Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The modern Stone Age family

The Boston Globe has a feature entitled 'Stone Age Feminism?' (I have to wonder if they had a contest with CNN for the lamest spin on Stone Age news) which talks about how recent discoveries about Neanderthals (FOXP2, 'red hair', extension of their range to Siberia, etc.) may articulate with the argument put forth last year by Kuhn & Stiner (2006) that sexual division of labor was largely absent among Neanderthals. Some people have blogged about this (here and here), just as other have offered more thoughts about the 'spin' or 'framing' put on some of the recent genetic papers (here for FOXP2, here for MC1R). I'm not an anthropological geneticist, so I won't talk about those studies any more than I already have.

In contrast, although the Kuhn & Stiner paper has been discussed at length on some other blogs (including by John Hawks who was fairly critical of their argument), this renewed interest in it a year after its original publication prompted me to finally pitch in my two cents.

I suspect that there's two main ways in which the main conclusion of the paper was greeted by researchers. On one side, people who still think of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition in terms of a list of features that distinguish the UP from the MP (and by extension, modern humans from Neanderthals) probably clapped their hands excitedly before chiseling "sexual division of labor" into the stone tablet that bears the other commandments of modern human behavior. Nothing new under the sun here. On the other side, you have people who largely dismissed Kuhn and Stiner's argument by saying that it just doesn't jive with the paleoanthropological record, ethnographic analogy and/or common sense. Again, nothing too earth-shattering.

My own view doesn't really fall on a simple continuum between those two extremes. If someone held a pistol to my head and asked me to pick sides right there and then, I suppose I'd probably say I lean more towards this second pole (though if this situation really were to happen, I'd probably just say whatever the hell they wanted to hear!). However, if the same paleoanthropologically-inclined gun-toting individual was armed with, say, a musket (or any other weapon that would give yours truly a bit more time to talk), I would promptly qualify this statement by adding that, while it may not be congruent with all of the data we now have available, Kuhn and Stiner's paper is nonetheless quite an important contribution to studies of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition for two main reasons:

1) It bring together a wide range of archaeological data whose joint patterns previous synthetic treatments have been unable to account for convincingly. Admittedly, this is done at the expense of some of the finer details of the archaeological record (I think there's evidence Neanderthals exploited small game and plants, and that there's little evidences that modern humans engaged in substantially less close-range hunting), although this is perhaps unavoidable in any synthetic treatment of the evidence. However, it does propose a novel idea to account for some general patterns, although as John Hawks has pointed it is difficult to test empirically. The important thing here is to look at this as a new avenue of research, and not a paleoanthropological received truth to be accepted and repeated uncritically, a point unfortunately lost on the popular media.

2) Most importantly (and I think that's what Kuhn and Stiner were really going for), it forces researchers to come to grips with the idea that the Late Pleistocene archaeological record is now sufficiently well-known that we can and should be focusing on other questions than simply what techniques of tool manufacture hominins used, what their chronology was, what the oldest evidence for "behavior X" is, how hominins moved around and managed their resources, and what critters hominins were eating. These are all obviously critical questions (some that I tackle in my own work), but is there more to Paleolithic archaeology than this? According to that paper, yes. That Kuhn & Stiner tried to roll this specifically into the modern human origins debate, to which they have spent their whole career contributing, is perhaps best seen as secondary. On the other hand, it likely accounts for why the news outfits all latched on the "Stone Age feminism" angle - it's just too easy and speaks to contemporary issues almost more than it does about prehistoric life.

I was (and remain) a little surprised by the gusto with which some people reacted to this paper stressing that we might want to consider addressing social issues from a paleoanthropological standpoint (although I can understand that such reactions were mainly driven by empirical concerns). That idea is not exactly new, having been frequently presented and repackaged by researchers like Gamble (esp. Gamble 1999), sometimes on empirical bases much weaker than those invoked by Kuhn and Stiner (2006). Obviously, we must be careful not to get carried away in that direction and make sure that we can strongly link inference to hard data derived from archaeological research. However, given that we're dealing not only with prehistoric lifeways but with prehistoric people, I think there is a case to be made for looking at a new set of issues in contemporary paleoanthropology, although it is critically important that this work be as solidly anchored in the empirical record as possible. That peculiar vein of research may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it can be worth investigating, especially if we are to make Paleolithic research relevant to the broader world of hunter-gatherer anthropology.


Gamble, C. 1999. The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Kuhn, S. L., and M. C. Stiner. 2006. What's a Mother to Do? The Division of Labor among Neandertals and Modern Humans in Eurasia. Current Anthropology 47:953-980.


Anne Gilbert said...

When I blogged about this issue(re the Boston Globe piece, my main concern was with conflating whatever Neandertal behavior and hunting strategies may have been, with the "divisions of labor" that exist today in "modern" societies(and are assumed by some to exist everywhere). For the record, i would like to state that I think Stiner and Kuhn have done a lot of important work, which has moved studies of Neandertals and other Pleistocene humans in directions they might not have otherwise taken. I would also like to note, for the record, that I really thought the Boston Globe piece was a rather silly piece of science journalism. But then, when it comes to Neandertals, most media pieces are pretty silly.
Anne G

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Anne -
I figured as much, and that's why the gist of my post wasn't so much about other people's reactions to the Kuhn and Stiner paper than to what I think its principal, if understated, contribution might be. I think most of your objections are valid ones, I just wanted to take another angle on what this story might mean for the broader world of Paleolithic archaeology.

I agree, though, that news coverage of anything 'Stone Age' is growing steadily sillier with each new discovery. It gets especially bad when science journalists try to piece together a grand narrative based on news reports on several recent papers/reports, which is what this Boston Globe piece was attempting to do.

Also, thanks for linking to this on your various dwelling places on the information superhighway, it's much appreciated! This post hasn't done too bad... I have a few trackbacks already, which is making me pretty happy!