Sunday 30 September 2012

All's Quiet on the Archaeological Western Front

It's quiet on the news ticker. Too quiet. Besides the endless stories on Neanderthals and feathers, it's running almost entirely sensible stuff [and the occasional off-topic newsflash about a new restaurant called the Monte Alban].

My Muse is off somewhere with that skank Inspiration! And, like one of the knights in Lerner and Lowe's musical, Camelot, I'm itching for a dragon of a hypothesis to smite or a damsel-ish archaeological theory to save from certain oblivion in the ivory tower of conventional wisdom.

I'm windmill-less. Worse, I have no Sancho Panza to spar with on matters philosophical.

I'm fighting a losing battle trying to ignore the piles of dishes and laundry, and the dust bunnies. 

It's the end of the month, and there's nothing but a frosty bottle of cheap vodka in the freezer and some orange juice in the fridge. And I HATE Screwdrivers! I'm making do with Irish Breakfast tea, fergawdsakes! And water. [How the mighty are fallen...]

Worst of all, I worry when I don't have anything to write about. I'm worried that you'll go away and never come back. Faint strains of Jackson Browne singing 'Stay' are drifting through my merely conscious consciousness.

BUT, there's always Hope. For one thing, I can't believe that all the cockamamy archaeological claims have already been made! More await us just around the corner. I know it. [Clap if you believe in the Poppycock Fairy.]

So, patience, Grasshopper. Enjoy your Sunday. The NFL refs are back--you don't have to boycott pro football any longer. Or bake a cake, or take a walk. Or do what I'm doing. Put yer feet up and revel in the thought that you don't have to be back at work for at least another 24. Be well. 

I'll be back. 

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Thursday 27 September 2012


Tonight's will be my 330th blurt as the Subversive Archaeologist. My first was October 5th, 2011. That's right. The SA will be one years old in just nine days. I thought that, rather than forgetting a week from now, I'd take a moment right now to thank you all for the support you've shown over the past year. I don't know how many of you there are, but I know that in aggregate you're making between about 200 and 300 visits to this site every day from every corner of the planet. I find that astonishing and gratifying, both. Many of you have commented on what you read here. I enjoy that, even when you show me where I've erred. I especially appreciate hearing from you if you've seen an article about an issue that you think I ought to give the SA treatment to. Thanks, too, are demanded for those of you who have followings of your own and who've recommended the SA to them. I feel very strongly that the more who pay attention, the better archaeological inference-making will get as time goes by. You've helped me in that process. My heart goes out to you if your period of focus is much more recent and not centred in Europe, Africa or Asia. I spend a lot of time worrying about what people are saying about our ancestry, and far too little on what's gone on since we became the way we are. With that in mind, not everything I'll say has a bearing on your archaeological neck o' the woods. But I try to make sure that my 'lecturing' is transferable to any time or place. Finally, I want you to know that I'm feeling more accomplished as an archaeologist because you've given me your ears. That's no small thing in my tiny existence. Thank you all, very, very much. Here's to the future.

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Wednesday 26 September 2012

The Real Meaning of 'All Things Being Equal'

Over the past few days, and indeed months [and decades, if you want to know], I've been hammering, implicitly if not ex-, on a theme. That theme boils down to this: however much the Neanderthals 'R' Us crowd crows about raptor talon jewellery, black feathered stoles, ceremonial ochre use, bitumen hafts, birch tar hafts, the Levallois technique, and all the rest, they're falling prey to a presumption--that theirs is the only possible or likely interpretation of the observations they make and the objects they recover from Middle Palaeolithic archaeological sites. 
      They're perfecty within their right and within reason [most of the time] to make whatever inference they desire. 
 [Please excuse the shouting in the sentence that follows--it's done for emphasis, and because I'm constrained by the ability of the written word to convey one's tone of voice].
HOWEVER, we're under no obligation to accept their inferences, if only because they inevitably downplay or ignore the possibility that other processes are capable of producing the traces that they're using to make those inferences. The theme about which I've been harping can be encapsulated in a term well-known to philosophers of science [particularly those who seek to understand the epistemological underpinnings of the concept of uniformity, whence the term Uniformitarianism] and those in the business of understanding the taphonomy of animal bone from archaeological sites. That term is 'equifinality.' Succinctly, it refers to the ability of more than one process to result in the same outcome.

 I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about--one that's near and, as you know, dear to my ticker. The Levallouis technique, so called, is just one of the ways that widespread patterns in Middle Palaeolithic lithic assemblages can be interpreted. Just one way. Remember that it's predicated on the belief that the desired outcome is a flake of certain proportions, which are classified as follows. Note how each is presumed to be the result of deliberate choices made along the way so as to acheive a core of just the right shape to enable removal of the flake of the desired morphology. Notice that the cores appear as if their margins are pristine, as if, indeed, the purpose of the knapper was to prepare the core in just such a way that the desired end product could be acheived with a single, final blow.  
Bordes Levallois flake types, and the cores from which they're presumed to have been removed. (Bordes, François. 1980. Le débitage Levallois et ses variantes. Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 77:45-49.)
Notwithstanding the confidence exuded by those who hold to this interpretation of these lithic assemblages, the standard story is easily shown to be just one of at least two possible processes. In fact, if you take away the inference that the so-called Levallois flake is a desired end product, you're left with the second interpretation, which has equal valence, philosophically speaking.
     That process amounts to the use of a block of raw material to remove useable flakes--i.e. as a core--and the inevitability that at some point the core will become marginally useful for that purpose. At that point the knapper has the choice of whether to discard the core or to prepare an uncrushable platform and attempt to rejuvenate the core by splitting it through the middle. Succeed and the knapper has two new cores from which to choose. Fail and the knapper produces a simple flake, or two [the Levallois flakes] and discards the exhausted core [the Levallois core].
     As you can see from the array of Levallois cores recovered from Douara Cave, Syria, the reality of the so-called Levallois flake repertoire is an idealized, indeed, reified category, and one that desparately needs to be taken down to size.
The so-called Levallois flake removals are outlined in red. Notice that in all cases the cores themselves are at a stage where the removal of useful flakes would be unrewarding at best. And, judging from the outlines of the flakes that were, as the story goes, the desired end product of the entire process, the standard story leaves a lot to be desired (Credit Akazawa in Suzuki and Takai 1974).
Thus, there's no necessary reason to infer the complex--and ultimately mystifying--process that the Bordesian lithic analysts have adhered to from the beginning, that of a knapper removing flake after flake with the sole purpose of creating a core of a certain shape from which to remove a flake of the desired morphology. And, other than tradition and a particularly well-established orthodoxy, there's no reason for archaeologists to accept this inference uncritically.
     Equifinality is a spectre that's with archaeologists at all stages in the recovery and interpretation of traces from the human/hominid past. It's the reality that underpins my stance on the reality of Middle Palaeolithic purposeful burial, the reality of the so-called handaxe [and cleavers, picks and choppers], and quite literally every one of my critiques of archaeological inference, whether in the 'pages' of the Subversive Archaeologist, in private, or in public. It was the impetus behind my Ph.D. research, and it remains the singular theoretical point of view that drives my passion for this subject.
      Equifinality isn't going away. And, although I'm pessimistic for the short term, equifinality will be an indispensable part of the theoretical framework for any 'final' interpretation of the archaeological record, from here 'til the cows come home [metaphorically speaking].

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Tuesday 25 September 2012

Fine Feathered Friends

Still Life With Feathers. Source.
After a brief pause for station identification and a few [well, more than a few] commercial announcements regarding our fine feathered friends, I'll give you my last two cents worth on the Gorham's Cave (Gibraltar ) Neanderthals and their presumed entry onto the catwalk alongside modern humans. But first, a few words from our sponsors: Neanderthals 'R' Us.
Even the Unfair and Unbalanced Fox News is Getting into the Act. Source
Even Our Friends at PhysOrg are Parrotting This Story. Source.
This Could Just as Well Have Been Written by Vera Wang! Source.
No One Could Have Predicted that Discover Magazine Would Enter the Sweepstakes... Source.
Major-market Network Internet News Leaps into the Fray. Source.
Is it just me? Or, is this a feeding frenzy? It's touching that a claim based on patently equivocal 'evidence' has gained so much attention in the media. We should all be so lucky. And, believe me, there are many, many more similar stories on the web, from sources large and small.
     I've already said my piece, and then some, and been tut-tutted from the facebook pages of the Human Evolutionary Studies Program for what others perceive as my naïvety with respect to the niceties of removing flight feathers from crows and dark-feathered raptors. And I've lamented my motivation in the previous blurt on SA. But I'm done with all that.
     The following represents my first attempt to address the empirical basis for Finlayson et al.'s claims with respect to colour-preferential Neanderthal feather collecting.
     On the preponderance of avian scavengers in faunal assemblages from human/hominid archaeological sites as compared with purely palaeontological sites, the following cannot be refuted:
All things being equal one might imagine that there would be far more material worthy of a scavenging bird's attention in a Neanderthal den or a human encampment than there ever would be in a strictly palaeontological locality. That alone could explain the observed 'overabundance' of crows and raptors in Pleistocene Palearctic Homo sp. living spaces.
They could quite easily have accumulated naturally. 
     As for the cutmarked bone. I could easily be misinterpreting their Table 2, but as I read it, Finlayson and his team have identified 33 cutmarked specimens from a total of 486 corvid and raptor specimens recovered from three sites in Gibraltar--representing about 7% of the assmblage. Of those 33 cutmarked specimens, 24 were among the 253 identified as Pyrrhocorax sp, the red- and yellow-beaked chough--both of which are crow-sized, colonial cliff dwellers. In addition, 5 of the 23 specimens of Milvus sp.--the red and black kite--bore cut marks. The vultures, Gyps sp. contribute another 3 out of 33 specimens so identified. Finally, 1 of the 5 specimens of Aquila chrysaetos--the golden eagle--was cut. The reader will readily discover that a binomial test of these cutmarked bone numbers would reveal that there's nothing unexpected about the results from Gorham's Cave and elsewhere on Gibraltar. In other words, it would be impossible to argue that these results are anything but the outcome of chance.
     With respect to the cutmarked skeletal elements, the species represented, and their feather colours, notice that almost three-quarters of the specimens are chough. Both are members in good standing of the crow family, and, as such, have black feathers. But note also that the chough is a cliff-dwelling, colonial species. I suspect that they would have found (and probably still find) the physiography of Gibraltar perfectly fitting to act as their nesting grounds. Therefore, I would expect [and so should you] that chough would be abundant in the Gibraltar sites, if only because they're the species most likely to have come to grief naturally in an archaeological site located immediately down-slope [or in this case down-cliff] from the colony.
The Lead Author Before Vanguard Cave, Gibraltar. Note the prominent and ample cliffs that occur here and throughout Gibraltar. It's a Rock, After All! Thanks for the Picture, CF. Source.
     As for the cutmarks themselves, and whether or not they were produced by deliberate actions on the part of Neanderthals, remember that, as many have pointed out in the past, the miniscule scratch marks that Finlayson et al. have observed on their Pleistocene avian specimens are as visible, and as frequent, in faunal assemblages stretching back at least into the Miocene, long before bipedal apes arose. 'Ow eez eet posseeble? Trampling by animals large and small in a substrate containing angular pieces of stone is one explanation. And, where else to find heaps of sharp, fractured stone than in a Neanderthal site? [I swear to gawd, those Ns did nothing all day but chip stone and sit around the bat-guano fire chewing the fat and spitting it out so as to attract scavenging birds with black feathers!] As such, it takes more than wishful thinking and nothing buttery to support claims of careful skinning such as the authors are erecting.
     Oops! Almost forgot. The authors also claim that wing bones are overabundant in these assemblages. Hmmm. Heads are fragile. Vertebrae are fragile. Ribs are extremely fragile in birds. You wouldn't expect them to preserve preferentially. The upper limb [AKA the wing] comprises coracoid, humerus, radius, ulna, and a carpal miscellany--four major limb elements. The lower limb, by contrast, comprises femur and tibiotarsus [a fusion of the tibia, fibula, and the tarsal elements], and the phalanges. So, as you can easily see, the long wing bones are naturally more numerous than those of the lower limb, however it.
     Finally, are you familiar with what revulsion most people in many cultures feel when they consider the behaviour of the critter pictured below? Snake-like, bald neck all the way up to its downy little collar in the ass-hole of some poor, unfortunate hoofed animal, savoring the nutritious delights to be found there?
Gyps fulvus, the griffon vulture. Source.
Notwithstanding widespread modern human revulsion of the vulture, clearly Clive Finlayson shares none of the gag reflex that I experience whenever I contemplate the vulture--'red in tooth and claw'* ['cept they don't have teeth, and so the venerable quote should more properly be glossed as 'greeny-brown in neck and claw']. Here's Clive, himself, sporting the latest in Neanderthal griffon vulture fashion [no doubt very carefully removed from the humerus, ulna and stumpy little wrist and hand bones of this disgusting animals using a knife--almost certainly a Levallois flake prepared ritually for the arch purpose of creating a new Gorham's Cave Neanderthal family heirloom]. This is a photo for the ages. [I hope you washed those neck feathers really well before donning your feathered stole, CF. Oh! Silly moi! The part of the neck that's attached to this fine fashion fantasy are the regular neck feathers--the parts that get dirty are closer to the head and have clearly been removed for wearing.]
Clive Finlayson Wears the Latest in Neanderthal Haute Couture.  Source.
I think I'll leave you to mull this one over.

* Alfred Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850

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Sunday 23 September 2012

Soaring with the Eagles or Eating Crow? You Decide

I'll leave it up to the inevitable critics of criticism to decide whether or not my musings are up to snuff. I want everyone to know that while I am unalterably opinionated and my discourse vitriolic, I hate having to say bad things about the work of good people. I hope the reader will forgive me for hoping for and for trying to eke out a broader readership of the Subversive Archaeologist than the already very gratifying couple of hundred that visit this blog daily. And so, despite my predisposition to wall-flowerdom, I pimp my blurts on facebook, twitter, and linkedin. And, today, I made an acidic comment or two on the Human Evolutionary Studies Program facebook page in response to Mark Collard's announcements of a couple of recent PLOS ONE articles that have spiked my interest, 'The Pace of Human Evolution,' by Charles Perreault, and 'Birds of a Feather,' by Clive Finlayson, et al., and on Mark's attempt to throw cold water on my point of view about both articles and the journal itself.
     I. Simply. Hate. Having. To. Be. Such. A. Dick. To. Good. People. But no one listens if you're all smiley-faced in this business. Believe me.
     And so, just now I want to lay down the cudgels and indulge myself. Many of you who've known me for very long will know that I'm no stranger to booze. Thanks to a lifetime of experiences most people would kill for [in a suicidal sense, I mean], I've always felt that a drink was like a hug. In fact, I've applied for a trademark on the phrase, 'A Drink is Like a Hug.' I think it's apt [unless you're someone who can't do without it, or someone who's suffered because of it--I happen to think it's the right medicine for me, as does, oddly enough, my analyst]. Tonight, against habit, I'm turning to an apple brew. One of the best bottled ciders you'll get anywhere outside of British Columbia, Magners Original Irish Cider.


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Friday 21 September 2012

Finlayson et al. on Corvids and Raptors and Neanderthal Use of Birds

I'm left stunned by Finlayson et al.'s article in the ever-preposterous PlosOne. I'm stunned for several reasons, and I think that I shall forego a fine-toothed critical approach in favour of a few well-chosen questions of the team that published this terrible piece of scholarship [and I'm being charitable here, in case you weren't aware].
     The article, if you haven't seen it, is a wonderful example of what [I think] Clyde Kluckhohn termed 'wallowing in minutiae.' The authors say that they're investigating 'the existence of universal patterns of early use of feathers for ornamental and symbolic purposes' among the Neanderthals.' They claim to have found that 'the relationship involves active processing of raptors and corvids by Neanderthals for the purpose of wing feather removal. 'Splain somthin' to me, Lucy:

Question One: Why would a burly Neanderthal need a stone tool to extricate feathers from [even a largish] bird? For those of you who haven't been brought up in the time of the rural to urban population transformation in North America, I'll inform you that modern human females of all ages and physical characteristics have been, historically, and still are, theoretically, capable of PLUCKING a gawd-dammed bird without the need for a GD knife--stone or otherwise. But we're supposed to accept that the Gibraltarian Neanderthals left seriously minute scratches on tiny bird bones because they were removing the feathers for use as ornaments and fashion accessories.
Excuse the upper case: HOW LAME CAN YOU BE? Finlayson et al. are clearly so infatuated with the idea of symbolic behaviour among their beloved Neanderthals that they've lost all touch with reality! If you don't believe me, assemble for me a small bibliography on archaeological bird butchery. I double-dog dare ya.

Question Two: Where do the authors get the idea that you need to butcher a bird? I have to think it's by analogy to making an elephant carcass useful! But, if you've ever spent more than a little time in the kitchen, you'll know that raw bird meat is relatively easy to remove from the bone with just your bare hands. Imagining that a Neanderthal needed to dismember a bird carcass in order to eat it is LUDICROUS! Raw or cooked, they're small enough to carry around without the need to butcher them to make individual packages that are easy for one person to carry! Furthermore, cooked bird meat is DEAD EASY to remove from the carcass with your bare teeth! Where do these ideas come from?????

Question Three: Who said that a 50-micron-wide linear scratch on a piece of bird bone is unequivocally evidence of butchery?? The authors looked at the corvids and raptors from the Gibraltar sites and found vanishingly few with such marks on them. What, one wonders, would they have found if they'd examined the skeletal remains of the non-corvid, non-raptor bones in the same sites. Doh!

As I said above. I decline to look further into the data and the data manipulations that Finlayson et al. present in this paper. Without even breaking a sweat I can see that their presence/absence data from 1699 palaearctic palaeontological and archaeological sites is statistically incapable of yielding useful results, especially since they ignore the presence of other kinds of birds at all the sites they employ.

Their premises are preposterous, and so are their results. Someone, please, prove me wrong, and I promise I'll stop slagging PlosOne.

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Questioning Middle Palaeolithic Burial is NOT Like Beating a Dead Horse: Science's Michael Balter Writes About Neanderthal Burial As If It's an Open Question. More Power to Him!

For one of the very few times in my role as the leading subversive archaeologist on the internet I can say that every anthropologist needs to see this article. The subject goes to the heart of the 'debate' [more like a never-ending disagreement] as to whether or not the Neanderthals, their Mousterian contemporaries, and their antecedents had what you and I would recognize as the equivalent of the symbolic behaviour that is the hallmark of us modern humans.
     I am very pleased to point the interested readers of the Subversive Archaeologist to the Michael Balter article in Science to which I alluded in a blurt a few days ago. Kudos to my friends Harold Dibble and Alain Turq [and the whole équipe] for their courage in opening new excavations at the mega-important Middle Palaeolithic site of La Ferrassie (Dordogne, France). And a rousing 'Huzzah!' for Michael Balter for featuring this *cough* ground-breaking work in Science, and for having the good sense to interview me for the piece.
     While you're reading, remember that whenever Alain Turq says that articulated skeletons MUST have been purposefully buried, remember Rule #1 and what I've said previously about how wrong-headed the notion is.
     So, without further ado: Ta-Da!
     'Did Neandertals Truly Bury Their Dead?' by Michael Balter.

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Thursday 20 September 2012

Tarred and Feathered: An Early Thought About Neanderthals and Black Feathers

I must confess that the more I drill down into Finlayson et al. the less I know about the data upon which the authors have built their argument that Neanderthals used stone tools to remove feathers from birds, to be made into stoles, headdresses and various fashion accessories. 
     It's bad enough that their conclusions make me feel as if I'm on already on the other side of the looking glass. It's far worse that I fear I'm falling down the rabbit hole. Under the circumstances I believe it's incumbent upon me to make as thorough an attempt as possible to critically examine the unfortunately titled 'Birds of a Feather: Neanderthal Exploitation of Raptors and Corvids.' At least in this case [as opposed to, say, the chemical constituents of dental calculus] I think I have a fighting chance to acquit myself well. But it's going to take time. And time is at a premium here at World Headquarters.
     I'll be busily excavating the authors' data and trying to understand how they get from microscopically scratched bird bone to feather collection and from there to haute couture. In the meantime I suggest you have a look at the news ticker and find something interesting and non-controversial to amuse yourself with.
     I shall return.

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The YD Boundary Impact Theory is Back in Business!

Impact. Source: (via
Who could have predicted? News from has it that there are oodles of microspherules in the Y-D boundary sediments throughout NA--it's just that previous workers were missing them. Marco Lambroek? Over to you? As I've said before, I find impacts very seductive, especially when they might help to explain mysterious disappearances of fauna--such as the Permian and K-T mass extinctions. A series of articles back in the early days of The Subversive Archaeologist heralded this story--beginning here. This one, the Younger Dryas in North America, isn't going away. Hat tip to Mark Collard for bringing this to our attentions.

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Wednesday 19 September 2012

You Coulda Knocked Me Over With A Feather!

Just popping in to say that next up is the business about black feathers and Neanderthals. Will it never stop???

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Tuesday 18 September 2012

Human Evolutionary Theory In Tatters: Proof From the 2012 CALPE Conference in Gibraltar

A tip o' my hat to Bob Muckle, who tweeted about this BBC story. It tells of Ian Tattersall's extraordinary comments, made Thursday, September 13, 2012, about the One True Force underlying all of the evolution of bipedal apes, of which the only living exponent is us, and which includes everything from Sahelanthropus through Ardipithecus and Australopithecus to the Neanderthals. That Tattersall's hypothesis takes center stage at a prestigious global conference demonstrates to me just what a confused state in which human evolutionary theory finds itself in the early twenty-first century. [I'm being fair--at best Tattersall's is a suggestion about how things might have been, and as such doesn't rise above the level of a startling, but untestable, hypothesis.] Let us go then, you and I. Like Ardipithecus ramidus I'm gonna go out on a limb--my favourite place, evah.  
Ardipithecus ramidus
This weekend in Gibraltar marks the triennial renewal of the CALPE Conferences on human evolution, begun in 1998 on the sesquicentennial of the Forbes Quarry's skull. According to this story in the Gibraltar Chronicle
The theme of this year’s conference is 'The Human Niche: Ecology, Behaviour and Culture in the Genus Homo.' As customary, the conference brings together some of the world’s leading specialists but this year there is a difference. As Professor Clive Finlayson, organiser of the conference will put it in his introductory remarks on Thursday, ‘in selecting the speakers for this conference I went for a mix of established leaders in their field and young researchers who are making important contributions.’ So novelty is the order of the day in this conference which, for the first time, offers a platform for new talent. The programme has been structured in such a way that the conference will have an appeal to specialists but also to the general public interested in this fascinating subject. Public interest in the Gorham’s and Vanguard Caves excavations, which this year ran for six weeks and ended last Friday, has been great. Now they have the opportunity of hearing, first hand, the results of such work and that of others all over the world. Professor Finlayson describes this year’s conference as a landmark, one in which he hopes the current human evolution paradigm will be replaced by a new approach, one that puts ecology in the forefront. It has attracted important media coverage with several reporters from important journals and news channels flying out to Gibraltar from as far as the United States. Gibraltar is fast becoming one of the world’s major centres for such studies and conferences such as this one will help to reinforce the message of the Rock’s vital role. With a bid for World Heritage Status for the Gorham’s Cave Complex now in preparation, this year’s Calpe Conference is a major cog in the build up process. 
 With that kind of hype, it's hard to imagine any of the major invitees trotting out a really smelly red herring. But out one came, just the same. And from Ian Tattersall, no less! It seems that Ian has intuited the single behavioural factor underpinning the rapid evolution of the bipedal apes. Competition. He calls it something else, and he adds some behavioural qualifiers, like 'violent' and 'intergroup,' but at bottom it's plain old competition. Nothing new there, except that he's positing our more rapid evolution based on presumably grander-scale conflict, or, well, see for yourself.
     Granted, none of us but those lucky enough to have been there will have heard the whole story, so we'll just have to rely on the usually reliable BBC coverage to illuminate us. Apparently Ian Tattersall thinks that, as a group, the bipedal apes have come a long way in a comparatively brief span of time. He cites physical characteristics such as brain size and dental changes as part of our unusually rapid evolution. However, to make his point, Tattersall must do a little muddying of the waters of human evolution--a bit of palaeoanthropological sleight of hand, as I see it. 
WT 15000, Homo erectus/ergaster
     The first of the author's overly broad overviews is apparent in this quote/paraphrase from the BBC article: 
The increase in brain size seems to have coincided with a modern physique characterised by a linear shape, long legs and relatively narrow hips. These features can already be seen in the skeleton of the 'Turkana boy' [WT 15000] from Kenya, who lived about two million years ago. This contrasts sharply with the short legs and long arms of the Turkana boy's antecedent 'Lucy' (Australopithecus afarensis), who lived in Ethiopia about one million years earlier. 
Wait a second! Have I missed something? Or is this eminent scholar downplaying not only modern human variation, but also the variety of leg/arm ratios in our fossil ancestry when you look beyond the two forms he mentions above? Neanderthal and modern human One wonders at Tattersall's rather unfairly phrased comparison in support of his premising argument--like comparing apples to oranges and being surprised when they're found to be different. And since when is 'linear' a discipline-appropriate descriptor for the skeletal differences between early and late bipedal apes? 
My favourites!
The author is quick to bring culture into the frame, but even then he downplays its valence as an engine of 'rapid' evolution in bipedal apes. The BBC article continues...
Human culture was probably the special, consistently present ingredient that drove the continuing fast pace of change in our lineage after we left the forests, said Prof Tattersall, but not in the way that some other researchers have proposed. But Prof Tattersall said the way our technology transformed in fits and starts, along with the way these changes were often separated from biological evolution, meant this idea was not as good a fit for what is seen in the archaeological and fossil records. Aggression between small, distinct human groups in the past is one of the major remaining agents of such changes, he said. 'Inter-group conflict would certainly have placed a premium on such correlates of neural function as planning and throwing,' Prof Tattersall explained. Chimps also have culture, but have not experienced such accelerated evolution. 'If we were somehow able to implicate conflict among groups as a selective agent for increasing intelligence within groups, this might explain the otherwise quite mystifying independent increases in brain size that we see in several different lineages within the genus Homo.' Such conflict could be seen as a form of predation. And, predation is regarded as a classic example of the 'Red Queen' hypothesis whereby prey and predator become faster or more cunning in a self-reinforcing way. 
When Ian says 'if we were somehow able to implicate blah, blah, blah' he's really tanking. Talk about trying out wacky new ideas in a conference setting! Except. This ain't no trial balloon--not if you remember Robert Ardrey's African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, or Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape. Tattersall's isn't a novel suggestion even if you strip it of the sensationalism, and ignore his naïve view of the cultural tool-kit of our fossil relations. 
[I guess it's a no-brainer that I can't mutely stand by while this author, like so many others, invokes the holy trinity of human evolution: clothing, fire and shelter as a means by which our 'relatively frail bodies' managed to cope with the climatic and other environmental vicissitudes of palaeolithic life.] 
At bottom, this author's major thesis is that competition brought about evolutionary change. I didn't feel the earth shake. I doubt that you did. 
     Allright! Allright! Maybe I'm being too harsh. Maybe the BBC took what Tattersall said out of context. But if this is what Tattersall is thinking in 2012, and if this is the epitome of human evolutionary theory--as the conference organizers seem to think--I have to say that it proves something I've long believed, that the discipline of human palaeontology is in crisis and human evolutionary theory is in tatters.

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Sunday 16 September 2012

PlosOne Does It Again! 'The Pace Of Cultural Evolution', by Charles Perreault is superfluous

I've just posted this comment at PlosOne, in relation to 'The Pace of Cultural Evolution,' by Charles Perreault, published yesterday.
PlosOne should take note that some might wonder whether or not this paper's referees were 'asleep at the switch' for allowing the author's definition of 'culture' to justify its publication. Socially learned 'information' amongst humans is not a unique behavioural or cognitive trait. It's present in most mammals, such as dogs, cats, bats, and rats. It's also a characteristic of bees and other social insects. As such I fear that your readers may wonder at your purpose in publishing this paper--if it was to advance scholarship and knowledge of the human past, your readers will wonder at how low you have set the bar in this case. Stating the obvious has, I have to point out, never been a significant contribution to any discipline--much less that of our own evolution. Surely PlosOne can do better than this. Competing interests declared: My 'competing interest' is simply the hope that archaeological and evolutionary 'narratives' are premised on well-warranted assumptions, as opposed to 'just-so stories' and fallacious arguments.
Need I say more?

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Saturday 15 September 2012

Of Mice and Men and Nipples and Supernumerary Nipples

If I can be allowed a Judaeo-Christian metaphor, there's a Devil in me that makes me wish I could shock the Biblical fundamentalists out of their confined intellectual spaces. So, I was thinking. If I can be allowed to think of myself as a subversive archaeologist, then I can also be a subversive anthropologist. Makes sense, don't it? Well, in the spirit of subversion, and remembering the likes of Casey Luskin and what I've said about his lameness before [here and here], tonight I'm letting the Devil out. Here goes. *wolves howl in the distance, a chill wind whistles up the leg of your Land's End cargo shorts, the crickets cease their normally incessant, but in these circumstances oddly comforting until they stopped, chirping*

A wise teacher once pointed out to me that one of the reasons many people don't understand evolution is that it is one VERY BIG subject. Anthropology embraces evolution, and it behooves undergraduates studying anthropology [at least in North America] to learn about human evolution-- DNA, and inheritance, and genetic variation within the human species are at the core of what used to be called physical anthropology, but which is now alternatively known as biological anthropology. One of the coolest things about anthropology is that it is the only discipline that seeks to understand human beings holistically, through the study of their physical and cultural makeup. So it's not such a leap for me to think of myself as a subversive anthropologist.
     But, back to the deviltry. I think it's quaint that fundamentalists spend so much time fretting about the fossil record when there's so much evidence of evolution in the here and now. And, when it comes to evolutionary anthropological shockers, I've got a million of 'em. My purpose today is to remind the reader that men have nipples. Have you ever wondered why? And, why do some men and women have more than two nipples, like the dogs, cats, cows, and other mammals that have litters of young? Roll that idea around in your head for a minute. [Actually, when I told one of my co-workers about the 'condition' known as supernumerary nipples, it almost made her gag!] Best of all, they're not really so rare. Don't believe me? Watch, and learn.
The eye can't lie, and in this case neither does the camera (photo source)
So, hypothetical Creationist person to whom I'm talking, whadda ya make o' that? If it isn't weird enough that men have nipples, what is this guy doing with more than two [presuming, of course, that there's a mate to the larger of the two in this image on the other side of this guy's chest]? And it's not just a 'guy' thing. Have a look at the young woman in the photo below, who clearly exalts her additional nipple.

Places where extra
nipples can occur
     Such conditions as supernumerary nipples are the result of the expression of genes that persist in the human genome, but which have been 'turned off' during our evolutionary trajectory [for the fundamentalists among you, that would be a reversal of evolution--something that would be intuitively impossible if there was no such thing as evolution]. The 'turning off' of a gene or genes happens usually because the structure has become atavistic--no longer necessary. And since it's the case that in biological terms, tissue of any kind is 'expensive,' and it's a waste of good energy to make unnecessary structures. As far as we and the other mammals are concerned, the number of nipples more or less accords with the size of the litter. Because humans usually bear only one offspring at a time, the genes involved in producing multiple pairs of nipples have become vestigial, and under normal circumstances have ceased expressing themselves in the organism. But once in a while a tiny error in DNA replication during sex-cell production results in expression of a gene or a complex of genes that code for one or more of the ancient auxiliary pairs of nipples. Simple! Don't you think?
     That takes care of supernumerary nipples. But why do men have nipples in the first place? Surely God could've designed nippleless males without even blinking. Although, come to think of it, the old guy seems to have taken a lot of short cuts when he was specially creating us and the rest of life. [I don't need to remind you, for example, that giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their necks as we do. I've heard of deities cutting corners before now. But few ever consider just how little original thought the Abrahamic god put into making the back-boned animals different from one another, whether we're talking about fish or Finns. I mean, really! Couldn't whales, bats, people and moles have been given different numbers of digits at the ends of their front limbs--or, if you prefer, fins, wings, hands and paws?] But I digress.
     Men have nipples for the same reason both males and females have gonads--these structures underpin reproduction--and the structures themselves are formed early on in the embryo, often long before parturition. Sure, sure, everybody knows that the embryo is destined to become male or female from the moment of conception. However, the process of sexual differentiation is time-transgressive in the developing organism. In the case of nipples, by the sixth week of gestation a pair (usually) of sweat glands in the chest has begun to differentiate as nipple tissue. But, and this is important, the point at which male and female embryos begin to develop along different lines doesn't occur until the end of the same week in which the nipples develop. That's why both sexes have 'em, even if only one of the sexes ever puts them to use as anything other than an erogenous zone. And, as we all know, in the general case, visible differentiation of breast tissue doesn't occur until puberty, and breast maturity in females isn't complete until she's had offspring and has nourished the newborn with her milk.
     I could rattle off a half a dozen more examples of shocking evolutionary tidbits without breaking a sweat. But I'll leave you with just one. And, feel free to share this with your creationist/intelligent-design-adhering friends. Then watch their eyes glaze over. But let them know that next time I talk about this stuff, it's gonna be about genetic variation in the genitalia. That's gonna be fun.
I think I've pretty much beaten this one past death. So, I'll go on to something near and dear to my heart [and, if you're a real archaeologist, I know it'll be dear to yours as well].
     I'm home from work, and it's Friday. I'm enjoying the cool of the evening with all the windows and the door open. Luxury. It's Hell living in Heaven [more Judaeo-Christian figurative language for which I hope you'll forgive me].
     Let's see.
     What'll it be?
     Ahh, here we are.
     Tonight's drop of straw-colored nectar is going to be a Motos Liberty 2008 Chardonnay. Curious label motif; wonderful, juicy, lightly oaked. The label says it's 'cellared and bottled' in the Napa Valley, California. That leaves the fruit's origin a little vague. But there's nothing vague about the liquid inside. Round and perfectly dry. A hint of pain grillé as the French would say. Buttery, but not too. Citrusy [lime and cumquat, for the most part]. Yum.
     If you live in the Surf City area it's on for a very good price at U-Save Liquors on Mission Street. Hell, if you're that close, drop by and we'll have some together!

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Wednesday 12 September 2012

A Final (Maybe Not) Word on The Regourdou 1 Micro-Scratches: A Case of Archaeological Foot-and-Mouth?

Once again I'm brought low by my graphic art shortcomings. 
     Lucky Reader. You'll have to persevere while I try to describe in a thousand words what I could easily illustrate in a single, short, animated film. 
    I'm the Regourdou 1 Neanderthal. [Actually, that individual is dead and gone. So, in that case imagine that I was the Regourdou 1 Neanderthal before I met my maker in some nasty, short, and brutish Middle Palaeolithic way.] I'm hungry, and I've just found a pile of well-aged beef while I was out looking for a snack of...well...well-aged meat. But there are hyaenas all over the place, eyeing me and slobbering. So, I quickly [and, of course, deftly] remove a filet or a brisket, or whatever it is people are gonna call such things in fifty or so thousand years, throw my best manuport at the alpha hyaena female, and hie myself off to my damp, dark cave retreat to enjoy my snack in peace. 
     The first decision I need to make is whether or not to just bite off hunks, chew, and swallow, or try to be kewl just like the eaters of raw meat are gonna be [again in about fifty thousand years], clamp some of the brisket between my front teeth and, with my pinky raised, slice through the piece of meat while making a satisfying cutting sound, and trying not to amputate my lips. I choose the seductive snicker-snack of the well-used sharp rock in my [right] hand. in case I'm ever eating with my con-specifics [an open empirical question] and I want to impress a cute cave girl.
     Are you with me? 
The picture above is a representation of the tiny striations that Volpato et al. observed on the Regourdou 1 anterior tooth crowns. [Note that the roots have been 'dropped out' of these views, such that all we are seeing--give or take--is the well-attrited crowns.] You don't need to be a statistician to notice that the trend of these striations is lower-left to upper-right. This, according to the authors, is de facto proof that the Regourdou 1 Neanderthal was right handed. Huh?
     Think about it for a second. I have a hunk of meat clamped between my teeth. I have a sharp flake in my right hand. How am I gonna cut through the piece of meat? Am I gonna hold the flake at an angle almost perpendicular to the tooth row, then, starting at the top on the left side of my mouth, slice downward and to my right such that the flake's sharp edge is able to come in contact with my lower teeth, all the while without slicing through my lip?
     Mull it over for a bit. Even if I was so uncoordinated that I would start the cut on the top of the meat hunk on the side opposite my right hand, I wouldn't be able to make a satisfactory cut if I'm holding the flake in my right hand almost perpendicular to my teeth. Instead, I'd end up making a sushi cut. And I ask you, 'What's the point of that if they're not gonna invent sushi for at least another forty thousand years?' 
     No. If I'm right handed, I'm gonna do just what this northern North American is doing in the picture below. I'm gonna start nearest my hand and [at least make an effort] to cut across the meat hunk in a vertical plane, without doing bloody damage to my soft tissue. Look at the picture and tell me how the knife is ever gonna do damage to the front teeth without completing futzing up the activity?

Seriously. What's going on here? If Volpato et al. are right, the Regourdou 1 Neanderthal must have been... What? A fool? One who shouldn't be allowed near sharp objects? One who prolly died from blood loss after another unsuccessful attempt at being kewl?
     I'm sorry. There's nothing in Volpato et al.'s arguments or observations that compel me to accept the hypothesized activity as the reason for fine striations on the anterior tooth crowns.
     Chalk up another winner for PLOSone! Jebuz. Who do they get to referee this stuff?

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