Thursday, 27 March 2014

Presby-What? Oh. Opia. The Stigmata? Me? No. Astigmatism! Oh. I See.

The chap who wrote the title can obviously see better than I at the moment. I'm taking touch-typing to  new lows—I'm calling it feel-typing, to tweak the standard hand-eye metaphor. I say that 'cause I can see only a white, rectangular blur in front of me, on which I can just make out that there are two thumbs and eight fingers. See. I 'misplaced' my only pair of glasses two days ago. New pair expected in 10 days to 2 weeks. Lucky me. Lucky you! All I have is a cheap pair of readers in the interim, which does nothing to correct for my astigmatism. As a result, after ten minutes at the 'Mac it feels like my head is gonna asplode.

My sincere apology. As if my presence here hasn't been too little for too long, I don't hold out much hope for anything seriously useful to the discipline [or my deceased, but ever-proud and watchful mother] until the aforementioned new spectacles are resting on my beak.

Perhaps this little animated vignette will better illustrate what I'm talkin' 'bout.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Why Are Subversive Archaeologists A Rarity?

Click here for this guy's bio.
What do a) the dead white male at left, b) archaeology, and c) the three antitheses 
  • Scientism vs Scientific
  • Empiricist vs Empirical
  • Deductive vs Inductive
have in common? Moreover, what do the three dichotomies denote that'd be of any interest to a green, or even a full-fledged 
subversive archaeologist? 

The Fictional Master Po and
"Grasshopper" (Kwai Chang Caine).
If, Grasshopper, you know the answers, go straight to the head of the class, because you possess the raw materials for a thoroughgoing and rigourous understanding of archaeological epistemology. As my friend would say, "Good on you, Mate!" But, if your experience of archaeology hasn't taken you into such matters, I'd ask you to be patient. First I want to elaborate on matters of professional conduct and advancement.

As the Beowulf story-teller famously began, so I shall.
 Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga,  þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas  ellen fremedon! *
Having thus laid the foundation for an epochal blurt** I turn now to the business at hand. 

[Note to Self: Electropsychometer now in need of repair, due the insane randomness of what I've just written, and its extreme irrelevance to. well.  anything.]

In a future outing, I promise I'll make good on my promise to explain the three dichotomies listed up top,
and what they have to do with archaeology and palaeoanthropology. For reals!
As far as I'm aware, the sort of commentary you find here at The Subversive Archaeologist is a phenomenological rarity. The SA is the only critic of archaeology, not just here on the intertubes, but in the literature as well. Why so? I can hear you whispering, "So, what's the big deal?" Listen closely. 

Let's face it. It's not as if there's a shortage out there of dumb archaeological inferences and theories—knowledge claims, as philosophers of science call them. Regular SA readers will know that I have little trouble finding juicy targets for the SA treatment. So, if [bear of little brain that I am] even I can manage a steady stream of empirically well-founded refutations of archaeological knowledge claims, you'd think, wouldn't you, that there should be a lot more criticism floating around—and concomitantly more critics. 

Putative self-portrait. Leonardo da Vinci: 
a man possessed of the range of 
knowledge required to explain, adequately, 
the reasons for there being no tradition of 
criticism in archaeology, specifically, and of
science, in general.
The explanation, as it turns out, is manifold and ramified. [I've always wanted to use that expression.] Explaining the absence of criticism in our field involves possessing a modicum of expertise in 
philosophy of science
informal logic [AKA critical thinking], and
all the archaeological background required to be a halfways decent archaeologist.
[I'll leave it up to you to decide which are the halfways decent ones.]

Today's blurt suggests some of the reasons for there being so little criticism of problematic archaeological knowledge claims—it is an labour-intensive and professionally expensive undertaking [even with the modern ability to operationally define crap, first of all, and second, the availability of objective measurement instruments like the Crap-o-meter shown at right, virtually eliminating inter-observer variation]. 

Needs no introduction, nor should it need explication.
It's also expensive for the time it takes to acquire the background knowledge of a site and its constituents, the range of depositional processes that figure in the site's formation, and many other classes of information. Moreover, one's critical appraisal requires not just examining the premises of the argument in question, but also those of the work that's referenced. In other words you have to dig as far as the bedrock of an argument, however noxious, however off-putting [see below]. And then you work back through the 'evidence' to form a reasoned assessment of the claim. 

I suspect that limitations on one's background knowledge are enough to dissuade oneself from embarking on such a voyage. I further suspect that limited background knowledge contributes to mute acceptance of a great many archaeological knowledge claims.

An ivory tower, as symbol of Mary, 
in a "Hunt of the Unicorn Annunciation" 
(ca. 1500) from a Netherlandish book of hours. 
Okay. So. Given the time involved in becoming thoroughly critical of others' work, it's understandable that academic archaeologists (and referees) simply can't afford the time. Besides, the resulting critiques wouldn't impress the tenure or promotion committee, unless it's published in a peer-reviewed journal. What's more, it's likely never to be published as anything other than a comment, which are not refereed, and therefore don't attract the attention of Very Serious Scholars. It also pisses off your peers [just ask me]. 

So who does that leave? Students with more energy than political savvy [of which I was one once upon a time], and underemployed, ageing, ex-academic archaeologists with nothing to lose and nothing better to do with their spare time than pour out their bile in cyberspace. Neither is taken very seriously, so it's no wonder that the Grown-ups in our discipline have no time to spare for such activities.

All ready for the slings and arrows!
All righty. I've said before that I learned too late of the major reason that an archaeologist should be reluctant to retrace the steps of another archaeologist’s inferential process: it could be profoundly damaging to their career. That's because there are no funding sources for such reappraisals, nor tenure committees that would value the enterprise as a first line of research. Besides, most archaeologists are quite happy to employ those authorities whose inferences bolster their own argument of the moment. Thus only someone secure in their position (unconcerned by the career treadmill) could or would undertake such examinations. This, as much as anything, explains why re-examinations of previous findings are usually undertaken by graduate students whose careers have yet to blossom, and who have not yet developed the self-preservation instincts of tenure-track and tenured academics.

Nevertheless, such activities are capable of propelling nascent careers into the intellectual stratosphere by virtue of their “game-changing” implications.

Sadly, few are bold enough (or naïve enough) to question the conclusions of a senior principal investigator (while said PI is still living, or still considered reliable by their peers). Caution prevails even when, for example, there is a general suspicion that a long-accepted narrative is flawed. Adding to the peril is the risk of alienating those whose interpretations and livelihoods are likely to be threatened because they rely on the authority’s interpretations to shore up their own findings. As a result, those who presume to call into question the “standard story” are often dealt with harshly, if stealthily. This may be direct and in print. Usually, however, punishment is less overt—for example, limiting access to collections, giving negative reviews on grant proposals, or whispering campaigns that can influence hiring or promotion. Either way, careers can and do suffer. 

Next time: in search of further factors that work against a critical stance in the archaeology literature, a tiptoe through the tulips of epistemology and philosophy of science. 

I'll bet you just can't wait!
* “How we have heard of the might of the kings.”
** Blurt is my own synonym for a blog post. One day I was announcing an SA post on Twitter. As you know, Twitter posts are called tweets. I immediately became jealous of the logical—almost poetic—relationship between the thing, a post, and the verb used to describe the act of uploading it. I thought about it for a few moments. If, I said to myself, a Twitter member tweets, could not a blogger be said to bleat? Sadly, for most in my culture, the kind of animal that makes such noises—most notably sheep—isn't considered a stand-on-your-own-two-feet sort of animal. Indeed, sheep, when used to describe a person, or sheepish their action, connotes weakness or submission. So, I thought 'bleat' might not be such a good analogue for 'tweet.' And so, I settled on 'blurt,' because it captures the nature, both of the act of blogging, and what is usually, for me, an forceful ejaculation inserted in the 'conversation' that is archaeology. So, blurts these are, and blurts they will be called. So sayeth the Lord of this bare pinprick on a period in the sphere known as Blogi.     

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Not Again!!! Yep! The La Chapelle Not-A-Burial-Pit Not So Much Rectangular as Irregularly Ovaloid.

Despite the creeping understanding that you might begin to find this work of mine to be a tedious interruption of your intellectual life, I never tire of pointing the finger at my sub-sub-sub-field colleagues. "Colleague," and "palaeoanthropologist" are not, by the way, words that're often used in the same sentence as "Rob Gargett." Believe me. I'm not bothered by it. Nor am I particularly bothered that, in aggregate, Middle Palaeolithic archaeological research is not much more than "an Heap of Conspiracies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments; the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, and Ambition could produce."* But, I'm not bitter; just very busy trying to school those comprising the heap, none of whom am I!

I say that I'm not bitter, because I've reached a level of enlightenment that few, I think, have imagined. Unfortunately, for me enlightenment is a dynamic process. Thus, each time I come across a mistaken inference in the literature, I am forced to transit each of the five stages of enlightenment all over again.

First, there's denial, which usually takes the form of an exclamation, for example,  "How could anybody be that stup . . . endously malinformed/mistaken/muddled!"

Thereafter comes anger. Alas, this is where my residual bitterness exerts itself. I often address myself at such times, with explosive effect. It almost always begins with, "How in the bejeezus . . ." I think you can fill in the blanks.

Next up, bargaining. Again, an exchange with myself, along the lines of, "Okay. I'll go out there and wade once more into the waste-deep swamp of fetid inferences. But it's absolutely the last time. Agreed?"

The very next level of enlightenment, in my experience, is not an entirely positive stage. It's what's known as depression, which I've learned is different from just "feeling sorry for oneself."
Depression follows whenever I feel as if I'm losing the high ground of the intellect. It's cathartic, in a way. But it's quite dangerous, because this is the tilting point, and I could quite easily take the downward emotional path and fervently hope that I'll never write another word. That's what's been going on, in large part, since about this time last year.

Enlightenment, for me, amounts to acceptance. Acceptance of my solitary fight, of an effectively Sisyphean struggle, futile in its particulars, but transforming in its utter futility. That's where I find myself on the question of Middle Palaeolithic burial. And it is in acceptance of my lot in life that I can say, "Once more into the breach, dear friends."

So. Where were we? Oh, yes. We're back at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, where, around 1908 a mostly complete skeleton of a Classic Neanderthal was found. In "Grave Shortcomings: the evidence for Neandertal burial" I thought I'd done a pretty good job of dismantling the early twentieth century fairy tale that "The Old Man" of La Chapelle-aux-Saints had been purposefully buried.
[It's not necessary to your understanding of what's coming. Nevertheless, for those few who exist unaware of my late 80's contribution to this question, I've set up a special page where you can train yourself.]

I've already thoroughly and [one would have hoped] persuasively shut down the recent claims by Rendu et al. that their exhumation of the so-called burial pit demonstrated that the skeleton was preserved because it had been purposefully buried. You can refresh your memory by having a look here, here, here, here, and here. I'd have hoped that these five blurts had exhausted the subject. But, I've found that no matter how many times you beat a dead horse, it stays dead!

The original excavations resulted in the site plan on the left, below [minus my multi-metre scale bars]. This is the only representation that exists. Any other representations that you might see are extrapolations based on the excavators' reports. The 1908 plan clearly illustrates a quasi-rectangular pit outline. [On of the main criticisms of my 1989 re-examination was that a rectangular depression was unlikely to have been created naturally. That's a false proposition, which I've covered recently, and which ought to put that fantasy to rest, once and for all.]

Below, at right you see my annotated version of the same plan based on the recent exhumations of Rendu et al. It reproduces the 1980 illustration along with the results of the latter-day excavations. As you can see, the newer outline is shifted slightly away from the preternaturally central position reported in 1908. The recent work, which we're assured exposed the original "pit," shows a slightly larger and ovoid in plan. It's a kind of ovoid trapezoid, not a rectangle.

As you'll see in a moment, even the recent results as drawn are a departure from the excavated reality, I believe so as to perpetuate the claim that the "grave" was rectangular.

Illustration at right drawn after Rendu et al. 2013.
Indeed, for much of the twentieth century, every visitor to the museum at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, or those who visit the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, have been treated to the diorama shown below (which is from the La Chapelle museum. It's decidedly rectangular, and way more rectilinear than even the 1908 plan would have you believe. So, what's going on? [As I've mentioned previously the distribution of skeletal elements in this diorama is at odds with the original plan, above left.]

What's happening is clearly illustrated in the photo below, which shows a portion of the "grave" during the recent excavation. The dashed white line describes the shape, in plan, of the "burial pit." You see where the margin closest to the photographer is not rectilinear. Far from it!

Rendu et al. 2013.

The kicker, as I see it, is the comparison of the site after the 1908 excavation, and a photo from exactly the same vantage of the site after the recent excavation. Neither appears particularly rectangular, rectilinear, or anything approaching a right-angle. The take-home message? Easy. The well-meaning archaeologists of the recent excavation have drunk the Kool-Aid, and even when faced with reality, they have chosen to undertake special pleading and auxiliary hypothesis after auxiliary hypothesis, in maintaining a) that the burial was purposeful—even though the pit might have been naturally excavated the skelly was nevertheless puposefully buried, and b) the pit's rectangular outline as recorded in 1908 was the truth, even though it's really hard to get one's eyes to turn an oval into a rectangle.
Rendu et al. 2013.

* Jonathan Swift. 1726. Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Forbs [sic] Ruled the Mammoth Steppe Flora For 50 kyr, Turning 50 Years of Palaeoecological Thinking On Its Head.

Today's Feature Presentation is Big! Really Big. Big animals. Big sky. Big-picture stuff. Along with Big reputations, Big egos, and Big shoes to fill! Bigger even than the Forbes 500! In fact, it's big enough to be called the Forbs [sic] 50,000!!!!!!!

One representational theory of what the mammoth steppe flora and fauna comprised, by Mauricio Antón (ca. 2004). Source: Wikipedia
I'm talking about the very recent Nature "article" (sensu stricto*) by E. Willerslev and a cast of thousands.
Willerslev, E., and a partridge in a pear tree et al. et many, many. 2014. “Fifty thousand years of Arctic vegetation and megafaunal diet.” Nature 506:47–51, [doi:10.1038/nature12921]. Retrieved 20140308; accessed here
This paper oughta provide archaeologists and palaeoecologists of the Arctic Late Pleistocene with a big whack of new information to *cough* digest.

Now, to business.

We're gonna take a trip to the Arctic—170° west and 65° north, to be precise—to pretend we're inhabiting the Terminal Pleistocene equivalent of 4th Street and Main in Uptown Downtown Beringia [see map below]. Beringia, as you may already know, is the name given to the continental shelf that was exposed during the coldest periods in the last Ice Age. It used to be called the Bering Land Bridge. However, as you can *cough* plainly see it was less like a bridge, and more like a vast plain that united Asia and the Americas, thus forming a [drumroll, please] . . . .


Beringia spanned 1,600 km from north to south [about 1,000 miles for metrically challenged North American colleagues and friends].
Time-lapse of Beringia from the Last Glacial Maximum oceanic low stand to the recent Holocene high stand. Credit: click here if the animation fails to run.
À la Bob Dylan, it's my wish that for just one time / you could stand inside [the] shoes of a wooly mammoth—Mammuthus primigenius (Blumenbach, 1799)—inhabiting 4th Street its Late Pleistocene central Arctic range. But wait! Before you wander off all by yourself to don the shoes of such a large creature, it might be best if you buddied up with someone—not just because there are four shoes to stand in, but also for your personal safety, should the mammoth return prematurely.

[Still imagining . . . ]

You're hungry [which you have to imagine is an incessant feeling for a cold-climate pachyderm, despite all the 'wool']. Forget the conventional wisdom of the past 60+ years. Forget the amber waves of short, stubby grasses. Forget lichen as far as the eye can see. Imagine few sedges, and a dearth of ground-hugging, twisted trees. In contrast to that picture, Beringia is the perfect niche for such a voracious animal. You and the other larger-than-life fauna fit right in. Forbs [don't feel inadequate. I had to look it up, too] abound. Forbs as far as the eye can see [which, I realize, ain't that far if you happen to be a wooly rhino]. Heaps and heaps of forb-ful biomass—lots more, that is, than was envisaged for this part of the world throughout the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first.

That forbs were Beringia's dominant flora prior to the Last Glacial Maximum is the major finding of Willerslev et al.'s exhaustive and far-reaching review / report. In my usually pugnacious scepticism, I had always thought the conventional view of the mammoth steppe flora was a bit of a stretch. Imagine hungry you in a landscape such as that depicted above. You'd probably have mowed through the entire lichen covering that view in less than a day, and still be hungry. On the other hand, if you switched that view for an effectively limitless expanse of forbs, you might not feel so apprehensive as to where your next meal will be coming from!

[Okay. You and your buddy may now slip out of those shoes. And, step sharply, the wooly one returns.]

Willerslev et al.'s research covers 50 kyr. I'm betting dollars to donuts that the aggregate information published here represents about 50 lifetimes of intensive data collection [50 human years, mind you, not mammoth years]!
[Theirs is the] first large-scale ancient DNA metabarcoding study of circumpolar plant and .  . . .  nematode** diversity as a proxy for modelling vegetation cover and soil quality, and diets of herbivorous megafaunal mammals, . . . . For much of the period . . . , Arctic vegetation consisted of dry steppe-tundra dominated by forbs (non-graminoid herbaceous vascular plants). [Milkweed, for example, or sunflower-like plants with yummy seeds.] During the Last Glacial Maximum (25–15 kyr BP), diversity declined markedly, although forbs remained dominant. [I wouldn't normally give a free ride to the sort of pronouncement you're about to read, but I think this crew deserves to blow their own horn.] . . . [O]ur findings question the predominance [italics mine***] of a Late Quaternary graminoid-dominated Arctic mammoth steppe.
In other words, instead of something akin to a polar desert, Beringia probably looked more like the east African savannah or the Great Plains of North America. Plenty of grub [n. #8] for plenty of mega-mammals.

I think it's worth noting that forbs are annuals. Like grasses they die back in winter. That would be badness for a faunal community comprising many species of big mammals. What did they eat during the cold, very dark, winter? I have a hypothesis. [Oh, Lord. Here he goes again.]

Since we have no good idea of the ecology of the long-extinct wooly mammoth and other very large mammals that lived in Beringia, we can posit natural histories that are unlike the Holocene exponents of the Mammuthus primigenius (wooly mammoth), Bison priscus (steppe bison), Bison antiquus (ancient bison),  Equus lambei (Yukon horse), and Coelodonta antiquitatis (wooly rhinoceros), to name but a few. Munch on this. Evidently several species of caribou inhabited parts of Beringia. The extant species, Rangifer tarandus, are migratory. Isn't it possible that the southern portion of Beringia had a more temperate climate than you might expect so far north. Even today the Japanese Current bathes the eastern Aleutian Islands, including Kodiak Island and the majority of coastal Gulf of Alaska. One has to imagine that something like the present-day warm current had a Pleistocene counterpart. Maybe the entire faunal community was migratory in the way of today's North American caribou.

I think that'd be a fruitful line of enquiry for aspiring palaeobiologists et al.

All righty. I think I've underscored the import of Willerslev et al.'s article quite enough. Great stuff! No?

Wanna know what I think's pretty funny? Nobody has pressed me for an answer to the inevitable question: "OK, Gargett. Why should we believe anything you say? It's not like you're an expert or anything like that!] To which I must reply: "Quite right. It's been a good long time since I learned a thing or two about the Pleistocene. But I had a good teacher—Knut Fladmark, perhaps the best ever for Pleistocene geomorphology and assorted allied fields. Moreover, while I was in the Australian academy, I was one of a handful of scholars who had a clue about such matters. And if you don't believe me, check out my review of Frederick Hadleigh-West's edited volume, American Beginnings: The Prehistory and palaeoecology of Beringia in Australian Archaeology. For that matter, why not check out the whole volume.
You can get it from Amazon by clicking through from here. And, if you purchase it I'll get a wee commission at no cost to you, and you'll get a good price [and possibly free shipping!]. As far as I know, American Beginnings is the sole source for English translations of the difficult-to-access Russian-language original articles on a host of northern and northeastern Asian palaeolithic archaeological sites. This book would provide a means of melding the dataset you've been introduced to here today and the archaeological record of at least some of the very large area that Willerslev et al. cover.

I think that oughta do it for today. Nighty-night. Don't let the nematodes bite!

* I can use fancy latin taxonomic qualifiers, too!

** A parasitic creepy-crawly that ravages the world's economic plants [and any others they can terrorize]. See below. They're insidious little rotters.

Low-temperature scanning electron micrograph of a soybean cyst nematode (Heterodera sp.) and its egg. [Hence the nickname "ooh-ahh worm!] Magnified 1,000 times. Found at [where else?] Wikipedia.  Source.
*** I think they mean pre-eminence here. It may simply be a double editing slip-up, since the authors follow "predominance" with "dominant" just a second later in the same sentence.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Overheard At The Bar: "Hi, Babe. My Name's Cliff. Drop Over Some Time!"

Okay, so I'm not adept with pickup lines. Maybe instead I could set myself up as an archaeological fortune teller. At least that way I'd get paid for laughing in the face of ludicrous knowledge claims from scientists who really shouldn't be allowed near archaeological sites, assemblages [faunal or other], individual artifacts, and especially Bunsen burners and breakable labware!

From my old friends at comes this revelation:

"Hold your horses," you say. "there weren't any danged mammoths in Jersey!" True, but their rellies were found all over Manhattan long before it was sold to your forbears. And, let's face it, you and I both know that, right under our noses, there are Neanderthals travelling the NY subway every week-day, on their way to jobs as stockbrokers, personal trainers, massage therapists, acupuncturists, and middle management. Wait! All of this is beside the point, because the article refers not to the city so great they named it twice, nor its poor neighbour across the Hudson, but rather to the island of Jersey, one of the so-called Channel Islands that lie between England and France, in the English Channel—or La Manche, if you happen to be Francophilic. Plenty of Neanderthals and mammoths running around those parts back in the day! You betcha.

From The Sun, March 25, 1925.

[At the risk of removing myself from the gene pool prematurely by divulging my age in calendar years, this story takes me back, way back, to my days as an undergraduate at Simon Fraser University. I was well aware of the claims being refuted. So it was that, before I was even half-way through reading the article's title I knew what was coming, and which site it was coming from.]

It was La Cotte de St. Brelade, nowadays a rather bleak place hard by the icy cold waters of the North Sea. Back in the Middle Ages mid 1980s I was every bit as sceptical as I am now. And K. Scott had recently published inferences from the examination of two penecontemporaneous faunal accumulations found in rocky crevices, which to that author suggested [argued might be a little too charitable] that those wily Neanderthals [females, almost certainly] had herded wooly mammoths and rhinos right up to a rocky fissure and bade them, lemming-like, jump to their collective death[s].
Scott, K. "Two Hunting Episodes of Middle Palaeolithic Age at La Cotte de Saint-Brelade, Jersey (Channel Islands)." World Archaeology 12:137--152, 1980.
At the time I found Scott's claim preposterous on the face of it. But, I hadn't yet gained the expertise interpreting animal bones from archaeological sites to be sufficiently critical. Therefore, at the time, based on nothing but my 'reading' of Middle Palaeolithic archaeology, my fearless prediction was that Scott's claim would one day be thrown out.

Indeed, to my mind the illustrations that follow represent Scott's imaginary scenario, and what was, more than likely, the grim reality of the La Cotte Neanderthals.

And so, "Hail the conquering Heroes!"

Scott, B., M. Bates, R. Bates, C. Conneller, M. Pope, A. Shaw & G. Smith. "A new view from La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey." ANTIQUITY 88:13–29, 2014. Retrieved 20140307; accessed at
Careful reconstruction of La Cottes's Pleistocene palaeotopography, together with a refined stratigraphic sequence, enable another Scott, et al. (2014) to turn conventional wisdom on its head [gotta love it!], and negate [provisionally, at any rate] the notion that Neanderthals were clever enough to do what modern people have done since at least the early Holocene.

To put at least some of this in the context of 'reading' the archaeological record, remember that we can't make knowledge of the past except by reference to processes that we can observe today, or inferences of past processes that have been tested and retested and are, plus or minus, robust theories of past events.

So, what could the mass-kill-site advocate Scott possibly have used as the analogy from which to infer purposeful Neanderthal behaviour from a couple of bone piles shrouded in löess? [And, which Scott et al. refute.] My gut tells me that such scenarios were born out of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century ethnographic, ethnohistorical, and archaeological investigations in northern North America. Indeed, without the knowledge corpus to which we now turn, Scott may never have imagined that, at La Cotte, the archaeological 2 + 2 = a pile of beguiled, dismembered behemoths.

I'm referring to the well-documented practise of First Nations and Inuit people stampeding large herbivores, though guile, to somewhere that would enable killing in numbers sufficient to provision large groups of people like you and I, often for long periods. On example springs to mind, that of the buffalo jump, employing a promontory such as the one at the site of Head-Smashed-In, near Fort Macleod, Alberta, pictured below.

The cliff face in the middle distance was the point of departure for the hapless bison. It's about 11 m high (36 ft).
The promontory at Head-Smashed-In buffalo jump, near Fort Macleod, Alberta.
Here, dozens of bison at a time were killed and butchered. In the photo above, the talus slope in the foreground was the killing ground.

The drawing from 1854, shown below, shows how Aboriginal peoples used drive lanes to funnel the buffalo toward the cliff.

A mass kill shown in plan. 
Plains dwellers lined up on either side of a converging 'drive lane,' using makeshift flags to frighten and cause the animals to run straight for the killing ground. This illustration depicts a First Nations bison killing ground: the sideways 'V's represent the encampment of teepees, and the lines with circles at one end represent the people. A similar practise was used by Arctic and Sub-Arctic peoples to run caribou toward a killing ground. Often, to make up for small numbers of human actors, these northerners installed inuksuit (sing. inuksuk), virtual people erected along the drive lane, like the one shown at right. I'm unaware of any historic analogues to such practises in the so-called Old World. [But I'm quite happy to be disabused of this claim, should you no different.]

Bottom line? No European Head-Smashed-In-like episode took place at La Cotte de Saint Brelade.

I know. I know! Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. So, just because it can no longer be claimed that Neanderthals were capable of such actions doesn't mean that sceptics like me can claim that they wouldn't have been capable. Keep hoping, you Neandertals 'R' Us people. "Hope," he said, "is all you've got."

And so ends another chapter in the multi-year voyage into and back out of archaeological reality. Return next time for a thrilling to yesteryear.

See you on the flip-flop!

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Neanderthal Co-operative Hunting, the Way It Surely Must Have Been.

The wily leader of the hunt.
Even if you couldn’t see her, you knew she and two of her cohort were hidden in the copse, downwind of their objective. The young rhino was oblivious to the feint they had prepared for it. The thirsty quadruped continued to move toward the seep, watchfully, instinctively alert to movement, sound, and scent. [Like a good rhino it was nearly as blind as a bat!]

Upwind of the three hidden in the brush there is movement in the tall grass. Two of the hunting co-op on one side, and three on the other, were flanking their prey. They had learned their roles as children, and were executing them perfectly—acting like wing forwards in a soccer match in which the three hidden in the brush downwind were the center forwards, waiting for the wingers to force their opponent to make a mistake and create a chance to score—in this case, the wingers function to make their prey run straight at the hunting blind where ambush and certain death awaited.
Preparing for the hunt.
As each of the forward wingers crept further and further upwind they were closing the circle. They had played their roles beautifully, and now they stood their ground, their work done. So, when the rhino finally sensed the danger, an escape upwind was impossible. He never had a chance. The remaining wingers occupied both flanks, and as the anxious unguate turned first to its right, and then to its left, the hunters on the flanks showed themselves. They moved methodically toward their now hysterical prey. It’s only remaining escape was straight downwind.

A job well done.
The ill-fated rhino was heading into the trap that she had laid for him. She and her two companions ambushed the young animal as it neared their hunting blind. They pounced on the hapless creature and despatched him moments later. They all had their fill at the kill site, which became their home for the next few days, while they alternately fended off scavengers and fed off the carcass.

The days were turning colder, and it was time for the group to take refuge in a small cave in the adjacent hillside.


Despite the graphics, cleverly designed to keep you off my scent, the scenario I just described isn't that of a hypothetical group of Neanderthals. It's an [almost] verbatim account of African lion cooperative hunting behaviour, habitually anchored by an alpha female.

I've taken your time today to illustrate how vapid and at the same time misleading are the claims that palaeoanthropologists trot out at every opportunity—that those brilliant Neanderthals took part in cooperative hunting forays, underpinned by big brains, big mouths, and the ability to make sharp sticks. Clearly it requires less brain mass, and no vocalization nor language to organize a hunt involving several conspecifics.

So, when you go back home tonight, and you're imbibing more gibberish about the fascinating and remarkable Neanderthals, remember this moment. Carry it with you through all your days, and at every opportunity throw it back in the faces of those who'd have you believe that cooperative hunting is unique to large bipedal apes.

Panthera leo Regina surveys her domain.

Thanks for joining me today. There's more to come.

Neanderthal Demise, V.2012: Dalén et al. Pimp Their Genomics. Thas Wha' I'm Talkin' Uhbout!*

No. Your senses aren't playing tricks on you. You're looking at a genuine, bona fide, blurt from The Subversive Archaeologist. For reals! I've been busying myself with other matters, including some serious homemaking (see Figure 1, at left).

Compared to geological time, my prolonged absence from the intertubes var. internets would be virtually imperceptible. So, as we're, all of us, good archaeologists, what's a nanoepoch among friends? [Inelegant segué warning!] Speaking of time, today's diatribe subject comment blurt should take little more than a nanomillenium of yours.

A tip o' the brown fedora to Iain Davidson for pointing me to this week's write-up, by Gail Glover, concerning a Molecular Biology and Evolution article from a couple of years ago (?). I noted it at the time, but evidently failed to consult that note thereafter! No worries! Still plenty of time before the door is closed on matters of human biological and cultural evolution. [Good news for those of us needing a little bit of job security!]

Dalén, L., L. Orlando, B. Shapiro, M. Brandström-Durling, R. Quam, M.T.P. Gilbert, J.C.D. Fernández-Lomana, E. Willerslev, J.L. Arsuaga, and A. Götherström. "Partial Genetic Turnover in Neandertals: Continuity in the East and Population Replacement in the West." Mol. Biol. Evol. 29(8):1893–1897, 2012. [doi:10.1093/molbev/mss074]
I risk ridicule even remarking on research of this kind, since my expertise doesn't encompass smaller organismic units than individuals and their behaviour. I'll say it: genomics is well beyond the limits of my mental acuity, beyond my purview, past my perspicacity, too complicated for my wee noggin. [It's been said that I have all the mental alacrity of a soap dish when it comes to Gs. Cs, Ts, and As.] [I should be flattered that someone has taken the time to get to know me!] However, forms of argument are well within my purview. Philosophically speaking, there are observations [data] and conclusions, and then there are the lines of reasoning that connect observations to conclusions. In other words, the observations become the evidence for conclusions by means of logical argument—otherwise known as interpretation. Consumers of research findings either have the wherewithal to be critical, or they are compelled, one way or another, to accept the findings of others by appeal to their authority—which is a logical fallacy—alternatively referred to as argumentum ab auctoritate (argument from authority). To whit, if Prof. So-and-So said it, it must be so. But, even the best minds can be wrong some times.
And, since argument from authority amounts to a claim for someone's infallibility, argument from authority is inherently flawed. After all, infallibility is humanly impossible! [Just ask me.] [On second thought. Don't.] And so, it is to argument that I will turn in this discussion, both the authors' and those of their consumers—i.e. those citing this research within the bigger picture of global human evolution. 

Dalén et al. (2012) examined mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from archaic bipedal apes across the geographic and temporal range of what are commonly referred to as "Classic" Neanderthals. Briefly, a Classic Neanderthal is identified using a suite of physical features that are outside the range of  contemporaries elsewhere in the world and today's humans. The cartoon below illustrates some of the salient distinguishing features.

The features that serve to distinguish Classic Neanderthals from people like you and me, and from just about every other bipedal ape that's ever trod on two feet. (Credit: hairymuseummatt (original photo), KaterBegemot (derivative work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. 

The authors observed that regardless of where in the Classic Neanderthal's range they took samples, those living prior to about 48,000 years ago [48 ka] shared more or less comparable degree of mtDNA heterogeneity. However, since about 48 ka those living in the west of that same range manifested a lesser degree of genetic variability that distinguished them from those further east, and from those that had lived in western Europe prior to 48 ka.

The authors conclude that some environmental or other process split the Classic Neanderthals into two reproductively isolated groups, and eventually saw the extinction of the original heterogeneous western genome. The following illustration is borrowed from Dalén et al. It shows the sampled locations and the cluster of western genotypes distinct from the one that spanned both the Classic Neanderthal's geographic and its temporal range.

Back to epistemology, specifically argument.

Palaeoanthropologists and archaeologists come in two basic flavours: those that cleave to the idea that western European Neanderthals were coeval with, and interbred with the modern humans that we know entered that region after about 48 ka. The other flavour of palaeo people holds the opposite view, that the Neanderthals and modern humans probably never met one another. I'm a representative of that second group. As a group, we seem to be in the minority.

Dalén et al.'s findings clearly support the school of thought to which I belong. Do I accept their findings prima facie? You bet I do! Am I relying on their authority? Yeppers! Am I therefore a damned fool? NOT necessarily. [Wait a second. What kind of a question is that? Who put you up to it? The nerve of some people!]

I'm not necessarily a damned fool. As you can see from the graphic depiction [above] of my intellectual position vis a vis Dalén et al., I'm on a precarious perch. As long as I stay put, I should be okay. But if I'm to live much longer I can't stay here forever. Do I march ahead and say "good on you, Dalén et al.," chancing an owie or two? Or, do I take the sensible course, and retrace my steps, metaphorically and physically declining to accept the authors' conclusions? Ahead, or back? Mine is the sort of situation they must have had in mind when they invented the phrase "on the horns of a dilemma." What if I side-stepped the issue? Meh. Not such a good tactic at this juncture. It'd hurt just as much as going forward, but with less intellectual and scholarly integrity.

Of course, I could try to delude myself into thinking that this was a fence, and that by sitting down right here, the worst that could happen is that some of my critics will think I'm wishy-washy. Nah! Not only am I replete with those two kinds of integrity [and a handful more, I might add], in my day job I'm very familiar with self-delusion. Like a good rationalization a self-delusion can be very calming at times. But, as a frequent reader of the Subversive Archaeologist, you'll be well aware of my natural inclination to take a position and argue it to death. Given the two alternatives, I think I'll stay where I am, waiting [perhaps in vain] for a deus ex machina to rescue me.

That's it then! Here I stay, sitting [well, standing] on the proverbial fence. I'll accept Dalén et al.'s conclusions PROVISIONALLY. That oughta satisfy the Argument Police AND the likes of you, Dear Reader. Hasta luego!