Thursday, November 30, 2006

Coulson and the earliest documented ritual

Not much time to post today, but wanted to address the news about the 70,000 year-old 'python cult' that's making the rounds today, evidence of which was discovered by Sheila Coulson (U of Oslo). The report can be found online on the Apollon website; it's pretty short and contains some photographs.

Until I see some good publications about the dating and the 'spectacular' lithic artifacts refered to here, I won't be convinced much by this report. This is what the "particularly beautiful spearheads" found below the indented rock face look like

They are further described as being "better crafted and more colourful than other spearheads from the same time and area." Really? These things look like pretty run-of-the-mill unifacial points and/or scrapers to me. Compare them to the following bifacial Still Bay point at the Blombos Schoolhouse site (from Minichillo 2005: 153, Fig. 5.3 - bar = 1cm) and which is of MSA age

The 'python rock' artifacts don't even come close to exhibiting this level of craftsmanship.

The paper in Apollon also states that there are only a few archaeologists working on the African MSA... the flurry of recent publications and presentations at international meetings precisely about that period shows this is not the case at all.

I'll be curious to see how this stands up to critical scrutiny once details about these finds are published in scientific, peer-reviewed journals. In the meantime, you can also check out a very good post on the report on the Remote Central blog and some other comments on Mundo Neandertal (in Spanish) and on John Hawks' blog.


Minichillo, T.J. 2005. Middle Stone Age Lithic Study, South Africa: An Examination of Modern Human Origins. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Neanderthal childhood was as long as that of modern humans

Picked this one up on the website of the Montréal daily La Presse. The story (in French) reports on a study by Christopher Dean (University College London) and colleagues from French and Italian institutions which shows, through the use of high-resolution microcomputed tomography on two molars, that childhood was of comparable duration for Neanderthals and modern humans. Digging around the Nature web site, I found the paper in question, by Macchiarelli et al. (2006) in the papers available in advance of press. The authors conclude that

"Our data now allow us to predict M1 emergence time in Neanderthals with more certainty. If about 8mm of root were formed at an average of about 5.7 mmper day at gingival emergence, then this would have occurred at about 6.7 years of age, well within the human range (6.260.8 years (mean 6 s.d.)). This, together with the modern human-like position of the neonatal line, suggests both similar timing of tooth initiation relative to birth in Neanderthals and modern humans, and a predictable extended period between birth and M1 emergence, by which time about 90% of brain volume would have been attained."

While they also mention that that "a more complex enamel–dentine junction morphology and a late peak in root extension rate sets [Neanderthals] apart", their results are in contrast to those previously reported by Fernando Ramirez Rozzi and José Maria Bermudez de Castro (2004) who estimated that Neanderthals reached adulthood around fifteen years of age or so, that is to say, significantly earlier than modern humans. I should note that the Ramirez Rossi and Bermudez de Castro conclusions had already been challenged by Guatteli-Steinberg et al. (2005) who used dental perikymata counts to reocnstruct Neanderthal life history and show that it was similar to that of modern humans.

Macchiarelli et al.'s results provide another thread of evidence that demonstrates that modern humans and Neanderthals may not have been significantly different in terms of their biological development. This has a number of implications about the life history of Neanderthals, the structure of their population and the nature of their knowledge transmission strategies. This is especially interesting in light of a recent paper in the Journal of Human Evolution by Gurven et al. (2006) about the time needed to become a proficient hunter. Based on observations on the Tsimane foragers in the Bolivian Amazon, Gurven et al. suggest that physical maturity alone is not enough to ensure fully proficient hunting (an activity which requires much skill), and that full proficiency might only be attained about 10-20 years after reaching adulthood.

Gurven et al. (2006) therefore do away with the idea that physical maturity is, by itself, sufficient to be a fully proficient hunter. Bocherens et al. (2001, 2005) suggest that at least some Neanderthals were top carnivores, which implies they were able to develop fully competent hunting capacities comparable to those of modern humans (if not actually better ones). The idea that Neanderthals could achieve this level of skill simply by maturing more quickly is therefore seriously undermined by the Gurven et al. (2006) paper, and the new Macchiarelli et al. study suggests that, in fact, there is no need to invoke such improbable scenarios to explain effective hunting among Neanderthals. Now, how this all fits with the debate over Neanderthal longevity and life-history as a whole is another debate, one which I will not broach today...

I have to say that also really love the reconstruction of Neanderthal adult-infant interaction depicted in the La Presse feature, and I had not seen before...

I love how the Neanderthal kid looks kinda lost or detached in this one, but then again, I'd probably look like that myself if I was left alone with a guardian that looked as haggard as that adult Neanderthal!


Bocherens, H., M. Toussaint, D. Billiou, M. Patou-Mathis, D. Bonjean, M. Otte, and A. Mariotti. 2001. New isotopic evidence for dietary habits of Neandertals from Belgium. Journal of Human Evolution 40:497-505.

Bocherens, H., D. G. Drucker, D. Billiou, M. Patou-Mathis, and B. Vandermeersch. 2005. Isotopic evidence for diet and subsistence pattern of the Saint-Césaire I Neanderthal: review and use of a multi-source mixing model. Journal of Human Evolution 49:71-87.

Guatelli-Steinberg, D., D. J. Reid, T.A. Bishop, and C. S. Larsen. 2005. Anterior tooth growth periods in Neandertals were comparable to those of modern humans. PNAS 102:14197-14202

Gurven, M., H. Kaplan, and M.Gutierrez. 2006. How long does it take to become a proficient hunter? Implications for the evolution of extended development and long life span. Journal of Human Evolution 51:454-470.

Macchiarelli, R., L. Bondioli, A. Debénath, A. Mazurier, J.-F. Tournepiche, W. Birch, and C. Dean. 2006. How Neanderthal molar teeth grew. Nature: doi:10.1038/nature05314

Ramirez Rossi, F.V., and J. M. Bermudez de Castro. 2004. Surprisingly rapid growth in Neanderthals. Nature 428:936-939.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

El Mirón Cave - Lawrence Straus ASU Lecture

It's a pretty paleo-heavy fall semester for colloquium speakers at ASU, and last Friday, we had the pleasure of having Prof. Lawrence Guy Straus (University of New Mexico) talking to a packed lecture hall about his ongoing project with M. R. Gonzales Morales (Universidad de Cantabria) at El Mirón Cave. This is one impressive site, folks, with a stratigraphy spanning uninterrupted the whole gamut from the Mousterian to the Bronze Age, and having yielded, among other things, the oldest reliably dated evidence for Neolithic lifeways in northern Atlantic Spain.

Of more direct Paleolithic import was Straus' discussion of some of the Magdalenian art found in the cave. This includes notably the following scapula bearing an incised deer

This is a motif that has been found on similar incised artifacts in other neighboring sites, and bears resemblance to parietal depictions of deer found in neighboring Magdalenian sites as well. This has enabled Straus and his colleague to hypothesize the existence of a relatively tightly bound cultural network defined, among other things, on the basis of shared iconography and stylistic conventions. 16,000 years ago. Very, very neat stuff.

In addition, a sondage at the bottom of the excavated area has revealed the presence of a (so far) undifferentiated Early Upper Paleolithic level dated to about 27 kya (uncalibrated) and Late Mousterian levels going back to 41 kya (uncalibrated). Unfortunately, these lower levels are not very well-known yet, having only been excavated over a very small area, but they're there, which is cool in and of itself. All in all, a fantastic site, one which really gives a good view of diachronic changes in site function, land-use patterns, and 'cultural' traditions. Presented with Straus' usual flair and engaging style (not to mention his intimate familiarity with the Paleolithic record of northern Spain), this was one very informative and very entertaining lecture.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Missing Mousterians and Trails of Dead!

Not much time to write these days, but wanted to point out a very good post on Alex Steenhuyse's blog on the recent paper by Dibble and McPherron on the "Missing Mousterian" in Current Anthropology. Though Alex is not completely bias-free (n'est-ce pas?), he is very, very right in pointing out the importance of the approach taken by Dibble & McPherron (2006) to get a more thorough understanding of Neanderthal lifeways... good paper, I've read it, but haven't had a chance to blog about it given how hectic everything is these days...

In other news, So Divided, the latest record by rock juggernauts "... And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead" came out today... go buy it! It's fantastic, phenomenal even!! What's the relevance of this on a blog concerned with archaeology and anthropology, you may well ask... well, I have it on good authority that Trail of Dead's lead singer of the band used to be an anthropology major at UT Austin. So there you have it!


Dibble, H. L., and S. McPherron. 2006. The Missing Mousterian. Current Anthropology 47(5): 777-803.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


If you can vote in the US today... vote, vote, vote!!!