Thursday, October 30, 2008

The social context of zombie concern

Well, just in time for Halloween, we get this:

If you like this graph, you should most certainly read the whole story "War and Social Upheaval Cause Spikes in Zombie Movie Production." My inner number geek picked up on some issues with the sampling that went into this: frankly, to objectively demonstrate this, what is needed is a chart showing the relative importance of zombie flicks per total movies produced in any given year.

What's that you say? Oh right, this is an archaeology/anthropology blog. Uh, ok, well. Here you go! Did you know that the earliest documented zombie outbreak is at the important MSA site of Katanda (Brooks 2003; McBrearty and Brooks 2000; Yellen et al. 1995)? And that, just last year, excavations at Hierakonpolis, Egypt, revealed the first unambiguous evidence for a zombie outbreak in urban settings? Happy Halloween, folks!


Brooks, M. 2003. The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead. Three Rivers Press, New York.

McBrearty, S., and A. S. Brooks. 2000. The revolution that wasn’t: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. Journal of Human Evolution 39:453–563.

Yellen, JE, AS Brooks, E Cornelissen, MJ Mehlman, and K Stewart. 1995. A Middle Stone Age worked bone industry from Katanda, Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire. Science 268:553-556.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

New blogs on the block

About ten days ago, I attended a little function here at McGill to honor the teaching skills of my friend Stephen Chrisomalis, now an assistant professor at Wayne State University. The reception was held because Steve was awarded a McGill Arts Undergraduate Society Excellence in Teaching Award at McGill, where he worked until this summer.

And I have to say, it's richly deserved. Beyond being an original thinker whose archaeological research is strongly and profitably rooted in comparative approaches, Steve (who incidentally was my TA in my very first archaeology course when I started out as an impressionable BA student at McGill back in 19coughcough) approaches teaching with more enthusiasm than I've seen in pretty much anyone involved in academia and, with his 'Cartesian' mindset (i.e., non-linear, which I definitely mean as a compliment!), he has the knack of coming up with innovative ways to get archaeological and anthropological matters through to students in ways that are both innovative and grounded in easily relatable topics and forms of material culture. It's a rare ability indeed, and one that I envy quite a bit now that I've started teaching on something resembling a regular basis. Habitual readers of AVRPI may remember that I had mentioned his Dollarware Archaeology website a few months back. Well, not only does he have a couple more such websites (here, here and here) where he compiles information and papers produced by the students in some of his courses, one of these is the topic of a talk he recently presented on the social underpinnings of stop signs in Montreal.

And, for another 'not only', it was my great pleasure to see recently that Steve has started his own blog, Glossographia, since blogging and new media through which to communicate anthropology writ large to a broader audience was a topic which we often discussed last year, as I was starting my postodc at McGill. Now, you'll have to excuse him if he tarnished what is otherwise an outstanding blog by talking about yours truly in one post, but I highly recommend checking it out and commenting on his posts. You won't be sorry!

Now, I've added a link to Glossographia in the links section of this humble blog, so you have no excuse not to check it out. But, I also want to point out two recent additions to the blogroll: Publishing Archaeology, by Mike Smith (a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University - where I got my degree) who champions the causes of open-access publishing in archaeology and of how to disseminate archaeological literature as widely as possible (among other topics); and Middle Savagery, the brainchild of Berkeley PhD student Colleen Morgan, who devotes a lot of time and energy to how digital technologies can serve the needs and further the goals of archaeology and rendering accessible to a wider audience. Check out all three blogs, people! You'll come out of the experience a better person, if maybe one with slightly less free time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The relevance of archaeology?

At the beginning of my Archaeological Methods class earlier this fall, I told my students that archaeology matters because it's "important." By that I meant that archaeology is the only discipline that can provide us with a relatively objective measure of how things were in the past, even following the advent of writing.

In that light, I was excited to read a short paper by Paul Minnis in the latest SAA Archaeological Record (unfortunately available only to dues-paying SAA members) in which he talks about the usefulness of recovering paleobotanical remains of extinct domesticated plant species from archaeological deposits, mainly in the context of ensuring that we have a record of past domesticated plant species. This, he cogently argues, can be beneficial for contemporary debates about world hunger and plant conservation biology:

It would be a logical question to ask what value these extinct crops have beyond simply understanding the past. There are several potential practical uses. First, it may be possible to redomesticate these plants—-we have the best evidence that they can be domesticated because they once were, if the need arises. Their value may well increase further with more sophisticated techniques to manipulate genes independent of breeding of whole plants. Valuable marshelder genes, as an example, could be useful without having to redomesticate the plant itself.

There is additional use of these data. The current distribution where specific crops are grown may not reflect the areas where they could be farmed. Given the accelerated replacement of traditional crops and cultivars, there is every reason to believe that their areas of cultivation have been greatly reduced. The archaeological data, therefore, can provide direct evidence for locations where specific crops might be grown but not longer are.

In a similar vein, it is likely that what appears to be marginal farming areas will need to be brought into cultivation to feed an expanding human population and deal with changes in the organization of food production. Often ancient people had already farmed such locations. Lithic mulching, chinampas farming, and sunken fields are but three examples of the human creativity in developing techniques to grow crops in difficult locations. The archaeological record can provide clues as to the types of crops that might be viable in these locations and may even provide examples of novel farming techniques used to grow them in the past.
(Minnis 2008:50)

I have to say, I'm really liking the kinds of papers that have been coming out in the Archaeological Record lately. Short, to the point, and often emphasizing the relevance of archaeological practice today, albeit from an insider's perspective. What's not to love?


Minnis, P. 2008. Valuing Archaeology. New futures for ancient crops. The SAA Archaeological Record 8(5): 41,50.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Cannibalism at Krapina - or not!

The issue of Neanderthal cannibalism has a long history and a number of important behavioral implications, some of which I've already discussed in a prior post. Two sites are usually invoked to make the case for Neanderthal cannibalism, Moula-Guercy in France (Defleur et al. 1999), and Krapina, in Croatia. A good review of the abundant literature on Krapina up to 2006 is available freely in pdf format (Frayer 2006), should you be interested. Krapina is especially important because of the large number of highly fragmented Neanderthal remains (800+) that have been found there - indeed, the fragmentary nature of the remains has been intimately linked to the case for cannibalism, being often interpreted as evidence of bones being broken to get at the marrow they contained.

So it's with great interest that I saw a paper by Jörg Orschiedt (2008), in the latest issue of Quartär. It's in German, but the English abstract reads as follows:

The Krapina case – New results on the question of cannibalism of Neanderthals.

The human skeletal remains from Krapina / Croatia of almost 900 fragments have been considered for a long time as a proof of Neanderthal cannibalism. Although this opinion was frequently criticised, the fragmentary nature and traces of manipulations on the skeletal remains were mentioned as evidence. Several investigations resulted in contradicting interpretations whether the condition of the human remains are the result of burial activities or ritual cannibalism. The re-examination of the skeletal remains was carried out in order to put a closer look to the breakage patterns and the cut marks. The revision of the inventory of human remains shows that certain skeletal elements like the facial skeleton, skull base, hand- and foot bones as well as vertebrae are underrepresented or missing. It seems therefore unlikely that the bodies were buried in anatomical connection. The investigation also proved that the breakage patterns were not caused by human activity. Although several bones especially the long bone diaphysis, clavicles and pelvis fragments display breakage patterns related to perimortem breakage like spiral fractures, any kind of human activity is absent. In fact the breakage is related to sediment pressure, particularly to rock fall, and carnivore activities. Damage on bones caused by carnivore activity is well visible by bite marks on long bone fragments and on Cranium 3.Any detailed analysis of the cut marks is problematic, since the bones were covered with shellac. Therefore, the analysis by a scanning electron microscope did not yield any significant result. The study of the cut marks revealed serious doubt on their nature. The macroscopic investigation, however, showed that the traces are not consistent regarding their orientation and location with traces commonly related to disarticulation and dismemberment activities. Cut marks related to this kind of activity usually occur in areas of muscle attachments and joints. Several cut marks show evidence for a recent origin. The most striking evidence for this is found on a long bone splinter of a diaphysis. The cut marks located on this fragment cut through the “F” [for femur] written in ink of the bone. The shellac was added only later covering the bone. It seems possible in only two cases that cut marks on two scapulae were caused by dismembering activities. The well known Cranium 3 exhibits possible cut marks on the frontal bone, which might indicate skinning activities like the removal of the scalp. Nevertheless the position and the small size of the marks fail to prove such an activity. A ritual behaviour might be a possible explanation.

If this taphonomic analysis is correct, it certainly throws a sizable wrench into the argument for one of the most celebrated cases for Neanderthal cannibalism. The possible evidence for scalping is also very intriguing.


Defleur, A., T. White, P. Valensi, L. Slimak, and É. Crégut-Bonnoure. 1999. Neanderthal Cannibalism at Moula-Guercy, Ardèche, France. Science 286:128-131.

Frayer, D. W. 2006. The Krapina Neandertals. A Comprehensive, Centennial, Illustrated Bibliography. Zagreb: Croatian Natural History Museum.

Orschiedt, J. 2008. Der Fall Krapina – Neue Ergebnisse zur Frage von Kannibalismus beim Neandertaler. Quartär 55:63-81. (with English abstract).

Modern is as modern does?

ResearchBlogging.orgSince I last posted, there's been a lot of 'chatter' on the interwebs about the 'modernity' displayed by Neanderthals in their subsistence patterns, because they appeared to have hunted very similar ungulates than Aurignacian foragers and, especially because they have been shown to procure and consume sea mammals exactly as early modern humans at Gibraltar. All sorts of people have talked about the latter (here, and here), but there's one aspect of this discovery that's been puzzling me ever since I read the actual report (Stringer et al. 2008), and it's got me adjusting my spectacle and saying "Not so fast..."

That aspect is, quite simply, the frequency of sea mammal remains present in those assemblages. Now, the authors and commentators have been right in emphasizing that both Middle and Upper Paleolithic hominins display the same behavior and that is a big deal: it is one more solid uppercut to the jaw of the argument that Neanderthals and modern humans were somehow fundamentally different from a behavioral standpoint. That this is true for subsistence patterns is especially important since, as a colleague of mine likes to emphasize, it's how much calories you can extract from an environment that allows you to have more babies and keep them alive (i.e., be reproductively successful)! So, showing that people in the late Middle and early Upper Paleolithic procured resources similarly is an important observation indeed. This is the basis on which people can somewhat legitimately claim that Neanderthals could act in 'modern' ways.

In contrast, my view is that the sea mammals from Gorham's and Vanguard Caves do not support the idea that Neanderthals acted in a recognizably modern way. But here's the catch: neither did the early Upper Paleolithic, presumably modern human, foragers! In other words, yes, Neanderthals and early modern humans acted in comparable manners, but no, that behavior is not what we can really consider modern, based on what we know from historic and prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

What leads me to this conclusion is the proportion of sea mammals to other animals at those sites. I consider the mollusks uncontroversial, since there's plenty of evidence they were exploited by coastal Neanderthal and early modern humans as far back at OIS 6. So, focusing on sea mammals and fish, what do we get?

We get a really weird pattern! Let's start with the material from Vanguard Cave (Stringer et al. 2008: Table 1). We have a NISP (number of identifiable specimens - I could use MNE's instead, but the results are only marginally different, and laden with their own peculiar problems) of 9, with NISP's of 172 for terrestrial herbivores and 20 for carnivores. This means that herbivore remains are almost 20 times more abundant than those of sea animals. Perhaps even more interestingly, carnivore remains are twice as abundant as those of sea animals. The authors talk about the low rate of carnivore gnaw marks on the sea and land mammals at the site (in addition to the absence of traces of human processing on the carnivore remains), implying that carnivores and humans probably occupied the cave at different times. That being the case, it means that carnivores that were not accumulated by humans are twice as frequent as the sea mammal remains.

Before discussing what I think this means, let's turn to Gorham's Cave, where modern human behavior is presumably also documented, in Level III (Stringer et al. 2008: Table 4). In this case, for Neanderthals (Level IV), if you lump together seal and fish (NISP = 3), it means that herbivores (NISP = 49) are 16 times more frequent than sea animals. As for carnivores (NISP = 36, again assumed to be non-accumulated by humans), they are 12 times more frequent than sea critters. In Level III, the sea animal NISP is 5, while that of herbivores is 186 (37 times more frequent than sea animals!) and that of carnivores is 30 (or six times the amount of sea critters). There are also some interesting patterns of small game use at Gorham's, which I'll return to in a bit.

But first why is this pattern of relative representation of sea animals important? Because this is not how ethnographically documented foragers that depend on sea animals. In fact, foragers that have access to sea mammal tend to focus on them a lot! The data I summarized above suggest that the sea mammal:herbivore ratio of the Gibraltar assemblages is as follows:

Vanguard: 172:9 = 19.1
Ghoram's IV (Neanderthal): 49:3 = 16.3
Gorham's III (H. sapiens): 186:5 = 37.2

In contrast, for ethnographically-documented forager groups that depend to sea animals and land mammals, the same ratio ranges from 0.16 (meaning sea animals are six times more frequent than land mammals in the group's diet) to 12 (where land mammals are 12 times more frequent than sea resources) (this is based on data summarized in Kelly 1995: Table 3-1). That latter figure is probably an overestimate, however, since the one group that is associated with the ratio value of 12- the Aeta - procures extra amounts of meat to trade for carbohydrates with neighboring agriculturalists, a situtation that is clearly inappropriate for the comparison being undertaken here. Shifting to the next group down the list of most 'meat vs. fish', we get the Nunamiut, with a ratio of 8.7. This allows us to complete the table above thusly:

Assemblage Ratio
Vanguard 19.1
Ghoram's IV (Neanderthal) 16.3
Gorham's III (H. sapiens) 37.2
Most sea mammal focused hunters 0.16
Least sea mammal focused hunters 8.7/12

Whether we go with the Aeta or the Nunamiut, the picture is the same: the ratio of land to sea resources of hunter-gatherers is much lower than that documented in any of the three assemblages presented by Stringer and colleagues (2008). Notably, the ratio for those foragers that heavily depend on sea resources is smaller by orders of magnitudes than that found in any of the Gibraltar assemblages. Perhaps most importantly, the Gibraltar ratios are much, much higher than those of those hunters that target the least amount of sea mammals in their diets.

Plainly put, this means that when foragers exploit sea animals, they exploit a hell of a lot more of them than is documented in Vanguard and Gorham's Caves. One may quibble about the fact that I overlooked the Vanguard mollusks in this analysis, but since these are absent from the Gorham's Cave faunal assemblages discussed here, for the purposes of comparing early H. sapiens and Neanderthal behavior, the case stands nevertheless. In short, what we're seeing at Gibraltar bears departs significantly from the subsistence strategies of known forager groups.

Now, obviously, we have to be careful not to impose on the past observations from the present, the old "tyranny of the ethnographic record" (Wobst 1978). However, there is a reason why people focus on sea animals when they have access to them: they are often full of sweet, delicious fat. So, when they know when, where and how to procure sea animals (even if it's only on a yearly basis, when they are most likely to be found beached), hunter-gatherers will preferentially target them, and accumulate them in large numbers. Most critically, the Gibraltar pattern departs significantly from that of those foragers that depend the least on sea critters, which should give one some serious pause.

Stringer et al. (2008: 14323) argue that the presence of sea mammal remains in all the levels of Vanguard Cave and in the Neanderthal and H. sapiens deposits of Gorham's Cave reflects

"that Neanderthals were not only systematically exploiting terrestrial mammals but also marine mollusks, pinnipeds, and cetaceans. Their distribution through the stratigraphy suggests that securing marine mammals was not an accidental or isolated practice, but a focused behavior possibly repeated seasonally or over longer periods... Significantly, the range of species exploited and the age distribution pattern of the prey strongly indicate that the coastal exploitation of resources by Neanderthals was not a sporadic and isolated occurrence but one that required a knowledge of the life history of prey and its seasonality."

Color me skeptical here, and this in spite of my opinion that the behavioral capacities are still systematically underappreciated in contemporary paleoanthropology. But overall, we're talking about numbers of sea animal remains that are absolutely dwarfed by the preponderance of land mammals and that in all cases are significantly rarer than even those of carnivores that occupied the site when humans were absent. Call it what you will, but this is not a behavior that is modern in any real way.

The take-home message here is that, just because some behavior is associated with morphologically 'modern' humans, it does not mean that it is actually modern. In the end, who knows, maybe Neanderthals and early European H. sapiens did exploit sea mammals seasonally - but empirically, the evidence presented by Stringer et al.(2008) rather points to unsystematic, opportunistic acquisition of parts of beached carcasses. But the fact that the Gibraltar data are so odd in light of everything we know about the subsistence patterns of sea-oriented foragers underlines the importance of always defining what is meant by 'modern behavior' and of situating behavioral reconstructions of Neanderthals and early H. sapiens in the broader context of the hunter-gatherer behavioral record. Doing so usually yields some very interesting results indeed!


Kelley, R. L. 1995. The Foraging Spectrum. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

Stringer, C. B., J. C. Finlayson, R. N. E. Barton, Y. Fernandez-Jalvo, I. Caceres, R. C. Sabin, E. J. Rhodes, A. P. Currant, J. Rodriguez-Vidal, F. Giles-Pacheco, J. A. Riquelme-Cantal (2008). From the Cover: Neanderthal exploitation of marine mammals in Gibraltar Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (38), 14319-14324 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805474105

Wobst, H. M. 1978. The Archaeo-Ethnology of Hunter-Gatherers or the Tyranny of the ethnographic record in Archaeology. American Antiquity 43:303-309.