Saturday 30 June 2012

Newly discovered hand[soap]-axe

Sure enough, another hand[soap]-axe has been discovered! The second of these beautiful implements has lately come to light, in this case raking morning sunlight. The palaeoanthropological community knows just what to make of it, too. As with it's lithic counterparts, this must surely have been purposefully shaped by the hominid that resides with us here at Subversive Archaeologist world headquarters.
Yet, unlike the earlier discovery, pictured above, at left, this specimen is an exquisite ovoid. The ovoid is double-convex, like the first. Moreover the angle formed at the margins is identical to that of the elongated leaf-shaped original discovery? To the right in this photo is the form of raw material that occurs naturally in the vicinity. Given the clearly different outline, this latest hand[soap]-axe, assigned the label H[S]A-2 was likely used for a different function than that of H[S]A-1. Or, conversely, if there turns out to have been a temporal discontinuity between the two, it's quite possible that the two performed the same function, but in different cultural systems. Either way, there's no denying that the hominid soap shapers carried out an almost unbelievably complex series of attritional episodes (colloquially known as washing) in arriving at these forms. No other explanation could possibly exist for the existence of these nearly perfectly shaped pieces.
     This 'industry' rivals the Levallois technique for its sheer virtuosity. 

Friday 29 June 2012

Update on 'Chimps Attack and Mortally Wound Student at Chimp Eden in South Africa'

A very sad, but salutary report today that should give pause to the chimps 'r us community. 
     From The Telegraph comes this
With all due respect for the phenomenal work on great ape behaviour that's been accomplished over the past 50 or so years, this story underscores a point that Iain Davidson once shared with me. His rhetorical question was, 'If they're so much like us why do we need to incarcerate them?'
     People love anthropomorphizing canids. But dogs kill and maim people who mean them no harm. Elephants are presumed to be the most intelligent land animal. But they can kill people out of fear, or because they get in the way. Little cats and big cats have the affection of bazillions of people. But, as someone who's been savaged by a house cat for no other reason than that I woke it up, I'm not so sure they're all that human. I could go on. I hope you take my point.
     No matter how tender the care, or how well-meaning the care-giver, or how thorough the obedience training, none of these animals can be trusted to walk among us. I'm compelled to point out that the same is true of Guinea pigs, rabbits, wolves, porcupines, and the other great apes and monkeys, and prosimians.
     My old friend pointed out that people are capable of savagery, too. But as Freud pointed out, we're all neurotic because we're taught (most of us, anyway) to suppress a violent or murderous thought. We are capable of learning a morality, because that is something that requires the assignment of meaning to abstract ideas. Humans are the only animals with this capacity. Period.
     Dog lovers complain because Pit Bulls have a bad rap. No, pit bulls have a savage history of selective breeding for the traits that all too often emerge, even in the most docile, well-trained individuals. Unlike humans, such animals act in their instinctive ways without compunction. They don't 'think' about it. Those chimps at Chimp Eden didn't think about what they were doing. They just did it.
     Even O.J. Simpson has more humanity than those chimps. And that's not a rap on the chimps; it's a rap on the people who make them out to be something they're not. 

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Wednesday 27 June 2012

I knew it!

I couldn't resist! From the MailOnline comes this affirmation of my scientific intuition [if that's not an unforgivable oxymoron]. This ain't the first time science has opined on the benefits of moderate ethanol intake. However, as far as I'm concerned, this is the only one you need to pay attention to! [Pay no attention to the sub-headline, which is obviously the work of a rigorously intemperate editorial assistant.]
For the rest of the story, point your browser to
 If I had to guess, by the look on the model's face that's actually glass #3. And, from experience, despite the science underpinning this claim, most archaeologists I know don't appreciate the benefits of moderate ethanol intake. Feel free to interpret that loaded phrase in any way you choose!
     Later, dude.
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Monday 25 June 2012

Portentious [sic], Dude!

New prehistory museum in Sauveterre-la-Lémance. From
From the news ticker comes this: 'SauveTerre Musée de Préhistoire : le grand voyage dans le temps.' I'll assume that not all of you have your universal translators to hand, so I'll stand in. The article is titled 'Sauveterre-la-Lémance (Lot-et-Garonne, France) Prehistory Museum: a cool trip through time.'

The sleepy little town of

Why would I want to bring this to your attention? Just this. In 1989 I stayed in Sauveterre-la-Lémance for about three weeks while taking part in an excavation at Roc Allan, on a project run by Alain Turq. The mesolithic culture known as the Sauveterrian was named for the town. It lies in the shadow of Le château des Rois Ducs, shown lower down. A more pleasant three weeks I can hardly remember. Good food, good company, and rocks, rocks, rocks [it's a rockshelter, after all!]. I'm pretty sure I found no artifacts in three weeks. The place had been pretty much sucked clean decades ago and the project was trying to recover what was left so as to clarify stratigraphic questions. 
Le château des Rois Ducs
The first night I was in Sauveterre, they took me out to a bar [odd, that, considering they're achaeologists]. In that part of the world they sell bottled beer in 750 ml portions. They call these gargantuan units 'distingués.' It had been a very warm day and the delicious amber liquid was just that. Being neither distinguished nor dignified I finished mine rather quickly. By the time I was well into number two the crew confided in me what I was not happy to hear. This Belgian beer, they said, is 14.5 percent alcohol. 
     The hangover was collossal. Not an auspicious first 24 hours, I can tell you. Still. They all had a good laugh, and I learned an important lesson--when in Lot-et-Garonne do as the locals do. If they stop at one it should send a message that you'd be silly to ignore.
     That this article should come to my attention less than two weeks ahead of a new archaeological adventure in Europe is what we sages call a portent. It bodes well for my enjoyment of the last three weeks in July. It's reminding me not to get stupid drunk on the first night in Czechland. 
     And, somewhere in the fine print, in the basement of the new museum, in a most-likely locked, public-access file cabinet, is the name of a minor contributor to our knowledge of the past in the area of Sauveterre-la-Lémance. 
     Small world.
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Sunday 24 June 2012

It looks as if the Subversive Archaeologist has friends in high places.

You must read Iain Davidson's second online opinion piece. It's a comment on the preposterous claim that Neanderthals might have been responsible for the earliest cave paintings in Spain, recently reported in the media. Did I say 'reported'? I meant screamed about.
     'The art of loving Neandertals – they’re like us, but different.'
By the way, the postage-stamp-sized picture on the left is Iain. 

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Updated: Whoever Said That Archaeology Has Nothing To Contribute To The Present?

I'm doing something today that I've never done before. I'm publishing, word for word, something written by a complete stranger, for an organization I've never heard of before--The International Relations and Security Network--without [much] editorializing. 
     In the interest of disclosure and transparency [hoping to preclude accusations of political, spiritual, ethnic prejudices against this subversive archaeologist] here is what the ISN says about themselves, to be found here on the web. 
The International Relations and Security Network (ISN) is one of the world’s leading open access information services for international relations (IR) and security professionals.Established in 1994, [their] mission is to facilitate security-related dialogue and cooperation within a high-quality network of international relations organizations, professionals and experts, and to provide open-source international relations and security-related tools and materials in accessible ways.[They] accomplish the above mission by:
  • Facilitating policy debates and security-related dialogue;
  • Being a driving IR and security-centered force in web-based content/data distribution and management;
  • Raising the expertise of those institutions and individuals who benefit from the above endeavors through active knowledge sharing and collaboration.
[They] strive to meet the rapidly evolving information and educational needs of [their] users by working with the world’s leading think tanks, universities, research institutes, NGOs and international organizations. [Their] partner network continues to grow in tandem with the changing international agenda. This allows [them] to offer our users a broad selection of views and opinions on the major issues of our day.The ISN is an online project of the Center for Security Studies (CSS), at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich). It is jointly funded by the Swiss Department for Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS) and ETH Zurich.     
I might remind everyone that Switzerland is, uniquely, historically and presently, officially and in practice, a neutral state. As such, I would hope and trust that the ISN might be one of the most even-handed of commentators on the enduring rift between Israel and Palestine. That official neutrality was evinced by Switzerland's absence from membership in the United Nations until 2002. Thus, it did not take part in the 1975 adoption of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379, which 'determine[d] that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.' Nor did it participate in the process of revoking UN Resolution 3379 in 1991 [the only UN Resolution ever thus revoked]. 
     Israel had made revocation of resolution 3379 a condition of its participation in the Madrid Peace Conference, in progress in the last quarter of 1991. Under pressure from the administration of President George H.W. Bush in the United States, the UN passed the resolution. The text of the revocation was simply:
The general assembly decides to revoke the determination contained in its resolution 3379 of 10 November 1975.
This formed resolution 46/86, which is one of the shortest in UN history. During this session, President Bush told the General Assembly: equate Zionism with the intolerable sin of racism is to twist history and forget the terrible plight of Jews in World War II and indeed throughout history.[*]
The motion was supported by 111 (including the 90 nations who sponsored the resolution), opposed by 25 nations, and 13 nations abstained (Wikipedia)
     This, in part, might explain why, in the story I'm about to re-present [without first obtaining permission, at my peril if such exists], the author is permitted to use the term Zionist when referring to the actions of Israel with respect to the Palestinian Authority and Palestinians living in the lands that Israel claims as its own.
     Having said all of this, and attempting, myself, to be a neutral messenger in this matter, I'm still moved to say that the substance of what you're about to read is, for me, disturbing and saddening. In its entirety, here is the story, which can be found here on the web.
Gustave Doré "Burial of Sarah" 1865
Archaeology and the Israel-Palestine Conflict
By Jennifer Wallace* for the ISN
14 June 2012
Despite the seismic changes occurring throughout the Middle East, the Israel-Palestine conflict seems frozen in amber. The politicization of archaeology by both sides merely reinforces the status quo.
Last October, the Palestinians were controversially granted membership of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The United States, Canada, Israel, Germany and ten other countries opposed the motion while 107 countries voted for it (the United Kingdom abstained). Washington subsequently followed through with its threat to withdraw substantial funding for UNESCO and Israel reacted by announcing the building of a further 2000 homes in the Occupied Territories.
     The Palestinian campaign for UNESCO membership is widely regarded as the first step towards nationhood and, eventually, full membership of the United Nations (UN). Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, commented:
“This vote is for the sake of peace and represents the international consensus on support for the legitimate Palestinian national rights of our people, the foremost of which is the establishment of its independent state”.
In response, Israel complained that the move was a “unilateral Palestinian manoeuvre which…further removes the possibility of a peace agreement”. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that membership of UNESCO will lead to a reversal of the United States’ decision to veto Palestine’s full membership of the UN.
     Yet despite such objections, Palestine’s membership of UNESCO also suggests that territory recognizes the international significance that ancient heritage in the region carries. There is a real concern about the conservation of a number of sites in the West Bank. But this is complicated by the intimate relationship between heritage and the nation state - a state which the Palestinians long for, and which the Israelis insist must still be the subject of negotiations.

A ‘National Hobby’
In 2002, the World Heritage Committee expressed concerns about a number of important sites of “outstanding universal value” in the West Bank and offered funding and assistance to the Palestinian Department of Antiquities to identify sites at risk and in need of conservation. But although the list was published in 2005, it could not be presented to UNESCO since only members can nominate sites and membership is officially restricted to nation states.
Tomb of the Patriarchs, built over the Cave of the Patriarchs in what's now the Israeli-occupied West Bank (circa 1910).
     These problems were further complicated in 2010 when Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, drew up a list of key sites as part of his national heritage plan. The list included two sites in the West Bank - the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. In effect, Netanyahu was laying a territorial claim to these areas (which under the 1993 Oslo Agreement are officially under the control of the Palestinian Authority), supported, as he saw it, by biblical history and archaeological fact. “The patriarchs of the Jewish people, our forefathers, are buried there. This is an existing fact”, he declared when interviewed on Israeli television. Accordingly, his argument was based on the widely-held notion that archaeology lies outside politics. “This is neither a diplomatic decision nor a political decision”, he went on. ”It seeks to preserve heritage and this heritage has existed with us for close to 4,000 years. We are not determining anything new”.
Circa 1880.
     In fact what was “not new” in this case was Israel’s use of archaeology to forge its sense of national identity and to justify the occupation of the whole of the Promised Land. Since the earliest years of the establishment of Israel, archaeology was considered a “national hobby”, prompting the survey of the Upper Gallilee by Yohanan Aharoni in the early 1950s and excavations at Hazor (1955), and Masada (1963-5) by Yigael Yadin, former head of the Israel Defence Force.
     “There was a need in the beginning to give something to the immigrants, to the melting pot,” says Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, one of Israel’s most prominent archaeologists. “Something to connect them to the ground, to history, to some sort of legacy.”
Hazor excavations yielded a Bronze Age and later major settlement.
Reconfiguring the West Bank
After the Six Day War of 1967, Israel began an excavation of the area around the Temple Mount, attracting large numbers of Jews to volunteer as diggers. Meanwhile an “Emergency Survey of Judea, Samaria and the Golan” was commissioned in the territory, looking for sites described in the Old Testament. According to the American anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, this effectively reconfigured the landscape of the West Bank in terms of the Biblical period. Settlements in the conquered territory followed biblical precedent and supposed archaeological evidence. Communities sprang up at Ai (sacked by Joshua), Shiloh, (home of the Ark of the covenant for 369 years), and Shechem, known to non-Zionists as Nablus (where Abraham camped on his first night in Israel). Menachem Brody, a West Bank settler originally from Maine, USA, who offers archaeological tours of the Occupied Territory, explained to the ISN the intimate connection between archaeology and the controversial occupation of land, as we stood in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh:
“Shiloh was so important a place in the Bible that we said it’s not possible that there wouldn’t be a Jewish settlement in Shiloh. So how did we do it? A group of men came here and set up tents and the army came to take them down. And the settlers said ‘no, no, you can’t do that, we’re archaeologists’. Several weeks later the army came back and they saw that there were women and children also in the tents. But the settlers just said ‘well, we’re archaeologists but we have families’”.
Now there is a whole town on the hilltop, vineyards and a heavily guarded fence all around the Iron Age site of Shiloh. A site that was once regularly visited by archaeology students of the Palestinian University of Bir Zeit is now out of bounds for them.
Fact vs. Fiction
Archaeology and the Bible, then, were the driving forces behind the establishment of the nation state of Israel and the extension of its settlement into the Occupied Territories. The irony is that among Israeli archaeologists, there is now a heated division about how far one can actually use the bible to interpret archaeological remains and indeed whether there is any archaeological proof behind the biblical founding myth of the nation. Professional archaeologists are agreed that the tomb of the Patriarch at Hebron is fictional. There is almost universal agreement that the exodus from Egypt did not happen and that there was no conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, led by Joshua. Indeed, for a growing number of archaeologists, led by Israel Finkelstein, even Solomon, David and the first temple at Jerusalem cannot be evidenced archaeologically.
     But this professional scepticism among archaeologists is not filtering down to the popular Israeli imagination or to its politicians. Nimrod Barkan, Israeli ambassador to UNESCO complained about the politicisation of archaeology by the Palestinians: “UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction. They forced on UNESCO a political subject out of its competence”. Yet if archaeologists like Israel Finkelstein are to be believed, central sites in Israel’s national heritage, such as Solomon’s palace at Megiddo and most importantly his temple in the heart of Jerusalem, are more the stuff of fiction than of scientific fact. And certainly Abraham’s tomb in Hebron is pure romantic fantasy.

Palestine Responds
In this long heated debate about archaeology and nationhood, the Palestinians have been relatively quiet until now. Early tit-for-tat skirmishes saw the Palestinians rubbishing ancient remains rather than trying to preserve them. There was an outcry in 2000 when the Palestinians were thought to be throwing out Jewish archaeological remains from beneath the Temple Mount into the Kidron Valley. Israel suspected that the Palestinians were making way for an exit tunnel for their mosque. However, the Palestinians considered this retaliation for the notorious Israeli excavation of the Western Wall in 1996, which resulted in a deep incursion into Arab East Jerusalem and potential damage to the foundations of the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Temple Mount 1877
     Meanwhile in 1998, Palestinian archaeologist Jalal Kazzouh claimed to have found evidence of Canaanite history in Tel Sofer on the outskirts of Nablus, positing a continuous Canaanite/Palestinian history going back 5000 years. Hamed Salem, Professor of Archaeology at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, is skeptical about this claim, “It’s just not serious archaeology to trace the continuity of a people back 5000 years”. Nevertheless, Hamden Taha, Director General of the Palestinian Department for Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in Ramallah, recognizes the political if somewhat naïve motivation behind Kazzouh’s move. “If some Palestinians are trying to identify themselves with ancient Canaanites, I believe this is part of an unconscious reflexive archeology, and a direct response to the Israeli practice of archeology”.
     Accordingly, it seems that the Palestinians are increasingly recognising that the ancient remains in their land may prove useful to them in the international arena. The conservation plan for the Tomb of the Patriarchs at Hebron is almost completed. And the plan for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is at risk as a result both of a long-term lack of funds and from the 2002 Israeli military siege, was submitted to the World Heritage Centre in Paris in January. “Palestine has the right to a place on the map”, commented Mahmoud Abbas last October after the successful UNESCO membership vote. Echoing the famous Israeli principle of “facts on the ground”, Abbas has grasped the powerful political implications of the imaginary connection in the Middle East between the land, archaeological remains and the nation state.

*Jennifer Wallace lectures in English Literature at the University of Cambridge and is the author of Digging the Dirt: The Archaeological Imagination.

     Iain Davidson sends this link from HuffPo. This one's really political. So, be careful you're not persuaded by Rothman's argument, lest you be forever seared by the thoughts expressed. [Any similarity between arguments that compare the peaceful righteousness of Islam to the brutality of Islamic fundamentalists and the peaceful righteousness of Judaism compared with Zionist extremists is, I'm sure, purely coincidental. It's titled, 'Israel Is Not a Jewish State: On the Destruction of Susya and the Expulsion of South Sudanese'.

* [Oh, and, by the way, I can't help mentioning that Bush's analogy here is fallacious argument. It is, in fact ignoratio elenchi, or loosely, shifting the argument. What has been the tragic lot of Jews throughout history does nothing to address the issues in the present.] 

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Live-blogging Pod Hradem Cave or Bust!

Destination 2012: Jeskyně Pod Hradem, Moravské Kras, Česká republika.

Fourteen days. Two weeks. One fortnight. Half a month. That's how much time is left between this moment and the time I step off the bus in Brno, Česká republika, to spend the next three weeks working on the Pod Hradem Cave Archaeological Project.

World headquarters.
Yep. Here at The Subversive Archaeologist world headquarters the logistical team is ramping up their efforts. The staging area has been cleared of all the dirty laundry, and the important stuff is starting to find its way there--pain reliever, all the medications that the sexagenarian Chief Archaeologist takes just to stay on an even metabolic and mental keel, passport (Canadian, of course), copies of emails from Lad Nejman inviting me to come and play (in case the authorities get curious), 90's vintage Optivisor (also indispensable for a sexagenarian), and much, much more.
     The proprietor of Chata Macocha has a double room booked for my sole use, and they're stocking up on Punkva River trout, 'cause they know that's what this project uses as nightly fuel.
Chata Macocha, atop the Macocha Gorge, circa 1920.
The place is little changed from it's early days, and in colour it's very cheery. Those red umbrellas are waiting to shelter me on the long mid-latitude sunny week nights.

I won't be excavating. Arthritic erosion in my patellae [what Al McMillan calls archaeologist's knees] makes for an exciting trip up slopes like the one shown below, which is the way up to the cave.

Any of you familiar with the difficulties of showing the degree of inclines on a two-dimensional photo will realize immediately that this is one steep slope. The project's field laboratory is where I'll be working for the most part. 
Field laboratory, in Skalní mlýn.
     The lab itself is a rather sombre-looking, disused outpost of the Soviet era Czech Geological Survey. The kitchen is where I'll be plying my trade, examining the fine fraction for scraps of animal bone.
Showing his true colours [he bleeds blue and gold] with project PI Ladislav (Lad) Nejman, in 2011.  
'Cause that's one of the things I'm trained to do--pore over samples of bone like this one...
The gnarled paw is mine [rhg].
I wish I could express to you the joy I experience sitting by the hour separating potentially identifiable from non-identifiable osseous material, to say nothing of the time spent making counts of bunches of pieces like this. A one-litre bulk sample might contain 600 or 700 tiny bits. Like most such size fractions, you see everything from tiny fragments of the massive cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) to individual teeth of microtinae, and every body size in between. It's a constant reminder of what Vale and Gargett were saying in 'Size Matters' and our response, 'There's something fishy going on around here' to the published criticisms of Ken Gobalet and Zohar and Belmaker. That back and forth was invigorating, and for those of you who've read them all, you'll know that the critics were roundly defeated, leaving the field ours. ['scuse the affected Renaissance battle terminology.]
[here I would have placed the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin turns to Hobbes and states, matter-of-factly, something like 'archaeology is the most mind-numbingly boring activity on the planet.' Alas, I couldn't find it on the web!]
      All in all, your Subversive Archaeologist is looking forward to a much-needed field excursion, contributing substantively to my discipline, feeling like I belong somewhere, AND to live-blogging the whole thing. The iPad is all set to go, the Czech SIM card will be waiting for me when I arrive. For you who've helped me to get there, by donating to the SA, thank you from the heart of my bottom. Each of you will have a blurt dedicated to you from the field, and some of you more than one! 
     And, for those of you with the wherewithal (i.e. disposable income--many of you don't, I realize) there's still a chance to help keep me from long-term pecuniary difficulties as a result of the unsubvented cost of my participation in the Pod Hradem Cave Project. If you like what you see here, it's easy enough to help. And, because the process uses the long experience of PayPal, it's the most secure way to move money on the web. No need to worry about identity theft using PayPal. The Donate [please] Button is at the top of the page on the right. Your contribution will be gratefully received.
     And just so you know, regardless of your response to my passing around the hat, in the past or at this moment, your attention to the Subversive Archaeologist is really all the support I need. That ongoing kindness you show me is greatly appreciated.
     See you back here tomorrow!
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Friday 22 June 2012

Prometheus Unfounded: Contradictions and Conundrums at Wonderwerk Cave

Wonderwerk Cave profile (Photo by M. Chazan)

I've previously opined on aspects of the claim for very early fire use at Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa here, here, here, and here. In brief, it's Swiss cheese. Today I'm beginning to look at Peter Beaumont's 2011 synthesis of the 'evidence' for hearths in the cave, published in Current Anthropology. Forgive me if this comes across as unusually pedantic--I find the author's descriptions to be less-than rigorously scientific, and thus less-than helpful if one's hoping to cast a critical eye on what amounts to his life's work. I've found it all very difficult to wrap my brain around. See what you think.   
     Beaumont begins his discussion of what he calls 'hearths' by mentioning that in places he observed 'poorly defined ash lenses' and in other places 'ash-rich' deposits, which he thought had been 'single hearths ... largely destroyed (perhaps by trampling).' It's unfortunate that there could be so much ambiguity entailed in such a short paragraph.
     First of all, what really is the difference between a 'poorly defined lens' and an 'ash-rich deposit'? Aren't they both 'ash rich' if you can recognize the ash in profile? And what about the other sequelae of burning, charcoal and the reddened substrate. I would have expected any fire that could turn plant fuel to ash would have been sufficiently hot and of such a duration that it would also have reddened the sediments beneath the fire. Moreover, in many cases where reddened sediments and ash are visible in a stratigraphic sequence there is a higher than average chance that there will be a layer of charcoal-enriched or blackened sediment between the reddened substrate and the ash. Trampled or not, Beaumont's inference that these ash lenses were hearths is hardly to be believed on the face of it.
     Presumably Beaumont wants us to believe that, in the case of the 'ash-rich' places, any vertical distinction that at one time would have been evident between the ash and the reddened sediments had been obliterated by treadage. Yet, if that were the case, how is it that he's able to discern anything that might be called discrete (albeit poorly defined) ash lenses? For Beaumont to be able to observe 'lenses' comprising ash, those lenses must have escaped, in large part, the destructive results of trampling. And surely, if the ash 'lenses' had escaped the ravages of time and trampling such that they were visible in profile, the underlying reddened sediments would also have retained enough integrity to be visible, too! Yet, the author mentions nothing about the substrate, reddened or otherwise. Odd. On the other hand, one has to agree that in all likelihood it was trampling that transformed what had once been intact ash deposits elsewhere in the cave into something the author calls (merely) 'ash-rich.'
[My recognizing problems with Beaumont's after-the-fact verbal descriptions doesn't ensure that the his inferences are incorrect. However, one does have to wonder. Doesn't one? One would have thought that a perspicacious referee or editor would have noticed these vague and incongruous descriptions. Wouldn't one?] 
     Alas, the abovementioned 'hearths' aren't the only curiosities to be found in Beaumont's treatment of putative fire use at 1+ Ma. In another example he describes stratum MU2, in excavation 5, where as much as 45 cm (!) of the stratigraphic column 'is very largely composed of white ash with many burned bones and fire-damaged Middle Stone Age artifacts.' This ash apparently 'accumulated slowly' and continuously between about 1,155,000 and about 70,000 years ago. [Get out your calculators!] 
     Depending on what Beaumont means by 'very largely composed of' [and it's not at all clear], it sounds as if he's suggesting that for 1,085,000 years a very wide area of the cave received little other sedimentary input than that of completely combusted plant material. That's a prodigiously long time for a single depositional process to have endured, and a phenomenally long time for a large surface comprising a substance as mobile as ash to have survived without either blowing away or being adulterated by larger [especially inorganic], autochthonous clastic input. 
     Even more mysterious: Beaumont claims that the ash was the result of thousands of fires fueled by above 15 tons of fuel. It's really hard for me to imagine that such a focus of hominid activity could have escaped the inevitable, and destructive, treadage that would have accompanied that use of that part of the cave for what amounts to a single activity--that of making and keeping fire--over such a vast expanse of time. I suppose it's not impossible. But, probable? I really don't think so. Plausible? Barely.
     Beaumont's description of MU 2 in excavation 5 just makes no sense. If his account of its clastic composition is accurate, nothing but a long-lived colony of fire-loving faeries could have produced it! There must be alternative explanations. And, indeed there are, provided by an unlikely source--the latter-day excavators of Wonderwerk Cave, the very ones who have recently reprised Beaumont's long-standing claim of fire use by Acheulean hominids.
     Here's what Matmon, Chazan, Porat and Horwitz conclude in 'Reconstructing the history of sediment deposition in caves: A case study from Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa' published in the Geological Society of America Bulletin (First published online October 14, 2011, doi: 10.1130/​B30410.1).
The cave sediments comprise a sequence of fine sands and silts that were transported naturally by wind to the environs of the cave and later into the cave by water. Transport within the cave occurred by low-energy water sheetflow, which distributed and deposited the sediment in its final location. Field observations and grain-size distribution analysis of the sediments inside and outside of the cave imply the following sediment transport scenario: eolian transport of Kalahari sand to the Kuruman Hills, slope wash of the eolian sediment into the intermontane valleys, fluvial transport of the sediment from the intermontane valleys to the entrance of the cave, and final deposition of the sediment inside the cave by low-energy water action.

 These are the verbatim conclusions. Unfortunately for the authors, this sequence of transport processes leading to the input of allochthonous sands and silts at Wonderwerk Cave can equally explain the presence of anything that would be as easily transported as sands and silts. Indeed, anything lighter than fine sand--if it shows up at the doorstep--would have been subsequently transported into the cave by sheetwash. Sheesh! They've done my work for me! 
     Their conclusions also solve a riddle that I found while wandering through the images from Wonderwerk. This one shows non-conformable and curiously wavy strata. I've drawn yellow rectangles where I see evidence of what appear to be erosional events overlain by non-conformable strata. These observations support the conclusions of Matmon et al. It appears that there have been numerous erosional episodes during the build-up of sediments in Wonderwerk Cave. The wavy contacts suggest an agent even more energetic than sheetwash. If these observations are borne out it's clear that at times the input of material and liquid from outside the cave was considerable.     

After Berna et al. 2011
Make of it what you will. 
     Beaumont describes 'grass mats' in various stages of combustion that occur here and there in the cave. Regardless of how they arrived at the cave's doorstep, in they went--wind-whipped dry grass, partly combusted grass, grass ash [try saying that five times really fast without saying something unfit for polite company], small bits of burned bone made as light as fine sand by partial combustion. You name it! Matmon et al.'s conclusion opens the door to serious questioning of Wonderwerk's depositional history. How can they claim, unequivocally, that any wind-transportable allochthonous sediments came to rest in the cave by the hands of hominids?
     Seriously! They are way past the bounds of logical inference when they claim that any of the tiny particles that Berna et al. describe in exquisite micromorphological detail were left there as a result of hominid behaviour. Somebody's gotta tell them. I'm trying me best. But they appear not to be listening.
     So, get out there to the meetings and to your classrooms and call out the litany of overwrought inferences of hominid behaviour that keep emanating from Wonderwerk Cave!     

One thing's for sure: the excavations at Wonderwerk Cave are looking more and more like job security for this Subversive Archaeologist.

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Tuesday 19 June 2012

Oil me!

FYI. My cervical spine seems to have seized up. Until I can attend a doctor's surgery, I'll be out of order. Kinda like the Tin Man.     
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Saturday 16 June 2012

Avast, ye 'lubbers!

     My daughter and I will be here all day Sunday, otherwise known as Father's Day. Arrrrrrhhhhh, Jim!
Many people aren't aware that when I were lad I wanted nothing so much as to be a pirate, and to have the respect due to the Lord of the entire Caribbean. Small dreams of a child....
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Get a Load o' This!

I'm tellin' ya. Fame and fortune await those who can await for longer than it takes for a Pleistocene interglacial to run its course. As of today, I'm officially a Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship Research Scholar.
     Oh, la, la, la, la! [That's what French people say when they're really excited.] [Don't ask me why I'm repeating it here.] 
     Next up: NSF proposal to investigate the feasibility of dating California cherts using themoluminescence. I sense a revolution in the making.
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zennybunny seen the new url? Pretty fancy, eh? Cost me $10 for a year! Now that I'm a famous private domain name owner, all I have to do is make heaps of money to complete the double. Whadda reckon? A month? Two? Maybe more? I can wait. Besides, even if it takes three months to get rich, I'll have spent 3 weeks of the time in the Czech Republic, working on the Pod Hradem Cave Project for the second year in a row (see below).
     Thanks for visiting!
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Friday 15 June 2012

Read 'Em and Weep. Gallup's 2012 Poll on Christianist Beliefs

A tip o' the hat to Jaime Ullinger of the BioAnthropology News group on facebook, and to Katha Pollitt of The Nation, for bringing this to my attention. 
     Each year the Gallup organization polls the US public on their beliefs with respect to evolution. The question, asked each year, offers three alternative 'takes' on reality.   
I'm pretty sure anyone reading this here would agree... There's nothing very hopeful here. The clear winner is that 'God created humans in present form ... within the last 10,000 years or so.'
     Astonishing. No?
     If you add up the two alternatives with 'God' in the mix, there has been an almost imperceptible fall-off over the past 20 years. But essentially the viewpoint of the American public is unchanged in that time. The [for me] ultimate response is to alter only slightly the words of a bumper sticker I remember seeing a long time ago. 
Beam me up, Scotty. There's less intelligent life down here than we thought.
Seriously? Between 44% and 47% of a cross-section of the US population are young-earth Christianists. I'm no math whiz, but that's a scary lot of WHACK-Os walking the streets. As Ms. Pollitt points out in her editorial, it's no wonder the right is able to pull the wool over the eyes of their supporters on so many issues linked to the clear rejection of science on the part of half the voters. The author of the Nation piece quotes a perspicacious politico with a lovely turn of mind.

“Sea-level rise” is a “left-wing term,” said Virginia state legislator Chris Stolle, a Republican, successfully urging its replacement in a state-commissioned study by the expression “recurrent flooding.” 
So, get going all my subversive friends! Forget talking about global weirding and start talkin' 'bout the next flood! That'll get their attention!

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"We Didn't Start The Fire" (Billy Joel, Storm Front, 1989)

You already know what I might be gonna say. Don't you?
     I've much more to say about the Beaumont Current Anthropology article that I began blurting about earlier this week. His field and post-excavation observations are, to my ear and eye, Byzantine. And I'm enjoying poking holes in and fun at his meandering piece on Wonderwerk Cave.
But, you'll have to wait, I'm afraid, because at the moment I'm having a very pleasant conversation with a not-inexpensive 2010 Sonoma County Chalk Hill Chardonnay produced by the Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards. The label describes it as 'displaying yellow apple and pie spice with a hint of minerality on a long finish.' I couldn't agree more. I don't have much of an olfactory due to chronic rhinitis, but even I can add to that description 'hints of butter and butterscotch.' This is not a cheap wine. And, in contrast to the manner in which I drink my Crane Lake vinifera, I'm savoring every moment of this one.
     Don't panic! I haven't lost what's left of my left-side brain. It was a gift from someone who appreciates the work I do in my lowly day job. In defense of my lowly position, I at least share something with all of the other pay grades at my university--a very comfortable package of benefits that means I needn't worry about health care, or much else, and which also includes a pension. I'd gladly take the poor pay in exchange for the extremely and unusually good total compensation package!

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Synonyms for 'Hooey'

I'm compiling a catalogue of words to use when I'm talking about anything less than sensible. By now you're all getting pretty tired of me saying preposterous!
     The first group that I've culled from the web follows.
balderdash, baloney, blarney, blather, blither, bull, bunk, claptrap [a personal favorite], codswallop [another], crap, a crock, drivel, drool, folly, foolishness, garbage, guff, hogwash, hokum, nonsense, malarkey, poppycock, rot, rubbish, silliness, twaddle
More to come. I've been on official Hogwart's business the past few days, so not much time to blurt. More soon.

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Monday 11 June 2012

Are There Bats In Beaumont's Belfry? Once More Down the Wonderwerk Cave Rabbit Hole.

Okay! Ready for another visit down the Wonderwerk Cave rabbit hole? Keep in mind the main points of Berna et al.'s paper claiming million-year-old fire use at Wonderwerk. First, lots of burnt stuff--animal bone, grass, ash. Second, no bat guano 'cause there wasn't any Berlinite in the deposits [long story, that]. Their conclusion: no spontaneous combustion. That leaves Homo erectus [or a reasonable facsimile] as the only actor that could have been responsible for the fires in the cave. And Berna et al. report that the senior archaeologist, Beaumont, 'reported macroscopic evidence for burning.' 
     I had to see what he had to say. So I've collected the pertinent portions of 
'The Edge: More on Fire-Making by about 1.7 Million Years Ago at Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa,' by Peter B. Beaumont (Current Anthropology52585-595, 2011). 
I call Wonderwerk Cave a rabbit hole mostly because the logic of what's been claimed can be a little hard to follow [to say nothing of 'swallow']. 
     One of the first bits we learn is that
the cave was exploited for “agricultural fertilizer” between 1940 and 1944, when the cave interior was largely dug out to a depth of up to 2.5 m     
Here's a link to the full-sized version on my Flickr account. 
A back-of-a-napkin estimate of the volume of cave earth removed by the 'diggers' yields a figure of 375 cubic metres. I know that most of you know what a cubic metre is, since most of you have had the experience of digging a 1 by 1 to a depth of a metre. But, really, how much Wonderwerk dirt was bagged for fertilizer? 
     A 40 lb (~22 kg) bag of fertilizer works out to about 40 litres. A cubic metre contains 1000 litres (doh!). So, those 375 cubic metres removed from Wonderwerk would have yielded about 9,375 bags of fertilizer. That's a lot of dirt! That's a lot of labour, too. Yet, as you'll discover a little further down, Beaumont surmises that there can't have been much in the way of effective fertilizer in the dirt the diggers removed. Keep that in mind as we work through the rest of Beaumont's 'observations' on Wonderwerk Cave.
     Next Beaumont muses on the likelihood that there was ever a significant number of bats 'hanging' around in the cave. He turns first to a modern observation     
Zoological studies at regional bat caves show that all have dark interiors, little or no air movement, and relatively high humidity levels; the only place in Wonderwerk that partly matches those conditions is a deep roof cavity at its rear, where a small number of bats were seen in 1988, briefly replacing the barn owls that usually reside there...
My guess is that we're to assume nothing has changed during the time that the upper 2.5 metres of the stratigraphic column had built up--i.e. that dirt removed for the presumed phosphate-depauperate fertilizer. I find this to be an astonishing assertion. But, there's more. 
As for bat dung/guano, this was originally linked to the red sand strata ..., a claim not supported by a study of the sediments ..., which showed that all levels are mainly (>90%) made up of sand and roof fragments, or by the finding that the microfauna indicates a preponderant avian occupation of the cave by barn owls..., with only modest amounts of bat guano likely confined to lenses below the roof cavity near the back wall.
Here the author tips his hand. Of course! There never were bats in the cave in any number! The presence of rodent remains convinces him that the major avian residents had been barn owls--for a million bloody years! 
     This strikes me as an odd conclusion to make for three reasons. First, the rodent remains wouldn't have been in the cave had it not been for the owls. But that's not germane to this question, since bats don't eat small furry creatures and therefore would have left nothing other than dead bats, which are in evidence in the cave sediments.   
     Second, does he think that bat guano fossilizes? Well, if he does, he's very wrong. It decomposes like any excrement, leaving phosphate minerals. Thus, if at present it's invisible in the cave sediments we should expect nothing less. And until Berna et al. publish the complete list of phosphate minerals they did find in the cave, we're left in the dark as to the likelihood that bats ever left much behind in the cave [that wasn't mined by 'diggers' that is].  
     Lastly, it's laughable when the author asserts that bat guano would have accumulated only where bats have been observed to roost in the cave in the past hundred years. We're talking about a MILLION years, fer gawd' sake! Beaumont must be the most extreme proponent of uniformitarianism that ever set foot in a palaeontological locality! 
     His conclusion, which appears below, is a case of special pleading, if ever I heard one.
From these data it is evident that the 1940–1944 diggers were marketing a product that contained little in the way of fertilizer
If so, they must have been running a con. And, if it was a con, this might be the only time in criminal history that such a gambit involved hard labour on the part of the grifter! Hey. Maybe not! Maybe the cons were so good at their game that they did a Tom Sawyer on some unsuspecting yokels, and had them dig out half the cave! 

Please, make your own conclusions. I'm happy to hear your reasons why anyone should accept Beaumont's assertions at face value.  


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