Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On the variability of Upper Paleolithic burials: Hype, facts and fiction (and Neanderthals?)

A new study of mine (written with Claudine Gravel-Miguel of ASU) is getting a bit of press, and I really want to write a post on AVRPI to serve as a proper companion piece to it, since the narrative in the press is already slipping away from what the paper actually says. In short, our paper does not say that Upper Paleolithic burials were not more sophisticated than those of Neanderthals. Rather, it emphasizes how heterogeneous Upper Paleolithic burials are (a point I recently also mentioned in relation to 'Venus' figurines), and that many of them were fairly simple. As a result, we need to be very careful about using exceptionally lavish as representative of Upper Paleolithic burials as a whole, as emphasized in the official CU Denver press release "Early human burials varied widely," which is a bit meta, being illustrated as it is by... one of the Sungir burials, arguably some of the fanciest Upper Paleolithic burials known!

Man in an Upper Paleolithic burial in Sunghir, Russia. The site is approximately 28,000 to 30,000 years old. 
Not a typical Upper Paleoilthic burial!

In short, the study is about the variability in Upper Paleolithic burials and its main goal is to move us away from facile and unwarranted generalizations about them. It will be published in a couple of months in The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial, which is edited by Sarah Tarlow and Liv Nilsson Stuz (pre-order your copy today!). In the meantime, if you're interested, you can access a pdf of the paper's uncorrected proofs on my Academia.edu profile at Upper Paleolithic mortuary practices in Eurasia: A critical look at the burial record. The paper presents a review of the known corpus of Upper Paleolithic burials, with some cautionary notes that emerge from trends in the data we now have. Our review includes all Upper Paleolithic inhumations known to date, with the exception of the Climente II burial in Romania, which was just recently redated to the late Upper Paleolithic (Bonsall et al. 2012), a study that came out well after our manuscript had been sent to the editors. Still, it provides the most up-to-date compendium of Upper Paleolithic burials currently available, along with key references and all available dates for each, and as much information about the context of the burial and associated artifacts and features as an be gleaned from the literature. Overall, our review confirms many of the conclusions that some earlier studies based on smaller samples had reached: there are fewer women than men buried, and fewer juveniles (especially infants) than adults buried. Also, there are more burials in the Late Upper Paleolithic than in the earlier part of that period, and the more recent burials tend to be more sober than the earlier ones.

That said, we make a series of key observations that break with the conclusions of previous reviews. First, there are really not a lot of Upper Paleolithic burials (just over three per thousand years for all of Eurasia!). Second, most burials are very tightly clustered in space and time, with Liguria (Italy), Moravia (Czech Republic), and parts of Russia showing an unusually high concentration of these things. Furthermore, the geographic range over which you find burials seems to contract as opposed to expand over time, and the earliest burials postdate the arrival of modern humans into Eurasia by up to 10,000 years. There also isn't any correlation between the presence of ornaments and climatic variability, which is in contrast to, say, Paleolithic art, which increases in abundance in moments of climatic downturn. Additionally - and this is one of our most important points - Upper Paleolithic burials differ widely in terms of how elaborate they are, and this even within single regions and sometimes even within single sites! This means that it is absolutely unwarranted to read Upper Paleolithic burials as a single class of evidence. And, it is especially unwarranted to take the most elaborate burials (e.g., those from Sungir) to characterize the practice of Upper Paleolithic burial as a whole. If anything, these extremely lavish burials occur kind of early on, and are clear outliers in terms of how representative they are of Upper Paleolithic interments as a class of evidence.

But wait, you might be tempted to say, don't all these burials include grave goods and things like ochre. Well, this is another point we make in the paper: most of the things that have been called grave goods are personal ornaments, and most of them are fairly simple. For instance, in the Gravettian (ca. 30-21,000BP in uncalibrated radiocarbon years), of 35 buried individuals, 8 have no ornaments at all and 11 have ornaments comprising fewer than 10 beads on their entire body. To give you a sense of how few that is, a Catholic rosary comprises 59 beads. So, 11 of these burials have fewer than 1/6 of the length of a rosary by way of ornaments, hardly a cumbersome investment in time, resources and effort like that implied by the notion of including 'offerings' in a grave. In fact, if you look at the distribution of these beads on the body of these buried individuals, they are located where you would expect most people to have worn them in life, if the purpose of these artifacts was to convey information about their wearer at a distance. In other words, they are found on the upper body, usually (70% of the time) on the head, but also on the neck/torso area (17% of the time). To us, this and the fact that the remaining 13% of all ornaments is found distributed all other (lower) parts of the body, suggests that the majority of ornaments were probably worn by the deceased in life and buried with them when they died. An additional idea to emerge form this pattern is that most prehistoric beads from other period (like the Middle Stone Age of Africa) may have been worn on the head as part of caps, headbands, headdresses, bonnets and whatnot, rather than on the torso as necklaces, as is often assumed.

Now, obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, and a few burials do show extremely elaborate ornaments that leave little doubt as to their nature as grave offerings(e.g., Sungir). But these are in the minority (in fact the Sungir burials are excluded from our Table 17.3 because they are so far from the norm of contemporary interment). Additionally, these burials also tend to be the ones that have the most decorated body parts overall anyway, reinforcing that the fairly sober ornaments found with most burials were probably personal possessions of the deceased.

What about ochre? To be fair, ochre in some form is found with most Upper Paleolithic burials. That said, however, the Upper Paleolithic as a whole tends to be associated with ochre and other coloring materials, so it's not unexpected that it would be found in the fill of many graves dug into Upper Paleolithic sediments. In fact, because many of these interments were discovered a long time ago, the definition of what exactly is meant by 'ochre' in most cases is pretty vague. Suffice it to say that if you're looking for a grave completely covered in ochre, again, you're looking at a fairly small subset of the entire sample.

So, to sum up, most of the ornaments traditionally considered as grave goods are likely personal ornaments worn n life by the deceased and if the inclusion of ochre in many graves is a byproduct of their having been dug into Upper Paleolithic deposits. This means that the two features usually invoked to describe most Upper Paleolithic burials as symbolic really don't support that view for the vast majority of cases. Basically, what you see is a few Upper Paleolithic people being buried wearing things they would have worn when they died, and in pits or depression dug into contemporary sediments. That of course, doesn't mean that they weren't symbolic and/or highly meaningful to the people burying the dead - after all, after 20,000 years most present-day burials in the US would leave behind very little in the way of extravagant material culture, in spite of their being heavily symbolic. However, if we're going to assume that they are symbolic, then logic dictates that we must extend the same interpretation to similar cases in other periods, such as the Middle Paleolithic, where people were certainly interred in pits and depression along with items of daily life (which in that period generally didn't include ornaments or ochre). Really, this is not a paper about Neanderthal burials, but rather a paper that forces us to rethink some of the preconceptions we have about what differentiates Upper Paleolithic populations in Eurasia from other prehistoric populations (e.g., Neanderthals). So, the Past Horizons headline gets it wrong: some Upper Paleolithic burials clearly were more sophisticated than those of Neanderthals. It's just that there's no reason to think that the vast majority of them were. What requires explanation is why you have so few of these extremely elaborate burials - by itself, the fact that they exist tells us little about the human experience in the Upper Paleolithic as a whole.


Thursday, December 06, 2012

Cavemen, quadrupeds and science, oh my!

So... there's a new paper in PLoS ONE about how 'cavemen' depicted four-legged animals better than 'modern' artists (Horvath et al. 2012). I usually try to refrain from paper bashing here, but there is such a high density of wrong (if not downright fail) in this one, that it's hard not to. Becky Farbstein agrees, and points out that:

1) anyone using the word 'cavemen' with a straight face in a scientific publication today cannot be taken to know anything about the time period in question;

2) the paper's conclusions are only surprising or noteworthy if you assume that cavemen (and by extension hunter-gatherers) are somehow less advanced at a fundamental level than 'modern' folks (again, whatever that is);

3) and - extremely importantly - that there is no reason to expect that an artist, archaic or modern, necessarily operates with the goal of depicting quadrupeds realistically; to assume that this is the case fundamentally misinterprets what art can be and usually is, i.e., not strictly about representing reality.

Basically, as a friend said on Facebook, "With their methodology, you could argue that gravity was invented in the Renaissance because figures in 15th-century paintings begin to be grounded, rather than seeming to float as in Medieval art!" The same friend also added that that's why everyone needs to study at least some art history, but that's another issue (and for those readers wondering, I have [way] more than one snarky friend on FB).

I agree with all of this. However, another extremely problematic aspect that I haven't yet seen discussed concerns the data the authors use to make their case. Even if you disregard the points above, issues with the composition of their 'caveman art' sample data alone should be enough to laugh these people out of town. I was immediately suspicious when I saw the elephant image that accompanies the press release on the paper - an elephant is not usually what one associates with 'cavemen'. So I dug into their data, in the off chance they simply had an extensive sample of prehistoric art. After all, they boast about their data base being 1000 images strong. As it turns out, only 35* of those are 'prehistoric'. That's less than 4% of their total sample (I wonder how often they could bootstrap a similar trend from their modern sample just by randomly selecting 35 representations at a time...). But surely, these images all come from the same site or a handful of sites that date to the same period, right? Sadly, no: we're looking at 11 Paleolithic drawings (9 from Lascaux, one from Niaux, and another from Altamira) that span several thousand years and two countries. At least with those, a tenuous link to the idea of cavemen paintings could be made. But the 24 other representations come from sites scattered across Libya (consistently misspelled as 'Libia' in the paper, for crying out loud!), Morocco, various parts of India, and South Africa, with little if any chronological control. The point is that these pictures don't actually form a coherent body of evidence by any stretch of the imagination. Oh, and these conflate paintings, incisions, and engravings, all of which impose their own specific constraints on how art is produced. Add to that there is no reason to think that many of these representations were necessarily meant to be seen only in two dimensions or outside of the panels on which they were created (and in relation to the other designs these panels comprise), and you've got some of the shoddiest sample selection I have ever seen in a scientific paper.

I can't really figure out what their 'modern' sample is, but the issues with the prehistoric sample alone are enough to damn the paper. I don't care if they think that they can simply disregard context to focus on how walking was represented - the fact is you can't dissociate art from its context. Furthermore, with such a tiny and far-flung (temporally and spatially) sample of 'caveman' art, we can basically have no confidence at all that we're actually looking at how 'prehistoric' people represented animals, let alone their gait.

*Edit (Dec. 6, 2012; 11:43PM: Table 1 in the paper states a prehistoric sample of 39 'prehistoric' representations, whereas the supplementary information only details 35. Given this, I went with 35 being the most reliable value, since it's impossible to figure out what the other four representations were (of and from). Ultimately, however, using one or the other figure does not affect my point here - it's still less than 4% of the total sample, and a very small number of representation given the staggering geographic and temporal scales over which they are spread.

Reference:

Horvath G, Farkas E, Boncz I, Blaho M, Kriska G (2012) Cavemen Were Better at Depicting Quadruped Walking than Modern Artists: Erroneous Walking Illustrations in the Fine Arts from Prehistory to Today. PLoS ONE 7(12): e49786. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049786 (Link)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

More paleo-porn fun!

Hot on the heels of my recent paleo-porn post, here's a wonderfully sarcastic - and dead-on! - comment about the post that I received on my Facebook.

Can I just say/rant one thing that always irritates me about Venus figurines and art with respect to sexuality/repro in the past is the conceit that saying "they were concerned about reproduction, or it was a focus" whatever is somehow supposed to be an interesting observation. Tell me about a culture that doesn't have some concern, taboos, mores about reproduction, etc. for god's sake. Other than sexy sexx sexxy sex-time sex sex sex titillation, what is so interesting about it? Hey, did you know that faunal remains indicate that people in the past ate food? No, listen, they literally ate food, with their mouths.

And, really, I couldn't agree more: To state that Venus figurines are evidence that Upper Paleolitic folks people cared about sexuality is kind of ridiculous. Of course they did in one way, shape or form, - and we certainly don't need Venus figurines to determine this.

Still on the topic of the paleo-porn story, also make sure to check out Becky Farbstein's post about the story - it touches on a lot of the same issues I originally raised.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Sum Greater Than Its Parts: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives on Later Human Evolution

What are you doing this weekend? If you're in the San Francisco area, you should come to the AAAs, specifically to attend this session I'm in entitled "A Sum Greater Than Its Parts: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives on Later Human Evolution." It's being organized by Jamie Clark (University of Alaska Fairbanks) and Adam Van Arsdale (Wellesley College), and it will be jam-packed with human evolutionary goodness. Both Adam and John Hawks (who's also participating) have already mentioned it, so I figured I'd get in on the action too, and list the program here, for any interested readers (you can also find it online here); you can also click on the presentation titles for the abstracts. 

A Sum Greater Than Its Parts: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives on Later Human Evolution

Room: Imperial A

Date/time: Saturday Nov. 17, 2012, 1:45-5:15 

Session Abstract:

In anthropology departments across the country- as in the field as a whole- the boundaries between the sub-fields of the discipline are often being drawn more starkly than ever. This reflects the ongoing debates about scientific vs. humanistic anthropologies as well as the increasing specialization of knowledge required for successful scholarship. And yet, even in the face of the increasing fractionation of our field, certain avenues of anthropological inquiry are actually becoming more multi-disciplinary in nature. A particularly noteworthy example is found in the study of later human evolution. Researchers from an array of fields—paleoanthropology, archaeology, behavioral and evolutionary ecology, genetics, linguistics, cognitive psychology, and primatology—produce independent and overlapping datasets that address the behavioral and biological evolution of our species. It is only by embracing the contribution of scholars across sub-field- and disciplinary- boundaries that the complexity of recent human evolution can be understood.
 
The purpose of this session is to bring together scholars who approach the study of human evolution from different perspectives, both to demonstrate the unique contributions being made by the disciplines represented, and as a means of highlighting the critical importance of collaborative work to a more deeply nuanced understanding of the later evolution of our species.

2:00 PM
Why Humans (especially simple foragers) Are So Egalitarian
Frank W Marlowe (University of Cambridge) 
2:15 PM
Territoriality, Tolerance and Testosterone: Hormonal Correlates of Male Chimpanzee Behavior and Their Implications for Human Evolution
Marissa Sobolewski (University of Michigan), John Mitani (University of Michigan) and Janine Brown (Smithsonian Institution) 
2:30 PM
A Primate Perspective On the Evolution of Human Life History
Tanya M Smith (Harvard University), Andrew Bernard (Freelance Nature Photographer), Ronan Donovan (Freelance Nature Photographer), Zarin Machanda (Harvard University), Amanda Papakyrikos (Wellesley College) and Richard Wrangham (Harvard University) 
2:45 PM
Childhood, Play and the Evolution of Cultural Capacity In Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans
April Nowell (University of Victoria and University of Victoria) 
3:00 PM
Discussant
Milford H Wolpoff (University of Michigan) 
3:15 PM - Break

4:00 PM
Neandertal Genetics: Drawing a New Boundary for Humanity
John Hawks (University of Wisconsin-Madison) 
4:30 PM
Working Hard or Hardly Working? A Preliminary Study of the Metabolic Costs of Stone Knapping
Eric Martin Heffter (University of Arizona), David Raichlen (Universtiy of Arizona and University of Arizona) and Steven Kuhn (University of Arizona) 
4:45 PM
Language, Myth and the Symbolic Mind: Cultural Anthropology Enters the Middle Stone Age
Alan J Barnard (University of Edinburgh and University of Edinburgh) 
5:00 PM
Discussant
Julien Riel-Salvatore (University of Colorado-Denver) 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Taking peddlers of 'paleo-porn' to task

The New Scientist has a short interview with April Nowell ('Palaeo-porn': we've got it all wrong) about an upcoming paper of hers (with M. Chang) in which they expose (eh!) the pernicious tendency to view Venus figurines as having overt sexual meaning. This is timely as my students and I were discussing Venus figurines in my Research Design grad class last week! Among other things, I really dug how she takes to task reputedly serious outfits for promoting this kind of facile interpretation of these objects:

When respected journals - Nature for example - use terms such as "Prehistoric pin-up" and "35,000-year-old sex object", and a German museum proclaims that a figurine is either an "earth mother or pin-up girl" (as if no other roles for women could have existed in prehistory), they carry weight and authority. This allows journalists and researchers, evolutionary psychologists in particular, to legitimise and naturalise contemporary western values and behaviours by tracing them back to the "mist of prehistory".

I like how EP is singled out here - not all of it is bad, of course, but that which is most egregious in transposing current 'commonsense' realities onto the past does drinks deeply from the well of these kinds of unsupported assertions, drawing on the apparent reputability of the sources in which they were published to bolster the credibility of their own conclusions. That's not to say that sexuality wasn't one of the dimensions of at least some Venus figurines, but Nowell's perspective certainly goes a long way to show that assuming that this was the single or most important motivation behind their manufacture in many cases probably says more about prehistorians than it does about prehistory itself.

I also really cannot agree enough with her observation that assuming that all figurines look like the ones from Willendorf or Dolni Vestonice biases our understanding of how variable this class of objects truly is. If we don't acknowledge this variability and the fact that it is a defining feature of figurine-making in the Upper Paleolithic, we're doing our interpretations a major disservice. By extension, we're also doing a major disservice to the interested public who often has a strong interest in the past of our species. In fact, assumptions about the homogeneity of various forms of behavior in the Upper Paleolithic (e.g., cave art, burials) has really been an impediment to getting a realistic understanding of what life between 45-10,000 BP must have been like.

Read the whole thing, it's well worth your time, and make sure you also check out the gallery that accompanies the piece - there's even more info in there.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Picking a journal to publish in as a student

Mike Smith has a post on picking what kind of journal to publish in (mostly) as a graduate student. Rightly, he points to the need of striking the right balance between the prestige/name recognition of the journal and the desire to have the publication come out in a timely manner. As he says "They need quick publications, which would favor a lower-ranking journal. But a paper in a top journal looks awfully good on your CV." He then provides a few personal rules of thumb to help resolve this tension.

I'm in the process of writing another post about tips for publishing as a graduate student that builds on another one of Smith's recent posts, and one of the points I'm making is this: As unbelievable as it probably feels to graduate students, they actually have more time than faculty members, given that the impacts of not publishing are somewhat less negative to their immediate success - though of course publishing during your grad years is nothing but a net positive. In any case, this relative luxury of time means that students can (and should) risk 'shooting for the stars' and submit to prestigious venues, even if they have long turnaround times and/or high rejection rates - Current Anthropology would appear to be a prime example here. Now, this piece of advice comes with one fairly major caveat: you have to start publishing early as a graduate student; if you're staring graduation in the face or are at an advanced stage in the PhD and you need publications to be competitive on the job market, then this advice is null and void. But assuming you're at the end of your MA or first year or two of your PhD, the gamble can pay off big. And if it gets turned down, then you still have time to turn the paper around and resubmit somewhere else, now with the benefit of some reviewers' comments.

PS: I realize this is kind of a weird 'getting back to blogging' post, but bear with me... life has been hectic these past several months.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Very Neanderthal Easter

The thing I love the most about Easter? Chocolate. The thing I love the most about paleoanthropology? Neanderthals. So this past weekend, I decided to combine the two!


From left to right: Chatelperronian ornament, déjeté sidescrcaper, convergent sidescraper (or is it a Mousterian point? no choco-cave bear around to test it), and Levallois point (milk chocolate); center: Neanderthal (white chocolate). Thought about putting in a drop of milk chocolate to give it brown eyes, but figured it might be overkill...