Sunday, 25 November 2012

Can We Talk? 'My ancestors, myself' by Jonathan Marks

Before I get started, please rid yourself of the expectation that I'm going after Jonathan Marks about his recent piece on Aeon, 'My ancestors, myself: Fossil genomics is opening new windows to the past. But the view through them isn't as clear as we like to think.' On the contrary. I fully agree with him...right up, that is, to the part where he characterizes the Neanderthals according to the same orthodox archaeological interpretations with which yours truly has a long-standing dispute. Jon can't be blamed for this. As a consumer of archaeological knowledge, he's more or less at the mercy of conventional wisdom. So, read on, s'il vous plait.

Illustration by Richard Wilkinson
Can we talk?
     A couple of days ago Jonathan Marks gave us much to ponder about our present understanding of Neanderthals, especially the recent genetic comparisons with modern humans. If I might be allowed to compress it into a sound-bite, Jon's* is an eloquent essay on the post-modern anthropological insight that, either when one is studying present-day humans, or our recent and fossil relatives, we need always to keep in mind the cultural 'baggage' that we bring to our investigations. In particular, he hopes to persuade us that biology, alone, is no measure of a fossil species. I couldn't agree more. I like to use the following example as a means of illustrating what's meant by this notion of one's 'stance,' 'background,' 'cultural baggage,' or however you want to put it. Ask yourself this question: 
What do you think lurks in the cultural and social background of neuroscientists who seek to find structures in the brains of males and females to 'explain' perceived differences in the behaviour of the sexes? Is it reasonable to suppose that these invesigators must have 'bought into' the idea that, e.g., 'girls' can't do math [but that boys can], or that 'boys' are inherently rambunctious [and girls are sugar and spice], or 'boys' are promiscuous [but 'girls' are chary]? 
I'll admit that unexamined presuppositions like these might not always be the reason for such scientific enquiries, but it would be an odd coincidence if they weren't. Jon Marks constructs his argument along these lines, to remind us that our background and experience will enter, more often than not unnoticed, into our deliberations on the ancestry of Homo sapiens, if we don't at least make an effort to examine our motives and beliefs from the outset.
     Jon makes a great number of very apt observations about the way the Neanderthals are treated in the popular imagination, and in the minds of anthropologists and geneticists. Drawing on recent revelations from genomics--that we share some of the same novel genes with the Neanderthals--he muses on what this might have meant about our relationship with them. Specifically, he asks whether or not the new, modern form of bipedal apes that appeared in Europe around 45 ka would have seen the congeneric Neanderthals as people like them. 
     And it is here that Jon and I diverge. Even though Jon's applying a set of thoroughly anthropological principles to a perennial question, I'm dismayed because his essay presents as 'fact' a picture of the Neanderthals that is, in aggregate, a mélange of what was, what might have been, what never was, and what could never have been. In other words, his 'take' on the Neanderthals may be informed by an unknown number of what one day could well turn out to have been archaeological myths. In that, Jon confidently represents the Neanderthals in a way that undermines his own argument.
     He thus applies a culturally constructed 'skin' on the anatomical and biological Neanderthal that draws on the orthodoxy of interpretation, without acknowledging that the 'skin' comprises what are at best provisional findings as to how they behaved and what they were capable of in comparison to modern humans. [I realize that my own 'take' on the Neanderthal archaeological record isn't mainstream, and most of my peers would dismiss my quarrel with the mainstream as unreasonable. Nevertheless, I have a legitimate dispute with archaeological orthodoxy, and thus my alternative interpretation of record leads me to be cautious, at a minimum, regarding the stories told about the inhabitants of Europe before the time of modern humans.] Jon introduces his Neanderthals in this way
Their bones show lots of evidence of healed fractures; their teeth are worn as if they were being used as tools; and their muscular development was strikingly asymmetrical. Whatever they did, it was rigorous, it was cultural and it was humane (at least, they took care of friends with broken arms better than chimpanzees do). They often buried their dead, but never sent any grave goods along with the deceased for the journey. They didn’t build anything, or at least anything lasting or recognisable. If they decorated themselves, or had any aesthetic sensibility at all, it was rudimentary at best. 
Jon is unequivocal in his conviction that the Neanderthals were 'cultural' and 'humane.' But how does he make such claims with such certainty?
Shanidar 1 Neanderthal humeri. Individual suffered a crushing
blow to the left temporal, probably leading to blindness and
abnormal development of the right side (shown at left). 
The distal fracture is healed. Researchers conclude that the individual
must have been nursed to have survived such injuries. (Souce: Smithsonian)

Sandhill crane humerus. Individual rescued after months of
flightlessness. X-ray shows a healed, overlapping fracture.
(Source: Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota)
In support of this he first mentions healed fractures. These tell him the stricken Neanderthal's friends and relatives must have taken care of him for a time after the injury. Jon's referring to the Shanidar 1 remains. This disappoints me, because, quite unreflexively, he is accepting, carte blanche, a thoroughly ethnocentric interpretation of the skeletal evidence--i.e. that to survive such injuries, this individual must have been nursed by relatives and companions. Dettwyler, in the early 90s, pointed out to us that, ethnographically there is a great deal of variability in the way the injured are treated, such that the conventional wisdom about Shanidar 1 is, at best, a sufficient, but not necessary explanation.   
     Besides, there are plenty of examples from the non-human world demonstrating that, even in the absence of palliative care, animals are capable of recovering from injuries that most of us would assume to have been mortal [just as those of Shanidar 1], either immediately, or over time because of reduced mobility and ability to acquire nourishment. You might have thought that a bird with a broken wing would surely perish. Not so. The X-ray at left illustrates a healing fracture of a bird's humerus. It belongs to a Sandhill crane. They inhabit wetlands, and are stealthy hunters. But their natural history includes plenty of flying about. The X-rayed crane apparently survived for months before the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota rescued it. Presumably it could have survived for many more. So, you see [I might be wagging my finger a bit just now], consumers of archaeological findings must be very careful--those inferences might simply be in error.   
     As for teeth worn from using them as tools, there is broad morphological similarity between the dental attrition visible in Neanderthals and many ethnographic human groups. However, no one, as far as I know, is able, unequivocally, to argue that the two are the result of identical processes.
     I think you can probably guess the eventual outcome of these comments on Jon's essay. But don't stop here! Immediately, Jon brings up another very tenuous claim about Neanderthals--that they buried their dead. [But, don't kid yourself. None of this can be treated as fact,  which you'd know if you've been paying attention. However, if you're coming fresh to this material, I could recommend a one or two articles that might make you think twice about the 'fact' of Neanderthal burial. Hell! It made Harold Dibble think twice, and he and his colleagues eventually found good evidence that in the case of an infant Neanderthal long believed to have been purposefully buried, the evidence is, at best, equivocal. And, some would have it, that in those cases, the argument for purposive, mindful behaviour, is *cough* gravely weakened.] I find it odd that he states they built nothing that lasted. Although I have to agree, the absence of such evidence is, you'll forgive me, not evidence of absence. They could have been building log cabins, for heaven's sake, which leave no post holes, and which surely would have decomposed over the millenia. Moreover, a number of archaeologists have treated their findings as evidence of structures--the mammoth bones at Moldova, for example, or the imprint of wood in travertine in the Abric Romani rock shelter. I find Jon's assertion here to be curious, to say the least. So be it.
     Next, he turns to a discussion of how present-day humans [that would be you and me] might have viewed the earliest moderns in Europe, as a way of illustrating his thesis that our cultural baggage gets in the way of a more inclusive 'take' on the Neanderthals. He suggests that those modern humans 
also led rigorous lives almost unimaginably different from your own. For most of their existence, they lived without writing or the wheel, without crops or tame animals, without metal, matches, or even fish-hooks. If you were transported into their world, you wouldn’t last five minutes without them to help and teach you. We have to realise that they were in fact not much like us at all. 
True enough. They may not have been very much like us. But neither are New Guinea highlanders. His point here is that regardless of the specifics of the difference, whether one is talking about Neanderthals or the first moderns in Europe, present-day humans like you and I would have experienced them both as exotic. However, this comparison cannot hold up against the archaeological record, nor that of the ethnographic. In contrast to the traces Neanderthals have left behind [for upwards of 250 kyr], throughout Europe and Asia from about 45 ka modern humans left behind an archaeological record that is readily recognizable to us. That record includes behaviours that in some cases persisted into the twentieth century in many parts of the world [and in remote places continues to this day]. Not so the Neanderthals.
     That same archaeological record shows us that the modern skeletal form of Homo, which emerged briefly from Africa nearly 100 ka, conducted itself in an identical manner to that of their Neanderthal contemporaries--i.e. unlike anything that modern humans have been capable of producing since about 45 ka. Compared to them, we would undoubtedly have recognized as human the first people like us in Europe, and in much the same way we have viewed ethnographic peoples--who're often very different from westerners. I don't think the same can be said for the Neanderthals without straining credulity. And so, when Jon writes 
there is no reason to think that people 100,000 years ago would have seen you and thought, ‘Hey, there goes another one of us forehead-and-chin guys’. More likely, they would have regarded you as at least as alien as a Neanderthal, based on the criteria we generally use for such assessments: what you’re wearing, how you’re groomed, whether you can communicate sensibly and can behave properly [emphasis mine]. 
Quite simply, there's no unequivocal evidence that either the modern form at 100 kyr ago, or the Neanderthals throughout almost 250 kyr ever 'thought' at all. Thinking, you see, may be unique to the modern humans that spread throughout the old world in the blink of an eye around 45 ka. Our experience of the world, beyond the instinctual, is little else but thought. On present understanding, we simply can't assume that those relations at 100 ka were capable of communicating 'sensibly' or behaving 'properly.' 
     Jon worries that our view of the Neanderthals is based purely on the physical differences between us. But, as I hope I've convinced you, physical differences are not the only yardstick that we use to classify or characterize the similarities and differences between the two. He is correct when he says
we tend to use cultural criteria to sort who belongs where. Do you really associate only with people whose head shapes resemble yours? Of course not; you associate with people who tend to speak like you, dress like you, and share your general interests. 
And, if I might add, people that look like you. Once again, we're being asked to accept the inference that Neanderthals spoke, dressed, and had anything like 'general interests.' They may well have not.
     Here is where Jon paints himself into a corner. He's trying to tell us that the way we see the Neanderthals is coloured by our preceptions, much in the way a bigot is disposed to treat another group as inferior or worse. Yet, he's asking us to accept that the Neanderthals are human, and for that reason we should be more reflexive and cut them some slack. As he puts it
we make sense of the Neanderthals by seeing them in distinctively cultural ways. We imagine that, because we scientists juxtapose ourselves against them anatomically, people in the Late Pleistocene must have done the same, although that goes against what we know of modern human behavior. 
As I've tried to point out in this blurt, in his acceptance of mainstream inferences about the Neanderthals, Jon is also 'seeing them in distinctly cultural ways,' equally unexamined, but different from those he's arguing against. His view of Neanderthals is every bit as culturally constructed as that of those he seeks to enlighten in this essay. 
     As I said at the outset, I have no quarrel with Jon. I hope it's clear that I've used his essay as a stepping-off point. Sure, I've found what I believe to be flaws in 'My ancestors, myself.' But those flaws simply convince me that Jon is an unwitting victim of what is a collection of archaeological myths of unknown proportions. 
     Well, I hope you've enjoyed this side-trip to the biological anthropological view of the Neanderthals. And I very much thank you for visiting us.
*I sincerely hope that using his given name's diminutive I'm not being presumptuous. He and I have a facebook acquaintance, but we have corresponded within that. So, here's hoping. I just don't feel right referring to him as 'the author,' or 'Marks.'

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  1. The overall appearance of a person could somehow be attributed to the genes and the drug a person intake during his lifetime. With this being said the appearance of a bone can be traced back to what are the chemicals or substances they've drink.

  2. Archeology in my own understanding means the study of human's ancient life, therefore, a bone structure may suggest more on how did a person or a creature live his life. Thanks to this kind of studies we are able to decipher several kinds of human activities way back then, which explains how did the people today became they are right at this moment.


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