Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fear and loathing in the Pleistocene

There are a couple of interesting items on Neanderthals coming our way today, courtesy of the National Geographic. First is this short video that presents the contrasting views of I. Tattersall and J. Hawks on modern human-Neanderthal interactions:

Did Man Kill the Neanderthals?

Now, I'm sure it was unintentional, but this cracked me up: as the narrator announces "Today, it’s obvious who dominates the planet" and pauses, the video cues to a shot of John standing in the middle of Times Square(?), looking straight into the camera! And it's only fitting, really, considering the refreshing perspective Hawks brings to the debate over competition between the two hominin groups (transcripted by yours truly):

"It would be insane to go out and pick a fight. You’re not a military organization going in, looking to conquer. You’re a small group yourself. You sort of have to find a way to live with the locals and, as you do that, you learn from them to some extent. And the locals learn from you.

I feel like the defense attorney for the Neanderthals sometimes. I’m trying to see the ways that they overlap with us and trying to add complexity to the story because any story that involves things happening over a continent over thousands of years has got to be complicated."

Good little video, overall, though I was a bit aggravated by the conclusions narrated towards the end of the video: "Fossils are inconclusive, the answer lies in DNA." Well, no, actually. DNA provides some information, fossils provide other types of information and archaeology provides yet other information, all of which is necessary and complementary to reach an adequate understanding of this process. I hammer this a lot to my students and in my work, but it really cheapens the practice of physical anthropology and archaeology when they're considered only as icing on the interpretive cake of evolutionary genetics. Bones and stones (to simplify) are not just ancillary evidence: they're critically important sources of data that need to be accounted for fully as opposed to simply made to fit in the models derived from other disciplines. It's often all too tempting to grant greater weight to the conclusions of disciplines that are more directly grounded in the life sciences, but it's important to realize that they're also fraught with internal tensions and debates and wide-ranging differences in interpretation.

This ties in neatly with the second NG item, namely a report on a new reconstruction of a Neanderthal female. Here's a shot of this beauty:

But what you should really check out is the set of photos related to this reconstruction. Five pictures in, there's an especially great shot of the Neanderthal woman (nicknamed Wilma) thrusting a spear and sporting an extensive set of black tattoos on her back and upper chest. Now, why is this so neat (beyond being the closest thing to Neanderthal fetish/alterna-porn you're likely to ever see - I mean, it's a naked chick with tats and a weapon!)? Because the reconstruction is based on genetics, skeletal anatomy and archaeology. You have the genetics that have informed the artists about the likely hair and skin color of the Neanderthal. You have the skeletal morphology dictating the overall look and posture of the thing. And finally, you have the archaeology contributing some additional behavioral information. In this specific case, the reconstruction draws on discussions about the fact that Neanderthal females may have been integral to large game procurement strategies (i.e., no sexual division of labor) and on the fact that Neanderthals appear to have used manganese as a coloring material to on their skin. Kudos to the artists for artfully integrating all three lines of evidence!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Well, look at that...

Most of the feedback I've gotten about this blog over the past couple of years has been generally positive, thought most of it is usually qualified with formulas to the effect of "I don't know where you find the time" and "What concrete purpose does it serve?"

Well, over the summer, a commentary of mine came out in the journal Medical Hypotheses. It's entitled "Mad Neanderthal disease? Some comments on "A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction" (Riel-Salvatore 2008). Regular AVRPI readers might find that title sounds familiar, and they would be right. "Mad Neanderthal Disease?" was also the title of a post I wrote last winter in reaction to the publication of a paper by. S. Underdown (2008) and the considerable media buzz it generated.

After I wrote that post, a reader - who happened to agree with me - asked me what the point of posting this (and other things) only to the web was, since, in practice, my comments left no durable trace in 'The Literature' (y'know, the stuff that leaves a tangible papertrail). I've always said that I think of blogging first and foremost as a way of forcing myself to articulate first reactions to articles and newsreports that I read, and to engage a wider audience in debates over archaeology, anthropology, and other topics. This post was a case in point. I received several comments on it, including one that pointed me to a reference to Homo sapiens cannibalism/handling of the dead that I'd overlooked in my original post, and - very recently - another one that brought to my attention an old paper on a very similar model (Wolbarsht 1975) (in fact an extremely similar model, down to the virus, ethnographic comparisons, and mode of transmission).

So, having taken the time to write the post anyway, all I had to do was pull up the file that contains its text (I save all of my posts as individual text files, should Blogger ever decide to cancel this fair blog), add the missing ref, format it for length and style, write a short cover letter to the editor, log on the Medical Hypotheses online submission service, and voila!, a submitted paper. In all, it took maybe an extra hour of work. Funny thing is, had I not blogged about this, I don't think that I would have bothered to write a comment on the Underdown paper in the first place, probably reserving my thoughts for 'over beer' discussions with colleagues.

Arguably, this is not exactly a full-blown peer-reviewed publication. However, it goes to show two things: first, blogging is useful as a catalyst to write, engender debate and refine one's ideas. In my case, this is further demonstrated by another paper of mine (this one currently in press in a bona fide peer-reviewed archaeology journal) that incorporates edited passages of an earlier post; in this case too, the time that elapsed between my writing that post and my writing that academic paper (along with the discussion that post generated) was crucial in helping me develop ideas I originally put together over two years ago now. This ties into the second thing I want to say about blogging: it can have a very real, tangible academic output. Between converting/adapting/incoporating blog posts into 'proper' (or rather, standard) academic papers and helping one to develop thoughts without actually setting out to write in the formal, somewhat more rigid style and structure of an academic paper, blogging can certainly be a stimulus for one's academic output. And this, of course, is in addition to the benefits of making academic literature accessible to a larger public, providing a critical assessment of discoveries that are 'published' only through press releases (*cough*cultofthepython*cough*), and other benefits discussed by Hawks in a thoughtful post about two months ago (John, if you read this, congrats on the tenure, btw!).

Now, I'm not saying this will be true for everyone, and I'm definitely not saying that all my posts are 'papers in becoming' or inherently worthy of publication in peer-reviewed venues (far from it). However, I would argue that it is certainly not a waste of time that might have been devoted to other pursuits, which I think the rest of my academic and personal record demonstrate (this is in addition to the fact that it actually doesn't consume as much time as many people seem to think). Obviously, this approach means that I'm occasionally blogging about 'work in progress' and one might rightfully argue that this exposes me to a form of intellectual 'sniping.' But, beyond the fact that I don't think too many people would want to do that in the first place (especially with my position on some debates!), the beautiful thing about blogs is that everything is neatly chronicled online, with dates and all - if one adds to that the occasional mention of my posts by other bloggers, what this all amounts to is what I think is a fairly secure barrier against sniping, should I ever need one. Plus, most of these ideas I've already presented at meetings anyway, so it's not like they've been exactly secret!


Riel-Salvatore, J. 2008. Mad Neanderthal disease? Some comments on "A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction." Medical Hypotheses 71:473-474.

Underdown, S. 2008. A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction. Medical Hypotheses 71:4-7.

Wolbarsht, M. L. 1975. The Demese ef the Ne'enderthels: Wes Lengege E Fecter? Science 187:600-601.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Yours truly, rearranged!

Here are some anagrams (give or take a letter) of my name concocted by some of the students who took my Human Evolution class this past summer.... and I just don't know what to make of this common theme:

"Jail, a volunteer's lie."

"Learn evil jail routes."

Jail? Evil? Lies?! Seriously?! My oh my... well, maybe the first two aren't that far off the mark, but I never imagined it'd be so transparent!

Luckily for me, there were also some francophones in the class:

"Je rase le lutin ravi." (English: "I shave the delighted imp.")

... hmmm, on second thought, I really don't know how I feel about that one either!


While I'm running around and posting this belatedly, I nonetheless want to encourage you to take the time to sit back and enjoy as you sip heartily the dark anthropological nectar pouring out of A Hot Cup of Joe for the latest installment of Four Stone Hearth. I'm a bit late to the parade, but better late than never!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Funding culture in Italy

The New York Times has an excellent article summarizing a range of reactions to the decision of the Berlusconi government to allocate only 0.28% of its budget to the Ministry of Culture, which oversees, among other things, the maintenance and development of museums, as well as a sizable fraction of archaeological research in Italy. That's for all archaeology in Italy... with its wealth of Roman and other Classical cultures, I shudder to think how little of even that 0.28% will go to prehistory.

This opening excerpt, about the Pigorini Museum (one of the most important ones in Italy for ethnography and prehistory) wrenched my heart:

On some days visitors to the Luigi Pigorini National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography here may find its director in the front booth handing out entrance tickets. It’s not a meet-and-greet situation: The museum is chronically understaffed.

In recent weeks museumgoers have tended to speed past the glass-encased artifacts from Oceania and Asia or skim Homo’s evolution to sapiens. They can’t afford to tarry. The Pigorini has no money for air-conditioning, and the Roman sun is merciless.

“We barely have enough money to keep the lights on, or pay for a cleaning staff,” said Vito Lattanzi, director of educational services and of the Mediterranean collections at the museum, which is also a research institute. The custodial staff has been pared down to 11 from 30. Ten years ago there were eight to a shift; now there are four, and in most cases two are volunteers.

The article also does a very good job exploring the reasons behind the disinterest in private donation to support much cultural research in the peninsula, and the tensions about the perception of the need for private funding within the cultural world. Definitely worth a thorough read.

The unbearable lightness of the Paleoltihic record

Whenever I read a report like this one, on the recovery of organic Neolithic artifacts including a birch bark quiver, a wooden bow and parts of leather pants (oh yeah!!), I can't help but to wonder how little we actually know about the richness of the material culture of earlier periods of prehistory.

Preservation bias has a lot to do with why so much Paleolithic archaoelogy is focused on the study of chipped stone technology. And whenever people get too carried with studying stone tools (yes, I've been told that this is possible...), I always like to dredge up this quote about the Wola of Papua-New Guinea:

"While lithics form a unique source for studying prehistory, among the Wolachert is only one among 255 types of raw material. Stone may not have been as significant to the user as it is to archaeologists... Clues to the relative importance of stone lie in a detailed understanding of the local resource base, evidence for subsistence strategies and the types of tools found." (Sillitoe and Hardy 2003:563).


Sillitoe P., and K. Hardy.2003. Living Lithics: Ethnography and archaeology in Highland Papua New Guinea. Antiquity 77, 297:555-566.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Surveying surveys

The most recent Project Gallery in Antiquity contains a set of three reports of new Paleolithic surface assemblages from Greece (Mortensen 2008), Iran (Jamialahmadi et al. 2008) and India (Chauan and Patnaik 2008). Mortensen presents a small lithic assemblage form the locality of Loutró, on the southern coast of Crete, which he attributes to the Lower or early Middle Paleolithic on typological grounds (note: all pictures are from the reports which I discuss sequentially in this post).

While he recognizes that a representative sample of artifacts from Loutró will only be collected through a systematic survey of the locality and the gully around it, Mortensen claims that this “might suggest that the first humans reached the island across the sea from Libya. That an early contact between northern Africa and southern Europe existed already during the Palaeolithic periods is a hypothesis now supported by most scholars.” I actually don’t think this is a widely held view, but – if these artifacts can be considered creadible – they do suggest that islands such as Crete might have been settled comparatively early on. Only time will tell.

Jamialahmadi et al. (2008) present some very preliminary results of a survey they conducted in northeast Iran to assess the abundance of its Paleolithic record. In this case, they identified 15 artifact-bearing localities near the Kashafrud and Jamrud rivers, at least two of which (Ghaleh-Gak and Polgazi) have yielded artifacts that, on typological grounds, appear Lower or Middle Paleolithic in age.

They conclude that this survey “revealed the great potential of north-eastern Iran in general and of the river Kashafrud in particular for Palaeolithic studies. Sporadic Palaeolithic finds in this region and neighbouring areas (Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) support the hypothesis that the region delimited today by the geographical boundaries of Iran has been used repeatedly in the Pleistocene period as a migratory pathway linking East with West.” Again, I’m not necessarily convinced that sporadic finds are necessarily indicative of a repeatedly used interregional human corridor, but the data are certainly suggestive of early human presence in those areas as well.

Chauan and Patnaik (2008) also report on preliminary findings of a survey in the Narmada Basin, in India. In this case, the intent of the survey is to obtain contextual information for the taxonomically and chronologically ambiguous. In contrast to the other two reports discussed here, this project “includes systematic surveys, documentation and collection of various types of specimens for geological, palynological and lithic analyses.” In other words, it should yield a representative sample of what is to be found along the Middle Narmada, and in fact “A long-term objective is to map localities using GIS for reference purpose and predictive modelling. It is clear that habitation probably occurred along the peripheral zones, closer to the Vindhyan Hills rather than in the vicinity of the main channel of the Narmada River.” Predictive modeling is basically highlighting which contextual factors (e.g., sediments, distance to river, slope, etc.) are most often associated with archaeological sites, to then target similar deposits in order to maximize the likelihood of finding sites – if this proves fruitful, some general patterns of human behavior can also begin to be outlined for the timespans under consideration here, once again the Lower and early Middle Paleolithic.

The Narmada survey also explicitly focuses on the collection of other types of archaeological evidence, including notably animal bones and dating samples.

From my perspective, this is an interesting set of reports because it illustrates well different manners in which archaeological sites all belonging to the same general periods can be encountered, a topic which we’re about to discuss in my Archaeological Methods class this term. The Loukó finds apparently represent a chance encounter, while the other two projects are bona fide surveys. Only the Narmada project appears to be systematic, however, meaning that it is organized according to regularly spaced/defined spatial units, some of which are then selected for thorough inspection to form a statistically representative sample of the region as a whole. In contrast the Iranian project appears to be a combination of a systematic and survey and chance encounters: you have an area that has reported archaeological potential, which limits your survey area, but within it, sites are encountered as one goes. My point here is not to critique the various strategies used in the identification of these three reports, but rather to emphasize how very different approaches have the potential to increase our knowledge of the archaeological record, albeit in very distinct ways.


Chauhan, P. R., and R. Patnaik. 2008. The Narmada Basin Palaeoanthropology Project in central India. Antiquity 82(317):

Jamialahmadi, M., H. Vahdati Nasab, and H. Fazeli Nashli. 2008. Kashafrud revisited: discovery of new Palaeolithic sites in north-eastern Iran. Antiquity 82(317):

Mortensen, P. 2008. Lower to Middle Palaeolithic artefacts from Loutró on the south coast of Crete. Antiquity 82(317):