Monday 8 October 2012

Shedding New Light on the Schöningen Spears

Check out the stratification on the profiles behind the besotted archaeologist. Nightmare alley.
I've been waiting for ever to look into what I've always suspected was an archaeological myth--the claim that bipedal apes were fashioning javelin sized wooden spears at about 400,000 years ago at Schöningen, a lignite open pit mine in Germany. It's an old story (1995), and in all they've found eight such spears. The original announcement was in Nature.
'Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany,' Hartmut Thieme. Nature 385:807-810, 1997.
The artifacts are indeed suitable for throwing or piercing, and some have longitudinal grooves near the tip that might have held sharp stones. This would indeed be an astonishing accomplishment for Homo heidelbergensis or antecessor. Alas! There's something rotten in Schöningen.
     The archaeological traces at Schöningen are said to be Middle Pleistocene. However, their method of dating is biostratigraphy. Indeed, many of the mammal species associated with the spears had their origin in the Middle Pleistocene. However, all survived well into the period of modern human presence in Europe.
     Arvicola terrestris is extant.
     The Merck's rhinoceros (Stephanorhinus kirchbergensis) survived until at least about 25 kyr ago, according to the following paper.
‘The Pleistocene easternmost distribution in Eurasia of the species associated with the Eemian Palaeoloxodon antiquus assemblage,’ Diana Pushkina. Mammal Review 37:224–245, 2007. 
     The youngest age for Elephas antiquus is 37,440 (+350, 310) BP (GrA-25815), as reported in the following.
‘The presence and extinction of Elephas antiquus Falconer and Cautley, 1847, in Europe,’ Dick Mol, John de Vos, and Johannes van der Plicht. Quaternary International 169–170:149–153, 2007.
So, while it's possible that the spears are as old as the Schöningen crowd say they are, it's also possible that they are a lot later--as late as 37,400 BP. With no way to gain a more accurate date for these deposits, why should we privilege the older estimate?
     Update 20121008.0400 UTC: In his comment below Marco Langbroek asks 'How do you explain the full interglacial character of the deposits (from sedimentology as well as pollen) if they are (according to you) late Weichsel?' Simple. All of these finds are said to be included in fluvial/lacustrine or fluvial deposits. My answer to Marco is as follows. If the spears and other artifacts are from the Weichselian, the sediments in which they occur would have been eroded from older sediments. If so, the pollen record goes from straightforwardly interpretable to intractably mixed in less time than it takes to say 'Fail!'

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  1. Nick Conard announced some more spears from the same site this northern summer. Have not seen a publication, but there might be something online.

  2. @ Rob:

    How do you explain the full interglacial character of the deposits (from sedimentology as well as pollen) if they are (according to you) late Weichsel?

    @Iain: I think that press release referred to the already known spears. The wording was confusing, I initially also thought they had new spears.

  3. They should just be directly AMS dated and you'd know whether they fall in that younger span. Easily done with a few tens of mg of material each.

  4. Thanks @Marco. In truth I did not read the press release very carefully, knowing that anything I would want to know would have to appear in a publication. It did not occur to me that it might already have appeared.

  5. @Marco: These sediments are in fluvial channels. If Weichselian, would they not have been eroded from older, fluvial sediments? If so, the circumstances go from easy to interpret to intractable in the blink of an eye. @Spawn: Alas. The absence of 14C is due to the ubiquity of old carbon in the form of the lignite that's been mined in the area for a good long time. Without meaning to be glib [or to show my naïvete] the scintillation counter would need to be clairvoyant to make sense of any samples you might care to subject to AMS.
    @Iain. Maybe one day you'll be able to jettison your argument that spears are a subtractive process, like chipping stone, and etc.

  6. @Iain: I should have said something snide about Nick Conard and a pattern of finding extraordinarily early dates for modern human behaviours. Hmmm. Not that Schöningen was his to begin with. But, what a coincidence!

  7. @Rob. 1) I can't see that we would detect hominins throwing unwittled branches to try to kill an animal. 2) No need to be snide. I think the really interesting question resides here. It all depends on your theoretical assumptions. (I think @Marco's recent paper in QI addresses this--but I have only just downloaded it.) Do we think that all hominins after the original Homo were going to evolve to have similar cognitive abilities? Does this make them really the same species as the multiregionalists would have had it? Or is there a limited design space for the behaviours that hominins of different abilities might have had such that there is so much equifinality that we cannot work out the differences (like the bifaces that occur in the Acheulean from different times and places and those from the completely unconnected in time and place Australia.) Could go on, but won't.

  8. @Iain. Re 1) Unquestionably. Re 2) Q 1: I wouldn't have thought so. Re 2) Q 2: I doubt it. Re 2) Q 3: By 'design space,' do mean something like a live and work loft in a gentrified old industrial area in Sydney? Or, are you talking about space in the brain? Or, space in certain parts of the brain? Or, are you speaking about a phenomenon of cognition that could be caricatured by one of those dialog balloons in the funny pages? Don't answer. Just know that not everyone, not even me, can know what you're thinking all the time. ;-)

  9. WRT your last sentence "if I am thinking..."
    Design space is about the range of possible options within a given technology. So, if you are going to knap from big flakes as "cores" the platform angles will be acute and there are only a couple of outcomes possible. The one that gets us excited is when hominins maintain angles and end up maximising the number of flakes removed. I bet that almost always that results in something we call a "handaxe". I am less sure what happened when they did not maintain that acute edge. We probably call them amorphous cores. Rarely will they end up asymmetrical such that we would call them Levallois cores. So, if you want a pointy something to stick into an animal, I wonder how many ways you can make such a tool.

  10. @Rob: There's old and new carbon everywhere; if that was an intractable problem in all times and places there would be no tree-ring 14C dates to build the calibration curves. For these objects you'd process the wood down to alpha-cellulose, which is basically chemically inert, and date that. It is possible that there's no cellulose left, it could all be lignin, for example. But that's easy enough to find out before you date the material. Maybe no one has tried to date it because of "lignite contamination" but if no one has demonstrated it then it's a open question.

  11. @Spawn. Thanks. I don't mean tree-ring dating old, I mean Jurassic old. But that's just math. I'm just guessing, mind you, but I don't think they'd be depending on biostratigraphic correlations if they could instead use 14C. 'Course, I could be wrong. But I'll be surprised if, at the end of the day, we hear any different.

  12. To beat a dead horse: dead carbon is dead carbon no matter how old it is. If you add dead carbon that's 200 million years old to a sample it's no different that adding dead carbon that's 70,000 years old. They are both infinitely old; the same quantity of either will give you the same amount of an age offset (i.e., contamination).

    It's possible that no one wanted to do destructive analysis, or somebody got spooked by old carbon (some people don't want to date Holocene marine shells because of similar boogeymen), or it was "obvious" that these were much older than radiocarbon could date, so it wasn't done.

  13. @Spawn: thanks for beating. I suggest you write to Nick Conard and offer to do the dating for them!

  14. Have these never been subjected to radiocarbon dating?

  15. Hi, Anonymous. As far as I know they have not. Although one hopes that some day they are directly dated. I'm not enough of a physicist to know how their burial in lignite could influence the results. But it would be sweet if it were possible. Thanks for popping in.


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