Monday, December 11, 2006

Interview with Sheila Coulson on Mundo Neandertal

Check you this! Martín Cagliani of Mundo Neandertal has posted the transcript of an interview with Dr. Sheila Coulson, whose recent work and discovery of the "earliest documented ritual" in Botswana I blogged about ten days or so ago.

This is a very informative interview and it resolves some of the questions I (and others) had about the discovery. This info comes straight from the source, which corrects some of the interpretive distortions present in the original report of the discovery, which was a translated news report, and not a scientific publication. Since the interview's transcript is in Spanish, here’s a summary of some of the details of the interview:

1) Of the 13,000 recovered lithic artifacts, 115 are finely retouched typological points. These are said to be analogous to those from the MSA levels at the ≠Gi site excavated by A. Brooks and colleagues, and dated to ca. 77 kya. With the exception of an unspecified number made on quartz and rock crystal, which are available locally, the artifacts are made on types of rocks whose closest source lies in Namibia. You can see some of the artifacts here on Coulson's site... these look a lot better than the ones published in Apollon. Some Levallois cores (but no Levallois points) are also reported.

2) The date of ca. 70 kya for the site is confirmed to be a relative estimate. It is based on similarities between the Rhino Cave artifacts and those from ≠Gi, and two absolute dates from other MSA sites in the Tsodilo Hills (ca. 64 kya and 96 kya). Plans are in the works to have a dating (TL?) specialist from the Max Planck Institute to come and date the deposits in the relatively near future, though the size of the cave and the kind of cave it is (and the location of the test pit at the entrance of the cave) may make TL dating tricky. Future work that will focus on deposits further inside the cave may yield deposits more propitious to TL.

3) The excavated area is a 1x1m test pit that reached down about 2m. The stratigraphy of the deposits exposed a 65cm thick LSA deposit of aeolian sediments, which overlay highly compacted MSA deposits of a drastically different sedimentary nature, and which may have been cemented as well (my translation is a bit iffy here). There are more unexcavated MSA deposits below.

4) The "ritual function" of the points is inferred on their state of recovery. They were all roughed out elsewhere and finished at Rhino Cave. They were found in three states: perfectly intact, broken in half, or (in 22 cases) burned in the midst of the debitage created during their manufacture. The latter are the only burnt things encountered in the test pit, and none of the points bear any kind of impact fracture suggestive of use as part of projectile weapons.

5) Analysis of the material is ongoing, and excavations are set to resume in 2008.

I will try to contact Martín and see if it is possible to post an English translation of the interview somewhere. In the meantime, I'll offer a few comments on the information provided in the interview. I’ll limit these to stuff we can actually talk about based on the interview as opposed to talking about how definitive publication is needed before certain issues can be settled. I hope these do not come across as disparaging: the comments below aren't meant to be mean-spirited at all, but rather as outlining areas I'm eager to learn more about. Anyway.

It's suggested that the points are mainly made on exogenous rock, but it’s unclear what the actual proportion is and there is mention that a portion of the assemblage was made on local raw material. Here, I'd like to point out that it's not unusual to have heavily retouched artifacts made on exotic lithotypes even in European Mousterian contexts (i.e., made by Neanderthals), albeit in comparatively small numbers. I guess that without contextual information about lithic raw material frequencies in the debitage and small fraction, it's hard to say. An interesting fact, however, is that, in the archaeological record of other mobile hunter-gatherers that used bifacial technology (e.g., Paleoindian groups), it's not unusual to find bifacial artifacts often made on exotic stone. However, in those contexts, it has often been found that these bifaces were usually not so much used as the tips of hunting weapons, but rather as multi-purpose cutting implements and/or convenient portable 'cores' from which flakes could be struck at a moment's notice, as they became necessary (Kelly 1988; Kelly and Todd 1988). That these bifaces should be made predominantly on exotic, fine-grained stone is not surprising since lithic homogeneity is a prerequisite for such a strategy to be worthwhile in the first place. So, the disproportionate presence of bifacial implements on exotic raw materials and bearing no evidence of use as spearheads is not necessarily unexpected in the context of a mobile Paleolithic group that made bifacial tools. Evidence of no use at all might be more convincing proof of ritual production.

I'm not sure what to make of the 'ritual way' in which these artifacts entered the archaeological record. It certainly sounds intriguing, but I’m not sure more prosaic interpretations need to be discarded at this point. The fact that they're found in the midst of so much other lithic debris does not suggest a ritual discard context to me, at least based on what's been revealed so far. That some were found in perfect condition or broken in half is not necessarily completely unexpected, especially if they can be shown to have been near or at the end of their use-life (this can be assessed using methods like those recently proposed by Andrefsky [2006]). More puzzling are the burnt ones, found in the midst of their debitage. Here, it will be important to know exactly how they were identified as burned. Heat-treating of lithic raw material to improve its quality should not be ruled out out-of-hand here, especially if that raw material was meant to be carried around for a while and need to be dependable. So, unless there's direct evidence of in situ combustion features associated only with those artifacts, it might be challenging to link them unambiguously to discard in a ritual context. Likewise, it'll be very important to see whether the scenario of these chipped stone implements being imported as 'rough outs' is supported by refitting studies and/or details about the incidence of cortical pieces among the debitage associated with their final production.

One last comment, this one more practical in nature: so far, the Middle Stone Age levels have reached a depth of 2m below present surface. The top of the 'python' is 2m above the present surface. That means that the top of the rock would have been 2.65m (about 9 feet) above the ground in the latest Middle Stone Age, and 4m (13 feet) above it at the base of the test pit (which is not the base of the total deposit). Conversely, the base of the rock would have been between 0.65m and 2m above the Middle Stone Age ground level. Now, MSA people could obviously have built scaffolding and/or ladders, or even climbed the rock face, but it does raise the questions of the position of the 'python' relative to that of the Middle Stone Age occupants of the cave, how they would have organized themselves to chip away at it, and what the thing would have looked like from down below. This is an important question to consider, especially if the 'python' was an integral part of why Middle Stone Age folks occupied the site in the first place. So far, all the views of the 'python' have been generated at present ground levels, and it might have looked different from 2m below it, especially since the 'eyes' and 'mouth' might not have been as easily visible from that distance.

The original news report mentioned that part of the 'python''s surface had been found in the Middle Stone Age levels, but unless it bears the same indentations and unless these indentations can be shown unambiguously to be human-made, finding wall spalling is not unexpected in a cave context. The picture of what I think is the piece being referred to does appear to be be grooved, but this groove looks shallower and narrower than the ones seen on the 'python''s surface.

It might well be that the 'python' was intentionally shaped in prehistory, but that this was done in the Later Stone Age, or even in recent prehistory. There's certainly an abundance of prehistoric engravings in southern Africa, none of which have so far been attributed to the Middle Stone Age, so the burden of proof here is to conclusively demonstrate their association at Rhino Cave, as opposed to stressing that it is a possibility. If the chipping is conclusively demonstrated to be MSA in age, this truly will be a sensational discovery, no doubt about it.

All in all, this interview is very interesting and enlightening, but - as is always the case, I suppose - it generates additional, intriguing questions. Can't wait for the first publications, they'll be most interesting to read, and can't wait to hear (even) more about this site in general.


Andrefsky, W. 2006. Experimental and archaeological verification of an index of reduction retouch for hafted bifaces. American Antiquity 71:743-758.

Kelly, R. 1988. The three sides of a biface. American Antiquity 53:717-734.

Kelly, R., and L. Todd. 1988. Coming into the country: early Paleoindian hunting and mobility. American Antiquity 53: 231-244.


Tim said...

Julien - thanks for the good post, plenty of new info and thoughts to consider, should be plenty more to come. Interesting to note the lithics might not be weapons points at all, and the burning of some of them raises other possibilities. Good one!

Anne Gilbert said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I was rather cynical about this discovery of the purported earliest ritual, but thanks to your exertions, I have a little better idea of why the discoveries are thought to be associated with ritual activities. I hope Martin Cagliani does translate the interview into English. My Spanish isn't all that good!
Anne G

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Tim, Anne - thanks for the comments! Anne, you're more than welcome, glad to be of some help - I hope my condensed summary/translation was sufficiently accurate!

Lokabrenna said...

Julien, good stuff. Coulson may be pushing things a bit here. Or not. (Personally, I think she's right about the ritual character of her discovery, even right about the deliberate working of the stone, though I also think your doubts are reasonable and fair.) Her biggest leap seems to be assigning the stone its status as 'python stone.' Thanks for the links and some thought-provoking analysis.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

lokabrenna - thanks for the nice comment, it's always pleasant to hear from readers! Hopefully, we'll have more on this site soon, so as to allow an objective assessment of all these claims!

Peter said...

If it is understood in some way to be ritualistic, then comparisons with the rituals of pre-Appollonic Delphi Oracle would indeed be instructive! Although 68,000 years apart, Pythia, the Oracle of Delphic, the Python (which was killed by Apollo, who took the place of the Python), the Priestess and the rituals, still drew my attention. At least I can hypothesize that the origins of python worship are much older than the bronze age.