Monday, July 17, 2006

Paleolithic interstratifications: some thoughts

Reading a summary paper by Ludovic Slimak (2005), I was very interested to learn about the stratigraphy of the site of Grotte Mandrin in the Rhône Valley of southeastern France. Slimak mentions that the site contains a level assigned to the Neronian (defined by laminar blank production schemes and Soyons point production), which can be seen as ‘transitional’ sensu lato since it marks a dramatic departure from traditional Late Mousterian patterns in the region (see Slimak 2004 for a full treatment). The most interesting aspect of the Grotte Mandrin sequence, however, is that while the Neronian has been identified in other neighboring sites, at Mandrin it overlies typical Mousterian deposits and is itself overlain by not one, not two but fully five Mousterian levels.

This means, in effect, that we are dealing with a credible case of paleolithic interstratification. The issue of Late Pleistocene interstratifications has been a hot topic of late, especially since the publication of a paper by d'Errico and colleagues (1998) in which they suggested that the Châtelperronian was completely independent from the Aurignacian. This is in contrast to a widely held view that saw the Châtelperronian as resulting from the acculturation of Mousterian-making Neanderthals by Aurignacian-making modern humans (e.g., Mellars 1996, 2005). From that perspective, the existence of Châtelperronian-Aurignacian interstratifications demonstrated that the two cultures had occupied a common territory close enough in time to support potential scenarios of contacts between the two populations.

In recent years, however, not one such claimed interstratification has survived critical scrutiny: The cases from Roc de Combe and Le Piage were shown by J.-G. Bordes (2003) to be the results of postdepositional processes, while the case from El Pendo was long ago recognized to be unconvincing (Hoyos and Laville 1982; see Zilhão and d'Errico 1999 for a detailed review). Likewise, the putative case for interstratification at Grotte des Fées de Châtelperron recently postulated by Gravina et al. (2005) has not survived empirical and theoretical scrutiny (d'Errico et al. 2006, Riel-Salvatore et al. 2006).

Thus, the Grotte Mandrin interstratification indicates that while interstratifications do occur in the Late Pleistocene Eurasian archaeological sequences, they seem to document only interstratifications between industries made by Neanderthals. In fact, while there are no diagnostic remains associated with the Neronian, Slimak (2004, 2005) shows that, on technological grounds, this industry shows affinities more to the Mousterian than to the proto-Aurignacian of the region, which was putatively made by modern humans. The only other Mousterian-'transitional industry' interstratification case of which I am aware is that of Buran-Kaya III, in Crimea, where a Micoquian Mousterian of Kiik-Koba tradition dated to ca. 28kya uncal. BP overlays an Early Upper Paleolithic industry described as either a Early Streletskayan (Marks and Monigal 2000, Hardy et al. 2001) or Eastern Szeletian (Chabai 2000). And, as stated by Hardy et al. (2001:10973) “Diagnostic human remains are not known from the Streletskayan levels, but similar initial Upper Paleolithic levels in central and western Europe have yielded only diagnostic Neandertal remains,” which suggests that it also was the handiwork of Neanderthals.

In other words, what we see in the Eurasian archaeological record is that when transitional industries loosely defined are found interstratified, they are only interstratified with regional Mousterian assemblages. In most cases, however, transitional industries – when they are found – usually only overlie the Mousterian and underlie the local facies of the Aurignacian (whose integrity is another issue altogether). This conclusion has several implications. First, it argues strongly against the acculturation scenario because there are no transitional-Aurignacian interstratifications anywhere. As well, it argues against it, because the Mousterian rather than its supposedly acculturated forms was able to reinstall itself in those areas where Mousterian-transitional interstratifications are documented, implying that the Mousterian was a better practical solution to the rigors of paleolithic life than any of the Early Upper Paleolithic industries.

To a degree, it also argues against (or at the very least nuances) the “indigenist” perspective, because it demonstrates that, if 'transitional' industries represent an independent Neanderthal development of Upper Paleolithic adaptations, that process was not linear everywhere, and that in certain cases Mousterian adaptations must have been preferable to Upper Paleolithic ones, despite the oft-claimed advantages provided by all the material traits that define the latter period (e.g., Bar-Yosef 2002, Mellars 2005). I would surmise that – precisely because these alleged advantages have never been assessed empirically – this may simply demonstrate that a trait-based approach to the definition of “modern” behavior is, for the present at least, doomed to be unsatisfactory from an evolutionary perspective.

There are alternative models, namely those postulating a 'mosaic' pattern of biocultural evolution, that account rather well for this pattern of interstratification, but for various reasons, they have been receiving progressively less and less currency in academic discussions about the disappearance of Neanderthals (Clark 2002, Marks 2003, Straus 2003). There's a number of potential reasons behind that recent lack of attention, but they are another topic altogether. In any case, because this perspective postulates that the disappearance of Neanderthals was a process that unfolded variously in various social, demographic and ecological contexts, it can accommodate the patterns just described rather well, as well as providing an explicit theoretical framework according to which to approach the question of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition. Briefly put, this framework is that, because it fully acknowledges that Neanderthals eventually disappeared without assuming that they were necessarily directly replaced by competing populations of modern humans, it sets the scene for the articulation of explicit models of what factor(s) might have played a determinant role in this process. Thus, for one thing, it presents Neanderthals as active agents in the process that led to their eventual disappearance from the human paleontological record, as opposed to the passive or at best reactive agents of traditional replacement scenarios. It also forces researchers to take a more particularistic approach to the question rather than focusing only on the big picture and brushing inconvenient data aside in order to make a region's record fit the expectations of the traditional replacement model.

The question of interstratifications is an important one, but it has unfortunately so far not received as much attention as it should have, especially from the perspective of site formation processes. What we are seeing in the archaeological record of the Late Pleistocene are not, after all, single occupation events by hominins. Rather, almost all archaeological assemblages are time-averaged signatures of repeated occupations of a localities, and they therefore only capture the gross overall behavioral tendencies employed by prehistoric foragers rather than specific moments in time (although such assemblages admittedly do occur very occasionally). As such, it is difficult to imagine how Paleolithic assemblages could effectively monitor acculturation, which is a process that tends to take place rather abruptly and completely. In most cases, acculturation over the long term (which is what archaeological deposits measure) does not result in a 'mix' of features but rather in the replacement of the 'receptor' culture. This is demonstrated by cases such as the Numic expansion in the American Great Basin or the Thule expansion in the Arctic, both of which took about a millennium to unfold and where both cultures simply overtook the preceding ones, without the creation of 'hybrid' material cultures over the course of these processes.

This means that when we find a peculiar archaeological industry interstratified between others, what we see is that for an interval spanning centuries or even millennia, that industry proved to be the best adaptation to the context of the site over that period. In turn, this implies that it probably had distinctive ways of exploiting a given environment, working better at some things than other prehistoric industries. This is quite a different perspective from that which sees an industry present only as one level in the midst of others attributed to another industry as the passive reaction of the original industry to forces beyond it control.

Whatever the case may be, the issue of interstratifications and their meaning is far from resolved. However, with the realization that the only known interstratifications now concern only 'transitional' industries and the Mousterian, we're at a crossroad of sorts where we must reexamine what are our expectations of this phenomenon and explicitly state how it would fit within the theoretical perspectives espoused by various researchers. And with an explicit theoretical reevaluation, there should also come a delineation of what the best methodological approaches to documenting interstratifications should be.


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Bordes, J.-G., 2003. Lithic taphonomy of the Châtelperronian/Aurignacian interstratifications in Roc de Combe and Le Piage (Lot, France). In The Chronology of the Aurignacian and of the Transitional Technocomplexes: Dating, Stratigraphies, Cultural Implications (J. Zilhão & F. d’Errico, eds.), pp. 223-244. Instituto Português de Arqueologia, Lisbon.

Chabai, V. P. 2000. The Late Middle and Early Upper Paleolithic in Crimea (Ukraine). In Les premiers hommes modernes de la Péninsule Ibérique, Actes du Colloque de la Commission VIII de l'UISPP (J. Zilhão, T. Aubry & A. F. Carvalho, eds.), pp. 25-35. Instituto Potuguês de Arqueologia, Lisbon.

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human interstratification at the Châtelperronian type-site.
Paper presented at the 2006 Annual Meetings of the Paleoanthropology Society, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Gravina, B., P. Mellars, C. Bronk Ramsey, 2005. Radiocarbon dating of interstratified Neanderthal and early modern human occupations at the Châtelperronian type-site. Nature 438:51-6.

Hardy, B.L., M. Kay, A. E. Marks, and K. Monigal. 2001. Stone tool function at the paleolithic sites of Starosele and Buran Kaya III, Crimea: behavioral implications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98:10972-7.

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Riel-Salvatore, J., A. E. Miller, and G. A. Clark. 2006. On the reality of a claimed Châtelperronian-Aurignacian interstratification at Grotte des Fées de Châtelperron (Alliers, France). Paper presented at the 2006 Annual Meetings of the Paleoanthropology Society, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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Zilhão, J., and F. d'Errico. 1999. The chronology and taphonomy of the earliest Aurignacian and its implications for the understanding of Neandertal extinction. Journal of World Prehistory 13: 1-68.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Very interseting; if I understand this corretly, can we assume that differing blade effiencies 'evolve' in a parallel sequence to naturally, changing (exploitable) landscapes; or maybe a differing preference of hunting and gathering from that landscape, by differing peoples...
Rob Heslop