Friday 13 December 2013

Well, Duh! The Phrase, "Goes Without Saying," Comes to Mind Upon Reading Brown et al. (2013), "Site Distribution at the Edge of the Palaeolithic World: A Nutritional Niche Approach" [Where Else But In PLoS ONE?]

Major. Major news emerging from PLoS ONE this week! Get a load of this.
Brown AG, Basell LS, Robinson S, Burdge GC (2013) Site Distribution at the Edge of the Palaeolithic World: A Nutritional Niche Approach. PLoS ONE 8(12): e81476. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081476
Unlike so many papers that have been 'reviewed' at The Subversive Archaeologist, this one doesn't involve the authors taking a logical pratfall. Instead, Brown et al. offer us a statement of the obvious—you know, something along the lines of 
“Who shot him? I asked.
The grey man scratched the back of his neck and said: Somebody with a gun.”
― Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
Don't worry, guffawing is an appropriate response—both to the Hammett quote and to Brown et al.'s game[not]changing research findings. And, I'm not the only one who felt like mocking Brown et al.,  or feigning horror when I encountered the paper this morning—just look at what greeted me as the article was loading on Safari. 
[Just look at the photo, Dear. The photo! Not the rest of the ad!]
My analysis of this latest palaeoanthropological revelation from PLoS ONE will be very brief. So, before I proceed to expose yet another PLoS ONE howler, I'm gonna take a few minutes of your time to share an instant classic, courtesy of YouTube. [Apologies to my friends who might not be so fluent in English that this performance is an auditory blur—never mind, I think the parody is just as good without the sound.]  

Thanks to ID for thinking of me when he espied this gem.

Now, back to today's episode of "The Subversive Archaeologist Show."

See if you agree with me. It's PLoS ONE—open source, free—so there's no excuse for not looking at the paper with your own critical eye. I can't help but conclude that there's no "original contribution" here, unless you consider coining a new phrase reason enough to accept a paper for publication. [To be fair, the authors do introduce a novel analytical term—nutriscape—but I'm not sure it rescues this paper from the oblivion it truly deserves.]

Forgive me if what I'm giving you is oversimplified. Regardless of the hard work that went into the paper, the conclusions don't repay the effort. So, let's have a look at what the paper says of itself. Direct quotes will do nicely to illustrate the nature of this PLoS ONE article. First
During the last four interglacials the . . . richest Palaeolithic sites in terms of biface densities is [sic] strongly biased to the lower reaches of river valleys and sites which were above [Natural Tidal Limit] but in proximity to tidal rivers and estuaries. 
Let's see . . . In the real world [as opposed to the Bizarro world the authors apparently inhabit] those sites couldn't have been anywhere else BUT above the Natural Tidal Limit! That's this paper's first instance of stating the obvious. It's not the last. OK. What about their idea to use the ecological circumstances of Middle Pleistocene sites to say something general about the behaviour of the bipedal apes that left their traces at those sites? 

First you and I must invoke the usual caveats having to do with visibility and the preferential choices that palaeoanthropologist make as to where they will undertake their research. You know. The sites we choose to work should be comfortably close to a bar or public house, not too far from centres of culture, and not so remote or inaccessible that we spend all our research funding just getting to and from the site. It's well known that what palaeoanthropologists have to-date observed could be biased in untold numbers of ways, in turn biasing the authors' 'dataset' and thus their analysis. Even if you ignore those two sources of bias, in the quote above the authors are inadvertently proclaiming their own biases [or the blinders/blinkers that they are wearing] when they say that their 'data' are strong. 

Glacial geomorphology provides a perfect example of the possible biases at work in patterning the 'data' that Brown et al. rely on. During interglacials, global temperatures are warm, arctic and antarctic ice sheets melt, and sea levels rise. During glacials, more of the Earth's water ends up trapped in the ice sheets, and sea levels fall. In each of the interglacials covered in Brown et al.'s paper, sea levels would have been as high as, or higher than the present day. Okay, SA. What's your point?

Okay, smarty-pants, what happens to rivers as the world's oceans regress? South of the ice sheets, all things being equal, rivers begin to downcut and continue to do so until sea levels reach their lowstand. This is a time-transgressive process that, in more northerly latitudes,  proximity to the expanding ice sheets determines how deep and for how long a river will continue to downcut, or, for that matter, continue to flow. Brown et al.'s site sample is derived from the major river valleys of what's now southern England and northern France, which would have been equally affected by climate. So, to the extent that these northern rivers could downcut, they would have done so, in equal measure, all things being equal [once again] [geomorphically speaking]

What of it? Who cares? We do, of course! Because, in the study area during glacial maxima, much of whatever bipedal apes left behind on or near a river's floodplain would very probably have been disturbed or eroded completely, either by the downcutting stream or by mass wasting of the new valley's sides due to the river downcutting in unstable, unconsolidated sediments. Have a look at the two diagrams I've just spent about four hours crafting. [A pitiful performance, I'll admit. But at least this time I didn't breach copyright!] 

Sure. Sure. I know. I know! Each river is unique, sacred in its oneness. But, in general, these are the two sedimentary regimes that help me to think about the Middle Pleistocene archaeological record in the area that Brown et al. have dealt with—what part of the record was [and wasn't] or might have been 'lost' to glacial geomorphic processes. As you can see from the two cartoons, we palaeoanthropologists of northwestern Eurasia are mightily lucky that the most recent glacial maximum was less severe than the previous. Otherwise we might never have discovered the presence of Middle Pleistocene bipedal apes in areas near the great ice sheets.

'Kay. So. What now? Now that we've dealt with the problematic 'database' that these authors use to 'analyze' some sites and niches, let's have some fun.

Getting back to where we started. Remember that the authors have identified some salient points about Middle Pleistocene archaeological sites.

Location and topography of a bunch of Middle Pleistocene bipedal ape sites in southern England (top land mass), and northern France (bottom land mass). From Brown et al. (2013).
In their own words
[These places afford] access to water, safety from predators, lowest river crossing points (natural rivers are shallow and frequently anastomose in these reaches facilitating crossing)
River crossing points? Have they ever sashayed sur la Seine? Ventured to cross the Volga? Tip-toed across the Thames? They're joking, right? I know some have claimed that Homo erectus could make a boat. Likewise the Neanderthals. Really, though, there's not a scrap of evidence to support such arm-waving. But a boat would have been needed to ford most of streams in their analysis. [And they never explain the whole predator thing.]
and food resources. 
Mustn't forget food resources. Well, duh! Why would they expect to find bipedal apes somewhere there wasn't any food? Never mind. Brown et al. go to great lengths [no doubt at much expense of time and treasure] to classify the ecosystems in which these sites are found, and to judge them on their ecological merits.

In the above image, you see an encapsulation of Brown et al.'s ecological analysis. It emphasizes that, for Middle Pleistocene two-leggers, most of life's necessities were to be found near the rivers, and not the uplands. There's really nothing new, or even elegant about this inference. It's been the same story since time immemorial. Or, to use a less hackneyed expression, for effing ever! The key is "Location, location, location."
ecological classification . . . shows a marked potential locational advantage for floodplain zones as opposed to the forested slopes, plateaus and even clearings.
Sorry. I'm having trouble making sense of this phrase. I guess it means that, ecologically speaking, the sites used for their analysis were where the food was. Should this surprise us?
It is argued that this advantage may have included access to plants and animals which provided both essential energy and macronutrients but also critical micronutrients which maintained population health and maximised reproductive success and may have increased cultural complexity . . . .
Wow. There's a mouthful. *cough* Are we to imagine that the two-leggers chose to hang out where they could score the best micronutrients? Whether or not they did, they certainly didn't know they were increasing reproductive fitness by getting sustenance where it occured, instead of having to hike from a barren hilltop down to the river whenever the need to find food arose.

The upshot, according to Brown et al.? 

Such Palaeolithic diets . . . have been implicated in ‘healthy aging’, an emerging concept in evolutionary nutrition which has as its mantra ‘we are what we eat, but we should be what we ate.’ 
I'm thinking "Paleo Diet." They're joking. Right? Loren Cordain's Paleo Diet?
It is possible these locations were perceived as ‘healthy/good places’ to which hominins returned on a regular, and prolonged basis,
Like I said: whether or not these critters 'knew' what they were doing, as good mammals they would've figured out where the food is. Wouldn't they therefore tend to frequent such places [the way I used to frequent Joe's winery until the cash ran out]?
and may have been ‘marked’ by their assemblage of artefacts . . . .
Am I hearing right? Are Brown et al. suggesting that 'hand axes' were left strewn about for the same reason that a dog pisses on fire hydrants? And, while I'm at it. If the 'hand axes' were 'left' where the good food was, why would the two-leggers ever have left? At this point in the paper I'm starting to lose patience. But it gets even better.
A possible symbiotic interaction through niche creation on floodplains is postulated between hominins, horses, freshwater fish (particularly eels) and beavers. 
Wow! Brown et al. have discovered that bipedal apes were part of an ecosystem. It included horses and beavers, and eels [mustn't forget the eels, 'cause they're important for the Paleo Diet.] The authors imagine that these four life forms lived in symbiotic relations with one another. They don't say so, but surely they must be thinking of ‘mutualistic symbiosis’ as opposed to the other types of ‘symbiosis.’ Parasites, after all, have a symbiotic relationship with their host. Lichen is the result of a symbiotic relationship: it's an organism made of a fungus and a blue-green alga living off each other. The ecological relationships Brown et al. discuss are just that—ecological relationships—which don't need to be puffed up by calling them symbiotic. If the four organisms discussed in this paper are in symbiotic relationships, then so is every other organism on the planet!
[T]hese . . . important and revisited locations . . . support the contention that river valleys provided the nutrient-rich route-ways of exploration and utilization of Palaeolithic landscapes. 
I'm wondering if the beavers and horses knew they were living the good life in the best place on earth [the way Brown et al. propose was the case for the two-footed neighbours with their sharp rocks]. And what possible benefit could an eel secure by being eaten by a bipedal ape. I'm really lost, here.

Despite their best analytical efforts—and they're nothing to sneeze at, believe me—the conclusions that the authors make are of the "goes without saying" sort. It's a variant of "stating the obvious." Even though they did a lot of work to arrive there, I'm not sure the journey was worth it, for us, or for them. At best Brown et al. give you a good idea of what happens to a person's mind when they're brought up on a steady diet of palaeoanthropological myth. When they reach disciplinary adulthood, they're incapable of doing anything but re- re- re- reifying someone else's myth. You've heard of the expression 'standing on the shoulders of giants,' often used to express how science has a cumulative dimension? I think it's time for a new one. 

Whaddayathink of this? Instead of 'Standing on the shoulders of giants,' try 'Pissing into the wind while scaling the newly clothed emperor, trying to get to the top of the beanstalk to meet Grandma, only to find that you've been swallowed whole by the nefarious wolf.'

It's your turn. Meet me at Facebook and leave your suggestions. I'm off to tidy my micronutrient processing area.

Thanks for coming in today.
W. Olf

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.

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