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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