Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Clone a Neanderthal?

Wow. I really think push has come to shove. A tip o' the  hat tip to Lauren Davis for pointing us in the direction of Should We Clone Neanderthals?, from an early 2010 online edition of Archaeology (A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America).  
     I'm thankful, for the moment, for all of the technological hurdles laid out in this article. Scientists won't be in a position to clone a Neanderthal in the near future. But, as John Hawkes puts it, someone might try it when it becomes feasible, regardless of any legal, ethical or moral proscriptions against it.
     I want to focus on what will almost certainly transpire in the future: the inevitable discussions about where to draw the line between animal and human. As most of you know by now, I'm not much of a fan of the 'Neanderthals are Us!' school of thought. My take on them is that, face to face with a Neanderthal, most of us wouldn't think they were human. 
     As a species, we've already drawn the line at cloning humans. But we clone sheep and other mammals with relative ease, and without much lost sleep. What about monkeys? What about orangutans, gibbons, chimpanzees, and gorillas? I can't imagine why we'd want to clone these close cousins, unless the survival of that species hung in the balance.
     The extinction of the Neanderthals, while still the subject of opposing viewpoints, may one day come to be widely accepted. We're looking forward to the day that a wooly mammoth is cloned. Why not a cloned Neanderthal? Why not, indeed. Where do we draw the line, and why?
     I don't have an answer. Sorry. I hope I'm not disappointing you. My gut tells me no. Unlike the endangered primate species, about which we might think it appropriate to maintain the lineage artificially, we're not about to 'bring back' the Neanderthals, any more, one would hope, than we would try to establish a wild population of wooly mammoth. So why would we do it? To see if it's possible to have Neanderthal-sapiens babies? I highly doubt it. If I'm correct in my assessment of the humanness of Neanderthals, it would be tantamount to attempting a hybrid chimp or gorilla and human cross. 
A chimera from ancient Greek mythology 
     We all say that that would be 'just wrong.' And we're right to say so. Because, even if it were possible to hybridize humans and chimps or gorillas, think of what that hybrid might turn out to be like. It's hard to imagine that the human genetic input could possibly result in a human that looks like a chimp or gorilla, much less a chimp that thinks like a human. We would be creating a chimera, nothing more. In so doing we'd be doing violence to both the chimp and the human halves of the offspring.
     It's difficult not to see the cloning of a Neanderthal in that same light (unless there really is no cognitive difference between us and them--and the jury's still out). If it turns out that the Neanderthal isn't like us, it still wouldn't be as different from us as a chimp or a gorilla. That much we can ascertain from the minute quantity of DNA that we don't have in common.
     So, we'd have brought into existence a near human, a quasi-human. And we would no doubt be dooming that individual to an existence along the lines of a zoo animal. It's impossible to say how nearly human the cloned Neanderthal would be. But what if a cage or other form of incarceration were necessary, rather than a bow tie and a top hat? Neanderthals were manifestly stronger than modern humans. What if we had to keep it in chains, or sedated, to mitigate the mismatch between our lofty scientific aspirations and the reality of existence for the clone? It would represent, in my view, the height of human arrogance to perpetrate such an act.
     I'll say no to cloning a Neanderthal, in firm opposition to any palaeoanthropologist or other person for whom it is a burning desire to settle the question, once and for all, of whether the Neanderthals 'R Us.
     I'd be very interested to hear what you have to say. Please leave a comment.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Belated Touchstone Thursday With a Wacky Weekend Flavour. Yayyyyy! Finally a story about Peopling the New World!!! Knut Fladmark's 'Routes: Alternate Migration Corridors for Early Man in North America'

I begin with one of those 'Tell me somethin' I didn't know' stories, but I'm blogging it 'cause it opens the door to me bringing a touchstone back into the light, one that I've wanted to showcase before now. First, though, the all-but-unnecessary justification for so doing. [Note: Tongue firmly in cheek for the moment.]

     This just in! Native Americans are genetically related to people on the other side of the Bering Strait. [*catcalls ... shouts of 'No sh@t, Sherlock!'*]
     No, really! History.com has a story about new DNA evidence linking indigenous populations in the Americas to the present-day people of the Altai highlands and mountains in the middle of bloody nowhere Siberia, where China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan converge.
For the geographically challenged, the Bering Strait between Russia and Sarah Palin Land is top right and Scandinavia is top left. The North Pole is dead centre, top. The Altai Republic is coloured red.
 It's difficult to say, at this remove in time, just how the ancestors of the first people to colonize North America knew how to get there from the center of the Asian continent. Quite possibly they had a map. And, speaking of maps. Whilst searching Google images for the location map of the Altai region shown above, I came across further, cultural (as opposed to genetic) proof of the link between the Altaians of today and present-day Native Americans (at least those living in the United States). 
"Map of special gambling areas of Russia" [I swear this is for real! And I know I keep sayin' it. But you just can't make this stuff up!]
As you can clearly see from the cultural evidence shown in the map above, apparently the Palaeolithic emigrants from the Altai region travelled first to the east, then, most likely, north along the Pacific coast to Beringia, following the pachyderms and other steppe micro-, meso-, and mega-fauna and flora that abounded on the exposed circumnorthern-Pacific-Ocean continental shelf that included Beringia (shown below--once again, for the geographically [and in this case Palaeolithic-archaeologically] challenged). Then on down into the Americas, establishing outposts of Altai culture on small patches of country that the Europeans, in their infinite generosity, allowed the ex-pat Altaians to keep after they stole the land out from under them. [Pardon the chronologically imperfect narrative concocted in the interest of a funny story. *Right, Rob. Funny. What. ever.*]
In this map, found at prairiehotrods.pbworks.com, Beringia is top left. [Tongue is herewith parted from cheek.] Commonly referred to as a 'land bridge,' Beringia was in fact continental in scale, and throughout the last glaciation would have been largely un-glaciated--comprising a biome known as a Mammoth Steppe. Note the altogether-glaciated northern North America. Note, too, that the route shown south from Beringia through the heart of the coalescent Cordilleran and Laurentide Ice Sheets is, according to the available science, a load of hooey. The so-called 'ice-free corridor' wasn't ice-free at any time during the Last Glacial Maximum, the time frame in which the movement of people into what's now the Americas would have occurred. [Tongue returned to cheek.] As for the arrow showing movement of people between Sahul and Cape Horn, the best explanation I can come up with is that a small group of Altai emigrants stayed in eastern Russia--perhaps to finish that last roll of quarters--got turned around after too many free drinks, ended up in Australia. and had to hitchhike on  the Kon-Tiki to (finally) reach their destination. It's unclear if they ever met up with those of their group who travelled north to get to America, but it's clear from all those red pyramids on the map that they were from the same cultural background! [At this point in writing this, it was almost necessary to have my tongue surgically removed from my cheek.]
Yay!!! With that as an intro, I get to introduce this week's belated Thursday Touchstone, Knut Fladmark's 'Routes: Alternate Migration Corridors for Early Man in North America.' 
     Buckle up! Total change of tone ahead.
American Antiquity 44:55-69 (1979).
I don't think I'd be exaggerating if I said that the author of this paper was one of the biggest influences on my archaeological thinking. His undergraduate seminar was my introduction to geoarchaeology. He it was who banged into my head the archaeologist's imperative: rule out natural processes before imputing your archaeological discoveries to humans or hominids. I credit him with enabling any empirically defensible geologically related insights that I've ever published. He was, as you might expect, an early supporter of my thinking about Neanderthal burial [and once defended me strenuously at a brown bag lunch I gave on the subject when Brian Hayden tried to discredit my work by--any guesses?--appealing to the authority of the French]. I can't thank Knut enough.
     And archaeologists of North America would do well never to forget his contributions, especially 'Routes.' At the time of its publication there was almost a consensus view that people entered the Americas south of the ice sheets through the so-called ice-free corridor. Knut's paper put the kibosh on that notion, and later received some empirically weighty support with publication of this paper
in which the 'ice-free corridor' was, to my mind, quite forcefully closed, for good.
     'Routes' is what effusive literary critics often refer to as a tour de force. Yet, in Knut's case it's apt. If, and I mean if, people did inhabit the Americas south of the ice sheets prior to deglaciation, they would without doubt have used the ocean route that's plotted for us in 'Routes.' It goes without saying that evidence of the passage is on the continental shelf. Thus, we are left with plausibility arguments such as Fladmark's. I'm willing to live with the ambiguity introduced by the watery limitations on archaeological visibility in this case. How about you?
     Sure, some of the empirical data are out of date by now, and much has been revealed since its publication. [Funny story. Referring to a 1971 book on Quaternary geology that I cited in one of the papers I wrote for him in 1986, he gently chided me by saying that a fifteen-year-old reference 'might as well have been written in the Pleistocene.'] But the scholarship represented in his work, and the sensible nature of its insights, persuaded me to take his proposition on board, and convinced me that it would stand for a good long time. 
     See what you think. If you've never encountered it before, or if you've only encountered it in the form of a citation in a more recent work, give it a good read. Both as an example of a first-class scientific paper, and as a lasting contribution to knowledge of American archaeology, I can't recommend it more highly.
     That's it. I'm out o' here. See you on the flip-flop.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

If It Looks Like It and Smells Like It, There's No Need To Eat It Just To Make Sure

My sincere apologies for the scatological allusion in the title of this post. In the present circumstances, I'm referring to the consequences of going to the trouble of consuming a lump of rock merely to confirm its lithological reality, having first suspected its nature by looking at it, and then by smelling it. I'll state, categorically, that, in choosing this title, I'm NOT referring to the consequences of consuming the ideas about which I am on the precipice of writing. In fact, I'll gladly give you, gentle Reader, the task of deciding which meaning ought to be assigned to the title based on what you're about to read and read about. [D'ya think that'll get me off the 'slander' hook?]
     Moreover, I want to assure the Subversive Archaeologist's readers that I offer this piece as an examination of a classical pitfall of archaeological inference-making: that of 'begging the question,' or petitio principii, which Aristotle tells us is different from circular argument, and which in use here doesn't carry the meaning so often given to it in contemporary speech, in which begging the question is used to link an issue with a consequent question (e.g. The sky is blue, which begs the question, 'How on Earth did it get that way?').
The fallacy of petitio principii, or "begging the question", is committed "when a proposition which requires proof is assumed without proof", or more generally denotes when an assumption is used, "in some form of the very proposition to be proved, as a premise from which to deduce it". Thus, insofar as petitio principii refers to arguing for a conclusion that has already been assumed in the premise, this fallacy consists of "begging" the listener to accept the "question" (proposition) before the labor of logic is undertaken (from Wikipedia).
Forgive me for getting all 'philosophical' before turning to the 'meat' of this post. I'm trying to put what follows in context so as to be inclusive, despite the topical focus of the recently published article in question. Alas, I'll be dealing with, once again, the so-called Levallois technique. [A great virtual rumbling is heard as all of the specialists NOT specializing in the Middle Palaeolithic, lithic technology, or the origins of modern humans stampede from the virtual room.]
     Earlier this week came news of yet another questionable thesis published on PLoS ONE, the motto of which is: 'accelerating the publication of peer-reviewed science.' Methinks there might be a little too-much accelerating going on at PLoS ONE, as so very little in the way of rigorous vetting seems to be getting in the way of rapid publication. [And, just between you and me...I can see the need for some kind of 'rapid' publication outlet in those sciences in which rapidity can mean the difference either between the scientists becoming very rich on the back of a new medical discovery or hi-tech innovation, or losing the chance to cure one more sufferer of malady X. But Archaeology? You're kidding, right? Do these people think that they'll be scooped and thus screwed out of the opportunity to claim bragging rights in the ongoing reification of the Levallois technique?]
     So, hang in there friend, and watch as the Subversive Archaeologist attempts to subvert yet another effort to extend the life of the art form formerly known as the Levallois technique. 
     Not again! 
     I'm afraid so.
     Metin I. Eren and Stephen J. Lycett's 'Why Levallois? A Morphometric Comparison of Experimental ‘Preferential’ Levallois Flakes versus Debitage Flakes' takes us down a rabbit-hole to argue, in a novel fashion, for the veracity of the Levallois concept. If I hear them properly, their study aimed to investigate whether or not the so-called preferential Levallois flakes (PLFs) are indeed the desired end goal of the intensive (and for some  wasteful) activity that's the stock-in-trade of Neanderthals and contemporaneous skeletally modern hominids.
     Getting back to the proposition--that this is an example of begging the question. Remember that, as such, it's a logical fallacy, and thus not to be accepted by reasonable members of the audience. Eren and Lycett propose the following 
...if so-called ‘preferential’ Levallois flakes ... produced on classic ‘tortoise’ cores were genuinely a ‘preferred’ product with common properties uniting them as a coherent entity or ‘category’ of flake, then they should possess a series of particular attributes that identify them as a group more consistently than the debitage flakes produced during their manufacture.
[I won't quibble with their assertion that the final flake should look different than any that came before. That would be pedantic. Clearly there's a difference between the 'preparation' removals and the final removal. Otherwise, how would they have anything to investigate? And besides. This part of their argument is circular, and I wanted to talk about where they're begging the question!]
     So, assuming that the final flake removal is 'preferential' or 'predetermined,' and therefore evidence of its nature as distinct from the other flakes removed in the sequence leading up to the final removal, the authors then replicate a bunch of cores after the fashion of the Levallois technique, punch off a few PLFs, and compare them. Voila! Systematic differences exist! Therefore, the process is indeed one of 'engineering' the final flake by preparing the core for the final flake removal.
     Is it just me? Or, are these authors in fact committing a classic philosophical faux pas--that of assuming without proof a proposition which requires proof? They set out to replicate a bunch of things they think are PLFs and--Lo and behold!--they end up with a whole heap of them. Problem solved!
     'Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out o' my hat!'
     'Not again!'  
     Yep. Again. The authors have simply proven the existence of their own, reified, category--the Levallois technique. When will they learn? And when will PLoS ONE start seriously vetting their submissions? Rapid publication, indeed! More, to my thinking, vapid publication. 
     I'm done here.
     See you next time. Penny in a mug, remember. Thanks!!!!!

Friday, 27 January 2012

Touchstone Thursday: Rob Gargett's And Then There Were None.

Believe me. I had good intentions. But the evening's already growing old, and life has made sure that I'm no closer to a coherent touchstone post than I was three hours ago. Forgive me. 
     So, for this week only...Thursday has been cancelled. I fully expect that next week will have the full compliment of seven days and that you'll forget that this week lacked a Thursday.     
In the meantime, since my 'Donor' button fundraising effort seems to have hit a wall, you could help me out by thinking of some crafty ways for me to find enough money to do research in the Czech Republic this summer!
     And, please don't forget to drop a penny in the mug on your way out. Thanks. You'll prolly be hearing from me tomorrow.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

How To Think About Neanderthals: With Apologies to Tom Wynn and Fred Coolidge

It's come to my attention that there are those in the trade who think Neanderthals could converse in a manner much like that of their contemporaries, the first modern humans in Europe, albeit with certain limitations. In that regard, I draw your attention to this blog by Tom Wynn and Fred Coolidge, published on the launch of their new book, the cover of which can be seen on the left. I number the authors among my friends, even though, wouldn't you know it, we disagree on the matter of Neanderthal cognition. [By the way, Tom, is that a simulacrum of Fred on the cover, 'morphed' to make him look like a Neanderthal?]
     As I understand it, their central message--that Neanderthals could talk--is motivated by what I and others consider some rather shaky suppositions, even though their scholarship and expertise in evolutionary psychology and archaeology are not in question. The first of their suppositions with which I take exception has to do with Broca's area--a lobe of the brain that's widely believed to be involved in our linguistic ability. Neanderthals and modern humans both exhibit a similar expansion of this part of the brain. That leads Tom and Fred to conclude that Neanderthals possess the same neurological substrate for language as that of modern humans. 
     The second supposition with which I take issue is based on the empirical observation that we and the Neanderthals both possess the human FOXP2 gene, which is reputed to be the genetic mechanism for our ability to carry on a conversation like the one I'm having with you right now. The third aspect of their evidence with which I have problems is the idea that the Levallois technique is evidence of a high degree of forethought and skill, which would imply a great deal of cognitive flexibility and scope for intelligent thought. I'll take each in turn.
     Broca's Area: It's always possible that I missed something in my study of evolutionary theory, but I was under the impression that if two demes of a widely distributed population share a heritable trait, it's almost certain that the ancestral population also possessed that trait. The same would be true for different species in the same genus, and so on up the Linnaean hierarchy. If I'm correct in this assessment, all that can be said of Broca's area in relation to Neanderthals and modern humans is that we share a common ancestor who also exhibited the same degree of expansion in that area of the brain. 
     Moreover, while I have no disagreement with the idea that Broca's area is, in modern humans, one seat of language, my understanding of homology is that there's no reason to suspect that Broca's area expanded initially so that it could, one bright, evolutionary day, become that seat of language. In other words, the expansion of Brocas' area, which we must assume was present in the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans, need not have occurred in response to, nor as an adaptation that had anything to do with language. Like the swim bladder of the fishes, which has the same embryological origins as the lungs in humans, Broca's area must have become prominent for reasons other than to prepare for the day that human speech would need that part of the brain for its expression.
     The FOXP2 Gene: The human FOXP2 gene, which we share with the Neanderthals, must also have been carried by the last common ancestor. Like Broca's area, the FOXP2 gene probably didn't arise, sui generis, as the trigger mechanism for whatever it is that allows me to say these things in a way that you're able to understand. Moreover, as I understand it, the human FOXP2 gene is inferred by some to be the fount of language because of observations of present-day modern humans who lack at least one faithful copy of the gene, and who are severely hampered in their ability to speak. Unfortunately for Fred, Tom, and those who'd like to infer from this that the FOXP2 gene is the key to our linguistic ability, in affected individuals, the effect of expressing an unfaithful copy of the gene results in
...severe impairment in the selection and sequencing of fine orofacial movements, which are necessary for articulation (referred to as a developmental verbal dyspraxia; MIM 602081). The disorder is also characterized by deficits in several facets of language processing (such as the ability to break up words into their constituent phonemes) and grammatical skills (including production and comprehension of word inflections and syntactical structure) (Lai et al. 2001) [emphasis added].
The FOXP2 gene thus has a critical role in some of the abilities necessary for language production in modern humans. However, it's broader neurological reach means that it cannot be viewed as the genetic mechanism that makes us linguistic. Rather, the gene's expression underpins a host of cognitive and motor activities, of which only some are related to language.
     As proof, consider this. The cognitive abilities of those with the defective gene imply that, while the FOXP2 holds sway over certain functions necessary to language production, it has peripheral or no effect on others. This leaves me with the impression that there's more to language than the FOXP2 gene, and that the gene has probably played other roles at earlier times in hominid phylogeny. To quote Lai, et al. again

Although the mean non-verbal IQ of affected [persons] is lower than that of unaffected [persons], there are affected individuals ... who have non-verbal ability close to the population average, despite having severe speech and language difficulties; therefore, non-verbal deficits cannot be considered as characteristic of the disorder [emphasis added]
From this I conclude that the relationship between the FOXP2 gene and Neanderthals, and between the FOXP2 gene and language are not, by any means, straightforward. Lai et al. summarize their findings this way
Individuals affected with developmental disorders of speech and language have substantial difficulty acquiring expressive and/or receptive language in the absence of any profound sensory or neurological impairment and despite adequate intelligence and opportunity. … Our findings suggest that FOXP2 is involved in the developmental process that culminates in speech and language [emphasis added].
Thus, it appears as if the Neanderthal and modern human synapomorphy--the FOXP2 gene--is not, on the evidence, the end-all and the be-all mechanism that gave rise to modern human linguistic ability. [Think about it. The affected individuals must still retain a semblance of linguistic ability despite their disability. How else could they understand enough about the intentions of the testers to respond in any meaningful way in test situations in the first place?] 
     The Levallois Technique? The final issue that I want to take up with respect to Tom and Fred's thesis is the idea that Neanderthal cognition must have been fairly sophisticated, given that they worked stone using what's known as the Levallois techniqueSome of you will remember that I have serious doubts about the reality of this so-called technique of flint-knapping, mostly because I suspect that it represents a 'reified' category. 
[Those curious about my stance with respect to the Levallois technique should scroll down this page until they see the 'Search SA and Linked Pages' widget in the sidebar, type in Levallois and press 'Search'.] 
In other words, the technique only exists in the minds of the people who've constructed their reality such that the so-called Levallois flake is the end product of a carefully orchestrated set of numerous decisions and flake removals designed from the outset to knock off a final flake of a given form. I've called the notion of a Levallois 'technique' preposterous, and I stand by my assessment. Unfortunately for Tom and Fred, their impression of the Neanderthals' cognitive abilities are grossly inflated by the phantasm of the Levallois technique. Without a Levallois technique, the Neanderthals, when all is said and done, break rocks into smaller, sharp rocks, and often enough break even smaller pieces off the sharp rocks to keep the edge sharp. Not a lot, I think, on which to base a theory that depends on the enormous cognitive abilities of the Neanderthals.
     I'm certain that those reading How to Think Like a Neandertal will find it fascinating and informative. But as you can imagine, if I were you I'd hold off thinking that this work is the end of the story.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Bittersweet Triumph

TREBLINKA (Photo from BBC.co.uk)

  • During World War II Treblinka was a Nazi death camp near the village of the same name in occupied Poland.
  • During the next 15 months, some 850,000 men, women and children were asphyxiated there, including more than 800,000 Jews and several thousand Romani people.
  • The dual-purpose installation was operated by the SS and Eastern European Trawnikis.
  • Treblinka I was designed for forced-labour... Treblinka II was the murder facility, where more than 99 percent of new arrivals were sent to its gas chambers.
  • Beginning in March 1942, the SS implemented Sonderaktion 1005 to cover up the murder of millions of people during Aktion Reinhard.
  • Their actions were so successful that Holocaust deniers have since used the site as an example of what they claim is  misinformation about the Nazi genocide.
  • Treblinka II ended operations on October 19, 1943 following a revolt by its Sonderkommandos.
I'll admit that this is a rather dour way to introduce an archaeological finding, but it serves to remind us of the gravity that inheres in this story, told in the words of forensic archaeologist Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls, from Staffordshire University at Stoke-on-Trent, in the UK.
Caroline Sturdy Colls photo
Sturdy Colls employed only non-invasive survey techniques out of respect for Jewish traditions surrounding the resting places of the dead--ground-penetrating radar, resistivity and other electric imaging provided the only  observations she needed to reach her conclusions. Those surveys have revealed the existence of what are almost certainly the mass graves of Treblinka's victims, and the buried remains of the gas chambers, which were the only structures on the site made from imperishable materials--in this case brick.
Caroline Sturdy Colls photo
     The photo on the right shows the telltale swale that results when disturbed sediments are piled atop undecomposed organic material and allowed to settle without addition of new fill. And the satellite image below, overlain with Sturdy Colls's findings, paints a picture of the enormity of the crimes and the lengths to which the Nazis went to erase all evidence of their activities at Treblinka.

The Ukranian 'farmhouse' is what the Nazis left behind after they attempted to obliterate evidence of their activities at Treblinka. It was built of the bricks salvaged from the gas chambers (Caroline Sturdy Colls image).

The Holocaust deniers are already about, purveying their insidious lies and innuendos about this new wor documenting Treblinka's history. Only through continued work to expose the truth, including new ways to document the horrors such as those employed by Dr. Sturdy Colls, and the determination of the world's media never to forget will there be an end to the lies that denigrate the sacrifice of those who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis.
     For Sturdy Colls, and for archaeology, this is indeed a bittersweet triumph. Who was it ever said archaeology has no practical application in the lives of contemporary people? 

Monday, 23 January 2012

Starr Carr Re-Emerges, In More Ways Than One

From artdaily.org 
I'm very excited to see that archaeologists recently got a whopping 1.5 million Euro for new work at Starr Carr, a site that I heard about in my first archaeology class, back in 1970. The great British archaeologist Grahame Clark exhumed a massive area of this iconic Mesolithic site back in the 1950s, work continued for a time in the 1980s and since the 00s.
     For me this site has special significance, because from all of the evidence I infer that the people whose traces these are were, to all intents and purposes, the analogue of our own Northwest Coast archaeological cultures. And that, to me, means very complex social and material lives, probably stratified, probably chiefdoms. Permanent structures, large villages, and an abundance and variety of artifact types all go together to make Starr Carr a prime research locality--a stewpot of all the dynamics that I'm certain will help us, eventually, to understand the reality behind that profound about-face that is the transformation from egalitarian foragers to those whose cultural hallmarks are ownership of property, competitive social acitivities, social compartmentalization, and ultimately, socio-economic inequality. And all in immediately post-glacial Northern Europe. 
     Well done!

Sunday, 22 January 2012


So, the rains have come to Surf City, CA. Everyone says 'We need the rain,' at the same time that they sigh, pull their coats a little tighter around them, and trudge out the door brandishing their umbrellas ahead of them. You'd think that someone who spent the first thirty-something years of his life in or near Raincouver, on the ethnographically and culturally rich NorthWET Coast of North America would be immune to the rain, rather than immured by it. But that's the reality. Twenty-odd years in places that get, on average, ten or fewer inches of precipitation a year have evidently made me soft. It sounds crazy, but I'm hibernating. 
     Day turns into night, then night to day, with little to show for the passage of time. I'm badly in need of a recharge. Or oblivion. Even the cheap, good, California white wine holds little attraction at times like these. [That should tell you something!] I'm concerned, if only because both my vocation and my avocation are suffering as a result. Consider the Subversive Archaeologist. At times it's been exhilarating to think that people are reading what I say, after feeling quite the opposite for the preceding twenty or so years. But I have to say that I feel like the proverbial slug when I don't post something wicked or backhanded every day. I try to mollify myself by saying that no one should expect an incisive take-down every day, and least of all on the weekends. But I expect it of myself. I'm under the thumb of a relentless tyrant. Me!
     Even my trusty SA news ticker seems to have caught the malaise. Not a single silly elephant story for weeks now! Only sensible inferences and attitudes from irreproachable archaeologists! Nary a gaffe! And still falls the rain. I feel like I'm in a bad Victorian novel. You know. 'It was a dark and stormy night.' Or 'The heart of starkness.' Something like that. Or maybe 'Frankenstein.' After all, the only reason I can feel this way is because I'm the sum total of all the bits and parts that have come together (or not) to make me the person I now am. [And sometimes I wish I did have someone else's brain!]
     As a child, a bookworm and lover of show tunes and light classical music, few friends. I even played the piano, fer gawd's sake! Then delayed socialization as a teenager. Friends. A very bad garage band. Early drinking experience. Semi-good marks, semi-non-existent interest in things scholastic. Then, while the 60s became the 70s, college. More friends. More fun. I was having a lot of fun for almost the first time in my life. Too much fun, you might say. The result of so much Bridge and too many friends' parties was a seven-year undergraduate degree in English Literature (with an unofficial minor in anthropology), interspersed with an unofficial marriage, and handling baggage on the ramp at Vancouver Int'l. I fell in love with the metaphysical poets. I read poetry in public. Then, a summer as a graduate student at Oxford. Back to Vancouver. Work in a warehouse. A fair bit of drinking. A brief marriage. In the 80s, work in an Agriculture Canada library. Another unofficial marriage. A fair bit more drinking. Then a spark of light [Fiat lux]. A First Class Honors BA in Archaeology, with lots of varied experience, fieldwork in B.C. and central America, co-authored papers and one self-authored that did my academic aspirations very little good. But I'd found where I belonged. I made life-long friends. Then, acceptance with a full ride in the Ph.D. programme at Cal. I was on top of the world. I felt like a tourist in my own life! Fieldwork in France and Israel. Marriage again in the early 90s. Fieldwork in the Czech Republic. A SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship. A Ph.D. Then stop-gap work in California CRM. A child in '95. An academic position at UNE in Armidale, NSW, from '96 to '99. A fair bit more drinking. Left to find greener pastures for my partner. CRM again in California--everything from monitoring and field assistant to lab supervisor and project supervisor. The Sydney Harbour Bridge all lit up to celebrate the millennium. A fair bit more drinking. Then fired from CRM for what barely passed as a 'conflict of interest'--I had succumbed to my friend's entreaties to teach a class at San José State, at night. Then no job. And no inclination to be a scholar gypsy. I feel, unfortunately, too uncomfortable in the classroom that it's not a position I like to put myself in. Not much inclination, at all, really. But I forced myself to teach part-time; the other part of the time a receptionist (!). Crumbling (second) marriage. An entry-level administrative position. More than a fair bit of drinking. 2010 came and went.
     Quite a Frankenstein. No? Still, I have a Ph.d. And they can't take that away from me. Nor have I lost my desire to contribute to the field that (in a very real sense) gave my life meaning. I'm at one and the same time very proud and humbled that I've been given the opportunities that I've enjoyed. I'm not too happy about the rest. And maybe that's why the rain brings with it melancholy and the desire to 'rug-up' and do very little. Maybe it'll wash away the regrets and remorse.
     I think it was Keats who once allowed that when he felt 'vaporish' he liked to take a long bath, and it made him feel better. I only have a shower. I'm heading there right now to test Keats's hypothesis. With any luck there'll be something good on the news ticker tomorrow that'll give me a chance to kick some virtual butt. See you then. 

Friday, 20 January 2012

That's a Relief!

I've been waiting for an excuse to put up a photo of the Stone Age icon. What good's an archaeology blog without at least one shot of Stonehenge to its credit!
I'd long given up hope of anyone ever pinpointing the geographic origin of the gigantic stones erected in the inner circle at Stonehenge. But now, with the aid of sophisticated computer modelling, dogged persistence, and laser-accurate isotopic characterization of rock outcrops across the west of Great Britain, we can all take comfort in the fact that the mystery has been solved! We now KNOW where the rock came from. They've narrowed it down to somewhere within a 230-foot (about a 70.104-m) stretch of rhyolite at Craig Rhos-y-felin near Pont Saeson, Wales. Fantastic! Bloody marvellous! Jolly good show!
     And to give you some idea of how crucial a successful conclusion to the search has long been to the intellectual, spiritual and emotional well-being of many of our colleagues and members of the interested public, I give you this report gleaned from the SA news ticker. These rocky revelations can be found on a web site called Social Anxiety Support
     I'm tellin' ya. You. Can't. Make. This. Stuff. Up!
Genuine screen capture. No fooling!
This is, indeed, millennial news! Think of it. Lives have been spent in the search for the source. Generations of effort squandered. Now those long-since retired or expired researchers and their kin are able to rest, knowing that their quest, while not fulfilled on their watch, has finally been completed. [Moment of silence, please.] 
     Quoted in an article in Sci-Tech Today.com, one of the Principal Investigators had this to say

'Being able to provenance any archaeologically significant rock so precisely is remarkable,' Rob Ixer of Leicester University said.
'However, given continued perseverance, we are determined that we shall uncover the origins of most, if not all of the Stonehenge bluestones so allowing archaeologists to continue their speculations well into a third century.'

At least he hasn't lost his sense of humour after all that XRF-ing (or whatever) and so on!

[Clears throat.] 
I don't want to throw cold water on these phenomenal findings. But I think it needs to be said that researchers are still left with the [one would think] rather insurmountable question of how those rocks ended up on the Salisbury Plain in the first place. And I believe the jury's still out. It's quite possible that they were whittled out of 'glacial erratics' that had been fortuitously deposited in the area as the ice sheets were ablating at the end of the Pleistocene, and not, as so many have speculated, hewn out of the parent rock, rolled on logs down to the sea, rafted across the Bristol Channel on those same logs, and rolled the rest of the way to Salisbury [which actually wasn't there at the time, nor was the A303, which makes me think they would've had a pretty rough go of it]. I'm confident that I'm in no danger of having to cough up the goods when I say, 'A 24-carat golden Marshalltown to the one that solves that riddle!' Baby steps...

Touchstone Thursday: Brian Hayden's The cultural capacities of Neanderthals: a review and re-evaluation*

This Thursday's touchstone is a booby-trap, of sorts. Brian Hayden was a mentor during my undergraduate studies at Simon Fraser University. He employed me as a researcher, as a field assistant, and teaching assistant. He was gracious enough to have included me as co-author on publications dealing with a wide range of theoretical issues: Middle-Palaeolithic tool specialization, Australian Aboriginal site structure, Maya ethnoarchaeology and the development of socio-economic inequality, site-formation processes and lithic raw material variability on the inter-montane plateau of southern central British Columbia
     I'm certain that his recommendation was influential in getting me into the Ph.D. program at Berkeley, and his example as a field archaeologist was crucially important to my maturation with respect to interpreting the archaeological record. 
     But in one area he was always denigrating: he thought I was mad for suggesting that the evidence for Neanderthal burial was reproachable.
     I'm probably flattering myself to think so, but I've long believed that it was the May 1989 publication of my article, 'Grave Shortcomings: The Evidence for Neandertal Burial,' that spurred him to write his paper, 'The cultural capacities of Neanderthals: a review and re-evaluation,' which he submitted for publication in May 1990, which was accepted with revisions in July 1992 and was published in 1993 (Journal of Human Evolution 24:113-146). 

I referred above to this touchstone as being a booby trap. Here's why. Rather than holding the work up as a source of illumination, as I've done in the past, I'm using it as a foyle and a means to bring in a very recent piece of work by the same author. Just today I noted a USAToday report on the news ticker saying that he'd published another apology for the Neanderthals--this time having to do with evidence for their social structure. 

     What's evident to me, and which will become clear to you when you've looked at both, is that the author seems to have an almost praeternatural inclination to defend the Neanderthals' reputation as the equal of modern humans. His tactics, to my eye, are almost quaint, given a good deal of research that he hasn't cited, much less, evidently, encountered (including mine on Middle Palaeolithic burial and cave bear spatial patterning). Odder still is Hayden's long-lived antipathy for detractors of the Neanderthals. In his 1993 article he characterizes them in this way
And in an article just published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, he has something eerily similar to say about this, his least favorite group of scholars
'In sum, various of these authors suggest that for Neandertals there were minimal cognitive abilities; no conception of time; no equivalent of modern speech; no symbolic abilities or even words for tools (therefore no tool typologies and no resulting techno-complexes); minimal or no innovation capacity; an inability to work ‘natural’ materials such as bone or antler; an inability to establish long-distance social relations; minimal social organization; no complex site structure; no ritual frameworks; and a lack of sexually integrated communities (males and females were supposed to have lived in separate groups). These are damning claims with shades of Marcelin Boule’s concepts of Neandertals from a century ago (Fig. 1).' [italics mine]
For emphasis, Hayden includes this illustration as his Figure 1. 
1909 illustration drawing on Marcellin Boule's reconstruction from the skeletal remains of the 'Old Man' of La Chapelle-aux-Saints.
And I'm guessing that by putting up this image we're supposed to be appalled at this representation of his revered Neanderthals, almost, one would think, in the same manner that enlightened anthropologists of the early and mid-twentieth century looked at earlier representations of the putative human races, wherein artists portrayed the darker skinned inhabitants of this world with depraved, simian features, with disgust and contempt.
     I'm, for one, not cowed by Hayden's chivalrous attempt to shame his readers into treating his Neanderthals with the same dignity we would afford to contemporary humans. And his articles have done little [go figure] to disabuse me of my own interpretation of the Middle Palaeolithic archaeological record. The reason is not what you might think.
     Sure, I can fault him because he reasons from his understanding of modern people and interprets the archaeological record of the Neanderthals as if the formal similarity between the patterns he sees in the ethnographic present and those reported from Neanderthal sites must therefore result from the same mental equipment. That's what undermines his entire argument. But my big beef with these two Hayden articles is that he is utterly uncritical of the claims he uses to support those arguments. His evidentiary foundation is entirely of the kind philosophers call 'appeal to authority.' In other words, if it gets into print, he'll use it as evidence. You can probably guess that I'm unlikely to treat any such arguments with much respect.
     I'll give you just one example of what I'm talking about. I've chosen this one, out of a legion of possibilities in the two papers, because I've recently posted on this example of Hayden's 'evidence' to support his inference of Neanderthal group size at Moldova I  in the Ukraine. In the just-published paper on social structure, Hayden recalls the claims of mammoth-bone structures that caused me to LMAO a few weeks ago. 
From Hayden 2012. The lozenge-shaped outlines are Hayden's addition, representing 'sleeping areas.'
Drawing on the ethnographic record, he pencils in some sleeping positions and decides that the 'social group' size would have been between 16 and 20. This he contrasts with claims that Neanderthals rarely, if ever, lived in groups. This and several similar extrapolations are all Hayden thinks he needs to silence the Neanderthal critics.
     You'll remember Hayden's example from my recent post, One Mammoth Steppe Too Far, and the image below, from The Subversive Archaeologist's Dictum.
Moldova I (Ukraine). The site plan illustrates mammoth remains that in all likelihood accumulated when the animals became mired in the predominantly clay site sediments, and were then butchered by the Middle Palaeolithic inhabitants of the region. From Demay, Péan and Patou-Mathis (2011). 
 Hayden's rendering is based on the area labelled 'Circular accumulation of mammoth bones,' and demonstrates his slavish reliance on others' findings, no matter how improbable, as long as it shows the Neanderthals in a good light. Indeed, it's clear to me that Hayden would rather trot out the slightly smelly old chestnuts than confront, head-on, the evidence and the arguments of those he characterizes as the heirs of Marcellin Boule.  
     That's about all I have for the moment, except to say, as would the French in such circumstances: touché, Brian.

[Once again I find myself feeling a bit exclusionary by zeroing in on matters having to do with the Middle Palaeolithic of Europe. It's partly my experience, and, as I've said before, partly because the MP is such a fecund field in which to erect fanciful interpretations and (apparently) never be called on them! I'd be glad for some suggestions for cannon fodder from other times and places. Hint. Hint.]

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

It's a Little Embarrassing, But...

I need help. [Yes, yes. I know! But I'm not talking about that.] What I mean is that I've been asked to return to Pod hradem Cave (Czech Republic) in June and July 2012, to take part in a research project that went into the field for the first time last July
     As some of you know, Pod hradem was the site on which I based my Ph.D. (Gargett 1996), and which I'd never seen until last year. I'm one of only three people alive who've published research based on the 1950s excavations--the other two are the archaeologists that actually did the excavating back then, Karel Valoch and Rudolf Musil. Last year Ladislav Nejman, the Principal Investigator, asked me if I'd like to visit the excavation. Thrilled at the opportunity, I paid my own way and took leave without pay. Lad has asked back because I was able to make a substantive contribution to the project during my visit, and he's keen to have me back. Unfortunately the project budget is severely constrained and may not cover the expense of getting me over there. I still have to pay the rent while I'm away, and the bills that come due once a month. So I can't take leave without pay. I'm left with no choice but to beg!
     You may remember that a few days ago I asked the readership if there were funding sources for those of us 'independent researchers' who don't have an institutional affiliation. One concrete suggestion was to use a PayPal Donate button. So, it is with great humility and some trepidation that I have, this day, placed such a button on the Subversive Archaeologist. It will remain in the uppermost position on the sidebar until such time as I reach my goal of $5000, which would cover my travel expenses and whatever time I would need to take without pay from my employer, or I don't reach my goal and descend into a pit of despair deeper than one of Solecki's soundings at Shanidar [hyperbole mine, rhg].
     I'm as surprised as anyone at the positive response to my very young blog. In that regard I note that today Robert J. (Bob) Muckle says some very nice things about the Subversive Archaeologist in his January contribution to the American Anthropological Association's Anthropology News. Heck. I was happy enough thinking that people were visiting the site. It's even better knowing that many of you like the content that you see put up here, and that you (evidently) keep coming back! So, if you appreciate the material that I publish here, I would very, very much appreciate whatever you could spare to help me get to the Czech Republic again this year. 
     Whether or not you're able to make a contribution, I want to thank you for your continued support of the Subversive Archaeologist. I'll keep coming back as long as you do!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Talking Stock

There is an archaeological connection in this holiday edition late-night post. Read on...

After yesterday's day of remembrance, I'm carrying on with one of my favorite things to do on days when I have nothing else to do but contemplate the (often abominable) ways of the world. I'm making stock. Soup stock. Broth. From the briney bird I cooked yesterday and a dozen or so drumsticks I picked up cheap and [burp] consumed last weekend. 
     Anybody else like making their own chicken stock? It's a lot like archaeology. Honest! Archaeologists use old stuff (like chicken bones and old, rubbery carrots and sprouting onions) to concoct intellectually satisfying theories (sorta like gastronomically satisfying mirepoixes [ya haveta pronounce it meer-uh-pwozzies to rhyme with 'theories'])! [Can you believe how much of a reach that was, and I still couldn't forbear putting it up on SA? We'll pause for a moment while I regain your composure.]

If you do make your own soup stock, you HAVE TO try roasting the bones first, with coarse-chopped onions and carrots, in a moderate oven, for about an hour and a half to two hours, until the three ingredients are nice and brown. Don't let them burn! It'll ruin the experiment right then and there.
     Once you have the stock base out of the oven, proceed as you normally would. This time it'll turn out a rich brown colour and smell wonderfuller than if you started with plain cooked bones.
     Remember, SA says that your stock will be far less cloudy if you never let it boil, but rather let it come to simmer slowly. Don't be in a hurry. Expect to have the pot on the stove for at least 8 hours. Top it up if the water level drops more than about 1 cm. 

I'm certain that Martin would've more than approved.

Monday, 16 January 2012

MLK: Taking Stock

No work today. In the U.S. it's the day to celebrate the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Lower down is a view of the MLK memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. 
'Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope' (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
We lost some great ones in the 60s. Malcolm X. Jack and Bobby. But I think Dr. King's death hit me hardest. [Cheap little white trash hick James Earl Ray thought he'd make a name for himself and stop the movement at the same time.] Meaning no disrespect to John F. Kennedy, I hold that Dr. King's was just the second assassination to have deprived the U.S. of a great leader. Lincoln's was the first. 

So, it's a day for 'taking stock.' I'm reciting the litany of advantages I've been given in this life, and thinking of the ones who haven't been and aren't, even now, so lucky. I'm sure Dr. King would have wanted us to carry on with our usual routine, being mindful all the while that the struggle goes on without him. 

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Well. That's A Relief! I'm Middle-Aged, Not Mentally Addled.

Thank you, Patricia Cohen! Aside from the creaky joints and chronic conditions that attend the downhill side of life that I daily feel, your article reassures me that these are just the pangs and pinches of 'middle age.' Your findings embolden me to say that the SA might survive the decade and beyond, without, I might add, drooling, delivering drivel, or dying. I'm forever thankful. And your conclusions couldn't come at a better time. Sixty is indeed the new forty! Now, can you just convince my 16-year-old daughter that I'm not a doddering old fool?

It's About Time This Loophole Was Closed!

I'm a scientist. I seek to know this universe in its own terms, without recourse to personal or sacred knowledge or supernatural explanations. I observe. I feel the wonder of an unexpected outcome and the satisfaction of a new theory that explains my observations in a way that makes more sense than previous attempts. Nevertheless, I know that I conduct my business in the context of a pluralistic society, even if others don't want to accept that view.
     Unfortunately, 'scientists' have always wanted to assert what you might call their 'objective distance' from the scientific subject, with the result that they've done so in a way that frequently trod on the feelings and beliefs of others. Those who share my love of the past know that for many of the indigenous people of the world an 'archaeologist' is the equivalent of 'grave robber.'
     To say that we scientists have been 'tone deaf' in these matters is an understatement of the lowest order. For decades we ignored the pleas for respect and for a 'hands off' approach to the ancestors of present-day indigenous people. We cloaked our desecration of other peoples' ancestors in what we called 'the interests of science.' And what haven't we done to denigrate others' beliefs about how the dead should be treated, calling them superstition, or worse? Imagine walking up to someone brought up in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and saying to that person, 'Your beliefs about the dead and the afterlife are superstition and therefore we propose to exhume a random sample of your graveyard' for the scientific information it can yield.' You wouldn't dare. And d'you wanna know why? Because they have immense power in this society. Not so, those we colonized.  
    The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) was the first time that the American public officially acknowledged the sanctity of the dead in the worldview of present-day Native Americans. NAGPRA specified how and when the remains gathered in the name of science should be identified and returned to the people who demonstrably shared a continuity of culture with the dead. Sadly, NAGPRA included a loophole. Those remains that didn't share a continuity of culture with present people, or which were very old and thus unlikely to have been ancestral to the present-day descendants of the European invasion, were in a 'gray' area.
     And so it is with great pleasure that today I learned of recent legislation governing those 'gray' remains held in collections across the United States. The Associated Press reports that in 2010 the U.S. Department of the Interior clarified the law regarding what were termed the 'culturally unidentifiable' remains. And now the same institutions that reluctantly repatriated the majority of their collections under NAGPRA are busying themselves with the rest. Protests are heard in the present circumstances, but they're nothing close to the chatter that one had to listen to in the 1980s and 90s over NAGPRA.
     At that time there was much hand-wringing and whining about the 'loss' of the 'scientifically valuable,' 'irreplaceable' collections from Berkeley to Cambridge. All of those voices allowed that, of course, Native Americans had 'lost' their dead due to our depredations, that the remains possessed something other than 'scientific value' for the descendants, and that, certainly the dead are 'irreplaceable' regardless of whose side you're on. But for years those allowances were made while in practice those same scientists were helping to perpetuate the oppression of Native Americans that had been unleashed by Columbus's hapless encounter with a 'New World.'
     I imagine there'll be those among you on both sides of the razor-wire fence in this matter. I don't wish to spark a debate. I welcome your comments. But I will not involve myself in what is essentially a deeply divisive disagreement. I prefer reasoned argument. And I think that Native Americans, First Nations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and others of the world's indigenous people have the trump card in any argument relating to the dead of colonized territories. And I can sum it up this way. 
I know that those dead are not my ancestors. 
As such, I respect what I consider to be the fundamental human right to have the final say in the disposition of one's ancestors' remains (and their mortuary-associated belongings). To do otherwise would be to abrogate my humanity. Make of that what you will.

Cigarettes Cause Cancer

Which is why the Maya apparently chewed it, inhaled it, or...ingested it through the colorectal epithelium. In the news today comes chemical proof that the little ceramic 'poison vessels' or 'pilgrim flasks' that abound in the archaeological record were, at least some of the time, used to store a variety of tobacco that's much more potent than that found in cigarettes and cigars. Says one of the anthropologists consulted for this piece,
"The first thing you experience is vertigo, your head spins, sometimes you break out in a light sweat," Groark said. "As you keep sucking on it and your body continues to metabolize some of these compounds, it promotes a very calm direct focus, a broad awareness. You can feel it lighting up your central nervous system in a pretty profound way."
I don't know about you, but I could use a little profound CNS lighting-up! I remember the first time I used tobacco as a 16-year-old. The only thing that lit up was the ceiling light in my bathroom as the nausea slowly grew to a crescendo!
     Imagine the Surgeon General's warning on Maya-strength tobacco. 

Friday, 13 January 2012

Cultural Sensitivity Training Needed Here!

I can't find a date on this. But as I ripped it from the headlines in the SA news ticker, I'm guessing it's in the last couple o' days. I'm gonna bite my tongue. I think the juxtaposition of the image and the subject matter speaks for itself. Unless, of course, you're the Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, or desperately in need of cultural sensitivity training. The image, by the way, is from a Three Stooges movie parody of The Mummy horror movies of the 1940s and 50s. Nice comment on our beloved discipline. No? Nice comment on the activities of Dr. Dean. Nice comment on the indigenous people of Peru. Take your pick.
Consider this me 'sharing' this with you (for copyright purposes, of course). Click on the image to see it full size.
I could have a 'field day' with this. But I'll leave it up to you for commentary. Have fun!