The cradle of thought.

Sometime you just need to rant. This is one of those times. It's not altogether scholarly. But, neither is the work we're dealing with today. I guess it goes without saying: it's your choice whether to read or take a pass.

I'm talking about Spikins et al.’s latest oeuvre,
"The cradle of thought: growth, learning, play and attachment in Neanderthal children,” Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 33(2):111–134, 2014
I’m sure there are those who’d claim that my work is ‘substandard,' ‘subjective,’ ‘sub-par,’ ’substantively lacking,’ ’superficial,’ even ’superfluous.’ I say let them think so. I’ll just keep pointing errors large and small. The biggest knock I can come up with, after having read only the title of this 'thought' paper, is that even the best clinical psychologists have trouble capturing the empirical indicators of such concepts as learning, play, and attachment. Moreover, there's nothing—N. O. T. H. I. N. G. unique about play in our evolutionary lineage. Dogs 'play,' fer gawd sakes! It's a specious foundation on which to build any kind of discussion about the 'evidence' for Neanderthal cognitive—especially emotional—experience. But that's an incredibly long row to hoe, and I'm not even going to attempt it here: I'm leaving it up to sharper minds, and like-minded palaeoanthropologists with their feet on the ground, and evidence that comes out of the ground—not like this castle in the clouds from Spikins et al. [which, by the way, is just the latest in a line of speculative—that's the charitable reading—treatises].

Kayso, I'm gonna stick to the obvious for a change. I'm also not going to ignore deviations from clear expression, nor will I overlook just plain dumb stuff. Here's a good example. In Spikins et al., Paul Pettitt is given credit for having published the idea that the Neanderthal existence was, to quote him, “nasty, brutish, short.” I’ll admit that Pettitt didn’t say “nasty, brutish, and short,” which demonstrates that he can paraphrase a Classic with the best of them, and at the same time fail to credit the phrases originator, Thomas Hobbes, who put those words to paper in the seventeenth century [C.E., that is], and whose arguments inspired Charles Darwin to develop the theory of natural selection. Speaking of the ’natural state’ of people like you and me, Hobbes said that there is
"no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, 1651.
In a clerically sterner age Pettitt might have been upbraided for his omission, but Spikins et al. could easily have been metaphorically hung, drawn, and quartered for parrotting Pettitt without any idea of his source—or, if you will, Pettitting—thereby demonstrating their complete ignorance of one of the most salient connections between minds—those of Malthus and Darwin—in the whole history of so-called Western thought. I realize it’s a small point. But, it reminds me that, to have a critical capacity in any domain of enquiry, the critic must have a care for the history of the discipline—much in the way that theatre critics depend on the history of theatre and of theatrical presentation to have the authority to critique new works. Since I consider my task an essentially critical one, I depend heavily on my half a lifetime spent with the history of palaeoanthropological thought, to say nothing to having contributed, in my own small way, to its progress [despite what you might glean from a reading of Spikins et al.].

You may well think that pointing out such mundane shortcoming in Spikins et al. has no bearing at all on the veracity of their conclusions or the value of their arguments. I agree wholeheartedly. For me to say so would be to resort to argumentum ad hominem, a thoroughly illogical construction of reality. Yet, I would remind you that, however mundane, such gaffes—on the part of Pettitt and Spikins et al.—do not inspire confidence in an informed and historically connected peer scholar. For me, such gaffes as those of Pettitt and Spikins et al. only make me hungry to find more, and more theoretically substantive ones! So, let’s go. Shall we? Down the rabbit hole, once more?

Looking down the rabbit hole. Millicent Sowerby. Illustration from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; Chatto & Windus, UK, 1907.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by
Rene Cloke. London: Waverly Book Company, 1943.
And so. To business!


Childhood has received little attention in the evolutionary past1 despite its2 importance in influencing cognition, social relationships and culture . . . . However, with apparently3 critical differences between Neanderthals and modern humans now less clearly defined4 the debate over difference has shifted to more subtle aspects5 and pushed ever more into the social and cultural realm.6 Given this context7 and that the foundations for adult behaviour and society8 are put in place during childhood, we argue that it is now crucial to forward our understanding of children in prehistory.
1 Grammar: no one was there in the “evolutionary past” who might have paid attention
2 Grammar: a pesky ambiguous modifier, leading to the redundant assertion that the evolutionary past had
3 Clarity: to whom is anything ‘apparent?'
4 Clarity: it’s unclear how critical differences have been defined, in the first place,
5 Clarity: of what? evolution? cognition? social relationships? culture?
6 Clarity: A. Is there a distinction between the social and the cultural? The authors do not provide a definition by which we might understand their stance from the outset. B. There’s nothing new in this goal of paleoanthropology.
7 Grammar: do the authors mean the social or cultural ‘context’?
8 Clarity: which are we to infer from this ambiguous antecedent: that the authors mean "adult behaviour" and ‘adult' “society?" Or, should we take from this that it’s in fact "society" qua 'society,’ which is neither juvenile or adult?”
All in all, this paragraph is so poorly written and edited that readers are left to infer the authors’ intent based on probablity and extrapolation. Not a very good start, all things considered.

Neanderthal children rarely appear in our discussions of Neanderthal society despite making up a significant proportion of the population . . . .9 Indeed, and as Nielsen . . . notes, in some quarters it is still debated whether Neanderthals actually had a childhood at all.10 Of course, children are less visible than adults in the archaeological record, both in terms of the preservation potential of bone and the difficulty in identifying material traces of childhood . . . . However, visibility has not been the only issue. It has been a long-standing problem within archaeology that children are perceived as of marginal importance, accorded little attention in key discussions or even disregarded when recovered.11 It is telling that although the original skeletal material from Engis Cave included the crania12 [sic] of a four year old child, it was the adult Neanderthal that gained fame and detailed study, while the child fossils13 [sic] languished unnoticed in a museum for over a hundred years . . . . Similarly, a neonate from Le Moustier also14 remained unrecorded in a cardboard box for over a century . . . , while the remains of two well-preserved neonates from Saint-Césaire were only recently discovered within faunal collections, 15 years after the end of the excavations (Colombert et al. 2012).15
9 By analogy to almost any vertebrate’s population dynamics, we can infer that the majority of those Neanderthals that died were juveniles or the elderly. However, and importantly, they represent just a hint in the fossil record. For that reason, unless we start makin’ shit up we have precious few opportunities to say anything about the young, much less the possibility that the Neanderthals were capable of having a cultural construct of childhood.
10 True enough. I’m in one of those quarters. See note 9.
11 Children perceived to be of “marginal importance.” Hmm. No, marginal archaeological presence. And what might one of those “key discussions” be? A tutorial in college? Disregarded? Ask me about Amud 7!
12 One head = one cranium
13 Child’s fossil, not child fossils
14 Also is here redundant. And I wouldn’t pay too much attention to the Le Moustier cardboard box screw-up. The kid wasn’t ignored: they thought they’d lost it!
15 Lameness abounding. This is an example of why I’m calling this paper another trip down the rabbit hole. Here’s the citation for Colombert et al. (2012) from the REFERENCES section of Spikins et al.
Colombert, P., Bayle, P., Crevecoer, I., Ferrié, J-G. and Maureille, B. 2012: New Mousterian Neonates From The South-West Of France. PESHE 1, 57.
PESHE? Hmm, I thinks to meself. Never heard o’ that one. So I starts looking for a journal called PESHE. Nothing. Well, it’s the first volume, I thinks; mayhaps I need be more ingenious. I won’t leave you hanging. You probably already knew what I’ve just learned. PESHE 1 [sic] is the shorthand term for the 2nd [!] Annual Meeting of the European Society for the study [sic] of Human Evolution. Still no clue as to where PESHE 1 came from. The title page provides a clue: see if you can pick it up.

There it is! At the very bottom of the title page, which is not where one would expect to find a book title—or, in this case, a book of abstracts. Kayso, it’s the 2nd annual meeting, but it’s the 1st proceedings of the society. I’m just guessing, but, the 1st annual—or, rather the 1st meeting—probably wasn’t much of a proceeding, thus not warranting a book of abstracts. Or not. But why PESHE 1? After all, it’s the European Society for the [deliberately, but inscrutably, small ’s’] study of Human Evolution. Obviously there’s something magical about the initialism ‘PESHE’ or they wouldn’t have buried the second ’s’ in the society’s official name! I guess we’ll have to wait for the Mad Hatter’s tea party to hear the goss about the initialism, PESHE. But what about the citation. Why put the PESHE 1 in the list of references as the volume in which the abstract appears? Deeper down the rabbit hole we go, to the copyright page. There ya has your answer. It’s all official and all. The real title, despite what’s inscribed in the traditional place for the actual title, is, after all, what we found at the bottom of the title page.

But it’s not over yet! In the fine print of the copyright page, immediately beneath the non-title official title are the words
Citation: PESHE 1, 2012
I think it’s probably proof of the existence of God, or something like that: if Spikins et al. can’t even properly cite a quotation from Malthus, how in the world did they find this completely anomalous invocation to cite the volume as PESHE 1? This is truly Alice’s Wonderland. And I’m Tweedle-Dum.
Do you have any idea how badly the world needs copyeditors?

OK. Enough fun. Back to business!

Despite this neglect, there has been some previous work on Neanderthal children.16 This has taken the shape of primarily biological accounts, detailing any facts that can be easily and robustly established from direct skeletal analysis, such as growth and development. While this clearly lies at the core of much of what we can say about children in prehistory, we must go further and discuss childhood, considering the social and cultural role of children and how they experienced life and were treated during it17 [emphasis mine rhg]. The traditional view of Neanderthal children stems from a focus on biological evidence, and portrays childhood as unusually harsh, difficult and dangerous.18 This view has remained dominant despite the reappraisal of many other aspects of Neanderthal life, including language capacities . . . , genetic descendance . . . and symbolism . . . .19  Trinkaus and Zimmerman . . .  even suggest that if a Neanderthal was lucky enough to survive childhood and adolescence then they [sic] would already bear the scars of a harsh and dangerous life.20 This view of a ‘nasty, brutish and short’ existence21 . . .  remains unquestioned, fitting with preconceptions about Neanderthal inferiority22 and an inability to protect children23 epitomizing Neanderthal decline. However, we argue that a lack of a recent review24 in this area could mean we are neglecting important insights into Neanderthal life.
16 Shocked! Shocked, I tell you! Who new there’d been previous work on the Neanderthal pups? Let’s see . . . me, Erella, Bill, Yoel, April, Kathy, me. I'm probably forgetting you, for which I apologize. Blame Canada.
17 See note 9 again
18 Well, obviously, someone’s been talking about them if Spikins et al. can get up on their collective soap-box and announce that we all think the Neanderthal’s juvenile life stages were brutal! [Unlike Spikins et al., I prefer to avoid using terms like ‘child’ and ‘childhood’ until the jury comes back with a verdict on the real, not imagined or claimed by reference to, at best, equivocal evidence.]
19 Seriously. Is it just me, or is it a bit hollow to hear Spikins cryin’ about the poor, neglected Neanderthal juveniles when she can cite at least a half-dozen refutatory papers?
20 She’s right. How do we know those Neanderthal pups had a harsh early life. After all, just because the poor kids of Dickens’s England, Marie Antoinette’s France, Stalin’s Ukraine, or a gazillion other lives of the poor throughout recorded history left real scars, physical and emotional, who are we to simply assume that the same must have been true for the Neanderthals.
21 It's enuff to make the hair on the back o' my neck stand up.
22 Who are these authors talking to here? As far as I know there are only about three people on the planet who think the Ns were inferior! I'm one. And I'm sure the names of the other two will come to me. Someone should explain to them the fallacy of the Straw Dude argument.
23 Who said that?
24 I hardly think that the lack of a recent review has any bearing on whether or not "we" are neglecting anything, except maybe our thinking caps, and the desperate need for copyeditors in the world of academe.
Thank gawd there’s only one more paragraph in the Introduction! Can you imagine that I originally thought I could give this whole paper the SA treatment? Me, neither. What. Was. I. Thinking?

Through reviewing the evidence of Neanderthal childhood25 and the treatment of Neanderthal children,26 we suggest that our current knowledge negates the traditional perspective.27 Instead28 we argue that a close attachment and particular attention to children is a more plausible interpretation of the archaeological evidence,29 explaining an unusual focus30 on infants and children in burial, and setting Neanderthal symbolism within a context which is likely to have included children. Subtle differences in the nature of emotional attachment in childhood, as well as a lack of safe affiliative interactions with outsiders, may have had key consequences for Neanderthal society, culture and symbolism.
25 Just exactly to which ‘evidence of Neanderthal childhood’ could the authors be referring?
26 Treatment by whom? Disinterested palaeoanthropologists?
27 No need to read farther if that’s the case.
28 Wait! ‘Instead' of what? Instead of suggesting that current knowledge trashes the ‘traditional’ view? That would be sort of self-contradictory. Wouldn’t it?
29 I’m getting a very bad feeling, now. Spikins et al. are going to round up the usual suspects, and a few even I never would’ve expected. [Spoilers] The Teshik-Tash child so-called burial, for one.
30 The only unusual focus here is on equivocal evidence and argument from authority. Oh. Almost forgot. The biggest issue here is that we're told we must pay attention to just plain credulous archaeologists purporting to write about something about which they have no frigging idea.
I've only time here to display the most egregious example of cognitive archaeological bullshit than has ever sullied the pages of even so insignificant and poorly edited a journal as the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, courtesy of Spikins et al.

Close your eyes until I tell you to open them. Promise?

Okay. Open ‘em.

Un. B. Effing. Lievable. Mask? Art? WTF? Talk about drinking the Kool-Aid! Somebody, please, make it stawwwwwwwwwwp!