished and unfettered by worries of pissing people off or being made fun of or having to pull punches for professional reasons or to get published or to advance my career. I've been all of those things all my life and, believe me, it feels worse than awful. But, at the Subversive Archaeologist, if anyone chooses to revile me or tries to dismiss my criticisms without confronting them, or  to close ranks, or impugn my character or my preparation, or ostracize me, I can take comfort in spite, because in behaving in that way they're revealing to others that they're paying attention. 

Don't go away. This only gets better.

Picnic All Day; Party All Night

Although I never much appreciated his avowedly atheoretical approach to archaeology, Roy Carlson was ever a gracious host. And, like so many good hosts, he had a saying for almost every occasion. My favorite was his way of describing field campaigns as 'A picnic all day and a party all night.' Dry drunks and relatives of alcoholics will please excuse the following reminiscences. 
     No names will be mentioned, no documentary photos will be uploaded. But perhaps this'll make your Friday mood a little lighter. It's almost axiomatic--as a group, archaeologists ingest prodigious quantities of ethanol, and inhale more pot smoke than there is carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 
     Once upon a time the project director left the remote site for a long weekend. The only people left in camp were the ones that had no family to go home to. So they decided one hot sunny morning that they'd officially declare the day Palaeo Day. Everyone busied themselves with little projects that they thought would best express their most fondly held feelings about the past. One of them promptly took off all his clothes, tied a bandana around his head, roughly laced a very un-artifact-like piece of rock to a fairly straight tree branch, and ran off into the hinterland by himself. Two members of the team set to work building a scale model of a pithouse, complete with a cutaway to show the inner construction, and a lego human for scale. 

[In reality these structures were homeothermic, waterproof, efficient dwellings for a sedentary people in a continental climate--cool in the 40 degree Celsius summer heat and warm in winter's 40 degrees below.
Hat Creek Ranch aboriginal guest group pithouse. Thanks to for this view. Photo ©Alison Gardner.
Inside, these buildings could accommodate a good number of people in a small space, and some of these structures were 20 m in diameter! Inside they were much homier than the scruffy looking mound in the photo above. Have a look. Life could be a lot worse!]
Again, thanks to for this view. Photo ©Alison Gardner.
Back to our story.
The senior archaeologist that remained in camp decided to try duplicating a traditional earth oven. So he and another guy drove a worn-out Toyota pickup to the local watercourse to gather flat, river-rounded cobbles and bullrushes to line the oven. 
     By noon the five or six archaeologists were into the second flat of beers, the pithouse model had gone through an accelerated regime of quasi-experimental archaeology. The experiment included a demonstration of what happens when, toward the end of the useful life of such dwellings, the inhabitants torch the superstructure to rid the house of vermin, after which they scour out the debris and re-build the house in the same location, a little deeper in the ground each time the house is renewed.
    No one gave much thought that day to the bandana-ed naked guy that ran off into the bush that morning, brandishing his stick. All they  knew for sure was that he wasn't alone on the vast site, 'cause there'd been the buzz of a motor-bike on the wind all morning. What no one had counted on was that the spear-carrier had progressed from his morning quest for altered states of consciousness and had, in his imagination, become the self-proclaimed guardian of the site. No one is sure what really took place that day among the remnant cultural depressions that were all that was left of the once-vibrant community. However, the locals tell of the time one summer afternoon when Sammy was ridin' around the old village site. Out of nowhere, some naked guy with a real bad sunburn stood ramrod straight by the track with the make-shift spear held out horizontally to block the rider's progress. When he realized that he was face to face with one of the traditional owners of the land, naked guy apparently mumbled something incoherent, realized what he'd just done, and disappeared into the sagebrush in a running crouch.
     By the time the sun was heading west in a hurry, about a half dozen dusty, drunk, archaeologists gathered by the fire they'd built over the earth oven waiting for the spuds and carrots, corn, parsnips, beets and rutabagas to be exhumed. By this time they were each deep in conversation with Jack, Jim or Johnny (Daniels, Beam, or Walker), and as darkness fell a contemplative silence fell over the camp, leaving only the crackle of the fire to be heard.
     At about that time naked guy stumbles down the precipitous and prickly pear riddled side of the arroyo nearby, yelling 'Ouch! Ow! Ahhhh!' with every sliding step. He was, after all, naked all over!
     'Must be Charlie,' someone suggested. 'Charlie' nearly careers into the fire with the built-up momentum of his trip down the hill and pulls himself upright at the last second, one foot held in the air so as not to push the thorns in any further. Almost falling backward now, he enquired as to everyone's day, as if nothing unusual had taken place.
     Soon the fire was pushed aside, the dirt and bullrushes were carefully lifted off, and the very un-paleo aluminum foil-covered vegetables were pulled from the oven. No one ever had such sweet corn, smoked and roasted carrots, or sweet potatoes. And no one noticed at the time that they had succeeded in turning Roy Carlson's characterization of archaeology on its head. They'd partied all day and picnicked all night! Truly, there's no better job in the world than that of an archaeologist.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Touchstone Thursday: Lewis R. Binford's 'Archaeology as Anthropology'

I've been a little antipathetic toward today's touchstone author since the early 90s when, at the end of his productive scholarly life, he was unable to transcend what I presume was his fear that the radical post-modern critique would forever doom archaeology to 'wallowing in minutiae' and thereby contributing nothing of lasting scientific merit to our knowledge of past peoples' lives, of what brought about culture change, and of the anthropological value of the archaeological record. 
[I was luckier than Binford, I think. Alison Wylie was one of my teachers (as I've said before). She it was who pointed out the greatest shortcomings of the radical critique--their internally inconsistent stance that theirs is the one and only account of knowledge--and I've been able to live since that time without the fear of an interpretative 'anything goes' anthropological stance overshadowing what my realist philosophy of science tells me I can and cannot do to further our knowledge of archaeological past.]
American Antiquity 28:217-225 (1962)
 I remember reading Lewis R. Binford's 'Archaeology as Anthropology' as an undergraduate, and finding it difficult to understand the first time around. As I've since learned (and as faithful SA readers will remember) he was a famously awful writer, and my inability to grasp what he was saying probably had as much to do with his prose as it did with his propositions.  
     Today's generation of archaeologists, if they've had only a glancing encounter with Binford's thoughts, will find this article rife with arcane terminology borrowed mostly from Leslie White, but also from Julian Steward. These two had been informed as much by evolutionary theory as by Marx's materialist philosophy, and without exhibiting any of Marx's politics (which would have been fatal in the 1950s climate of red-baiting and black-listing), they nevertheless incorporated Marxian social and material frameworks in their anthropological schemae.
     Binford was evidently enthralled by the evolutionary view of human culture, and made a crucial contribution by, in effect, willing the discipline to pay attention to a given culture's diachronic transformations as a means of gaining insight into humanity as a whole. Part of his programme, as you will see in this paper, was to bring the artifact out of its museum case and marry it to all of its associated archaeological traces in an effort to--essentially--give it meaning in the context of the culture. [He might not have agreed, and you may not, but I think underneath it all he was hungry to give objects meaning.]
     So, the reader will encounter the words technomic, sociotechnic, and ideotechnic in this article. These constructs, I think, helped Binford make sense of what early theorists, like Walter Taylor, and later ones, like Ian Hodder, would call the 'context' of an object--its meaning within the cultural milieu.
     For me the most useful and insightful contribution that Binford makes in this paper is in the proposition [to use one of his favorite phrases] that objects can and do change meaning over time, making their interpretation all that much more enlightening and at the same time crucial to the archaeological enterprise. In pointing this out for the Old Copper complex, he also [I think] creates a paradigm for recognizing and interpreting similar changes in other places and times. 
     Archaeologists of the  Late Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages in Europe will recognize the cultural transformation of utilitarian objects into symbols of status because that's exactly what happened in their archaeological neck-o-the-woods. For those of you not familiar with those times and places, have a look some time at the exquisite pictorial volume Symbols of Power at the Time of Stonehenge, the cover of which is reproduced below.
As the entire contents of this book reveal, the time of Stonehenge was a time when an axe was no longer just an axe, nor an archer's kit just a mundane component of the life and times of the archer. You get a glimpse of the power with which an everyday construct--like 'axe'--can be imbued with such symbolic power in the beautifully shaped stone artifacts in the cover photo. It's easy to imagine that these articles may never have seen the trunk of a tree or the head of a foe.
     So, read this classic by Binford as a way of gaining entry into the meaningfully constituted worlds of the past. Then sleep on it for about 30 years, as I have, and you'll come to regard 'Archaeology as Anthropology' as a small step for the man, Lewis R. Binford, but a giant leap for archaeology and anthropology.
     Thanks for dropping by today. See you next time.

More Birch Tar From Germany: Königsaue

I won't spend very much time on this last (effectively) claim for the Neanderthals' ability haft lithic artifacts to reach-extending tools, inferred on the basis of their putative ability to dry-distill birch tar. Apparently Dietrich Mania found some birch tar in a what he inferred from the geology was a Middle Palaeolithic context at Königsaue, a lignite quarry in Germany that had once been a lakeside context. One of the lumps has a fingerprint in it. According to Mania it must be a Neanderthal fingerprint. It's not discernible in this image, but we can fairly safely accept its identification as a fingerprint and proceed from there.
One of the birch-tar lumps from Königsaue (from Koller, Baumer and Mania 2001).
I haven't sourced the original German site reports, but I'm happy to shelve that task. That's because the hardened lumps of birch tar that were recovered at Königsaue have been chemically characterized, and I'm satisfied that they are what, first Mania, and now others consider them to be. 
     However, I was struck by an interesting datum in the 2001 article by Koller, Baumer and Mania in the Journal of European Archaeology titled 'High-Tech in the Middle Palaeolithic: Neandertal-Manufactured Pitch Identified.' It's hard to figure out why they bothered to date the birch tar if it was presumed to be from a Middle Palaeolithic context. According to them, 
To ascertain whether these pieces were indeed prehistoric remains, direct AMS radio-carbon dating ... was applied to both pieces ... . The [lab] attributed 43,800 BP to the older sample Königsaue A (OxA-7124) and 48,400 BP to the younger sample Königsaue B (OxA-7125). However, these dates are in contradiction to the assigned geological age of 80,000 years or more. But since the C-14 concentrations after 14 half-lives are too small, both resin finds must be considered outside the reasonable range of application for C-14 dating, and the AMS dates may merely be accepted as a minimum value [emphasis added].
I'm a little bemused by this reasoning, and by the absence of a statement of the error associated with these dates. It's quite possible they overlapped, in which case it makes no difference which was uppermost in the Königsaue sequence. Crucial to the question is the knowledge that the dated samples were recovered in the context of a lignite quarry. Lignite is a carboniferous material that is somewhere between peat and coal. It is mined as a low-grade fuel for power plants. It was formed in the Tertiary period, much later than the true coals. Yet, its age is still such that one would be tempted to call it 'old carbon.' As every undergraduate archaeology student knows, the proximity of archaeological materials to deposits of old carbon have been the subject of protracted debates about the age of, for example, Meadowcroft Rockshelter, the putative late glacial-aged Paleo-Indian site in Pennsylvania.
     I raise this point because the authors of the Königsaue birch-tar paper are careful to argue that their lumps of birch tar are beyond the range of radiocarbon dating. I'm surprised that they state that 48 kyr is near the theoretical or practical limit of radiocarbon--according to Earl Nelson, one of the developers of the AMS technique, any age up to about 75,000 years is theoretically possible, and 50 kyr is a commonplace result in geology. Regardless, why should we accept the conclusion that these lumps are at least 48 kyr old, and most likley far older? It's well known that a very small amount of old carbon is capable of skewing the scintillation counts on which the radiocarbon technique relies in the direction of 'older.' Thus, it's entirely possible that the samples are much, much younger. Perhaps they're from the Mesolithic or Neolithic, where there is well-documented manufacture of birch tar. 
     For the time being I'm going to decline to examine further the underpinnings of this claim for birch tar manufacture in the Middle Palaeolithic. While the unequivocal documentation of birch-tar manufacture in the Middle Palaeolithic would indeed be an extraordinary finding, I'm satisfied that the other presumed evidence for hafting in the MP is so tenuous as to obviate a more strenuous examination of the Königsaue claim.
     Touchstone Thursday tomorrow. See you then!

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Let Me 'splain Somethin' to You 'bout John Hawks, Svante Pääbo, and You, Lucy

I suppose I should just come out and say it, since there's no point in being coy. The now-irrefutable evidence that you and I share varying amounts of apomorphic genetic material with the Neanderthals does nothing to settle the question of whether or not the Neanderthals and we might have, could have, would have, or should have had offspring together. 
     No good. 
     And here's why.
     For a moment, put aside whatever 'feelings' you may have about the Neanderthals' cognitive abilities compared with those of you and me. 
     About 100,000 years ago, at Qafzeh Cave, there are skeletally modern humans. A geological minute later there are Neanderthals a few km down the road at Kebara Cave. These two morphotypes may never have set eyes on one another. But the overlap in their territories, whatever the reason, means that there's at least a good chance they bumped into one another. Which means that if they recognized each other as potential mates the strong likelihood is that they did the wild thing and had families.
     You can slice it and dice it, split hairs, and argue 'til you're blue in the face, but the archaeological traces associated with each of these two species leads to the  robust inference that they behaved in the same manner. They produced Mousterian assemblages at each site, with a Levallois facies. If we had never found the skeletal remains at Kebara or Qafzeh, we archaeologists would no doubt have reached the same consensus--that those traces were left by hominids that were, more or less, behaviorally and cognitively identical.
     As you're no doubt painfully aware by now, I have strong reservations as to the abilities of the Neanderthals, based on my 'reading' of the archaeological record. And, those of you familiar with my three (Yep, 3) solo publications will know that, when I speak of the cognitive abilities of the Neanderthals I'm also speaking of morphologically modern, but archaeologically identical, penecontemporaneous hominids such as those at Qafzeh. What many of you don't know is that, if asked, I would also include Homo sapiens idaltu, at 160,000 kya and any other shape of hominid that left a similar archaeological record, regardless of their epoch. 
     I'm an archaeologist with a deep knowledge of evolution, human and otherwise. I'm also equipped with a modicum of knowledge in comparative vertebrate paleontology, geomorphology, pedology, animal bone identification, interpreting animal bone from archaeological sites, vertebrate taphonomy, site formation processes, lithic analysis, and informal logic. But I'm still just an archaeologist when it comes to the Middle Palaeolithic. 
     And, until such time as it's possible to say that Broca's Area unequivocally demonstrates that the owner possesses the ability to read this blog, or that we're able to say that the FOXP2 gene unequivocally demonstrates that its owner possesses a similar ability, all that remains for anyone to use in understanding the abilities of those ancient hominids is the archaeological record. 
     Archaeologists are uniquely placed to interpret ancient behaviours from archaeological traces. Anatomists cannot. Vertebrate palaeontologists cannot. Geomorphologists cannot. Sometimes I really wonder if lithic analysts can. I am profoundly aware that my expectations and presuppositions of Neanderthal behaviour can clutter and colour my perceptions. That's why I concentrate so heavily on the physical evidence and its context, because that's the only way to move past my expectations in understanding the cognitive abilities of Middle Palaeolithic hominids.
     Along the way, if I find knowledge claims that don't stand up, or represent, merely, one alternative explanation for the archaeological traces under examination, I'm compelled to point that out. There are so many extraordinary claims in the literature of the Middle Palaeolithic that it would takes decades of work like mine to really put the feet to the fire of those who've come before. I simply can't stand by while the real howlers are allowed to remain in the archaeological corpus. 
     And you're here to observe me at it. 
     So, to get back to the genome data. I'm in awe of the biochemical wizardry that John Hawks, Svante Pääbo, and their extremely adept colleagues are demonstrating. Yet, their documentation of the degree of relatedness between modern humans and the Neanderthals, or the Denisovans, means only that we share a common ancestor with the ancestors of those groups
     I'm very proud to say that it's still up to the archaeologists, and they alone, to decide which Middle to Late-Pleistocene hominid morphotype or population gave rise to people like us, and when that occurred. As it was before the 1000 genome data became available, when it comes to Middle Palaeolithic hominid behaviour we have a lot of work to do before we've investigated every alternative explanation for each and every extraordinary claim that's made about that distant time.
     I'm gonna go back to that task now.

This Just In... The Marriage Between the Neanderthals and Us is Off.

Thanks to Marco Langbroek (once again) for bringing this to my attention. It seems that the Pääbo group's initial conclusions regarding the interbreeding of Neanderthals and the recent ancestors of modern humans might have been a tad premature. John Hawks, who's right in the thick of the research team has recently upped two updates. It seems they've expanded the comparative genome sample to 1000 from the original 5.
     And what do you think they found? [I'm trying not to gloat, mind you.] With 1000 genomes in the mix, it seems that the similarities between us and the Neanderthals varies across the globe. There's no way they can go on saying that their evidence demands that we accept the interbreeding hypothesis. It's just one of a number of possible scenarios.   
     Complete the following phrase: Hip, hip, _____      

Saturday 11 February 2012

Asses Wild: Böeda et al.'s (1999) Middle Palaeolithic Card Game

This lame duck has been waiting to be put out of its misery now for 13 years. It's called 'A Levallois point embedded in the vertebra of a wild ass (Equus africanus): hafting, projectiles and Mousterian hunting weapons,' and its thesis is that a Levallois point was driven into an ass's neck with such force that it breached the pedicle of its 3rd cervical vertebra and became lodged there for eternity (or close enough). 

Unfortunately, instead of its being a complete Levallois point, all that was left inside the vert was a small medial fragment of a larger flake. It's shown in two views above, one by itself, the other incorporated into the hypothesized Point. The two are drawings from the Böeda et al. publication. Notice that the flake's fairly small, and appears to be coming to a point--just what you'd expect from a Levallois Point. I'll get to the issue of hafting in a moment. There are a few matters to get out of the way first. This article requires me to take little bites. I think I'll call them Stages. For the first you'll need to refer to the two drawings and this, the only, photo of the flake that shows its true morphology [albeit from a lousy angle and badly lit].
From Böeda et al. (1999) 


The first thing you'll notice is that the two line drawings of the little fragment are different, so it's difficult to know which of them follows most closely the actual specimen's morphology. This isn't a major imperfection. But to my mind inconsistencies like this don't inspire confidence [I know. That's and argument ad hominem, and I don't hafta lower myself to that level--there are enough juicy, unwarranted inferences in this paper to preclude my needing to use fallacious argument]. For now, let's go with the two dissimilar renditions above, and the shape of the inferred original flake, shown the other way around in the illustration below. As it happens, the two inferred flake outlines aren't identical either, and in the figure below we see yet another version of the actual flake's marginal morphology. 
     Anyway, when I finally bothered to pick up this article the other day, after having been challenged to see what I could say about the 'evidence' for Middle Palaeolithic hafting, the first thing that crossed my mind was a question. WTF? Or words to that effect. I wasn't expecting there to be any possibility of doubt that the flake was a Levallois Point. Silly me.
From Böeda et al. (1999) 
How did Böeda et al. infer, from a small, medial fragment, that it had at one time been a Levallois point, and a hafted one, at that? With inabashed alacrity, I think you might say. The authors state, with what sounds like supreme confidence, that it's a Point, and that it must have been hafted, otherwise the Neanderthal that wanted to remove it from the bone couldn't have pried on the proximal portion of the flake with enough force to snap it in two. There's so much that's wrong with that line of thinking that I can hardly imagine how it was ever published in a refereed journal, much less the august, stiff-upper-lip British stalwart, Antiquity. But, Hey. That's the archaeology of the Neanderthals for you.
     So... Why do they think it must have been a Levallois Point? Böeda et al. point out [cough] that the dorsal flake scars are just like those on a Bordesian Levallois Point. That's true. But that's it? That's the only flake shape that could ever, in the whole long tenure of the Mousterian, have evinced a dorsal morphology such as this, anywhere along its length? Well, no. There is abundant evidence to contradict Böeda et al.'s assertion that their tiny ass pain of a flake fragment is, unequivocally, that of a Levallois Point. 
      To back up my assertion, I've put together a bunch of images from the 1980s excavations at Douara cave to show how precariously Boeda et al.'s interpretation clings to reality. [Profound gratitude needs to be extended to the Japanese team that worked at Douara. They illustrated (seemingly) everything they dug out of the ground, and not just the pretty bits--which is what one usually gets in a site report.] 
     Have a look at the various Levallois flakes shown below, none of which could reasonably be called a classic Levallois Point. [By showing you these images all in the same place, I know I risk spawning another round of raving about specialized Levallois blade industries. Please, Dear Reader, curb your urges in that direction.] 
     All of the Levallois flakes shown below are longer than they are wide, and yet a portion of each is analogous to the flake fragment that was allegedly such a pain in the ass. To help you see what I see, I've even outlined the relevant portion of each flake. Flakes such as these, that are longer than Points, would not be as difficult to snap in two as Böeda et al. aver would have been the case with a Point. 
All whole flake images are borrowed from Y. Nishiaki, 'CHAPTER 5: Middle Paleolithic Assemblages from the Douara Cave, 1984 Excavations,' in PALEOLITHIC SITE OF DOUARA CAVE AND PALEOGEOGRAPHY OF PALMYRA BASIN IN SYRIA, edited by T. Akazawa and Y. Sakaguchi, Bulletin No. 29, The University Museum, The University of Tokyo, 1987. 
After seeing the above I think you'll agree that there's literally no--NO--reason why anyone should accept Böeda et al.'s assertion that the fragment in the ass's vertebra was part of a Levallois Point.       None. Nada. Nil. Zip. Zilch. Squat.  The best part about each and every one of the examples above is that any of them could have been snapped off by the bare hands of even a septuagenarian Neanderthal without any need for hafting to increase leverage. 


How the flake fragment ended up inside the 3rd cervical vertebra of the ass seems to be a foregone conclusion to Böeda et al. Yet, even an ageing out-of-work archaeologist with an embittered heart can see, from the visual evidence they present, that Böeda et al. are missing some fairly important evidence on the bone that surrounded the little tyke of a flake.
     I can't forbear letting the authors speak for themselves. I couldn't possibly paraphrase their argument. Every line is packed with ore with which to forge a reasonable come-back to their facile fantasy. In their own words
...after having traversed the vertebra through the ... pedicle (the bony wall that connects the vertebral body to the neural arch) from the right side. It entered at a slightly oblique angle, from high to low ... 
Push the STOP button. At this point I must interject (something I can't imagine this flake/point ever did). Have a good look at the illustration below. 
From Böeda et al. (1999) 
In the right-hand image of the call-out we see a flake that's not the shape of the flake shown in the first three illustrations. [Now a total of four unique representations of the same flake in one brief article.] On the left, we see that the flake is oriented with the thickest (proximal) part to the left and the thinnest (distal) part to the right, just as you'd expect if the imagined whole flake had penetrated from the right hand side of the animal, as described by Böeda et al. Look again at the right side of the call-out. In this view the front of the horse is at the top. Thus, in this view the flake would have penetrated from the right. However, the marginal morphology given in this illustration makes it darned difficult to figure out the direction from which this version of the flake was pointing, and thus, from which side it would have entered. This really changes nothing. And, once again, how the authors depict the object is not as important as the reality. I'm just being picky, and losing confidence by the minute.
     The authors continue
... its presence in the bone cannot be the result of butchery activity. ... a considerable force was required ... to traverse the ... pedicle of the 3rd cervical vertebra of a wild ass (Equus africanus).
They'll get no argument from me on that [clears throat] point. Let's keep going, shall we?
The left edge of the lithic fragment presents traces of alteration. The most marked are observable at the base and present a scarring of the edge due to a strong pressure when the proximal end broke.
Press STOP again. I'm not familiar with the term scarring. It's probably one of those specialized lithic analyst words that we benighted non-flint-knappers don't know. So, we'll have to take their word for it that the proximal break indicates pressure exerted dorsally, something that isn't obvious in any of the four drawings or the one photo. You'd think, wouldn't you, that it would be a simple matter to determine in which direction the flake was bent with sufficient force to break it, based on the morphology of the break itself? In that case it does seem odd that the authors saw fit to mention this 'scarring' almost as if they wanted it to be evidence of the direction the force was applied. In a minute you'll read that the 'point' penetrated the vertebra without its point. Strange that there wouldn't have been more extensive marginal modification in that case. Oh well. I'm not a flintknapper. And Böeda most certainly is. I'll just take his word for it. To continue

Indeed, the base broke off when the fragmentary point was solidly embedded into the vertebra and could no longer move. This fracture was accompanied by a scarring of part of the edge. These accidents, the mesial/proximal fracture and the scarring of part of the fracture plane and the left edge, indicate that the non-embedded portion of the Levallois point exerted a strong, asymmetrical force on part of the fracture plane. However, for this to occur, the proximal part of the Levallois point must have been firmly hafted.
I'm afraid they've lost me here. So, the proximal break is 'accompanied' by the marginal 'scarring' on the 'fracture plane,' which I take to mean the flake's ventral surface, and on the edge. I wish they'd been a bit more specific about the 'scarring' on the ventral surface. Think about it. Pressure exerted upward proximally would produce pressure downward distally. The smooth ventral surface, in that case, would have been pressed against the inside of the vertebral foramen, also a smooth surface. One wonders what kind of damage that might inflict on a big, strong, rock like Levallois Point, and how one might describe it. Was the scarring some form of abrasion, which left fine striations? Why didn't they say so? Surely they don't mean that the rock was dented by the bone. I'm probably just dull-witted, but why didn't they come out and describe the morphology of this 'scarring,' to remove any possibility of ambiguity? I think you know what I'm thinking.
Other traces of alteration are observable on the dorsal face of the left edge. These consist of micro-denticulations formed by small, adjacent removals (1 to 2 mm in depth) which were detached following a violent contact of the edge with bone.
Thrilling stuff, eh wot? Such violent contact should have left some mark on the bone. Don't you think? Again, I'm sure Böeda et al. know best. Onward and ever forward.
The missing distal extremity of the point was not found in the medullary canal [sic] [vertebrae don't have medullae], and the reasons for this can have important implications. Did the point initially penetrate the vertebra and then break off in the medullary canal? Or, alternatively, was the point already broken before it penetrated ... the vertebral body? Several indices favour the second hypothesis. In effect, according to the reconstitution of the missing distal extremity, its length is estimated at 2.4 cm; however, the distance separating the distal extremity fixed in the bone and the opposing wall of the foramen is only 1 cm. Thus, if the distal extremity of the point had been in place at the time of penetration, there would forcibly have been a violent contact with the bone situated in its trajectory and there would be evidence in the form of impact traces. However, there are none. It is thus probable that the distal end of the Levallois point was broken off upon initial contact with soft tissue, or with bone, and only the mesial part penetrated into the vertebra.
OK. I think Böeda et al. just shot themselves in their collective foot. So, the pointy part of the putative Point broke off either when it contacted the firm, juddering flesh of the ass's neck or broke off when it contacted the bone, leaving the distinctly un-pointy remainder to crash through the vertebral pedicle and become lodged inside. Chew on that for a while. Seems a bit of a reach, to me. And where, pray tell, is the portion of the vertebra that was displaced when the putative point putatively penetrated the vertebral pedicle? Was it differentially preserved? Unfortunately bioturbated in the direction of elsewhere? Again, hardly seems likely. But we'll take them at their word. Böeda et al. are winding up for the big finish here.
In order for such an object to penetrate ... a vertebral body, a strong force is necessary, thus requiring a very strong grip. Such a grip cannot be achieved by holding the object directly in the hand, even with some sort of protection. Moreover, independent of the fact that a considerable force was necessary to penetrate the bone, the object also needed to traverse the intermediate soft tissues. It thus seems evident that this Levallois point was hafted onto a shaft that extended the long axis of the triangular object.

This last bit is so full of unwarranted assumptions as to be, honestly, laughable. To summarize. A blunt flake of some indeterminate length was somehow thrust through several centimetres of soft tissue and horse hide, broke through solid bone without shattering, and left no trace of the bone from the part of the vertebra it blasted through. Then an individual with two hands and two feet grabbed the near end of the flake/hafted flake and snapped it in two just inside the vertebra, causing tiny pressure flakes to be removed on the distal left flake margin. This is really starting to hurt my brain. 
     But we're not done here.


Look closely at the (really rather nice) line drawing of the vertebra of interest, below. See all those Swiss cheesy areas? The authors, curiously, have nothing to say about them. Perhaps they weren't aware that they weren't looking at an unaltered skeletal element (except for the part where they say the point penetrated). In fact, this piece of bone has been quite thoroughly gnawed by (most likely) a canid. Hyaenas would have made short work of breaking up such an object, and would simply have swallowed and digested the bone (which is, as many of you know, what Hyaenas are particularly adept at doing). The horizontal Swiss-cheesy area in the middle is what's left of the spinous process. Based on this and the photographic illustrations it appears that the cranial end of the centrum has been removed. Likewise the other breached areas of this specimen. Note also the four missing zygapophyses. 
From Böeda et al. (1999) 
Now have a look at this photograph taken from the side where the flake is said to have broken through. I've circled the area in question. The horizontal, midline breaks that enabled the archaeologists to take the vert apart are way-post-mortem. They are columnar, which cannot occur in green (i.e. fresh) bone. 
From Böeda et al. (1999) 
For comparison, I include below an illustration of a complete equid 3rd cervical vertebra. A sort of After and Before. Both the photo above and the drawing below are viewed from the same side and are oriented with the head end to the right.
Now that you know what's missing from the archaeological specimen, in the closeup below have a look at the area described by the yellow ellipse in the photo above.
Click on this to see it larger. From Böeda et al. (1999) 
Look at the margin of the cortical (smooth) bone visible in the foreground at the bottom of this view. Do you see how rounded and shiny the edge looks? That's not what bone looks like when it's freshly broken, and it doesn't happen naturally while buried. In the absence of other rounding and polishing that might indicate rolling in a flowing stream, a break margin will only begin to look like that (and in short order) when a canid works away at the piece of bone with its rasping tongue, trying to lap up the yummy fat contained in those bubbles you see there, which have been exposed, almost certainly, by the same canid when it levered off the piece of cortical bone that previously encased all that lovely, fat-filled, bubbly bone.
     Look, too, and the break margin above the area where the flake is supposed to have penetrated this specimen (i.e. the plano-convex really dark area in the lower centre of the image. It's nicely rounded too. And, is it just me? The concave portion of the opening--the opening that was putatively produced by a flake with a trapezoidal cross section--isn't trapezoidal. It's distinctly arcuate. I suppose it's possible that the canid simple enlarged the hole that the forcefully driven flake made, and in so doing transformed the opening from quasi-trapezoidal to smoothy concave. But that seems like a leap, considering what canids are capable of doing to skeletal elements of this size, and the manner in which the lower breach would have been achieved by the carnivore's attentions. So, how did that flake get in there?
From Böeda et al. (1999) 
In fact, any number of peri- or post-depositional processes could have created the juxtaposition of the flake and the bone. But what the heck, it's at least theoretically possible that an elongated Levallois flake penetrated the vertebra. Maybe a steel-gripped Neanderthal snapped said putative flake in two. Only then, maybe, did the canid wander by to have a nosh. Either way, Böeda et al.'s argument for hafting in the Middle Palaeolithic has gone, in my estimation, from a Neanderthals-R-Us Hero to a Zero (or close enough). 


I've been told by reputable, flint-knapping, lithic analyzing archaeologists that if a body doesn't know how to replicate stone tools they have no business doing archaeology.

I hope you'll forgive me for proposing this equally arrogant corollary, only half-facetiously. Any archaeologist that can't recognize bone modification caused by non-human actors has no right pontificating on the cognitive or technical abilities of the Neanderthals.

I hope I've made my point. *cough...cough*        
     Have a nice day.