Monday, December 11, 2006

"Forget the bull whip..."

Well, CNN has done us all a service and posted a feature on how to make it as an archaeologist, folks! Overall, it's not as terrible as I expected something like this to be on CNN (hey, they do stress the need for appropriate credentials!). As someone who recently turned in a draft of his dissertation, though, my personal favorite advice is....

Resign yourself to a lifetime of poorly-paid obscurity

"Archaeology is a tough business, and certainly not for those who crave either their creature comforts or a healthy bank balance... If you are not utterly obsessed with the subject, to the exclusion of all else, then archaeology is probably not for you."

Mamma mia! Seriously, folks, it ain't that bad... unless of course I am so utterly obsessed with cavemen to the exclusion of everything else that I didn't realize this until now... thanks, CNN!

Interview with Sheila Coulson on Mundo Neandertal

Check you this! Martín Cagliani of Mundo Neandertal has posted the transcript of an interview with Dr. Sheila Coulson, whose recent work and discovery of the "earliest documented ritual" in Botswana I blogged about ten days or so ago.

This is a very informative interview and it resolves some of the questions I (and others) had about the discovery. This info comes straight from the source, which corrects some of the interpretive distortions present in the original report of the discovery, which was a translated news report, and not a scientific publication. Since the interview's transcript is in Spanish, here’s a summary of some of the details of the interview:

1) Of the 13,000 recovered lithic artifacts, 115 are finely retouched typological points. These are said to be analogous to those from the MSA levels at the ≠Gi site excavated by A. Brooks and colleagues, and dated to ca. 77 kya. With the exception of an unspecified number made on quartz and rock crystal, which are available locally, the artifacts are made on types of rocks whose closest source lies in Namibia. You can see some of the artifacts here on Coulson's site... these look a lot better than the ones published in Apollon. Some Levallois cores (but no Levallois points) are also reported.

2) The date of ca. 70 kya for the site is confirmed to be a relative estimate. It is based on similarities between the Rhino Cave artifacts and those from ≠Gi, and two absolute dates from other MSA sites in the Tsodilo Hills (ca. 64 kya and 96 kya). Plans are in the works to have a dating (TL?) specialist from the Max Planck Institute to come and date the deposits in the relatively near future, though the size of the cave and the kind of cave it is (and the location of the test pit at the entrance of the cave) may make TL dating tricky. Future work that will focus on deposits further inside the cave may yield deposits more propitious to TL.

3) The excavated area is a 1x1m test pit that reached down about 2m. The stratigraphy of the deposits exposed a 65cm thick LSA deposit of aeolian sediments, which overlay highly compacted MSA deposits of a drastically different sedimentary nature, and which may have been cemented as well (my translation is a bit iffy here). There are more unexcavated MSA deposits below.

4) The "ritual function" of the points is inferred on their state of recovery. They were all roughed out elsewhere and finished at Rhino Cave. They were found in three states: perfectly intact, broken in half, or (in 22 cases) burned in the midst of the debitage created during their manufacture. The latter are the only burnt things encountered in the test pit, and none of the points bear any kind of impact fracture suggestive of use as part of projectile weapons.

5) Analysis of the material is ongoing, and excavations are set to resume in 2008.

I will try to contact Martín and see if it is possible to post an English translation of the interview somewhere. In the meantime, I'll offer a few comments on the information provided in the interview. I’ll limit these to stuff we can actually talk about based on the interview as opposed to talking about how definitive publication is needed before certain issues can be settled. I hope these do not come across as disparaging: the comments below aren't meant to be mean-spirited at all, but rather as outlining areas I'm eager to learn more about. Anyway.

It's suggested that the points are mainly made on exogenous rock, but it’s unclear what the actual proportion is and there is mention that a portion of the assemblage was made on local raw material. Here, I'd like to point out that it's not unusual to have heavily retouched artifacts made on exotic lithotypes even in European Mousterian contexts (i.e., made by Neanderthals), albeit in comparatively small numbers. I guess that without contextual information about lithic raw material frequencies in the debitage and small fraction, it's hard to say. An interesting fact, however, is that, in the archaeological record of other mobile hunter-gatherers that used bifacial technology (e.g., Paleoindian groups), it's not unusual to find bifacial artifacts often made on exotic stone. However, in those contexts, it has often been found that these bifaces were usually not so much used as the tips of hunting weapons, but rather as multi-purpose cutting implements and/or convenient portable 'cores' from which flakes could be struck at a moment's notice, as they became necessary (Kelly 1988; Kelly and Todd 1988). That these bifaces should be made predominantly on exotic, fine-grained stone is not surprising since lithic homogeneity is a prerequisite for such a strategy to be worthwhile in the first place. So, the disproportionate presence of bifacial implements on exotic raw materials and bearing no evidence of use as spearheads is not necessarily unexpected in the context of a mobile Paleolithic group that made bifacial tools. Evidence of no use at all might be more convincing proof of ritual production.

I'm not sure what to make of the 'ritual way' in which these artifacts entered the archaeological record. It certainly sounds intriguing, but I’m not sure more prosaic interpretations need to be discarded at this point. The fact that they're found in the midst of so much other lithic debris does not suggest a ritual discard context to me, at least based on what's been revealed so far. That some were found in perfect condition or broken in half is not necessarily completely unexpected, especially if they can be shown to have been near or at the end of their use-life (this can be assessed using methods like those recently proposed by Andrefsky [2006]). More puzzling are the burnt ones, found in the midst of their debitage. Here, it will be important to know exactly how they were identified as burned. Heat-treating of lithic raw material to improve its quality should not be ruled out out-of-hand here, especially if that raw material was meant to be carried around for a while and need to be dependable. So, unless there's direct evidence of in situ combustion features associated only with those artifacts, it might be challenging to link them unambiguously to discard in a ritual context. Likewise, it'll be very important to see whether the scenario of these chipped stone implements being imported as 'rough outs' is supported by refitting studies and/or details about the incidence of cortical pieces among the debitage associated with their final production.

One last comment, this one more practical in nature: so far, the Middle Stone Age levels have reached a depth of 2m below present surface. The top of the 'python' is 2m above the present surface. That means that the top of the rock would have been 2.65m (about 9 feet) above the ground in the latest Middle Stone Age, and 4m (13 feet) above it at the base of the test pit (which is not the base of the total deposit). Conversely, the base of the rock would have been between 0.65m and 2m above the Middle Stone Age ground level. Now, MSA people could obviously have built scaffolding and/or ladders, or even climbed the rock face, but it does raise the questions of the position of the 'python' relative to that of the Middle Stone Age occupants of the cave, how they would have organized themselves to chip away at it, and what the thing would have looked like from down below. This is an important question to consider, especially if the 'python' was an integral part of why Middle Stone Age folks occupied the site in the first place. So far, all the views of the 'python' have been generated at present ground levels, and it might have looked different from 2m below it, especially since the 'eyes' and 'mouth' might not have been as easily visible from that distance.

The original news report mentioned that part of the 'python''s surface had been found in the Middle Stone Age levels, but unless it bears the same indentations and unless these indentations can be shown unambiguously to be human-made, finding wall spalling is not unexpected in a cave context. The picture of what I think is the piece being referred to does appear to be be grooved, but this groove looks shallower and narrower than the ones seen on the 'python''s surface.

It might well be that the 'python' was intentionally shaped in prehistory, but that this was done in the Later Stone Age, or even in recent prehistory. There's certainly an abundance of prehistoric engravings in southern Africa, none of which have so far been attributed to the Middle Stone Age, so the burden of proof here is to conclusively demonstrate their association at Rhino Cave, as opposed to stressing that it is a possibility. If the chipping is conclusively demonstrated to be MSA in age, this truly will be a sensational discovery, no doubt about it.

All in all, this interview is very interesting and enlightening, but - as is always the case, I suppose - it generates additional, intriguing questions. Can't wait for the first publications, they'll be most interesting to read, and can't wait to hear (even) more about this site in general.


Andrefsky, W. 2006. Experimental and archaeological verification of an index of reduction retouch for hafted bifaces. American Antiquity 71:743-758.

Kelly, R. 1988. The three sides of a biface. American Antiquity 53:717-734.

Kelly, R., and L. Todd. 1988. Coming into the country: early Paleoindian hunting and mobility. American Antiquity 53: 231-244.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Archaeology mourns

This past Friday, December 1 2006, Dr. Bruce G. Trigger, James McGill Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, passed away in Montréal.

Professor Trigger’s stature in contemporary archaeology can hardly be overemphasized, as is readily seen by even a casual perusal a list of his innumerable publications spanning over four decades. When I was an undergraduate student at McGill, I had the good fortune of taking three classes from him, including most memorably “History of Archaeological Theory,” a course for which he had – quite literally – written the book. Here, I’m referring to Trigger’s magisterial A History of Archaeological Thought, a volume that frankly has no equal in archaeological literature.

I remember sitting in the first class of the course, in the first days of January 1998 (winter break was always cruelly short at McGill)… The first thing Prof. Trigger had us do was to write on the first page of the textbook – his book! – the following quote by D. Clarke, so as to make sure we never forgot just what we were doing as archaeologists:

“Archaeology is the discipline with the theory and practice for the recovery of unobservable hominid behavior patterns from indirect traces in bad samples.”

Only then, with a wry smile, did he launch into the course… which was promptly interrupted by a historic ice storm that shut down all of Montréal for two weeks. I spent much of those cold, wet days in the Second Cup on the corner of Saint-Denis and De Maisonneuve (one of the few places I could reach that still had power), devouring A History of Archaeological Thought and scribbling the first round of intramarginal notes and questions I’d inflict on my copy of the book over the years.

The course itself was a one-of-a-kind experience in learning about archaeology, but it’s mainly in retrospect that I truly came to appreciate the considerable impact Trigger’s thinking had on me, as I referred time and again to his book and to the copious notes I took during that fateful semester. As I turned in my dissertation this week, some of which discusses the influence of nationalism in predisposing people to accept some interpretations of the record as more probable than other, I couldn't help but pause and realize just how strongly the influence of Trigger’s teaching still permeates my work today.

With the news of his untimely passing, I realize too late that I never really got around to thanking him fully for some of the things he did for me (including writing a reference letter that I’m sure played no small part in getting me into grad school), or seizing the chance to ask him some questions I had always wanted to explore in greater depth. So, if belatedly, thank you for everything, Professor Trigger… to say you were an inspiration is a vast understatement, and you will be immensely missed.

Friday, December 01, 2006

New CA paper by Kuhn & Stiner

This new paper in Current Anthropology by Steve Kuhn and Mary Stiner (U of Arizona) ought to be of interest some folks out there.

What's a Mother to Do? The Division of Labor among Neandertals and Modern Humans in Eurasia

Recent hunter-gatherers display much uniformity in the division of labor along the lines of gender and age. The complementary economic roles for men and women typical of ethnographically documented hunter-gatherers did not appear in Eurasia until the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. The rich archaeological record of Middle Paleolithic cultures in Eurasia suggests that earlier hominins pursued more narrowly focused economies, with women's activities more closely aligned with those of men with respect to schedule and ranging patterns than in recent forager systems. More broadly based economies emerged first in the early Upper Paleolithic in the eastern Mediterranean region and later in the rest of Eurasia. The behavioral changes associated with the Upper Paleolithic record signal a wider range of economic and technological roles in forager societies, and these changes may have provided the expanding populations of Homo sapiens with a demographic advantage over other hominins in Eurasia.

Just got it today and I haven't had time to read it yet. However, judging by the lengthy comments and reply section, it seems to have generated quite a bit of debate. Should make for interesting reading!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Coulson and the earliest documented ritual

Not much time to post today, but wanted to address the news about the 70,000 year-old 'python cult' that's making the rounds today, evidence of which was discovered by Sheila Coulson (U of Oslo). The report can be found online on the Apollon website; it's pretty short and contains some photographs.

Until I see some good publications about the dating and the 'spectacular' lithic artifacts refered to here, I won't be convinced much by this report. This is what the "particularly beautiful spearheads" found below the indented rock face look like

They are further described as being "better crafted and more colourful than other spearheads from the same time and area." Really? These things look like pretty run-of-the-mill unifacial points and/or scrapers to me. Compare them to the following bifacial Still Bay point at the Blombos Schoolhouse site (from Minichillo 2005: 153, Fig. 5.3 - bar = 1cm) and which is of MSA age

The 'python rock' artifacts don't even come close to exhibiting this level of craftsmanship.

The paper in Apollon also states that there are only a few archaeologists working on the African MSA... the flurry of recent publications and presentations at international meetings precisely about that period shows this is not the case at all.

I'll be curious to see how this stands up to critical scrutiny once details about these finds are published in scientific, peer-reviewed journals. In the meantime, you can also check out a very good post on the report on the Remote Central blog and some other comments on Mundo Neandertal (in Spanish) and on John Hawks' blog.


Minichillo, T.J. 2005. Middle Stone Age Lithic Study, South Africa: An Examination of Modern Human Origins. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Neanderthal childhood was as long as that of modern humans

Picked this one up on the website of the Montréal daily La Presse. The story (in French) reports on a study by Christopher Dean (University College London) and colleagues from French and Italian institutions which shows, through the use of high-resolution microcomputed tomography on two molars, that childhood was of comparable duration for Neanderthals and modern humans. Digging around the Nature web site, I found the paper in question, by Macchiarelli et al. (2006) in the papers available in advance of press. The authors conclude that

"Our data now allow us to predict M1 emergence time in Neanderthals with more certainty. If about 8mm of root were formed at an average of about 5.7 mmper day at gingival emergence, then this would have occurred at about 6.7 years of age, well within the human range (6.260.8 years (mean 6 s.d.)). This, together with the modern human-like position of the neonatal line, suggests both similar timing of tooth initiation relative to birth in Neanderthals and modern humans, and a predictable extended period between birth and M1 emergence, by which time about 90% of brain volume would have been attained."

While they also mention that that "a more complex enamel–dentine junction morphology and a late peak in root extension rate sets [Neanderthals] apart", their results are in contrast to those previously reported by Fernando Ramirez Rozzi and José Maria Bermudez de Castro (2004) who estimated that Neanderthals reached adulthood around fifteen years of age or so, that is to say, significantly earlier than modern humans. I should note that the Ramirez Rossi and Bermudez de Castro conclusions had already been challenged by Guatteli-Steinberg et al. (2005) who used dental perikymata counts to reocnstruct Neanderthal life history and show that it was similar to that of modern humans.

Macchiarelli et al.'s results provide another thread of evidence that demonstrates that modern humans and Neanderthals may not have been significantly different in terms of their biological development. This has a number of implications about the life history of Neanderthals, the structure of their population and the nature of their knowledge transmission strategies. This is especially interesting in light of a recent paper in the Journal of Human Evolution by Gurven et al. (2006) about the time needed to become a proficient hunter. Based on observations on the Tsimane foragers in the Bolivian Amazon, Gurven et al. suggest that physical maturity alone is not enough to ensure fully proficient hunting (an activity which requires much skill), and that full proficiency might only be attained about 10-20 years after reaching adulthood.

Gurven et al. (2006) therefore do away with the idea that physical maturity is, by itself, sufficient to be a fully proficient hunter. Bocherens et al. (2001, 2005) suggest that at least some Neanderthals were top carnivores, which implies they were able to develop fully competent hunting capacities comparable to those of modern humans (if not actually better ones). The idea that Neanderthals could achieve this level of skill simply by maturing more quickly is therefore seriously undermined by the Gurven et al. (2006) paper, and the new Macchiarelli et al. study suggests that, in fact, there is no need to invoke such improbable scenarios to explain effective hunting among Neanderthals. Now, how this all fits with the debate over Neanderthal longevity and life-history as a whole is another debate, one which I will not broach today...

I have to say that also really love the reconstruction of Neanderthal adult-infant interaction depicted in the La Presse feature, and I had not seen before...

I love how the Neanderthal kid looks kinda lost or detached in this one, but then again, I'd probably look like that myself if I was left alone with a guardian that looked as haggard as that adult Neanderthal!


Bocherens, H., M. Toussaint, D. Billiou, M. Patou-Mathis, D. Bonjean, M. Otte, and A. Mariotti. 2001. New isotopic evidence for dietary habits of Neandertals from Belgium. Journal of Human Evolution 40:497-505.

Bocherens, H., D. G. Drucker, D. Billiou, M. Patou-Mathis, and B. Vandermeersch. 2005. Isotopic evidence for diet and subsistence pattern of the Saint-Césaire I Neanderthal: review and use of a multi-source mixing model. Journal of Human Evolution 49:71-87.

Guatelli-Steinberg, D., D. J. Reid, T.A. Bishop, and C. S. Larsen. 2005. Anterior tooth growth periods in Neandertals were comparable to those of modern humans. PNAS 102:14197-14202

Gurven, M., H. Kaplan, and M.Gutierrez. 2006. How long does it take to become a proficient hunter? Implications for the evolution of extended development and long life span. Journal of Human Evolution 51:454-470.

Macchiarelli, R., L. Bondioli, A. Debénath, A. Mazurier, J.-F. Tournepiche, W. Birch, and C. Dean. 2006. How Neanderthal molar teeth grew. Nature: doi:10.1038/nature05314

Ramirez Rossi, F.V., and J. M. Bermudez de Castro. 2004. Surprisingly rapid growth in Neanderthals. Nature 428:936-939.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

El Mirón Cave - Lawrence Straus ASU Lecture

It's a pretty paleo-heavy fall semester for colloquium speakers at ASU, and last Friday, we had the pleasure of having Prof. Lawrence Guy Straus (University of New Mexico) talking to a packed lecture hall about his ongoing project with M. R. Gonzales Morales (Universidad de Cantabria) at El Mirón Cave. This is one impressive site, folks, with a stratigraphy spanning uninterrupted the whole gamut from the Mousterian to the Bronze Age, and having yielded, among other things, the oldest reliably dated evidence for Neolithic lifeways in northern Atlantic Spain.

Of more direct Paleolithic import was Straus' discussion of some of the Magdalenian art found in the cave. This includes notably the following scapula bearing an incised deer

This is a motif that has been found on similar incised artifacts in other neighboring sites, and bears resemblance to parietal depictions of deer found in neighboring Magdalenian sites as well. This has enabled Straus and his colleague to hypothesize the existence of a relatively tightly bound cultural network defined, among other things, on the basis of shared iconography and stylistic conventions. 16,000 years ago. Very, very neat stuff.

In addition, a sondage at the bottom of the excavated area has revealed the presence of a (so far) undifferentiated Early Upper Paleolithic level dated to about 27 kya (uncalibrated) and Late Mousterian levels going back to 41 kya (uncalibrated). Unfortunately, these lower levels are not very well-known yet, having only been excavated over a very small area, but they're there, which is cool in and of itself. All in all, a fantastic site, one which really gives a good view of diachronic changes in site function, land-use patterns, and 'cultural' traditions. Presented with Straus' usual flair and engaging style (not to mention his intimate familiarity with the Paleolithic record of northern Spain), this was one very informative and very entertaining lecture.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Missing Mousterians and Trails of Dead!

Not much time to write these days, but wanted to point out a very good post on Alex Steenhuyse's blog on the recent paper by Dibble and McPherron on the "Missing Mousterian" in Current Anthropology. Though Alex is not completely bias-free (n'est-ce pas?), he is very, very right in pointing out the importance of the approach taken by Dibble & McPherron (2006) to get a more thorough understanding of Neanderthal lifeways... good paper, I've read it, but haven't had a chance to blog about it given how hectic everything is these days...

In other news, So Divided, the latest record by rock juggernauts "... And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead" came out today... go buy it! It's fantastic, phenomenal even!! What's the relevance of this on a blog concerned with archaeology and anthropology, you may well ask... well, I have it on good authority that Trail of Dead's lead singer of the band used to be an anthropology major at UT Austin. So there you have it!


Dibble, H. L., and S. McPherron. 2006. The Missing Mousterian. Current Anthropology 47(5): 777-803.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


If you can vote in the US today... vote, vote, vote!!!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Arthur Machen and the Paleolithic

Arthur Machen was a great writer who influenced many early 20th Century horror and fantastic fiction authors, such as, for instance, H. P. Lovecraft. His stories are still very entertaining reads today and, because most are set in Victorian England, they coincide temporally with the development of anthropology and archaeology as disciplines. This, and the fact that Machen often drew his protagonists from the small bourgeoisie leads to some really neat vignettes, such as this one, from The Red Hand, when two gentlemen taking an evening stroll come upon a murder site and alert the police.

"The three lanterns were flashing here and there, searching for more evidence, and in the gleam of one of them Dyson caught sight of an object in the road, to which he called the attention of the policeman nearest to him.

'Look, Phillipps,' he said, when the man had secured it and
held it up. 'Look, that should be something in your way!'

It was a dark flinty stone, gleaming like obsidian, and shaped to a broad edge something after the manner of an adze. One end was rough, and easily grasped in the hand, and the whole thing was hardly five inches long. The edge was thick with blood.

'What is it Phillipps?' said Dyson; and Phillipps looked hard at it.

'It's a primitive flint knife,' he said. 'It was made about ten thousand years ago. One exactly like this was found near Abury in Wiltshire, and all the authorities gave it that age.' "

A Paleolithic stone tool used as a murder weapon in 19th Century London! How cool is that as a hook?! And the rest of the story gets even better, with some hand prints on a wall, and more! Phenomenal reading!


Machen, A. 1906. The Red Hand. In The House of Souls. E. Grant Richards, London

New paper on Paglicci's EUP levels

The latest L'anthropologie is dedicated to the Upper Paleolithic and contains a paper by A. Palma di Cesnola (U of Siena) on the proto-Aurignacian and early Gravettian layers (24-22) of Grotta Paglicci, on the Gargano Promontory in Apulia, Italy. The site is important for a number of reasons, including the fact that it contains the earliest Aurignacian assemblage in southern Italy (ca. 34,000 BP, uncalibrated). This paper is a summary (in French, with an abstract and figure captions in English) of a the results of the excavations at Paglicci by the Prehistoric Ecology Section of the University of Siena in the 80's and 90's, recently published as a full-length monograph in Italian (Palma di Cesnola 2003a).

Palma di Cesnola (2006) provides a largely typological description of the lithic industries from levels 24-22 along with summary description of their chronological, sedimentary and zooarchaeological records. This is done using G. Laplace's analytical typology. There is unfortunately little information about the debitage or cores of those series, or about the raw materials exploited for their manufacture, although it seems fair to assume, on the basis of information provided in the monograph (i.e., Palma di Cesnola 2003b) that the only exploited lithotype comes from outcrops located about 30 km away from the site. Overall, the Aurignacian levels appear relatively poor in retouched tools compared to the abundant assemblages from the early Gravettian, although it bears emphasizing that those levels appear to have so far only been excavated over an area of about 7-8 square meters (Boscato 2003: Figure 4).

Of interest in the paper is the description of the Paglicci-type (or "PA 24 A1"-type) retouched bladelet that characterizes the backed bladelets of the top of the proto-Aurignacian sequence at Paglicci, while the base of the sequence is characterized by more classic Dufour types. This is interesting because Palma di Cesnola attributes the development of this new bladelet type to the result of proto-Aurignacian (or more precisely what he terms the "marginally backed bladelet Aurignacian") groups who originally made Dufour bladelets settling in "peculiar" contexts in meridional Italy where "under conditions of relative isolation, they would have created specialized and completely new tools" (2006: 366). He sees the Castelcivita sequence (Gambassini 1997) corroborating such an interpretation since at that site too, a Dufour level is overlain by a proto-Aurignacian level characterized by a distinct bladelet type, in that case the "Castelcivita bladelet," which has also been identified at the comparatively recent open-air Aurignacian site of Serino (Accorsi et al. 1979).

Palma di Cesnola also describes Paglicci's rich early Gravettian industries that date back to about 28,000 BP (uncalibrated) and he subsequently presents an overview of the earliest Gravettian in Italy, mentioning that unpublished dates now show the Gravettian to have been present in the Veneto about 30-31,000 BP uncalibrated (Palma di Cesnola 2006: 368). These data suggest that the issue of the origins and diffusion of the Gravettian in Italy will be an interesting topic to keep track of , and that some previous ideas about these processes might well have to be rethought in the coming years.

Overall, the paper's a good summary of those important assemblages, though it's a pity that information on the debitage and cores is missing. For anyone wanting to get an in-depth perspective on those assemblages, I highly recommend consulting the edited site report which comprises detailed analyses of pretty much all aspects of the archaeological record of layers 24-22 (Palma di Cesnola 2003a).


Accorsi, C., E. Aiello, C. Bartolini, L. Casteletti, G. Rodolfi, and A. Ronchitelli. 1979. Il Giacimento di Serino (Avellino): Stratigrafia, Ambienti, e Paletnologia. Atti della Società Toscana di Scienze Naturali A 86:435-487.

Boscato, P. 2003. I macromammiferi dell'Aurignaziano e del Gravettiano antico di Grotta Paglicci. In Paglicci. LÂ’Aurignaziano e il Gravettiano antico (A. Palma di Cesnola, ed.), pp. 49-62. Claudio Grenzi Editore, Foggia, Italy.

Gambassini, P. (editor). 1997. Il Paleolitico di Castelcivita, culture e ambiente. Materiae no.5. Electa, Naples.

Palma di Cesnola, A. (editor). 2003a. Paglicci. L'Aurignaziano e il Gravettiano antico. Claudio Grenzi Editore, Foggia, Italy.

Palma di Cesnola, A. 2003b. Il sito. In Paglicci. LÂ’Aurignaziano e il Gravettiano antico (A. Palma di Cesnola, ed.), pp. 13-14. Claudio Grenzi Editore, Foggia, Italy.

Palma di Cesnola, A. 2003c. LÂ’Aurignaziano dello strato 24. In Paglicci. LÂ’Aurignaziano e il Gravettiano antico (A. Palma di Cesnola, ed.), pp. 111-138. Claudio Grenzi Editore, Foggia, Italy.

Palma di Cesnola, A. 2006. LÂ’Aurignacien et le Gravettien ancien
de la grotte Paglicci au Mont Gargano. L’anthropologie 110: 355–370.

Spike in traffic... and blog rationale

There's been a spike in traffic on this blog lately, thanks in no small part to its being mentioned on the Palanth Forum and the Palanthsci group (thanks to the guilty parties, you know who you are!). Thank you guys for judging my opinions worthy of consideration! So, if you get here from such fine spots along the information superhighway, let me wish you a warm welcome!

I guess this is as good an occasion as any to re-make explicit my goals and intentions about this blog. First and foremost, somewhat selfishly, it serves as a repository for my inchoate thoughts and first reactions to topics that interest me from a scholarly standpoint and have to do with my research, from close or from far. As such, I reserve the right to revisit, revise and disavow them at any point in time. This is also the reason why I opt to post them in blog format rather than post them directly on listervs or discussion groups, where they might appear to be fully crystallized ideas. I don't really have a problem with people linking from discussion boards to the contents of this blog, as long as this important caveat is fully understood.

I tend to be blunt when I speak and write, though I never mean to be insulting or derogatory - I'm a strong believer that there's really no point for those attitudes in science as in life. If you, as a reader, feel the tone of a post is excessive, please let me know. The last thing I need as I post here is to make enemies and generate rancor; as I said, it's not my goal and, frankly, I'm not in a position where I can really afford either. The posts here are simply my burgeoning thoughts and first reactions to stuff I read, or presentations I get to see, or things that come to my attention that I feel are somehow relevant to my research (okay, except for the World Cup stuff, that was just sheer exultation!). As such, they shouldn't be considered definitive or set in stone at all. In fact, they're very likely to change, as they have time to sit around my cerebrum and macerate and come in contact with one another. But, given what I felt was a paucity of blogs discussing Paleolithic and hunter-gatherer archaeology, I felt that it might serve to stimulate discussion if I were to post them as a blog. Also, because I'm writing my thesis, I can't guarantee posts on a regular basis, but I try to post a couple of times a week or so.

I like the blog format for scientific discussion for a number of reasons, a main one being that it democratizes discussion of issues. I'm a PhD candidate in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change (formerly the Department of Anthropology) at Arizona State University, and my research currently focuses on the Uluzzian industry of southern Italy and the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition as a whole, topics I approach from the perspective of lithic analysis, ecological theory and hunter-gatherer studies. While this doesn't make me an authority in any real sense, I do feel that I have at least some competency to discuss issues pertaining to these research topics. If you disagree with me, then by all means post a comment.

What I try to do in this blog is post on issues that otherwise might not get broached in discussions of recent discoveries or papers. This is especially true for short papers in journals like Nature, Science or the PNAS, that usually don't give commentators a chance to go into much detail about their concerns with papers published therein. So, in this blog, when I address issues or concerns I have with papers, I usually focus on details rather than the "big picture." This isn't because I don't think that the big picture is important, but rather because I believe that in order to get an accurate big picture, you need to make sure the individual pixels of that picture, so to speak, are accurate. And I think that it's unscientific to disregard peer-reviewed research that flatly disagrees with a given argument, so I try to bring up such literature when I feel it's been ignored.

However, more than anything, I tend to post comments on papers or topics that I've liked or that have otherwise somehow piqued my curiosity at any given point in time. I'm also a consummate fan of pointing out when pop culture and/or literature intersect with paleoanthropology, so when I stumble on interesting examples of this, I like to post about them as well.

So this, in a nutshell, is the spirit of "A Very Remote Period Indeed." Welcome, enjoy, and feel free to discuss!

PS: I'm aware there are some glitches with my personal site, and I hope to correct them in the coming weeks... however, this all has to wait 'til the dissertation is done!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Hovers on Neanderthal-modern human interactions in the Levant

Just read a dynamite paper by Erella Hovers, a chapter in Conard's When Neanderthals and Modern Humans Met (2006), about the nature of interactions between the two hominin groups in the Levant. She focuses mainly on the Middle Paleolithic record of the region. After reviewing the available empirical evidence and discussing relevant ecological theory, she concludes that:

"Some archaeologists have favored [the competitive model] as the most ecologically parsimonious scenario (Shea 2003b), given the principle of competitive exclusion. However, the Levant in the late Middle and early Upper Pleistocene was a region of unpredictable, short-duration environmental fluctuations on millennial and centennial scales, and of spatially fragmented habitats. Because the coexistence of similar species does not depend on environmental stochasticity (Wang et al. 2000), and since Neanderthals and modern humans were congruent competitors in this region, a scenario of their coexistence in dynamic equilibrium on a regional scale is tenable from an ecological point of view. And while full synchrony of Moderns and Neanderthals throughout the Middle Paleolithic (or at least its later part) is not a fact of the archaeological record, a scenario of coexistence is as, or more, consistent with the available data than a model of competition-driven extinctions of the two taxa. The suggestion that Neanderthal appearance and the disappearance of Moderns are linked by a cause-and-effect relationship is not well supported by either the archaeological data or ecological theory. It stems from confounding temporal association of postulated events with causation for long-term demographic and evolutionary processes. Indications (and putative ones at that) for local extinctions of Moderns (or Neanderthals) during the Middle Paleolithic cannot be simplistically be interpreted as evidence for the extinction of a whole lineage in the region" (Hovers 2006:76)

This is a pretty radical departure from commonly proposed scenarios of Neanderthal-modern human interactions in the Levant. What I especially like about this paper is that Hovers actually reviews the ecological literature in this piece rather than simply invoking it as a mysterious black box buzzing with the sounds of arcane evolutionary forces to support her ideas. By doing this, she's able to generate coherent sets of theoretically-grounded expectations that she then tests against the archaeological record, as opposed to the other way around which is how at least some archaeologists tend to proceed. The kind of approach adopted by Hovers here is the way to go, in my humble opinion, if we are to move the debate over the evolutionary fate of Neanderthals forward.


Conard, N. J. (ed.). 2006. When Neanderthals and Modern Humans Met. Tübingen Publications in Prehistory. Kerns Verlag, Tübingen.

Hovers, E. 2006. Neanderthals and modern humans in the Middle Paleolithic of the Levant: what kind of interactions. In When Neanderthals and Modern Humans Met (N.J. Conard, ed.), pp. 65-85. Tübingen Publications in Prehistory. Kerns Verlag, Tübingen.

Cosquer Revisited - ASU lecture

On Tuesday night, Jean Clottes presented a talk entitled "Cosquer Revisited" at Arizona State University. The event was organized by Elisabeth Culley and Peter Welsh of the Deer Valley Rock Art Center, and sponsored by the newly formed School of Human Evolution and Social Change, which is my academic unit at ASU. It was a great, very enjoyable talk. Clottes is a lively and engaging speaker, he is intimately familiar with all the recent discoveries, and the topic of Paleolithic cave art always makes for intereting and visually gripping presentations.

In addition to detailing ongoing work at Cosquer, Clottes discussed findings at Cussac (which contains a slew of human burials of Gravettian age) and Chauvet, as well as another, unnamed and recently discovered Gravettian-age painted cave. All this will be published in time, but it sure was very nice to get a glimpse of ongoing research and recent discoveries. Beyond detailing the kinds of paintings and engraving found at the site, he also argued that men, women and children all can be shown to have contributed to the creation of the wonderful art preserved at the site, thanks to an anlysis of Cosquer's hand stencils and prints.

Perhaps the most controversial and stimulating aspect of the Cosquer talk was that in which Clottes discussed the intentional scraping off of sections of the cave wall and intentional breaking of stalagmites. Similar behaviors have allegedly been documented in some North American caves where prehistoric people intentionally collected calcium carbonate that was subsequently ground into powder for human consumption for its medicinal properties. I'd never heard about this, and am not familiar at all with this literature. But, if it can be shown that the Cosquer artists did the same thing, that would constitue, to the best of my knowledge, the earliest documented instance of the collection of pharmacopeia in the archaeological record. Clottes clearly mentioned that this was just a tentalizing working hypothesis at the moment, but since none of the wall scrapings or broken stalagmite sections were recovered in the cave, it does appear that this material was intentionally taken away from the site. Fascinating stuff.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

New Evolutionary Anthropology

The latest issue of Evolutionary Athropology came out online today. I bring it up because it contains two papers, one by P. Mellars, the other by J. Zilhão, that deal directly with issues that I'm currently writing about in my dissertation, albeit from a very different perspective. The papers represent good and timely summaries of where the "replacement" and "indigenist" scenarios of modern human origins in Europe stand in late 2006.

I had read the Mellars paper as a preprint, and there isn't much new to report about the conclusions reached in his paper. I'll post on it later in detail, but should mention now that I think that his relabeling of the proto-Aurignacian is wrong-headed, especially since it leads to no particular nuancing of his position as a result.

As for the Zilhão paper, I've just had a chance to glance at it, but in it he perpetuates the factually wrong idea that the lithic assemblage from Level V at Klioura I in Greece is Uluzzian (see Koumouzelis et al. 2001a, b). This perspective is unsupported by even a very casual evaluation of the record (Riel-Salvatore 2006a, 2006b), so its unfortunate to see it given such wide thrift in press. This is especially true since Klisoura is then taken to "date" the earliest Uluzzian. This is the result of using a narrow typological perspective and a culture-historical research agenda, where the goal of archaeology becomes the tracking of cultures over time and space rather than understanding past behavior.

In other news, I got a copy of the Bar-Yosef and Zilhão Towards a Definition of the Aurignacian volume (2006) in the mail yesterday, and I must temper my preliminary assessement of the volume posted a few weeks ago... the volume actually contins a wealth of stimulating papers, most of which directly grapple with the issue of defining the Aurignacian. The only thing that I was surprised not to see in the volume was a concluding chapter by the editors discussing what the agreement was following that meeting and perusal of lithic assemblages from throughout Eurasia. Oh well.


Bar-yosef, O., and J. Zilhão (eds.). 2006. Towards a definition of the Aurignacian. Proceedings of the Symposium held
in Lisbon, Portugal, June 25-30, 2002
. Trabalhos de Arqueologia 45. Instituto Português de Arqueologia, Lisbon (Protugal).

Koumouzelis, M., J.K. Kozlowski, C. Escutenaire, V. Sitlivy, K. Sobczyk, H. Valladas, N. Tisnerat-Laborde, P. Wojtal, and B. Ginter. 2001a. La fin du Paléolithique moyen et le début du Paléolithique supérieur en Grèce: la séquence de la Grotte 1 de Klissoura. L'Anthropologie 105:469-504.

Koumouzelis, M., B. Ginter, J. K. Kozlowski, M. Pawlikowski, O. Bar-Yosef, R. M. Albert, M. Litynska-Zajac, E. Stworzewicz, P. Wojtal, and G. Lipecki. 2001b. The early Upper Palaeolithic in Greece : The excavations in Klisoura Cave. Journal of Archaeological Sciences 28:515-539.

Mellars, P. 2006. Archeology and the dispersal of modern humans in Europe: Deconstructing the "Aurignacian." Evolutionary Anthropology 15:167-182.

Riel-Salvatore, J. 2006a. The place of the Uluzzian in the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition in Italy. Paper presented at the 71st annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Riel-Salvatore, J. 2006b. The Uluzzian as a manifestation of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition in Italy? Paper presented at the 15th meeting of the Union Internationale de Sciences Pre- et Protohistoriques, Lisbon, Portugal.

Zilhão, J. 2006. Neandertals and moderns mixed, and it matters. Evolutionary Anthropology 15:183-195.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Chris Mooney blog

Another week, another dissertation chapter, and another post...

Surfing around, I came upon Chris Mooney's blog, which is unfortunately on temporary hiatus for the next month or so. In case you don't know it, Mooney is the author of the excellent, excellent book The Republican War on Science, of which I finished reading the updated paperback edition just last week (yes, I read it in my "spare time"). While there is a temporary halt in updates, the site is nonetheless a very interesting to read it through and contains a number of posts on the politicization of science in the US as well as popular scientific divulgation. Good stuff.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

More online thesis goodness!!

Oh yeah! Stumbled on this great site today, and I'm quite happy about this. It's an online repository that contains at least some recent PhD theses from the Université de Bordeaux 1 downloadable as pdf files! Included in the bunch are a number of archaeologically-themed theses. More theses online, that's what I'm talking about, people! Shazam!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The ongoing Divje babé I flute controversy

Hi all. Sorry for the momentary lack of posts... things are pretty hectice in Arizona. A recent browse through the journals brought a number of new papers to my attention, including the following two, which struck me because they were published at the same time (more or less) and argue exactly opposite interpretation of a single artifact, namely the alleged bone flute from the Mousterian site of Divje babé I, in Slovenia.

Check out Wikipediafor some pics of the thing. Wiki incidentally has a remarkably detailed treatment of this artifact! I present two views of the "flute" taken from that Wiki entry:

In any case, back to the new pubs. The first paper, in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology by Iain Morley, argues against the "flute" interpretation of the artifact. Here's the abstract:

"The reputed Neanderthal ‘flute’ from the Slovenian site of Divje
babe I has stimulated much interest and detailed research since the original
publication of its discovery in 1997. In spite of nearly ten years’ worth of
analysis and discussion its status as an artefact has remained ambiguous;
nevertheless it is still frequently cited as a ‘flute’. This paper examines the
literature and research regarding this object, and finds that much of the
ambiguity regarding the object’s status derives from the literature itself. It
concludes that there is no need to invoke hominin agency in explaining the
features of the bone."

Now, contrast this to the following paper by Turk et al. (2006) "in press" in L'Anthropologie. Their abstract states that:

"The suspected flute, which dates to Moershoofd-Glinde or Orel Interstadial, and is definitely older than 46 ka, was analysed with the aid of multi-slice computed tomography (MSCT) and reinterpreted in the light of two hypotheses, one of which envisages an artificial origin of the holes and the other a natural one. It was found that there were four holes on the diaphysis; that at least two were made prior to the damage to the proximal and distal ends of the diaphysis; and that carnivores could not have made all the holes, but one at the most. The holes are very probably artificial, made by the combined use of stone and simple bone tools found at the Divje babé I site. The majority, and probably all the damage made by carnivores on the suspected flute, are of secondary origin. Conclusions about the origin of the holes cannot therefore be reached only on the basis of the damage, and the hypothesis of an artificial origin cannot be rejected."

Hmmmmmmm. The debate hardly seems closed, does it? Without having had a chance to go through both papers in much depth (I am writing a dissertation, folks!), my natural tendency is to give thorough analyses (i.e., Turk et al. 2006) greater currency than literature reviews (i.e., Morley 2006). Of course, it all depends on the reliability of the tomographic analysis, so I'll defintiely be posting a follow-up to this in the coming days.


Morley, I. 2006. Mousterian musicianship? The case of the Divje Babe I bone. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 25:317–333

Turk, I., B.A.B. Blackwell, J. Turk, and M. Pflaum. 2006. Résultats de l'analyse tomographique informatisée de la plus ancienne flûte découverte à Divje babé I (Slovénie) et sa position chronologique dans le contexte des changements paléoclimatiques et paléoenvironnementaux au cours du dernier glaciaire. L'Anthropologie 110: in press. DOI: 10.1016/j.anthro.2006.06.002.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Warm-adapted Neanderthals in northern France

In posts published today, Alex Steenhuyse and John Hawks both link to this short article in The Independent about a new Mousterian site at Caours, France, near the shore of the Channel.

The interesting features of this specific site are its age, its geographical location and its contents. As concerns its age, it is reported to be about 125,000 years old, which puts it at the warmest moment of the last glacial cycle. As concerns its geography, it is located relatively far north, implying that Neanderthals were able to exploit northerly regions at least during those times when climate was favorable (also a conclusion of various paper in Van Andel and Davies [2003]). As concerns its contents, the site contains the bones of elephant, rhino, aurochs, wild boar, and various kinds of deer, and those apparently "show signs of having been sawn through, crushed or stripped of their meat by flint tools." This suggests that Neanderthals successfully acquired and processed these animals very early on.

The key word here is "acquired." To the "Neanderthal good" camp, this will be taken as evidence of hunting, which in turn - given the size of some of those beasties - strongly implies cooperative hunting and considerable planning depth. To the "Neanderthal bad" camp, this evidence (especially since it comes from a riverine context) will be taken as merely one more instance of Neanderthal opportunistic scavenging, with dead animals being washed down the river after dying of natural, non-human causes and the more-or-less putrefied corpses being butchered by grunting cavemen. I suspect that when the actual report for this site comes out, it will contain a detailed zooarchaeological analysis of the remains that will be used to support one or the other scenario. In the meantime, I just want to point out that the Independent article mentions specifically that the remains "include a small fragment of elephant bone, several rhinoceros teeth, and many remnants of aurochs, wild boar and several kinds of deer" (my emphasis). Maybe this will turn out to be primarily a hunting camp, with some scavenging of the largest animals? Then again, since it's unlikely folks (Neanderthal or modern) would drag a whole elephant carcass back to camp, maybe not... This is another example of people with different perspectives taking the same evidence to make it agree with what they believe. However, in this case as in any other, the empirical burden usually does agree better with some perspectives.

Another interesting feature of this article: the way it portrays Neanderthals. Contra popular tendencies, Neanderthals are not described as "evolutionary dead-ends". On the contrary, they're described as "our tough and resourceful, near-human, European predecessors" who were "known to be squat, powerful people, who had language and fire and buried their dead." That's a relatively far-cry from the descriptions of Neanderthals in the popular press over the past several years... hey, maybe reporters are finally starting to get it?


Van Andel, T. H., and W. Davies (eds.). 2003. Neanderthals and modern humans in the European landscape during the last glaciation: archaeological results of the Stage 3 Project. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge (UK).

Monday, September 25, 2006

La bataille aurignacienne continue... encore et toujours!

The Palanth Forum has a post that presents the contents of the 45th volume of the Trabalhos de Arqueologia monograph series of the Instituto Português de Arqueologia. The reason I bring this up in this blog is that the title of the volume (edited by O. Bar-Yosef [Harvard] and J. Zilhão [Bristol]) is Towards a Definition of the Aurignacian. It's based on a small conference that was held in Lisbon in 2002, organized by the editors of the volume, one assumes to clarify what is meant by the term "Aurignacian," a cultural label/period/technocomplex/what-have-you. This is an important issue because the Aurignacian has, perhaps aptly, been described as the "promiscuous handmaiden of Paleolithic archaeology" by one prominent researcher, because of the tendency of many people to make the Aurignacian be whatever the hell they want to support their view of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition.

I've read some of the papers in this volume, and most are quite interesting. However, one can well wonder whether this book will, in the end, really end the bataille aurignacienne that started in the early years of the 20th Century with the work of the Abbé Breuil, among others. One of the reasons behind this question is that most of the authors who contribute chapters to the effort already have well-known stances on what the Aurignacian is, how and where it originated, and what its relation to previous European industries was. Then, there's also those researchers who seem to consider that the Aurignacian is unproblematic to identify anyway and who just talk about it without even addressing the issue that is central to the volume. I think that it's emblematic that some of the most thought-provoking papers in the lot that I've had the chance to read so far come from the youngest researchers. There's also a heavy emphasis on continental European perspectives, with only two papers coming from researchers espousing an explicitly anthropological archaeological perspective. That's not necessarily a bad thing, to be sure, but given that many of the interpretive divergences concerning the Aurignacian appear to get somehow amplified over the Atlantic, a more even balance of viewpoints might have yielded different insights into the question.

In the end, I think that this volume will be very useful in highlighting what, in 2006, different people think the Aurignacian is, but perhaps not so much in terms of coming up with a widely shared definition of that phenomenon. Regardless, it should be very useful reading for anyone interested in the topic of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition and/or the emergence of behavioral modernity outside Africa.

Incidentally, the Palanth Forum is an interesting discussion board where a lot of interesting material gets posted or publicized. Well worth checking out, although the action there has unfortunately been kind of slow lately.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

New online thesis database

I just downloaded a full-length thesis as a pdf from the "thèses-en-ligne" website, which is maintained by the French CNRS as a host for doctoral theses based on multidisciplinary research. There are over 5,000 theses available, including a number having to do with, among other things, prehistory and paleoenvironments.

I think this is a brilliant initiative that should serve as a model for other countries. First, it gives doctoral research a wider diffusion than it might otherwise get, especially given the difficulties of procuring theses from overseas for the Interlibrary Loan services of many North American universities. Second, it actually gives publicly-funded research entities an actual, concrete output which citizens can freely access. Lastly, it also forces some transparency in research results (i.e., people can finally check and see whether a PhD thesis really contains a meaningful discussion of certain issues), and it responsabilizes up-and-coming researchers by ensuring that they give back to the funding agencies that financed their work.

I think that, in the US, the NSF should start something like this, and that any public funding for doctoral research should be awarded only if the researcher agrees to provide NSF with a copy of the finished thesis. The same should also be true for the Canadian SSHRC and NSERC.

In any case, the CNRS initiative joins those of a number of other groups that wish to provide access to theses having to do with specific kinds of research. The Paleoanthropology Society's Dissertation Distribution Service is a good example. It is to be hoped that more research societies begin similar efforts

The oldest child...

The National Geographic web site has a story about a 3.3 million-year-old infant skeleton found in the Dikika region of Ethiopia by a team of researchers led by Zeresenay Alemseged of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology's Department of Human Evolution, in Germany. The site features some video and additional photographs, as well as a link to a much more detailed report about the find, and its implications for understanding development at that period of our past. Here's a shot of the skeleton which, unlike Lucy, has an almost complete cranium!

(Copyright: National Geographic Society;

This story has been a long time coming, since the first remains were originally found about five years ago, so it's nice to finally have a relatively detailed and well-illustrated report on the finds!

Added 20/09/2006, 15:03: The remains are also the subject of two new papers in Nature. Both can be accessed from this webpage which provides additional information.

More on Finlayson et al. (2006)

Just a brief note to point out that Alex Steenhuyse also has posted some interesting comments on his blog about the Finlayson et al. (2006) paper on late Neanderthal dates at Gorham's Cave. He draws some interesting parallels between this paper and the Gravina et al. (2005) paper on new dates for the site of Grotte des Fées de Châtelperron that was published last year. BTW, you might also want to check out Alex's website (Anthrosite), which contains info on his research on the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition in France, and some of his publications and ongoing research. Good stuff, good stuff.

It's also interesting to note that all of the in-depth comments on the Finlayson et al. (2006) paper that I've seen on the blogosphere (yikes, I just used that word!) so far have been rather skeptical...


Finlayson, C., et al. 2006. Late survival of Neanderthals at the southernmost extreme of Europe. Nature: in press. doi : 10.1038/nature05195

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bonn Conference Pre-Prints

2006 marks the 150th anniversary of the original Neanderthal type-specimen discovery at Feldhofer Cave, in the Neander Valley, in Germany. To commemorate the discovery that set the stage for much of today's paleoanthropological research, a major international conference was held in Bonn, Germany earlier this year, where some of the most prominent researchers in the field of "Neanderthal studies" presented reviews and new discoveries.

The full program, complete with extensive abstracts (each several pages long), have been made available as a pdf file on the Istituto Italiano di Preistoria e Protostoria's web site. It's a pretty big file, but well worth the hassle to get an idea of the currently dominant stances and perspectives about Neanderthals today.

The scientific method...

Courtesy of PhD Comics by Jorge Cham (which I warmly recommend reading).

Should I be concerned that I found this comic so damn funny...?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Tragedy in Montreal

The tragic shooting spree that happened yesterday in Montreal took place at my sister's school. She was outside the building when it happened, and escaped uninjured although she is badly shaken. I'm so relieved she's safe, you have no idea. This is a tragedy, nothing less, and I feel overwhelmed right now. My thoughts go out to the injured and the families of the deceased student and the nineteen other people that were injured, some critically. It's a dark day.

The latest of the last?

Through the magic of the information superhighway, I managed to get a copy of Finlayson et al.'s (2006) paper that I mentioned in my last post. It's pretty short, and I've had time to go through it in depth.

At its most basic, this is a schematic site report focused on chronology as derived from AMS 14C dates, of which the authors present fully 30. There's unfortunately little to no discussion of the lithic or faunal assemblages (presumably because that information will be included in the project's final report/publication), so there is almost no information about the patterns of mollusk and sea mammal exploitation in the Mousterian levels of Gorham's Cave, which I was originally so excited about, based on comments by Finlayson on the Nature news report.

The main of the paper is an argument for an age of ca. 28,000 radiocarbon years (that is, uncalibrated) for the Late Mousterian at Gorham's, and that there is no evidence for infiltration from the overlying Upper Paleolithic (Solutrean and Magdalenian) level III into Mousterian level IV. That these two form discrete and well separated depositional units is well demonstrated by a combination of two measurements of “geochemical detrital ratios”, in this case K/Al and Mg/Al, which indicate radically different depositional contexts for levels III and IV (Finlayson et al. 2006: Figure 1c). So, the late MP and UP levels are clearly distinct, no argument there, and this is further suggested by a photograph (Figure 1d) of a section at the site which leaves little doubt as to the dramatically distinct sediment color in each.

As for the dates themselves, the 22 that concern the Late MP level (samples 9-30) are a bit hard to make sense of at first glance, especially since the authors present doubled, rather than single error ranges. Now there's absolutely nothing wrong with doing this; in fact, given their large corpus of dates, it's probably better to do so, since it means that all the radiocarbon determinations thus presented are ca. 95% likely to correspond to the range within which an individual sample's actual age falls. However, it does lead to a bit of confusion since dates are usually presented with single error ranges.

Regardless, even at second glance, the chronological data are very messy, and as a whole they display no obvious logical stratigraphic coherence, although they all fall somewhere between ca. 24-32,500 uncal. BP, distibuted over about 50 cm of sediment. Finlayson et al. explain this general lack of coherence as resulting from

“repeated use [of the site] confirmed by the stratigraphic distribution of the dates within level IV that indicate localized alterations due to use and reuse (for example trampling and cleaning) in the area around the position of the hearths but dates in stratigraphic sequence within the location of the hearths themselves. Thus, three samples (16, 17 and 20; Fig. 1) came from Mousterian superimposed hearths. These three dates provide a stratigraphic sequence from 24,0106320 to 30,5606720 yr BP. Taken together, all the dates show that Neanderthals occupied the site until 28 kyr BP and possibly as recently as 24 kyr BP.” (2006:p.1).

In other words, they explain away 19 of their dates that are not in coherent stratigraphic order by focusing on only three of them that are coehrent and suggest a very young age for the Mousterian deposits. Their argument for this (i.e., focus at the center of the heart which remained in a fixed position throughout the Mousterian at the site), while certainly valid is also somewhat problematic. For one thing, the majority of the bottommost dates (i.e., samples 24-27 and 30) display a coherent age of roughly 31-32.5 kya uncal for the base of the deposit, and this even well away (i.e., roughly 4 meters) from the hearth which is supposed to be the epicenter of disturbance. Embedded between them are samples 28-29, which date to (ironically) 28 and 29 kya. If anything, given that these two samples come from immediately next to each other (as best as can be gauged from Figure 1c), their unexpected recent ages are perhaps best explained by some unspecified localized form of contamination. So, overall, the very base of the hearth would seem to date to somewhere between 31-32.5 kya, thus providing a terminus post quem (or ante quem, depenging on your take) for the age of overlying samples. The four stratigraphically highest samples (9-12) give ages ranging from 26-30 kya (with an average of around 28.5 kya), which is coherent with the minimum age of the Late MP deposits just outlined. I think that this is basically where the data presented leaves us at this point, however. And what is known so far should, in the absence of evidence to the contrary encourage us to lean towards an older age for the top of the Mousterian (i.e., closer to 30 kya than 26 kya).

I think that the argument that the dates should all be considered valid but in secondary context because people continued using the site for prolonged periods and moved stuff around is not very good for two main reasons: First, this is likely to have been the norm at many cave/rockshelter sites whose physical characteristics (e.g., the presence of a high vault, or ceiling openings to enable smoke to clear out) would have constrained the positioning of certain features such as hearths. This is certainly something I've observed in my own field work, where Mousterian and Aurignacian hearths were located at the same spot in the rockshelter. Should we suppose that Italian Pleistocene hominins were more mindful about kicking stuff around and/or digging around than those from Gibraltar? Or that they operated with more of a concern for future archaeologists? I don't think so. This being the case, the argument that people lived in sites and must have disturbed sediments and the position of dating samples is unconvincing and basically a post hoc argument that has little inherent merit. There are ways to demonstrate the integrity (or lack thereof) of given layers within archaeological sites (e.g., micromorphology) and in their absence, it is simply impossible to accept the argument for anthropogenic (or any other source) sedimentary disturbance at face value. Maybe this information will be provided in the final report, but at the moment, it's lacking.

The second line of evidence against the explanation for mixing has to do with the intensity of occupation at the site. The authors report a total of 103 lithics for level IV, which was excavated over an area of 29 square meters. The site stratigraphy presented in the paper indicates a thickness of about 1m for level IV, which means that we're dealing with a density of about 3.55 lithic artifacts per cubic meter of excavated sediment! Even if we take only the top half of the deposits (ca. 50 cm thick), that still only gives about 7 lithics per cubic meter. Practically, that means that, digging a 1x1m unit in 10 cm spits, one would encounter one lithic per spit, 7 times out 10! In my view at least, this is hardly the kind of evidence of very intensive use and reuse of an area, especially around a hearth, where lithic concentrations tend to be relatively dense in general. So the argument for heavy human action on the sediment is, as a result, severely weakened. A caveat to this argument, however, is that it is unclear from this paper what is considered an artifact. Are we only talking about retouched tools here? Or are we (as I assume) including debitage as well? What's the frequency of retouched pieces relative to the total? This is information that could significantly clarify the discussion about site occupation intensity. Again, I suppose we'll have to wait for the final report to be sure.

So, in the end, is this site really 28 ky or even 24 ky old? As is usually the case in paleoanthropology, it's not impossible. However, in light of the reasoning just outlined, I think that the possibility of sample contamination should be dealt with in a more thorough fashion before being discarded out of hand. At the moment, I'm not unwilling to consider that the top of the sequence may be as old as 28.5 ky old, but my money's still on a slightly older age, probably along the lines of 30 kya. What would have considerably clarified the issue here would have been the presentation of the results of complementary dating methods (e.g., TL, OSL, ESR). This would have enabled an objective discussion of whether or not the sediments were really disturbed or if the charcoal samples might have been contaminated by younger material at some point.

Check out also John Hawks' blog for some additional comments on the paper.


Finlaysn, C. L., et al. 2006. Late survival of Neanderthals at the southernmost extreme of Europe. Nature: in press. doi:10.1038/nature05195

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The end of the Neanderthal world... geographically!!

It's all over the web!
There's an article in the New York Times
about a soon-to-be-published report by Clive Finlayson's team on new radiocarbon dates from Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar, that seem to indicate that some Mousterian tools at the site date to 28,000 BP. The NYT piece is based on a paper that should come out soon in Nature, but so far, all that's available is this news report by David Brill, titled "Neanderthal's last stand." The NYT piece also refers to a commentary by Eric Delson and Katarina Harvati to be published along with the Nature paper, in which they stress caution, but nonetheless suggest that the date seems convincing.

The news report doesn't have much more detail, except a mention that the assemblage (or is it the retouched tools?) is composed of 103 artifacts, and that the site has yielded evidence for extensive exploitation of sea resources (shellfish and mammals!). There's a comment in the news report by Paul Mellars, who rightly mentions (yes, yes... I just wrote "rightly"!) that we must be somewhat wary of the dates because minute amounts of contamination might have affected the resulting dates. However, there's no way to tell before reading the piece whether this is an issue (I suspect it's not... they probably have multiple AMS dates can be done on extremely small samples).

A few comments:
1) These are only tools that are dated; there's no associated fossils, although only Neanderthals are known t have manufactured Mousterian industries in Europe.

2) The evidence for sea mammal harvesting (in the form of scavenging) is some of the first of its kind for a Mousterian site; that, to me, is perhaps the neatest aspect of this news so far!

3) Purely coincidentally, I finished reading Finlayson's Neanderthals and Modern Humans (2004) volume today. Overall, I liked it quite a bit, especially because it takes such a refreshingly different perspective from most research on Neanderthals and modern humans (he actually formulates test hypotheses and contrasts them to the known record, as oppose to just describing the record!). It's a bit environmental deterministic, but it's very well done... too bad people don't seem to have picked up on it too much yet... hopefully this new paper will change that!

More thoughts after I've found the paper itself!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

New posts soon!

Apologies for the recent lack of updates, and expect some new posts in the extremely near future. Got back from te UISPP meetings in Lisbon where a grand time was had. I'll be writing more about that (and other topics) very soon, so check back in a few!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

New PaleoAnthropology papers

PaleoAnthropology,, the official publication of the Paleoanthropology Society, has a number of new reviews and papers out, as of yesterday (methinks). The papers are available for free in pdf format. Look for some thoughts on the piece entitled "Eco-Cultural Niche Modeling: New Tools for Reconstructing the Geography and Ecology of Past Human Populations " in the near future. Time has been kind of tight lately, but I'll be posting more very soon, so keep posted!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Update on Creswell Crags

There's a short online report detailing the results of recent excavations at the British rock art site of Creswell Crags. Given that the team was digging up the spoil heap of 19th Century excavations that took place at the site, it's perhaps not surprising they didn't find too much. What they did find, however, covers the range from the Middle Ages all the way to the Gravettian. The exact nature of all Pleistocene chronological attributions is unclear.

Not terribly informative as to exactly what was found, tool-wise, aside from a potential Pleistocene awl, though the report includes this tentalizing if vague excerpt:

"There was one possible find of Ice Age art, which researchers will be examining further, and the excavation will provide the archaeologists with enough information to plan a further major dig at the site next year."

The report does include a neat image showing the outline of some of the engraved stags identified in 2003 and 2004.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Study break of sorts

I'm in Genoa until mid-September, studying Paleolithic lithic collections from Riparo Bombrini with my colleague Fabio Negrino, but I have web access so I should keep posting relatively regularly.

While in Europe, I'll also take a week off to attend the quinquennal UISPP meetings in Lisbon, Portugal, where I'm presenting papers on aspects of my doctoral research. The full program of the 2006 meetings is now available online in pdf format on the conference website and, for anyone with an interest in prehistoric research in the broadest sense, it's sure to be a treasure trove of information, since the abstracts are included as well. Individual sessions, such as Setting the Record Straight: Toward a Systematic Chronological Understanding of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic Boundary in Eurasia also have individual web pages, or more detailed information in pdf format. Should be a great conference, and Lisbon, well, is Lisbon!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Henri de Monfreid, archaeologist

Reading through a paper by David Pleurdeau "in press" in the African Archaeological Review, I stumbled upon a reference to the original discoverers of Porc-Epic Cave, a Middle Stone Age (MSA) site in Ethiopia. Almost everyone interested in the MSA of East Africa knows that P. Theillard de Chardin (1930) was one of them (see also Pleurdeau 2005); fewer know that Henri de Monfreid was the other. Fewer still probably know about Henri de Monfreid, a French expat (mainly) who lived an adventurous life on and along the coast of the Red Sea, trafficking in weapons and other things, and doing a number of things often not completely within the bounds of the law. As it happens, Monfreid was also a very talented and prolific writer who captured a number of his experiences in written form. The first Monfreid book I had the pleasure to read back in 1994 was La croisière du Hachich, translated into English under the title Hashish (a fantastic read!), and I've been hooked ever since, reading compulsively anything of his I've come across over the years. A good overview of Monfreid's life and artistic output (he was also a painter) is provided by P. Baraduc in his Henri de Monfreid: Flibustier de la Mer Rouge (1998).

He is, hands down, one of my favorite writers, and it was a small pleasure to learn that he had, on top of all else he did over his lifetime, done paleoanthropological and ethnological work.


Baraduc, P. 1998. Henri de Monfreid: Flibustier de la Mer Rouge. Collection "Grandes aventures." Arthaud, Paris.

Monfreid, H. de. 1933. La croisière du Hachich. Grasset, Paris.

Pleurdeau, D. 2005. Le Middle Stone Age de la grotte du Porc-Épic (Dire Dawa, Éthiopie) : gestion des matières premières et comportements techniques: Porc-Epic cave (Dire Dawa, Ethiopia). L'Anthropologie 107:15-48.

Pleurdeau, D. 2006. Huma technical behavior in the African Middle Stone Age: the lithic assemblage from Porc-Epic Cave (Dire Dawa, Ethiopia). African Archaeological Review 22: in press. (DOI: 10.1007/s10437-006-9000-7)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

All Mellars, all the time

Paul Mellars is enjoying a rather prolific year, as far as publishing review papers in high-profile journals is concerned. The latest one can be found in Science and concerns the archaeological evidence from southern Asia between 50 and 30,000 BP. Unsurprisingly, Mellars argues that these artifacts provide indisputable evidence for the dispersal of (not to say the colonization of the Old World by) anatomically and behaviorally modern humans. Now, there's things I like about this papers, and things I dislike.

On the “like” side, Mellars present evidence from an area that is largely unknown (and therefore undiscussed) by most researchers concerning themselves with modern human origins research. This therefore exposes the rest of the discipline to data that offer the potential to confirm or contradict current ideas and models. This is done in his usual concise and engaging style, which is not something that is given to all paleoanthropologists to be able to do.

On the “dislike” side, Mellars once again (see Mellars 2006a) implicitly presents archaeology as simply an ancillary line of evidence to be at worst fitted to or at best compared to the conclusions reached by seemingly serious disciplines like evolutionary genetics and human paleontology (see discussion in Marks 2003). This, in my view, seriously demeans archaeology as an independent field of study which has a lot to offer. I think part of why Mellars perhaps unwittingly depicts archaeology in such a way has to do with his approach to archaeology. For him, archaeology is largely a culture-historical exercise, meaning that the goal of archaeology is to track the extant and duration of given “cultures.” From this perspective, artifacts are not so much objects that were used by prehistoric hominins to achieve given ends but signals of group identity. In this sense, a Dufour bladelet, say, becomes simply the Paleolithic equivalent of a coin of a given age and provenience in numismatics.

As I've said before, this is not inherently wrong, and some artifacts unquestionably have restricted temporal and geographical distributions. However, this perspective stands in stark contrast to the goals of anthropological archaeology and evolutionary ecology, which are to understand how people acted in the past and why. For anyone interested in evolutionary processes in the deep past, these are the questions that should matter. To simply plot the distribution of culture groups does nothing to explain the evolutionary storyline to which they belong, it merely sets the stage. It's like stating that a book comprises X number of chapters without explaining how the chapters are related and why one chapter comes to a close when and how it does. To me at least, this is very unsatisying.

Getting back to the paper itself, however, there are some more serious issues with some of Mellars' assertions. As concerns the genetic evidence for a single population diffusing from Africa, he brushes aside known problems with studies of mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA that potentially support the existence of two separate populations despite citing fully eight such critiques, which is no small number considering that he cites only seven studies in support of his argument. This is not necessarily critical, since studies are liable to criticisms even if they are not thoroughly flawed, but these numbers do give pause.

As far as the archaeology is concerned, Mellars makes his case for a direct link between Africa and southern Asia by presenting evidence that a handful of sites dated to between 30-34 kya (calibrated, which means roughly 27-31 kya uncal, which corresponds to the beginning of the Gravettian and not the Aurignacian in Europe!!) yielded “crescentic” forms and ostrich eggshell beads similar to a handful of African Howiesons' Poort (and Howiesons' Poort-like) assemblages dating to at most 65 kya. In passing, Mellars once again repeats his assertion that such lithics may have been parts of arrows, something which I have shown to be unsupported by any hard evidence in two previous posts (the first, the second). As concerns the lithics, the argument for analogy is unconvincing on two levels. On a purely empirical level, a casual inspection of the drawings of them presented by Mellars suggests that the majority of the southern Asian artifacts were made on flake blanks, which is a very different way to manufacture crescentic forms than the backing of blade segments that characterizes the African material. Further, Mellars presents no data whatsoever about the rest of the lithic assemblages to which these crescents belong. In the Howiesons' Poort of Klasies River Mouth, Wurz (2002) has shown “crescents” are present in the hundreds! They thus represent a central part of the assemblage. Unless the lithic assemblages from southern Asia can be shown to display a similar dependence on crescent technology, any argument about whether they represent the same “culture” or even more simply the same “way of doing things” is unsupported. Otherwise, one would have to say that the Uluzzian of southern Italy, which Mellars himself has repeatedly and unwaveringly assigned to Neanderthals (e.g., Mellars 1996, 2004, 2005), would have to be taken as proof positive of modern human expansion in that part of the world as well.

On a conceptual level, it is also very interesting to take a look at how Mellars attempts to present the case for a cultural connection between Africa and southern Asia. Rather than presenting any contextual data about the assemblages which he mentions, he limits himself to presenting composite pictures of “representative” artifacts from, on one side, southern Asia and, on the other, Africa. It doesn't matter that in both instances the assemblages invoked are separated by hundreds if not thousands of years and kilometers. A telling analogous argument is that put forward by Bradley and Stanford (2004) which alleges that the Clovis Paleoindian culture of North America derives from the influence of western European Solutrean migrants who would have crossed the Atlantic to settle the Americas. This argument has been debunked in press by a number of paleoanthropologists (e.g., Sellet 1998, Straus 2000, Clark 2004) and does not appear – to the best of my knowledge – to enjoy widespread credence among the archaeological community as a whole. Interestingly in the context of this discussion of Mellars' latest paper, however, in their latest paper Bradley and Stanford's discussion of actual artifacts is illustrated only by a set of three figures (2004:466, 467, 468) in which they present, on the one side, select Clovis artifacts and, on the other, Solutrean artifacts. Here too, there are no detailed discussions of the broader context in which these lithics are found, and no solid empirical data presented in tables to back up their argument. Rather, the similarities between the composite pictures are, in this case as well, argued to represent indisputable evidence of a direct link between the two. Except that in this case, nobody else no seems to be convinced, beyond perhaps the popular press which is always so eager to present “both sides of the debate.”

As Clark (2004:110-111) argues:

“Their scenario is an example of post hoc accomodative argument, wherein explanations are developed after an analysis has been completed (in this case, a very superficial one) to account for patterns detected in a data set. Post hoc accomodation is a weak form of inference because the research designs that incorporate it lack a deductive component... Post hoc accomodative argument sets the agenda for future research, rather than constituting a set of conclusions that can stand or fall on their own.”

I think that this relatively fairly describes the gist of Mellars' approach as well. Now, I'm not saying that post hoc accomodative arguments cannot be a good source of ideas, some of which may even be amenable to empirical testing. However, in this case, there is very little analytical depth to this and Mellars' other recent papers (2006a, 2006c), and no critical take on the data. Rather, Mellars repeats the same argument over and over again, incorporating only the data that fits his ideas. The problem is that such papers are then taken as gospel by other researchers who cite it as proof for a single-origin colonizing population of modern humans that blazed an ochre-stained trail out of their African homeland as they marched ineluctably to conquer the rest of the world. Contemporary archaeology can – and most importantly should – do more than this, and develop its own set of conclusions that can then be confronted to the human paleontological and genetic records rather than vice-versa.


Bradley, D., and D. Stanford. 2004. The North Atlantic ice-edge corridor: a possible Palaeolithic route to the New World. World Archaeology:459-478,

Clark, G. A. 2004. Deconstructing the North Atlantic connection. In The Settlement of the American Continent (C.M. Barton, G.A. Clark, D.R, Yesner, and G.A. Pearson, eds.), pp. 103-122. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Marks, A. E., 2003. Reflections on Levantine Upper Palaeolithic studies: past and present. In More than Meets the Eye: Studies on Upper Palaeolithic Diversity in the Near East (A. N. Goring-Morris & A. Belfer-Cohen, eds.), pp. 249-264. Oxbow Press, Oxford.

Mellars, P. 1996. The Neanderthal Legacy. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Mellars, P. 2004. Neanderthals and the modern human colonization of Europe. Nature 432:461–465.

Mellars, P., 2005. The impossible coincidence. A single-species model for the origins of modern human behaviour in Europe. Evolutionary Anthropology 14, 12–27.

Mellars, P. 2006a. Why did modern human populations disperse from Africa ca. 60000 years ago? A new model. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:9381-9386.

Mellars, P. 2006b. Going east: new genetic and archaeological perspectives on the modern human colonization of Eurasia. Science 313:796-800.

Mellars, P. 2006c. A new radiocarbon revolution and the dispersal of modern humans in Eurasia. Nature 439:931-5.

Sellet, F. 1998. The French connection: investigating a possible Clovis-Solutrean link. Current Research on the Pleistocene 15:67-68.

Straus, L.G. 2000. Solutrean settlement of North America? A review of reality. American Antiquity 65:219-226.

Wurz, S. 2002. Variability in the Middle Stone Age lithic sequence, 115,000–60,000 years ago at Klasies River, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 29:1001–1015.