After my unintentional break in posting of the past week, here are my thoughts on the new paper in Science by Marian Vanhaeren and colleagues about pierced shells at two ca. 100kya Middle Paleolithic sites in Algeria and Israel. The study describes three pierced Nassarius globulus shells, two from the Levantine Mousterian site of Skūhl, the other from the Aterian site of Oued Djebbana. The authors argue that these shells demonstrate “deliberate selection and transport by humans for symbolic use” (Vanhaeren et al. 2006:1785), and that they therefore provide evidence for symbolic behavior even earlier than the much vaunted finds from Blombos. As is usual of Vanhaeren and d’Errico’s work (they’re the two lead authors), this paper is an analytically solid, well-written and largely convincing study. And it finally puts to rest the idea that the shells from Qafzeh are indicative of ornament-use (Vanhaeren et al. 2006:1785), an argument which some researchers have used repeatedly to argue for the symbolic capacity of that site’s modern humans despite having no convincing empirical data to support this (e.g., Mellars 2005, 2006).
After a few sentence summarizing our knowledge of the earliest credible beads, they briefly describe the sites where the shells were found. Skūhl is dated to about 100-135kya, while Oued Djebbana is dated to “perhaps 90,000 bp” on the basis of recent dates for other Aterian assemblages that suggest it’s much older than previously thought (Wrinn et al. 2003; Cremaschi et al. 1998). Both sites were excavated in the 20’s or 30’s, using pretty roughshod methods, and their stratigraphy is to a certain degree unclear.
Now, I am not so much unconvinced by the analysis of those pieces – they clearly appear to have been intentionally selected and pierced shells, and at Skūhl, they are clearly associated with the modern human bearing level – as I am by some of the interpretations that the authors propose of those artifacts. Clearly, the most likely explanation for the presence of these artifacts at the two sites and their distinctive morphology is that they were used as suspended beads, likely as ornaments. What does strike me as odd is that the authors interpret these three shells “support the hypothesis that a long-lasting and widespread beadworking tradition existed in Africa and the Levant well before the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe.” (Vanhaeren et al. 2006:1788; my emphasis). Here, the question is one of the quantitative sufficiency of the data and of interpretive coherence. As concerns the quantitative sufficiency of their argument, let’s remember that we are talking here about three beads from two sites separated by thousands of kilometers and, potentially, thousands of years. Three pierced shells are hardly what you would expect as archaeological evidence of a continuous, well-developed and widespread, especially if their putative advantage lies in communicating information about group identity, social status or what have you. Plainly put, at Skūhl, you have two pierced shells for about ten documented individuals, hardly what you would expect if ornamentation was widespread in that group. Admittedly, Garrod mentions the presence of more shells and more species in the Skūhl desposits, but of all the shells found at the Natural History Museum, only Nassarius globulus were intentionally pierced. It would have been interesting to know how many of the shells belonging to that species there were in total, to better evaluate the statistical unusualness of the two pierced ones.
Much the same can be said of the single pierced shell from Oued Djebbana. Does one pierced shell a widespread tradition of ornamentation make? It is interesting here to contrast the evidence presented by Vanhaeren and colleagues in light of the two chronologically-closest pierced shell assemblages reported in the literature, namely that from Blombos (see Henshilwood et al. 2004, ca. 65 kya) and that from Üçağızlı (see Kuhn et al. 2001, ca. 41 kya). At Blombos, the comparatively small excavated area of the deposits yielded 41 pierced shells, while they number in the hundreds (though only 58 in the earliest UP level) at Üçağızlı . Like so many other aspects from Blombos, the pierced shells there stand as the sole empirically well-studied assemblage of this kind of evidence of that age in the MSA, being separated by some 25,000 years and several thousand kilometers from that of Enkapune Ya Muto, in Kenya (Ambrose 1998). The Blombos case undoubtedly represents a credible body of evidence recovered from a well-documented archaeological context, and with 41 specimens, they do seem to attest that, at that moment in time and at that site at least, there was socially-mediated use of pierced shells as ornaments. At Üçağızlı, the hundreds of documented pierced shells (along with the ones from the nearby site of Ksar' Akil) indicate a widespread behavior in that area and at that time, one which the authors link to the need to visually express social information at long-distance as a result of some form of demographic in the region. The abundance of pierced shells from that area and time period makes this scenario imminently credible. Perhaps not coincidentally, these two sites area also putatively attributed to modern humans although fossils from both sites are unknown so far.
Contrast this to the evidence presented for Skūhl and Oued Djebbbana. Three shells for an area of several tens of thousand kilometers and for an interval spanning potentially up to 65,000 years (Oued Djebbana is undated and there is no a priori reason why it should necessarily date to 90 kya without new dates to bolster this interpretation). While they represent interesting occurrences, the empirical record is simply not sufficient to assert the existence of any widespread tradition. More than anything, unless a substantial assemblage of such shells is found in northern African or the Levant, these appear to represent more “flashes in the pan” than anything. I think that part of why the authors might have been so keen on postulating such an interpretation is the association of the shells with modern humans, demonstrably for Skūhl and presumably for Oued Djebbana. I have the feeling that if a handful of comparable artifacts had been found in Neanderthal contexts, they would have generally been either disregarded as anomalous and probably intrusive by most scholars or, at best, been considered to represent ‘isolated accidents’ where lone individuals experimented with ornamentation, though the practice ultimately disappeared with them when they died (see e.g., Henshilwood and Marean 2003). This is comparable to the case for bone tools. Compare Mellars’ recent description of the Blombos bone tools as “carefully shaped” (2005:16-17, 22) to the one he provides of the extensive Châtelperronian bone tool assemblage from Arcy-sur-Cure (widely believed to have been made by Neanderthals), which he repeatedly describes as “simple.” (2005:21-22). This is problematic because we are never told what the distinguishing traits of “simple” vs. “complex” bone tools are! This has never been made explicit, and to a degree, I suspect that it doesn’t matter – is what’s important here the fact that hominins are using new materials to craft a new suite of tools (which implies a conceptual shift), or the fact that some of these tools are complex or simple? In the Châtelperronian, toolmakers are not simply making stone tools out of bone, but rather creating a completely new range of technological items. This is unlike prior instances of bone use (e.g., the Acheulean site of Castel di Guido, in central Italy) where bone was worked in exactly the same way as stone in the same assemblage and was presumably conceived of simply as an alternative material to stone to obtain the same results. To a degree, when I see discussions like Mellars’ (and I’m not singling him out here, it’s simply that he represents perhaps the best-known [and perhaps most prolific!] proponent of this perspective), I can never shake off the nagging feeling that this characterization of Neanderthal vs. modern human bone industries is largely a replication of the annuated debated over the use of blade vs. flake industries between the two populations, and its implications for so-called behavioral modernity.
Of course, d’Errico at least believes that Neanderthals were able to and did behave symbolically, as shown by some of his recent publications in which he documents a large body of evidence in support of this (e.g., d’Errico 2003, d’Errico et al. 2003). Interestingly, much of this evidence is quantitatively poor, so maybe the Vanhaeren et al. paper is an attempt to “pave the way” to making subsequent arguments about the presence of symbolism in Neanderthals by showing how similar cases can be made for modern humans. Frankly, knowing how they work and how they approach the archaeological record, I really don’t think Vanhaeren and d’Errico would do this, but were it to be the case, while I am fully sympathetic to the view of Neanderthals as symbolically able, I don’t think that this would be the way to do it, precisely because we need empirical certainty to make credible statements about this facet of prehistoric behavior.
It’ll be very interesting to see if new claims of either modern human or Neanderthal symbolism come to light following this paper and how empirically well-grounded they are. While this is clearly the kinds of methods to be used in demonstrating purposeful ornament-making in the Pleistocene, I do hope that the interpretive approach taken in this paper is not indicative of things to come. If it is, we can only hope that it can be applied equally by all researchers to all similar datasets. As demonstrated by Roebroeks and Corbey (2001) in a very important though little cited paper, the double-standard prevalent in the interpretation of the Neanderthal and modern human archaeological records unfortunately makes this seem unlikely.
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