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 you...er...slice 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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