Monday 8 October 2012

The Subversive Archaeologist: Anniversary Finger in the Dike* Edition

"The Hero of Haarlem" from Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland, by Mary Mapes Dodge (1865)
I sometimes feel as if I've spent much of the past year pissing into the wind, both because of what I'd call the 'squall' of fantastical archaeological literature that I've seen and the multiplicity of smaller 'whirlwinds' spawned by a slavishly credulous media. Extending the weather metaphor a bit further, the amount of precipitation has been, from my measly perspective, 'way above normal.' Because of it, the river of mythopoeic archaeological scholarship is rising in its channel and threatening to spill over its banks and obliterate the lowland archaeological purgatory on which I'm resigned to live. To carry this metaphor to it's logical extreme, I would see myself very much like the little Dutch Boy who, upon finding a small breach in the dike, inserted his finger and started calling for help. He saved the community from certain destruction. That, alas, is where his story and mine diverge. So far, I haven't saved anyone. But I hope I can say that I've managed, at least, to stem the flow for you and the other readers of the Subversive Archaeologist, to give you time to get to higher ground. And happily, you've heard my calls for succour, and spread the word of warning throughout the land.
the theatre begins to fill with shouts of "Narcissist!" and "Egomaniac!" followed by "Wanker!" and "Self-Serving Wretch!" and "Vainglorious Megalomaniac!"*
[This whole medieval, questy, metaphorey thingy clearly gets old fast, so I'm gonna end it here and now!] 

     *clears voice*

     One of the readers of this blurt will be the 66,000 and somethingth someone ever to have arrived at the Subversive Archaeologist to receive enlightenment. I think that's rather respectable for 52 weeks. [Course, I have nuttin' to compare it to, so feel free to take my self-flattering rhetoric with a grain of salt.] At last count, since February 7, 2012 it had registered above 24,000 unique cookies [or whatever it is these gizmos register]. I can't claim that every one of those unique visitors arrived here lured by the promise of archaeological gospel. So, I'd knock off about 10,000 for the people who parachuted in to see what Gary Larson or Sid the Sloth were up to [before I took those posts down], and another [what's probably an overestimate of] 4,000 for people searching for well-known phrases that often pop up in my writing--such as 'a rose by any other name would smell as sweet'--only to find themselves washed up on the shores of a very, very strange land, indeed. That still leaves a respectable 10K. I'm humbled and heartened by your patronage and support, and want to thank each and every one of you [however many of you there are, in actual fact, if you see what I mean].
     It's a new year and I'd like to get a clearer idea of the SA's reach. So, I've zeroed the Unique Visitor odometer as of October 5, 2012. We'll see how many of you there really are.
     I'd like to offer a special shout out to PLOS one for giving me some of the best of the worst material to work with. You'll see, in this first year's annotated medley of scholarly epic fails that follows--i.e. those toward which I've bent my wroth over the past year--that PLOS one is by far the greatest source of questionable scholarship in the bunch. Between them, Science and PLOS one provided the bear's share. Hands down co-winners!

I begin with an heart-felt acknowledgement. This blog was born because I caught wind of the following publication... for which I have nothing but praise.

 'The Roc de Marsal Neandertal child: A reassessment of its status as a deliberate burial,'Dennis M. Sandgathe, Harold L. Dibble, Paul Goldberg, and Shannon P. McPherron. Journal of Human Evolution, 61:243–253, 2011.
Perhaps the word 'reassessment' in the title should be replaced by 'refutation,' because that's what the article amounts to. I was buoyed by these findings because they bore out my own dusty arguments. At the same time I was dismayed, because my work has been relegated to the archaeological equivalent of limbo, and after 20+ years on the margins I was in no state to consider it a vindication. Now, here it is, a year later. What a long, strange trip it's been!

Very soon after the Subversive Archaeologist was born, the world was startled to hear the latest from Blombos Cave, where it appears a group of incredibly precocious bipeds were sytematically processing ochre, apparently to use as paint...
‘A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa,’ Christopher S. Henshilwood, Francesco d’Errico, Karen L. van Niekerk, Yvan Coquinot, Zenobia Jacobs, Stein-Erik Lauritzen, Michel Menu, and Renata García-Moreno. Science 334(6053): 219-222, 2011.
From the beginning I was vocal about my ambivalence toward this and similar extraordinarily early dates for modern human behaviour. I believe, and have good reason to, that the dating of this and other southern African cave sites is off by tens of thousands of years.
     The bizarre claims began popping up early on, as well. The first was this one...
‘Systematic blade production at late Lower Paleolithic (400–200 kyr) Qesem Cave, Israel,’ Ron Shimelmitz, Ran Barkai, and Avi Gopher. Journal of Human Evolution 61:458–479, 2011. 
How many times do I need to remind people that there's a difference between an elongated flake, generically called a blade, and the kind of blade production that one sees in the modern human past? There's a world of difference, and although Shimelmitz, et al. prefer to look at the Qesem assemblage as representing a blade 'industry,' they've shown merely that wishful thinking, like flattery, will get you nowhere.
     Nothing new here, either...
‘Pre-Clovis Mastodon Hunting 13,800 Years Ago at the Manis Site, Washington,’ Michael R. Waters, Thomas W. Stafford Jr., H. Gregory McDonald, Carl Gustafson, Morten Rasmussen, Enrico Cappellini, Jesper V. Olsen, Damian Szklarczyk, Lars Juhl Jensen, M. Thomas P. Gilbert, and Eske Willerslev. Science 334(6054):351-353, 2011.
Gary Haynes graciously dipped his pen into the internet's swirling waters for the SA's first guest blog. His view accords with mine: this wouldn't be the first time that naturally occurring animal bone found its way into a context that 'could' be interpreted as the result of human activity, and that's treated as the only possible explanation. In this case, it's just as wrong-headed as all the rest. Gary's personal experiences surrounding this 'find' are an indication of just how 'objective' our science can be.
     Whenever I see a title with the word 'model' in it, I'm immediately suspicious...
‘Modeling Human Ecodynamics and Biocultural Interactions in the Late Pleistocene of Western Eurasia,’ C. Michael Barton, Julien Riel-Salvatore, John M. Anderies, and Gabriel Popescu. Human Ecology 39: 705-725, 2011.
This one purports to have found evidence that the Neanderthals were so much more 'in tune' with their environment that they bred themselves out of existence by exploiting their periphery so intensively that they bumped into the invading modern humans too often in small groups, and before you could say 'Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir,' the Neanderthals were screwed [literally, and figuratively]. I like saving my favorite epithets for work of this stature. Horse Hockey!
     Some palaeoanthropologists are so enamoured of the Mousterian bipeds that they think every new assemblage is a different manifestation of a distinct culture [whatever that may mean to them] ...
‘The Nubian Complex of Dhofar, Oman: An African Middle Stone Age Industry in Southern Arabia,’ Jeffrey I. Rose, Vitaly I. Usik, Anthony E. Marks, Yamandu H. Hilbert, Christopher S. Galletti, Ash Parton, Jean Marie Geiling, Viktor Černý, Mike W. Morley, and Richard G. Roberts. PLoS ONE 6(11):e28239.
The authors' follow a very African practice and call their assemblage an example of what's called the Nubian Complex. Lo and behold, after all the prestidigitation, instead of the first foray of Nubian Complex bipedal apes out of Africa the authors have found *yawn* yet another example of the Mousterian toolkit, which we already knew extended from the Iberian Peninsula to about the Aral Sea and from about the Cape of Good Hope to Germany and for a long time before the time it popped up in Arabia.
     So, on to to even bigger intellectual leaps...
‘Middle Stone Age Bedding Construction and Settlement Patterns at Sibudu, South Africa,’ Lyn Wadley, Christine Sievers, Marion Bamford, Paul Goldberg, Francesco Berna, Christopher Miller. Science 334(6061):1388-1391, 2011.
Oh, boy. You may remember that I produced much in the way of evidence to counter the numerous claims contained in this paper. Insecticidal mattresses? Puhleaze. 
     When I saw this next one, I thought the archaeology fairy had just laid a huge bounty on me...

‘Mammoths used as food and building resources by Neanderthals: Zooarchaeological study applied to layer 4, Molodova I (Ukraine),’ Laëtitia Demay, Stéphane Péan, and Marylène Patou-Mathis. Quaternary International online, 26 November 2011.
A complete disregard for the sedimentary context, the behaviour of elephants and their relatives in and around seasonal pans, and not, I'm afraid, Mousterian bipedal apes, led the authors to make these widely accepted claims. You just can't tell a big enough story and not have it slavishly pounced on by the Mousterians 'R' Us crowd.
     This next paper just seemed like easy pickings. Who cares if I know this much about the neolithic of Europe? I did, however, take an senior undergraduate survey of that place and those times from Ruth Tringham some time in the late twentieth century--so, at least I've heard of these phenomena!
‘Ancient lipids reveal continuity in culinary practices across the transition to agriculture in Northern Europe,’ Oliver E. Craig, Val J. Steele, Anders Fischer, Sönke Hartz, Søren H. Andersen, Paul Donohoe, Aikaterini Glykou, Hayley Saul, D. Martin Jones, Eva Koch, and Carl P. Heron. PNAS 108:17910–17915, 2011.
I merely pointed out that the authors had made much of some spotty archaeological traces, and probably left out some more mundane explanations.
     Then someone played right into my hand...
‘Why Levallois? A Morphometric Comparison of Experimental ‘Preferential’ Levallois Flakes versus Debitage Flakes,’ Metin I. Eren and Stephen J. Lycett. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29273.
Notwithstanding all the wonderful replicative lithic technology undertaken by the likes of François Bordes and Don Crabtree [and everyone since], the fact remains that just being able to do something in the present doesn't mean that it was what took place in the past. When applied to lithic assemblages the utility of uniformitarian principles ends with the way that stone fractures--everything else is up to the individual's ingenuity, persistence, and patience, and may be thought about in ways that earlier bipedal apes were incapable of achieving.
     This one caught me flat-footed...
‘Hafted armatures and multi-component tool design at the Micoquian site of Inden-Altdorf, Germany,’ Alfred F. Pawlik, and Jürgen P. Thissen. Journal of Archaeological Science 38:1699–1708, 2011.
Imagine it. Neanderthals were dry distilling birch bark to produce a mastic to use in preparing composite tools. No matter that the process wasn't successfully achieved again until the Mesolithic. In the end it was the sloppy chemical characterizations that deep-sixed this one.
     At first I thought these authors were being disingenuous by not reporting the observations that would have allowed one such as I to make a reasoned assessment of the claim. When all was said and done, I think they just don't get it. 
‘Blade production ~500 thousand years ago at Kathu Pan 1, South Africa: support for a multiple origins hypothesis for early Middle Pleistocene blade technologies,’ Jayne Wilkins and Michael Chazan. Journal of Archaeological Science 39:1883-1900, 2012.
I must say that Jayne Wilkins was more than forthcoming when I queried her on the absent information. However, I think I lost her when I started asking questions about that information's implications. I don't think I made any friends that week.
     I asked Iain Davidson to deal with this one...
‘Early seafaring activity in the southern Ionian Islands, Mediterranean Sea,’ George Ferentinos, Maria Gkioni, Maria Geraga, and George Papatheodorou. Journal of Archaeological Science 39:2167–2176, 2012.
Iain is well acquainted with the reasoning having to do with the earliest navigation. He has long held that the colonization of Australia is the earliest securely dated evidence for modern human behaviour anywhere in the world. Needless to say, I think he's right, southern African sites notwithstanding [and you know what I think about those].
     I was reluctant to have a go at this one... it seemed such a naive contribution that I barely had the stomach to go at it.
‘The First Commodity: Handaxes,’ Mimi E. Lam. Paper presented at the 2012 AAAS Annual Meeting (16-20 February 2012), University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada, 7115, 2012.
In fact, the only reason I bothered to address Ms. Lam's thesis head on is because this was a paper at the annual meeting of an august scholarly society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They publish Science, ferhevvensake! 
     This beauty got all kinds of media attention...
‘Presumed Symbolic Use of Diurnal Raptors by Neanderthals,’ Eugène Morin and Véronique Laroulandie. PLoS ONE 7(3):e32856, 2012.
Talk about clawing your way to the top! A couple of terminal phalanges have microscopic scratches on them and immediately they're evidence of removal for use as mojo-swelling jewellery. Heady stuff. But bigger and better awaits.
     Does the expression 'Fire in the hole' mean anything to you? Apparently Berna et al. think that bipedal apes on the order of 100 Ka were so au fait with fire and its use that they caused incredible buildups of ash and other sediments in Wonderwerk Cave.
'Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa,' Francesco Berna, Paul Goldberg, Liora Kolska Horwitz, James Brink, Sharon Holt, Marion Bamford, and Michael Chazan. PNAS Published online before print April 2, 2012,
Their failure to consider any number of natural processes to explain their findings and their mistaken notion that they'd ruled out spontaneous combustion of bat guano are what brings this paper to its knees.
     This next one brought me face to face with my ignorance, and the cruel reality that there are some empirical findings against which even I can't rail.
'Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus,' Julie Wilson, Ángel Fernández Cortés, Antonio Rosas, Karen Hardy, Stephen Buckley, Matthew J. Collins, Almudena Estalrrich, Don Brothwell, Les Copeland, Antonio García-Tabernero, Samuel García-Vargas, Marco de la Rasilla, Carles Lalueza-Fox, Rosa Huguet, Markus Bastir, David Santamaría, and Marco Madella. Naturwissenschaften 99:617–626, 2012.
Still, there was an unexpected bright side to this. Stephen Buckley, the geochemist who performed all of the chemical characterizations, happened to post a comment at Linkedin, where I'd shamelessly left a breadcrumb to lure unsuspecting prey to the red-back spider's web that is the Subversive Archaeologist. He very patiently counselled me on the various compounds and their likely origins, even though I kept trying to tell him he was daft. I was reduced to creating a plausible word picture as a way of finishing off the conversation.
      I had a lot of trouble taking this one seriously, because it seemed so obviously to have been submitted just so that the authors could say that Mousterians 'R' Us.
'Hand to Mouth in a Neandertal: Right-Handedness in Regourdou 1,' Virginie Volpato, Roberto Macchiarelli, Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg, Ivana Fiore, Luca Bondioli, and David W. Frayer. PLoS ONE 7(8): e43949, 2012. 
Notice that the last author is one David Frayer, the vituperator whom I quoted in the Subversive Archaeologist's inaugural. In this gem he and his cadre conjure up an argument that the Neanderthal individual is right handed. But it's only so they can jump from right-handedness to brain lateralization and from there to conclude that this Neanderthal, at least, was just like you and me between the ears. Pish posh, I say.
      There's not much more I can say about the next one that I haven't tried to say already. 
 'The Pace of Cultural Evolution,' Charles Perreault. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45150, 2012.
Perreault's conclusion is that culture, viewed as social learning, brings about faster change than biological evolution. Unfortunately, such a broad brush, while including humans, also includes a large number of animal species, from ants to zebras. With that kind of reasoning, Perreault's conclusion can only be claimed to be accurate for the extant species of bipedal ape, which for my part obviates his entire outing.
     Fiddlesticks! Finlayson et al. have in this next article made a mountain out of a ... mountain. By that I mean, the rock of Gibraltar--a mountain by any definition. [Or is it just a craggy hill? ... Oh, never mind!] Some very tiny scritchy-scratches on a relatively very few skeletal elements and suddenly we're to believe that Neanderthal couture in the one thousand twenty-first century B.C.E. was all about feathers and the colour black. 
'Birds of a Feather: Neanderthal Exploitation of Raptors and Corvids,' Clive Finlayson, Kimberly Brown, Ruth Blasco, Jordi Rosell, Juan José Negro, Gary R. Bortolotti, Geraldine Finlayson, Antonio Sánchez Marco, Francisco Giles Pacheco, Joaquín Rodríguez Vidal, José S. Carrión, Darren A. Fa, and José M. Rodríguez Llanes. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45927, 2012. 
Too crafty, those Neanderthals from Gorham's Cave. Too crafty. Unfortunately, given the predominance of choughs (black-feathered members of the Corvidae) in the faunal assemblage, and a few individual wing elements of some dark-feathered diurnal raptors (including a ... ugh ... vulture) makes it hard for this argument to stay aloft.
     My favorite fallacious argument is made in the recently published final target of the SA's first year. I've settled on the term nothing buttery to best describe a case like this, when only one of any number of equally plausible process is erected as the best explanation.

'Earliest Porotic Hyperostosis on a 1.5-Million-Year-Old Hominin, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania,' Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, Travis Rayne Pickering, Fernando Diez-Martín, Audax Mabulla, Charles Musiba, Gonzalo Trancho, Enrique Baquedano, Henry T. Bunn, Doris Barboni, Manuel Santonja, David Uribelarrea, Gail M. Ashley, María del Sol Martínez-Ávila, Rebeca Barba, Agness Gidna, José Yravedra, and Carmen Arriaza. PLoS ONE 7(10): e46414, 2012.
Needless to say, their conclusion that the cause was a dietary deficiency was transparently a result of the authors' zeal to argue that the bipedal apes in question were obligate carnivores.
     I congratulate PLoS ONE [yes, and Science, too] for providing me and you so much 'pon which to ruminate in the last 52 weeks [or so].
     Last, but most of all, I tip my hat to you, Dear Reader, for following me down this last and all the rest of the Alice-in-Wonderland-style rabbit holes into which we've fallen in our first year together.

[Note: at some point while writing this, my internal censor alerted me to a potential for my more puerile readers to make what would be an embarrassing [for me] misinterpretation of the title. Be advised that the title was never intended to conjure up one of those obscene, extreme-right-wing Christianist efforts at 'healing' homophiles. So, get your mind out of the gutter, abjure your bigoted expletives, and pay attention to what I'm sayin', dammit!]

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