Thursday 1 March 2012

The Scoop On 'Mousterian' Bitumen Hafting Adhesive from Romania

As unaccustomed to using hyperbole as I am, it's with great effort that I must label this latest claim for hafting in the Middle Palaeolithic as the biggest aggregate of meadow muffins in the history of the Journal of Archaeological Science. Whom do they get to referee this stuff? George W. Bush? Anyhow. My friend Iain Davidson, once again, lobbed this my way earlier today. And then I find that this new claim is in the spotlight at A Very Remote Period Indeed, Julien Riel-Salvatore's blog. Of course, J. R.-S. simply acts as the stenographer, with NO critical appraisal whatsoever. Anyway. 
     Ripped from the (soon to be published) headlines: 
'New evidence of adhesive as hafting material on Middle and Upper Palaeolithic artefacts from Gura Cheii-Raşnov Cave (Romania),' by M. Cârciumaru, R.-M. Ion, E.-C. Niţu, and R. Ştefanescu. Journal of Archaeological Science, 2012,
In this case the adhesive is bitumen. As with previous well-identified sticky stuff, I have no quarrel with the chemical characterization. I must, however, point out some red flags in the manuscript. 
     By the way, for those of you unfamiliar with what used to be behind the 'Iron Curtain,' Romania is the country that encompasses the N45 lat-long marker in the map below.
Romania is one of those places where you might expect a lot of great archaeology. In this case, not so great.
     The authors report one bitumen-spattered piece from the Upper Palaeolithic, and one from what they deem to be a Mousterian stratum (i.e. Middle Palaeolithic). The MP article is pictured below, straight from the in-press manuscript.

Aside from being non-descript, this piece could easily have been produced at any time since Mousterian times. That leads me to the major criticism of this claim, which, don't forget, made it into the JAS, no doubt after having been closely scrutinized by some Very Serious archaeologists! Here is how the authors describe the archaeological context of the putative MP flake.
The ... item belongs to the Mousterian layer, characterised by a rather poor lithic industry.
They aver that the industry was 'poor' because of the quality of the raw material, which was quartzite. Poor, indeed. If this bitumen-stained artifact is any example of the 'Mousterian' at this site, one wonders how the authors and their predecessors ever managed to characterize the assemblage as Mousterian, in the first place! Actually, if the original excavators hadn't been using an old and now thoroughly discredited means of guessing at the age of the 'Mousterian' layers--that which assessed the granulometry of the éboulis (the exfoliated bedrock that naturally builds up in the stratigraphic column)--they probably wouldn't have given the assemblage another thought. And, in all likelihood they wouldn't have called it Mousterian, and in all likelihood neither would the more recent excavators, the authors of today's cannon fodder JAS article. So, 
     Next, the dates. Again, straight from the horse's mouth.
... the hearth in the lower area of the Mousterian level – GrN 13,009: 33,300 ± 900 BP; the upper hearth that marks the end of the Mousterian habitation – GrN 11,619: 29,700 + 1700 / - 1400 BP and GrN 14,620: 28,900 + 2400 / - 1800 BP. A bone sample in between the two hearths, obviously belonging to the Mousterian layer, was dated back to 30,450 ± 300 BP (GrN 13,008). 
I don't know about you. But if I had dates on what was, IN FACT, a Mousterian (read Neanderthal) (read Middle Palaeolithic) occupation that were this young, I wouldn't be wasting my time blathering on about some bitumen stains of a single artifact! I'd be screaming at the top of my voice that here is the latest evidence for Neanderthals anywhere! And that's where I think this article falls on its face.
     There's no solid (or any even good) evidence that the so-called Mousterian flake couldn't have been made by a modern human. The other flake they describe in this article is, they say, from the UP. Have a look at it. Hmm.
I dunno about you, but I don't see a lot of difference between the two artifacts. That means little in absolute terms. But if all the authors are going on is someone's intuition that a non-descript assemblage is Mousterian, why is this getting into the JASI hafta tell ya, palaeoanthropology today is one whacky business!

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