Thursday, 31 May 2012

Scholar Gypsies Take Heart: The Ronin Institute Might Be the Place For You

I feature John Hawks's weblog on the Subversive Archaeologist's blogroll. Usually I can look to it for more grist. But this morning I came across a recent entry that pointed me to an article in the Boston Globe, 'The Ronin Institute for wayward academics.' 
     I almost dropped my [authorized, logo imprinted] official SA regalia coffee mug. For there, in front of me, was, if not the answer to my dreams, at least a possibility of the road forward. The article discusses the fate of too many PhDs, not just the ones who're cold-shouldered by the establishment. New ones. Ones that have been teaching part time for years, if not forever. I know some of them. Hi, Jonathan. Hi, Kathy. Those who've never held an academic position but who wish they could do research, just the same.
     Dr. Jon Wilkinson, a theoretical evolutionary biologist in Montclair, NJ, has launched the Ronin Institute to foster a new paradigm of the academy. His hope is to provide an institutional affiliation for those of us without one, and a new academic niche, that of the 'fractional scholar.' This is the proverbial ray of hope for the likes of me, because without that coveted institutional affiliation there's little to no chance that research funds would ever come their way, much less the wherewithal to attend meetings and hang out with the grown-ups.
     Wilkinson needs support of all kinds for this endeavour, and is busily looking for patrons and funding. But the real engine of his enterprise, it seems to me, will be the calibre of the scholars chosen and their ability to prove that the old structure could do with a re-jig--that it's not just tenured university professors who have the requisite expertise and time to do research. Those of us with full-time day jobs would, I'd bet give small bits of their anatomy for the chance to work evenings and weekends on something they love, rather than watching American Idol or weeding the garden [or drinking inexpensive California chardonnay while sitting around complaining about the work everybody else is doing]. So, I say 'Pave the garden over and throw the TV away!'  'Let's raise Jon Wilkinson on our shoulders, and run around in circles in a pre-emptive victory lap!'
     Where do I sign up? Here's where:
     And, yes, the institute's name is taken from Japanese history.
The term originated in the Nara and Heian periods, when it referred to a serf who had fled or deserted his master's land. It then came to be used for a samurai who had lost his master. (Hence, the term "wave man" illustrating one who is socially adrift.) -Wikipedia [of course!]

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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

That Sinking Feeling...

Recently discovered shipwrecks on the Mediterranean Sea floor (Credit).
The almost pristine fragments of amphorae and other bits and pieces illustrated above are being reported today in the New York Daily News (dot com) as the deepest yet found in the Mediterranean, between 1200 and 1400 metres down. As an example of what I was talking about yesterday, I'm struck by the shock and amazement brought out in the Associated Press article.
     Those making the discovery were, evidently, astonished that they've been wrong all along in assuming that the vessels involved were too small to chance the open ocean, and instead clung to the coast in their passages around that vast inland sea. One wonders what made the ancients (actually quite recent--3rd century C.E. Roman) deviate from the norms imposed on them by modern-day armchair argonauts! A perspicacious old friend of the Subversive Archaeologist, Mickey Dietler would know what I'm talking about [his work on the commercial booze trade in the Iron Age of Europe is wonderfully nuanced and insightful]. 
     WTF? Did these classical archaeologists think that commercial activities 2,700 years ago were bucolic? That there'd never be a temptation to push the limits of the vessel in getting to a market ahead of a competitor, or to trim the sail a little tighter to cut down on overhead? I think these discoveries at depth say more about the way some archaeologists think than anything we might have gleaned about past behaviour from these antique failures.
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Scholarship. What It Means. What It Demands of Us

Scholarship /ˈskɒləʃɪp/ n.
1) The methods, discipline, and attainments of a scholar or scholars.
2) Knowledge resulting from study and research in a particular field.
Today, for all sorts of reasons, I'm made painfully aware of the responsibilities incumbent on us as scholars in the discipline of archaeology. I've come up with a few fundamentals of scholarship as I see it. See what you think.
     The first principal is, I believe, never to prevaricate. Sure, it happens, for monetary gain, or to build and then maintain a reputation. But it must be viewed as the one unpardonable sin of those who'd call themselves, or desire others to consider them to be scholars, whether archaeologist or art critic. 
     Second, and corollary to the first, is our fealty to the truth. We are, after all, doctors of philosophy--doctors that love truth. Through our work we hope to inch ever closer to a true accounting of the universe now and in the past. 
     Third, we owe it to one another to give our equals in this search a thorough and sincere hearing. Without that we cannot engage in meaningful discourse. And without meaningful discourse the search for truths will recede inexorably into an unattainable future. 
     Fourth, as best we can, we should make it possible for others to examine our premises, observations, and assumptions, so that they might have the ability to follow our arguments to the same conclusion. Notwithstanding that we cannot fully describe anything we observe, nor observe everything that we should, our peers need to be able to verify our conclusions. 'I saw it and it is as I said' can never be sufficient. 
     Fifth, we are constrained to acknowledge the work on which we base our own, or upon which we depend for evidence in our arguments. 
     Sixth, as anthropologists we should learn to recognize and to avoid promulgating just so stories, those that propose an unverifiable and unfalsifiable narrative explanation for a cultural practice, a biological trait, or behavior of humans or other animals. 
     Finally, we must acknowledge that the truth might elude us, now and for ever, or that there may be more than one possible explanation for a given set of observations, and that we might never have enough information to decide on one or another.
     I think I've pontificated enough. We should all now sleep on it.

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Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Laying Some Groundwork by Revisiting Belfer-Cohen and Hovers 1992: 'In the Eye of the beholder: Mousterian and Natufian burials in the Levant.'

Know what? I really hate the way I vacillate. 
Back and forth. 
Should I? Shouldn't I? 
She loves me. She loves me not. 
It's downright upsetting!

I guess I could look on the bright side. 
They say that if you're gonna be wishy-washy, you might as well be consistent about it. Well, if that's the case, I'll make the All-star team with ease! 

Today's oeuvre proves [couldn't resist that lovely bit of assonance] that I'm an inveterate vacillator [nor that aliquot of alliteration]. 

From the reader's perspective I must look like the substance-abuser who can't get that next fix off his mind. 

Franz Ritter von Stuck 1920 

I wish I didn't have to. I wish they'd just listen!

Sisyphus, give me all your strength! 

[This rock gets heavier every time I push it up that hill. And, I ain't gettin' any younger.*] 

And now, downward to the any good archaeologist.

'Grave shortcomings: the evidence for Neandertal burial,' [my BA Honors essay] was published in 1989. One of the first major publications that mentioned my then-recent work was 'In the Eye of the beholder: Mousterian and Natufian burials in the Levant' by Anna Belfer-Cohen and Erella Hovers (Current Anthropology 33, 463-471, 1992). Their paper tries to make the case that if one applied the same stringent criteria as that scallywag Gargett does for recognizing purposeful burial in the Middle Palaeolithic, even perfectly good modern human burials wouldn't pass muster. They're right. But that doesn't change a thing. A fact's a fact [as long as your premises are well-warranted, which theirs arent'].

My purpose in writing today is two-fold. I hope to demonstrate just how the authors and everyone else [including Paul Pettitt] were happy to accept the [largely] argumentum ad hominem criticisms published along with 'Grave shortcomings,' and to carry on as if [and in all likelihood] they had never seen my dispositive responses to all of my ur-detractors. After that, I want to tell you what I [still] think of their argument. And all because of that pesky Paul Pettitt. I need to do this to get you ready for what I want to say about his book [which is where the whole vacillation thing comes in].
     In early 1991 Adam Kuper sent me a draft of the Belfer-Cohen and Hovers paper 'for [my] assessment.' At the time he was the editor of Current Anthropology [and there was no doubt in my mind that he would have had a sly smile on his face as he penned his signature on that letter]. I mention this now because I think it would be valuable, finally, for someone other than Kuper, Belfer-Cohen and Hovers to see my remarks. For those of you who've never encountered 'In the eye of the beholder' you need only visit and view or download the University of Chicago Press e-document by clicking here. I urge you to have a look. It shouldn't take long to read. And I think it's an exemplum of the programmatic ignorance of my work at that time.
Here's what I thought. 
[You'll notice that in places I refer to items that were apparently axed before publication. Nothing major. But if you do your literary archaeology you'll see that my review at least had some effect!]

1991 May 4

Dear Professor Kuper:

I'm put in a difficult position reviewing this paper. Unless I recommend publication (which I don't), the authors will view my comments as prejudiced—both because of what they argue is my bias toward the extant species of the genus Homo, and because I've been vocal in my criticisms of previous attempts to argue for burial in the Middle Paleolithic (specifically among Neanderthals). But comment I must, and I hope that I don't come off sounding shrill.

At the outset, let me say that I think this kind of comparative study is required. Belfer-Cohen and Hovers have demonstrated, quite convincingly, that the criteria often employed by Middle Paleolithic specialists when assessing the question of burial are not germane. I should note that, although they don't restate the criteria I advanced, there are some fairly rigid guidelines in my 1989 CA paper that replace the questionable linkages between behaviour and archaeological remnants so prevalent in the literature (and, I might add, which the authors choose to perpetuate), such as flexion, articulation, so-called grave offerings, and so on. I'm speaking of the necessity of finding a clearly defined new stratum created at the time of burial. If, as Belfer-Cohen and Hovers argue, traditional criteria do nothing to support the archaeological inference of burial among modem populations, what possible use can they be in recognizing perhaps the first instances of burial among other hominid taxa? This is a point I've made before.

Recreation of the excavation of
Teshik-Tash I, a Neanderthal boy
I may as well be straightforward on another subject: I have trouble with much of the argument in this article, because there is no explicit treatment of my 1989 paper. The authors merely stale that "[Gargett's] view has been widely rejected on several grounds." This is not followed by a single reference to a published refutation of my work. I find this to be perhaps the greatest obstacle to their argument. In rejecting, out of hand, my thesis regarding the "burial" of Neandertals, they treat the 1989 paper as a monolith. Thus, my arguments dismantling the laughable inferences of ritual goat horns at Teshik-Tash, for example, are lumped together with my (according to them "unconvincing") arguments about purposeful burial there and elsewhere. As a result, their analysis perpetuates what are very likely myths about Neandertal behavior. Any archaeologist today should look at the Teshik-Tash material and recognize it for what it is, i.e. not a circle of horns placed points down in the sediments surrounding the alleged burial. Yet later, when Belfer-Cohen and Hovers discuss similarities between the Neandertal "burials" and those among the Natufians, they refer to "Certain spatial arrangements," including the case "known from outside the Levant, ... where the skeleton of a child was surrounded by a ring of 5-6 pairs of horn cores of Capra siberica." I could raise equally damaging questions regarding each and every one of the proposed similarities between the MP and UP situations, but that would take far too long. I hope that this example suffices to make my point. By using such questionable "spatial arrangements" in their analysis, the two classes of material (one from the Middle Paleolithic and one from the Upper Paleolithic) are said to appear similar. Yet, I've argued that they're not comparable, and, whether or not I'm right in this, the authors don't dealt with my arguments in any meaningful way.

Rather than labelling us intellectual bigots, perhaps Belfer-Cohen, Hovers and others should examine the implicit beliefs and motivations that lead them to accept very tenuous arguments for what are called symbolic or ritual behaviors on the part of Neanderthals and other Middle Paleolithic hominids. Moreover, when they treat a portion of reindeer backbone or pig manidible as grave offerings, isn't it just a little patronizing, if not paternalistic, to suggest that "the mundane 'grave goods' associated with Middle Paleolithic skeletal remains may reflect the simplicity of the material culture and of the social organization." Is not this tantamount to saying that there's a direct relationship between the presence/absence of 'grave goods,' their 'sophistication,' and the degree of cultural ability? Since this is something that Belfer-Cohen and Hovers would argue against, I find it interesting that they would introduce such a notion at this point in their argument. A pig mandible, if it were in fact shown to be an object placed with a purposely buried individual (and could be demonstrated to have had some symbolic meaning to that hominid, which would be difficult to argue from the archaeological evidence), should not be looked down upon as 'mundane' (or that it represented an incipient kind of symbolic behavior) simply because it does not conform to the investigator's (culturally bound) ideas of what constitutes 'sophisticated' funerary offerings. I would add that the enigmatic structures mentioned in their paper, such as "talking tubes" or "eternal flames" associated with Natufian burials, do not carry such inherent meanings—these are constructions of their excavators and are not self-evident. I'm struck by the ease with which Belfer-Cohen, Hovers and others accept such inferences and speculation as a reasonable construal of the archaeological remains. 

When the authors say that "mental templates as to what a burial should look like ... are projected  onto the past, regardless of contextual background," it's to all my predecessors,' and not to my arguments, that they must be referring. It was to just those contextual backgrounds that I was turning in my 1989 paper, while every other worker has relied on culturally bound assumptions about what burial should look like (including such things as degree of flexion, presence of grave goods, or the presence of a grave). In this regard, Belfer-Cohen and Hovers do not escape criticism. 

I haven't been convinced by their argument about a prejudice on the part of workers like me who seek a better understanding of the behavior of Middle Paleolithic hominids. I strongly suggest that it's their own belief about the humanity of Neandertals and other Middle Paleolithic hominids that leads them to accept questionable evidence about a whole range of behaviors that simply haven't been adequately demonstrated. I'd add that, while there's a necessity to document and compare mortuary treatment in the Late Pleistocene and Holocene with that alleged for the earlier period, I don't find the authors' approach thorough or rigorous. I reiterate that I think it's a mistake to discount my arguments out of hand. And it's equally misguided to repeat the inferences of those who quite obviously carry the same bias as Belfer-Cohen and Hovers. 

Calling three large stones and a rhinoceros tooth a "spatial arrangement" associated with the Kebara infant seems to me to underline what I said above about the paternalistic and inherently biased viewpoint of 'the other side.' Another example: employing Smirnov's arguments is suspect, because he not only accepts (again uncritically) all the earlier inferences of ritual and burial, but he also adds some new ones of his own ("hearths underlying" hominid skeletal material seen as some kind of ritual architecture). That Belfer-Cohen and Hovers refer to secondary and tertiary "evidence" (such as the work of Smirnov) in the construction of their argument, and prefer to ignore the original reports upon which my argument was based is a very big omission. They prefer to rest their out-of-hand rejection of my thesis on some comments of questionable value following my article in CA (none of which were refereed, and all of which were disposed of in my reply). The authors have also failed to cite my later comments (CA 30:326-329) which amplify and further clarify my argument. Indeed, in employing the inferences of Okladnikov regarding the Teshik-Tash goat horns, I have to wonder if they have even read my paper.

My "opinion" about Neanderthals notwithstanding, these authors have simply failed to provide any new "evidence" for the purposeful burial of any Middle Paleolithic hominids. And, though it was not their intention, their argument is all than much weaker for this lacuna. Classifying, as they do, material alleged to be associated with Middle Paleolithic hominids as "grave goods" or "grave structures," and to include them in a comparison with material similarly classified from the later period, is methodologically unsound, at best. Moreover, they have not provided any convincing "evidence" that those who choose to question inferences of modern behavior among Middle Paleolithic hominids are any more biased than are the authors in the opposite direction.

It's probably easy to see that this paper frustrates me. I hope I've managed to achieve a degree of objectivity in my comments. Anna and I have had this conversation before. I don't wish my review to be seen as a personal attack, which it most definitely is not. There are real problems with their presentation of "data" and with the sociopolitical context of their work. Their study represents another recitation of inferences that I've rightly called into question, and so far no one has adequately refuted my arguments. In sum, I'd recommend that Current Anthropology reject this paper in its present form. Perhaps if the authors could mount a credible refutation of my 1989 arguments, and manifest a little self-reflexivity of their own rather than simply accusing others of implicit bias, this paper might stand on its own—especially if it could be argued that both sides owe their inferences to their biases (which I'm not sure is possible). As it is, it wouldn't be suitable for the reports section of CA, either, unless the Middle Paleolithic "data" are left out along with the argument about bias. The perceived lack of regularity in Natufian burials is interesting in itself. But as a contrast to inferred behavior in the Middle Paleolithic, it loses power. At least until further notice, we may be comparing apples and oranges. If the editor chooses to publish this article in the form it now takes, it should indeed be accompanied by comments, and I'd like to have the opportunity to voice my criticisms (especially since I seem to be one of only a few misguided individuals who adopt a "non-human until proven human" stance in this debate).

Rob Gargett

Now the 2012 Gargett'll fess up. I'm blurting this now because Paul Pettitt refers to this article by Belfer-Cohen and Hovers when he begins his wrestling match with my work. 
'My opinion that Gargett's attempt to deny any Neanderthal burials is largely unconvincing obviously requires justification. Many of his specific and literature-based readings of the data have been questioned by the original excavators (see responses to Gargett 1989) and other specialists (e.g. Belfer-Cohen and Hovers 1992)...'
I should let you know that not one, single, original excavator commented in Current Anthropology alongside my 1989 paper. [Bullshit Score: Pettitt 1, Gargett 0.] And whaddaya think he means by emphasizing that Belfer-Cohen and Hovers are 'specialists'? Wanna know what I think? It's because he thinks that I'm a poor excuse for a specialist. I'm not claiming that excavating for more than 6 weeks at Kebara Cave and 3 weeks at Roc Allan, a French rockshelter makes me one of his remarkable 'specialists.' However, he has no right, and no evidence, to relegate me to the category of 'literature-based know-nothings' who haven't got any right to complain about what the other grown ups are doing. [Bullshit Score: Pettitt 2, Gargett 0.]
     This isn't over.

[Just so you know. No one is more surprised than I that I'm still bashing away at the edifice more than 20 years on. You'd have thought that by now someone would've mounted a serious challenge, as opposed to the reality--simply dismissing my arguments out of hand.]

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Monday, 28 May 2012

In Memoriam

"Reflections," by Lee Teter 1988. Paint on canvas.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. 

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. 

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H. Auden

I'm Throwin' In the Towel. Hangin' Up My Six-Shooters. Pettitt Claims Victory and I Can't Be Bothered to Respond. Meet Me at the End of the Universe.

Yesterday I mentioned The Palaeolithic Origins of Human Burial, by Paul Pettitt. As I pointed out, his book spends quite some time dispensing with research that I published in 1989 and 1999, and about which you've heard quite a bit over the course of the past six months.
     I've been reading Pettitt's book, which I was compelled to purchase after I learned of its existence and, especially, of the number of times he finds it necessary to comment in an ill-informed manner on my work. I know. Yesterday I was all fired up, and I was gonna go head to head with Pettitt's mainly erroneous assertions and pettyfogging dismissals.
     Sitting here right now I'm succumbing to ennui. After all, Pettitt is just one more in what's now become a very long line of academics [I won't go so far as to say they're scholars] who've disagreed, and no more, with what I've published about Middle Palaeolithic burial. As with all the rest I find that Pettitt misses, not just one, but numerous points that I've made, and I can only conclude that he and the others either can't read or are so blinkered that they're unable to interpret what it is I've said. So, you see, it doesn't matter what I say; it seems only to matter what they choose to ignore and misunderstand about what I've said.
     Therefore, I've concluded, there's little, if any, point to trying, once again, to explain what I actually said about Middle Palaeolithic burial to someone who's clearly intellectually challenged by my words. I'll simply say this to the Pettitts of this small world of ours: meet me at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. We'll have a drink. And there, when all the data are in, I'll gracefully accept your apologies and your acquiescence to the truth about MP burial. I'll be having a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. Make mine a double.
The Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is an alcoholic beverage invented by ex-President of the Universe Zaphod Beeblebrox, largely considered to be the best in the Universe. Its effects are similar to having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick. Mixing Instructions: Take the juice from one bottle of Ol' Janx Spirit. Pour into it one measure of water from the seas of Santraginus V—Oh, that Santraginean seawater! Oh, those Santraginean fish! Allow three cubes of Arcturan Mega-gin to melt into the mixture (it must be properly iced or the benzine is lost). Allow four litres of Fallian marsh gas to bubble through it, in memory of all those happy hikers who have died of pleasure in the Marshes of Fallia. Over the back of a silver spoon float a measure of Qualactin Hypermint extract, redolent of all the heady odours of the dark Qualactin Zones, subtle, sweet and mystic. Drop in the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger. Watch it dissolve, spreading the fires of the Algolian Suns deep into the heart of the drink. Sprinkle Zamphuor. Add an olive. Drink... but... very carefully... Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
     So. What's next for me? Back to the true work of the subversive archaeologist. It's much more rewarding and successful than my stuff on burial, and I won't be plowing the same ground over and over again! *cough*
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Saturday, 26 May 2012

Paul Pettitt's Version of MIddle Palaeolithic Burial: The Palaeolithic Origins of Human Burial (Or So He Says)

As most of you know, my awareness of the literature of the past twenty years is somewhat constrained. That extends even to the recent past. I've just learned of the publication, last year, of this: The Palaeolithic Origins of Human Burial, by Paul Pettitt. I became aware of some earlier work of his on the matter, published in an obscure, online journal on the origins of agriculture, about ten years ago. It appears that he's learned little of a substantive nature in the interim, and his book follows, in lock-step, the published and back-room put-downs of my own work on the subject, going back to 1989.
     Pettitt's book surrounds the time period of greatest interest with some literature reviews having to do with the philosophy, sociology, and palaeopsychology of mortuary practices, the scarce fossil record prior to what we call the Middle Palaeolithic, and the times since people like you and me entered Europe about 40 kyr ago. But the core of his book reads like a personal crusade to denigrate yours truly's life's work. More importantly, in the chapter titled 'The Neanderthals' he goes to town on my critique of Neanderthal burial, mentioning (and dismissing my published work) on pretty much every other page of the 80 or so page-long portion. 
     Yet, mysteriously, although he deals with the anatomically modern but behaviorally Middle Palaeolithic hominids from Qafzeh, he is silent on my 1999 take-down. Is it possible he never read it? I'd have to say that's a safe bet, given what he's written. What's even stranger is that at every opportunity he refers to what I've published as 'literature-based.' And his book is... what? Experience based? I hardly think so. 
     I'll have more to say in the coming weeks, because Pettitt's petty BS deserves nothing other than a full exposition. In the meantime. I'm gonna go cool down with some of my famously cheap California chardonnay and hope that by watching old British cop shows I can climb down from the smouldering contempt I'm feeling just now.
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Friday, 25 May 2012

Tlingit and Haida Genetics and the Peopling of the Americas

Listen up, you North American archaeologists! Here's one for you! This news is at least a week old, but I've seen nothing else about this on the intertubes. So, why not share? It's an article about the University of Pennsylvania's Genographic Project, and it highlights two recently published studies on northern North America's indigenous peoples. Both support and extend earlier linguistic studies hypothesizing the timing of entry onto the NA continent. One, in particular, interests me because it apparently demonstrates a distinct genetic makeup for the two culturally similar Northwest Coast groups, the Haida and Tlingit
     The two, while outwardly similar in their material and other cultural appurtenances bear genomes distinct from one another. The Haida language is also distinct, not only from Tlingit, but from all of the rest of the Americas. It's what's called a 'language isolate,' a language for which there is no apparent linguistic relative in the world. Although such languages are not definitive evidence of a language's antiquity, the circumstances that obtain on Haida Gwaii suggest that, at a minimum, the Haida language had evolved in isolation from the languages of all the other indigenous people of North America. 
     The genetic results thus parallel the linguistic evidence, and make me want to connect them with some natural curiosities having to do with Haida Gwaii, the island archipelago traditionally inhabited by the Haida people (the island chain was formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) [and is the land where I was born--see below for some photos of the unassuming little town of Sandspit, where my family lived,  across the saltchuck from the Haida village of Skidegate and the interlopers' town of Queen Charlotte]. 
     First of these curiosities that I want to mention is the importance of Haida Gwaii in Knut Fladmark's famous paper, 'Routes: Alternate Migration Corridors for Early Man in North America.' One of the points Knut makes in this paper is that the coastal route for peopling of the Americas would have been open even while the proposed 'ice-free corridor' to the unglaciated parts of North America was closed. The ice-free corridor, you'll remember, is a long-hotly-debated ice-free north-south route between the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets. Fladmark and others have always maintained that, even if it had been ice-free for some warmer periods during the last glaciation the way would have been forbidding to the point of impassibility with permanent pro-glacial lakes and outwash plains devoid of fauna or flora.
This sketch of the ice-free corridor is a might optimistic. This is prolly what it looked like at the height of the deglaciation at around 12.5 ka. 
     So, Fladmark and others have long pointed to Haida Gwaii as having been a Pleistocene biotic refugium--where a community of plants and animals would have lived through the rigours of the last ice age. There are numerous endemic species on the islands, and recent excavation in a cave site has revealed skeletal bear remains dating to about 14.5 ka, just on the cusp of the final glacial meltdown and the end of the Pleistocene. Moreover, Haida legends talk of their earliest ancestors living in areas that are now inundated, but that would have been exposed during the Pleistocene.
     Thus, for lots of reasons it's very tempting to see the Haida people as potentially the earliest to live south of the Arctic Circle in North America, at a time when sea levels were much lower than they are today, and that they might have reached this southerly perch by making use of refugia on the shelf as stepping stones between Beringia and Haida Gwaii. By the time the post-Pleistocene marine transgression had taken its toll on waterfront property in that region, there was a 180 km stretch of Hecate Strait to navigate to reach the mainland. Although they were clearly some of the mightiest seafarers ever to eat the waves anywhere in the world, even the Haida might have chosen to make such crossings rarely, thus ensuring their continued genetic and linguistic isolation from the rest of North America.
     Let me know what you think.

Here follows a series of increasingly larger scale satellite photos of the area of my birth--Haida Gwaii.
Aleutians through the Gulf of Alaska to Haida Gwaii, the pie-shaped archipelago near the bottom.
Haida Gwaii and the mainland opposite. Hecate Strait in between.
Skidegate Inlet opens to the northeast. Sandspit is visible in the mid-upper right, and in the closeup below. I was actually born in Queen Charlotte, which had the only hospital at the time, and is a ferry ride away across the inlet to the west of Sandspit.
Sandspit, on Haida Gwaii. Note the raised shorelines marching uphill to the south and west due to continuous and ongoing post-Pleistocene isostatic rebound.
Sandspit, looking a little as it always a town on the edge of nowhere. My dad operated the company store here in the early 1950s. Shortly after I was born we moved back to the mainland, to what was then the Municipality of Richmond, where I grew up. As an indication of how closely tied to England much of Canada was for a very long time, the elected head of the Municipal Council was still called a Reeve until the 1970s, when the term Mayor was adopted in keeping with Richmond's emergence from mostly rural to mostly suburban.

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Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Oy vey! Late-breaking News: Kebara Cave Neanderthal Was Terminally Depressed

 Earlier today Anonymous left a comment on my inaugural post, which among other things dealt with my work on the evidence for Middle Palaeolithic burial. I think this person's statement deserves serious consideration, not because they're right, but for all the reasons that they and their colleagues are wrong about, in this case, the Kebara 2 Neanderthal, nicknamed Moshe. Here is what Anonymous said:
As an grad student I excavated a Neandertal burial. Clear margins around the grave, and flexed position (fetal position), as in so many other cases. We all know about your interpretive caution, but you have to had been there to understand how clear it was. As hard as it might be to swallow, the 'armchair' critique that has been aimed at you must be factored. Anonymous for privacy...sorry!
I suspected that this person must've been referring to this specimen because of the phrase 'clear margins.' If I'm wrong, I hope Anonymous will disabuse me of my misconception. However I'm fairly certain Kebara 2 was the specimen being referred to. In situ, it was missing the right leg, and all that remained of the skull were mandible, hyoid and an upper molar.
Kebara 2 skeletal remains.
     Anyone who's read carefully my critical analysis of this putative burial will already know the gist of what I'm about to say. I'll try not to repeat myself. Instead, I prefer to bring forward, as evidence, a photograph that I was allowed to copy back in the late 80s, and which has always been in my back pocket, almost as a talisman against the buffetting winds of dismissal and denigration that my thoughts have received at the hands of rank and file palaeoanthropologists, including the authors of the Kebara 2 find, Ofer Bar-Yosef and Bernard Vandermeersch.
     This photo was first mentioned to me in a brown bag seminar I gave at UC Berkeley in my first year as a Ph.D. student there in 1988 or 89. The photographer was Yoel Rak, one of the physical anthropologists on the Kebara project, and not inconsequentially the author of The Australopithecine Face. Unfortunately it is a rather small file and doesn't suffer much enlargement. However I think it's sufficient to illustrate what I hope to foreground in this blurt.
     I was, frankly, astonished when I first saw it, because I immediately recognized the traces of solution processes that had clearly been at work in that place in the cave for quite some time. I'm referring to the numerous laminated strata beneath the partial skeleton, which I've delineated with red dots. Here is clear evidence of the processes that had created the traces of a 30-cm or so shallow 'pit' with the 'clear margins' that Anonymous and others documented, and to which Anon. refers in the above comment. 

     In karst, solution of bedrock and karstic diagenesis of unconsolidated sediments is an ongoing process. In this  location what I'd guess to be a source of phosphate and water had combined to produce basin-shaped depressions layer after layer through time. In fact, the only likely reason that a portion of the Kebara 2 specimen was preserved is that it came to rest in this natural depression, which would have received more rapid deposition of the sediments that contributed to the overall build-up of deposits over the centuries.
     What Anonymous didn't tell you was that the 'clear margin' was invisible on the upslope side of Moshe [to the left in this view]. The only explanation for such an occurrence is that the natural depression, mistakenly inferred to be a burial pit, extended further to the left and 'up' in this view than the excavation unit in which the remains were found. On the evidence of this photo it's clear that the 'pit' extended well beyond what you might otherwise expect a 'burial pit' to reach.

     I defy the excavators, and Anonymous, 
to explain their way out of this unacknowledged reality surrounding their discovery, the one that's become part of the irreproachable archaeological canon of Neanderthal archaeology. In fact, I double-dog-dare 'em to reason their way out of this. Rak's picture alone is worth any number of Roc de Marsal-style vindications to me [thanks, as always, to Denis Sandgathe, Harold Dibble, Paul Goldberg and the rest], because it is my Ace in the hole. And 21 is still Blackjack. Is it not? 
     I don't mean to sound smug [since that is historically the province of my detractors], but will someone, please tell me I'm wrong. Seriously. I'll wait. I'll be right here, waiting, until I hear back from you. But I won't be holding my breath.
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Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Still Waiting For Some Response From Francesco and Paul...

Berna et al. 2012 Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa. PNAS online.
I'm starting to feel slighted. Tell me why I shouldn't.
     Either Francesco Berna and Paul Goldberg are so far out in the field that they're incommunicado and have been for a while, or they're too embarrassed by their fireplace faux pas at Wonderwerk Cave that they're playing it cool. 
     Paul is someone I've known for decades. I've never met Francesco. When my recent blurt on the matter called into question their claims, I expected an immediate response--so devastating is the overlooked evidence. Yet, crickets chirping was all I heard. Then I emailed Don Grayson, well-known to most of you, who was the National Academy member who acted as the editor for the paper in PNAS. He was intrigued, and thought I ought to pursue the publication route. But I thought it better to email Francesco and Paul instead, a week or so ago, hoping to stir them into some sort of response to my contention, i.e. that finding no Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrographic evidence of Berlinite in the sediments at Wonderwerk Cave can't be used to rule out spontaneous combustion of bat doo-doo in the 1.0 Myr old deposits. 
Home, Sweet, Homo erectus Home (Source):
Home is Where the Hearth Is.
     Theirs is no small inference. An Acheulian Prometheus is big news. No doubt about it! It's not the sort of thing you want to make a mistake about, especially when the mistake you're making is to ignore or to be, evidently, ignorant of the formation temperature of Berlinite [something you would have thought a geochemist and a geomorphologist might have thought to investigate before they made their claim for the controlled use of fire so long ago by Homo erectus--or H. ergaster, whichever you prefer--a species long since extinct--unless you accept that H. Floresiensis is a dwarf relict population, which I happen to do, but which is beside the point in this discussion, albeit really interesting and kewl].
     Remember that no 'hearths' were recorded at Wonderwerk Cave; the excavators instead base their inferences on the presence of heat-altered sediments across a wide area in the million-year-old cave deposits. Unfortunately, the authors report no evidence for temperatures above 550° C, and Berlinite will not form below 583° C. But then, you already know this, 'cause I've written about it here
     So, although I'm repeating myself, I'd like to call on the authors--either, any, or all--to respond to my question about their observations, and to comment on the temperatures required to alter the chemistry of the plant and animal remains they recovered, together with their conclusions that Berlinite would surely have been visible if spontaneous combustion of bat guano (a well-known and well-documented phenomenon) had been responsible for the raised temperatures in the cave sediments. 
     I'm waiting, gentlemen.

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Monday, 21 May 2012

The World's Oldest Hand[-soap] Axe!

Figure 1. On the left: a hand-soap axe. On the right: dorsal view of a bar of Dial glycerin soap, identical with the one from which the axe was fashioned. 
There's an old saying: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Well, here's my own version of joining 'em, straight from an Industrial Era archaeological site near the world headquarters of the Subversive Archaeologist. What you see in Figure 1 is an astonishing example of the forethought and planning that has been a hallmark of the human lineage from at least 1.75 Ma. The object on the right is an example of the raw material that was used in this case; on the left, the exquisitely symmetrical end-product of a complex series of water-aided reductive events, all of which were intended, from the outset, to result in this aesthetically pleasing and most useful tool. I'm calling it a hand-soap axe. There's no doubt in my mind that the object on the left is a deliberate product of a highly sophisticated, human, brain. 
Figure 2. On the left: a hand-soap axe. On the right left lateral view of the same bar of soap illustrated in Figure 1.
     Just look at the metrics. The raw material blank is rectangular in plan (see Figure 1), with a convex dorsal and concave ventral aspect and 1/2-round bevelled on all vertices (see Figure 2). Its dimensions are given in Table 1. 
These items were measured in the field using the only appurtenance available at the time: a Stanley No. 26 1/2 boxwood folding caliper rule (pictured below). It's an oldy. And it's only calibrated in 16ths, so these are very approximate numbers. We'll be able to get a better handle on the morphology when we're out of the field.
Stanley No. 36 1/2 boxwood folding calipers.
As for the hand-soap axe. A glance at it convinces one that it bears little resemblance to the block of raw material, which should persuade anyone with half a brain that its final shape had nothing to do with the original shape of the raw material block. Its lateral margins, pictured above, are perfectly bi-convex. When viewed on end, the same is true. The intention was for the dorso-ventral bi-convexity to create an angle of ca. 45° that is uniform through almost its entire length. Quite an accomplishment. No? Undoubtedly this would have been used to work skins.
     And look at the length of the product--the axe itself. The artisan who made this was ever-so-careful to avoid reducing the proximal and distal mass so as not to end up with a useless lump of soap. This is indeed an artifact that represents a high level of cognitive ability, and anyone who says 'Nay' is likely to be a closet bigot or someone who doesn't know their glycerine soap from sandpaper!
     As yet we've been unable to computer-model adequately how, with judicious application of plain old water, and simply by rolling it in his hands to create a lather, the human who made this was able to fashion such a gorgeous object. I'd go so far as to say that this example is SO perfect that it may even have been a ceremonial object, or money, or something like that! 
     PLoS one here we come!

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Sunday, 20 May 2012

I'll Admit It. I've Been Neglecting My Subversive Friends.

It's not 'cause I want to. I still haven't quit my 'day job,' as you might have guessed. And my 'night job,' A.K.A. my life, has been making it hard to greet my friends often enough for my liking. My analyst thinks it's because I recently left the home I lived in for 10 years. It was very mutual between my partner and me. However, for some reason I had to be the one to leave. I loved my old place, despite the stürm und drang of my married life. Our place had vaulted ceilings, and a vanity in the primary bedroom. It overlooked a gorge and a green space. It reminded me of Armidale, where we lived for three years, because there were gum trees everywhere, and at sunset the backlit eucalyptus trees looked just like they do in Australia. Our place also housed my daughter, whom I love, and of whom I'm extremely proud, and although she's been acting like a teenager since she was about 8, at nearly 17 she's coming around to the idea that maybe parents aren't so useless, after all!
     Who knows why it's taken almost 8 months to succumb to the implications of my new life. My analyst thinks that it's following the trajectory of grief--a point on which I'm in complete agreement. So, lately, I've spent some Saturdays ... reclining ... some Sundays, too. And I've felt reluctant to venture onto the analogue of an off-off-off-off-Broadway show that is the Subversive Archaeologist. That's mostly because I've felt cowed by the perception that my efforts--while enjoyed and appreciated by you--will prolly never get to the bullies, the ones who set the terms, and who own the sites.
     But that pessimism isn't the reason I've succumbed to numbness and avoidance. My character is such that I can't abide humiliation. And my inability to 'crack' the encircling edifice that is 'the palaeoanthropological community' is tantamount (for me) to humiliation of the highest order. I understand that many, many people are able to 'soldier on' in the face of oblivion. Yet, despite my fervent wish to get through to the mainstream, my sense of futility always gets me in the end.
     You've probably noticed that even my tone has changed of late. I've become conciliatory--anything but combative. I need to get my mojo back!
     So, know that I'm thinking of you all the time, and that I want nothing more in this world than to be heard and understood. You help me to feel that I'm succeeding. So, please don't take my periodic absences as any indication of my lack of interest in this project, much less an indication that I have altogether lost heart. It's not true. But, some times I need to recharge and to reassess. Please bear with me. This 'journey' is one I've wanted to take for so long that I couldn't give up on it. And with you there to hear and assimilate what I'm doing, we might just get where I want to go!
     Thanks for being here. You're pure gold to me.

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Saturday, 19 May 2012

A Good Bloody Mary, a Loaf of Bread, and Kathu Pan 1 Again.!

There's nothing like a decent Bloody Mary when you really feel like a pick-me-up. Seriously. But you should know that I'm not a purist. I like to use vegetable juice, like V-8. Trader Joe's makes a good V-8-like mix called Garden Patch that's way cheaper and prolly better for you. I like my BMs [stop chortling, toilet-brain] on the mild side, so I add a dash or three of Worcestershire sauce and voila! Who'd've thought that cocktails could be so nutritious? I feel all picked up! Which is where I wanna be. 'Cause I'm gonna pick up where I left off a while back. So, if you stick around, prepare to be catapaulted (nay, trebucheted) into the Lower Palaeolithic of Southern Africa for the rest of this blurt.
Wilkins and Chazan (2012)*

     Remember Kathu Pan 1? All those run-of-the-mill, plain, or garden-variety flakes that Wilkins and Chazan* have interpreted as evidence of a 'blade industry' at 0.5 Ma? It would be an extraordinary finding if it were true. Alas. Life as a subversive archaeologist isn't ever simple--deciding on the veracity of such a claim is not a straightforward endeavour. I fervently wish that I could just accept an archaeological inference on the face of it. Unfortunately, in the case of Wilkins and Chazan, it's not to be. 

[I know. I know. I've blathered on about this previously. But in truth, I've only called their claim into question--I haven't as yet produced much in the way of evidence to counter or refute their interpretations.]

     The truth (or reality) of this extraordinary claim hinges on the amount of morphological variability they and their 'MSA'-of-Africa colleagues will accept into the class of flake that they've chosen to call 'blades.' To them, a blade is a 'detached piece' that is at least twice as long as it is wide. Simple. No? No. No archaeologist would say that it's that simple. And those who work on the palaeolithic of southern Africa and elsewhere know that to be the case. But that's where they start. As would be the drill for anyone who's in the business of studying the lithic output of modern humans, the length-to-width ratio (hereafter just L-W) is a very basic starting place. The trouble with Wilkins and Chazan and others is that they try outflank the blade purists by suggesting that a quite different set of behaviours can be looked at as analogous, if not homologous, with the blade industries of modern humans. It's a bit of a reach, as you'll see.
     Have a look at the image up above, which illustrates some of the morphological variability inherent in the Kathu Pan 1 assemblage of 'blades' [ignore the core in the lower left]. Here you see flakes with convergent margins, flakes that have been retouched, flakes that are nearly square, flakes that are slivers of stone, flakes with cortex, and some really thick flakes. None are parallel sided, as is the case with the Mesolithic [the true MSA] blades shown below. None are removed from prepared cores like those in the array immediately following the one below.
I owe a big thanks to archaeologist Anja Roth Niemi, Department of Archaeology and Social Anthropology, University of Tromsö, whom I've never met, but on whose web page I found these lovely illustrations of 8,000 year old blade cores and blades from Norway (after less than a minute searching Google Images). 

     It's true that modern human groups haven't evinced prismatic-core blade industries in all places and at all times during their tenure on Earth. However, we are fairly certain that the presence or absence of such a technique has nothing to do with the cognitive abilities of the people involved--modern human decision-making and the normal constraints on behaviour often preclude such activities. Unfortunately we can't make a similar assumption about the deep time represented at Kathu Pan 1. There, say the authors, for perhaps the first time in history a group of hominids designed and manufactured blades according to a pattern that evokes the kind of deliberate actions that we all know exist in the modern human archaeological record as part of modern human cognitive abilities. 
     Because it may very well be the first time for such an activity, surely it behooves these authors to be very thorough in their description of the assemblage and in the premises that underpin their argument. That's where I'm going today [or this week, more precisely--I've been working on this on and off when I've had the opportunity, for over a week, now, which is why you've heard little from my pulpit in that time]. I intend to point out just how problematic are the assumptions on which these inferences have been made, and in so doing to demonstrate that the Kathu Pan 1 blades are nothing more than a reified category.
     At the outset, let me say that Wilkins and Chazan have done nothing wrong by identifying certain pieces of debitage and utilized flakes as blades when they have a L-W of 2 or greater. Any good lithic analyst dealing with a modern human assemblage would do no less. But, unlike the average analyst working on the technological basis of a lithic assemblage, Wilkins and Chazan stop there. They don't go on to describe those elongated flakes according to morphology. And that is where their analysis veers from the conventional path. They cite others who've worked on the MSA, including those chaps who've made similar claims at Qesem Cave (see the array of so-called blades from Qesem immediately below), but the truth is that this 'blade' classification is profoundly at odds with that of archaeologists who deal with the products of modern humans. For one thing, classic blades almost never (if ever) include cortex, as do many of those shown below.
Wilkins and Chazan and the others have decided that it's OK to define a blade as a flake having an L-W of 2 or greater, and to go no further. 
     Let me just pause here to mention that they take a simple parameter--L-W--and let it represent a conscious choice on the part of the Lower Palaeolithic hominid, and from there to represent a full-on 'industry' like the modern human blade industry I sketched a moment ago. Theirs is a leap of the variety known as Faith, and not an argument from empirical observation, much less well-warranted assumptions.
     I hesitate to go over again what makes a blade. However, I believe it's crucial to emphasize that how we define a blade produced as part of a 'blade industry' is of the utmost importance in assessing the veracity of Wilkins and Chazan's argument. 
     The difference between just a blade and a blade made as part of a blade industry is that the latter is the product of a conscious effort on the part of the flintknapper to produce only just such pieces and to do so in a repetitive series, in which each removal produces a blade of more-or-less uniform morphology from a specially prepared block of stone. A blade technology--one that could be said to be the product of a modern human--produces blades that bear lateral margins that are uniformly parallel or subparallel, and which display dorsal flake scars that testify to earlier removals that are of the same morphology. Among other analyses that can be done to demonstrate the systematic difference between such blades and just flakes, there is a clear-cut statistical difference between the things that have historically been called blades and those regarded as such by the authors.
     Wilkins and Chazan argue that their assemblage does belie an almost identical process. They argue that the difference lies in the orientation of sequential removals, such that the prepared cores are brick-like, and that the blades removed are removed by taking one or two flakes off one end and then doing the same from the other. In so doing these knappers producing flakes that were the shape intended by their maker, i.e. the finished artifact. Unfortunately for Wilkins and Chazan, not only is this a poor argument for a stone industry thats anchored in the same cognitive ability as that produced by modern humans, even their evidence falls short of demonstrating that part of their claim.
[As I've said before, the subversive kind of detailed dismantling of a fallacious archaeological claim demands that no essential verbiage be spared. This is already a long blurt, and it'll get longer. Just so you know.]

Where to begin? I thought it would be useful to see just how distinctive the Kathu Pan 1 blades were in comparison with the non-blades. Unfortunately, as I pointed out previously, the authors provide no data to enable such a comparison, nor, evidently, do they think such a comparison is warranted. In my previous attempt to discredit their claim, I as much as accused them of dissembling in their paper. However, after I had a brief, civil, email exchange with Wilkins, I retracted my thinly veiled allegation of disingenuity. However, based on what I was told in the emails, I can say that I have more reason than ever to doubt their claim. 
     One of the most basic assertions that Wilkins and Chazan make is that there is an emphasis on production of flakes with and L-W of 2 or greater, which they call blades. As evidence, they point their readers to their Table 2, which I've excerpted below. 

     The way this table represents the assemblage underscores my discomfort. Notice first of all that the number of what are called 'Complete flakes' is about the same as that of 'Blades.' The authors here represent that blades make up 16.1% of the entire assemblage. That is more or less the same proportion of the 'Complete flakes.' This implies that there are as many blades as flakes in the assemblage. 
     However, while it isn't clearly stated in the table, it is mentioned in passing in the text, that the category 'blades' in the table above includes blades and blade fragments, while the category 'complete flakes' is just that. Excluding the flake fragments makes the proportion of 'flakes' to 'blades' appear almost equal. What happens if you lump 'Flake fragments,' 'Proximal flake fragments,' AND 'Complete flakes' and compare that number with the number of blades and blade fragments? The proportion of flakes to blades is much different, which the authors also report in their paper. They write that the proportion of blades in the total of just the 'discarded detached pieces (including flakes and flake fragments)' (N=3786) is 27%. This is now looking more like an assemblage in which blades are not so much  'emphasized.'
     From this point their presentation becomes more confusing and disconcerting. We're told that the mean length for complete blades is 70 mm. Then we're told that there's little value in presenting a breakdown of blade length, because
A frequency histogram of blade width ... [see below]... can be used to get a sense of size distribution... , providing a larger sample than length because blades often break transversely
[which I guess means that we can't know how long they were before they broke--althought it's an open question if they were ever whole, the vicissitudes of breaking stone being what they are].
KP1 blade size distribution includes blades that would technically be classified as bladelets (<12 mm in width, ... but these small blades are just at the lower end of a unimodal blade size continuum. The mean length to width ratio of the KP1 blades is 2.5:1 (n = 92, sd = 0.4).
A cartoon balloon emerges from the vicinity of my head at this point, and all it contains is a very big question mark flashing on and off like a neon sign. The number of blades in the first table above was 972. Yet, in the quote above, we're given an average L-W ratio for blades--2.5:1 (s.d. 0.4)--based on 92, not 972. This is telling us that there are in total just 92 complete 'blades.' In the paper we have only one clue as to the answer--Table 4 gives the summary statistics for blades from two excavation units.
Thus, it is probable that the number 92, given as the source of the average blade length, is correct. In the subsample described in the table above, the number of blades for which an overall length was in evidence is 113. So we would be forgiven if we settled on 'about 100' as the number of complete blades in this assemblage. 
     I'm not suggesting that you need the rest of the 'blade' to argue that a flake portion is a portion of a blade if that flake portion is 2 or more times longer than it is wide. However, given the altogether un-blade-like morphology of the so-called blades shown above from Kathu Pan and from Qesem Cave it begs the question whether the rest of these allegedly fragmentary blades were at all blade-like throughout their length.
     But, forge on we must. In the absence of (to their way of thinking) a relevant sample of complete blades from which to construct a frequency distribution of L-W, we're given instead a histogram of blade width (shown below). Keep in mind that these widths are absolute measures of a subsample of those flakes deemed to be blades, and not a frequency distribution of the widths of the entire assemblage of 'detached pieces.' 
     And when I think about it, I'm not sure what this histogram is really meant to tell us, as width only has interpretive value in this context in terms of its relationship to the length of the so-called blades. Here the number of blades is 511, because the sample that gave this result is only from 2 of the 4 excavation squares that form the entire assemblage. The authors give the average width of this subsample as 28.2 mm (s.d. 9.2) in their Table 4. In that same table the average length is given as 69.7 mm (s.d. 19.3). The histogram below clearly demonstrates that in this assemblage there is a central tendency evident in 'blade' width. That's great! Except it's next to useless unless we can see what the overall assemblage looks like on this parameter. I'd be very surprised if the just flakes produced a distribution much different from this--after all, we see variation from less than 10 mm all the way up to 60+. I doubt very much if the just flakes width distribution could look any different!
     So, you and I want to know if the authors' blades were in any measurable way distinctive from just plain old flakes. Since the Kathu Pan 1 'blades' clearly don't exhibit a uniform morphology beyond the L-W of >2, it wasn't clear to me why we weren't offered a similar set of data for the un-blade-like flakes. So I wrote to Wilkins:

I'm very interested in the length-to-width ratios that you reported, and I was wondering if it would be possible to acquire the raw data for the 1800 or so 'complete flakes' and 'blades.' You published the mean ratio for the blades, but not for the flakes, and you didn't publish the frequency distribution of length-to-width ratios for either the blades or the complete flakes. Moreover, while you did publish the frequency distribution for blade widths, you didn't publish the frequency distribution of their lengths, and you published neither for the 'complete flakes.' 
From the reader's standpoint, on the basis of your published observations,  it's an open question as to whether or not the distincitveness of your 'blades' isn't simply an artifact of the arbitrary definition of a blade.  

Wilkins was kind enough to glean her data to give me a histogram of the 'complete flake' and 'complete blade' L-W ratios (N=920). It's given below. And it's a far cry from the sense that one gets from the histogram above. 
The first thing I noticed when I saw the L-W ratio distribution for the assemblage as a whole was that complete flakes with a L-W ratio >2 (i.e. what the authors call 'blades') are a minority compared to those <2, and that in no way do they display the unimodal distribution that the blade width histogram above did. As I look at this histogram I don't see a unimodal, bimodal, or a normal distribution. I see that about 700 of the 920 are 'flakes' (i.e. with a L-W of between 0.8:1 and 2.0:1). That works out to about a .76 probability that any piece of rock that was detached from a core and discarded in the excavated portion of Kathu Pan 1 would have had a length to width ratio of between 0.8:1 and 2:1! More fascinating, when you remember the authors' conclusions, is that the distribution of flakes with L-W between 0.8 and 2:1 is close to that of a continuous uniform distribution. A uniform distribution occurs when one is tracking a variate that is varying randomly, as would be the case if one was sampling from a continuous variable (with replacement), and not constrained to any discrete value, such as would be the case in a game of dice. This Kathu Pan 1 distribution of the L-W ratios of all complete 'detached pieces' is not perfectly uniform, to be sure. But when one can predict an outcome inside 25% of the range 75% of the time, we're talking anything but 'normal.'
     As well as being platykurtic this distribution is heavily skewed to the lower L-Ws. As for those flakes that Wilkins and Chazan would call blades, the numbers taper off to the right much as would be the case in any platykurtic normal distribution. This is to be expected even in a distribution that is close to uniform for a portion of the range. You simply wouldn't expect a strongly, but imperfectly random process to suddenly drop to zero at any point. Thus, the shape of the distribution for the longer flakes is what you'd expect, even from a process that was more random than not. 
     I believe that the L-W ratios of complete blades and flakes data more or less destroy the authors' contention that 'blades' were preferentially removed, relative to just plain old L-W <2 flakes. There's nothing distinctive whatsoever about their blade dimensions when compared along with the rest of the assemblage. I fully expect a similar outcome if we were ever to see the frequency distribution of all 'detached pieces,' both fragmentary and complete, whether called 'flakes' or 'blades' by Wilkins and Chazan.

     Alas, I wish I could say that we're finished. We still have to deal with the authors' contention that there are these prepared cores and that the 'blades' frequently demonstrate 'bi-directional' flake removals, which the authors would say was analogous to the prismatic cores that we see produced by modern humans. 
     When I asked as to what it was besides the L-W ratio that distinguishes the flakes they call blades as blades, Wilkins replied   

the majority of the detached pieces that are twice as long as they are wide have bidirectional dorsal scars (relating them to the bidirectional cores that we describe)
I comes down to this, then. Even if the L-W ratio isn't an acceptable criterion to allow most lithic analysts to spot the 'blades' in the assemblage, the authors nevertheless infer that a 'blade industry' existed at Kathu Pan 1 at 500 Ka. They infer that the blades are being removed from 'bi-directional' cores. This, they suggest, is evidence that the 'blades' were sought after, and that the cores were prepared so that the hominids of the time could employ a bi-directional technique to ensure that they removed a series of elongated flakes. 
     Let's look closer at their contention. I don't know any other way than to display what the authors have given us, at a scale that makes sense. These views of the so-called bi-directional cores are more or less actual size. After admiring the lovely layered effect of banded ironstone in the photo, have a look at the drawing labelled 'c.'
A 'bi-directional core'

I think if I were holding the lump of rock illustrated in 'c' I couldn't have found very many more places from which to strike off flakes. And, regardless of the hard sell that the authors are perpetrating, I think you'd have to be pretty generous to say that the 'directions' of the flake removals do anything but point to the central mass of this core from a variety of angles. As an example of a prepared bi-directional core, this leaves a lot to be desired.
     Think on this. These drawings no doubt represent the best examples of what the authors want to call bi-directional cores, drawn from the approximately 700 cores in the entire assemblage. The authors need to hope that there are better examples if they want to convince anyone but themselves and the Journal of Archaeological Science's referees that there is any merit whatsoever in their argument. 
Now have a look at e, above. I see the same story repeated. No preferred orientation of flake removal, except that the knapper appears to have been aiming at the central mass of this lump of rock, somewhere near its geographic centre. The same story is repeated in the following examples. Bi-directional cores? My ass.

Same story.

A little more ambiguos, but still...

Finally! A 'core' with only 'bi-directional' flaking. Sadly, it's on a small bit of rock that only truly lent itself to end-on flaking, and to the removal of a small number of flakes.

But that's still not all. The authors aver that the flakes they call blades show dorsal flake scarring indicative of at least one previous removal going in the opposite direction--i.e. evidence of having been struck off one of their fantasy bi-directional cores. They say that even the complete flakes don't show the same dorsal morphology. Here's what I think.
     Let’s imagine a core with a long axis of x cm. The knapper is removing flakes from either end so as not to end up with a useless wedge in short order. Flakes of length < X/2 will in all likelihood exhibit unidirectional dorsal flake scars, while flakes in excess of X/2 will in all likelihood exhibit bi-directional flake scars.  I fail to see how the authors' observations imply anything other than that long flakes struck from brick-like cores are more likely to display bidirectional flake scars because they're longer than those flakes called just flakes. 
     And if you don't believe me about the brick-shaped core thing, just listen to what Wilkins and Chazan say about their wonderful, prepared, bi-directional cores.

The authors use the term idealized a lot in this illustration. Go figure! Here they provide no evidence of the presumed preparation of a chunk of rock to produce such a shape from which to strike off elongated flakes bi-directionally. And even if you give the hominids the benefit of the doubt (the half-million year old ones, not the authors), all we're seeing here is, perhaps, the result of a choice as to which of the four 'sides' to exploit. 
     Of course, what I think doesn't matter a hill of beans. The palaeoanthropological 'community' will think whatever they want to think, regardless whether the evidence is real or trumped up. So, I'm gonna go back to the store now and get me some more vegetable juice!
     Cheers! Chimo!

* Wilkins, J., Chazan, M., Blade production ~500 thousand years ago at Kathu Pan 1, South Africa: support for a multiple origins hypothesis for early Middle Pleistocene blade technologies, Journal of Archaeological Science (2012), doi:10.1016/ j.jas.2012.01.031

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