Thursday 31 January 2013

Sheesh! Handy Items, Handaxes. Or Maybe Not. Beyene et al. and the oldest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia

From: "The characteristics and chronology of the earliest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia," by Yonas Beyene et al.
PNAS, published online before print January 28, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221285110

I hafta hand it to the early stone age archaeologists and their enablers. They persist in identifying artifacts such as the one shown above as "tools" [in this case a hand axe] without ever having demonstrated that these artifacts were used as tools. It's the conventional wisdom. Who can blame them? The latest voodoo archaeology comes to us from the pages of PNAS, in an article claiming the earliest Acheulean assemblages ever discovered---1.75 Ma! That's a fab result on the dating side, but not so much on the artifact typology side. [You might have expected me to say as much.]
     In the case of the unit shown above, it's a wee bit of a reach to call this a 'hand' axe. It might better be described as a two-handed axe or, perhaps, a two-fisted axe. Or, better still: a mangler. It's on the large side, it seems to me, to have been used one-handed. Most of the other so-called hand axes illustrated in the Bayene et al. article are similarly size grande, as are the so-called cleavers and picks. The image below is a montage that I made from three of Beyene et al.'s figures. I've adjusted their sizes to present them at the same scale [plus or minus my ability to observe when the red smudges lined up in the three photographs]. I've also oriented them with what I infer is the distal [or bulb of percussion] end of the original flake at the bottom.
     I've chosen to present these artifacts in this way so it might be easier for the reader to observe that the range of variation in dorsal outline amongst these three classifications---'hand axe,' 'cleaver,' and 'pick'---could easily be a function of the number of times the original flake was whacked, as opposed to the ultimate intention. For example, if the so-called handaxes in the top row were in fact just cores, it's easy to see how one attempt more or less to remove useful flakes could easily result in a shape that would be considered more like a cleaver or a pick. I'd love to see those inevitable lumps of bifacially flaked rocks from Konso that the excavators didn't view as 'tools.' I'm fairly certain they were there, and sufficiently amorphous that they were simply deemed cores and not tools. They would very likely fill in the gaps in the range of shapes, producing a continuum from discoid through to pick-oid.
Upper row: Dorsal view of a chronological series of artifacts classified as Tools/hand axes. Earliest at left. Bottom row, from the left: Dorsal view three artifacts classified as cleavers; Dorsal view of six artifacts classified as picks (From "The characteristics and chronology of the earliest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia," by Yonas Beyene et al.PNAS, published online before print January 28, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221285110) [scale in cm]. 
In the past I've received a little back-chat having to do with the Oldowan classification, which still retains the vestiges of the formed tool paradigm. I think it's fair to say that those classifications are still present in the minds of lower palaeolithic archaeologists. To give you an idea of how far back in time such categories as handaxe, cleaver and pick are pushed, have a look at the illustration below, from CJ Lepre, et al. "An earlier origin for the Acheulian." Nature 477(7362):82-5, . 2011. doi: 10.1038/nature10372. I'm fairly sure that to call this assemblage Acheulean is a bit fantastic.
Supplementary Figure 2: World’s oldest known Acheulean (ca. 1.76 Ma) from KS4, West Turkana (Kenya). Photo P.-J.Texier © MPK/WTAP, from Supp. Ref. 5. Top: Partial crude handaxe made on a flat large phonolite cobble. Middle: Pick-like tool with a trihedral section, made on a thick split phonolite pebble. Bottom: Partial crude handaxe made on a thick split phonolite pebble. From CJ Lepre, et al. "An earlier origin for the Acheulian." Nature 477(7362), 82-5, 2011. doi: 10.1038/nature10372.
"Partial crude handaxe? You've gotta be joking! Pick-like tool?? Then another partial crude handaxe!? This was the best they could come up with as examples of the Acheulean at 1.76 Ma? No wonder Beyene et al. are a little suspicious of Lepre et al.'s characterization of the Kokiselei assemblage as Acheulean. If this is the best they've got... they really have no leg to stand on. From what their readers are presented, there's nothing here but a few Oldowan cores. The point here is that the archaeologists imbued these crudely flaked lumps of rock with the finished artifact paradigm that permeates the post-Oldowan periods, and as a result they've fallen prey to their own presuppositions.

I'm going to stop now. Cross your fingers that the next Very Important Article that comes within my sight has something to do with an area and a time other than the Pleistocene of Africa and Asia.

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Sunday 27 January 2013

A Black Spot on Palaeolithic Archaeology: The Two Bitumen-Splattered Mousterian Artifacts from Umm el Tlal, Syria.

I very much hope that my absence from your 'puter or mobile from time to time means that my unconscious is cooking something up of which I'm not aware until it pops into my head. O' course, I've pretty much covered everything at least once by now. Maybe I should hang up my spurs. Seriously. Who wants to hear the same blah, blah, blah every time they pop their head in? Let me see... *scratches head* Oh! Thanks, unconscious! Here's something.
     Somehow or other this baby snuck past me back in '96. Hmmm. 8-month-old baby. Fieldwork. More fieldwork. Job hunt. Baby. I'm gonna cut myself a little slack for missing it. Besides, I've said plenty about similar somethings in the past. Surely I've covered this. *searches the SA for keyword Umm el Tlel* Nothing. Hmmm. Guess I have some work to do. *rubs hands together with obvious glee*
     OK. Straight face. Published in Nature 380, 336--338, "Bitumen as hafting material on Middle Palaeolithic artifacts," by Eric Boëda et al. [I should mention that I'm acquainted with two of the co-authors---Hélène Valladas and Norbert Mercier. We met while I was working at Kebara Cave in 1989. Everyone treated me well that summer. But Hélène and Norbert were extra kind. I even shared a room with Norbert for a week or so while we were staying at a hotel at Zikhron Ya'aqov toward the end of the season. Which reminds me. Contemporary PhD students Michael Spiers, Steve Churchill, Dan Lieberman, Ann Délange, and Erella Hovers were also there that summer. Small world. Sort of.]
     Anyway. Bitumen. Hafting. I've previously handled several insupportable claims for Middle Palaeolithic hafting---here, here, here and here, to name but a few... One more won't hurt.
From Boëda et al., 1996.

    According to the map Umm el Tlal is near the present-day village of El Kowm. It looks to be about 50 km from Bichri Djebel, in what's now Syria. In the uppermost Mousterian level the team found two lithic artifacts that are stained with bitumen. I have no argument with the chemists on this one. I'm willing to give them that much. These two [count 'em. Two!] bits of rock---one a convergent side-scraper [in the old Bordesian typology; one a 4-cm quadrangular flake---bear traces of bitumen in places where the authors want us to believe that bitumen would preserve if they'd been hafted to sticks. Have a look below. The solid black portions depicted in a are representations of traces of bitumen. As are the similarly solid black portions of the little flake shown in c, further down[I have to say that the black bits on the smaller flake are kind of lost in amongst the very dark lines indicating the Hertzian ripples. Thus, it's difficult, really, to know what's bitumen and what isn't were c is concerned.]
     I find it fascinating that, on the evidence, Nature even bothered to send this paper to referees. And the referees ought to be put in the stocks.

From Boëda et al., 1996.
With regard to the convergent side-scraper the bitumen remnant is interpreted thusly:
The trace of bitumen is present on both faces of the side-scraper and, except at the point, it follows the curve of the right side of the tool, 1 cm below its edge. The left side and the proximal end of the tool were set into a handle. 
So, lemme get this straight. We have an intermittent streak of bitumen on the dorsal surface. No bitumen present on the proximal surface. No bitumen visible on the entire left side of the artifact. Yet, we're expected to believe the interpretation given in b, that almost the entire surface was buried in the haft. I think we must presume that the bitumen on the side not shown is less suggestive than what we can see in this diagram. Otherwise, why leave it a mystery. Regardless, I think it's a real stretch [based on the illustration, mind you] to infer, first of all, that the bitumen had once coated a substantially greater area. It's also difficult for me to accept that the mere presence of bitumen can be taken as prima facie evidence that this artifact was hafted.
     Consider the distribution of the bitumen. I don't know much, if anything, about bitumen taphonomy, but if some bitumen is still adhering to this artifact, where did the rest go? Sure, the two linear patches near the distal end roughly parallel the retouched right margin. And it's true, the distal-most 0.5 cm of the longer patch appears to roughtly parallel the same margin. But the remainder of the larger 'stain' wanders away from the right margin, up to, but not across the medial ridge of a flake scar on the left half, and then turns abruptly back toward the right margin, but extends to the right margin---not stopping 1 cm from it, which is how the atuhors interpret the distal-most 1.5 cm of the bitumen stain. How are we supposed to know, from the distribution, that the stick wasn't hafted along the right margin and proximal end?
     If the bitumen had originally coated the lefterly portion of the flake such that it cemented a haft to the majority of the artifact, why has it remained in certain places, but not others? And are we to believe that the tool-maker fashioned a haft to fit the side-scraper, then only smeared bitumen along the haft-flake boundary? I couldn't imagine that. Could you? Moreover, it seems to me that, if the authors can completely ignore the absence of bitumen elsewhere on the artifact, implying to me that there has been a random loss of bitumen over the ages, I'm feel that I'm well within my rights to suggest that the bitumen was never there in the first place!
     As for the conclusion that the presence of bitumen can be straightforwardly inferred to mean that it was being used as hafting cement, I have to say that I find it implausible. I can say that unflinchingly, if only because the little 4-cm flakoid shown below would prob'ly be the last bit of rock that a sentient being would want to haft to make a handled tool. Were there no Levallois flakes to be hafted? There were some Levallois remains at Umm el Tlal. But, no Levallois points, either? No Levallois blades? Surely those late Neanderthals weren't so desperate to use this tiny, nearly useless piece of rock that they hafted it so they could get a grip! [So is the idea that anyone would haft over a perfectly good edge (i.e. the left margin of the convergent scraper). Likewise, who'd haft a side scraper lengthwise? Wouldn't it make more sense to haft it perpendicular to the long axis?]
     I think it's the authors who should get a grip! It's, it's, scandalous to think that they could have gotten away with this! I'm completely flummoxed. Hey, maybe that's why Nature published it. Maybe they got confused, and were so embarrassed that the editor and the referees all let it pass. Yeah. That's it. That's the ticket!
From Boëda et al., 1996.
Geez, Dr. Science, how did the bitumen get there in the first place, if it wasn't put there by a Neanderthal? Hmmm. Let's see. I can think of half a dozen possibilities, none of which depend on a source of bitumen close to the Umm el Tlal. The authors point out that Bichri Djebel is the nearest known source of naturally occurring bitumen. However, the chemical signature of the Umm el Tlal bitumen isn't chemically identical with that of the nearby Bichri Djebel site, nor of the Hit site downstream. Not that it matters to me that we don't know the source of the bitumen. What difference could it possibly make?
     The authors finish with the finding that the bitumen was heated to a high temperature before its putative use as a hafting cement. Hmm. Naturally occurring bitumen, meet naturally occurring fire.  
     Unknown source. Unknown process by which bitumen came to be adhering to two small lumps of rock. Not much to hang an argument on [I wouldn't have thought].
     It should be fairly clear that this article, which claims to present evidence of an activity previously unknown among the Neanderthals, might just as well have claimed those same Ns were building rockets to the moon. There's just about an equal amount of support for that conclusion in the evidence from Umm el Tlal.

My Gawd. Will it never stop???

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Other Africas

The Island of Meroe. The Kingdom of Kush, contemporary with the Egyptian late dynastic period, ca. 300 B.C.E. to ca. 400 C.E.
Rather poorly educated lay people have many times asked me the quintessentially racist question: "Why didn't the other [read: black] Africans produce art and culture like the Egyptians?" Quite apart from the tendency for the bile to come to my throat when I'm asked the question, the anthropologist in me wants to know the explanation for such ignorance. Simply put, I think the sheer weight of scholarship and attention lavished on the Egyptian sequence has eclipsed any accomplishments that otherwise might have caught the eye of art historians or interested members of the public. As anthropologists, we could probably argue endlessly as to whether or not the explanation lies in an inherent racism among Egyptologists, mere ethnocentrism, elitism or any of a number of other "ism"s. The fact remains---the world doesn't hear much about the other great archaeological and historically important cultures of Africa beyond the valley of the blue Nile.
This morning I was reminded of the issue when an item on the news ticker prompted me to click on a link to, an English-language Egyptian news magazine. The article is titled "A walk among Sudan's Nubian pyramids." Its author, Mohammed Elrazzaz, promises that this is the first part of a series. I think we could probably all gain from following it. He and a companion are doing a 'walkabout' of sorts in the Sudan, and alerting the rest of us to the richness of material culture beyond the reach of Egypt's dynasties. Nubia is first. More pyramids than Egypt, few heavens sake! Real pharaohs, too! More sand, but still a wealth of archaeological cultures that are virtually unknown beyond their ghostly borders. The Island of Meroe is at the heart of the Kingdom of Kush. In its material culture it was heavily influenced by the people to the north.
Wanna know where the largest university in the world was in the 12th century C.E.? Yup. Smack in the heart of the Sahel, in modern day Mali. It took its name from the city in which it grew---Timbuktu. It had its beginnings due to a late 10th century gift from a rich Mandinka woman, who wanted her country to be home to the world's greatest Islamic centre of learning. She got her wish. Comprising three schools, Sankoré Madrasah, Djinguereber Mosque and Sidi Yahya, at its height it boasted 25,000 students in the city of 100,000, and somewhere between 400,000 and 700,000 manuscripts, making it the largest library, as well. This was when Oxford was young and small, and Cambridge was just another market town.

A part of Timbuktu today.
So, next time someone confesses to you that they're ignorant of the accomplishments of non-Egyptian Africans, curb your bile and consider it a 'teachable moment.' [Gawd! I truly hate popular expressions like that. Forgive me its use.]

Gotta go take my awesome daughter to school. It's finals week in the first semester of her 12th year of schooling. A mere five months 'til graduation. Unbelievable. TTFN.

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Monday 21 January 2013


A day to celebrate our shared humanity.

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Saturday 19 January 2013

More North American 'Hand Axes'

Okay, okay. I've mentioned the 75 'hand axes' discarded at El Pulguero, Baja California. I can tell you from personal observation that Baja has plenty of similar 'Acheulean' archaeological occurrences. Shortly after I moved to Berkeley, California to take up my Ph.D. preparation at UC Berkeley I was invited to a holiday celebration at the then offices of the Institute for Human Oranges Origins and the Berkeley Geochronology Laboratory, just north of campus. I met Garniss Curtis and Carl Swisher that night, along with Don Johanson and Bill Kimball. Besides my companion for the night, the most memorable moments were when someone off-handedly mentioned a tray of hand axes that had been collected in Baja California. They were every inch hand axes, if calling large bifacial cores by that name is your habit.
     Such artifacts aren't unique to the Baja peninsula, either, to which the objects in the photo below will attest. Those below, from the Topper site in the Carolinas, scream HAND AXE to me. How 'bout you?

Source: Ashley M. Smallwood. "Clovis biface technology at the Topper site, South Carolina: evidence for variation and technological flexibility." Journal of Archaeological Science 37:2413--2425, 2010.
I don't normally like rubbing other people's noses in the stuff they peddle. However, in the case of North America's spitting-image-of-hand-axes bifaces, I simply can't help myself. There are yet more. Those illustrated below arise from the GS Lewis site, also in the Carolinas. These, too, are referred to as "preforms," although the reduction sequence, if one existed for these 'facts, isn't well represented in this graphic, which was presumably intended to do just that. The upper 'fact is cleaver shaped, while the lower is hand axe shaped. It's hard for me to see how the one arises from further reduction of the other in this scheme.

Sassaman, Kenneth E., Randy Daniel, and Christopher R. Moore. "GS Lewis-East: Early and Late Archaic Occupations Along the Savannah River, Aiken County, South Carolina." Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, 2002.
So, my astute archaeological acolytes, what's a subversive to do, save to continue inching the knife inward at the same time as twisting it ever so slightly to remind the victim that one is serious about the intended outcome? Or, do I ease off, hoping that I've made my *cough* point?

Final word of the day: If you keep coming back, I'll keep on trying to give you something to compensate you adequately for your effort. TTFN!

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Don't Blame Canada! Events In Northwestern North America Cast A Long Shadow In Mid-Ninth Century C.E. Europe

This just in. Well, that is, it was 'just in' about 1,250 years ago. And not here. Europe. Well, here and there. By 'here' I mean... maybe a pitcher or two'll tell the story better. First, there was this on Facebook, from our friend Breck Parkman.

That led me to the 'official' announcement, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute: "White River ash made its way across the globe." Ash dated to about 860 C.E. has been recovered in places across northern Europe. However, its origin was an enigma until now. Britta Jensen and Duane Froese (University of Alberta) have apparently solved a long-standing mystery of European geology.
The White River Ash blasted from giant eruptions somewhere in today’s Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains, drifted as far away as Ireland and Germany, said experts who attended the December 2012 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held in San Francisco.
Near the source, the ash-fall was impressive, as the photo below illustrates.

PHOTO CAPTION/CREDIT: Duane Froese of the University of Alberta in a forest of stumps smothered by the White River Ash around the year 843 AD. Froese is pictured in the Yukon Territory, close to the Alaska border and Natazhat Glacier in an area downwind of the great White River eruptions, which spewed from somewhere near Alaska’s Mount Churchill. Photo courtesy of D. Froese. 

The Wrangell--St. Elias Mountains lie in southern Alaska. As you can see from the Google earth graphic below, they're almost half a world away from Ireland and Germany.

As for the topographic character of the present-day place of origin, the image below gives some idea of the 'bowl' presumed to be the remnant of the enormous explosions of ash. Mounts Churchill and Bona are indicated. It's possible to see the huge snow-free scarp immediately downslope, and another, nearer the bottom of the photo, evincing another large, arcuate head scarp.

For scale, the two peaks are 4.14 km apart. Vertical scale exaggerated 1:2. (Source: Google earth.)
One can imagine that, in places where it occurs archaeologically, the White River ash may be a useful time-marker. Especially when you remember that at this time in its history, in places across Europe, there was at best a sparse written record, and ceramic and other relative dating techniques might not yield precise temporal information.

Catch you next time!

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Friday 18 January 2013

And The Winner Is... Biface!

In yesterday's minimalist blurt I put up a photo and asked you, the reader, to contemplate its essential nature. I promised to tell you more about it today. First, I'll reproduce the photo with its caption.

Source of this and the two photographs below: "Rhyolite bifacial preform production at El Pulguero: a prehistoric quarry and workshop site in the cape region of Baja California." In Proceedings of the Society for California Archaeology Volume 22, Papers presented at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the Society for California Archaeology, Burbank, California, April 17 – 20, edited by Sharon A. Waechter and Don Laylander, 2008.
As you can see from the caption, yesterday's question was intended to trick those friends of the Subversive Archaeologist who're Old World palaeolithic archaeologists into identifying the pictured artifact as an Acheulean hand axe. In retrospect I prolly didn't fool anyone. The pre-European archaeological site of El Pulguero Suroeste lies about 25 km north of La Paz, Baja California, Mexico. The object looks for all the world like those artifacts called hand axes in the Old World. And, who knows? If that's what you thought it was you might be right, if correct be your assumptions about "mental templates" involved in their production. Although, for my part, I find rather farcical the notion that a first or second millenium C.E. inhabitant of Baja California could possibly possess the same "mental template" as a 1.5 million year old Homo ergaster. Others may not find it so.

Fujita (2008) Figure 3.
I'm frankly bemused that archaeologist Fujita concludes that this and others like it found at this extensive rhyolite quarry are preforms of anything. If so, why leave a perfectly good one at the quarry, much less the 75 or so others recorded there. This, of course, is a question for the persons who left them there, and not for a twenty-first century North American of European ancestry. Still, the sparse ethnographic and ethnoarchaeological observations of 'traditional' behaviors at such quarry sites would suggest that, at least in recent world history, such sources of useable flakes were most likely left behind for the next trip to replenish the supply of useful flakes at the residential camp. IainS mentioned in his comment on yesterday's post that he found the Binford and O'Connell article "An Alyawara Day: The Stone Quarry" might be worth another look in this regard. In that piece, the authors mention the rare few published observations of traditional behaviours at quarry sites.

"An Alyawara Day: The Stone Quarry"
Lewis R. Binford and James F. O'Connell
Journal of Anthropological Research 40, 406--432, 1984.

Theirs and all of the other ethnographic accounts they mention converge, it seems to me, on the likelihood that the El Pulguero bifaces are ready-made sources of useful flakes that are curated at the site for that purpose. Thus, they are likely not finished artifacts, nor are they artifacts on the way to becoming something with a predetermined finished shape.

Fujita (2008) Figure 2.
I'll be back soon with another dip into the mythic archaeological landscape. See you soon.

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Pop Quiz!

What is it? Qu'est-ce-que c'est? Que es eso? Was ist das? I'll post the answer tomorrow. Why not leave a comment if you think you have it 'nailed.' Asta mañana!

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Friday 11 January 2013

An Open Letter to the Facebook Biological Anthropology Constituency

Thanks to the arcane Facebook rules of engagement, it was a complete fluke that I opened the following message some time after it was sent to me, which occurred on October 22 of last year. I immediately penned a scathing reply, which for some reason Facebook 'disappeared.' [Prolly for the best. I can't afford to lose any friends or readers.] However, this message has festered in me, month after month, and I now find that I can't forbear commenting--the issue raised, so far as I'm concerned, is too big to be ignored. I've left out any direct evidence of the message's origin and author. I think it wouldn't be fair to either.
Hi, Rob.
I'm one of the admins of [name withheld Facebook page]. We are happy to have people's personal blog posts appear in the group provided they fall within a broad definition of news. Most of your posts do, although we have been deleting your posts that are just about you or are not specifically about biological anthropology (again, broadly defined). I wanted to let you know this in the event you see your posts disappear.
But I also want to ask that you refrain from commenting on your own posts simply to move them to the top of the news feed. Your current post, for instance, got a "like" but no comments - except two from you attempting to harangue readers into commenting. In our experience running this group for the past several years, this kind of thing doesn't go over well with other members.So, in sum, please confine your personal blog posts to those that are relevant to biological anthropology. Many of us in this group have our own blogs, and this is the unstated (until now) rule we've followed for the past couple of years.
Thanks, [Name withheld to protect the culpable]
As you might imagine I was somewhat taken aback by this upbraiding [and from a fellow independent scholar, to boot]. There are so many false or misinformed accusations in this message that I can't possibly address them all adequately in a single blurt. I'm [to use a vernacular expression]  pissed! So, I thought I'd just respond to what I see as the main issue with the following open letter addressed to the author as much as any and all biological anthropologists, whether or not affiliated with the Facebook page in question.

Dear Colleague:

I was distressed to receive the above-copied message from the moderator of a prominent biological anthropology Facebook page in late October, 2012. I was very concerned because that moderator was addressing me as if I were aware that I had been violating the code of conduct and content. Nothing could be further from the truth. I trust that you'll take my confession of innocence for what it is: candid truth. Notwithstanding the unfounded allegations, I find that your message entails a very important issue, which remains unspoken. I hope you'll forgive me for giving voice to it.

The estimable moderator first makes reference to the content of the blog posts I had been announcing on the page. I wish I had in front of me a list of the announcements that have been 'disappeared' by the moderators. That's because I'm still in the dark as to what a strictly biological anthropologist thinks is of interest to other biological anthropologists. As a biological anthropologist and a palaeolithic archaeologist, I'm bemused. That's because, although my writing doesn't often concern the hard and soft tissue of Hominini, it does deal primarily with issues that should be of direct concern to your members, whether they happen to be up their particular research alley or not. I say that because most biological anthropologists that I have know regularly trot out archaeological inferences in their introductory and higher level university courses. And, whereas the Subversive Archaeologist speaks directly to the archaeological inferences that inform those university syllabuses, I believe that much of what I concern myself with ought to be of direct interest to those whose primary interest is in hard and soft tissue evolution and not the archaeological record. Show me a biological anthropologist who isn't influenced by archaeological inferences and I'll show you a child in a sweet shop with the wherewithal to purchase, but without any idea what the attractively coloured items actually taste like.

Archaeological inference is crucial to what your sub-discipline is dedicated to. Moreover, in your introductory classes it's a dead cert that you're constantly bringing in archaeological inferences to spice up the content. I'm incredulous that any of you would be so short-sighted as to think that the Subversive Archaeologist isn't directly relevant to your intellectual pursuits, let alone "news" worthy. I hope you'll forgive me for taking umbrage. You do Anthropology a great disservice if you ignore, or downplay, or 'disappear' the knowledge created by the other sub-disciplines when it concerns the same creatures you, yourself, are studying. Anthropology, remember, is a holistic discipline, and the whole cannot be truthfully understood without the cooperation of all four sub-disciplines. Let's take a look at a case in point that is timely.

Ignorance of the anthropology and linguistics of ethnographic southern Africa has meant that the 1000-genome project will have serious problems upholding one of its primary 'conclusions.' I refer to the one whereby the African genomic data tells a story of little interaction between the ancestral Africans and the Neanderthals. This, in turn, is taken to imply that any interbreeding between the Neanderthals and modern humans tool place after modern humans had left Africa on their ineluctable conquest of the Old World. I invite you to visit my recent comments for a full explanation of this claim.

I'd hasten to add that, while I can't consider myself infallible, neither can those archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists of whose work I'm critical. Nor can you and your page's members afford to cherry-pick just those inferences that support their research agenda, while ignoring alternative conclusions. In every case about which I have written the claims I make with respect to others' inferences are not fallacious. Why then would your moderators 'disappear' mine and thereby privilege the status quo if both deal with aspects of Hominini behaviour? 

Can I make another observation that I think is germane in this discussion? This should 'speak' to both biological and archaeological anthropologists. I always crack a smile when I hear the soft-tissue people say that the growth of Broca's area is sure and certain proof that language has emerged and that its importance to Hominini survival is proven by the prominence of Broca's area relative to that which occurred in the earliest bipedal apes. Listen to yourselves! You call yourself evolutionary biologists. In claiming that the growth in prominence of Broca's Area parallels that of language you're forgetting a fundamental axiom of phylogeny--structures that arise for one purpose in evolutionary history are easily co-opted for other functions further down the line. 

Homology tells us that the terrestrial vertebrate's lung is the same structure as the 'swim bladder' of the fish. Thus, the lung didn't arise so that in a subsequent geological epoch vertebrates could emerge from the sea to take breath and colonize the land. In the same way, if one looks at the apparent function of Broca's area in other primates, and the co-lateral functions of Broca's area in modern humans, one can see vestiges of the earliest specialization of that part of the brain. One sees that Broca's area supports mouth and hand movement, both of which can easily be seen as components of increasingly sophisticated ape communication systems that, along the way, became what we now refer to as the 'language' of modern humans. 

The preceding would be a non-sequitur were it not that archaeologists make much of such inferences in their own work, and that work feeds back into the discourse of the rank and file biological anthropologists. Thus, it's commonly taught that language arose with the first swelling of Broca's Area, and that the earliest stone tools are somehow evidence for that linguistic ability. From there it's an easy leap to seeing the Levallois so-called Technique as linguistically driven. And so the Neandertals are viewed as linguistic. And so on.

Biological anthropologists can no more exist without palaeolithic archaeologists than the other way around [Clark Howell is probably turning over in his grave right now]. Since the primary motive of the Subversive Archaeologist is to expose the insufficient reasoning surrounding a host of archaeological inferences of Hominini behaviour, I find it incredible that you and your college of moderators would consider even the most hard-core archaeological discussions of mine to be of no relevance to you or your members. This isn't arrogance. It's common sense! [Pity 'tis, 'tis a pity that sense isn't so common.]

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Thursday 10 January 2013

You Want the Straight Truth from the Media and Not Myths in the Making? You Got It!

I guess it's true that you should always be careful what you wish for. I'm always bangin' on the media for acting as stenographers for scientists with extraordinary claims supported by equivocal evidence. I guess I deserve this. From the SA news ticker comes this headline from [copyright Associated Press]. The whole thing's reproduced below. Have a look. Then help me figger out what's truly newsworthy in this up-to-the-minute bulletin from the Near East.

Nothing new in the wooden sarcophaguses, or the human bone. Is it because the archaeologists are Italian? Perhaps it's that a tomb only 3,000 years old was found stratigraphically inferior to a structure that's older--3,413 years old--based on the date given for the end of Amenhotep II's reign [which one must presume was also the date of his life's end]. Details of the embalming ritual and of the ancients' cosmology are already well known. That information couldn't possibily have moved CBS to publish this. Could it?

Given the prominence of Egyptology in the public's consciousness, this article has about as much news in it as would a report on the flushing of a few millions toilets at half time during the Super Bowl. Is this what I have to look forward to when the rest of the world finally learns to see things my way? Jeebuz! Maybe I should consider a career change, now, to save myself a case of terminal ennui in that golden future.

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

I Have A *cough* Bone To Pick with the Neanderthal Interbreeding Advocates: The 1000-Genome African Sample is Seriously Inadequate!

Since the Very Serious Anthropologists and Geneticists don't seem to get it, let me try another way. Those estimable scientists believe that they have more-or-less irrefutable evidence that people like you and I, upon entering Europe around 40,000 years ago encountered the Neanderthals and, in true human fashion saw no reason to avoid having sex with them. As you read on, you'll discover why it is that the 1000-genome project and its [always provisional] conclusions are inherently flawed--their choice of African samples simply can't satisfy the purpose for which the project has intended it. Moreover, the absence of anything resembling a representative sample of the ancestral genetic diversity in Africa renders their conclusions equivocal, at best, and at worst, null and void.

First let me remind you that, even without the recently acquired ability to sequence entire genomes, it's intuitively obvious that the modern human and Neanderthal genomes would share a large number of genes of all kinds by virtue of a common ancestry reaching all the way back to the first DNA molecule. In like fashion, we share a slightly smaller number of genes with gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Less still with gibbons, siamangs, and orangutans. And it's equally logical that we share fewer DNA segments with the other mammals, fewer with the fish, and so on. I can say this even without knowledge of a single genome.

A Neanderthal genome has been published. Likewise a Denisovan. And fine-grained comparisons have been made between those observations and those on about two-and-a-half thousand people alive today. As yet, we have no clue as to the genome of Homo erectus / H. ergaster. Svante Pääbo and colleagues, and biological anthropologist John Hawks, among many others, want to persuade us that their data reveal interbreeding between people like us and the Neanderthals.

At times over the past year I've made great fun of the notion. That's primarily because, in my view there's no evidence that the Neanderthals could communicate in the way I am with you at this moment. Most anthropologists would probably concede that absence of language in the Neanderthal species would pretty much rule out what has historically been called human culture, and thus would likely render any modern human impression of the Neanderthals on a par with our impressions of gorillas and chimps. If, and I must [alas] emphasize, if the Neanderthals and their contemporaries were bereft of language, it would be highly unlikely that you or I or an Aurignacian or even a present-day member of the American Republican Party would think that it was a high-percentage move to mate with one. My guess is that it would be tantamount to the tongue-in-cheek proverbial shepherd and his fearful sheep.

[Admittedly, animal behaviorists and primatologists who study living anthropoid primates will tell you that most of them evince something like a 'culture,' in that they learn through species-specific social behaviour--i.e. learning. Some primatologists will also want to tell you that the African great apes are capable of language. To date, however, not a single chimp, bonobo, or gorilla have come forward with evidence that they are capable of even one Nth of what you and I can can accomplish with our minds.]

In undertaking anew my effort to scrutinize the data underlying claims for interbreeding, I'm undaunted by the reality--that most of us would have to go back to school to understand the even-more-sophisticated analyses of the genome data acquired by the ultra-sophisticated techniques upon which the 1000-genome project folks and the Neanderthals-R-Us crowd base their claims for interbreeding between the Neanderthals and modern people like you and me. Notwithstanding my staggering naiveté with regard to genomics, I still think it's possible to focus the spotlight on a methodological problem in the prodigious dataset thus far compiled. That problem resides in the choice of populations sampled.

At its heart, my complaint about the 1000-genome sample is simple, but fundamental. It's so fundamental, and I'm at such a loss to explain how the project leaders allowed it to be the case, that when I imagine the interbreeding advocates coming face to face with my argument I can't help but recall the image of cartoon character Wile E. Coyote the instant he looks down and realizes that he's no longer standing on solid ground. If the 1000-genome project-affiliated biological anthropologists were to 'look down' at their data for a moment they'd prolly realize that they weren't, any longer, on a solid theoretical footing, and will ultimately stand or fall on the implications of their flawed data.

The shortcoming that I see lies in what they term "the African" populations, and the conclusion that there's a distinct difference between the degree of genetic material shared amongst Neanderthals, modern Europeans, and modern Asians and the degree of genetic material shared between the Neanderthals and present-day African populations. It's assumed [or presumed] that a few hundred African genomes are at least as representative of the genetic diversity of Africa--as a whole--as are those of Europeans and Asians in the sample. As you'll see, this doesn't accord with the facts.

The table below shows the African and African-related portion of the 1000-genome project's data. You can see that the present-day African groups represented are the Yoruba, Luhya, Gambia, Mende, and Esan.  I'll come back to the American genomes in a moment.

The 1000-genome project, in attempting to characterize the range of variability in modern Africans, has sampled a very few groups from the west coast of central Africa and one from inland East Africa. That's a piddling sample given that the African continent gave rise to the species and presumably comprises the greatest range of variation of any similar segment of the species elsewhere in the world. But that's not all. So restricted is their sample that they might just as well have called their African sample the Bantu sample. Indeed, 80% of the Africans sampled [thus far] in the project can trace their ancestry to a Bantu homeland in west Central Africa near the borders of Nigeria and Cameroon. The remaining 20%--the Mende sample--derives from Sierra Leone, just to the north of the Bantu homeland, and linguistically closely related to Bantu. The historical picture of the linguistic and, no doubt, genetic distribution of the the Africans sampled for the 1000-genome project resembles most closely that of the Indo-European speakers, which, around the same time--about 4,000 years ago--spread their language and culture, and their genes, from a point in southwestern Asia across Europe.

The map at left depicts the relative time-depth and geographic extent of the Bantu expansion I've just mentioned, which appears to have occurred in two stages, and which profoundly changed the demographics of Africa south of the Sahara Desert beginning about 4,000 years ago. The problem this presents to the 1000-genome project is enormous. While maintaining that they've got a representative sample of Africa-wide populations, they've very likely drawn from a single, widespread population that has a relatively small degree of genetic diversity due to its single, small region of origin and its rapid expansion. [The likelihood that a relatively homogeneous genome spread and mingled with the ancestral groups in their path may well be the reason that some of the 1000-genome data are seen to suggest a population 'bottleneck' in Africa at some time in the past.]

Let's face it, at a minimum these African results should be approached with caution. I mentioned that the project also sampled Americans of African ancestry. Unfortunately for the project these samples are more of the same. That's because the African slave trade grew up in coastal regions, as you can see in the map of the diaspora that is shown below, the predominant origin for Africans destined for the New World was the same west coastal strip from which the 1000-genome project's indigenous African samples are drawn. As you can easily see, all those purple arrows aiming at the Americas originate on Africa's west coast, the southern portion of which is, as mentioned above, Bantu territory. And, even though some Africans from further north did make it to the Americas, as can be seen by reference to the pie chart inset in the map below, 52% came from Bantu speaking populations--Angola and the Bight of Biafra. Another 23% came from the Bight of Benin, which is the northern region most proximal to the Bantu homeland, and which therefore might be expected to evince a substantial genetic similarity to that of the Bantu peoples who were uprooted and transported to the Americas.

Taken together, the 1000-genome project's African sample may in fact be sampling a very narrow portion of the original, ancestral African, genetic diversity. Unfortunately for the project, when you add up all of the Bantu-related genomes, almost the entire sample representing Africa could be seen to derive from a single, geographically circumscribed ancestral population in western Africa. I can't even begin to calculate the effect this would have on the claims made so far for African input into the parts of the genomes shared between modern humans outside of Africa and those darned Neanderthals. At a minimum, the proponents of the interbreeding hypothesis might want to examine their methods more closely, so as to redress this glaring shortcoming of their sampling strategy.

The fundamental question posed by the 1000-genome project was what proportion of ancestral African populations share any part of their genome with those of the Neanderthals? I'd have to say that the jury's still out, regardless of what the project mavens would have us believe.

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Astrophysicists Aren't Really 'Hard' Scientists: And Other Responses to Ann Gibbons's "An Annus Horribilis for Anthropology?"

Always the pessimist, me, I wasn't surprised when I read the io9 synopsis of a recent article in Science, which foretells the doom of anthropology and with it archaeology and paleoanthropology. The great thing about being a pessimist is that you can never be disappointed, except in a happy way.
     Ann Gibbons is especially warm and fuzzy about our discipline and the prospects it holds for those who would be tutored in it. I couldn't agree with her more that studying anthropology--all four fields, mind you--can make us better human beings. And, alas, most of us know that we're not in it for the money. So, what's so great about her article, the title of which is "An Annus Horribilis for Anthropology?" *pauses for effect* It's in Science, fer hevvenssake! When was the last time anything besides archaeology and fossilized relatives made it into the primary outlet of the American Association for the Advancement of Science? Right. [Only a slender hyperbole, I might add.]
     I'm lucky that I'm old enough to remember the first time gender bias in the sciences was treated in the same journal. It produced empirical evidence for what was being denied across the English-speaking world, from kindergarten to K-Street--the systematic bias against women in science. That article wasn't enough to promote immediate change. I believe it's because the article represented change, itself. Likewise with this Gibbons article. They don't know a thing about us [that big, grey 'They' that inhabits every expression of conventional wisdom, especially in the so-called hard sciences]! The sooner we can redress that lacuna in the heads of wanton boys* AND the gods of science, the sooner we'll put a stop to the science gods' favourite sport of killing our good ideas with accusations of disciplinary flaccidity! We need more social science in Science, not less. And if half of my social scientist colleagues knew half of what I know about philosophy of science, we'd get there twice as fast.
     I'm a bear of very little brain. But even I can spot analogical reasoning and the uniformitarian method from a mile away. Those 'hard' scientists don't have a lock on knowledge-making. Hell, I'd be surprised if any of them even knew how they reasoned, much less had any idea of how close they were to social scientists in the way astrophysicists make knowledge of the universe's past.
     We archaeologists, as I've said before, make knowledge of the past in the same way that early universe physicists do [i.e. using the same inferential path, the same kind of reasoning]! Yet, they get money thrown at them. What do we get? Do I have to remind you? You well know [or should] that the entire annual NSF budget for Anthropology would easily fit inside any decent-sized NASA or Space Telescope Science Institute or even NSF grant for astrophysical research. What's wrong with this picture? I'll tell you what. They think that because we deal with characteristics that change almost capriciously--i.e. people--we must be makin' shit up! They believe that their Einsteins and Plancks are better than we, simply because they deal with unchanging physical processes. I've got news for them. They have no better idea of how close or how far away from "sure and certain knowledge" of the workings of this universe than archaeologists are to understanding the collapse of the Classic Maya or the "evolution" of socioeconomic inequality.
     It's no surprise to me that astrophysicists talk in terms of evolution, archaeology and the fossil record of cosmic processes. They're just as dependent on present-day phenomena as we are for interpreting what went on in the past. Astrophysicists see photons that exist today, but which may have started on their way to us [literally] billions of years ago. Similarly, in the present we pull a piece of rock out of the desert in Namibia. Both sensory impressions are part of our brief life at this end of the temporal span of the universe--they're not pieces of a past! The only way that either science can make sense of these observations is by heavily theorized reference to other better understood phenomena--phenomena that can be understood in the present, then cast backward in time and be seen as the causal process that led to our humble sense impressions in the present. For archaeologists, it's the ethnographic or the geologic record. For astrophysicists, it's nuclear physics or electromagnetism, or mathematics.
     I could go on all day if I thought anybody'd follow me.

     Do me and our holistic discipline a favour, please. If you don't already know, learn how you construct anthropological knowledge. Find it out from someone who understands epistemology, or who's at least flirted with what's known as Realist philosophy of science. Scientific Realism puts to bed all of those arrogant "holier than thou"s of Empiricism [Logical Positivism and Logical Empiricism] and exposes them for what they are: wholly insupportable theories about how scientific knowledge is made. Scientific Realism understands that it's often what can't be seen, tasted, heard, felt, or smelled that is the nub of scientific knowledge--be that science 'hard' or 'soft.' Indeed, Logical Positivism and it's bed-mate Logical Empiricism would have ruled out any investigation of the Past, simply because the past literally doesn't exist. Those physics-inspired philosophies of science also said that such things as 'the mind' and 'intention' couldn't be studied either, because they couldn't be operationalized [i.e. broken down into particles of sense data that could be measured or otherwise observed]. It was crap then, and it's crap now. At least, if you spend some time with your discipline's epistemology, then you'll be able to stand up for yourselves when you hear the inevitable and persistent sniggers from your physicist friends [bet you don't have many of them!].
     Galileo couldn't see the orbits of Jupiter's moons. He simply took Copernicus's heliocentric model of the universe and modified it to account for his observations, which also happened to support Kepler's theory of elliptical orbits.
     I'll leave you with that. Make this a good day--one that you'll remember.

* "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods/They kill us for their sport."
King Lear IV:1:32–37.

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.