Monday, April 28, 2008

From the Comments: More NESPOS

I recently received the following update from Marcel Bradtmöller, one of the people involved in NESPOS, which I had blogged about a few months back:

... since January we had run a lot of modifications on the Open Space of NESPOS so everyone can get a clearer view, of the inside of the project. For students the costs are really low (30€ per year) and you get the software suite for free.
If you get interested, feel free to contact us under

The site is indeed updated and looks like an even more useful resource. You can get yourself there by clicking here!

All You Ever Wanted to Know about Grotte des Fées de Châtelperron.... Almost

The latest issue of PaleoAnthropology is out, and it's a good one... it contains not one, not two but three papers about whether or not claims that there is an Aurignacian-Châtelperronian interstratification at Grotte des Fées de Châtelperron (Gravina et al. 2005, Mellars et al. 2007), the type-site of the Châtelperronian technocomplex. Since PaleoAnthropology is an open-access journal, all these papers are available as freely downloadable PDFs, along with another one and several book reviews, including one by yours truly.

The first is a long and detailed paper by Zilhão and colleagues that builds on their prior short rebuttal of Gravina et al.'s case (Zilhão et al. 2006) . In this new publication, they provide a detailed history of research at the site, an in-depth assessment of the stratigraphy documented at the site by prior researchers, as well as a review of the archaeological material recovered from both the Châtelperronian and the Mousterian deposits at the site (Zilhão et al. 2008a). This is accompanied by a reply by Mellars and Gravina (2008), in which they criticize what they consider to be Zilhão et al.'s unnecessarily complex and convoluted arguments against the presence of an interstratification. The series concludes with a reply by Zilhao et al. (2008b) entitled "Like Hobbes' Chimney Birds" in which they accuse Mellars and Gravina of not paying sufficient attention to the substance of the arguments which they raised in their refutation of the interstratification thesis at Grotte des Fées de Châtelperron.

I've been doing more thinking about this issue lately myself, so I'll probably have more to say about these papers in short order. In any case, mark my words when I say that this will not be the last exchange about this issue, especially since the wording of all three papers leaves no doubt about the unfortunately unsurprising fact that neither camp has been swayed by the other's arguments. While there are other ways of looking at the relevant data, these papers focus on the 'nitty gritty' of identifying relevant artifacts and their position within the deposits. Not that there's anything wrong with that, quite the opposite, but at this point of the debate it might also be important to start thinking a bit more about how to actually identify interstratifications 9so people can agree on the baseline criteria necessary to define them) and, if they do exist, what they might mean beyond the fact that people making different artifacts were occupying the same spots over timespans of several thousand years. I've already blogged about some of these issues before (and also here), but there definitely remains much to be done on that front.


Gravina, B., Mellars, P., and Bronk Ramsey, C. 2005. Radiocarbon dating of interstratified Neanderthal and early modern human occupations at the Chatelperronian type-site. Nature 438: 51–56.

Mellars, P.A., Gravina, B., and Bronk Ramsey, C. 2007. Confirmation of Neanderthal/modern human interstratification at the Chatelperronian type-site. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104: 3657–3662.

Mellars, Paul, and Brad Gravina. 2008. Châtelperron: Theoretical Agendas, Archaeological Facts, and Diversionary Smoke-Screens. PaleoAnthropology 2008: 43-64.

Zilhão J., d’Errico, F., Bordes, J.-G., Lenoble, A., Texier, J.-P., and Rigaud, J.-Ph. 2006. Analysis of Aurignacian interstratification at the Châtelperronian-type site and implications for the behavioral modernity of Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 103: 12643–12648.

Zilhão, João, Francesco d'Errico, Jean-Guillaume Bordes, Arnaud Lenoble, Jean-Pierre Texier, and Jean-Philippe Rigaud. 2008a. Grotte des Fées (Châtelperron): History of Research, Stratigraphy, Dating, and Archaeology of the Châtelperronean Type-Site.
PaleoAnthropology 2008: 1-42.

Zilhão, João, Francesco d'Errico, Jean-Guillaume Bordes, Arnaud Lenoble, Jean-Pierre Texier, and Jean-Philippe Rigaud. 2008b. Like Hobbes' Chimney Birds PaleoAnthropology 2008: 65-67.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Paleo Round-Up - April 25 2008

The adrenaline rush that's kept me going through the past two weeks has finally subsided after a few full nights of sleep, and I can now return to the business of talking about paleo things! So, without further ado, here's a round-up of paleo goodness on the blogs these days:
  • First, let me point you belatedly to the latest edition of the Four Stone Hearth, hosted at Hominin Dental Anthropology. It's overflowing with anthropological delights, so definitely swing by and check it out. The next edition will be hosted by the one and only Tim Jones at Remote Central.
  • Another festival of interest is the Boneyard, hosted this time around at Archaeozoology. Even more paleo-goodness to sink your teeth in (shoulda made that joke with respect to Hominin Dental Anthropology...).
That's it for now! It's short, but there'll be more soon!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

An archaeologist's astronaut's best friend?

I'm talking, of course about duct tape, also known as "American Tape" in some of the localities where I worked a few years back! Duct tape is truly wonderful for so many purposes in the field, from patching up boots that are on their last leg (eh!) to sealing sample tubes to holding together dead-ish stadia rods and trowels (all true stories!).

Well, it turns out, other scientists have been making good use of duct tape for years... in outer space!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Paleo Round-Up - April 17 2008

It's been a hectic week, with not nearly enough time to post about all sorts of neat paleo news. In the interest of time, here's a brief run-down of good stories you should absolutely check out:

Friday, April 11, 2008

Now that's a field trip!

And now for a completely different kind of anthropological field trip...

Field trip brings college class to Nevada brothel.

Perhaps not the best venue to introduce students to the subtleties of participant observation!

Et c'est le but!!

Most of the people who know me will tell you that I'm generally not much of a sports fan. The two exceptions to this is when Italy plays in the World Cup and, as a true Montréalais, when the Canadiens are in the playoffs! So, you might have to bear with a bit of misplaced exuberance over the coming weeks, especially if last night's game is any indication. Yes, yes.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Meat-Eating Neanderthal from Jonzac

ResearchBlogging.orgThere is a new isotopic dietary analysis of Neanderthals at the site of Jonzac (Chez Pinaud), in SW France, available in the Journal of Human Evolution (Richards et al., 2008). Here's the abstract:
We report here on the isotopic analysis (carbon and nitrogen) of collagen extracted from a Neanderthal tooth and animal bone from the late Mousterian site of Jonzac (Charente-Maritime, France). This study was undertaken to test whether the isotopic evidence indicates that animal protein was the main source of dietary protein for this relatively late Neanderthal, as suggested by previous studies. This was of particular interest here because this is the first isotopic study of a relatively late Neanderthal associated with Mousterian of Acheulian Tradition (MTA, dating to approximately 55,000 to 40,000 BP) technology. We found that the Jonzac Neanderthal had isotopic values consistent with a diet in which the main protein sources were large herbivores, particularly bovids and horses. We also found evidence of different dietary niches between the Neanderthal and a hyena at the site, with the hyena consuming mainly reindeer.
This is a good, empirically strong study with many comparative data points drawn from associated faunal remains, and the conclusions are robust. It is also original in its use of collagen extracted from tooth dentine as opposed to bone, the latter being the material on which all previous isotopic studies of diet have been done. This is important because:

"Unlike bone, tooth dentine likely does not alter
over a lifetime, and therefore it reflects a specific period of
time of formation. Therefore, the isotopic data from this Neanderthal
premolar do not reflect the lifetime average, but instead
the diet at the ages of later childhood/early adolescence.

Our isotopic results for the Jonzac Neanderthal are compared
to the those reported for other European Neanderthals
in Table 3. The isotopic values are remarkably similar for all
of the Neanderthals, and in all cases, the authors of the various
studies concluded, as we have for Jonzac, that the main source
of dietary protein was animal protein, likely from large herbivores.
In no case do we see isotopic evidence for the significant
consumption of aquatic (marine or freshwater) protein,
as has been observed from Gravettian humans in Europe (Richards
et al., 2001; Pettitt et al., 2003). The results of our isotopic
study of the Jonzac Neanderthal therefore support the
emerging picture from isotopic studies that Neanderthals
have a similar dietary adaptation over a wide range of environments
and over a relatively long period of time." (Richards et al. 2008: 6)
This is interesting because it directly implies that, at Jonzac, a Neanderthal juvenile had a diet similar to that documented in adult Neanderthals elsewhere. This has concomitant implications for how animal food might have been shared within Neanderthal groups, suggesting that even relatively young individual had access to a relatively high quality diet.

Another interesting conclusion of this study is that hyenas and hominins preferentially targeted different herbivore taxa, with humans mainly going after bovids and horses and hyenas targeting reindeer. This might represent evidence for niche partitioning, that is, the concentration on different segments of a given niche by organisms that are in competition for it. In this case, the competition would have been between carnivorous species, and the partition would be reflect by the selective exploitation of different animal species within the high-return large herbivore niche. This, however, is based on the isotopic signature of a single hyena bone from a different layer than that where the Neanderthal tooth was recovered and compared to averaged isotopic signature of herbivores from two layers, so we need to be cautious to draw firm conclusions on the basis of this evidence alone.

Overall, though, it does seem that the Neanderthal at Jonzac had a childhood protein intake heavily dominated by the meat of large herbivores. A few comments, however: the Vindija remains are more recent by several millennia than the Jonzac tooth, so the observation that some comparatively late Neanderthals hunted lots of large herbivores is not completely unprecedented (Richards et al. 2000). Also, while this study provides one more isotopic data point on Neanderthal diets, the fact remains that we still have no such studies from Neanderthals from the southern part of their range, nor from coastal settings. I suspect that such results might alter the picture we have of Neanderthal animal procurement. Even if they don't, however, it is important to remember that

"dietary contributions from fat cannot be evaluated by isotope analysis
of collagen and so carbon and nitrogen isotope
studies can only reconstruct the likely proportions of
different species that made up the protein component
of their diets, which is unlikely to have comprised
more than about 40% of their diet by energy and possibly
only 25% of the diet overall (Cordain et al 2002)."
(Pearson 2007: 6).
Thus, while the results of isotopic dietary analyses of Neanderthals are uniquely informative, it is important to remember that they only provide data pertaining to one part of their diet. Thus, to assume that Neanderthals ate only meat because they appear to have drawn most of their protein from large herbivore is 'jumping the evidential gun'. Given that Neanderthals were top-ranked hunters living at relatively low population densities, it would have made little sense for them not to target the highest-ranked animal resources in their ecosystem as their main source of meat. And this behavior is exactly what isotopic studies have been demonstrating so far. As for the rest of the the Neanderthal diet, various lines of evidence - including a wonderful paper by Henry and Piperno (2008) presented at the Paleoanthropology Society meetings two weeks ago - are beginning to clearly show that Neanderthals also appear to have made extensive use of plant resources whenever they had access to them. Unfortunately, this is effectively invisible from an isotopic standpoint.


Henry, A., Piperno, D. 2008. Plants in Neandertal diet: Plant microfossil evidence from the dental calculus of Shanidar III. Paper presented on March 26, at the 2008 Annual Meetings of the Paleoanthropology Society, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Pearson, J. A. 2007. Hunters, fishers and scavengers: a review of the isotope evidence for Neanderthal diet. Before Farming 2007/2-2.

Richards,M.P., Pettitt, P.B., Trinkaus, E., Smith, F.H., Karavanic´, I.,Paunovic´,M.,
2000. Neanderthal diet at Vindija and Neanderthal predation: the evidence
from stable isotopes. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 97: 7663-7666.

RICHARDS, M., TAYLOR, G., STEELE, T., MCPHERRON, S., SORESSI, M., JAUBERT, J., ORSCHIEDT, J., MALLYE, J., RENDU, W., HUBLIN, J. (2008). Isotopic dietary analysis of a Neanderthal and associated fauna from the site of Jonzac (Charente-Maritime), France. Journal of Human Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2008.02.007

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Somber Anniversary

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, in Baghdad. It bears reflecting today on what exactly enabled this shameful excoriation of the museum's most striking collections and how far anyone has actually come to the lofty promises of cultural self-affirmation that were bandied about five years ago... some of the AVRPI readership might be able to act on these reflections in a few months. In any case, the LA Times has a perceptive, if short, piece on the topic. I especially liked this quote:
...there are as many reasons to steal antiquities as there are people -- "money, lust, a misguided sense that they are preserving Iraqi culture . . . cultural hatred, heritage used as a weapon . . . every base or self-deceptive motive you can imagine."

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Four Stone Hearth, Vol. 38: The Early Bird Special Edition

It's that time again, when anthropologically-inclined bloggers congregate around the Four Stone Hearth to exchange digital perspectives about the stones they've been kicking around lately. It was a close competition between an "Early Bird Special" and a "Death of a Blogger" edition, but since I had the whole enchilada ready one day early, the EBS theme took home the cup. So, in the interest of being early birdy (and special!), let's proceed without further ado:

Thanks again to everybody who sent links! The next Four Stone Hearth will be held in 15 days' time at Hominin Dental Anthropology! Be sure to send Jason some links!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Dollarware Archaeology

One of the nice things about being at McGill is the generally high caliber of our undergrads and the sheer enthusiasm of many of those interested in archaeology. This is shown, among other things, by the rather sophisticated papers some of them will write for certain classes.

One of the archaeology courses taught in the Dept. of Anthropology is "Archaeological Methods" (ANTH 357). This semester, the course was taught by my colleague Stephen Chrisomalis, who involved the students in an interesting spin on archaeological classification. In lieu of employing actual or replicated artifacts to familiarize them with this facet of archaeological practice, the students selected, handled and studied a few hundred examples items that are part and parcel of daily material culture in Montreal: dollar store coffee mugs (aka "dollarware"). While surprising at first glance, this choice of material culture is actually quite appropriate for several reasons. One of those is that is drives home the point that, during their use-life, artifacts were part of a living system of technological use. Another reason is that dollarware often combine multiple dimensions of analysis that archaeologists care about beyond the physical characteristics of an object, including style, iconography, composition and even writing systems.

Well, the "dollarware phase" of ANTH 357 is done for the semester and there is now a cool little web site put up by Stephen that contains all of the reports on the "collecion" produced by the students. It's really neat to see the various angles taken by different students in their studies! Go check it out and check out the papers to see how contemporary dollarware can be a good proxy through which to understand archaeological classification.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Help Save Lascaux!

One of the neater aspects of the Paleoanthropology Society meeting (more on that soon, no worries) was a the one-hour "Lascaux Video/Special Presentation" session on Tuesday night. It was organized by the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux and drew a fairly sizable crowd of folks interested in hearing about the status of the cave and ongoing efforts to preserve it as best as possible. The presentation included a video montage that detailed some of the recent degradation of the paintings (which I talked about in more detail previously)... that montage was really heart-wrenching, if you care about the site and rock art more generally. It really showed unambiguously the degree to which some paintings have deteriorated and/or been affected by fungus. A petition was circulated during the meeting to encourage the French government to take more serious steps to ensure that Lascaux's art is adequately protected. You can find an online version of the petition here, which doesn't (yet?) include the signatures collected at the meetings. Also, if you're interested in learning more about the committee and ongoing efforts to preserve the paintings, you should definitely visit their "Save Lascaux" web site.

Call for contributions - Four Stone Hearth #38

Back from the meetings in Vancouver, so back to teaching, back to writing, and back to posting. If you haven't already, you should most definitely check out the 37th installment of the Four Stone Hearth (Pulp SciFi Edition!) at Hot Cup of Joe. If this kinda stuff gets your gollies going, you should also most definitely consider submitting one of your own posts to me (julienrs at hotmail dot com), so they can be included in the 38th installment which will be hosted by yours truly here at A Very Remote Period Indeed. I've already gotten a few submissions, but in blogging as in experiencing new foods, more is always better!