Monday, October 30, 2006

Arthur Machen and the Paleolithic

Arthur Machen was a great writer who influenced many early 20th Century horror and fantastic fiction authors, such as, for instance, H. P. Lovecraft. His stories are still very entertaining reads today and, because most are set in Victorian England, they coincide temporally with the development of anthropology and archaeology as disciplines. This, and the fact that Machen often drew his protagonists from the small bourgeoisie leads to some really neat vignettes, such as this one, from The Red Hand, when two gentlemen taking an evening stroll come upon a murder site and alert the police.

"The three lanterns were flashing here and there, searching for more evidence, and in the gleam of one of them Dyson caught sight of an object in the road, to which he called the attention of the policeman nearest to him.

'Look, Phillipps,' he said, when the man had secured it and
held it up. 'Look, that should be something in your way!'

It was a dark flinty stone, gleaming like obsidian, and shaped to a broad edge something after the manner of an adze. One end was rough, and easily grasped in the hand, and the whole thing was hardly five inches long. The edge was thick with blood.

'What is it Phillipps?' said Dyson; and Phillipps looked hard at it.

'It's a primitive flint knife,' he said. 'It was made about ten thousand years ago. One exactly like this was found near Abury in Wiltshire, and all the authorities gave it that age.' "

A Paleolithic stone tool used as a murder weapon in 19th Century London! How cool is that as a hook?! And the rest of the story gets even better, with some hand prints on a wall, and more! Phenomenal reading!


Machen, A. 1906. The Red Hand. In The House of Souls. E. Grant Richards, London

New paper on Paglicci's EUP levels

The latest L'anthropologie is dedicated to the Upper Paleolithic and contains a paper by A. Palma di Cesnola (U of Siena) on the proto-Aurignacian and early Gravettian layers (24-22) of Grotta Paglicci, on the Gargano Promontory in Apulia, Italy. The site is important for a number of reasons, including the fact that it contains the earliest Aurignacian assemblage in southern Italy (ca. 34,000 BP, uncalibrated). This paper is a summary (in French, with an abstract and figure captions in English) of a the results of the excavations at Paglicci by the Prehistoric Ecology Section of the University of Siena in the 80's and 90's, recently published as a full-length monograph in Italian (Palma di Cesnola 2003a).

Palma di Cesnola (2006) provides a largely typological description of the lithic industries from levels 24-22 along with summary description of their chronological, sedimentary and zooarchaeological records. This is done using G. Laplace's analytical typology. There is unfortunately little information about the debitage or cores of those series, or about the raw materials exploited for their manufacture, although it seems fair to assume, on the basis of information provided in the monograph (i.e., Palma di Cesnola 2003b) that the only exploited lithotype comes from outcrops located about 30 km away from the site. Overall, the Aurignacian levels appear relatively poor in retouched tools compared to the abundant assemblages from the early Gravettian, although it bears emphasizing that those levels appear to have so far only been excavated over an area of about 7-8 square meters (Boscato 2003: Figure 4).

Of interest in the paper is the description of the Paglicci-type (or "PA 24 A1"-type) retouched bladelet that characterizes the backed bladelets of the top of the proto-Aurignacian sequence at Paglicci, while the base of the sequence is characterized by more classic Dufour types. This is interesting because Palma di Cesnola attributes the development of this new bladelet type to the result of proto-Aurignacian (or more precisely what he terms the "marginally backed bladelet Aurignacian") groups who originally made Dufour bladelets settling in "peculiar" contexts in meridional Italy where "under conditions of relative isolation, they would have created specialized and completely new tools" (2006: 366). He sees the Castelcivita sequence (Gambassini 1997) corroborating such an interpretation since at that site too, a Dufour level is overlain by a proto-Aurignacian level characterized by a distinct bladelet type, in that case the "Castelcivita bladelet," which has also been identified at the comparatively recent open-air Aurignacian site of Serino (Accorsi et al. 1979).

Palma di Cesnola also describes Paglicci's rich early Gravettian industries that date back to about 28,000 BP (uncalibrated) and he subsequently presents an overview of the earliest Gravettian in Italy, mentioning that unpublished dates now show the Gravettian to have been present in the Veneto about 30-31,000 BP uncalibrated (Palma di Cesnola 2006: 368). These data suggest that the issue of the origins and diffusion of the Gravettian in Italy will be an interesting topic to keep track of , and that some previous ideas about these processes might well have to be rethought in the coming years.

Overall, the paper's a good summary of those important assemblages, though it's a pity that information on the debitage and cores is missing. For anyone wanting to get an in-depth perspective on those assemblages, I highly recommend consulting the edited site report which comprises detailed analyses of pretty much all aspects of the archaeological record of layers 24-22 (Palma di Cesnola 2003a).


Accorsi, C., E. Aiello, C. Bartolini, L. Casteletti, G. Rodolfi, and A. Ronchitelli. 1979. Il Giacimento di Serino (Avellino): Stratigrafia, Ambienti, e Paletnologia. Atti della Società Toscana di Scienze Naturali A 86:435-487.

Boscato, P. 2003. I macromammiferi dell'Aurignaziano e del Gravettiano antico di Grotta Paglicci. In Paglicci. LÂ’Aurignaziano e il Gravettiano antico (A. Palma di Cesnola, ed.), pp. 49-62. Claudio Grenzi Editore, Foggia, Italy.

Gambassini, P. (editor). 1997. Il Paleolitico di Castelcivita, culture e ambiente. Materiae no.5. Electa, Naples.

Palma di Cesnola, A. (editor). 2003a. Paglicci. L'Aurignaziano e il Gravettiano antico. Claudio Grenzi Editore, Foggia, Italy.

Palma di Cesnola, A. 2003b. Il sito. In Paglicci. LÂ’Aurignaziano e il Gravettiano antico (A. Palma di Cesnola, ed.), pp. 13-14. Claudio Grenzi Editore, Foggia, Italy.

Palma di Cesnola, A. 2003c. LÂ’Aurignaziano dello strato 24. In Paglicci. LÂ’Aurignaziano e il Gravettiano antico (A. Palma di Cesnola, ed.), pp. 111-138. Claudio Grenzi Editore, Foggia, Italy.

Palma di Cesnola, A. 2006. LÂ’Aurignacien et le Gravettien ancien
de la grotte Paglicci au Mont Gargano. L’anthropologie 110: 355–370.

Spike in traffic... and blog rationale

There's been a spike in traffic on this blog lately, thanks in no small part to its being mentioned on the Palanth Forum and the Palanthsci group (thanks to the guilty parties, you know who you are!). Thank you guys for judging my opinions worthy of consideration! So, if you get here from such fine spots along the information superhighway, let me wish you a warm welcome!

I guess this is as good an occasion as any to re-make explicit my goals and intentions about this blog. First and foremost, somewhat selfishly, it serves as a repository for my inchoate thoughts and first reactions to topics that interest me from a scholarly standpoint and have to do with my research, from close or from far. As such, I reserve the right to revisit, revise and disavow them at any point in time. This is also the reason why I opt to post them in blog format rather than post them directly on listervs or discussion groups, where they might appear to be fully crystallized ideas. I don't really have a problem with people linking from discussion boards to the contents of this blog, as long as this important caveat is fully understood.

I tend to be blunt when I speak and write, though I never mean to be insulting or derogatory - I'm a strong believer that there's really no point for those attitudes in science as in life. If you, as a reader, feel the tone of a post is excessive, please let me know. The last thing I need as I post here is to make enemies and generate rancor; as I said, it's not my goal and, frankly, I'm not in a position where I can really afford either. The posts here are simply my burgeoning thoughts and first reactions to stuff I read, or presentations I get to see, or things that come to my attention that I feel are somehow relevant to my research (okay, except for the World Cup stuff, that was just sheer exultation!). As such, they shouldn't be considered definitive or set in stone at all. In fact, they're very likely to change, as they have time to sit around my cerebrum and macerate and come in contact with one another. But, given what I felt was a paucity of blogs discussing Paleolithic and hunter-gatherer archaeology, I felt that it might serve to stimulate discussion if I were to post them as a blog. Also, because I'm writing my thesis, I can't guarantee posts on a regular basis, but I try to post a couple of times a week or so.

I like the blog format for scientific discussion for a number of reasons, a main one being that it democratizes discussion of issues. I'm a PhD candidate in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change (formerly the Department of Anthropology) at Arizona State University, and my research currently focuses on the Uluzzian industry of southern Italy and the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition as a whole, topics I approach from the perspective of lithic analysis, ecological theory and hunter-gatherer studies. While this doesn't make me an authority in any real sense, I do feel that I have at least some competency to discuss issues pertaining to these research topics. If you disagree with me, then by all means post a comment.

What I try to do in this blog is post on issues that otherwise might not get broached in discussions of recent discoveries or papers. This is especially true for short papers in journals like Nature, Science or the PNAS, that usually don't give commentators a chance to go into much detail about their concerns with papers published therein. So, in this blog, when I address issues or concerns I have with papers, I usually focus on details rather than the "big picture." This isn't because I don't think that the big picture is important, but rather because I believe that in order to get an accurate big picture, you need to make sure the individual pixels of that picture, so to speak, are accurate. And I think that it's unscientific to disregard peer-reviewed research that flatly disagrees with a given argument, so I try to bring up such literature when I feel it's been ignored.

However, more than anything, I tend to post comments on papers or topics that I've liked or that have otherwise somehow piqued my curiosity at any given point in time. I'm also a consummate fan of pointing out when pop culture and/or literature intersect with paleoanthropology, so when I stumble on interesting examples of this, I like to post about them as well.

So this, in a nutshell, is the spirit of "A Very Remote Period Indeed." Welcome, enjoy, and feel free to discuss!

PS: I'm aware there are some glitches with my personal site, and I hope to correct them in the coming weeks... however, this all has to wait 'til the dissertation is done!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Hovers on Neanderthal-modern human interactions in the Levant

Just read a dynamite paper by Erella Hovers, a chapter in Conard's When Neanderthals and Modern Humans Met (2006), about the nature of interactions between the two hominin groups in the Levant. She focuses mainly on the Middle Paleolithic record of the region. After reviewing the available empirical evidence and discussing relevant ecological theory, she concludes that:

"Some archaeologists have favored [the competitive model] as the most ecologically parsimonious scenario (Shea 2003b), given the principle of competitive exclusion. However, the Levant in the late Middle and early Upper Pleistocene was a region of unpredictable, short-duration environmental fluctuations on millennial and centennial scales, and of spatially fragmented habitats. Because the coexistence of similar species does not depend on environmental stochasticity (Wang et al. 2000), and since Neanderthals and modern humans were congruent competitors in this region, a scenario of their coexistence in dynamic equilibrium on a regional scale is tenable from an ecological point of view. And while full synchrony of Moderns and Neanderthals throughout the Middle Paleolithic (or at least its later part) is not a fact of the archaeological record, a scenario of coexistence is as, or more, consistent with the available data than a model of competition-driven extinctions of the two taxa. The suggestion that Neanderthal appearance and the disappearance of Moderns are linked by a cause-and-effect relationship is not well supported by either the archaeological data or ecological theory. It stems from confounding temporal association of postulated events with causation for long-term demographic and evolutionary processes. Indications (and putative ones at that) for local extinctions of Moderns (or Neanderthals) during the Middle Paleolithic cannot be simplistically be interpreted as evidence for the extinction of a whole lineage in the region" (Hovers 2006:76)

This is a pretty radical departure from commonly proposed scenarios of Neanderthal-modern human interactions in the Levant. What I especially like about this paper is that Hovers actually reviews the ecological literature in this piece rather than simply invoking it as a mysterious black box buzzing with the sounds of arcane evolutionary forces to support her ideas. By doing this, she's able to generate coherent sets of theoretically-grounded expectations that she then tests against the archaeological record, as opposed to the other way around which is how at least some archaeologists tend to proceed. The kind of approach adopted by Hovers here is the way to go, in my humble opinion, if we are to move the debate over the evolutionary fate of Neanderthals forward.


Conard, N. J. (ed.). 2006. When Neanderthals and Modern Humans Met. Tübingen Publications in Prehistory. Kerns Verlag, Tübingen.

Hovers, E. 2006. Neanderthals and modern humans in the Middle Paleolithic of the Levant: what kind of interactions. In When Neanderthals and Modern Humans Met (N.J. Conard, ed.), pp. 65-85. Tübingen Publications in Prehistory. Kerns Verlag, Tübingen.

Cosquer Revisited - ASU lecture

On Tuesday night, Jean Clottes presented a talk entitled "Cosquer Revisited" at Arizona State University. The event was organized by Elisabeth Culley and Peter Welsh of the Deer Valley Rock Art Center, and sponsored by the newly formed School of Human Evolution and Social Change, which is my academic unit at ASU. It was a great, very enjoyable talk. Clottes is a lively and engaging speaker, he is intimately familiar with all the recent discoveries, and the topic of Paleolithic cave art always makes for intereting and visually gripping presentations.

In addition to detailing ongoing work at Cosquer, Clottes discussed findings at Cussac (which contains a slew of human burials of Gravettian age) and Chauvet, as well as another, unnamed and recently discovered Gravettian-age painted cave. All this will be published in time, but it sure was very nice to get a glimpse of ongoing research and recent discoveries. Beyond detailing the kinds of paintings and engraving found at the site, he also argued that men, women and children all can be shown to have contributed to the creation of the wonderful art preserved at the site, thanks to an anlysis of Cosquer's hand stencils and prints.

Perhaps the most controversial and stimulating aspect of the Cosquer talk was that in which Clottes discussed the intentional scraping off of sections of the cave wall and intentional breaking of stalagmites. Similar behaviors have allegedly been documented in some North American caves where prehistoric people intentionally collected calcium carbonate that was subsequently ground into powder for human consumption for its medicinal properties. I'd never heard about this, and am not familiar at all with this literature. But, if it can be shown that the Cosquer artists did the same thing, that would constitue, to the best of my knowledge, the earliest documented instance of the collection of pharmacopeia in the archaeological record. Clottes clearly mentioned that this was just a tentalizing working hypothesis at the moment, but since none of the wall scrapings or broken stalagmite sections were recovered in the cave, it does appear that this material was intentionally taken away from the site. Fascinating stuff.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

New Evolutionary Anthropology

The latest issue of Evolutionary Athropology came out online today. I bring it up because it contains two papers, one by P. Mellars, the other by J. Zilhão, that deal directly with issues that I'm currently writing about in my dissertation, albeit from a very different perspective. The papers represent good and timely summaries of where the "replacement" and "indigenist" scenarios of modern human origins in Europe stand in late 2006.

I had read the Mellars paper as a preprint, and there isn't much new to report about the conclusions reached in his paper. I'll post on it later in detail, but should mention now that I think that his relabeling of the proto-Aurignacian is wrong-headed, especially since it leads to no particular nuancing of his position as a result.

As for the Zilhão paper, I've just had a chance to glance at it, but in it he perpetuates the factually wrong idea that the lithic assemblage from Level V at Klioura I in Greece is Uluzzian (see Koumouzelis et al. 2001a, b). This perspective is unsupported by even a very casual evaluation of the record (Riel-Salvatore 2006a, 2006b), so its unfortunate to see it given such wide thrift in press. This is especially true since Klisoura is then taken to "date" the earliest Uluzzian. This is the result of using a narrow typological perspective and a culture-historical research agenda, where the goal of archaeology becomes the tracking of cultures over time and space rather than understanding past behavior.

In other news, I got a copy of the Bar-Yosef and Zilhão Towards a Definition of the Aurignacian volume (2006) in the mail yesterday, and I must temper my preliminary assessement of the volume posted a few weeks ago... the volume actually contins a wealth of stimulating papers, most of which directly grapple with the issue of defining the Aurignacian. The only thing that I was surprised not to see in the volume was a concluding chapter by the editors discussing what the agreement was following that meeting and perusal of lithic assemblages from throughout Eurasia. Oh well.


Bar-yosef, O., and J. Zilhão (eds.). 2006. Towards a definition of the Aurignacian. Proceedings of the Symposium held
in Lisbon, Portugal, June 25-30, 2002
. Trabalhos de Arqueologia 45. Instituto Português de Arqueologia, Lisbon (Protugal).

Koumouzelis, M., J.K. Kozlowski, C. Escutenaire, V. Sitlivy, K. Sobczyk, H. Valladas, N. Tisnerat-Laborde, P. Wojtal, and B. Ginter. 2001a. La fin du Paléolithique moyen et le début du Paléolithique supérieur en Grèce: la séquence de la Grotte 1 de Klissoura. L'Anthropologie 105:469-504.

Koumouzelis, M., B. Ginter, J. K. Kozlowski, M. Pawlikowski, O. Bar-Yosef, R. M. Albert, M. Litynska-Zajac, E. Stworzewicz, P. Wojtal, and G. Lipecki. 2001b. The early Upper Palaeolithic in Greece : The excavations in Klisoura Cave. Journal of Archaeological Sciences 28:515-539.

Mellars, P. 2006. Archeology and the dispersal of modern humans in Europe: Deconstructing the "Aurignacian." Evolutionary Anthropology 15:167-182.

Riel-Salvatore, J. 2006a. The place of the Uluzzian in the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition in Italy. Paper presented at the 71st annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Riel-Salvatore, J. 2006b. The Uluzzian as a manifestation of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition in Italy? Paper presented at the 15th meeting of the Union Internationale de Sciences Pre- et Protohistoriques, Lisbon, Portugal.

Zilhão, J. 2006. Neandertals and moderns mixed, and it matters. Evolutionary Anthropology 15:183-195.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Chris Mooney blog

Another week, another dissertation chapter, and another post...

Surfing around, I came upon Chris Mooney's blog, which is unfortunately on temporary hiatus for the next month or so. In case you don't know it, Mooney is the author of the excellent, excellent book The Republican War on Science, of which I finished reading the updated paperback edition just last week (yes, I read it in my "spare time"). While there is a temporary halt in updates, the site is nonetheless a very interesting to read it through and contains a number of posts on the politicization of science in the US as well as popular scientific divulgation. Good stuff.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

More online thesis goodness!!

Oh yeah! Stumbled on this great site today, and I'm quite happy about this. It's an online repository that contains at least some recent PhD theses from the Université de Bordeaux 1 downloadable as pdf files! Included in the bunch are a number of archaeologically-themed theses. More theses online, that's what I'm talking about, people! Shazam!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The ongoing Divje babé I flute controversy

Hi all. Sorry for the momentary lack of posts... things are pretty hectice in Arizona. A recent browse through the journals brought a number of new papers to my attention, including the following two, which struck me because they were published at the same time (more or less) and argue exactly opposite interpretation of a single artifact, namely the alleged bone flute from the Mousterian site of Divje babé I, in Slovenia.

Check out Wikipediafor some pics of the thing. Wiki incidentally has a remarkably detailed treatment of this artifact! I present two views of the "flute" taken from that Wiki entry:

In any case, back to the new pubs. The first paper, in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology by Iain Morley, argues against the "flute" interpretation of the artifact. Here's the abstract:

"The reputed Neanderthal ‘flute’ from the Slovenian site of Divje
babe I has stimulated much interest and detailed research since the original
publication of its discovery in 1997. In spite of nearly ten years’ worth of
analysis and discussion its status as an artefact has remained ambiguous;
nevertheless it is still frequently cited as a ‘flute’. This paper examines the
literature and research regarding this object, and finds that much of the
ambiguity regarding the object’s status derives from the literature itself. It
concludes that there is no need to invoke hominin agency in explaining the
features of the bone."

Now, contrast this to the following paper by Turk et al. (2006) "in press" in L'Anthropologie. Their abstract states that:

"The suspected flute, which dates to Moershoofd-Glinde or Orel Interstadial, and is definitely older than 46 ka, was analysed with the aid of multi-slice computed tomography (MSCT) and reinterpreted in the light of two hypotheses, one of which envisages an artificial origin of the holes and the other a natural one. It was found that there were four holes on the diaphysis; that at least two were made prior to the damage to the proximal and distal ends of the diaphysis; and that carnivores could not have made all the holes, but one at the most. The holes are very probably artificial, made by the combined use of stone and simple bone tools found at the Divje babé I site. The majority, and probably all the damage made by carnivores on the suspected flute, are of secondary origin. Conclusions about the origin of the holes cannot therefore be reached only on the basis of the damage, and the hypothesis of an artificial origin cannot be rejected."

Hmmmmmmm. The debate hardly seems closed, does it? Without having had a chance to go through both papers in much depth (I am writing a dissertation, folks!), my natural tendency is to give thorough analyses (i.e., Turk et al. 2006) greater currency than literature reviews (i.e., Morley 2006). Of course, it all depends on the reliability of the tomographic analysis, so I'll defintiely be posting a follow-up to this in the coming days.


Morley, I. 2006. Mousterian musicianship? The case of the Divje Babe I bone. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 25:317–333

Turk, I., B.A.B. Blackwell, J. Turk, and M. Pflaum. 2006. Résultats de l'analyse tomographique informatisée de la plus ancienne flûte découverte à Divje babé I (Slovénie) et sa position chronologique dans le contexte des changements paléoclimatiques et paléoenvironnementaux au cours du dernier glaciaire. L'Anthropologie 110: in press. DOI: 10.1016/j.anthro.2006.06.002.