Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Paleoanthropology Society meetings

The preliminary program of the annual meetings of the Paleoanthropology Society is now online as a freely downloadable pdf. Looks like it will be, once again, a very stimulating meeting: there's a couple of papers on the 'hobbits' from Flores, a number of studies on Neanderthals and on the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition, a study on the newly discovered Gravettian infant burials from Krems-Wachtberg, and the list goes on! Check it out.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


A little non-anthro post because this is just too damn weird!

From the report in Reuters:
"It's being called the "Gnomesville Massacre"... An unknown number of attackers lopped off the heads or smashed several dozen of the pot-bellied statues this week at Gnomesville, a collection of more than a 1,000 colorful characters deep in a forest south of Perth."

You can read the whole thing here.

I don't know what's oddest about this story: the 'massacre' or the fact that Gnomesville exists in the first place!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Slicing cut marks on bone: new JFA paper

I've been getting into cut mark studies lately as a result of an experimental archaeology project I got involved with here at ASU. As luck would have it, a short new paper by Haskel J. Greenfield (University of Manitoba) came out recently in the Journal of Field Archaeology

Here, Greenfield uses light optical and, especially, scanning electron microscopes to investigate the morphology of cut marks produced using a range of lithic implements. He uses experimental cut marks on planks of wood to determine the morphology, and is able to identify corresponding marks on archaeological bones from the Early Bronze Age I site of Afridar (Israel). While his archaeological sample is small, he appears to be able to distinguish between the cut marks made by unretouched blades and flakes, on the one hand, and sidescrapers, on the other. He also experiments with various raw materials, namely flint, quartzite and obsidian.

He concludes that "the shape of a tool as a stronger influence on the shape of a cut mark than does the raw material from which it was fashioned" (2006:161), and, unsurprisingly, that "no perceptible differences were observed between cut marks made by unmodified blades and flakes." (2006:153). In his sample, the main difference in cut mark morphology is between unretouched pieces and sidescrapers.

Greenfield shows that unretouched pieces produce "cut marks [that] are thin , relatively straight, and shallow. The internal morphology tends to be consistent: on one side, a groove will descend... steeply and smoothly; on the other side, the groove will descend more gradually, and will have more parallel striations (to the apex of the mark)." In contrast, "sidescrapers leave an irregular and almost wave-like profile." (2006:161). Both patterns are the results of the morphology of the edges of the two kinds of slicing implements.

I liked this paper, though it might have benefited from a more extensive application of the methods on archaeological material. The main drawback, as I see it, is that Greenfield is forced to rely on a SEM for most of this work, which prevents the inspection of large bones, indeed of elements larger than 2-3cm in size. While he gets around this by making silicone molds of the relevant cut marks which can then be broken down to appropriate size for inspection under the SEM, this makes the method impractical for inspecting large numbers of cut marks as well as for identifying the tools used to produce cut marks at lower levels of resolution. While it is clearly important to demonstrate that different tools leave distinct kinds of marks that can be identified at very high levels of resolution, it would also be useful to develop complementary low-resolution methods that are more readily usable in, say, the field lab, something maybe building on the low-res methods of Walker (1978; Walker and Long 1977).


Greenfield, H. J. 2006. Slicing cut marks on animal bones: diagnostics for identifying stone tool type and raw material. Journal of Field Archaeology 31:147-163.

Walker, P. L. 1978. Butchering and stone tool function. American Antiquity 43:710-715.

Walker, P. L., and J. C. Long. 1977. An experimental study of the morphological characteristics of tool marks. American Antiquity 42:605-616.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Good job, 'Cats!

Seriously, what the hell!?! This kind of imbecility makes me even less of a fan of college football or school spirit. It's even more annoying when stuff like this happens in your own backyard... I live not 5 minutes away from Tempe butte (aka A Mountain)!

"Vandals climbed Tempe butte and painted a large red "A" - the University of Arizona's color - before the annual football game between the two rivals on Nov. 25. The paint job was first spotted two days before the ASU Sun Devils whipped the Wildcats 28-14.

Pranksters also hit the Sun Devils' practice field, painting a blue "A" and "Bear Down," the University of Arizona motto, on the turf.

But the red paint on the rocks of the butte could have erased rock art that dates to 1250, city officials said. Tempe could be forced to spend thousands of dollars to fly in a petroglyph expert and have the paint tediously removed by hand."

And here I was, thinking that being in college was all about getting an education and forming responsible citizens. I realize only a handful of people did this, but sweet lord, grow up!!

New Neanderthal archaeology papers in Before Farming

This is my first post on a series of three papers in the latest issue of the online journal Before Farming, all of which deal with aspects of Neanderthal archaeology. I've read all of them, and they're quite stimulating.

I intend to post about them in greater depth shortly, but in the meantime, I'll just mention that the first paper by, J. Speth and J. Clark, documents the large mammal procurement patterns of Middle Paleolithic hominins at Kebara Cave (Israel); one of the most provocative conclusions of the paper is that the Kebara record documents overhunting of ungulates by Neanderthals. The implications of this pattern for increasing diet breadth are also discussed.

The second paper, by A. Verpoorte, deals with a theoretical model of Neanderthal energetics, and how these might have conditioned their mobility patterns relative to those of modern humans. The paper is based on a simple hypothetical model based on the concept of central place foraging, the conclusions of which are then compared to patterns in the archaeological record of European Neanderthals, which they broadly appear to match. Verpoorte concludes that Neanderthals aimed to reduce their overall mobility by adopting a behavioral (and energetic) strategy that revolved around a pattern of "frequent, short-distance movement."

The last paper, by J. Zilhão and P. Pettitt, to my knowledge, is the first peer-reviewed critique of the new, very late dates for the Mousterian of Gorham's Cave (Gibraltar) (Finlayson et al. 2006). The authors show that there are a number of logical, methodological, taphonomic, and empirical problems with Finlayson et al.'s (2006) arguments for a 28-24 kya occupation of Gorham's Cave by Neanderthals, and they conclude instead that the available dates support an age of 30-32 kya for the last Mousterian occupation of the site. Noting that the new Gorham's Cave dates came out in September 2006, this also suggest a very fast turn-around time for papers submitted to Before Farming, which can only be a positive pattern for the world of paleanthropological research.

Overall, a very nice series of papers to start the new year with!


Finlayson, C, Giles Pacheco, F, Rodríguez-Vidal, J, Fa, DA, Guiterrez López, JM, Santiago Pérez, A, Finlayson, G, Allue, E., Baena Preysler, J, Cáceres, I, Carrión,
JS, Fernaández- Jalvo, Y, Gleed-Owen, CP, Jimenez Espejo, FJ, López, P, López Sáez, JA, Riquelme Cantal, JA, Sánchez Marco, A, Giles Guzman, F, Brown, K, Fuentez, N, Valarino, CA, Villalpando, A, Stringer, CB, Martinez Ruiz, F & Sakamoto, T 2006.
Late survival of Neanderthals at the southernmost extreme of Europe. Nature 443:850-853.

Speth, J.D., and J.M. Clark. 2006. Hunting and overhunting in the Levantine Late Middle Palaeolithic. Before Farming 2006/3:1.

Verpoorte, A. 2006. Neanderthal energetics and spatial behaviour. Before Farming 2006/3:2.

Zilhão, J., and P. Pettitt. 2006. On the new dates for Gorham's Cave and the late survival of Iberian Neanderthals. Before Farming 2006/3:3.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Radiocarbon dating the 40-60 kya interval

Jeff Pigati and colleagues have a paper in press in Quaternary International about a new protocol that enables radiocarbon dating of very old samples (i.e., between 40-60 kya in age). This should come as very good news for anyone interested in the chronology of the late Middle Paleolithic and early Upper Paleolithic, since this period has always been very tricky to date accurately. Between this, the ultrafiltration methods now being used at the Oxford lab, and advances in radiocarbon age calibration past 26 kya, it can be hoped that the chronology of that period will come into sharper focus in the next few years.

From the abstract:
"At the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory, we recently constructed new low background vacuum extraction and graphitization systems that are dedicated to preparing old (40-60 ka) samples for 14C dating. These systems are designed to minimize the amount of contaminant carbon, specifically atmospheric carbon, that is introduced to a sample during laboratory processing. Excluding contaminants is particularly important for 14C dating of old samples because the impact of contamination increases with sample age...

Based on the AMS results, the background level of our system is characterized by a nonlinear inverse relationship with sample mass (adjusted R2=0.75; n=24). For a 1 mg graphite target, the total procedural blank, including chemical pretreatment, combustion, cleanup, graphitization, storage, and AMS measurement, is 0.05±0.01 pMC (2σ), equivalent to a 14C “age” of 61.1±1.8 ka. This should not be taken as the upper limit of our system, however, because if the 14C activity of a sample is statistically indistinguishable from the appropriate mass-dependent blank value at the 95% confidence level (2σ), then its age is considered to be “infinite”. Thus, for a 1 mg target, the practical limit of our system is actually ~55 ka; for a 0.5 mg target, the practical limit is ~50 ka. Although our extraction system can accommodate inorganic samples (e.g., calcite, aragonite), the above limits are only applicable to geological graphite, charcoal, and organic samples that are processed via combustion. Future work will be directed toward determining the appropriate background levels for inorganic materials."


Pigati, J. S., J. Quade, J. Wilson, A.J. Timothy Jull, and N. A. Lifton. (in press) Development of low-background vacuum extraction and graphitization systems for 14C dating of old (40-60 ka) samples. Quaternary International: doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2006.12.006

More on the "python"

The posts that brought the most traffic to A Very Remote Period Indeed in 2006 were arguably those having to do with the work on the MSA deposits of Rhino Cave (Botswana) by Sheila Coulson and her team. In what's probably my last mention of this until actual pubs of the work come out, I want to direct your attention to a brief feature on the work at Rhino Cave and the case for early MSA ritual published in National Geographic (picked this up on ArchaeoBlog). There's not much else on the discoveries themselves, but the piece includes some interesting comments by Stanley Ambrose, Alec Campbell, Rupert Isaacson and Larry Robbins.

2007 is the new 2006

Well, one more year has gone and been replaced by a new one. I enjoyed a wonderful 2006 (much, much better than the dark year known as 2005), and hope that 2007 brings with it even better things for everyone around.

One of my resolutions is to endeavor to be more constant about posting to this blog. I'm not in the business of making predictions, but I know for a fact that 2007 will be an interesting year for paleoanthropology, and especially Paleolithic archaeology: there's new dates on the horizon, new debates emerging, and new ways to look at the record that should make for a stimulating year of debates and discussion.

I also want to take a moment to thank all the readers of the blog and all the people who left me feedback since I started this baby up, either as comments on the blog or through other channels. I'm heartened to see that my musings about things prehistoric are interesting enough for people to take the time to read, and hope to continue providing stimulating food for thought in the coming months!