Thursday, 2 January 2014

Even Less Proof That Neanderthals Buried Their Dead

Yesterday, The Subversive Archaeologist, your favourite blog, received a comment on the third of three posts relating to Rendu et al.'s recent claim to have uncovered new evidence that the Old Man of La Chapelle had been purposefully buried. It came from reader Morley Eldridge. His is as disinterested a response as one could possibly hope for. Morley is steeped in the late-pre-European invasion archaeology of North America's Northwest Coast—about as far from Late Pleistocene France as you could imagine. Or maybe not. As he points out the 'soil' chemistry of shell middens and calcareous caves are very alike. His comment raises many issues that I'm pretty sure some readers will have shared. I immediately crafted an appropriate response, but was hamstrung by the character limit on Blogger/Google Comments.

So, I emailed Morley the piece, and asked if I might put up his comment and my response. He gave the green light. His comment is reproduced verbatim, as are my responses. I'm adding visual aids of what Morley's referring to. [And in the captions some after-the-fact facts that you should keep in mind.]

The Subversive Archaeologist (SA)received this comment December 31, 2013, from Morley Eldridge (ME), President of Millennia Research Limited of Victoria, BC.

ME: OK. Had to read all three posts a couple of times to get it straight.

SA: I’m sorry if I didn’t present it coherently. I do try.

ME: I do believe you are basically right Rob, and that Rendu et al were mistaken in the belief that the originally published profiles and plan had to be essentially accurate.The notch is damning if the differences in pit location and morphology are supposed to be due to 'damage'.

SA: But only basically? Just checking.

The Notch appears on the right-hand site plan. The original outline of the "grave" and position of the deceased are in red. The Rendu et al. excavation revealed that the "grave's" location was about a metre away from the original presentation. Long-time friend of the SA, Marco Langbroek, advises me that the notch was very likely created during excavation, when the skull and associated bits were removed en bloc. If true, it's proof that the excavators, Bouysonnie, Bouysonnie, and Bardon (B, B, & B), did a piss-poor job of drawing their plan. The claim that they fudged their published observations is further supported by the excellent duo of photographs that Rendu et al. published, showing the newly excavated 1908 pit compared with the recent exposure.  
There can be no doubt that B, B, & B fudged their site plan and profiles. In these two views, taken from precisely the same vantage point, the size and location of the pit appears identical. Moreover, the Notch created for removal of the skull en bloc appears to have been made almost directly below the shield of rock/travertine that can be seen in both photos of the site post excavation, and in the mid-excavation photo below. 
The pit during excavation. The excavator in red is perched precariously on a half-metre sized island of backfill, hard up against the shield rock formation. Judging by the concave profile visible beneath excavator in red, the notch had to have been almost underneath the shield of rock. It's difficult to imagine how B, B, & B could have been so far off the mark in their plan drawing. Moreover, the skull's location almost beneath the shielding rock can easily explain why the skull was excavated virtually pristine. In such locations, preservation is bound to be better than any portions of the carcass that were further away (in this case, all of the post-cranial skeleton). 
ME: Whats left is essentially an amorphous depression that contained a remarkably intact skeleton,

SA: I’ve done the math. About 50% of the skeleton is represented.

The 50% estimate is a charitable one. The true number is close to, but does not reach, 50%. If I may be allowed a bit of after-the-fact analysis, you'll notice that the backbone is well represented. I've previously argued that the Kebara Cave Neanderthal's backbone would have been preserved best of all, because lying on its back means that the vertebrae and associated soft tissue would have been first to be covered by accumulating sediments. If I'm right, and LCS1 was naturally buried, it stands to reason that his backbone would survive better than the rest of the skeleton. 
ME: and which was excavated by the standards current to the early 20th century.

SA: I have no doubt that the excavation techniques were less fine-grained than some being done today. But if Rendu et al. found very little skeletal material that B, B, & B missed. But it’s not the digging technique that fell down on the job. Neither is it the stratification observed or the stratigraphic interpretation. It was fudging the record of observations that seems to have led most of us astray for more than a century. There’s no recovering from fudged records.

ME: Has there been a concerted effort to search for the century-old field notes, or letters written to colleagues while in the field?

SA: An excellent question. But not one, I’m afraid, that I’d be enabled to undertake.

This is the only fine-grained depiction of the LCS1 Neanderthal. There are no photographs taken at the time. We have only the two views of its skull, which was removed en bloc. This representation is a museum diorama, and it clearly includes discrepancies from the original position of the remains. As I observed previously, the mandible is not in the same place as it was in the bloc that included the cranium. As for the rest, all we have to go on is the one, tiny, plan drawing of the remains that was published in 1908. And even there, one can see obvious differences between the remains as drawn by B, B, & B, and those depicted in the diorama.
ME: The position of the body looks very much like what we see in purposeful flexed pit interments in shell middens here.

SA: Which is why B, B, & B argued that LCS1 was emplaced in what looked to them like a sleeping posture. My response: death during sleep would produce the same result.

ME: The skeleton is much more intact than what we normally see, though, and I'm not bothered at all by the missing elements.

SA: We’ll have to agree to disagree on that point.

ME: Shell middens have similar chemistry to limestone and marl that preserves bone well but causes inexplicable bone loss on the micro-scale.

SA: I agree that chemistry is very important. But, in what is to all intents and purposes an impermeable basin, it’s hard even to imagine that the groundwater makeup could vary so much on a metre scale. It’s expecially difficult for me to accept that chemical variability is at fault, given the author’s description of the excellent preservation of those bits that were recovered.

ME: Plus we get all kinds of turbation and other taphonomic processes.

SA: That’s true. None were ever proposed or observed. And, as I point out, they weren’t being transported downward in the column because the depression is impermeable.

ME: I suppose some unwell Neanderthal may have crawled to the lowest point of a rockshelter, curled up into a fetal position, then expired and was somehow rapidly covered with a cultural matrix containing tools etc. naturally, and before the scavengers had time to do much gnawing.

SA: This is where you and I disagree the most. If LCS1 had expired in winter, and had frozen to death, in the north-facing bouffia it might have been June before it thawed. Scavengers are far less interested in a carcass after it has been frozen, and microbes, too, do far less microbing once a carcass has been frozen—so you don’t see the effects of bloating that you do in a carcass that wasn’t frozen.

ME: If the skeletal position was more higgelty-piggelty I'd offer up the suggestion, that I haven't heard postulated before (what say you, Rob, is the following behaviour known to palaeoanthropologists?), that perhaps a bear (U. arctos) could have buried him and covered him with dirt and debris, as grizzlies here are fond of doing with moose and caribou, and the occasionally human (some of whom have recovered enough to crawl out and away and live to tell the tale).

SA: That’s good to know. But of course, thanks to the fudged record, we have no good idea what arrangement the skeletal elements were in at the time they were excavated.

ME: One of my most scary times in the bush was realizing that the stink of rotting flesh was correlated with the pits and excavated hollows in a ridge-top aeolian (?) sand deposit and with the numerous grizzly bear tracks we'd been looking at - the bears usually hang around to guard such delicacies as they ripen. I don't see why bears wouldn't also do this in a convenient cave with soft-ish marl and midden, and it would be extremely hard to distinguish this from a purposeful burial.

SA: Thanks, Morley! Another arrow in my quiver!

ME: Obviously for one reason or another occasionally the bear doesn't return to his cache. But the regular flexed body position would suggest this wouldn't be an explanation here- unless the skeletal depiction was also 'cleaned-up' by the illustrator.

SA: Which, sadly, we’ll never know. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Morley. I’m hoping you have a prosperous new year.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting read and conclusion, one problem though. If a bear did cover this unfortunate individual wouldn't the skelton bear some canivore tooth marks?


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