Thursday, November 29, 2007

I say Acheulean, you say Acheulian

To quote one cartoon character… do you know what really grinds my gears? Seeing the word “Acheulean” written as “Acheulian”. There, I said it. The Acheulean, of course, refers to the Lower Paleolithic industry found throughout the Old World and defined by the presence of bifacially worked core-tools commonly labeled ‘handaxes’ (though see Monnier [2006] for a recent reevaluation of the term and its definition). It is one of the most investigated periods of prehistory, yet it is cursed by inconsistent spelling of its name. A search in Web of Knowledge for paper titles shows that, of paper published on that industry over the past 52 years, 90 (or 56%) contain the word ‘Acheulean’ while 71 (or 44%) use the label ‘Acheulian.’ While a majority of researchers thus appears to use what I see as the correct spelling, a non-negligible fraction nonetheless uses the alternate form.

In any case, let me outline the reasoning behind my deeply held spelling intransigence. The names of most Paleolithic industries are derived from a series of localities in France thought, in the last years of the 19th century, to typify those industries. These sites (e.g., Saint Acheul, Le Moustier, Aurignac, La Gravette, Le Solutré and La Madeleine) gave rise to the labels we use today as loose descriptors of the kinds of stone tools we find in archaeological deposits. Since the localities were in France and selected by French prehistorians (in this case G. de Mortillet [1873]), the names they gave rise to were originally in French. In the specific case of the Lower Paleolithic industry with bifaces identified at the locality of Saint-Acheul, the French name for that industry and de facto chronological phase became Acheuléen, although the name itself admittedly slightly postdates the selection of Saint-Acheul as the type locality. Later, other languages simply adapted the French terminology, as shown in this non-exhaustive table:


Industry –


Industry –


Industry –






Le Moustier








La Gravette




Le Solutré




La Madeleine












What emerges from this overview that when an industry name ends in “ien” in French, it corresponds to an “ian” ending in English and “iano” in Italian. Likewise, the French “éen” turns into “eano” in Italian and “ean” in English, as demonstrated by the labels “Solutrean” and “Chellean.” Few if any specialists would spell ‘Solutrean’ as ‘Solutrian;’ in fact, a search for “Solutrian” in Web of Knowledge yields a single result, as opposed to 27 hits on 'Solutrean.' That being the case, why on earth should the French Acheuléen and the Italian Acheuleano be rendered into English as Acheulian as opposed to Acheulean? This is the only exception to the pattern of name conversion just highlighted, and also one that occurs only in the English language. I’m guessing it has to do with phonological drift in the early years of the discipline, but that’s just a hunch; to the best of my knowledge ‘Acheulian’ postdates ‘Acheulean’ in press by about a decade.

I’d like to stress that this is not an issue comparable to the spelling of ‘Neanderthal’ vs. ‘Neandertal,’ for both of which some historical justification can be found. This is an issue of bending the rules of terminological translation for no good reason. So let’s hear it for Acheulean!

But I don’t want to be despotic about this, so let me try an exercise in internet democracy: Dear readers, leave me a comment or vote below to let me know whether you spell it with an “i” or with an “e”… and if you have traditionally spelled it with an “i”, does this reasoning convince you to change your wayward practices?


Monnier, G. 2006. The Lower/Middle Paleolithic periodization in Western Europe: An evaluation. Current Anthropology 47:709-744.

Mortillet, G. de. 1873. Classification des diverses périodes de l'Âge de la Pierre. In Congrès International d'Anthropologie et d'Archéologie Préhistoriques, 6ème session, 432–459.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Other papers of note

The new issue of Antiquity contains a suite of other really interesting papers, making it well worth checking out.

Here's a few of them:

Biancamaria Aranguren, Roberto Becattini, Marta Mariotti Lippi and Anna Revedin
Grinding flour in Upper Palaeolithic Europe (25000 years bp)

The authors have identified starch grains belonging to wild plants on the surface of a stone from the Gravettian hunter-gatherer campsite of Bilancino (Florence, Italy), dated to around 25000bp. The stone can be seen as a grindstone and the starch has been extracted from locally growing edible plants. This evidence can be claimed as implying the making of flour – and presumably some kind of bread – some 15 millennia before the local ‘agricultural revolution’.

Phillip C. Edwards
A 14000 year-old hunter-gatherer's toolkit

A sickle, 21 flint lunates for tipping spears and evidence of the hunted quarry – gazelle bones – lay together by the wall of a Natufian building. The author deduces that these objects were contained in a bag and constituted the versatile working equipment of a hunter-gatherer.

Josephine J. McDonald, Denise Donlon, Judith H. Field, Richard L.K. Fullagar, Joan Brenner Coltrain, Peter Mitchell and Mark Rawson
The first archaeological evidence for death by spearing in Australia

An Aboriginal man done to death on the dunes 4000 years ago was recently discovered during excavations beneath a bus shelter in Narrabeen on Sydney's northern beaches. The presence of backed microliths and the evidence for trauma in the bones showed that he had been killed with stone-tipped spears. Now we know how these backed points were used. A punishment ritual is implied by analogies with contact-period observations made in the eighteenth century AD.

Judith Littleton
From the perspective of time: hunter-gatherer burials in south-eastern Australia

In this study of the Murray River basin in south-eastern Australia, the author shows that Aboriginal burials are persistently attracted to specific kinds of landscape feature intermittently over long periods of time. Some attributes of burial, like body position, vary from site to site and over much shorter periods; others, like orientation, are even more local, relating only to a specific group of graves. Burial rites are thus sets of variables which may be independent of each other and change at different rates. Far from reflecting cultural arrivals and departures, in south-eastern Australia burial grounds were never formally founded and continually abandoned.

There's also a brief report (available free of charge) by A.P. Derevianko, A.A. Anoykin, V.S. Slavinsky & M.A. Borisov on recent Paleolithic excavations in the Caucasus.

Farbstein and Svoboda in Antiquity

Having a sick day here at AVRPI, but between bowls of minestrone and listening to Six Parts Seven for restorative comfort, I was made aware of a new paper by Farbstein and Svoboda (2007) in the new issue of Antiquity. The paper is about new symbolic artifacts found at the Gravettian site of Predmostí, news of which had first circulated slightly over a year ago (see my comments here). Here's the summary (Antiquity doesn't do abstracts):
Two new examples of decorative art have turned up at the Gravettian site of Predmostí, dating to the twenty-sixth to twenty-fifth millennium BP: rectilinear grid patterns are executed on one side of flat bones, probably of reindeer. The authors speculate that the two pieces may have come from a single larger decorated object. The grids themselves join a growing repertoire of patterns known from Upper Palaeolithic society, but their role remains enigmatic: counting, calendars or ornament? Art or science?

Sounds like an interesting article, especially the section that discusses the potential function of these artifacts. At this point, I'd just like to mention that an artistic component in the artifact doesn't necessarily preclude a concurrent, more prosaic use. McGill unfortunately has a six month embargo on the online version of Antiquity, so if any readers have access to this paper, I'd very much appreciate if a copy could find its way to me.


Farbstein, R., and J. Svoboda. 2007. New finds of Upper Palaeolithic decorative objects from Predmostí, Czech Republic. Antiquity 81: 856–864.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Four Stone Hearth #28

Run - don't walk - over to Hot Cup of Joe to partake in the bountiful goodness of the latest installment of the Four Stone Hearth, including a link to a post by yours truly.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Paleolithic papers in Near Eastern Archaeology

The June 2006 issue of Near Eastern Archeology contains four papers, all of which deal with the Paleolithic. Included in this fine lot is a paper by the team of Mike Bisson, one of my colleagues at McGill, about their recent work in Jordan. I'm providing the abstracts of all these papers here:
The Pleistocene Peopling of Anatolia: Evidence from Kaletepe Deresi
By Ludovic Slimak, Damase Mouralis, Nur Balkan-Atli, Didier Binder, and Steven L. Kuhn
Anatolia has been called the crossroads of Eurasia, forming as it does a land-bridge between Europe, the Levant, and central Asia. Historical documents and the region's rich archaeological record provide ample testimony to frequent movements of people, ideas, and goods across Anatolia over the last few millennia. A range of evidence, both circumstantial and direct, suggests that humans and human ancestors repeatedly traversed the region in even more remote times.

Late Acheulian Variability in the Southern Levant: A Contrast of the Western and Eastern Margins of the Levantine Corridor

by Gary O. Rollefson, Leslie A. Quintero, and Philip J. Wilke

One of the fascinating aspects of the archaeology of very ancient times is that it offers glimpses of extinct lifeways. We find this particularly true for the cultural behavior of hominids during the Lower Palaeolithic. Interestingly, relatively little is known about the daily habits of people during the fairly well-studied period of the Acheulian in the Levant, in spite of numerous site discoveries of considerable note. Much of this deficiency results from a lack of preserved perishable goods; these seldom survive time depths in the hundreds of thousands to well over a million years. But also lacking is clear understanding of the behavioral significance of those objects that do survive the wear and tear of time, specifically the numerous stone artifacts. This article presents new research that assists our quest for understanding of these ancient lives.

Human Evolutions at the Crossroads: An Archaeological Survey in Northwest Jordan
by Michael S. Bisson, April Nowell, Carlos Cardova, Regina Kalchgruber, and Maysoon al-Nahar
Human evolution can be traced back 7,000,000 years. Modern humans evolved in Africa 160,000 years ago and as recently as 26,000 years ago we shared parts of the world with at least one other species - the Neanderthals. Since the discover of the first Neanderthal in 1856 in Germany, this species has generated controversy; specifically, there are questions concerning their genetic relationship to modern humans, their capacity for language and artistic expression, or the reasons for their extinction. Resolving thse debates in the long term depends on an accumulation of evidence for how Neanderthals adapted to the physical and cultural environments around them. In other words, in order to understand why they died, we need to first understand how they lived.

Shelter or Hunting Camp? Accounting for the Presenceof a Deeply Sratified Cave Site in the Syrian Steppe
By Bruce Schroeder

No abstract available.

The latest issue also contains a paper on the Lower Paleolithic of Iran:
The Lower Paleolithic Occupation of Iran
By Fereidoun Bigalri and Sonia Shidrang

Iran is a natural bridge connecting Western Asia to South and Central Asia and therefore, we might expect it to have been a main route for hominin expansion eastwards. Despite its strategic location, however, it has so far produced little evidence for early hominin occupation. The authors present here the results of new investigations in the region that affirm the archaeological potential of this region for understanding Lower Paleolithic hominin adaptaton to their environment.

This should all help shed greater light on the Pleistocene record of the Near/Middle East, which is always good, especially in light of some of my current projects. I'm especially excited about the Schroeder paper, since there haven't been a whole lot of publications about his work at Jerf Al-Ajla, which contains an important Middle-Upper Paleolithic transitional sequence (as well as some late Acheulean material).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

No good can come out of this...

"Rising pasta prices create panic in Italy"

This will end badly, mark my words... This report is actually a surprisingly lucid overview (for CNN anyway) of the situation caused by marked increases in the price of wheat (and other staple foodstuffs) worldwide. There are some interesting perspectives on both the prices consumers have been paying for staples over the past 20 years and on the implications of ethanol production for agricultural production.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Université de Montréal Lecture

If you 're around the greater Montréal metropolitan area and you want to learn more about Neanderthals, the Uluzzian and Paleolithic research in Italy, then by all means, come to my upcoming public lecture in the Université de Montréal department of anthropology.

When: Thursday, November 22, 11:30-13:00
Where: U de M., Room C-3061, 3150 Rue Jean-Brillant
What: "L’Uluzzien et la transition Paléolithique moyen-Paléolithique supérieur en Italie"

Friday, November 16, 2007

Archéologues québécois autour du monde / Québec archaeologists around the world

Here's some news about a conference entitled "Archéologues québécois autour du monde" (Québec archaeologists around the world) which will highlight the variety of archaeological research projects being undertaken by archaeologists residing in my fair province. It will be held in Montréal's Pointe-à-Callière Museum next weekend. You can check out a list of presenters and abstracts here (all in French, except for one). The topics are pretty far-ranging, but there's a couple of paleo-themed presentations that should be most interesting.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Fighting the tyranny of the ethnographic record!

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
In a short paper, R. Lee Lyman (U Missouri) shows how archaeological data can help flesh out ethnographic observations. I make a big deal about this because archaeologists dealing with prehistoric hunter-gatherers have often been accused of being interpretively 'railroaded' (not to say tyrannized) by the ethnographic record of extant hunter-gatherers (Wobst 1978).

What Lyman does in this paper is actually pretty straightforward, methodologically speaking. Briefly, having shown that the size of lower first molars can be used to distinguish males from female mink, he looks at the sex ratio seen in Mustela vison remains from the Cathlapote and Meier sites, both of which are late-prehistoric(ca. 1400-1800 AD) sites located in the Wapato Valley (in Oregon and Washington). Citing Buskirk and Lindstedt (1989), Lyman argues that "linear trap sets produce a more even sex ratio[i.e., between 1:1 and 2:1, for males], whereas traps placed in a grid catch more large-bodied individuals, typically males" (2007:92). This pattern is the result of sex-specific behavioral patterns. In his archaeological sample, the male:female ratio is at least 3.67:1 and at most 8.33:1, depending on how stringent one is with their sex-id stats. This suggests, then, that late-prehistoric foragers probably disposed traps in a grid rather than linear pattern.

This is where it gets especially neat. Since Franz Boas long ago wondered "How far can archaeological methods supplement ethnological information?" (1902:4), Lyman concludes:
Locations of traps used to take small mammals have, so far as I am aware, not been reported in the ethnographic literature for the Pacific Northwest. The archaeological data for mink recovered from sites in the Wapato Valley suggest that indeed archaeological data may supplement ethnographic data, because mink demography suggests traps were distributed in a grid-like pattern. (Lyman 2007:94)

In other words, rather than place them, say, only along waterways, late-prehistoric hunters of the Wapato Valley most likely set their traps all over the region's marshy lowlands. Given that the sites in question can be linked to the "Northwest Coast Culture Area" and given that ethnographic information available for groups derived from this culture area indicates that they trapped small mammals without specifying how that was done, this study provides a good instance of archaeological data (albeit informed by mammalogy) informing ethnographic observation. This is elegant corroboration of what Guenther (2007:374) terms "an ongoing, mutually strengthening partnership between the two disciplines [archaeology and ethnology], in their study of foraging societies."


Buskirk, S. W., and S. L. Lindstedt. 1989. Sex ratio biases in trapped samples of mustelids. Journal of Mammalogy 70:88-97.

Guenther, M. 2007. Current issues and future directions in hunter-gatherer studies. Anthropos 102:371-388.

Lyman, R. L. 2007. Prehistoric mink (Mustela vison) trapping on the Northwest Coast. Journal of Field Archaeology 32:91-95.

Wobst, H. M. 1978. The archaeo-ethnology of hunter-gatherers or the tyranny of the ethnographic record in archaeology. American Antiquity 43:303-309.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

McGill Journal of Education Helps Fight Creationism

I saw a few mentions of this online over the past two weeks, but only had time to check it out in detail today: The current issue (Vol. 42, no. 2) of the McGill Journal of Education is dedicated to the "Teaching and Learning of Evolution". It comprises an editorial, six research papers, two opinion pieces and a book review, all revolving around that central theme and all provided with English and French abstracts. Also, they are all available in pdf format free of charge, though you have the option of contributing a few dollars to keep the journal open access. There's some really thought-provoking and useful content in there if you have any link to the teaching of evolutionary biology, geology or any related discipline.

I'm especially glad that this is being published by a journal linked directly to McGill University, where I currently work, and to its Evolution Education Research Center, led by Brian Alters., who was one of the witnesses during the Dover trial. In related news, since I don't get PBS around these parts, I simply can't wait to check out PBS' "Judgment Day" available online in its entirety starting Nov. 16, 2007. 'Liveblogging' of the show from a number of trustworthy sources suggests it is quite a good program.

Mammoth hunters of the Russian Far East

They found one of their camps, apparently.

The site, found during a 2007 archaeological expedition to Lake Evoron, is the largest of four Stone Age sites, discovered near the Amur River so far, and was most likely established by mammoth hunters.

"We came to this conclusion after studying flint pikes, arrowheads and a stone scraper," Malyavin said, adding that a comprehensive archaeological excavation could take a couple of years.

Wait, what? Where the hell are the mammoth bones?! There better be some serious use-wear/blood residue analysis being undertaken if they want to make the case that people were hunting mammoths based on stone tools alone.

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.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Four Stone Hearth #27

It's that time again... gather one, gather all around the latest installment of Four Stone Hearth, the blog carnival. This time around it's being hosted by Sam over at Sorting Out Science. It's really a pleasure to read and reflect about, so make sure you do yourself the favor of visiting that corner of the information superhighway.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The caveman in the mirror?

Meredith Small presents a humorous essay on "the scariest thing about Neanderthals."

The gist of her argument is that, despite their rough facades,

...these ancient fellow Europeans were also culturally sophisticated. They buried their dead, built shelters, made tools, used fire and hunted. The may have had language (DNA sequencing has also revealed they carried the FOXP2 gene which is linked to language ability). And they had brains 100 cubic centimeters larger than people today.

And so why have these interesting people been relegated to second-class citizen status?

Because they threaten us.

Neanderthals are chronologically the closest, and the most familiar, example that we have of our kind disappearing off the face of the Earth, and that means we can go too.

Of course, not everybody thinks of Neanderthals as second-class citizens. But, given that many people do, Small's essay is an interesting spin on the long-standing idea that Neanderthals can be argued to embody the us-vs-them perspective in paleoanthropology.

More on the "Red Lady"

Hot on the heels of the news that the Red Lady is older than previously thought, Greg Laden offers some additional thoughts on why he also thinks it might be tricky to infer that burial originated in Western Europe based on a new date from this burial.