Friday 26 October 2012

'Shrooms and Ancient Mesoamerica: A Marriage Made in Heaven?

At left, ceramic transformation mask with the were jaguar on the left half; mushroom-head on the right. At right, Amanita muscaria (Source: Yucatan Times
If I can't write 'em myself 'cause I'm busy looking for gainful employment, I can still point you in the direction of the good stuff.
     From the Yucatan Times comes this fascinating story of New World symbolic archaeology: 'Maya Mushroom Cults: Breaking the Mushroom Code,' by Carl de Borhegyi. Truly uplifting. Mind-blowing, you might say.
Source: Yucatan Times
Thanks for dropping by! If you like what you see, follow me on Google Friend Connect or Twitter, friend me on Facebook, check out my publications at Academia, or connect on Linkedin. You can also subscribe to receive new posts by email or RSS [scroll to the top and look on the left]. And please don't forget. Oh, and you can always put me on your blogroll! By the way, I get a small commission for anything you purchase from if you go there by clicking through from this site. 

Thursday 25 October 2012

ScienceMag's The Great Debate: How Human Were Neandertals?

This conversation took place at noon PDT on Thursday, October 25, 2012. It's moderated by Michael Balter, who writes for Science, and features Harold Dibble and John Speth as the experts. Yours truly gets a mention and asks a totally lame question, not imagining for a million years that it would be chosen. Ah, well. It wouldn't be the first time the world thought I was a crazy man!

How Human Were Neandertals?
Thursday October 25, 2012
Michael Balter: Welcome everyone, to what I am confident will be a very lively discussion. Our guests are two anthropologists who have studied and thought about Neandertals for many years. While both men have great respect for Neandertals and their abilities, they differ somewhat on the extent to which our evolutionary cousins engaged in symbolic behavior. Thus Harold Dibble, who has worked extensively at Neandertal sites in France, has recently questioned whether Neandertals really buried their dead, as most researchers had long assumed; while John Speth, who has worked at Neandertal sites in the Near East, argued in a widely read article somewhat facetiously entitled “News Flash: Negative evidence convicts Neandertals of gross mental incompetence” that many researchers use a double standard when comparing modern human and Neandertal capabilities. I see our readers already include some anthropologists and archaeologists who are famous in their own right. Let the debate begin!

Harold L. Dibble: Hi Michael -- thanks for the invitation to this.

John Speth: Hello everyone, thanks for having me as part of this chat too. These are interesting issues and this should be fun.

Comment From John Shea
In what ways, if any, were Neandertal adaptations superior to those of the Homo sapiens populations with whom they were contemporaries between 30,000->200,000 years ago? (They can't have have been inferior across-the-board, otherwise Neandertals would have been out-competed to extinction shortly after the two hominins bumped into one another in the East Mediterranean Levant around 120,000 years ago.)

John Speth: Good but also tough question. Neanderthals survived for a long, long time, much longer than our "modern" form has been around, They also expanded over a huge area. Thus, given their presumed technological limitations compared to later humans, they did amazingly well.

Harold L. Dibble: Hi John -- I think that first of all, you're right that they have shown themselves to have been successful for a lot longer than we have yet. But to me, one of the more interesting aspects to their adaptation is their ability to respond to such a large number of varied conditions. It is as if they were using their intelligence to assess their conditions and make appropriate responses as needed, rather than following particular patterns over and over again.

Comment From Lyn Wadley
Greetings to the three of you. Would you like to comment on the cognitive implications of hafting by Neanderthals using bitumen and/or birch bark tar? It is my understanding that the preparation of the resin involves sophisticated heating processes. The planning and multi-tasking required would imply cognition not unlike our own.

John Speth: Hi Lyn, welcome aboard. I worry about keeping score on the cognitive significance of various technologies and technological traits. Is hafting more complex than controlling fire or Oldowan flaking technologies, given all the variability that is being recognized of late.

Michael Balter: We're working on your questions as fast as we can!

Comment From Diwiyana
I am interested in the linguistic ability of Neanderthals, something that leaves no clear trace in the fossil record. Years ago, it was said that the Neanderthal vocal tract differed from ours, preventing them from making the full range of sounds now used in human languages. Is this still generally accepted or has it been refuted? Concerning "art," are there any examples that are certainly the work of Neanderthals? Paintings recently dated in Spain may be and there are at least some possible uses of animal teeth and sea shells as personal ornaments. But any that are definitely Neanderthal?

Harold L. Dibble: I'm quite skeptical that there is any unequivocal evidence of Neandertal art or symbolism in general. There are many claims, of course, but for the most part they can be challenged in any number of ways. Even the biological evidence has not led to a clear answer to this question. For the moment, then, I'm going to remain doubtful that they used language in any way that could be seen as ours.

Michael Balter: We will answer as many as we can, unfortunately can't do all but appreciate everyone's input!

Comment From Adam Jagick
Has the over-reliance on terms like 'modernity' influenced our understanding of variation in the Palaeolithic? Given the incomplete nature of the fossil, archaeological and molecular records of extinct hominins and our ever changing views on the evolution of Homo sapiens, it seems to me that 'human' is now a term used to describe a moveable measuring stick. Do you see any way a species-neutral system discussing hominin evolutionary trends can be created?

John Speth: Hi Adam, Modernity is an incredibly thorny term that may be a red herring in many contexts, esp. if it is approached as a kind of trait list, regardless of what traits we stick in there. It has gotten even more slippery now that we have data, seemingly increasing rapidly, that Neanderthals and other archaics interbred with so-called moderns. Also modernity as it is often used is based on a French Upper Paleolithic yardstick. If we had started with East Asia or pre-Holocene Australia, we might have a very different set of questions as to what constitutes modernity, both culturally and biologically.

Comment From Vitaly Kisin
How large was the admixture of Homo Sapience genes to the population of Neanderthals for which your conclusions were formulated (I ask this the second time as I forgot to give my name the first time)

Harold L. Dibble: Not being an expert on Neandertal genetics, I'm a little hesitant to say with certainty what this evidence means. First, I think that the genetic evidence that we now have represents a major breakthrough in methodology for understanding many aspects of Neandertals -- whether they were or were not different species, the extent to which we may have mated with them in the past, etc. But like a lot of early research, we're now going to be moving into a period of fairly intense debate on these subjects as new labs try to replicate these studies. We'll have to wait a few years to see how it all shakes out.

Comment From Santiago Flores
Could you comment on the presence of the Neandertal gene in modern humans? I would be interested in the social implications of Neandertal/homo sapien mixing. Thanks!

Michael Balter: I see Rob Gargett, one of the original skeptics about Neandertal burial, has joined us and asked Harold a question. He is working on his response right now!

Michael Balter: We've got some very illustrious visitors: John Shea is an expert on hominin projectile technology, and Lyn Wadley led the excavations at the fantastic MSA site of Sibudu in South Africa for many years.

Michael Balter: We welcome questions from Neandertals, ie if you have language!

Comment From John Higgins
Did Neanderthals teach each other? If so, how effective were they in transmitting culture to successive generations?

John Speth: Hi John, Intriguing issue. Difficult to answer in concrete terms but there are many things that would suggest lots of interaction and LOTS of cultural transmission. As a non-lithics (stone tool) specialist, this is made on the basis of how things appear to me. The stone tools from the MSA, the time period more or less equivalent to the Eurasia Middle Paleolithic, look amazingly similar and working with 4th graders they notice the same thing. They share an amazing amount in common and striking differences from what comes before or after. And as we've gotten better at dating the record prior to the range of radiocarbon we are finding that the MSA and MP are roughly contemporary. How is it possible that similarities of that nature and degree can emerge more or less simultaneously from South Africa to England? To me that implies a huge amount of interaction, presumably both cultural and genetic, both requisites when we are dealiong with small, mobile, dispersed populations who have to maintain viable breeding networks to survive and persist. That requires LOTS of interaction.

Comment From Rob Gargett
Hi, All. Harold: Pachyderms of one sort of another have demonstrated similar adaptive plasticity and specific longevity to that of the Neanderthals. Would you say the same about their intelligence?

Harold L. Dibble: Hi Rob -- sure, a lot of species have very flexible behaviors. But, assuming that Neandertals did have a behavioral pattern different from ours, yet obviously quite big-brained (and I'll take that as a reflection of intelligence) the question becomes: how did they use that intelligence? Following cultural anthropologists like Goodenough, I've quite a believer in culture as supplying us with rules, or guidelines, for appropriate behavior, which is reflected in a high degree of patterning in the archaeological record. Neandertal occupations don't seem to show that -- rather, their behavior changes quickly to varying conditions. So, what I'm saying is that their big brains suggest intelligence, and the archaeological record is showing how they used it.

Michael Balter: As many of you know, Neandertals or their ancestors appear in Eurasia beginning about 250,000 years ago, while modern humans don't arrive until somewhere around 50,000 years ago--at least according to current evidence.

Comment From Cinda Coggins Mosher
(I should preface this by saying I am in English/Rhetoric and not science or anthropology, so bear with me...) To what extent do you believe that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals socially intemingled? There was the recent study that suggested interbreeding, but do you think that they lived closely with each other on a daily basis?

Harold L. Dibble: This is a question that is going to have to wait until our dating becomes more precise. It is roughly assumed that Neandertals and moderns both inhabited Western Europe over a 5,000 year period, and there is some genetic evidence that they may have exchanged some genes. However, remember that populations of both Neandertals and modern humans were pretty small and the chance of them running into each was still pretty low.

Comment From Guest
Should burials really be considered a marker for 'humanness'? The underlying reason for burying the deade is still unknown.

Harold L. Dibble: The question of burials works one way, but not the other. That is, since lots of peoples today do not bury their dead, not engaging in the practice does not make them any less human. However, the real issue is not what Neandertals were doing with their dead, but whether or not they had religion, use of symbols, etc. If we find a deliberate burial, then, it gives evidence that they did.

Comment From Dick Cavallaro
Would you comment on their clothing and shelter?

John Speth: Hi Dick. Clothing and shelter don't often preserve, all the more so when they are temporary and flimsy and made of perishables, whether leather or brush. But we have indirect indicators. The evolution of hair and body lice is being studied genetically and suggests that clothing has been around for quite awhile (I don't remember off hand what the published dates are). That's an interesting line of research however and has the potential of telling us about when clothing might have become a regular part of human adaptations. The stone tools offer insights. The Neanderthal period (Middle Paleolithic) has zillions of what we call "scrapers" and many of these preserve use-wear traces that do indeed suggest they were used for scraping skins. That of course doesn't tell us what they made but it is certainly suggestive. There's also a lot of use-wear evidence for woodworking and I suspect they were doing a lot more than just making spears. There are also some putative traces of actual shelters, some possibly using mammoth bones, others perhaps involving mostly hide covering, but that sort of evidence tends so far to be late and not completely compelling. On the other side of the coin, humans are incredibly adaptable to cold, with the development of brown (shivering) fat, as demonstrated by military studies and the cold tolerance of the hunter-gatherers of Tierra del Fuego.

Michael Balter: Neandertals were first discovered in Gibraltar in the 1800s, but researchers didn't know what they were. They only got clued in when specimens were found in the Neander Valley of Germany. Had things turned out differently, they might have been called Gibraltarians instead; but people there say that is just as well.

Comment From Angus
Would Neanderthals consider it important to have recognizable human traits? Do we believe that it benefits them as a species?

Harold L. Dibble: You know, I sometimes wonder why some people argue so strongly that Neandertals have to be considered to be just like us, as if to say otherwise is some kind of insult to them. Considerting our current condition, and our very uncertain future, I tend to think that pushing our brand of humanity on them could be the bigger insult.

Comment From Grmay H. Lilay
Just for curiosity:) How do you spell NeandertHals?

Harold L. Dibble: The change in common spelling, from Neanderthals to Neandertals took place as a result in German orthography. Note that the scientific name for them -- if you consider them to be a seperate species -- is Homo neanderthalensis. But among specialists, there are some who use the H and those who don't. So, either way is fine.

Michael Balter: The very last Neandertals lived in Spain, Portugal, and Gibraltar, at least as far as we know.

Comment From Beth Skwarecki
What's the current thinking on the Neandertals' diet? Especially how much they hunted vs. ate plant foods. Was their diet likely different from Homo sapiens of the time?

John Speth: Hi Beth, a topic dear to my heart! Here I recognize that my views as they are evolving may be more than three standard deviations from the current mean, but here goes anyway. Generally bones are what preserve, big bones are more visible and seemingly of more interest to a lot of people, and reflect a long bias in our own traditions. So since Darwin, and probably long before we have seen big-game hunting as what we as humans are all about and it is what largely drove our evolution. But a close look at modern hunter-gatherers like the Hadza and San (Bushmen) suggests that men do most of their big-game hunting at the time when other foods, gathered mostly by women, are at their peak (baobab, mopane worms, various seeds, nuts and fruit, etc.). Also men's hunting is notoriously unreliable, they fail most of the time, the spend inordinate amounts of time tracking, etc, not a very reliable and effective way of provisioning on a per capita daily basis. Social/political dimensions such as "costly signaling" are now being looked at very closely by behavioral ecologists (same for chimpanzees) and it looks increasingly like male hunting of big game is largely underwritten by women and serves social/political functions first and foremost and provisioning second. In many hunter-gatherers, men would do better in return rates and reliability by doing what women did. There's another entire issue with the nitrogen values in Neanderthals, but I better leave that one alone here. There's also alot of work going on now showing from microfossils in Neanderthal teeth that they were indeed exploiting plant foods. We don't know how much.

Comment From Guest
That's a bit ridiculous. The 5,000 year overlap and the genetic evidence suggests that 'modern' humans and Neandertals must have overlapped socially. The archaeological record suggests slightly more than a casual interaction between the two species.

Harold L. Dibble: Well, I really don't know of any clear examples in the archaeological record for interactions. We have assemblages with Middle Paleolithic artifacts, with Neandertals. We have what most consider to be a derivative of Middle Paleolithic -- the Chatelperronian -- with Neandertals (or that's the evidence to date). And we have Upper Paleolithic assemblages with modern H. sapiens. While you may think that they must have interacted -- and they did if the genetics are correct -- the archaeological evidence doesn't give any evidence of how, or how often, they did.

Michael Balter: Paul Mellars at the University of Cambridge has argued that modern humans outcompeted Neandertals by outnumbering them 10 to 1 in Europe; but other researchers contend that they never directly competed with each other.

Comment From Gunes Duru
Hi MichaelHow can you describe symbolic or/and behavioral similarities between the Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, neurology or some kind of interaction? what have we learned from the Neanderthals?

Harold L. Dibble: At this point, I'm still skeptical of the degree to which Neandertals used symbols, which for me would include language. There is no unequivocal evidence for art or ritual, for example. To me, this kind of behavior is one of the defining characteristics for modern behavior, which so far seems to be confined to modern H. sapiens. The second part of your question is what we have (or can) learn from Neandertals. My answer is that they represent a form of big-brained hominin whose behavioral pattern is now extinct. To me, then, it's a fascinating problem to try to figure out what that behavior was.

Michael Balter: Our guys are about to post more words of wisdom, stand by!

John Speth: Just by way of some general comments, I have been concerned about what seems to be a double standard in the way we interpret Neanderthal behavior, capacities, and so forth. Neanderthals have for generations been viewed as something inferior. Our standard is largely what we see or infer from the French Upper Paleolithic sequence of tools. We also bring in a lot of assumptions that may be in need of considerably scrutiny. First, we lpook at the French UP record as evidence of a kind of technological progress that we assume somehow translates into these foragers being more efficient in whatever they were doing (mostly hunting in most peoples' view)/. If one looks at the East Asia record for the same time period, or the early Australian record, we see very little of that sport of supposed "progress." They seem to have done adequately without all the burins, endscrapers, body ornaments and so forth. We can see something roughly analogous even in the North American archaeological record. The first humans well documented in N Amer are no more than 12000-14000 years old. Aside from "pretty points", there is incredibly little that smacks of symbolism (painted caves, ornaments, etc.). That elaboration doesn't come to a mere 5000 or so years ago with the Middle to Late Archaic. Nobody would question that we are dealing with modern humans. So what drives the elaboration? To me demography is a key variable. Archaeologists are now beginning to seriously consider demography with Neanderthals. Up till recently their demography was dismissed as "tiny mobile groups widely scattered over the landscape" End of story. How then did they manage to people a huge chunk of Eurasia? Something is missing in all of this. I see the first hints of this growth in places like the Middle East where we begin to get multiple burials in the same site, which to me suggests some kind of emerging corporateness, which in turn suggests to me that populations are growing. Also there are many more sites, bigger sites, deeper sites, stratified hearths and ash layers, etc. Something is going on demographically and I think it sets the stage for the Upper Paleolithic. Not all that long ago when most accepted Neanderthals as a separate species that sort of view didn't float. But now that we are seeing evidence of interbreeding, this sort of scenario becomes far more plausible. I suspect with Neanderthals we are seeing populations going extinct, not species, and population extinctions have always been going on.

Comment From Santiago Flores
I am unfamiliar with the burial debate. What are the main points of the debate, and what evidence is being used?

Harold L. Dibble: There are only a half dozen or so finds from Western Europe that people have interpreted as evidence for deliberate burial. The problem, for almost all of them, is either that they were excavated long ago (meaning close to 100 years ago) with methods that were not as rigorous as today's, or by amateurs, and again there is a lack of documentation. When we recently re-excavated one such site, Roc de Marsal, we found that there was little evidence that definitely pointed to any kind of ritual burial -- the skeleton was deposited in a natural pit (not a freshly dug grave), there was nothing that could be interepreted as grave goods associated with the skeleton, and because the skull itself spanned two archaeological layers, it suggests that it was not even completely covered. Now, that's one site, but it is important to take a fresh look at some of the other claims to see if they hold up to further scrutiny. One argument that is often used is the completeness of the skeleton (the argument being that they could only be complete if they were buried). But there are many purely paleontological sites that also have articulated skeletons, showing that such a criterion is not definite proof.

Michael Balter: A team recently claimed that Neandertals might have made cave art in Spain dated to at least 41,000 years ago, but other researchers are withholding judgement.

Comment From David Valentine
Neanderthals in the Iberian Penisula appear to be gathering the wing feathers of birds of prey. Would you recognise this as symbolic behaviour?

John Speth: HI David, The Neanderthal feathers are really interesting. There's other data emerging now showing similar patterns. For example work recently published by Eugene Morin and others and at Fumane Cave in Italy (I'm sorry I don't have full refs at hand). Yes, I think it is symbolic although I have no idea what the symbolism might be. I do wonder why one gets cutmarks at points of feather attachment. Although I haven't plucked all that many chickens in my life, I don't think you'd find any cutmarks when I finished. But that to me doesn't rule out the possibility that birds were being used in some symbolic context. But why not cannibalism? Who eats conspecifics for dinner? In the modern (ethnohistoric) world it is one of the most highly charged symbolic acts we can think of, including communion. Conspecifics are skinny, and dangerous as a regular food source and worse yet as a starvation food. I can't prove Paleolithic cannibalism was symbolic, but how many out there have even put the idea on the table?

Michael Balter: Neandertals and modern humans shared a common ancestor that probably lived in Africa about 500,000 years ago. But Neandertals evolved from hominins that moved in Europe and Asia, while modern humans from those that stayed in Africa--at least according to the thinking of most researchers.

Comment From Kristen Grace
I recently read a hypothesis that the reason modern Homo Sapiens survived and developed as opposed to other tribes, such as the Neanderthal, was pure luck (timing, location, weather etc.) and not mere ability and intelligence. What are your thoughts on this?

Harold L. Dibble: When we try to explain what happened in evolution -- whether we looking at human evolution or evolution in any species -- the argument comes down to showing how a new set of traits had some adaptive significance -- that is, allowed the new species to continue and perhaps fill different niches. There are evolutionary changes that take palce more or less randomly, but it is unlikely that luck or random events could explain something like the spread of modern H. sapiens across the entire globe. So, the problem is to isolate what characteristics of modern H. sapiens allowed for this. The simple answer is we don't yet know, but the major hypotheses out there by and large count on language and symbolism, that in turn allowed them to build larger social networks. My own opinion is that it probably was not a technological advance that was responsible for it.

Comment From Diwiyana
What is the extent of the Neanderthals' range? I know they lived in Spain, and some were found in European Russia. How far east have they been found?

John Speth: Hi Diwiyana, Neanderthals per se, based on skeletal materials and presumed associations with certain types of Middle Paleolithic stone tools, extended from Western Europe certainly into Central Asia. How far beyond that right now hinges much more on genetic data, which is not my forte, but based on recent finds and genetic studies at the site of Denisova in Siberia, there were "archaic" (a term as slippery as "modern") humans more or less contemporary with Neanderthals but who apparently represent a different (or several different) populations.

Comment From Huma Shah
Do you think one day, when most humans are enhanced, we will be asking 'How human were unenhanced humans?

John Speth: Hi Huma, Fun question. I wish we had a geneticist online as well. Work by John Haws, Henry Harpending and many others suggests that the rate of evolution has increased substantially in the last 20,000 years. Evolution is NOT over. Reasons behind this stem from massive population growth, incredible changes in habitats, incredible expansion of diet and techniques of food processing. Along with that comes lots of new diseases. Are we enhanced....? Who knows....

Comment From Fulco Scherjon
Is it possible to comment on likely colonization speed comparing Neandertals to modern humans (who are capable of very quickly covering large territories)?

Harold L. Dibble: Most people today would argue that Neandertals evolved from an earlier ancesor that had left Africa some hundreds of thousands of years ealier. In fact, Neandertals as a group did not have that large a range -- from Western Europe through to parts of Central Asia. Modern humans, on the contrary, spread throughout the world in just over 100,000 years.

Michael Balter: Okay, we're out of time, and did the best we could to answer as many questions as possible. Thanks to everyone for tuning in! But be sure to tune in next Thursday, when we will have a live chat about science and the upcoming election.

Writer: Michael Balter How Human Were Neandertals?

Thanks for dropping by! If you like what you see, follow me on Google Friend Connect or Twitter, friend me on Facebook, check out my publications at Academia, or connect on Linkedin. You can also subscribe to receive new posts by email or RSS [scroll to the top and look on the left]. And please don't forget. Oh, and you can always put me on your blogroll! By the way, I get a small commission for anything you purchase from if you go there by clicking through from this site. 

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Working at Working

I'm afraid I'll be here less frequently than in recent weeks and months, at least until I can find a new job. If you missed it, the position I've occupied for 8-plus years will be done away with at the end of the year. So, I've got my work cut out for me--find work. I still have a job, so I must work 5 days a week. And in what 'spare' time I have I'll be spending most of it *shudder* writing cover letters, tailoring résumés and generally sucking my thumb in the dumb hope that I'll get lucky. If you need to get in touch with me for any reason--for example, you want to hire me--you can leave a comment on this blurt or you can look me up on Facebook and leave a note.

Thanks for dropping by! If you like what you see, follow me on Google Friend Connect or Twitter, friend me on Facebook, check out my publications at Academia, or connect on Linkedin. You can also subscribe to receive new posts by email or RSS [scroll to the top and look on the left]. And please don't forget. Oh, and you can always put me on your blogroll! By the way, I get a small commission for anything you purchase from if you go there by clicking through from this site. 

Monday 22 October 2012

Your Weekend Digest: Whether You LIke It Or Not

I gotta say. I had a strenuous weekend, as evinced, I hope, by the following.
First posted on Saturday, and now minutely updated.
The Subversive Archaeologist's Plaint: 'Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me'
Then a flurry on Sunday, beginning with this first crack at an answer to a very big question with wide-reaching implications.
The Iceman Cameth and Wenteth Away: Explaining How Neanderthals Survived the Ice Age Without the Ability to Make Clothing
And this, which, I've been informed, resembles other stories from the decades since WWII that have turned out to be gigantic get-rich-quick schemes that then fizzled out. Just the same, a boy can dream. Can't he?
This Is Way Too Cool to Pass Up: More than 100 Supermarine Spitfires to be exhumed in Myanmar!
Then, this. Can you imagine if this holds up? Uninterrupted varve deposits going back more than 50 millennia! Preserved organic material, like pine needles, with which to calibrate the 14C curve back to the limit of the technique. Truly this could be a landmark in Late Pleistocene archaeology.
Jeebuz, This is Big: Calendrically Correlated 14C Record Back to 53,000 B.P.
Have fun!

Thanks for dropping by! If you like what you see, follow me on Google Friend Connect or Twitter, friend me on Facebook, check out my publications at Academia, or connect on Linkedin. You can also subscribe to receive new posts by email or RSS [scroll to the top and look on the left]. And please don't forget. Oh, and you can always put me on your blogroll! By the way, I get a small commission for anything you purchase from if you go there by clicking through from this site. 

[Updated] The Subversive Archaeologist's Plaint: 'Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me'

Some of you may have seen a comment from Maju informing me that I'm a bigot because I happen to think that the Neanderthals aren't our cognitive equals. Maju unsubscribed from this blog because he believes I'm biased against Neanderthals, whom he considers to be among his forbears. What Maju has failed to realize is that I've got lots of reasons to think the way I do about the Neanderthals, based on my 'reading' of the archaeological record. And, rather than making fun of the Neanderthals, I'm much more likely to mock the authors of the extraordinary claims that have been made for their cognitive capabilities.

With Maju's gripe in mind, you might well be wondering if there's any evidence that could make me change my mind about the possibility of the Neanderthals being the cognitive equals of modern humans. You might be surprised to learn that the answer is 'Yes.' But I won't 'believe' just any evidence. In fact, it's my singular purpose to expose bad inference-making for what it is, as you know. I won't accept 'any' evidence if it's wholesale rubbish, untestable imagineering, or just one of two or more possible inferences that could be made from the observations--that's Rule #1.

I do think that Neanderthals were clever bipedal apes, as are we. And, of course I think their genome must have been doing something right to have enabled them to persist as a recognizable morphospecies for so long. We have abundant evidence for that. But when it comes to the notion of what stands as 'evidence' for their cognitive abilities, I think the discipline could use a bit of remediation.

All claims to have 'evidence' of something need to be examined for their veracity. I'll give you a contemporary example: Mitt Romney says 'such and such' in a presidential debate. You may be inclined to believe him, or not. But how you go about assessing the veracity of his statement? In the empirical and epistemological world the answer to that isn't the personage (their electability or ability to drink beer with the good old boys), and it's not about your political stance. Checking a candidate's veracity is about seeing if an argument measures up to a close, empirical examination of the premises behind the statement and the logic of the links between the premises and the conclusion. In political discourse [as opposed to archaeological science--most of the time] it's common for two sides to have wildly different interpretations of the 'facts' in question--this is known colloquially as 'spin.' It's the spin that needs to be examined, in and of itself. However, if it's the case that the polar conclusions are the result of equifinality, and it's logically impossible to choose between them, in politics it's not a problem. That's because, from the point of view of the voters, the political arena can countenance two interpretations that are equally well supported (I suppose). It's okay in a political arena because one of the interpretations will no doubt suit even the most discerning voter if there's no way to distinguish unequivocally between them. [I'm not sure that's the case where Governor Romney is concerned, but that's another question--one for the American electorate to decide.]

It's not okay for two competing explanations of the archaeological record to be treated in the same manner as in the example above. For me, the question of which inference to accept isn't about politics. We're not voting on an issue, we're presumably heading for a more realistic understanding of what came to pass millennia ago. And thus, where there are competing explanations it's illogical and unscientific to choose bipedal apes over nature as the explanation for the archaeological observations. After all, we're talking about determining whether or not the Neanderthals were our cognitive equals (whatever that might mean), and in most cases it means deciding on whether or not to accept what's claimed as evidence to be the very first occurrence of a given behaviour in the history of bipedal apes--one that can be equated with modern human capabilities. To my mind that makes it even more important--crucial, if you must know--to resist accepting one favored 'interpretation'--one 'claim of evidence'--when others are equally (and I mean equally) likely.

I, for one, know how easy it is to get caught up in a belief based on just one possibility when there are other, more parsimonious, interpretations. However, since I began to write as the Subversive Archaeologist I think I've managed to 'expose' as equivocal [at a minimum] a goodly number of well-established and widely accepted claims for 'evidence' of modern behaviour amongst the Neanderthals: hafting, mastic making, eagle-talon beading, featherbedding, insecticidal mattress-making, and so on. Before SA came along, the discipline had incorporated those claims into their 'modeling' of 'hominin' cognitive evolution. Don't ask me whether or not I'm prepared to change my view. What are they prepared to do with their models now that they've been shown there's a whiff of ambiguity about those claims for hafting, mastic making, feathered capes, eagle talon jewellery, and so on, and so on? Are they prepared to unhinge their overall view of the Neanderthals from what they've now come to know are equivocal arguments, and reassess their long-held beliefs? I doubt it.

You might think that my view of the Neanderthals should have changed in light of recent work. Indeed it has! My view of Neanderthals as clever apes--and not the cognitive equals of modern humans--has been reinforced and strengthened of late, simply because of the fantastic nature of most of the recent claims, and their utter failure to overcome the buggaboo of equifinality. Note that, here, I'm including the recent genetic findings of Svante Pääbo and others, which I find incapable of escaping from the noose of ambiguity as to when interbreeding may have occurred between the Neanderthal and the skeletally modern lineages, and whether or not we were like us at the time.

Do I think my view of the Neanderthals might ever change? Yes, although my hunch is that it won't need to. But before I change my mind the discipline will have to be much better disciplined when it comes to making claims based on equivocal 'evidence,' or worse, no evidence at all [and here I'm thinking about Paul Pettitt's extended thesis on the evolution of what he calls mortuary practices, or J. L. Arsuaga's claim that the Atapuerca bipedal apes were flinging their dead down a natural well].

In that case, you may well ask what it would take to convince me that Neanderthals were the cognitive equals of people like you and me. Easy. It would take just one Neanderthal skeleton, unequivocally buried, with a string of eagle talon beads around its neck, a hafted knife or spear unequivocally associated with it [preferably gripped in its paw], a treatise on the rationale for the Levallois so-called technique, a wedding ring made with gold from northeastern Africa [preferably around its ring finger first phalanx], a bundle of black feathers flung over its back, wearingf a black feathered cape over a well-tailored wooly mammoth skin jerkin and matching loincloth, a Betty Crocker cook-book in one hand and a box of matches in the other. I think you get my point.

Getting back to the reason Maju unsubscribed, which was my response to Nathan Wales's 'Modeling Neanderthal Clothing Using Ethnographic Analogues.'* I believe the paper falls short of making a convincing argument, even though it's convincing within the context of the data sets that it considers. However, it seems to me that it's premised on the notion that Neanderthal behaviour and modern human behaviour are commensurable--i.e. that one can be understood in terms of the other--that modern analogues can be used to model any bipedal ape's behaviour other than that of modern humans. I believe that this approach is philosophically flawed. Because of how I view the 'evidence' I happen to believe the two species are incommensurable. But it matters very little what I think.

However, until and unless there is clear, unequivocal evidence that the two species' behaviours are commensurable, the discipline ought to proceed with a fair bit more caution. Alas! Regardless of what I think, Wales and many others believe that our behaviours and those of the Neanderthals are commensurable, because of their common belief in a long list of equivocal claims for all sorts of modern human behaviours that have been unjustifiably imputed to the Neanderthals over the years, beginning with purposeful burial [and you know what I think about that]. To conduct oneself as do Wales and others serves no one, least of all the discipline of archaeology, and it certainly doesn't suit me. As long as I'm able, within reason, and within empirical and epistemological bounds, to posit natural causes or alternative interpretations of what others claim to be evidence of Neanderthal cognitive abilities, I'll not go along with the rest of the discipline. And, as long as my alternatives can be upheld, the rest of them cannot imperiously claim to 'own' the correct interpretation.

[Update 20121022.1200 UTC: It occurs to me that we might begin by using ethological analogy when examining the movements of the Neanderthals. Then, at least, if anomalies begin to appear in comparison with other species in the top carnivore guild, we can investigate those for their bearing on the question of cognitive abilities in Homo neanderthalensis.]
Although direct evidence for Neanderthal clothing is essentially nonexistent, information about Paleolithic clothing could provide insights into the biological, technological, and behavioral capabilities of Neanderthals. This paper takes a new approach to understanding Neanderthal clothing through the collection and analysis of clothing data for 245 recent hunter-gatherer groups. These data are tested against environmental factors to infer what clothing humans tend to wear under different conditions. Beta regression is used to predict the proportion of the body covered by clothing according to a location's mean temperature of the coldest month, average wind speed, and annual rainfall. In addition, logistic regression equations predict clothing use on specific parts of the body. Neanderthal clothing patterns are modeled across Europe and over a range of Pleistocene environmental conditions, thereby providing a new appreciation of Paleolithic behavioral variability. After accounting for higher tolerances to cold temperatures, it is predicted that some Neanderthals would have covered up to 80% of their bodies during the winter, probably with non-tailored clothing. It is also likely that some populations covered the hands and feet. In comparison with Neanderthals, Upper Paleolithic modern humans are found to have worn more sophisticated clothing. Importantly, these predictions shed new light on the relationship between Neanderthal extinction and their simple clothing.

Thanks for dropping by! If you like what you see, follow me on Google Friend Connect or Twitter, friend me on Facebook, check out my publications at Academia, or connect on Linkedin. You can also subscribe to receive new posts by email or RSS [scroll to the top and look on the left]. And please don't forget. Oh, and you can always put me on your blogroll! By the way, I get a small commission for anything you purchase from if you go there by clicking through from this site. 

Sunday 21 October 2012

Jeebuz, This is Big: Calendrically Correlated 14C Record Back to 53,000 B.P.

I've said this a few times, I know. But this CHANGES EVERYTHING!
From PastHorizons comes word of just published research from Japan where a mountain lake has a sedimentary record that records individual years going back 53,000 years. It's been counted and correlated with over 800 14C dates on embedded organic material.
     I know I'm not a physicist. But surely this is an eminently reproduceable outcome, and will stand or fall on its own merits. What a gold mine!

Thanks for dropping by! If you like what you see, follow me on Google Friend Connect or Twitter, friend me on Facebook, check out my publications at Academia, or connect on Linkedin. You can also subscribe to receive new posts by email or RSS [scroll to the top and look on the left]. And please don't forget. Oh, and you can always put me on your blogroll! By the way, I get a small commission for anything you purchase from if you go there by clicking through from this site. 

This Is Way Too Cool to Pass Up: More than 100 Supermarine Spitfires to be exhumed in Myanmar!

Legendary. That's the Supermarine Spitfire. Some say it won the Battle of Britain. Awesome speed and maneuverability. Only a very few left in working condition. Worth millions. But if David J. Cundall, British airplane buff, is lucky enough, he'll be in a position to put up to 140 Spitfires back in the air. has the whole story.

Completely kewl.

Thanks for dropping by! If you like what you see, follow me on Google Friend Connect or Twitter, friend me on Facebook, check out my publications at Academia, or connect on Linkedin. You can also subscribe to receive new posts by email or RSS [scroll to the top and look on the left]. And please don't forget. Oh, and you can always put me on your blogroll! By the way, I get a small commission for anything you purchase from if you go there by clicking through from this site. 

The Iceman Cameth and Wenteth Away: Explaining How Neanderthals Survived the Ice Age Without the Ability to Make Clothing

[I finally figured out why the SA gets so few 'crank calls' in the comments section. Easy. It's because the SA is the crank call!]
All this talk about Neanderthals and clothing has convinced me that I need to shimmy out onto my limb again. The question is: 'How did the Neanderthals survive the deepest cold of the Pleistocene if, as Gargett maintains, they couldn't have tied their own shoelaces?'  My answer--the 'scenario' that I paint in this blurt. It's a work in progress. It's not intended as a definitive argument. It's a starting point--one that, for me, offers a plausible connection between a number of data points that has heretofore been overlooked. What I have to say is a concept in need of serious consideration [even if I do say so myself]. When I'm done I hope you'll be persuaded that a bunch of lines of evidence all come together to comprise a plausible, parsimonious explanation for how the Neanderthals survived the icy cold of the Pleistocene's last glacial stages.
     I begin by laying out a number of well-warranted premises, which, while seemingly unrelated, allow me to make a couple of hypotheses to explain the phenomenon of an unclothed Neanderthal.
Premise 1.
Although the whale's living space is never below freezing, it is still deadly cold for most mammals. Whales (and many other marine mammals) survive long periods in cold water because they have evolved to express deep layers of subcutaneous fat. The ability to lay on the fat appears to be a mammalian trait that is differentially distributed, apparently, according to habitat.

Premise 2. By analogy to whales, fat (and hair) are in all likelihood what enabled wooly mammoths to survive in Pleistocene Europe. Oh, and a hell of a lot of scrubby vegetation.
Premise 3.
Humans have a propensity to deposit fat when and where possible, and are quite variably hirsute, with ever-growing head hair in most cases. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that our close fossil relations were at least equally well endowed, and there's no reason to think that they couldn't have developed thick enough pelage to keep their skin from freezing.
Premise 4.
Bergman's rule postulates that a species will develop larger varieties as the climate cools, and the people of the far north, for all their clothing, are volumetrically large and given to putting on fat.

Premise 5.
Given two cylinders of more or less the same diameter, the one with the thickest walls will withstand greater forces directed along the long axis.

Premise 6.
Holding load a constant, weight-bearing surfaces with more surface area will lessen the pressure on any given point, reducing friction and thereby surface attrition, prolonging useful life.
Hypothesis 1
Even if the Neanderthals were able to make clothing we'd expect them to be volumetrically larger than contemporary Middle Pleistocene bipedal apes that lived in more temperate regions. Even without the ability to wrap themselves up against the cold, with enough fat and hair, like the wooly mammoth, they might have needed no other protection.
I think this hypothesis will be borne out by the discussions below. However, the strong likelihood is that the Neanderthals were far more massive than their skeletally modern contemporaries.
Hypothesis 2
Holding location constant we should expect to see volumetrically larger populations when the climate is colder and less volumetrically large populations when the climate is warmer. In other words, it's possible to retrodict the distribution of the Neanderthals in relation to fluctuations in global temperatures during the Pleistocene.
On the Late Pleistocene/Holocene oxygen-isotope curve from Vostok below I've superimposed the most likely ages for the Kebara Cave Neanderthals (blue line) and the most likely range for the skeletally modern bipedal apes from Qafzeh Cave (orange 'ladder'). The two sites are approximately 60 km apart and would have been in almost identical climatic circumstances at any time in the past.
The modern skeletal form, which had evolved separately in Africa, was inhabiting the extreme southwest of Asia (now Israel) at between 90 ka and 100 ka. The Qafzeh Mousterians were living at a time in the last glacial cycle when temperatures were depressed anywhere from 2° to about 5.5° C. At that time the Neanderthals would have been further to the north, west, and east, hanging out wherever the wooly mammoths hung out during the coldest times. Then, as the final glacial stage set in, and temperatures were depressed by as much as 9° C the Neanderthal niche extended further south. As you can see, the volumetrically larger Kebara Neanderthals were living back in what is today Israel at the climatic nadir of the late glacial period. By that time the skeletally modern form had retreated back into Africa where some time later, in a moment of blazing glory, they miraculously became us.
     In light of recent genomic studies I think it's necessary to pause for a moment to comment on the question of interbreeding between the Neanderthals and modern humans. I believe it's sensible to postulate that between ca. 100 ka and 60 ka the two populations would have formed a demic 'front,' presumably to the north of Qafzeh Cave, where the two morphospecies would have had the chance to interbreed. This seems to me the most parsimonious explanation for the presence of Neanderthal genes in the modern human genome. And it needn't involve people like you and me having anything to do with those shockingly uncouth Neanderthal people from the wrong side of the tracks.
Hypothesis 3. Enough fat and hair to enable the Neanderthals to endure peri-glacial conditions would have been extraordinarily heavy. Thus, you'd expect to see greater weight-bearing capability reflected in the skeleton. In that vein, if Neanderthals were considerably heavier than modern humans, we should expect to see evidence of it in the weight-bearing parts of the skeleton--i.e. pelvic architecture and size; femoral and tibial diaphyseal architecture and size; synovial surface area of acetabulum, femur, tibia, and tarsals; overall tarsal architecture and size.
Let's begin with a well-known example of the Neanderthal's weight-bearing capability. It involves simple mechanics, which anyone who's studied osteology will already know. The illustration at left depicts three cylinders that comprise identical amounts of material and are the same length. A force directed along the length of such cylinders creates the circumstances for bending and buckling. Of the three, the bottom cylinder is the one that best withstands bending and buckling. The Neanderthal's femoral cross section, seen below on the left, is a dead ringer for the cartoon cylinder at the bottom, which is capable of withstanding the greater weight. Clearly the Neanderthals could bear much more weight without bending or buckling than the modern skeletal form.
     It's axiomatic that the Neanderthal condition represents a much more expensive tissue solution for their lower limbs than that evinced by the modern human femur. Why so? I believe the answer lies in an examination of the rest of the load-bearing skeleton.
     The bulk of the mass in a bipedal ape lies in the upper body. So, you'd expect the pelvis to demonstrate evidence of evolution to support greatly increased upper-body mass. [I'm so lucky that all the hard metrics and other comparative anatomy has been done for me. All I have to do is put the pieces together.]
Here you see a comparison, from above, of the size and morphology of the Neanderthal pelvis from Kebara Cave with that of a modern human. The pelvis on the left is longer from front to back. The os pubis is elongated relative to the modern form. Much has been said about the possible implications of this elongation for reproduction. However, an elongated pubis would have accommodated expanded adductor muscles. This would have bolstered the hip joint against the propensity to 'do the splits' by increased upper-body mass. Furthermore, an elongated pubis, combined with a much expanded ilium would have distributed the upper-body mass over a larger area. Taking all these features into account, it's clear that the Neanderthal pelvis would have supported considerably more upper-body mass than the modern human pelvis.
     Now let's look at the acetabulum and the head of the femur--where, as it were, the rubber hits the road in terms of bearing the mass of the upper body. As you might have guessed, the two structures are significantly larger than those of modern humans. A hip joint with a larger radius would mean a hip joint which could spread the load over over a greater area, allowing the individual to carry much greater upper-body mass.
Source: Flickr

I've already dealt with the femoral shaft. What about the knee? As you can clearly see from the illustration below, the Neanderthal patellar surface is far greater media-laterally relative to the antero-posterior length than the modern human morphology. This would have enabled the Neanderthals to distribute the load more broadly while still maintaining the joint motion required for bipedal locomotion. The other end of the tibia articulates with the talus, the most cephalic of the foot bones.
Above, the Neanderthal (source); below, modern human (source).
As you can easily see in the illustration below, the Neanderthal foot (on the left) is much larger, and wider, with the metatarsals oriented more laterally than the modern human. Thus, not only is the larger Neanderthal foot capable of handling absolutely greater loads than the modern human, it's footprint also spreads the load relatively more from side to side than that of the modern human, which would mean less pressure overall on the soles of the tootsies.
Neanderthal on the left and modern human on the right (after Figure 10. 'Locomotor anatomy and biomechanics of the Dmanisi hominids,' Herman Pontzer, Campbell Rolian, G. Philip Rightmire, Tea Jashashvili, Marcia S. Ponce de León, David Lordkipanidze, Christoph P.E. Zollikofer. Journal of Human Evolution 58: 492–504, 2010.
I realize that this is just a sketch of a line of reasoning, and requires much assiduous attention to detail, metrics, and so on. I welcome your suggestions or brickbats, as I attempt to flesh out my thesis. I know that I'd like to possess every measurement of every fragment of the Neanderthal anatomy from the limbo-sacral joint to the baby toe bone. I'd like to know just exactly how much fat it would have taken to insulate a Neanderthal from the cold, and how thick and how long a coat of hair needs to be to keep the skin from freezing. These data can all, I believe, be acquired. I want to know just how much more weight the bottom half of a Neanderthal could have carried. There's a lot to be done. If I could just retire I'd have time to follow through with this line of enquiry AND maintain this blog. As it stands, I can't do both. And I would rather spend nights after work and weekends not doing dishes and laundry to keep the Subversive Archaeologist going than abandon it.
     So, regardless of the paucity of 'real' data in what I've presented here, I think you'll agree that mine is as perfectly plausible and parsimonious an explanation of how the Neanderthals survived the Pleistocene as anyone else's. Moreover, my explanation doesn't require that the Neanderthals had anything like modern human cognitive abilities. I believe that this explanation has been right under our noses for some time. However, the universal faith that the Neanderthals adapted to their environment culturally rather than physically has dulled our perceptions to the alternative--that, like any other creature in Earth's history, the Neanderthals were still evolving, primarily, physically in response to their environment. I think we may actually be getting closer to knowing when hominids became human.

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Thursday 18 October 2012

You Must Be Bleeping Joking! JHE: "Modeling Neanderthal Clothing Using Ethnographic Analogues"?

O. M. G. !!!!!!!!!!
R. O. L. M. F. A. O. !!!!!!!!!!!!
Available online today!

Journal of Human Evolution
'Modeling Neanderthal clothing using ethnographic analogues,' Nathan Wales.

In the first place, when I saw the title announced I expected to see a parade of plough pullers on a catwalk. But I gave my head a shake the minute I clicked on the link. It was JHE. I knew it was the kind of modelling that always makes me nervous, whether or not there's a stick of a justification for doing it at all.
     Jeebuz. And to think I was getting a little depressed because it's been a while since anything really worth biting on came over the transom. Well. This is it! This is the jackpot! delicious. I could take this apart on soooooooo many levels. But I'll spare you, just for now.
     My first response is to shower JHE with expletives. I always new those guys were Very Serious Scientists. But I had no idea. This paper takes archaeological science completely out of the ground, pumps it up with hot air, let's it go, and whaddayaknow, it floats. Okay. Okay. I know. I shouldn't be so hard on them. After all, they clearly have no inkling of the degrees of separation between the theoretical space in which Nathan Wales exists and any theoretical framework that resides in reality. Did I imagine it? Did I not live through a time in archaeological thought when [archaeologists actually thought] Middle Range Theory, philosophy of science, and reality coincided on a sensible approach to inference making? Diane. Help !@&*
     At best this is a 'thinking' paper. A 'what if' scenario. You might even call it a momentary lapse of sanity. At worst, it's a thinly veiled attempt on the part of JHE's referees to publish anything that aims to reify yet another category of presumed Neanderthal behaviour--in this case, making clothing. There is not a shred of evidence. Not a shred. [heh, heh. Just realized I made a bad pun.] There's less than a fragment. There's not just an emperor without any clothes. There's no damned Emperor!
     Analogy. *catches his breath* Analogical reasoning depends for its veracity on the linkages between the object under examination and the objects being used as the source of hypotheses as to how things might have been. Show. Me. The. Linkages.
     No. Wait. I've just found the linkages. Wales isn't suggesting that the Neanderthals made clothes, he's arguing that the traditional societies supplying the ethnographic analogues are, in fact, modern Neanderthals. Else, why could he use them against which to compare the 'modelled' Neanderthal fashions. It's inherently racist. It's obscene [even if you ignore the vapid referees]. Show me where I'm exaggerating!
     Indeed, the corollary implicit in Wales's paper compels me to ask, why should anyone accept the premise that modern humans are anything like the Neanderthals? 'If they build it Neanderthals will come,' is the best answer I can come up with. I'm beginning to think that the weight of the so called-evidence supporting a modernized view of the Neanderthal cognitive abilities is so damned heavy that there's no getting out from under it. I might as well fold up the tent and steal away into the night.

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Wednesday 17 October 2012

Go, NADs!

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Monday 15 October 2012

Oldowan [from Melka] Kunture is Not a Star Wars Character

A couple of weeks ago I clicked through to Erin Wayman's Smithsonian blog, Hominid Hunting. The post I was curious about is part of a series called 'Becoming Human' and the article in question was 'The Origin of Stone Tools.' I was struck by the graphic accompaniment to Erin's article, reproduced here, and especially the caption from Erin's blog, which is given verbatim below it.
'Oldowan choppers are among the oldest-known type of stone tools. Image: Didier Descouens/Wikicomons'
The image depicts a chipped stone artifact from Melka Kunture, in Ethiopia. Its age and the conventions of African archaeology demand that it be referred to as an Oldowan tool, after Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the famous pair of Mary Leakey and Louis B. Leakey toiled for many decades. The artifacts pictured above could be as old as 1.7 Ma. However, artifacts just like these have been securely dated to 2.6 Ma elsewhere in Ethiopia, at Kada Gona.
     The caption reads 'Oldowan "choppers".' 'Chopper' is one of the names that Louis Leakey gave to these early artifacts, and so, it would seem, has everyone else since the 1950s. The trouble is...where's the evidence that this object was the desired end product such that it represents a distinct 'type'? The evidence, I'd say, existed only in the mind of L. S. B. Leakey, himself. And the trouble with that? Well, many, many archaeologists have used and continue to use Leakey's classification and, implicitly, it's underlying lines of reasoning. And, after a time, use becomes convention, convention becomes unexamined 'truth,' and pretty soon it's 2012 and the whole world thinks these objects are the typological equivalent of arrowheads--in other words the desired end product. Damage to the discipline? You betcha! Retaining such labels is counterproductive--it serves only to perpetuate and further solidify the reification that what you see in the illustration are truly the desired end products in the minds of the creatures that made them.
     So, Gargett, if they're not choppers [or picks, or discoids] what are they? It's not rocket science. I have to give the crafty bipedal apes credit for coming up with the 'idea' of banging one rock against another to remove a sharp edged fragment. Surely this was a stunning accomplishment for mammaldom. But really, aside from the energy required to remove said fragment, there's nothing unique about such an act in the wide world of animals. We all remember that a species of Galapagos finch snaps off cactus needles to use as probes to extract insects from their hiding places. How far apart are the two behaviors? In fact I'd say they were pretty much identical, and probably used about the same cognitive structures, one being the avian version and the other, the ape. Both behaviours are reductive--one species bangs a rock against another rock to remove a piece to use to cut something; the other snaps off a twig to use as a probe. Both use the portion removed to effect their purpose, not the thing that remains after the removal. We wouldn't dream of looking at the cactus, seeing that it's missing a needle, and give it a special name that implies that it was the end product 'desired' by the finch. Why then should we conceive of the rock, lighter by one shard, as being conceptually different than the cactus? The only answer to that, as far as I can see, is that there is no good reason other than the misguided mindset of numerous archaeologists over the past century or so.
     Having said that, do I still need to explain why the artifact shown above isn't what Leakey said it was? Oh, all right, in the view on the upper left, the 'chopper' has a relatively straight break margin. Thinking that this artifact was the end product, and your purpose is to ascribe a function to it, you might interpret such a shape in terms of a technology that you know modern humans have used for tens of thousands of years, and continue to use to this day. You're going to think that the object looks [very roughly] like an axe or a meat chopper.
     In a similar vein, the view on the upper right shows the artifact having a bit of a point. Using the same level of imagination that made the first view into a chopper, the one on the upper right resembles a pick more than an axe. And thus, the artifact could just as well have been classified as an Oldowan 'pick.'
     But why should we think that such artifacts were the intended end product? Isn't it much more likely that the flakes struck off were the 'desired end product,' and the remainder just the 'core?' At least if we adopt a stance like this we won't be privileging one set of behaviours over another. A number of archaeologists working today accept the essential 'core'-ness of Oldowan artifacts. However, many of them believe that we can conserve these anachronistic classifications because they allow us to quickly characterize an assemblage. My credulity is strained to the limit by such arguments. To what end? What, I ask, is the point of knowing how many lumps of rock were discarded after one, two, three, or more flake removals?
     I'll admit, it's easy to pick on the Oldowan artifact classification and see it for what it is. It's straightforward [as I see it]. Unfortunately, as I've stated before, the question of what was really the intention of the rock-knocker becomes crucial to the archaeological narrative as we get closer in time to the present. As you've seen before on the Subversive Archaeologist, it's this notion of the finished artifact fallacy that's at the heart of my critique of the so-called Levallois technique in the Mousterian [and, of course, the critiques of Iain Davidson and Bill Noble].
     I'll save another examination of the Levallois technique for another time. I hope you had a fine weekend. Back to work tomorrow!

[This article has been updated to remove text referring to the illustration as three different Oldowan artifacts. It's not. A tip o' the hat to the ever-perspicacious Marco Langbroek for breaking the news to me in one of his comments.]

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