Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Kids did the darndest things

Over at Afarensis, we find a brief discussion of a recent paper about the contribution of children to the Lower and Middle Paleolithic archaeological record (i.e., Stapert 2007 – available as a free pdf). Afarensis seems to agree with Stapert that there has been a generalized tendency to not think of children as important accumulators of artifacts – in this case stone implements – in periods prior to the Upper Paleolithic, which is a euphemism for “prior to the dominance of Homo sapiens in the fossil record.” Stapert’s paper is really quite thought-provoking and casts a new and in my view fairly convincing interpretive light on a wide range of published anecdotal remarks about ‘failed flints’ in Lower and Middle Paleolithic (as well as two Châtelperronian) assemblages.

I think that people are starting to come to grips with the idea of pre-Late Pleistocene kids contributing to the archaeological record (e.g., Shea 2006), even if this growing awareness has yet to translate into a systematic incorporation of children’s activities and learning in paleoanthropological interpretation. In spite of this, it’s worth wondering why archaeologists who have studied hominins that were the quintessential hunter-gatherers have taken so long to come to grips with the idea that their social structure and technological transmission mechanisms might parallel those of ethnographically-documented foragers. To take an example based on a prior post, if Neanderthals had life-histories comparable to those of modern humans, there is every reason to believe that the acquisition of essential skills for Upper and Middle Paleolithic foragers would have stretched over a significant period of time. The starting assumption should therefore be that children were important accumulators of likely often ‘odd looking’ archaeological remains.

Stapert highlights that researchers seem to have little problem invoking the activities of children to account for roughshod lithics in Upper Paleolithic assemblages but do not appear inclined to do so for Lower and Middle Paleolithic assemblages. As argued by Shea (2006:214):
“One possible reason for this is that for relatively simple knapping techniques there may be few differences between the byproducts of experienced adults and those of novice knappers. This argument is plausible for pebble-core components of Paleolithic industries, but seems less plausible for the prepared- core components (Acheulean bifaces, Levallois cores, prismatic blade cores, and foliate bifaces) that populate Paleolithic industries from 1.7 Myr onward.”
This being the case, Staper asks bluntly but rightly “is it harder to imagine children and their activities when one is dealing with species other than modern humans?” (2007:35).

I would argue that this is almost certainly one of the principal reasons since, to follow up on my earlier example, by not considering the role of Neanderthal children in interpretations of the Middle Paleolithic record, it becomes easier to cast those hominins as different. To a degree, this perspective is reflected by the following kind of circular reasoning: “Well, Neanderthal children surely didn’t play a significant role in the accumulation of that sub/species’ archaeological record. Therefore what we document archaeologically reflects adult, fully competent Neanderthal behavior. But that behavior departs in significant ways from how we expect fully competent, adult Homo sapiens knappers to structure their lithic production and lithotype management. Ergo, we have yet more evidence that Neanderthals were behaviorally distinct from Homo sapiens.”

And here, I think we get to at least some of the heart of the matter – paleoanthropologists as a whole have invested a great deal of time and energy in trying to show how pre-Homo sapiens hominins were distinct from Upper Paleolithic humans rather than attempting to understand them primarily as foraging hominins who were very successful at eking out a living in the Pleistocene Old World. While there are obviously good reasons to do so in certain regards, approaching Neanderthals and earlier hominins first and foremost as foragers independent of preconceptions of how different they must have been is often a very rewarding way of doing archaeology that opens up fruitful interpretive avenues. Of course, one must be careful to not swing the pendulum too far in that direction and become oblivious to the differences that do exist. However, at this stage of the game, I think that the advantages of a self-aware approach to Neanderthals that views them first and foremost as hunter-gatherers outweigh its disadvantages as far as reaching a thorough understanding of the lifeways of non-sapiens hominins – both adult and juvenile – is concerned.


Shea, J. J. 2006. Child’s play: Reflections on the invisibility of children in the Paleolithic record. Evolutionary Anthropology 15: 212-216.

Stapert, D. 2007. Neanderthal children and their flints. Palarch’s Journal of Archaeology of Northwestern Europe 1(2): 16-39.


Anne Gilbert said...

Well, somebody has to start work on this sooner or later! I'm glad it's sooner(more or less)rather than later.
Anne G

Anne Gilbert said...

BTW, I've been passing tidbits from this blog, to my, and some other, related e-mail lists.
Anne G

Anonymous said...

Best post of the year! I think this problem is so hard to get your head around, for all the reasons you discuss, including thinking of the children on non-Homo sapiens as actual children, that it has been nearly completely ignored. But my favorite part of the post is almost tangential to your whole topic, "the Upper Paleolithic, which is a euphemism for 'prior to the dominance of Homo sapiens in the fossil record.'” Indeed. I can't even count the number of times that this is the case in publications and discussions. Archaeologists often say "appearance of Upper Paleolithic toolkits" when the toolkits have nothing particularly Upper Paleolithic about them and they actually mean "arrival of Homo sapiens." I would argue that most, if not all of the traits lumped in the Upper Paleolithic grab-bag (of course, I mean outside of Europe) are actually MSA traits. But rather than say "appearance of MSA technology" I would say that "arrival of Homo sapiens" is still a better and more precise way to go. I cringe every time I read this kind of statement (which is several times a year) and in your simple phrase you have captured exactly why. Thanks.

Anne Gilbert said...

This is for "Anonymous" as well as Afarensis. The comment of "Anonymous" was right on target! There is, IMO, a dreadful tendency to conflate "all that is modern" in the Paleolithic --- especially the Upper Paleolithic --- with H.(sapiens)sapiens. And Anonymous is right that this happens in both popular and "academic" venues. What the people who write these things don't seem to see is that acquiring "modernity", whatever that may be, is a process, not some sudden, out-of-the-sky event. This is generally overlooked, both in the field and in the writing about such studies. Which is why a lot of workers are probably overlooking it. I think it is time to take a closer look at the processes involved in these changes.
Anne G

archaeozoo said...

This was a very thought-provoking blog.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Anne, Anonymous and Archaeozoo: thanks much for the comments!

Anne - well, this reflection might have been overdue, but it comes at a critical time in the disicpline and I think (hope?) it will help reorient discussion away from simple "like Homo sapiens/not like Homo sapiens" conclusions. Sometimes, I feel that a contextualized more fuzzy "how much like Homo sapiens" perspective is much more productive. Also, thanks for the diffusion of the blog -

Anonymous - best post of the year?! Damn, we're only 11 days in! Guess that means I really have to step up my game in 2008! All kidding aside, though, I know exactly what you mean - it's quite odd to read over and over again these nomenclatural conventions that conflate disparate things, with no one seeming to pay explicit attention to what they actually imply! Slowly but surely, things are starting to change, though, so I there's definitely hope!

Archaeozoo - thanks!

Also, thanks again to Afarensis for linking back to here - much appreciated!


Glen Gordon said...

Yes, all I can do, knowing very little on the subject of Neanderthals is echo archaeozoo's excitement. It puts light on a problem that I don't think everyday people would contemplate on their own without this blog to coax us. It's all the clearer because I think you've presented the subject in an accessible way to the general public. Fresh ideas are a great gift, so thank you.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

thanks for the kind comments! Making otherwise somewhat obscure academic topics accessible to a wider audience is in part what this blog's about, so I'm glad to hear I'm succeeding in at least a small measure.