Monday, October 29, 2007

The size of one's package...

I’ve been struggling to find time to string together my first set of thoughts about the Marean et al. (2007) paper that came out about 10 days ago, and this since even before CNN was harping on about “Stone Age clambakes” (such a lame spin). So I figured I'd better do it now, while they were still fresh-ish…

A few things, as a preamble. First, if you want a “public” rendering of the study, you’re much better off checking out the official ASU press release than any of the media coverage that was heaped on the piece. Second, for a tongue-in-cheek spin on what the findings reported by Marean et al. (2007) might mean, check out this post on Hot Cup of Joe. Third, in the interest of full disclosure, Marean was one of my PhD committee members and I consider a number of the paper’s coauthors pretty good friends.

Moving on to the paper itself, the chrono-stratigraphy of the study seems beyond reproach to me. In other words, there’s no question we’re dealing here with an MSA coastal occupation beginning at least ca. 167 kya. Also, the GIS modeling of the paleo-shoreline (available as a [very large – 64 megs!] supplementary video) is very enlightening and the authors put it to very good use in inferring the most likely time of occupation of the site during the LC-MSA. As far as I know, it’s the first time this kind of video information is presented alongside a paleoanthropology piece in Nature, and I hope this is a trend that will stick for archaeological contributions, insofar as they are useful, of course.

By and large, what most strikes me about the paper is the discussion of a “behavioral package” that comprises coastal living, shellfish exploitation, ochre use and bladelet production. These elements are unquestionably all there at PP13B, but their varying representation across the LC-MSA stratigraphy strongly suggests that they were far from indissociable in evolutionary time, and this even at a single locale. Interestingly, this very fact emphasizes how dynamic the MSA appears to have been as a form of behavioral adaptation, even in its comparatively early phases. This contrasts with some views of the MSA as a single ‘thing’ across space and time. That said, it also raises the issue of whether we are, in fact dealing with a discrete “package” and of what elements are its essential features, for lack of a better term. I think that we still have some way to go in highlighting what the advantages provided by each of these different behaviors was, especially in different situational contexts, but it is very intriguing to first find them in association when the coast first appears to become more or less permanently occupied.

This discussion about a modern “behavioral package” (which is what they’re getting at, really), I feel, is the cornerstone of this piece. It also strikes at the beating heart of a long-standing and still unresolved question in paleoanthropology, namely what makes modern humans, well, “modern” in behavioral terms and what of these elements are the fundamental ones. The data put forth by Marean et al. suggest that the expansion of the diet breadth might be key, although it's clearly not sufficient on its own (hence the "package"). Regardless, this paper is important in fleshing out our understanding of the MSA in an otherwise poorly-known segment of its chronology and in reiterating how internally variable this industry can be.

As I implied at the beginning of this post, I mainly to get out what thoughts I’ve had time to formulate about this paper before it had been too long. I just might return with some more a little while later.


Marean, C. W., M. Bar-Matthews, J. Bernatchez, E. Fisher, P. Goldberg, A. I. R. Herries, Z. Jacobs, A. Jerardino, P. Karkanas, T.Minichillo, P. J. Nilssen, E. Thompson, I. Watts, and H. M. Williams. 2007. Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene. Nature 449:905-908.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You note that one of the more interesting aspects of this article was the “behavioral package” associated with coastal living but also that these traits have varying amounts of representation through the LC-MSA. Do you see a connection between these two: the varying coastline during this time (as so well demonstrated in the video) is associated with the varying abundance in "coastal package" materials? In other words, when the coast is nearby, you get coastal behavior, when it's not, you don't. I realize this post was from several months ago but was interested in your take on it. Thanks!