Wednesday, June 28, 2006

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.

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