Monday, 28 October 2013

The Beginning of the end for the Handaxe? The Amazin' Phrasin' of Michael Chazan and the Cold Steel of Occam's Razor Redux: [n]Ev[e]r[on] the Twain Shall Meet!

[In June 2013 I set the following thesis before you. I'm replaying it today by popular demand, and because I thought of a nifty new title! If this seems like Vujà dé all over again, you're probably thinking of clicking out of here. However, at last count a total of 246 curious passersby had looked at this piece. And the FAF and the handaxe are NEVER gonna go away unless there are ten times as many individuals visiting here, and there will be no end to the fantasy until every last one of you sees and understands what Chazan's work implies for the house of cards that is the reified concept of the handaxe. So, forgive me for repeating myself. And share this widely, if you please. Por favor. S'il vous plait. Bitte. ProsímPer favore. ]

This is the story of the Finished Artifact Fallacy (FAF). It's incessant mission: to infer strange new lithic technologies and new behavioural inferences: to boldly go where no palaeolithic archaeologist has gone before.

"Butchering with small tools: the implications of the Evron Quarry assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus," by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013. 

From "Butchering with small tools: 
the implications of the Evron Quarry 
assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus," 
by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013.
Allright. I know. I'm a Star Trek fan. And it's probably very geeky to make an analogy between the FAF and the starship Enterprise's mission. Sometimes I just can't help myself!

My paean to Star Trek was inspired by the just-published, peer-reviewed, "Butchering with small tools: the implications of the Evron Quarry assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus," by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013. It may bear the Good Housekeeping Seal, but it is, fundamentally, flawed. The author, together with the Antiquity editors and referees ought to be charged with false and misleading advertising!

The intellectual earthquake that this paper represents cannot be underestimated. From it, we learn that "[s]mall tools are emerging as a common element of the Early Stone Age/Lower Palaeolithic toolkit ... . On Oldowan sites, including Omo 57, Omo 123, Wonderwerk Cave and Sterkfontein, flakes under 20mm in maximum dimension [averaging between 22.2 mm and 37.9 mm] are a major component of the assemblage and an intentional product of knapping ... " [emphasis added]. Remember that last phrase. It becomes important further down.

Me, trying to wrap my
brain around this argument.
What's wrong with me? I should be ecstatic that a palaeolithic archaeologist recognizes the central importance of flakes in the Oldowan and later technologies. But alas, my euphoria is still born. The author adheres to the old school of palaeolithic typology when he classifies some of the chipped stone pieces from Evron Quarry "choppers" and "polyhedrons." And, in a stunning bit of 'doublespeak' the author  proceeds to re-re-reify the notion of the 'hand-axe.' According to Chazan, small flakes predominate at Evron Quarry as an "adaptation of local materials that make poor hand axes." Translation: Homo erectus was predisposed to make 'hand axes,' but couldn't. So they used flakes by themselves as a substitute for 'hand axes.' Those flakes, he argues, "reflect a level of conceptual thought [i.e. "an ingenious improvisation on the part of Homo erectus"] that allowed the occupants of Evron Quarry to solve the problem of how to butcher an elephant using only the material at hand." 

Almost takes your breath away. Don't it? Wait a sec. Isn't the material "at hand" always the only material 'at hand?' If those H. erecti were so clever, why didn't they walk a few kliks and find better material? After all, one of the site's early excavators declared the assemblage to be an artifactual accumulation of many temporally separate events. If that were true, surely during one of the times the H. erecti were elsewhere, they could have picked up some better material to take back to the quarry. [BTdub, that would be the Lower Palaeolithic equivalent of carrying coals to Newcastle!] Unless... No. Of course! I've got it! εὕρηκα! The explanation: at each of the times those bipedal apes left chipped rock on the ground at Evron Quarry, it was because they had just spotted [or caught a whiff of] the rotting carcass of an elephant. And, logically, fearful that the meat would be thoroughly spoiled if they spent time wandering around the countryside looking for the best raw material to make a 'hand axe' with which to butcher said carcass, they instead used whatever was 'at hand.' Nah. We should just take Michael Chazan's word for it. Or not.

Do I really think Chazan is asking us to accept such a monumental shortcoming on the part of H. erectus? Evidently. But I'm not sure the author even realizes how badly this looks for an "ingenious" species like H. erectus. Even if that were its only shortcoming this paper would be an "archaeological howler." But, buried in the data presentation there's an even more fundamental error in thinking.

As if the author's effusive praise for the quick-thinking H. erecti wasn't comic enough when viewed in terms of my [half] facetious scenario, we learn that indeed there are 'hand axes' in the Evron assemblage. But these "are all very thick," and "[u]nfortunately no complete handaxes were found in the excavation" [emphasis mine, SA]. Hmmm. In a minit I'll be showing you the 'hand axes' from the quarry site. There were apparently quite a few, only no "complete" ones came from the three test pits that Chazan used as his sample, which he refers to as "the excavation."

I'm reading between the lines, here. I'm guessing that Chazan refers to the Evron Quarry 'hand-axes' (those shown below) as "thick," to imply that they haven't been 'thinned' enough. They haven't been thinned enough, says he, because the local raw material was shite. He's willing to admit that they're 'hand axes,' all right. But they're crappy ones. So, if the Evron Quarry 'hand axes,' 'choppers' and the 'polyhedrons' were desired end products, where did all the flakes come from? Surely not from the 1.7% (15/845) of the assemblage that he calls 'cores!'

It's like this. Were he to entertain the notion that the 'choppers,' 'polyhedrons' and 'hand axes' were among the 'cores' that gave birth to the abundant small flakes, he would also have to consider the possibility that all the other 'hand axes' in all the sites, in all the world, are, after all, just cores. And that would naturally lead to the realization---the reality that dare not speak its name---might well be just a fantasy that exists only in the mind of [admittedly a great many] archaeologists. A reified category. In plain English, the 'hand axe'---the 'mental template' supposedly in the mind of its maker, the 'desired' end product, the 'finished' artifact---is fallacious! Shiver my timbers!

The FAF would be nothing to worry about, were it not that, where the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic are concerned, its perpetuation is a pernicious and persistent obstacle to a better understanding of our origins. [IMHO, of course.] Now, let's take a closer look at Michael Chazan's argument. First, though, let's look at the Evron Quarry 'hand axes' that didn't appear in the author's "excavation."

"Butchering with small tools: the implications of the Evron Quarry assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus," by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013. 
When is a 'hand axe' not a 'hand axe?' When it's a core, of *cough* course! Remember that I can only imagine the following scenario if you first accept the author's assertion that these 'hand axes' are ugly. So, on we go. If you peruse the above montage, you'll notice that many of the flake scars on the 'hand axes' are on the order of 20 to 30 mm. That, coincidentally, was the range of sizes for site's entire modified flake assemblage---the assemblage in which things called cores are thin on the ground, to say the least. Now, if one were to use Occam's Razor, rather than Bordes's typology, the logical explanation for the origin of said flakes is, most likely, those very 'hand axes,' the 'choppers,' and the 'polyhedrons.' [There is the possibility to apply a bit of hypothesis testing of the empirical kind with respect to my scenario... With only a few hundred pieces of rock, an enterprising archaeologist might try seeing if any of the useful small flakes could be refitted to the block of rock whence it came.]   

Check out the image below. The author calls these "pieces [of rock] ... [bits that are] associated with handaxe manufacture" [emphasis added]. Isn't it odd that, instead of calling them something like 'hand axe fragments"he chooses to call them [things] "associated with handaxe manufacture?" Why can't he just call a spade a spade? Why can't he see that these, too, are cores, not quasi 'hand axes' bits? He has told us that the numerous flakes themselves were " ... an intentional product of knapping ... ." Where does that leave the 'hand axes?' The author's answer is that they simply weren't there in the numbers that should be expected in a Lower Palaeolithic elephant butchering theatre. So, now, on the one hand we have the 'hand axes,' which are the desired end product of the H. erectus brain, and on the other hand we have the small, useful flakes. Here's where it gets really tricky, philosophically speaking. Are the flakes really debitage? Or are the 'hand axes,' 'choppers,' and 'polyhedrons' just cores? 

"Butchering with small tools: the implications of the Evron Quarry assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus," by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013. 
I'm not singling Michael Chazan out for punishment. He's not alone in trying to ascertain how many bipedal apes can dance on the distal extremity of a 'hand axe.' Inevitably, by cleaving to the FAF, they'll buy themselves "a ticket to obscurity" [excerpted from Famous Last Words of the Subversive Archaeologist, Vanity Press International, 2013]. I have to ask, "Has every archaeologist on the planet drunk the Bordesian typological Kool-Aid?" 

Source: Comme on dit en France, "Divine."
And speaking of drinking. When I started to write this blurt it was last Friday afternoon. I took a moment to plug a very decent $5 sparkling wine that Trader Joe's carries, and which I was, at the time, drinking. It's officially called Trader Joe's Blanc de Blancs Brut, and it's very colourful on the tongue. It's imported from France [so it must be good], and this grassy, pale beauty is every bit the peer of Freixenet, which at one time you could buy for $5, but which has suffered the fate of popularity, and had the price elevated due the disparity between supply and demand. [You know? I've always mistrusted the notion of supply and demand as the being the natural force determining value. It's too easy, don't you think, to consciously reduce output so as to encourage higher prices. The oil companies do it by limiting the number of refineries. OPEC does it by turning the well spigot a quarter turn to the right. Is it too far-fetched to think that wineries might do the same, even in the absence of demand in excess of production?

On the other hand, maybe drinking too much can engender conspiracy theories.

I look forward to seeing you next time. Thanks for visiting!


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 October 2013

Proof That We Are Living in the Archaeological End Times

"And Lew said unto the earth diggers that there would be four or five signs that the End of Days was nigh."

"And the Prophet spake that when it came to pass that the signs were abundant there would be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, together with hand-wringing and whinging, and a great waving of arms, and raised voices, acrimonious debate, and free-range theory. 

"And lo, to all who moiled in the earth it seemed as if, verily, palaeoanthropology had started down the slippery slope of over-reaching inference-making. And it was vouchsafed that the theoretical underpinnings of scientific knowledge was rushing toward utter irrelevancy at great speed."

I, too, have seen the signs! They are everywhere. And they really do abound! [For reals] You will know the signs by their Reality Distortion Field, the work of forces unknown, first espied by the holy Apple men of Cupertino. 

Here followeth the signs [modern translation: article titles] foretold to us of the numbering of our days.
Toothpicking and Periodontal Disease in a Neanderthal Specimen from Cova Foradà Site (Valencia, Spain) 
Did the Denisovans Cross Wallace's Line?
Impossible Neanderthals? Making string, throwing projectiles andcatching small game during Marine Isotope Stage 4 (Abri du Maras, France)
Israel conference: Cavemen discovered recycling
Scientists 'bad at judging peers' published work,' says new study
Fear not. For unto you this day is come a champion to counter the runaway imaginations and poor judgement of these grubbers in the earth.

Cometh ye anon unto the Subversio Archaeologicus and ye shall undoubtedly find good stuff to counter these very outlandish scientific claims. Do not despair. Let me do all the despairing. You have real work to do. And I look forward to fun in abundance.


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.

It's Time For The Terrible Twos!

Although unheralded at the time, October 5th, 2013 marked the beginning of year three for the Subversive Archaeologist. In English-speaking countries a great many people refer to the behaviour of children of this age as the "terrible twos." At the risk of making an infantile analogy, in the Subversive Archaeologist's case the terrible part is ongoing, and there seems no end in sight!

Nobody has higher expectations of what the Subversive Archaeologist should purvey than I—commentary, critique, comedy, cat scratches. Unfortunately what you've been treated to over the past few months is close to intellectual catatonia! Or motivational paralysis. Take your pick.

I've never been very good at keeping my emotional life bottled while I 'soldier' on. I'm the rarest of endangered species, the man who won't stop talking about his feelings—my gender is, as they say, majorly off top dead centre.

That's why I'm taking dead aim at my feelings this afternoon, by using my central nervous system to overwhelm my misgivings about life, the universe, and everything else. For me, it seems as if the only way to fight these doldrums is to anaesthetize them. And what better way than with boxed wine!

Today, here at World Headquarters, we're tasting a Double Gold winner at the 2011 Florida State Fair International Wine Competition.* You guessed it. I'm talkin' 'bout the wine that jumps out of your glass! FishEye. Economical. Virtually bottomless, unless you're expecting more when you regain consciousness. And it tastes so much better than the other boxed wines from the land down under, mostly 'cause it's cheaper!

I especially like cheap wines that tell you what you should be tasting, even if what you've just put in your mouth fills you with the perception of petroleum fumes rather than fermented grape.

In the case of today's offering—the 2013 Pinot Grigio—we should be sensing ripe peaches and tropical fruit. As you become more familiar with the wines that fit my budget, you'll see more and more of the 'tropical fruit' epithet used in tasting notes to describe the product's intended effect on your palate. I'm not sure if it's because the makers know there are a bazillion more tropical fruits than you and I've ever tasted, making 'tropical fruit' a most useful bit of BS. But 'ripe peaches?' Astonishingly, even my impaired olfactories do have receptors for the 'ripe peaches' at the tail end of this wine's finish. [That's wine-wanker speak for the chemical process that occurs in your mouth between gulps, which is problematic if you're an above-average drinker. But then, if you are, you probably don't care what it tastes like anyway!]

I hope I've contributed a little frivolity to your weekend. I aim to please. You'll find the FishEye 2013 Pinot Grigio at better convenience stores everywhere! Enjoy your evening! [At least until the food-grade plastic bladder starts making those unmistakable sucking noises, at which time it'll be someone else's turn to hit the convenience store—because you're a responsible drinker!]

By the way, coming, as I have, very recently, from central California where the grape is gold, I was a little taken aback when I saw the 2013 vintage just now. See, the vineyards in California will just be harvesting the graporial bounty about now. It took me a few seconds before I remembered that Australia's 2013 vintage would have been harvested [give-or-take] six months ago! That recollection reminded me of my first few months in Australia back in the late 90s—I was severely calendrically and cosmically challenged. The sun was in the wrong side of the sky, the stars were completely wrong, and it was hotter than bejeezuz in December.

See you next time the sun gets over the yardarm! [The cleverer among the readers will know intuitively that the sun is always over the yardarm somewhere!] Bottoms up!
* WRC** if the Florida wine competition rates right up there with the U.S. National Pipefitters Association Annual Screw-off in the latest Pew poll? WRC if it's not the California blah, blah, blah Napa blah, blah, blah Competition: you drink it out of a box, fer gawd sakes. Get over it!
** Translation: Who Really Cares?


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, 26 October 2013

Will Somebody Please Tell Me How I Can Do Research That is Equally Dull-Edged?

I have to say that I must be a complete boob! All my life I thought Raymond Dart had theoretical legs to stand on when he pronounced A. africanus a baby bipedal ape. Evidently not. A tip o' my male, sartorial, secondary sexual characteristic to Physorg for alerting me to this.

It turns out that I was misinformed. So misinformed that I missed a perfectly awesome opportunity to do some cutting-edge research without having to develop a testable hypothesis. The testable hypothesis was ready-made. Russo and Kirk merely collected empirical observations that confirmed that, in bipedal mammals, the foramen magnum is statistically significantly anteriorly and inferiorly situated compared to its position in quadrupeds.   

I'm gob-smacked.
Russo, G.A. and E.C. Kirk, "Foramen magnum position in bipedal mammals." Journal of Human Evolution 65:656--670.
Besides its being one of the most egregious examples I've ever seen of an article title's uselessness [cf. the SA, October 25, 2013], I'm completely buggered if I can think of one reason why this needed to be researched, much less published.

First. Re: the title. I'm guessing that the authors figgered since it was getting in JHE, it would be read and cited by all the important people. Yet, unless I were a comparative vertebrate zoologist, I could give a flying hoohaw about the f.m. in the two other kinds of bipedal animals. So why would I, a human palaeontologist, want to look at the article? Answer: I wouldn't. Extrapolate to the four or five dozen who might want to see this article, to get their attention how hard would it have been to title the article "Studies show that bipedal mammals' foramina magnae are closer to the coronal plane than those of quadrupeds" ?

 Seriously. That title is extraordinarily limp, considering that it's a lead-in to a 'hard science' piece. *winks*

This is a pop quiz. True or False: from left to right, these illustrations depict a rodent, a kangaroo, and an anatomically correct human. I, for one, hope the rodent is not to scale! From Russo and Kirk (2013)
BTdub, in the late 1990s I became very, very familiar with the animal represented in the image below.

Also from Russo and Kirk (2013). Not to scale.
Back to Raymond Dart. I'm to guess that 'intuitively obvious' isn't good enough in a 'hard' science like comparative vertebrate anatomy. Nor are "as sure as grass is green" and "as plain as the nose on your face" enough to satisfy the discipline. No. Proof of everything must be sought, wrought, and bought!

[Which is, by the way, what publishers of low-subscription, refereed journals like JHE and JAS and others do to any article they choose to publish. They buy the copyright with the promise of a handful of reprints!]

[Those who work in the 'true' sciences, like physics, or astronomy are forced to PAY to have their work published!]

Okay, okay. Suggesting that their work is the antithesis of cutting edge is being a wee bit harsh on Russo and Kirk. After all, they're earnest and honest scholars and I take my hat off to them for having the good sense to think their idea might fly. They were right. And the rest of us were right, too. We just had no empirical observations to support our foregone conclusions!

So, Dear Reader, do you want to do some travelling? I think there's a niche that needs filling. I'm fairly certain that no one has ever collected empirical observations, amenable to statistic analysis, of the [apparently] heretofore untested hypothesis that THE SUN ALWAYS RISES IN THE EAST!

I think I need a drink.


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, 25 October 2013

Pardon Me, Fred, But Is This Your Freudian Slip Showing? I Think Not.

As you may have guessed, anyone who published titles like "Grave Shortcomings" and "Middle Palaeolithic Burial is Not a Dead Issue," might be amused at any similarly layered article title. I'm also someone who lets go a deep sigh of resignation when reading most article titles in my field. They not only leave a lot to be desired semantically, but also semiotically: dull as dust and twice four times so unhelpful as to be diffusely obfuscatory.

A brief paddle around the scientific title pool in just the last few days.
"Random and centrality-based emergence of leaders."
A study of how peer pressures influences society.
"Hollywood Diversity Brief: Spotlight on Cable Television."
Which concludes that shows having ethnically disparate characters garner better ratings for their writers.
These two articles might be pulling them in in Peoria with the right bait. Instead the authors go for the big surprise effect, preferring to say nothing of any importance in perhaps the most important words in the entire articles—the titles. What average Joanne in these disciplines—after skimming an email digest or a table of contents—could know that these two papers bore anything worthwhile? Seriously.

The big surprise for authors such as these comes when they discover no one reads or cites their [quite probably] important findings because the titles were so generic as to be a waste of printer's ink. Physician, heal thyself. And guarantee more citations!

But crummy titles aren't my problem. So, why start out with this? I just wanted to provide some background to the art of article titles before I introduced the following little gem, the title of which leaves no doubt what it's about, and at the same time manages to coyly stick it to the discipline of palaeoanthropology.

Thank you, Fred Spoor! This is delicious. Don't you think so, ID?
"Palaeoanthropology: Small-brained and big-mouthed," Nature 502:452–453. doi:10.1038/502452a
(Published online 23 October 2013.)
A tip o' the hat to friend of the SA, Patrick Randolph-Quinney, for notifying his facebook friends of this tidbit of Fred Spoor's oeuvre. The title is close to slanderous! Unless, of course, the title is just a case of the author's majestic Freudian Slip showing. Nah! But it does give Fred Spoor an out if they come after him for slander. And, thanks to the title, this latest contribution of his will attract the attention of everyone who wears the label palaeo [or paleo] anthropologist—and a huge audience not directly engaged in piecing together our evolutionary history from scraps of fossil bone.

Spoor's Nature News & Views piece is aimed at the leaders of the Dmanisi, Georgia excavations of ~1.75 Ma fossil-bearing dirt. They recently described the latest in a long line of beautiful Hominids [sensu here]:
Click to go to the article on the Science web site.

A through F: Dmanisi cranium (D4500). 
G: Dmanisi cranium ( D4500) and mandible (D2600) form the complete skull. From Lordkipanidze et al. (2013).
Dozens of lifetimes have been spent in fruitless pursuit of even one such beautifully preserved hominid specimen. For the Dmanisi crew, it's just the latest. [I know people who'd refer to theirs as disgustingly good fortune. But they're not bitter!]

The problem for the Dmanisi lot, and Spoor's main point, is that in the Science article they argue that the entire catalog of ~2.5 Ma to ~?1.77 Ma African, European, and Asian fossils represents a sole, but genetically variable species, that of Homo erectus (Dubois, 1892) [at one time referred to as Solo Man from Java]. Theirs is the quintessential evocation of the Multiregional Origins Hypothesis for the evolution of modern humans. And they couldn't be more wrong.

But, I'll let the palaeoanthropological sharks have their feeding frenzy. Fred Spoor has merely fired the first shot across Lordkipanidze et al.'s bow.

Dmanisi hominid skull (D4500/D2600) in norma lateralis
So, "Thanks! Fred Spoor" for leaving your steaming trace on the doorstep of the Dmanisi excavators, and that of the discipline at large.

I couldn't have said it better myself!

Until 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.

You Say Panina, and I Say Panidae.

No, this is not about the squished hot sandwich craze that reinvigorated college dining halls from here to Tuscaloosa. This is about taxonomy. It's about the new ape taxonomic scheme erected over the past 20 or so years that, for one thing, names every single one of the non-gibbon-like apes 'Hominidae.' That gave rise to the need to call the group of little Great Apes 'Panina.' It also forced us to use the term Hominini. I'm sorry. I have trouble even saying the word out loud 'cause it sounds too much like 'weenie,' which, in vernacular American English, is not such a good thing to be.

But there's more! And it all demonstrates to me that some taxonomists have totally taxono-mist the point. The trouble with nomenclature began the day some bright person was organizing the speciose group of animals belonging to the Linnaean order (taxonomic rank) Primata. If you've done a class in biology lately you'll remember the little mnemonic King Phillip Came Over For a Glass of Scotch: which translates to Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. The trouble for taxonomists has always been how best to group different kinds of similar kinds of animal once you get past the O, Order.

It always seemed weird to me that the minit they got to Primata, naming all the lesser ranks became an exercise in conforming to a rigid nomenclatural template that [when they got to the tailless anthropoids] trapped the namers into jiggling ranks, seemingly for the sake of . . .  jiggling ranks.

So, the first unlucky nomen was the one given to the entire group, which was (and is) Superfamily Hominoidea. Couldn't somebody have come up with a better naming regime than the one that forced us to split hairs from the get-go? When they got past Order, the next major group was Family. They decided that they needed to choose from only the family-ish terms: Superfamily, Family, and Subfamily. That strikes me as a bit odd, since the folks who named cows and cow-like animals didn't use the nomen 'Superfamily' at all. In fact, Cow namers used a very different set of ranks when compared to the latest bipedal ape ranks. Have a look-see.

Now, back to the lesson. The taxonomy in this next slide is the way 'we' were classified for a long, long, time. As knowledge grew, it became less and less capable of capturing the evolutionary relationships among the Great Apes—the families Pongidae and Hominidae.

I'm not a big one on change for its own sake. And I'm also of the opinion that any change to a taxonomic tree should introduce as little nomenclatural change as possible to account for reality. So, as unlikely as using Superfamily seemed to me, I've been more than happy to continue its use. 

Unfortunately, some of us are way better at Latin than others of us. And the Latin-lovers got hold of our classification and introduced a bazillion terms that no-one had even imagined prior to the late twentieth century. 

We went from three families to two, and introduced two subfamilies, three tribes and two subtribes. That's seven more groups than we had before. And all with Latin endings that make my tongue do this. 

Why? Oh, why? When it would have been so easy to go from three Families to six, collected into two inclusive Epifamilies? All would be right with the world. Instead, I'm running a grassroots campaign of one aimed at righting this top-heavy, to me ludicrous classification.

By now you're probably thinking that I should have long since uncorked a bottle of the best, rested my fingertips, and left the taxonomizing to more capable hands. I disagree. I think my hands are pretty darned capable.

Feel free to share at will. TTFN

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


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.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

If You Like The Subversive Archaeologist, You'll Love My Copy Editing!

All right. I know. This is as close to SPAM as you can imagine. 

But my Livelihood Gauge is pegged at zero. And I need a new career. 

I have accumulated a thoroughgoing understanding of the English Language and its written expression. 

Moreover I know how to write so as to be understood and not misunderstood. 

I can also format the Hell out of a MS Word or LaTex document.

These skills have prepared me to be your right-hand dude. 

In other words: I'm primed and ready to be the last copy editor you'll ever need!

To prove to you that I'm capable, I'll even do it pro bono until you're satisfied that I'm the real deal, and then we can talk about compensation [in my position even food stamps and food hampers would be acceptable currency!]

My résumé, for your perusal:


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, 14 October 2013

A Day Of Shame—Columbus Day, October 14, 2013—And An Unhoped-For Cause For Celebration!

Today's the day the [American] teddy bears have their [annual] picnic to honour the day's eponymous merchant capitalist, Cristoforo Colombo. His so-called voyage of discovery was aimed at finding a short-cut to the riches of island Southeast Asia, to line his pockets and the coffers of Spain's fifteenth-century monarchy. Given the geography of his route it was a fateful inevitability that Columbus's little fleet would come ashore on land inhabited by the descendants of the original inhabitants of the two American continents. The endeavour wasn't glorious: it was hapless. Only one thing is certain. What turned out to be a windfall for Europe was the beginning of a genocidal invasion by European oppressors bent on extracting every ounce of value from the 'new-found' lands. I would go so far as to say that wherever you reside, dear Reader, is highly likely that you are reading this today only because of Columbus's misguided voyage. For, without the transfer of wealth from the Americas to the home countries of the despoilers, there might never have been a "Rennaissance" or an "Age of Enlightenment." And you might well be reading this by candlelight.

Speaking of light. There is a little light peeking out from under the 600- to 700-year-old ideology of European occupation—a growing number of Europe's pan-generational scions view their forebear's activities over the centuries to have been criminal and genocidal. Hardly the basis for celebration on this day of true infamy. However, as recently as last night, and as incredible as it might seem, the highly respected voice of "Sunday Night [NFL] Football" and the Olympic Games, Bob Costas, voiced a criticism that has taken a very long time to surface in the popular conscience. Like so many team names, from Middle School on up through the college ranks, the U.S. National Football League's Washington, D.C. team's nickname—"The Redskins"—evokes terrible memories of the time when the U.S.'s "Manifest Destiny" was to destroy all vestiges of the original inhabitants and span the continent with its people, its railways and its industries. [They are not alone in using an epithet drawn from the genocidal history of North America. There are the Atlanta "Braves," there is "Squaw Valley," the home of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, and even in normally quiescent Canada, there is the Canadian Football League's "Edmonton Eskimos." And on and on.]

Back to Bob Costas. Last night he acted as the American body politic's designated conscience. And he has given me a little something to celebrate today. More than 19 million watched last night's gridiron match-up, and a good portion would have seen the snippet embedded below. Remember that those 19 million are a real cross-section of American society. So, the audience would have comprised members of the Ku Klux Klan, The Aryan Brotherhood, Southern Baptists, liberal academics, right-wing politicians, tree-huggers, vegans, and a whole lot more—farmers, roughnecks, porters, and you and me. You don't need to know a great deal about U.S. history to know that, like cigarette smoking, glorifying bigoted epithets may soon become socially unacceptable in these United States and elsewhere. Have a look.

I honestly don't know if—as a child of European colonization and oppression—I am philosophically barred from declaring my solidarity with the First Nations of Canada and aboriginal people across the globe. But FWIW I hope that in what's left of my brief candle I will be around to witness a sea change of sentiment toward the original inhabitants of these lands.

Next up:
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. 


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.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Taking Apart (Disarticulating) A Myth About Skeletal Preservation In Caves and Rockshelters

Today's blurt may veer in the direction of stridency. So, you'll want to turn down the volume on your digital device so as not to experience οὖς τραῦμα [ear pain]. Oh. And. By the way, I'm not bitter!

Some time back I presented the untold story of Kebara 2, the partial Neanderthal skeleton. I reproduced an image of the remains, in situ, including the stratigraphic column on which it lay. The image clearly shows evidence of special depositional circumstances beneath Kebara 2, which go a long way toward explaining the presence of the burial pit inferred by the excavation team, and the good preservation of the skeletal elements that remained.

Today I want to return again to my thrilling days of yesteryear (I was graciously given a place on the excavation team during the 1989 field season). This time I want to talk about an oft-cited facet of burial taphonomy, one that those who have made claims of purposeful Middle Palaeolithic burial rely on very heavily—the occurrence of articulated skeletal elements, fossil remains with some or all skeletal elements found in the same spatial relation to one another that they would have had in life. [You know. With the knee bone connected to the thigh bone, etc.]

Archaeologist F. Turvil-Petre in Zuttiyeh Cave, 1925--1926.
[I'm a big fan of the excavation technique reproduced here.]
[Legalized pot hunting is more to the point.]
I've recently come under fire, again, for attempting to counter the claim that articulation has a one-to-one correspondence with burial. I was responding to Hovers, E. and Belfer-Cohen, A. "Insights into early mortuary practices of Homo." In: S. Tarlow and L. Nilsson-Stutz (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial (Oxford University Press, Oxford), 631--642, 2013. My thoughts precipitated a brief conversation with Erella Hovers in which, for the umpteenth time, she expounded the theory that a fossil found with elements articulated is prima facie evidence for purposeful burial. As Hovers and Belfer-Cohen put it
A basic criterion, without which the discussion of intentionality of burial would be moot, is a considerable degree of skeletal articulation. 
Well, evidently the claim of purposeful burial doesn't hold for the numerous vertebrates excavated with complete, articulated skeletons. They, of course, were buried naturally by the special depositional circumstances in caves and rock shelters, debris flows and mass drownings. I find that double standard to be ... a double standard!

In my 1989a, 1989b and 1999 and 2000 efforts to deconstruct Middle Palaeolithic burial, I noted that articulated skeletal elements are those that were plus/minus rapidly buried, or in some fashion protected from disturbance while they were buried by the gradual build-up of sediments. Special depositional circumstances are commonplace in caves and rock shelters. Special, yes; but not unexpected. Purposeful burial is a special depositional circumstance.

In those earlier publications I mentioned palaeontological occurrences of articulated skeletons. Contrary to Hovers and Belfer-Cohen's assertion that articulation equals purposeful burial, these complete animal skeletons were, more than likely, not purposefully buried by conspecifics. Those observations clearly fell on deaf ears, and right across the archaeological universe. Erella still feels justified in claiming that articulated fossil bipedal apes could not have been preserved with portions of the skeleton articulated without having been buried purposefully.

After all, Erella is an authority on purposeful burial. She dug one up. The Amud 7 infant, a partially articulated, wee bairn of the Neanderthal persuasion [the second sense]. This great good fortune has given Erella a bully pulpit from which to propound her version of archaeological reality, which culminated in the invitation to contribute to the Oxford Handbook.

Be all that as it may. Today I want to present a brief case study that altogether dismantles the assertion [not an argument, remember] that finding articulated skeletal remains means that they must have been purposefully buried.

While I was in Israel in 1989 I was treated [and I mean it] to site visits that would interest all of you palaeoanthropologists of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic. One of those stops was Zuttiyeh Cave, on the Wadi Amud, near the Sea of Galilee [Yeppers, such biblical places exist. It doesn't prove the existence of god, or the Jesus story, mind you, it's just cool that there is so much historicity in a document that moves many hundreds of millions of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim devout.]

Approximate location of Mugharet el-Zuttiyeh ("Cave of the 
Robbers"), in Wadi Amud, which drains to the Sea of Galilee 
(also Kinneret, Lake of Gennesaret, or Lake Tiberias).
In the satellite map at left I've indicated Mugharet el-Zuttiyeh's location, roughly [in the third sense of the word]. It contains/ed a Lower-Middle and Middle Palaeolithic assemblage and a frontal bone that has flummoxed human paleontologists ever since its discovery in the 1925-1926 expedition of F. Turville-Petre (who's shown above, during his pillaging excavation of Zuttiyeh Cave).

There's no special reason why Zuttiyeh should be my case study today. What I'm about to show you could have happened [and most likely did happen] to all of the Middle Palaeolithic individuals that we now know as the 'fossil record' of that region, and others.

Today Zuttiyeh cave exists in a xeric environment. It also occurs within the biogeographic range of the striped hyaena, Hyaena hyaena (Linnaeus, 1758). This factoid is très important because hyaenas are adapted to eating bone, in addition to flesh, the target of all other carnivores. The manner in which hyaenas are able to reduce a prey animal's remains to a scattering of bone scraps is part of the lore of taphonomy. All of us acknowledge the hyaena's ability to mess with carcasses [and bipedal ape corpses]. In fact, Erella Hovers and a bajillion other Palaeolithic archaeologists cite hyaena behaviour as one of the reasons they conclude that we would never find articulated skeletons of fossil bipedal apes were it not for purposeful burial. Even today, hyaenas exhume recently buried human remains and have their special—bone crushing and consuming—way with the corpse.

Entrance to Zuttiyeh Cave, Wadi Amud, Israel (Robert H. Gargett photo).

Hyaena hyaena distribution.
Nevertheless, in the theoretical mind of most palaeoanthropologists, hyaena presence in a palaeofauna would guarantee disturbance of any unprotected carcasses/corpses on the landscape, or in caves and rock shelters. I mention hyaenas here because their presence in the wilds of present-day Israel underscores the implications of the cow 'mummy' that I observed inside Zuttiyeh cave in 1989 [and which is shown below].

Desiccated bovine inside Mugharet el-Zuttiyeh, near the Sea of Galilee, Israel, May--June, 1989.
(Robert H. Gargett photo)

You'll notice that there is no flesh on these bones, and that in the case of some skeletal elements, even the longer-lasting connective tissue has been reduced or removed by microbial activity [evident in the collapse of the rib cage]. What you don't see is any indication that this individual suffered from rigor mortis that would have distorted the animal's repose. What you also don't see is disturbance by carnivores—especially those ravening, bone-consuming hyaenas—or any other agents of disturbance. What you do see is the raw material for a buried, articulated skeleton of a bovid [were it to have occurred in different depositional circumstances]. For example, if this animal had died on a down slope near the cave wall it would have been buried much more rapidly than it would if it had died out in the open, as this one did.

There are myriad ways that vertebrate remains might persist with skeletal elements in articulation, even in the presence of disturbance agents. I tried to elucidate many in my 1999 paper. Yet, Erella Hovers has always propounded 'articulation' as evidence for burial, even without other observations to back it up. Listen to what she and her co-authors have said over the years.
In the highly dynamic environments of the Levantine caves during Mousterian times, hominid occupation commonly alternated with the activities of other animals, and the residues of both were often subjected to severe disturbance prior to further sediment deposition. Under such circumstances, the articulation of Middle Paleolithic hominid skeletons is the major criterion for their designation as intentional burials Rak et al., "A Neandertal infant from Amud Cave, Israel." Journal of Human Evolution 26:313--324, 1994.
You simply can't generalize in this way without offering evidence. Although they pay homage to the 'dynamic' animal community in evidence, they pay no attention to the equal certainty of variability in those communities.
The ungulates found in the MP faunal assemblage at Amud are not cave dwellers, and would have been brought into cave mainly as part of the dietary systems of either hominids or carnivores. Hovers, et al., "The Amud 7 skeleton—still a burial. Response to Gargett." Journal of Human Evolution 39:253--260, 2000.
Despite the confidence expressed in this statement, you've seen living proof in the image above [or, rather, dead proof] that their assertion is a generalization that cannot be sustained.

Lastly, I want to present the earliest example of the failed mind set of Erella and her collaborators. This is from Belfer-Cohen and Hovers (1992).
The original excavators of the Levantine Middle Palaeolithic sites routinely used the skeleton's state of articulation as the criterion for identifying burials . . . . They never elaborated on the point, ap­parently because it seemed self-evident. Later research­ers have carried this attitude even farther, often neglect­ing the state of articulation. [Sally] Binford . . .  for one, proposes the very broad criterion of "the presence of an excavated grave and/ or an arrangement of the body or body parts which seem to preclude natural agency." Presumably, the last part of this sentence also relates to articulation. Harrold . . . ,  in  contrast,  regards as intentional burials only  those  cases  furnishing "some strong positive indication to the effect, such as strongly-flexed body position or unequivocal association with a burial trench or grave goods." It should be stressed that isolated skeletal fragments may represent remains both of disturbed intentional burials and of ran­dom, natural deposition. Archaeologically, distinction between the two may be difficult if not impossible. Thus skeletal articulation remains the single unchallenged criterion for intentional burial. Belfer-Cohen, A., and E. Hovers. "In the Eye of the Beholder: Mousterian and Natufian Burials in the Levant." Current Anthropology 33:463-471, 1992.
It's hard for me to fathom how the authors of this last credo have any authority in the matter. They cite decades old pronouncements [and interpret them in only one of several possible ways]. Once again, they ignore competing arguments [mine, e.g.]. Moreover, that they can characterize any kind of deposition as 'random' is their self-inflicted stake through the heart. There is nothing 'random' about natural deposition. The only randomness truly in evidence here is the choices that these authors make in support of their pet theories.

I'm tempted to say "it's all a crock." Except, animal bone people reading this will know that Crocuta crocuta is a species of hyaena. And, I wouldn't want anyone accusing me of making bad puns.


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.