Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I haven't forgotten about those shells, folks...

After my unintentional break in posting of the past week, here are my thoughts on the new paper in Science by Marian Vanhaeren and colleagues about pierced shells at two ca. 100kya Middle Paleolithic sites in Algeria and Israel. The study describes three pierced Nassarius globulus shells, two from the Levantine Mousterian site of Skūhl, the other from the Aterian site of Oued Djebbana. The authors argue that these shells demonstrate “deliberate selection and transport by humans for symbolic use” (Vanhaeren et al. 2006:1785), and that they therefore provide evidence for symbolic behavior even earlier than the much vaunted finds from Blombos. As is usual of Vanhaeren and d’Errico’s work (they’re the two lead authors), this paper is an analytically solid, well-written and largely convincing study. And it finally puts to rest the idea that the shells from Qafzeh are indicative of ornament-use (Vanhaeren et al. 2006:1785), an argument which some researchers have used repeatedly to argue for the symbolic capacity of that site’s modern humans despite having no convincing empirical data to support this (e.g., Mellars 2005, 2006).

After a few sentence summarizing our knowledge of the earliest credible beads, they briefly describe the sites where the shells were found. Skūhl is dated to about 100-135kya, while Oued Djebbana is dated to “perhaps 90,000 bp” on the basis of recent dates for other Aterian assemblages that suggest it’s much older than previously thought (Wrinn et al. 2003; Cremaschi et al. 1998). Both sites were excavated in the 20’s or 30’s, using pretty roughshod methods, and their stratigraphy is to a certain degree unclear.

Now, I am not so much unconvinced by the analysis of those pieces – they clearly appear to have been intentionally selected and pierced shells, and at Skūhl, they are clearly associated with the modern human bearing level – as I am by some of the interpretations that the authors propose of those artifacts. Clearly, the most likely explanation for the presence of these artifacts at the two sites and their distinctive morphology is that they were used as suspended beads, likely as ornaments. What does strike me as odd is that the authors interpret these three shells “support the hypothesis that a long-lasting and widespread beadworking tradition existed in Africa and the Levant well before the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe.” (Vanhaeren et al. 2006:1788; my emphasis). Here, the question is one of the quantitative sufficiency of the data and of interpretive coherence. As concerns the quantitative sufficiency of their argument, let’s remember that we are talking here about three beads from two sites separated by thousands of kilometers and, potentially, thousands of years. Three pierced shells are hardly what you would expect as archaeological evidence of a continuous, well-developed and widespread, especially if their putative advantage lies in communicating information about group identity, social status or what have you. Plainly put, at Skūhl, you have two pierced shells for about ten documented individuals, hardly what you would expect if ornamentation was widespread in that group. Admittedly, Garrod mentions the presence of more shells and more species in the Skūhl desposits, but of all the shells found at the Natural History Museum, only Nassarius globulus were intentionally pierced. It would have been interesting to know how many of the shells belonging to that species there were in total, to better evaluate the statistical unusualness of the two pierced ones.

Much the same can be said of the single pierced shell from Oued Djebbana. Does one pierced shell a widespread tradition of ornamentation make? It is interesting here to contrast the evidence presented by Vanhaeren and colleagues in light of the two chronologically-closest pierced shell assemblages reported in the literature, namely that from Blombos (see Henshilwood et al. 2004, ca. 65 kya) and that from Üçağızlı (see Kuhn et al. 2001, ca. 41 kya). At Blombos, the comparatively small excavated area of the deposits yielded 41 pierced shells, while they number in the hundreds (though only 58 in the earliest UP level) at Üçağızlı . Like so many other aspects from Blombos, the pierced shells there stand as the sole empirically well-studied assemblage of this kind of evidence of that age in the MSA, being separated by some 25,000 years and several thousand kilometers from that of Enkapune Ya Muto, in Kenya (Ambrose 1998). The Blombos case undoubtedly represents a credible body of evidence recovered from a well-documented archaeological context, and with 41 specimens, they do seem to attest that, at that moment in time and at that site at least, there was socially-mediated use of pierced shells as ornaments. At Üçağızlı, the hundreds of documented pierced shells (along with the ones from the nearby site of Ksar' Akil) indicate a widespread behavior in that area and at that time, one which the authors link to the need to visually express social information at long-distance as a result of some form of demographic in the region. The abundance of pierced shells from that area and time period makes this scenario imminently credible. Perhaps not coincidentally, these two sites area also putatively attributed to modern humans although fossils from both sites are unknown so far.

Contrast this to the evidence presented for Skūhl and Oued Djebbbana. Three shells for an area of several tens of thousand kilometers and for an interval spanning potentially up to 65,000 years (Oued Djebbana is undated and there is no a priori reason why it should necessarily date to 90 kya without new dates to bolster this interpretation). While they represent interesting occurrences, the empirical record is simply not sufficient to assert the existence of any widespread tradition. More than anything, unless a substantial assemblage of such shells is found in northern African or the Levant, these appear to represent more “flashes in the pan” than anything. I think that part of why the authors might have been so keen on postulating such an interpretation is the association of the shells with modern humans, demonstrably for Skūhl and presumably for Oued Djebbana. I have the feeling that if a handful of comparable artifacts had been found in Neanderthal contexts, they would have generally been either disregarded as anomalous and probably intrusive by most scholars or, at best, been considered to represent ‘isolated accidents’ where lone individuals experimented with ornamentation, though the practice ultimately disappeared with them when they died (see e.g., Henshilwood and Marean 2003). This is comparable to the case for bone tools. Compare Mellars’ recent description of the Blombos bone tools as “carefully shaped” (2005:16-17, 22) to the one he provides of the extensive Châtelperronian bone tool assemblage from Arcy-sur-Cure (widely believed to have been made by Neanderthals), which he repeatedly describes as “simple.” (2005:21-22). This is problematic because we are never told what the distinguishing traits of “simple” vs. “complex” bone tools are! This has never been made explicit, and to a degree, I suspect that it doesn’t matter – is what’s important here the fact that hominins are using new materials to craft a new suite of tools (which implies a conceptual shift), or the fact that some of these tools are complex or simple? In the Châtelperronian, toolmakers are not simply making stone tools out of bone, but rather creating a completely new range of technological items. This is unlike prior instances of bone use (e.g., the Acheulean site of Castel di Guido, in central Italy) where bone was worked in exactly the same way as stone in the same assemblage and was presumably conceived of simply as an alternative material to stone to obtain the same results. To a degree, when I see discussions like Mellars’ (and I’m not singling him out here, it’s simply that he represents perhaps the best-known [and perhaps most prolific!] proponent of this perspective), I can never shake off the nagging feeling that this characterization of Neanderthal vs. modern human bone industries is largely a replication of the annuated debated over the use of blade vs. flake industries between the two populations, and its implications for so-called behavioral modernity.

Of course, d’Errico at least believes that Neanderthals were able to and did behave symbolically, as shown by some of his recent publications in which he documents a large body of evidence in support of this (e.g., d’Errico 2003, d’Errico et al. 2003). Interestingly, much of this evidence is quantitatively poor, so maybe the Vanhaeren et al. paper is an attempt to “pave the way” to making subsequent arguments about the presence of symbolism in Neanderthals by showing how similar cases can be made for modern humans. Frankly, knowing how they work and how they approach the archaeological record, I really don’t think Vanhaeren and d’Errico would do this, but were it to be the case, while I am fully sympathetic to the view of Neanderthals as symbolically able, I don’t think that this would be the way to do it, precisely because we need empirical certainty to make credible statements about this facet of prehistoric behavior.

It’ll be very interesting to see if new claims of either modern human or Neanderthal symbolism come to light following this paper and how empirically well-grounded they are. While this is clearly the kinds of methods to be used in demonstrating purposeful ornament-making in the Pleistocene, I do hope that the interpretive approach taken in this paper is not indicative of things to come. If it is, we can only hope that it can be applied equally by all researchers to all similar datasets. As demonstrated by Roebroeks and Corbey (2001) in a very important though little cited paper, the double-standard prevalent in the interpretation of the Neanderthal and modern human archaeological records unfortunately makes this seem unlikely.


Ambrose, S. H. 1998. Chronology of the Later Stone Age and food production in East Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 25:377–92.

Cremaschi, M., S. Di Lernia, and E. A. A. Garcea. 1998. Some insights on the Aterian in the Libyan Sahara: chronology, Environment, and Archaeology. African Archaeologial Review 15:261-286.

d’Errico, F . 2003. The invisible frontier: A multiple-species model for the origin of behavioral modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology 12:188–202.

d’Errico, F., C. Henshilwood, G. Lawson, M. Vanhaeren, A.-M. Tillier, M. Soressi, F . Bresson, B. Maureille, A. Nowell, J. Lakarra, L. Backwell, and M. Julien. 2003. Archaeological evidence for the emergence of language, symbolism, and music: an alternative multidisciplinary perspective. Journal of World Prehistory 17:1–70.

Henshilwood, C., F. d'Errico, M. Vanhaeren, K. van Niekerk, and Z. Jacobs. 2004.Middle Stone Age Shell Beads from South Africa. Science 304:404.

Henshilwood, C. S., and C. W. Marean. 2003. The origin of modern human behavior: critique of the models and their test implications. Current Anthropology 44:627-651.

Kuhn, S. L., M. C. Stiner, D. S. Reese, and E. Güleç. 2001. Ornaments of the earliest Upper Paleolithic: New insights from the Levant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98:7641-7646.

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

Mellars, P. 2006. Why did modern human populations disperse from Africa ca. 60,000 years ago? A new model. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:9381-9386.

Roebroeks, W. & R. Corbey 2001. Biases and double standards in palaeoanthropology. In Studying Human Origins: Disciplinary History and Epistemology (R. Corbey & W. Roebroeks, eds.), pp. 67-76. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press.

Vanhaeren, M., F. d'Errico, C. Stringer, S. L. James, J. A. Todd, and H. K. Mienis. 2006. Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria. Science 312:1785 - 1788.

Wrinn, P. J., and W. J. Rink. 2003. ESR dating of tooth enamel from Aterian levels at Mugharet el ‘Aliya (Tangier, Morocco). Journal of Archaeological Science 30:123-133.

Go West!

I’m in Montréal for the next month or so, trying to get a large chunk of the dissertation finished away from the distractions of Arizona. So, perhaps fittingly, this post is the first of a series discussing a few papers in French!

Marie-Hélène Moncel and Jean-Luc Voisin have an interesting new paper in a recent (and available free online) issue of Comptes Rendus Palevol about so-called transitional industries and the mode of speciation of Neanderthals in Europe. Their basic argument here is that there is an east-west gradient of Neanderthal traits which indicate that Neanderthals might have been a ‘ring species’ of modern humans, with geographically proximate Neanderthal groups able to viably interbreed with humans (in the Near East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe) and distant ones being unable to do so (in Western and perhaps Central Europe), having become fully speciated as a result of geographical and genetic isolation from the modern human populations in the east of their range. Likewise, they postulate that ‘transitional’ industries may represent a cultural manifestation of this situation, with ‘modern human’ technological traits (i.e., presumably Aurignacian and/or Ahmarian ones) diffusing west gradually to create what amounts to, in a way, ‘ring industries’ (my term, not theirs).

This is an interesting idea, one that combines aspects of both the traditional replacement and continuity scenarios (I hesitate to call them models, at least for archaeology, since neither has definite test implications) and integrates morphological and archaeological data. This is a welcome departure to studies who give complete prevalence to one or the other line of evidence, without acknowledging that each kind of record (archaeological, morphological, genetic) can only answer certain questions, and not all of them equally. I’m unfortunately not too familiar with the concept of ring species, so I’m going to have to read up on it before commenting on the paper as a whole, but if nothing else, Moncel and Voisin’s study provides good food for thought and underline the importance of integrating multiple lines of evidence when crafting paleoanthropological models of population dynamics.

They do, however, give very short thrift to the genetic evidence, most of which is in contrast to their idea. This is not necessarily wrong. In fact, I agree with most of their criticism of the genetic data and how it’s been used in the modern human origins debate. However, in a paper that highlights the conceptual richness that can result from the equal consideration of different evidential lines, a more in-depth discussion of these data might have further strengthened their paper. Also, they betray a rather simplistic view of some of the ‘transitional’ industries which they discuss, maybe derived from having read about some of them than having studied them in person. In short, they seem to assume that all transitional industries represent constellations of Mousterian and Aurignacian traits, with some regional characters (mainly in the form of points and armatures?) providing the main basis for differentiating say, the Châtelperronian from the Uluzzian from the Szeletian. However, these industries need to be understood on their own before they can be discussed like that. The Uluzzian (the topic of my dissertation) is a case in point. Often portrayed by some as just an ‘Italian Châtelperronian’ through creative typological manipulation, the Châtelperronian is in fact quite different from the Châtelperronian, technologically, typologically, ecologically and chronologically. In fact, it is uniquely distinctive among other transitional industries. Perhaps more importantly, it is not only radically different from the earliest Aurignacian as documented in Italy (i.e., proto-Aurignacian, or Aurignacian ‘0’), but also miles away from the Mousterian of southern Italy, where the Uluzzian is found.

Regardless, I think that the Moncel and Voisin paper is undoubtedly a good ‘idea’ paper, and I can only hope that it will spur renewed thinking about various dimensions of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition. It is high time we start asking new questions and employing the methods germane to solving them rather than simply rehashing the same ground over and over again.


Moncel, M-H., and J.-L. Voisin. 2006. Les « industries de transition » et le mode de spéciation des groupes néandertaliens en Europe entre 40 et 30 ka. Comptes Rendus Palevol 5:183-192.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

And then there were three!

Picked this one up on Carl Zimmer’s The Loom . Since the original reports on the Homo floresiensis remains were published in the fall of 2004 (Brown et al. 2004, Morwood et al. 2004, Falk et al. 2005), there’s been a ton of debate as to exactly what they are. On the one hand, the original team claims that these fossils represent a separate species, on the other, several researchers have since claimed on various grounds that at least the published cranium represents a pathological (specifically microcephalic) individual (e.g., Martin et al. 2006; but cf. Falk et al. 2006). So far, the debate has raged on, with no easy resolution in sight.

Now, a third position on those mysterious hominins has been presented by Gary D. Richards, a grad student at Berkeley's Human Evolution Research Center in a review paper "in press" in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology. Richards’ take is that the Liang Bua remains simply represent a population of healthy, normal humans that fall at the very edge (maybe even beyond the edge) of the ‘small’ range of variation of Homo sapiens. The Loom presents a good discussion of some of the merits and failings of the paper. I haven’t seen any more discussion about this paper on discussion forums or other blogs yet.

The archaeological dimension of this debate also bears discussing as it highlights a number of issues in contemporary Paleolithic archaeology, but I’ll do so in a later post. In the meantime, keep posted to see what kind of treatment this new take on the hobbits will get in the ongoing debate over the ‘hobbits!’


P. Brown, T. Sutikna, M. J. Morwood, R. P. Soejono, Jatmiko, E. Wayhu Saptomo, and R. Awe Due. 2004. A new small-bodied hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia. Nature 431:1055-1061.

Falk, D., Hildebolt, C., Smith, K., Morwood, M.J., Sutikna, T., Brown, P., Jatmiko, Saptomo, E.W., Brunsden, B. & Prior, F. 2005a. The brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis. Science 308:242–245.

Falk, D., Hildebolt, C., Smith, K., Morwood, M.J., Sutikna, T., Jatmiko, Saptomo, E.W., Brunsden, B. & Prior, F. 2006. Response to Comment on 'The brain of Homo floresiensis'. Science 312:999c.

Martin, R.D., MacLarnon, A.M., Phillips, J.L., Dussubieux, L, Willians, P.R. & Dobyns, W.B. 2006. Comment on 'The brain of Homo floresiensis'. Science 312:999b.

Morwood, M. J., R. P. Soejono, R. G. Roberts, T. Sutikna, C. S. M. Turney, K. E. Westaway, W. J. Rink, J.- x. Zhao, G. D. van den Bergh, R. Awe Due, D. R. Hobbs, M. W. Moore, M. I. Bird, and L. K. Fifield. 2004. Archaeology and age of a new hominin from Flores in eastern Indonesia. Nature 431:1087-1091.

Richards, G. D. 2006. Genetic, physiologic and ecogeographic factors contributing to variation in Homo sapiens: Homo floresiensis reconsidered. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 19: in press.

Living on the edge?

Claire Porter and Frank Marlowe of Harvard University have a concise paper in press in the Journal of Archaeological Science that tests the widely held idea that ethnographically documented forager groups live mainly in marginal environments. This is significant because some researchers have argued that, if known hunter-gatherers are (or were) restricted to such environments, they may not be adequate sources on which to base generalizations or models about prehistoric forager lifeways. They conclude that

“… foragers live in slightly (though not significantly) more marginal habitats than agriculturalists worldwide. However, this is mainly due to the large number of foragers who live far north of the equator in quite cold habitats where agriculture is not feasible… When we limit our analysis to the warm-climate sub-sample, foragers have a slightly higher habitat quality than agriculturalists, but there is again no significant difference.” (Porter and Marlowe 2006:4-7, in press).

Their method here is quite sound. They took a sample of 186 traditional societies (both foragers and agriculturalists writ large) from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, and plotted them geographically against the productivity of the region inhabited by each to derive an average value of habitat productivity. Like Binford (2001) and Kelly (1995), they use net primary productivity as the proxy measure for habitat productivity, except that unlike these authors, they use methods and data developed by programs at NASA to estimate it on a much finer-grained level. The downside to this is that NASA only had data from five years (2000-2004) available for Porter and Marlowe to use, which is one of the acknowledged limitations of their study.

It’s quite an ingenious way of looking at the problem, and it’s good to have an empirical demonstration that ethnographically documented foragers do not in fact live in more marginal environments than agriculturalists. In fact, in the warm zones where most of early human evolution took place (i.e., less than 40-45 degrees latitude and over 13 degrees effective temperature), foragers appear to inhabit slightly more productive habitats. As the authors argue, this may be in large part due to the fact that a good environment for foraging is not necessarily good for agriculture, be it intensive agriculture, pastoralism or horticulture. Another very good point to make.

It'll be interesting to see whether this approach to the issue of the ecology of hunter-gatherers gets taken further in the near future.


Binford, L. R. 2001. Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Hunter-Gatherer and Environmental Data Sets. Berkeley, University of California Press.

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

Porter, C., and F. Marlowe. 2006. How marginal are forager habitats? Journal of Archaeological Science 33:in press.

Plus-sized in the Pleistocene

The BBC reports on some freakishly large, 250ky old handaxes of "exquisite, almost flamboyant, workmanship not associated with this period until now." They were found in a private garden, and they are discussed in the report by Paleolithic archaeologist Francis Wenban-Smith.

In truth, these bifaces are very striking, and the biggest one is over a foot in length. While the news report mentions that the handaxe was probably used to butcher prey, there's no mention of any use-wear studies to bolster this. To me, the handax looks too large to have been a wieldy butchering tool; the cleaver, though also very large at 18 cm. in length, is a more likely candidate for efficiently accomplishing such a task.

This begs the question of why these artifacts should have been so big and 'flashy.' As for size, an obvious answer might be the availability of large flint nodules in the site's vicinity. However, the handax and cleaver are the only two reported 'plus-sized' artifacts in that assemblage, suggesting they were, in fact, considered to be different. Without information on the other lithics, it's hard to say definitely if they're abnormally large for the local lithic resources.

Wenban-Smith also mentions that "Both handaxes come from next to each other which is an important point because it shows they were making different designs." This is significant, both in terms of its implications for the debate over a form-function link, and in terms of the implied mental capacities of the stoneworkers who made the tools, which would have been rather developed. As for the flashiness of the tools, that remains another open question, since without the rest of the assemblage to contextualize the two pictured artifacts, it's hard to say just how flashy they truly are, relatively speaking.

Looking forward to some well-illustrated pubished report(s) about these finds at Cuxton.

Monday, June 19, 2006

More on the Bosnian "pyramid"

Anthony Harding, head of the European Association of Archaeologists, had this to say about the alleged 'Bosnian pyramid' which has garnered so much media attention over the past months:

"My opinion and the opinion of my colleagues is what we saw was entirely geological in nature."

Not surprsing, given some of the first pictures of the so-called find to have been released publicly. Notice the lack of actual archaeological pictures as opposed to the abundant "pop culturalization" of the phenomenon! Anybody thinking that this is not a natural formation needs a stiff dose of reality poured in their morning coffee.

I still can't believe how much publicity this story has been getting, all with but the slightest in the way of supporting documentation. If you invent it, they will come, as they might say!

Read more about this story and the EAA take on things here. There is also a very good debunking and discussion of the implications of the claims made about the pyramidal nature of this Bosnian hill on this page of Archaeology's web site, which is an official publicaion of the American Institute of Archaeology.

A social synthesis of Neanderthals?

Robert Davies and Simon Underdown, both from Oxford Brookes University, present what they call a “social synthesis” of the Neanderthals in the most recent issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. Despite the title, it’s thankfully not the kind of thought exercise that has characterized most ‘social archaeology of the Paleolithic’ (e.g., Gamble 2004). Rather, it’s a lucid, even-handed and thorough review of the empirical basis of the main interpretations about Neanderthal behavior that have been put forth on the basis of archaeological and osteological studies. In a nice move away from the parameters that usually frame such discussions, the issue of continuity vs. replacement vs. indigenous “Upper Paleolithization’ is scarcely brought up. Davies and Underdown instead opt to take the dominant view (i.e., that Neanderthals were a completely separate species, and likely must’ve been at least somewhat different behaviorally from modern humans), and use that as the basis of the claims they seek to testing their review. A very clever and refreshing approach, and their paper is the better for it in that it doesn’t come across as an attack on people on one side or the other of debate.

Their main conclusion is that the links between observation in the fossil and archaeological records and inferences about specific aspects of Neanderthal lifeways are insufficiently demonstrated. As well, much of what is the ‘consensus’ view on Upper Paleolithic modern human behavior, in their view, implicitly suffers from the same fundamental problem. One of their main points is that a lot of what is put forth as scientific interpretation on this issue reflects more the preconceptions and theoretical outlook of researchers rather than the last word on any given facet of the debate. As they say, however,

“It is not the intention of this article to deny the existence of ‘negative evidence’, to claim that the social organization of Neanderthals or their capacity for symbolic expression could have equalled that of AMH without leaving any evidence (see Dibble & Chase 1993 for a discussion). The aim is not to emancipate Neanderthals as ‘human’ but to point out that we must be aware that researchers model this ‘negative evidence’ within their own theoretical outlook. We are not able to comment upon an easily discernible archaeological reality from which one authentic or accurate portrait of Neanderthal behaviour can be drawn (Drell 2000). All too often a lack of evidence is interpreted as inferiority. Consequently, the validity of the conclusions drawn regarding cognitive ability and behavioural complexity is certainly questionable.” (Davies and Underdown 2006:158).

As a result, they advocate the need to develop theoretical perspectives that better allow paleoanthropologists to link observations in the paleoanthropological record to actual instances of behavior, and their suggestion of choice for this is evolutionary ecology. Which is a perspective that I generally agree with and one that ties in nicely with my recent post about the new Bird and O’Connell paper on behavioral ecology and archaeology. I think that, too often in the debate about the Neanderthal and the modern humans, people tend to lose sight of the fact that both populations occupied tremendously large and diverse geographical ranges, a point very eloquently made in the recent books by authors like Finlayson (2004) and Hoffecker (2004). This fact alone should make paleoanthropologist of all stripes wary of making sweeping generalizations about the adaptation of one or the other group without first contextualizing the data sets used to make their case. Would we readily equate contemporary southern Italian culture with that of Uzbekistan? The same, to a degree, applies for the past.

An unfortunate thing, in my view, is that lately papers that emphasize the issues Davies and Underdown address in their paper are increasingly written by researchers adopting minority viewpoints. I say unfortunate because, in the eyes of some who are comfortable in the knowledge of being in the majority camp, it often makes such arguments simply ‘guilty by association’ as opposed to worthwhile thinking pieces that might refocus their theoretical and methodological lenses. Let’s see if this paper bucks the trend…


Davies, R., and S. Underdown. 2006. The Neanderthals: A Social Synthesis. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16:145-164.

Dibble, H. L., and P .G. Chase. 1993. On Mousterian and Natufian burials in the Levant. Current Anthropology 34:170–75.

Drell, J.R. 2000. Neanderthals: a history of interpretation. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 19:1–24.

Finlayson, C. 2004. Neanderthals and Modern Humans: an Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Gamble, C. S. 2004. Social archeology and the unfinished business of the Palaeolithic. In Explaining Social Change: Studies in Honour of Colin Renfrew, (J Cherry, C. Scarre & S. Shennan, eds.), pp. 17-26. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Hoffecker, J. F. 2004. A Prehistory of the North: The Colonization of the Higher Latitudes. New Brunswick (NJ), Rutgers University Press.

Friday, June 16, 2006

HBO archaeology!

I just finished watching the historical featurette on the ‘special features’ DVD of the second season of the fantastic HBO series Deadwood. It’s really quite striking the amount of historical research that appears to have gone into the making of the show, which surely accounts for a large part of its quality.

Of interest to readers might be the fact that some of the commentators are historical archaeologists who talk about the results of excavations of the Chinese section of the original Deadwood settlement, focusing especially on what the recovered artifacts can tell us about daily life there in the late 19th Century. All in all, a good way to make accessible to a wide audience the kinds of things archaeology offers to our understanding of life in the past.

I wondered about the statement of a South Dakota State Historical Society archaeologist about how “The archaeological record doesn’t lie… it’s there.” While the archaeological record is certainly always ‘there,’ it’s important to emphasize that it only doesn't lie because, by itself, it’s completely silent! Archaeologists and historians can only base their scenarios about life in the past on these data… and on their perspective on a given question. This point, thankfully, is made later on in the featurette when a Black Hills State University historian mentions that “history is itself interpretation.” So true for archaeology as well! Which is not necessarily a bad thing, provided the available data are used to construct sound, empirically-grounded interpretations and that the 'interpreters' are explicit about their biases.

Good job to the creators of Deadwood for emphasizing these elements in the featurettes while still showing how archaeology matters, and for continuously making this one of the most thought-provoking shows out there!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Human behavioral ecology and archaeology

It was nice to see that a paper on “Behavioral ecology and archaeology” by Doug Bird (Stanford University) and Jim O’Connell (University of Utah) is now available in the “Online first” section of the Journal of Archaeological Research. The manuscript has been worked on for a few years, so it’s nice to finally see it in press, crystallized and for all to enjoy.

It’s a long read, but a well worth one, and it documents in great detail the virtues of employing that theoretical perspective to solve a wide range of archaeological problems. It’s especially interesting to see the temporal and topical breadth of archaeological research problems that can productively be investigated using HBE. There’s a lot to digest here, all of which is delightful food for though – and application! I personally especially like HBE because it allows archaeology to be connected to both to anthropology and biology, and also because – unlike so many other approaches in archaeology – it allows for the generation of explicit empirically testable hypotheses.

I’m sure to have more thoughts on this one after I’ve gone through it again, so check back soon!

The origins of bow and arrow technology

The Mellars (2006) paper discussed in my last post is generating some discussion on the blogoshpere (see John Hawks’ blog, and Gene Expression) and on online forums (see the Palanth discussion forum), mainly on the case for bow and arrow technology, and its potential antiquity.

Let’s keep in mind exactly what Mellars actually says about this in his paper. Speaking about the new lithic forms that apparently characterize the Howiesoons’ Poort and Still Bay industries, he claims that:

"The possibility has been suggested that some of these forms could well have served as the tips and barbs of wooden arrows, based on comparisons with similar artifacts recovered from both later African Stone Age sites and much later Mesolithic contexts in Europe (McBrearty and Brooks 2000; Mellars 2002)." (Mellars 2006:9383).

Now, McBrearty and Brooks have certainly said in that paper (2000: 497, 503, 530) that some of these stone tools might represent barbs or arrowheads but they conclude only that “Whatever the details of their design, the Mumba and Howiesons Poort microliths support the presence of composite projectiles in Africa by 65 ka…” (2000:503). This is far from a demonstration that we are, in fact, dealing with arowheads at that time, and nowhere in that paper do they back that idea with any hard data.

In his earlier paper, Mellars (2002:37, 40) also definitely suggests formal similarities between some Middle Stone Age microliths and barbs from Mesolithic contexts at Star Carr. Again, however, beyond a general feeling that there exists a similarity, no empirical data are given to support this important contention.

The issue of bow and arrow technology is an important one in the debate over modern human origins and their alleged expansion out of Africa and colonization of the rest of the Old World. This is because if this technology is what gave modern human an edge however defined over the ‘archaic’ populations they would have encountered during their invasion of Eurasia, we would expect the evidence for it to be not only abundant, but also long-lasting. The bow and arrow are such a useful technological innovation that it is highly unlikely that they would have been forgotten at any point over the course of the Late Pleistocene. This is partly because of the great advantage they provide in hunting tasks and killing fellow humans, by enabling lethal wounds to be delivered from a great distance. This makes hunting of prey large and small much safer for the hunter and permits the hunters to get at prey from beyond their habitual flight distance for humans. Also, think about how versatile bows and arrows are: You have long, heavy compound bows in use by mounted warriors and hunters in the Central Asian plains and small, light bows used by foragers in tropical settings. In other words, bow and arrow technology can be made to fit the ecological context in which it is used without fundamentally altering its nature; this makes it an extremely polyvalent weapon system, so much so that it seems hard to believe that, if invented once and so crucial to the expansion of modern humans out of their African homeland, it would be forgotten or discarded.

Archaeologically, we have no unambiguous evidence for bows or arrows predating the latest Upper Paleolithic or even the Mesolithic. However, we also have no spearthrowers older than the one from the Solutrean occupation of Combe-Saunière (France), which dates to ca. 21,000 BP. This is in spite of now having abundant evidence that suggests that some pointed stone tools likely were used as dart tips much earlier than that date (Shea 2006). Thus, not having found remains of bows or arrows prior to the latest Upper Paleolithic does not de facto preclude their existence before that time.

So far, the best empirical study of the development of projectile technology in Africa and Eurasia is an excellent paper recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science by John J. Shea of Stony Brook University. Shea uses measurements on the lithic components of known arrows, darts and spear to infer the most likely function(s) of various forms of pointed stone implements from Middle Stone Age, Middle Paleolithic and Early Upper Paleolithic assemblages from Africa, the Levant and Europe. Using Tip Cross-Sectional Area (TCSA) as the basis of his analysis, Shea shows rather convincingly that projectile weapons of the sort hinted at by Mellars and others do not appear to have been in use in the Old World prior to ca. 50,000 BP. And after that date, measurements align all Early Upper Paleolithic pointed stone implements with values for darts rather than arrowheads. Admittedly, the case for backed implements is less certain in that paper, but what data are available do not disagree with Shea’s conclusions. Therefore, the available evidence argues strongly against the case for bow and arrow technology having been an intrinsic component of the behavioral package that would have permitted the expansion of the original modern human populations.

So, while impressions are always useful in highlighting research questions to be tested empirically, they cannot be taken at face value as true statements, especially not in paleoanthropology. For some unfortunate reason, this habit of stating something and subsequently assuming that it is true continues unabated in Paleolithic archaeology while almost no Pleistocene human paleontological studies manage to get through peer-review without solid empirical data and meaningful statistical tests to support them.


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

Mellars, P. 2002. Archaeology and the origins of modern humans: European and African perspectives. In The Speciation of Modern Homo Sapiens (T. Crow, ed.), pp. 31-48. Proceedings the British Academy, no. 106. London, UK, British Academy.

Mellars, P. 2006. Why did modern human populations disperse from Africa ca. 60,000 years ago? A new model. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:9381-9386.

Shea, J. J. 2006. The origins of lithic projectile point technology: evidence from Africa, the Levant, and Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 33:823-846.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

“The drunk looking for keys under the street lamp…”

Today, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published in its Early Edition section a new paper entitled “Why did moden human populations disperse from Africa ca. 60,000 years ago? A new model.” by Paul Mellars, of Cambridge University. This, incidentally, is the same title as the paper which Mellars was originally scheduled to present at the Paleoanthropology Society meetings in San Juan, Puerto Rico this past April.

The post’s title is a quote of Mellars’ name for what he calls the ‘syndrome’ of the tendency to assume that something must have developed in a given area simply because most of the currently available evidence for it comes from that area.

The paper is a short overview of Mellars’ now well-known stance on what the mtDNA evidence means for the origins and dispersals of modern humans out of African. He summarizes a number of recent genetic studies, concluding that

“.. it is clear that some significant demographic or cultural factors must have promoted these lineage expansions at roughly the same time as the mtDNA mismatch analyses point to a rapid increase in total population numbers from some localized geographical source.” (Mellars 2006:9382)

In a nutshell, Mellars argues that the genetic data demonstrate a population boom in some African population of anatomically modern humans roughly 80,000 years ago, which would then have genetically swamped the rest of Africa before subsequently swamping the rest of the Old World. He suggests that this genetic expansion resulted from the concomitant development of a number of behavioral traits at roughly that time, which explains why the ancestors of all modern humans today could spread out of their homeland and ultimately replace all other archaic populations starting only 60,000 years ago, despite the modern human form having been in existence since maybe 200,000 BP.

Mellars argues that these behavioral changes that would have enabled this population expansion are:
1) new technology that would have made hunting more efficient and productive;
2) some forms of plant food management strategies;
3) the exploitation of marine fish “and perhaps sea birds” (Mellars 2006:9383);
4) more reliable and extensive exchange networks reflected by “large-scale movements of high-quality stone and imported shell ornament” (Mellars 2006:9383).

Basically, it is his typical list of the diagnostic features of the Upper Paleolithic “revolution” (see Mellars 2004, 2005), only projected back in time. Except that in this case, these changes are based at most on a handful of sites (and in certain cases only one site) distributed over the largest continent on earth over a 20,000 year window. He suggests in passing that these populations might have possessed bow and arrow technology despite providing no empirical proof whatsoever for a statement which, if true, would have profound implications for Late Pleistocene technological evolution. Likewise, the case for plant food management is based on only two documented instances while the case for marine fish and sea bird exploitation is based solely on one level from Blombos. As for the empirical support for long-distance transfers (and by extension the existence of extensive exchange networks), it is important to note that it has been argued elsewhere (e.g., Féblot-Augustins 1997, 1999) that even Neanderthals were capable of procuring fine-grained raw material from considerable distances away (up to 300 km), if there was a need to do so, imposed more than anything by contextual factors. That this capacity is also evident in the MSA is therefore not surprising. In fact, Negash and Shackley (2006) have recently shown that the MSA site of Porc Epic in Ethiopia contains obsidian from sources located over 250 linear kilometers from the site. This is in spite of the site containing no other evidence of what Mellars believes is “advanced” behavior and the assemblage being typically MSA rather than either Howiessons’ Poort or Still Bay in typological designation.

Mellars insists that he is highlighting “the crucial evolutionary and adaptive developments that allowed these populations to colonize” the rest of the world and extirpate all archaic populations they encountered. However, this paper is simply a list of select archaeological finds from a very limited number of sites which are then used to weave together a grand synthesis of recent human prehistory. The “evolutionary and adaptive” nature of any of these finds is assumed rather than demonstrated. In other words, they are only adaptive by association. It is the old (and logically fallacious) scenario of “If modern humans spread from Africa, and if they are associated by behavioral traits x and y, then behavioral traits x and y must have enabled this spread.” Nowhere is there an explicit demonstration of the large-scale adaptive features of these behavioral innovations relative to previous ways of doing things in the Middle and Late Pleistocene.

While there is nothing wrong with that, Mellars’ argument here suffers from one major limitation, namely, that – archaeologically speaking at least – it is all grand synthesis with such a small amount of empirical evidence to back it up that it amounts to little more than a possible, though far from probable, scenario that injects little new blood into the modern human origins debate beyond a few ‘textbook’ generalizations.


Féblot-Augustins, J. 1997. La Circulation des Matières Premières au Paléolithique: Synthèse des Données Perspectives Comportementales (2 Volumes). ERAUL 75, Liège.

Féblot-Augustins, J. 1999. Raw material transport patterns and settlement systems in the European Lower and Middle Paleolithic: continuity, change and variability. In The Middle Paleolithic Occupation of Europe (W. Roebroeks & C. Gamble, eds.), pp. 193-214. University of Leiden Press, Leiden.

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 behavior in Europe. Evolutionary Anthropology 14:12-27.

Mellars, P. 2006. Why did modern human populations disperse from Africa ca. 60,000 years ago? A new model. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:9381-9386.

Negash, A., and M. S. Shackley 2006. Geochemical provenance of obsidian artefacts from the MSA site of Porc Epic, Ethiopia. Archaeometry 48:1-12.

To post or not to post: Why I blog

I’m a doctoral candidate in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. I am currently writing my dissertation on the Uluzzian industry of southern Italy and I plan to use this blog as a way to organize some of my thoughts during this process as well as to archive my impressions on recent (and occasionally not-so-recent) publications in paleoanthropology, and especially on the discipline’s archaeological dimension.

This site is therefore a collection of developing ideas, and is obviously not subject to peer-review in any way, shape or form. Thus, what I post here should be taken for what it is, my perspective on things, though I believe it to be a relatively well-informed one. Regardless, I will strive throughout to remain as objective and level-headed as possible. I am explicitly trying to avoid confrontation and the use of an abusive tone in my comments, but I believe that open and frank discussion of these topics is important. If any post comes across as excessive in tone or content, I apologize in advance, and I would in fact appreciate comments to that effect.

One of the other reasons why I chose to adopt a blog format is also to create a publicly-accessible forum to demonstrate to the public at large that discussion and debate is part and parcel of scientific research. Therefore, far from attesting to any fundamental conceptual or methodological failing, the presence of debate over the finer points of evolutionary anthropology broadly defined is indicative of the field’s intellectual vigor. I believe strongly that little good emerges from the death of discussion and, especially, from when the written word becomes accepted as gospel.