Monday, June 19, 2006

A social synthesis of Neanderthals?

Robert Davies and Simon Underdown, both from Oxford Brookes University, present what they call a “social synthesis” of the Neanderthals in the most recent issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. Despite the title, it’s thankfully not the kind of thought exercise that has characterized most ‘social archaeology of the Paleolithic’ (e.g., Gamble 2004). Rather, it’s a lucid, even-handed and thorough review of the empirical basis of the main interpretations about Neanderthal behavior that have been put forth on the basis of archaeological and osteological studies. In a nice move away from the parameters that usually frame such discussions, the issue of continuity vs. replacement vs. indigenous “Upper Paleolithization’ is scarcely brought up. Davies and Underdown instead opt to take the dominant view (i.e., that Neanderthals were a completely separate species, and likely must’ve been at least somewhat different behaviorally from modern humans), and use that as the basis of the claims they seek to testing their review. A very clever and refreshing approach, and their paper is the better for it in that it doesn’t come across as an attack on people on one side or the other of debate.

Their main conclusion is that the links between observation in the fossil and archaeological records and inferences about specific aspects of Neanderthal lifeways are insufficiently demonstrated. As well, much of what is the ‘consensus’ view on Upper Paleolithic modern human behavior, in their view, implicitly suffers from the same fundamental problem. One of their main points is that a lot of what is put forth as scientific interpretation on this issue reflects more the preconceptions and theoretical outlook of researchers rather than the last word on any given facet of the debate. As they say, however,

“It is not the intention of this article to deny the existence of ‘negative evidence’, to claim that the social organization of Neanderthals or their capacity for symbolic expression could have equalled that of AMH without leaving any evidence (see Dibble & Chase 1993 for a discussion). The aim is not to emancipate Neanderthals as ‘human’ but to point out that we must be aware that researchers model this ‘negative evidence’ within their own theoretical outlook. We are not able to comment upon an easily discernible archaeological reality from which one authentic or accurate portrait of Neanderthal behaviour can be drawn (Drell 2000). All too often a lack of evidence is interpreted as inferiority. Consequently, the validity of the conclusions drawn regarding cognitive ability and behavioural complexity is certainly questionable.” (Davies and Underdown 2006:158).

As a result, they advocate the need to develop theoretical perspectives that better allow paleoanthropologists to link observations in the paleoanthropological record to actual instances of behavior, and their suggestion of choice for this is evolutionary ecology. Which is a perspective that I generally agree with and one that ties in nicely with my recent post about the new Bird and O’Connell paper on behavioral ecology and archaeology. I think that, too often in the debate about the Neanderthal and the modern humans, people tend to lose sight of the fact that both populations occupied tremendously large and diverse geographical ranges, a point very eloquently made in the recent books by authors like Finlayson (2004) and Hoffecker (2004). This fact alone should make paleoanthropologist of all stripes wary of making sweeping generalizations about the adaptation of one or the other group without first contextualizing the data sets used to make their case. Would we readily equate contemporary southern Italian culture with that of Uzbekistan? The same, to a degree, applies for the past.

An unfortunate thing, in my view, is that lately papers that emphasize the issues Davies and Underdown address in their paper are increasingly written by researchers adopting minority viewpoints. I say unfortunate because, in the eyes of some who are comfortable in the knowledge of being in the majority camp, it often makes such arguments simply ‘guilty by association’ as opposed to worthwhile thinking pieces that might refocus their theoretical and methodological lenses. Let’s see if this paper bucks the trend…


Davies, R., and S. Underdown. 2006. The Neanderthals: A Social Synthesis. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16:145-164.

Dibble, H. L., and P .G. Chase. 1993. On Mousterian and Natufian burials in the Levant. Current Anthropology 34:170–75.

Drell, J.R. 2000. Neanderthals: a history of interpretation. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 19:1–24.

Finlayson, C. 2004. Neanderthals and Modern Humans: an Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Gamble, C. S. 2004. Social archeology and the unfinished business of the Palaeolithic. In Explaining Social Change: Studies in Honour of Colin Renfrew, (J Cherry, C. Scarre & S. Shennan, eds.), pp. 17-26. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Hoffecker, J. F. 2004. A Prehistory of the North: The Colonization of the Higher Latitudes. New Brunswick (NJ), Rutgers University Press.

No comments: