Monday, May 30, 2011

Who really killed Shanidar 3?

Fun with footnotes, today at AVRPI!! You'll remember that a couple of summers ago, a study by Churchill et al. (2009) tried to argue that the cut marks on a rib from the Shanidar 3 Neanderthal were the result of a wound inflicted by a modern human on that poor sap. Naturally, the science press had a field day with this, although several commentators argued that the evidence presented by Churchill and co. had been stretched way too thin, and that there really was no way to know who (what?) had killed Shanidar 3.

I just finished reading a paper by Trinkaus and Buzhilova (in press) on the death of the Sunghir 1. Sunghir 1 was an old man dating to the Early Gravettian (somewhere b/w 28-24kya) who was buried with an extremely lavish set of grave goods, including ornaments comprising several thousands of mammoth ivory beads, ivory bracelets, a schist pendant and a lot of red ochre spread over the entire burial. There is no question that this is one of the most remarkable Upper Paleolithic burials know.

How does that relate to Shanidar 3, you ask? Well, beyond the fact that Shanidar 3 has been argued to be an intentional burial, Trinkaus and Buzhilova report that, during a renewed inventory of the Sunghir 1 remains undertaken in 2009 which included a careful cleaning of the remains, they identified "an oblique defect, medial-caudal to lateral-cranial, on the left ventral corner of the body" of the Sunghir 1 first thoracic vertebra (T1). I'll return to the details of the Sunghir 1 injury in an upcoming post, but suffice it to say here that they are able to show that the lesion is indicative of a wound inflicted by a sharp implement and that would have been lethal to Sunghir 1.

OK, so returning to our dead homies Neanderthals, this study provides the third most ancient case of a weapon-inflicted wound leading to the death of a Paleolithic forager, the other two being Saint-Cesaire 1 and Shanidar 3, in decreasing order of age. Both of these have been described by Churchill et al. (2009) has resulting from inter-specific violence by modern humans on Neanderthals. However, Trinkaus and Buzhilova argue that "[i]n neither of them is there sufficient evidence, given current geochronology and available technology to meaningfully hypothesize intergroup aggression.". Their justification for this different assessment is then provided in one of the most epic and detailed footnotes I've come across, which I quote in full here:

Churchill et al. (2009) have argued that the injuries to Shanidar 3 and Saint-Césaire 1 are likely to have been perpetrated on these Neandertals by early modern humans. They argue for probable regional sympatry of Shanidar 3 with early modern humans in southwest Asia and certain sympatry for Saint- Césaire 1 in western Europe and superior projectile technology among early modern humans with respect to the Middle Paleolithic Shanidar 3. However, their argument, despite caveats, requires distortions of the relevant geochronology, misrepresentation of the available technology, and special pleading. In western Europe, there is no evidence for (presumably modern human associated) Aurignacian levels stratified below those of the (Neandertal associated) Châtelperronian (Bordes, 2003; Zilhão et al., 2006), as it is at Saint-Césaire (Lévêque et al., 1993), and all of the reliable dates place the Châtelperronian prior to the Aurignacian (Zilhão & d’Errico, 2003). The one radiometric date for the Saint-Césaire Châtelperronian level, a TL date (36 300±2700 cal BP) (Mercier et al., 1991), has a sufficiently large standard error to make it inappropriate to date the burial relative to Châtelperronian or Aurigiacian levels in the region. There is therefore no evidence, either paleontological or by assuming that the earliest Aurignacian was made by modern humans, that there were modern humans in western Europe at the time of Saint-Césaire 1. Churchill et al.’s assessment of the relative ages of Shanidar 3 and early modern humans in southwest Asia confuses radiocarbon and calendar years and makes unwarranted assumptions of who was responsible for which technocomplex; a reassessment of the available dates for diagnostic human remains, plus the stratigraphic position of Shanidar 3, clarifies the chronology. Shanidar 3 derives from near the top of Level D of Shanidar Cave, but stratigraphically well below the radiocarbon dates of ~47 and ~51 ka 14C BP (~51 and ~56ka cal BP) (Trinkaus, 1983). The youngest Middle Paleolithic modern humans within southwest Asia (at Qafzeh and Skhul) are MIS 5c in age (~90–100 ka cal BP) (Valladas et al., 1988; Stringer et al., 1989), and hence much older. Modern human remains do not reappear in southwest Asia until at least 35 ka 14C BP (~40 ka cal BP) (Bergman & Stringer, 1989), ~15 000 years later. In the Zagros the Baradostian technocomplex, the more recent phases of which are associated with modern humans (Scott & Marean, 2009), is dated to ~36 ka 14C BP (~41 ka cal BP) (Otte & Kozlowski, 2007). In addition, contra Shea & Sisk (2010), there are no diagnostic human remains associated with the eastern Mediterranean littoral IUP, that is ~35 ka 14C BP (~40 ka cal BP); Qafzeh 1 and 2 are undated, Ksar Akil 1 is younger, and the few IUP Üçağızlı teeth may well be Neandertals (Neuville, 1951; Bergman & Stringer, 1989; Gulec et al., 2007). One must go to equatorial Africa to find roughly contemporaneous modern humans (Haile-Selassie et al., 2004). With respect to technology, either Châtelperronian or Aurignacian lithics could have inflicted the frontal wound on Saint-Césaire 1. Although Middle Paleolithic spears appear to have mostly had relatively thick lithic points (Shea, 2006), thinner tools capable of producing the Shanidar 3 injury are represented in the Shanidar (and southwest Asian) Middle Paleolithic (Skinner, 1965). Moreover, one has to go to southern Africa to find evidence for contemporaneous ‘advanced’ projectile weaponry (Shea, 2006; Lombard & Phillipson, 2010; but see comments and caveats in Villa & Soriano (2010) and Lombard & Phillipson (2010)). Therefore, contra Churchill et al. (2009), the Shanidar and Saint Césaire Neandertals had the technology available to inflict their respective wounds, and there is no evidence (direct or indirect) for synchronous and sympatric modern humans. It is inappropriate to infer that individuals responsible for the Shanidar 3 and Saint-Césaire1 injuries were other than Neandertals." (Trinkaus and Buzhilova, in press: 7).

So, in a nutshell, there is no good reason to assume that the wounds sustained by Shanidar 3 were inflicted by modern humans. In fact, all of the available evidence points to Shanidar 3 having lived at a moment when only Neanderthals were kicking around the Zagros, and that they had access to technology that could well have left the mark found on the Shanidar 3 ribs.

Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, setting the record straight on this destroys any evidence for the interactions between Neanderthals and modern humans having been strictly inimical and violent. For another, it provides up a fascinating and heretofore underappreciated glimpse into the range of interpersonal relations Neanderthals could have had with other Neanderthals. Given the tendency by many to see Neanderthal behavior has homogeneous and monotonous, emphasizing that their interactionswith others of their kind were occasionally violent to the point of being lethal contributes to showing them to have been all too humans in certain respects.


Churchill, S., Franciscus, R., McKean-Peraza, H., Daniel, J., & Warren, B. (2009). Shanidar 3 Neandertal rib puncture wound and paleolithic weaponry Journal of Human Evolution, 57 (2), 163-178 DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2009.05.010

Trinkaus, E., & Buzhilova, A. (2010). The death and burial of sunghir 1 International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.1227


Maju said...

I am under the impression that they are totally missing important stuff regarding the likely presence of H. sapiens in Arabia Peninsula (Bailey 2009) and the Persian Gulf (Rose 2009).

I am not sure if they had "contemporaneous ‘advanced’ projectile weaponry" (that part I leave to the experts to decide) but H. sapiens were most likely not far from Shanidar (at the Persian Gulf) all the time between c. 130 Ka and present day.

Additionally the date of Shanidar 3 is, I understand a bit unclear. When I commented Churchill's theory in 2009, I noticed that the date was extremely imprecise. Here Trinkaus and Buzhilova seem to favor dates c. 50 Ka ago, precisely when we would expect H. sapiens to be migrating from (roughly) Pakistan into West and Central Asia (and at some point also Europe). In order to have H. sapiens c. 48 Ka. in Palestine and Altai (and maybe even parts of Europe already), they must have been by Shanidar some time before.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Maju -
good point about the early human presence in Arabia and the Persian Gulf. That said, our knowledge of the record of the Arabian peninsula is still in its infancy, and at none of these sites do we have actual human remains to indicate whether we're dealing with early modern human dispersals or local archaic populations - on this, I firmly believe the artifacts can't tell us very much. Even if they were deposited by modern humans, however, we still don't have evidence that they actually made up much further north and/or inland than coastal areas. In the absence of strong evidence, in my opinion, the most parsimonious scenario is to see the Shanidar evidence as resulting from Neanderthal on Neanderthal violence at this point. Pretty much all other scenarios invoke an awful lot of special pleading and stretching of the evidence.

Maju said...

Archaeologically only today that crucial region of our ancestors' likely journeys has drawn enough attention.

But this has come largely by the hand of population genetics, which already years ago (not so many but enough) had to conclude that most likely our species migrated along the Asian tropics before flowing back Westward into most of West Eurasia (the Neanderthal range). So there must have been that Asian population before c. 48 Ka ago, when West Eurasia began to be colonized, not directly from Africa but from Asia, surely India/Pakistan.

We even have some precedents AFAIK for mode 4 in South Asia before West Eurasia and then also the first microblades appear in the subcontinent. This last is not alone any evidence, I know, because the dates are more recent than the westward movement but it does support the general idea of South Asia as cultural and demic pump of Eurasia or at least the Western half (West of Mobius line) in that period, something that would change later on.

"In the absence of strong evidence, in my opinion, the most parsimonious scenario is to see the Shanidar evidence as resulting from Neanderthal on Neanderthal violence at this point".

The key evidence of Churchill is that it was a thrown dart and not a close combat injury. This fits with some reasonable interpretations of the available data as our species being specialized in hurling weapons and Neanderthals not (the evidence supports that for Europe but there is only evidence for H. sapiens since Gravettian dates).

I think that Churchill theory, even if not yet sufficiently proven, is quite parsimonious, more than Neanderthal on Neanderthal accidental or intentional injury. We cannot really prove the matter beyond that but I think that the opposition camp is not really providing convincing counter-evidence nor good reasonings either.

We disagree in this one.

Peni R. Griffin said...

There's no point getting tunnel vision about violence, either. You don't need a shotgun to have a hunting accident. You can even concoct scenarios involving euthanasia, botched surgery, or human sacrifice, the plausibility of which will vary with the forensics involved.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Peni -
you're correct that we shouldn't jump to conclusions about violence. The one thing that seems beyond dispute about Shanidar 3, however, seems to be that this was not an accidental impalement. Based on the angle and position of the wound, and the fact that it had some time to heal, the most logical conclusion seems to be that someone intentionally inflicted that wound on Shanidar 3 - I think even Maju and I would agree on that ;). So, in that sense, I think Churchill and co. actually did a great job demonstrating that the wound had been intentionally inflicted by someone else... what is more problematic is the interpretation of that wound and who made it.


Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Maju -
yes, we disagree on this, but I think in a fairly healthy manner! Re: population genetics, we've discussed this before and I maintain that they provide only one piece of the puzzle, one that doesn't necessarily fit all that well with a lot of the archaeological evidence. The question then becomes one of trying to reconcile these disparate bodies of evidence, rather than to argue for the primacy of one over the other.

Re: the microblades, you're right, they're later than some of the evidence you find in Europe and the Levant by as much as 10ky. So, on that basis, it's hard to argue for a cultural spread from the Indian subcontinent on that basis alone. So, while it provides some weak circumstancial evidence, it's not sufficient archaeological proof of the E --> W movement indicated by some of the genetic evidence.

Returning to Shanidar itself, about the thrown dart, I'd argue that the evidence provided by Churchill and colleagues for this is somewhat ambiguous (i.e., based on a very small set of experiments), and that their results indicate that even some typically 'Mousterian' weapons could generate the morphology of the wound found on Shanidar 3, albeit at with a slightly lower probability than dart tips. So the argument becomes one of probability. However, given that there are no documented modern humans in or near the Zagros at that time, and given that many Mousterian implements could generate wounds matching the morphology of that found on S3, at this point, I would argue that at this time, yes, by far the most parsimonious interpretation of the evidence is one that doesn't implicate modern humans.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Of course, even if one has evidence of intentional killing by another Neanderthal of a somewhat high status figure, one still can't tell if it was in war between tribes, if it was in a leadership contest or duel within a tribe, or if it was some sort of treacherous murder (think Julius Caesar), which have very different implications for the meaning of this in their society.

Around Memorial Day, the war hero theory has intuitive attraction, but one can cmoe up with multipl theories.

This may not have been the death blow either. Maybe the loser didn't get a funeral at all and the winner died only later.

terryt said...

"it provides up a fascinating and heretofore underappreciated glimpse into the range of interpersonal relations Neanderthals could have had with other Neanderthals. Given the tendency by many to see Neanderthal behavior has homogeneous and monotonous, emphasizing that their interactionswith others of their kind were occasionally violent to the point of being lethal contributes to showing them to have been all too humans in certain respects".

And not in the least bit surprising.

"Pretty much all other scenarios invoke an awful lot of special pleading and stretching of the evidence".

But Maju is no stranger to such an approach.

onix said...

julien 'some time to heal' needs explanation. a wound inflicted to kill would not typically be the kind of wound to statistically heal the most often. has the option of freak accidents been considered? if not for ritualistic, tribal (like war) reasons that 'elaborate' burrials are an expression of guilt or dismay (for example over a freak accident). beyond that i doubt that the morphologic expression of the two , does not predict that amh have available some hurling technology anywhere they'd pop up.
perhaps the microliths will be key to that.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Onix -
the freak accident possibility has indeed been considered, but the wound was inflicted at such an angle that it makes it very unlikely.

Not sure what you're getting at exactly with the second part of your comment, but I can pretty much guarantee you that microliths are extremely rare if not missing altogether in that region at that time.