Thursday, January 31, 2008

Updates and clean-ups

At long last, I've added a few new links to my blogroll, and cleaned up some links that were either defunct or that hadn't been updated in over three months. And if you have an archaeology/ancient stuff-related blog that you'd like to be featured on A Very Remote Period Indeed please feel free to contact me and I'll try to include it in there if it's pertinent. Check out all the blogs I'm now linking to, but if you want to catch a glimpse of the soul of archaeology as a vocation (and some very nice photos related to this endeavor), then by all mean check out Metin Eren's new blog, The Real Eolith (love that name!).

Update (Jan. 31, 22:11): Now with updated links!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"What's the other thing that scares you"?

"Carnies." (bonus points to anyone who id's the reference here).

Anyhoo, the latest Four Stone Hearth anthropology blog carnival extravaganza is up at Greg Laden's Blog. Make sure you visit and comment abundantly on the latest in anthropological blogging!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Neanderthals, Now in Color!

Debates over the symbolic behavior of Neanderthals have always been hampered by the unreliability of much of the evidence invoked in support of it. That is to say two things: 1) there are not very many artifacts that are suggestive of symbolic behavior; and 2) those that do exist are often plagued by ambiguity as to whether they are the result of purposeful Neanderthal action or the result of non-human factors.

Over the past few years, pigment use has been claimed to differentiate the symbolic capacity of Homo sapiens from those of Neanderthals, and as one of the defining elements of ‘modern behavior.’ This is partly why the discovery of pigment use – presumably by early Homo sapiens – dating back to 167 kya in South Africa was such big news this past fall (Marean et al. 2007). The basic idea here is that the purposeful collecting and shaping of blocks of coloring material is indicative of behavior in which colors were used to transmit socially-mediated information.

There is some convincing evidence that Neanderthals demonstrated symbolic behavior, especially in the latter moments of their evolutionary history (e.g., d’Errico 2003, d’Errico et al. 2003), but so far there has been little in the way of published work about their use of pigments prior to the Châtelperronian. A paper by Marie Soressi and Francesco d’Errico (2007 – available as a freely accessible pdf), however, presents very convincing evidence for that behavior at least by 60 kya (see also d’Errico and Soressi 2006). That study reviews the evidence for Neanderthal symbolic behavior as a whole, but it contains one section specifically dedicated to the question of identifying pigment use in European Middle Paleolithic assemblages, at least 70 of which have yielded blocks of coloring materials (mainly black-colored manganese dioxide) and/or tools involved in the processing of pigments such as grindstones and mortars (Soressi and d’Errico 2007:303).

The reason why this ongoing study is so convincing is that the authors used replicative referents that objectively establish the microscopic and rugosimetric features of blocks of coloring materials worked in different manners and with different tools. This provides an objective baseline against which to compare the characteristics of objects found in assemblages attributed to Neanderthals and to determine whether they bear evidence of having been purposefully manufactured by human action.

In the case of the specific study conducted by the authors – on the French Mousterian sites of Pech de l’Azé I and Pech de l’Azé IV, located about 80 meters apart – they created a series of experimental referents obtained through 13 kinds of modifications/uses, including scraping for powder with a flint object, abrading against various kinds of stone, coloring leather, and drawing body paintings (Soressi and d’Errico 2007:304). The preliminary results of their analysis show that 250+ blocks from Pech I and 20+ blocks from Pech IV appear to have been modified by Neanderthals:

“… of the Pech de l’Azé I blocks, over half were abraded on sandstone before being used on soft materials such as dried skin, or human skin. Neanderthals seem to have abraded the pigments on sandstone slabs that were also recovered during excavation so as to create elongated facets with strong coloring properties that could be used in the manner of a charcoal pencil to mark various materials, including human skin in the case of body painting. The blocks from Pech IV appear to have been used in largely similar manners. However, some pieces bear grooves resulting from scraping their surface with flakes or retouched tools. This indicates that, beyond using [manganese dioxide] in pencil form, Neanderthals also manufactured coloring powder used either as is, or more likely mixed to some binding agent. (Soressi and d’Errico 2007:306; my translation)

Since environmental condition and local manganese abundance appear to be comparable for the two sites, the authors interpret the disparity in the number of manganese pieces between Pech I and IV as resulting from contextual factors, suggesting that coloring was not equally important in all contexts or site-occupation modalities. Also, I especially like this section about what the use of coloring material might mean in terms of Neanderthal symbolic capacity:

“It would be hard to confirm a purely functional use [of coloring materials]; in fact, such a use would be nearly impossible to demonstrate if we consider the omnipresent nature of symbols in human societies. If the model provided by known foragers is extended to Neanderthals, the systematic use of pigments in a strong argument in favor of their capacity to develop symbolic cultural practices.” (Soressi and d’Errico 2007:306; my translation)


d’Errico, F . 2003. The invisible frontier: A multiple-species model for the origin of behavioral modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology 12:188–202.

d’Errico, F., C. Henshilwood, G. Lawson, M. Vanhaeren, A.-M. Tillier, M. Soressi, F . Bresson, B. Maureille, A. Nowell, J. Lakarra, L. Backwell, and M. Julien. 2003. Archaeological evidence for the emergence of language, symbolism, and music: an alternative multidisciplinary perspective. Journal of World Prehistory 17:1–70.

d’Errico F., and M. Soressi, 2006 Des hommes en couleurs. Les Dossiers de la Recherche 24: 84-87.

Marean, C. W., M. Bar-Matthews, J. Bernatchez, E. Fisher, P. Goldberg, A. I. R. Herries, Z. Jacobs, A. Jerardino, P. Karkanas, T. Minichillo, P. J. Nilssen, E. Thompson, I. Watts, and H. M. Williams. 2007. Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene. Nature 449:905-908.

Soressi, M., and F. d’Errico. 2007. Pigments, gravures, parures: Les comportements symboliques controversées des Néandertaliens. In Les Néandertaliens. Biologie et cultures (B. Vandermeersch and B. Maureille, eds.), pp. 297-309. Editions du CTHS, Paris.

The Vasts

I had the very pleasant experience of attending a short concert by Montréal band The Vasts at l'Esco last night. The band, who describe themselves as Johnny Cash meets Portishead (!), have grown by leaps and bounds since I first saw them last fall, which bodes well indeed for them. They have a little EP out, if you like what you hear on their page, and this one too...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ed Wilmsen lecture

The Dept. of Anthropology and the Center for Society, Technology and Development at McGill University are sponsoring a talk by Ed Wilmsen (UT - Austin), famous for his 198 book Land full of Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari, and for his spearheading in part the 'revisionist' side of the 'Kalahari Debate' over the past 25 years. This is an especially timely talk, since this very debate was discussed in my seminar last week (as discussed here).

Wilmsen will be talking about “Globalization before the globe: Regulation of intercontinental trade in southern Africa, ca. CE 700-1800.” Here's the abstract
In this paper, I engage a social geography in order to map the processes by which intercontinental trade was regulated in interior southern Africa during the 8th-15th centuries. This region was at that time part of an early form of "globalization" encompassing the entire Indo-Pacific province as well as the Islamic caliphates of the eastern Mediterranean. There are no written records for or from this interior region until the beginning of the 16th century when Portuguese captured the Swahili trading entrepôts on the east coast and began to penetrate into the interior. Other forms of evidence must be adduced to illuminate the social processes active in the interior in the centuries I am considering. Material artifacts are a prime source of evidence for this task, for, I contend, they have the same ontological status as words. Drawing on the works of Locke, Marx and Engels, Simmel, and Veblen I argue that, marked by distinct intentions of their makers and users, material artefacts are potentially as comprehensible as verbal documents. With these premises set forth, I turn to the scope of early Indo-Pacific commodity exchange, then to an overview of the southern African landscape, and finally to episodes of origin mythology widespread in the region. From this I specify certain minimum components of a structure of rights to possession of things, rules governing who may inherit specific things, rules governing movement of these things, rules governing who may handle them, and rules governing processes of their valuation.
It's open to everyone, so if you're in the Montreal area next week and are interested in those issues, you should definitely try to attend! The whole thing takes place Monday, January 28, 2008, (12:30-2:00PM), in Room 738 of the Leacock Building, McGill University.


NESPOS is one of the collaborating organizations on the Paleoanth Portal site, which I mentioned in a recent post. NESPOS stands for the Neanderthal Studies Professional Online System and is described thusly on the Paleoanth Portal:

NESPOS grew out of the TNT (The Neanderthal Tools) project, which ran from 2004-2005 and developed a database of information about Neanderthal-related sites, fossils and archaeological assemblages. Currently more than 500 CT-Scans and data from 50 Neanderthal sites are accessible; the data base is extended constantly. Members of NESPOS (an international professional society) receive access to CT & 3D surface scans of fossils and artifacts visualized in ArteCore and 3D terrain models and virtual excavation sites accessible with GeoCore, a GIS and exploration tool.

The NESPOS site is pretty slick - well done, and the demo files give a good impression of the versatility of some of the 3D models of bones they have available. It certainly look like a worthwhile organization to join if you're interested in Neanderthal studies.

Also on the site is this promotional video, just to whet your appetite until you get yourself there.

I like the vid quite a bit, and it gives a fly-thru (literally!) of some of the data and models they've got available. Though, with The Who providing the soundtrack and the flying in and out of things, I couldn't help but to think.... CSI: Neanderthal!! I was almost expecting the inimitable David Caruso to pop up at the end and deliver a gag-inducing one-liner about "dead-ends"!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Science on TV: Shubin @ Pharyngula

You just might enjoy this little interview on the Colbert Report earlier this week, with Neil Shubin talking about his new book Your Inner Fish.

If you did, you also just might enjoy reading this guest post by Neil Shubin on Pharyngula. He talks about how he prepped for the interview experience, and I think that he has some really thoughtful suggestions on how to present scientific research in ways that are likely to engage non-scientist audiences.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Time for a carnival!

Four Stone Hearth XXXII is up at Testimony of the Spade. Magnus did a bang-up job putting together a diverse set of entries - check 'em all out, but I especially enjoyed Kambiz's ( take on what some recent functions of Google and Facebook might have to contribute to the development of paleoanthropology, in so far as the sharing and dissemination of data are concerned. While the link is not immediately obvious, when you realize that Delson et al. (2007) published a short paper summarizing the highlights of a recent conference held in Washington, D.C. about access to data in paleoanthropology as a discipline, it all starts making sense! If this interests you, you should also definitely check out the Paleoanth Portal website that resulted from that meeting.

Delson, E., W. E. H. Harcourt-Smith, S. R. Frost, and C. A. Norris. 2007. Databases, Data Access, and Data Sharing in Paleoanthropology: First Steps. Evolutionary Anthropology 16;161-163.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Recent research pertaining to the 'Kalahari Debate'

We were talking about the 'Kalahari Debate' and its unfolding over the past 20-25 years, yesterday in my hunter-gatherer seminar. Basically, it boils down to whether one considers some Kalahari Bushmen (I'm aware of the debate over the name here, just using this one for convenience) to be 'true' hunter-gatherers or to have been forced into a hunting-gathering subsistence by the geopolitics of the region as they unfolded over the past centuries.

There's an interesting paper by Alan Barnard (available as a freely downloadable pdf on the Social Anthropology journal web site) that summarizes the debate up to now, and inserts it in the broader debate over the notion of 'indigenous peoples,' as recently rekindled by Kuper (2003). The paper's pretty comprehensive in its historical coverage and does a nice job of situating the various debates in their intellectual contexts. Here's the abstract:
The debate on the notion of ‘indigenous peoples’ is one of the newest facing anthropology. Yet its theoretical foundation is not new. It is implicit in both Kalahari revisionism and its opposite, the ecological approach that treats hunter-gatherers as exemplars of primal culture. It is also reminiscent of the earlier views of Wilhelm Schmidt, whose vision of the earliest culture circle was represented by living hunter-gatherers. That said, the notion of ‘indigenous peoples’ is more complex than earlier models; and its opponents, such as Adam Kuper, must struggle against both philosophical premises (which are relatively easy to challenge) and practical arguments in favour of keeping the notion (which are more resilient). This paper focuses on the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate in Africanist anthropology, but its wider aspects include the interconnections of theoretical premises within diverse schools in the discipline and the general relation between anthropological theory and practical politics. (Barnard 2006)
Focusing more narrowly on recent research dealing specifically with the 'Kalahari Debate', there's also a paper by Victor Grauer in the latest issue of the online journal Before Farming. Therein, he argues that genetics and musicology, two lines of evidence that haven't been used much if at all so far in this debate, independently seem to favor the 'traditionalist' perspective. Here's the abstract of that paper:
While the ‘Great Kalahari Debate’ hinged almost exclusively on the interpretation of sparse and confusing archaeological and historical data, abundant and convincing genetic evidence from the realm of biological anthropology has been largely ignored, while equally compelling cultural evidence drawn from the musical traditions of the populations in question has been overlooked entirely. In this paper, I attempt to demonstrate how genetic and musicological research can be combined to provide a compelling case for the ‘traditionalist’ position in this ongoing controversy. To this end, I draw upon an important but little known musical ‘genome’, the Cantometric database, compiled under the direction of the late Alan Lomax, at the Columbia University Bureau of Applied Social Research. (Grauer 2007)
I'm all for multiple lines of evidence informing anthropological research, so this paper certainly seems to be an innovative contribution to this ongoing, long-standing debate.


Barnard, A. 2006. Kalahari revisionism, Vienna , and the “indigenous peoples” debate'. Social Anthropology / Anthropologie sociale 14: 1-16.

Grauer, V. A. 2007. New perspectives on the Kalahari debate: a tale of two 'genomes.' Before Farming 2007/2-4.

Kruper, A. The return of the native. Current Anthropology 44: 389–402.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology Back-Links, Set 4

From August 2007:

"Some sort of proto-human": comments on a paper on archaeological research at Misliya Cave, Israel, which indicates that early Middle Paleolithic foragers were fully competent large-game hunters.

Stone Age Atlantis!: a few thoughts on reports about the discovery of an underwater Mesolithic site.

Long distance raw material procurement in the Mousterian: summary and comments on a paper that reports on the transfer of stone over several hundred kms in the Mousterian of southeastern France.

Reporting archaeology in Harper's

Kris Hirst discusses a long essay by Gregory Jaynes in the latest issue of Harper's which focuses in part on the politics of an archaeological project, and she argues that the worst curse an archaeologist might have to endure is the presence of a journalist on site. While some might expect field archaeology to be similar to what's described in some dispatches from The Onion Hirst points that out that
"...most principal investigators (PI is what they call us) are frustrated, angry, worried people all the time during an excavation.

But for the rest of the people on the crew, and any tourists or journalists who happen by, archaeology is incredibly dull. The work is painfully slow, the climate and dirt inescapable, the people tired and cranky. Any real exciting finds these days are very rare indeed and can take place under a microscope months or even years after the excavation is done.

It's clear what happened to Jaynes. He came into an important excavation and hung around, bored out of his skull. He eavesdropped on the only exciting thing going on: the frustration of a PI being expressed to his superior."
I haven't read Jaynes' piece yet, though I'm now planning to stop by the newsstand on my way home and picking it up to see for myself. I'm of mixed mind after having read Hirst's post, though... While I agree with her that journalists will seize on the most dramatic aspects of archaeology to write about (in this case, field frustration), one has to wonder about whether it is ever a good idea to have a journalist on site for more than the time of a site tour and interview, and why? I assume that most archaeologists obviously want their project and research to gain as much public exposure as possible, and that often requires having journalists come visit a field site. However, it seems intuitive to me that having someone doing 'participant observation' on your project for a prolonged period of time will result in all aspects of your project getting more attention than they would have otherwise. On the other hand, many people say that any publicity is good publicity... mixed blessings, I guess.

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.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology Back-Links, Set 3

How modern are the hobbit's tools?: A discussion of how refined the technology reportedly associated with H. floresiensis truly is.

Shell-working and behavioral modernity: A critical assessment on whether working different raw materials in different ways necessarily implies 'behavioral modernity'.

Clean-toothed Neanderthals
: on some of the implications of new evidence for dental hygiene in the Middle Paleolithic of Europe and the linguistic capacities of Neanderthals.

Of cave bear carnivory and istope studies

John Hawks offers some thoughtful remarks on the conclusions of a new isotope study that claims to establish that at least some cave bears (in this case, those found at Pestera cu Oase) were quite carnivorous. He cautions that there is at least one alternative explanation - fish consumption - that could equally account for the high ratios of nitrogen-15 in those cave bear remains, so that the case for substantial predation on land mammals might not be fully warranted. This is an interesting take on the issue, especially considering the conclusions of recent isotopic studies of Neanderthals and Gravettian Homo sapiens.

Update (Jan. 8, 07; 17:34): Read more about the discovery on Science Daily and in the press release from the University of Bristol.

Northern nuts

As Martin reports at Aardvarchaeology, it would appear that some Canadian creationists are not satisfied with advocating their nonsense within the bounds of their country alone. Sigh.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology Back-Links, Set 2

From October 2007:

The size of one's package: discussion about a report on the identification of 'modern human behavior' 160-170 kya in coastal South Africa.

Newsflash! Neanderrthals could build stuff!: some comments on new evidence for the construction of elaborate windbreak structures by Neanderthals in France.

New insights on raw material use: an overview of two recent papers (Eerkens et al. [2007], Wilson [2007]) on the procurement and management of lithic raw material by different groups of hunter-gatherers.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Another update on Lascaux Cave

Last month, I posted on some of the preservation problems at Lascaux that surfaced in some newspapers. Here's a new report that suggests that the intervention against the fungus is now in full swing:
The French government is taking emergency action to rescue the celebrated cave paintings of the Lascaux caverns from a fungus.

Archeological experts have begun applying a fungicide to halt the spread of grey and black mould in the caverns, dubbed the Sistine Chapel of prehistory.
There's still no agreement on what caused the 'outbreak' but the report suggests that the ventilation system may be the most likely culprit.

It's great action has been take so promptly. Unfortunately, there's also a scientific cost:
One of the projects to be halted by the emergency treatment is a survey that was to make a three-dimensional digital record of every painting in the caverns.

Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology Back-Links, Set 1

From November 2007:

Fighting the tyranny of the ethnographic record!: Some comments on a paper by R. L. Lyman.

Mammoth hunters of the Russian Far-East
: Report of the discovery of a mammoth hunting camp in Russia.

The modern Stone Age family: Neanderthals and the sexual division of labor among H. sapiens hunter-gatherers.


Well, I've dug myself from under 20+ cms of snow and managed to get to a working internet connection (booooooooh Cooptel!) and here's to starting off this new year on the good foot!

During the next few months, the contents of this blog will shift ever so slightly to include a broader range of hunter-gatherer archaeology than usual , since it'll be used (I hope) as a resource for the student in my ANTH 419B class, aptly named "Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherers". I'll gradually link back to prior posts dealing with H/G archaeology, and list new and relatively recent sources dealing with that topic. So, if you're a student, welcome and feel free to roam around the archives; if you're a regular reader, welcome back; and if you're just stumbling here by chance, look around and see if you like anything. However you got here, feel free to comment on the posts or contact me with questions. I'll be more diligent about getting to the comments this year (here's a resolution worth keeping).

Happy New Year to all!