Saturday 19 October 2013

Blinkhorn, et al. Are Totally Mired In MP Mythology, So It Would Be Cruel To Make Fun Of What They Found In The Thar Desert.

I get really tired of typing out the words Middle Palaeolithic, so throughout this post I'm using the initialism MP. Now, onward and ever forward . . .

From Blinkhorn et al. 2013
I'm kicking off with this truly humdrum illustration of rock artifacts because they tell a different story than the one that the four who published it want you to hear. These four, miserable bits of quartzite rubble were pried from the palaeosands of the Thar Desert in northwestern India. They, along with a few hundred other bits of quartzite rubble that were even less interesting, were published recently as "Middle Palaeolithic occupation in the Thar Desert during the Upper Pleistocene: the signature of a modern human exit out of Africa?" [I won't stoop so low as to mention that there's a serious editorial slip-up in the title that creates a bit of ambiguity as to what the authors intended. Is the question whether or not the occupation is the signature? Is it whether or not the occupation (which is presumed to be a 'signature' of something) is indeed the signature of modern human bipedal apes consciously leaving Africa? Or, is the question whether or not the occupation is a signature of something other than a modern human spread away from Africa? But I said I wouldn't stoop that low, so you never heard me say that! "What?" you say. There's a good reader. You catch on so quickly. Want a biscuit?]

The responsible parties: James Blinkhorn, Hema Achyuthan, Michael Petraglia, and Peter Ditchfield [and the credulous journal Quaternary Science Reviews 77: 233--238, 2013—available online 5 July 2013]. The 5 July date suggests that this news is a little stale already. But myths are forever. So, with any luck what you're about to read will last as long—at least as long as there are palaeolithic archaeologists continuing to promote the ailing concept of a MP fluorescence of sophisticated lithic technology—A.K.A. The Levallois Technique, Levallois flakes, Nubian* flakes, and the putatively 'prepared' cores that spawned them.]

The Thar Desert is the brown patch indicated by the yellow arrow. The Google earth image includes the Arabian Peninsula and northeast Africa including the Nile River in Egypt and the ancient land of Nubia [i.e. present-day Sudan].
One tries to behave oneself. Honest. I'm trying to be straight-faced. 

One fails. I've been biting my tongue so hard that now there's blood dribbling out of the corner of my mouth.

I can't help it! I'm laughing! Those rocks and the descriptions that accompany them represent what I would call the extreme logical extension of the Levallois prepared-core hypothesis. The extension of which I speak is, by the way, at the absurd end of the ampliative-inference spectrum. As hard as it is for me to accept the authors' characterization of specimens marked 1 and 2, it's totally beyond my imaginative ability to see numbers 3 and 4 in the same way that the authors do. After all, the dorsal flake scar indicated in 3 is about 1 cm wide and 2 cm long. Specimen 4 is not much bigger. What's more, there's nothing about the final outline of these four "flakes of predetermined shape" that screams "I'm a really gifted bipedal ape!"  If this was supposed to be the apogee of Mousterian lithic technology, one only has to look at these four specimens to understand that, at best, the "flintknapper" had no aesthetic sense. In fact, this Mousterian ape couldn't even count—item #2 has two points! These are nothing if not Frankenflakes! My red arrows show that there were several removals prior to the ones greyed-in that might have made equally good pointy things. So, what gives? And why start with such small lumps if all you wanted was a small flake? Couldn't you have taken a tiny flake off one of those adult-sized cores we see throughout the Mousterian tradition, and still later removed a grown-up's point? [Here is where I run the risk of giving the authors the idea to claim that, in fact, these tiny bits were literally child's play.]

François Bordes demonstrating his
version of how MP stone artifacts
were made.
In the liturgy of MP mythic archaeology such rocks are said to bear the stigmata of numerous flakes that were sacrificed to prepare each lump of rock for the removal of one climactic flake, the shape of which was 'predetermined.' In the MP orthodox interpretation 'predetermined' means not by God, but by the MP bipedal ape's brain, even before a single flake was struck. In Bordesian MP doctrine there were several different 'predetermined' shapes, but in the Thar Desert excavations, evidence only of the triangular "projectile-point" flakes were found. Look again at the array of lithics up top. Stare at those lumps of rock for a while. Look at the size of them. Look at the cruddy material. Look at their descriptions! Try to see whatever it was that the authors saw to convince them that these rocks—or Nubian/Levallois Point cores if you're the authors—are evidence of anything special, or why they believe that, out of 1500-odd assorted artifacts they can use these four, and three pointy flakes—seven out of 1500—to assert [assert, not argue—arguments need evidence] that they 
present further evidence for debitage strategies orientated towards point production [in the MP of south Asia—rhg]. 
'Scuse me while I crease over laughing. LMFAO, in fact. I think the authors may have inadvertently discovered the reason for the demise of the Neanderthals and the Mousterian lithic habit: if "point production" was adaptive behaviour, and these proto-proto-proto-proto-proto-Indo-Europeans could only manage to chip off three "Levallois Points" and leave evidence of four other—mighty small ones—on the cores from which they were struck, this sprig of the ape tree was heading in the direction of extirpation [or extinction] the minute it set foot in what's now the Thar Desert.

Come on, you guys! Surely you could've found four better examples from the hundreds of cores and flakes you've retrieved. Or not. In fact, the four cores illustrated above are the only examples of so-called Levallois cores out of the 274 cores the authors recovered from their Thar Desert excavations. Add to those four a total of three Levallois points recovered and what do you have? . . .  a classic example of the Finished Artifact Fallacy in full flight. [Or I'm from another planet!]

It's easy to see the application of the Finished Artifact Fallacy in these seven examples, in contrast to their standing as evidence for a well-thought-out sequence of flake removals leading to removal of a pointed one. What does it say about our MP apes that they would use the same 'well-thought-out' pattern of lithic reduction when they wanted a wee point as they did when they were dealing with a lump of rock ten times the size of these ones? Words like 'automaton' come to mind. These few bits of stone, to my mind, do not scream 'sophisticated series of flake removals aimed at removing one flake at the end that is the exact same shape as that conceived in the MP ape's mind before-hand.'

If I might be allowed a moment's conjecture. It's just possible that the whole exercise known as the Levallois technique was a form of mate attraction. "Hey, Babe, look what I can do with this rock!" Or, maybe it's evidence of a shamanic tradition whereby only the necromancer [i.e. the bipedal ape flintknapper] had the secret knowledge of what would be the shape of the final flake. And because that individual was prescient when it came to rocks the rest of the group thought it'd be folly to make an enemy of the shaman. Thus, the shaman could persuade members of the group to do anything at all. Perhaps this was an MP form of social control. Yeah! That's the ticket. Yeah! And last Tuesday I married Morgan Fairchild.

There is a silver lining in the cloud of free-range theory propounded by Blinkhorn et al. If the dates are correct, the Thar Desert MP occupation was in operation at least 60 to 70 kyr ago. That would put it right smack dab in the time-frame during which most, if not all, of the southern African "MSA" sites have been dated. Yet, those sites bear evidence of modern human behaviour. If I took seriously the many claims for modern human behaviour at that time depth in southern Africa, I'd need to do a heap of special pleading to explain why, at the same time, presumably skeletally modern H. sapiens was carrying on in the time-honoured Mousterian tradition. So much special pleading would be required, in fact, that most level-headed archaeologists should be very sceptical of the south African dates.

The Nubian Complex is a regionally distinct Middle Stone Age (MSA) technocomplex first reported from the northern Sudan in the late 1960 s


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