Thursday, December 04, 2008

Archaelogies of tomorrow?

Last week, the students in my "Archaeological Methods" class presented preliminary versions of their final papers in poster format. I opted to have them play around with this presentation method since posters are becoming increasingly popular in professional conferences and especially because I think they give the presenter the opportunity to get more and more direct feedback on their work. Also, having them present posters as part of a class on archaeology gives them a 'taste' of what a real-life professional academic experience might actually be. And, upon seeing the posters as I was uploading them to the course website, A Very Remote Wife Indeed (wow, that sounds terrible, will need to find some other way to refer to her) quite justly observed that they all looked very sharp and very professional. I could only concur.

In any case, since I was really impressed with the breadth of topics my students decided to cover, I figured I'd post here the titles of their papers in order to give the AVRPI readership an idea of what young minds interested in archaeology are coming up with these days. Here they are, in the order in which they were presented in class:

  1. Interpreting Gendered Social Identities Using Archaeological Evidence: The Canadian West Coast

  2. Intraregional Analysis of Bronze Age Burials in Scotland

  3. Remote Sensing in Archaeology: UAV-Based Aerial Photography

  4. The Calico Early Man Site: Artifacts or Geofacts?

  5. Division of Labour in Relation to Gender in the Folsom Tradition

  6. Uncovering the "Lost Sisterhood": Historical Archaeology in the Red-Light District of Los Angeles, California

  7. Uncharted Waters: Problems with the Chronology of Underwater Archaeological Sites in Florida

  8. Ancient DNA and the Archaeology of Disease: Pathogen DNA from Archaeological Remains Provides a Definitive Diagnosis

  9. The Norte Chico and Chavin Civilizations of Peru

  10. Graeco-Thracian Relations in the Classical Period

  11. Nasca, Peru: Its Pottery and Culture

  12. Middle and Upper Paleolithic Burial Analysis: Implications for Neanderthal Cognitive Thought

  13. Comparison of Archaeological Techniques Applied to Prehistoric and Forensic Contexts

  14. A Comparative Analysis of the Monumental Archaeology of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) Moai and the Afghan Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley

Monday, November 24, 2008

That Time of Year...

It's late November here at McGill, which means two things: snow is coming (in fact, it's coming down right now! argh!), and soon-to-graduate undegraduate students will soon be sending off grad school applications. When my students ask for advice about graduate school in archaeology, I usually refer them to this excellent overview about applying to grad school to do archaeology written by Keith Kintigh, of my old department (ahem, I mean school) at Arizona State University.

Now, I will certainly also be pointing them out to this 'disclaimer' found on the web site of Sönke Johnsen's lab.

Hat tip: Coturnix.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Empirical Insights into Prehistoric Social Organization

So, by now, you've probably heard more than you care to hear about the discovery of the oldest nuclear family in one of a series of multiple burials discovered at the Neolithic Corded Ware Culture site of Eulau, which dates to about 4,600BP (Haak et al. 2008). Most of the media hoopla surrounding the publication of this discovery has centered on the notion of 'nuclear family.' Fair enough, it's something that most denizens on the web and most newspaper readers will readily relate to, which - especially for the 'traditional family values' crowd - is a good way to pitch a legitimate and relatively groundbreaking scientific discovery. In my view, however, this frenzy over the identification of a nuclear family organization has drowned a much more important and far-ranging conclusion of this paper...

As luck would have it, I was introducing my 'Archaeological Methods' students this week to the wonders of cognitive archaeology, whereby archaeologists attempt to understand the motivations and social organization of long-lost groups and individuals. The paper by Haak et al. (2008) featured extensively in the lecture - indeed, I may have overenthusiastically declared that I was "in love" with this paper. The reason I was so enthused about this paper is encapsulated in this figure (Haak et al. 2008: Figure 5) of the paper, which summarizes the results of the strontium isotope analysis.

In a nutshell, the male symbols indicate the strontium signature of adult males, circles indicate those of children, while female symbols indicate those of females. By way of background, strontium isotopes derive from the soils of a region and are stored in teeth during childhood as resources collected from that soil were consumed. Because of that they are different between individuals or groups of individuals that come from areas with distinct geological substrates. In this case,there is a clear separation between the females' overall signature and that of the other individuals, which indicates that males and children have signatures similar to that of the geological substrate of Eulau, while the females display a signature more concordant with that of Paleozoic deposits found in the Harz Mountains, about 60km distant from Eulau. That may not seem like a huge distance, but for relatively sedentary folks like the Neolithic agriculturalists of Eulau, this means that they probably grew up as members of other social groups located near the Harz Mountains.

Why is this significant? Because it provides some empirical evidence for the fact that the Neolithic people of Eulau had an exogamous, patrilocal system in place whereby women from a distant area would come live with men who lived their whole life in the Eulau region, where they would raise the children they had with them (as demonstrated by the DNA analyses that form the basis of the 'nuclear family' claim). So these groups were exogamous, in that they selected mates/married outside their group, and they were patrilocal, in that the basic reproductive unit/family lived in the vicinity of where the males had grown up. To me, this is incredibly fascinating in that it allows archaeologists to make empirically grounded inferences about domains of Neolithic life that are usually thought not to be accessible to prehistorians. Indeed, this allows us to talk objectively about aspects of prehistoric social behavior, which is tricky indeed to speculate about in most cases. We may yet be getting to the point where we can show that archaeology is anthropology.... Binford would be proud!


Haak, W., G. Brandt, H.N. de Jong, C. Meyer, R. Ganslmeier, V. Heyd, C. Hawkesworth, A.W.G. Pike, H. Meller, and K.W. Alt. 2008. Ancient DNA, Strontium isotopes, and osteological analyses shed light on social and kinship organization of the Later Stone Age. PNAS 105:18226-18231. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0807592105

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cannibalism at Zafarraya?

The site of Zafarraya (or in full Cueva del Boquete de Zafarraya), in southern Spain, is most famous for having yielded the most recent radiometrically dated Neanderthal remains known to date (Hublin et al. 1995, Barroso Ruiz and De Lumley 2006). This is in contrast to Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar, which has been claimed to contain the most recent Mousterian assemblages known to date (Finlayson et al. 2006; cf. Zilhao and Pettitt 2006).

Cecilio Barroso Ruiz, one of the investigators who excavated Zafarraya, has given a short interview about some of the material that has been found at the site. He interprets the lithic and faunal material as suggesting that the site was occupied between 30-27,000 BP as a camp from which Neanderthals would hunt mountain goats. Barroso Ruiz also suggests that climate should be ruled out as the main cause of the disappearance of the Neanderthals since Mediterranean conditions would have prevailed around the site throughout that period.

One of the more provocative interpretations he proposes, however, is that the site has yielded "indisputable" evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism:

During the excavation, that took place in two stages - between 1981-1983 and between 1990-1994 - two femora and a tibia belonging to a female and a small male mandible were recovered, all of which bear "irrefutable" traces of cannibalism. "They would begin by taking the body apart, removing the meat, and after having eaten it, they would throw the bones in the fire where they would burst" explains Barroso. During analysis (that involved the participation of 90 specialists), the bones were pieced back together, bringing to light the cut marks of cannibalistic practices. "It has been said that Neanderthals buried their young, but we have shown that this wasn't the case here, since they appear to have been used as food following their death" concludes the archaeologist. (my translation)

In light of a recent study that argues against the case for cannibalism at Krapina, Croatia, such claims from Zafarraya take on a new importance. Interestingly, if the case for cannibalism at El Sidron (Rosas et al. 2006) is eventually demonstrated unambiguously, it might suggest that cannibalism might have been somewhat more common than elsewhere in the Iberian peninsula towards the end of the periods during which recognizably Neanderthal remains are documented in the fossil record.

Hat tip: Martin Cagliani.


Barroso Ruiz, C., and H. de Lumley (eds.). 2006. La Grotte du Boquete de Zafarraya (Malaga, Andalousie) vol. 3, Junta de Andalucía, Consejería de Cultura, Sevilla.

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.

Hublin J.J., Barroso Ruiz C., Medina Lara P., Fontugne M., Reyss J.-L., 1995 - The Mousterian site of Zafarraya (Granada, Spain): dating and implications on the palaeolithic peopling processes of Western Europe. C. R. Acad. Sc. Paris. 321 (IIa): 931-937

Rosas A, Martínez-Maza C, Bastir M, García-Tabernero A, Lalueza-Fox C, Huguet R, Ortiz JE, Julià R, Soler V, de Torres T, Martínez E, Cañaveras JC, Sánchez-Moral S, Cuezva S, Lario J, Santamaría D, de la Rasilla M, and Fortea J.2006. Paleobiology and comparative morphology of a late Neandertal sample from El Sidron, Asturias, Spain. PNAS 103:19266-19271.

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.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Blogging for Science

Here's my quote of the day, courtesy of PZ Myers:
Peer review is only a first, preliminary hurdle for a paper to cross; passing peer review and getting published does not mean that your work is right. Some incredibly awful papers get through the review process, somehow. Getting published only means that now your paper is going to be opened up to wider criticism. Don't take the attitude that publication means vindication; I know reviewers, and I've reviewed papers, and I know that reviewers are sometimes lazy, sometimes susceptible to croneyism, and always overworked, and that publication doesn't mean you are right. (my emphasis).
Boy, don't I know it! Publishing paleoanthropologically-themed research can sometimes feel like you're entering the Thunderdome, a lesson I learned first-hand in my very first peer-reviewed publication! And Myers makes a good point: when something gets published, it only means that it's serious enough that other experts in the field recognize it's worth discussing, that other professionals can now have a go at it, if you will. Actually you should read the whole post, which is about how people think of blogs, comments on blogs, and the contribution this can make to scientific discourse. It's a thoughtful piece, and one in which PZ - whose writing style can occasionally be, errr, fiery - cogently lays out the case for the usefulness of blogging to make scientific research and its conclusions accessible to a wider audience.

And as for the writing style of blog posts, I also especially liked this quote (which came in second place for quote of the day): "Explain your answers as you would to an undergrad or bright high school student. If you can't, it implies that you aren't looking for an equal opportunity, you are looking for a way to avoid probing questions." Now, that doesn't mean you need to 'dumb it down' or that everybody needs to do this. In my view, it highlights how the web can be used to democratize and favor the diffusion of science. After all, in a time when funding for scientific research increasingly comes from public agencies, it is important to present our work in a manner that is accessible to a well-educated public. This is part of why I have this humble little blog here.

And because common ideas seem to strike different people at the same time, check out John Hawks' recent post on the issue. His take? "I wanted to point to Orac's post, since it is what the blogosphere is the best for: clear, factual critiques that focus on methods." And it's fitting that I mention Hawks here, since he was one of the parties in one of the best 'real-time' virtual debates on Early Upper Paleolithic chronology, a topic near and dear to my heart. On January 12, 2007, John blogged about a new Science paper on the EUP chronology of Kostenki, Russia, criticizing some aspects of the paper's conclusions. Four days later, on January 16, 2007, one of that study's authors, John Hoffecker wrote a reply to Hawks' post, posting it on Kris Hirst's Archaeology Blog, addressing in a detailed manner some of John's critiques. And two days later, on January 18, you guessed it, Hawks had also posted a lengthy reply to some of the points raised in Hoffecker's guest post, situating the debate in a broader context to highlight the significance of the paper he originally blogged about.

OK, lengthy summary to basically highlight that, in the span of just over one week (literally, a blink of an eye in 'journal time'), you had a serious, thought-provoking and scholarly back-and-forth debate on a paper that had just been published. If this had taken place in Science itself, it would have probably taken at least 6 months to get published, far after the paper had faded from public consciousness. Now, this would be all and well for the paleoanthropological community, but for the public at large who might have been interested in the issue, it probably provided a rarely seen instance of how scientists can disagree on details (the specifics of the chronology of the 'transition') while nonetheless agreeing on fundamental issues (that the transition was an important process in recent human evolution). So, yes, blogging can and does serve a very useful purpose in the discourse of science.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The social context of zombie concern

Well, just in time for Halloween, we get this:

If you like this graph, you should most certainly read the whole story "War and Social Upheaval Cause Spikes in Zombie Movie Production." My inner number geek picked up on some issues with the sampling that went into this: frankly, to objectively demonstrate this, what is needed is a chart showing the relative importance of zombie flicks per total movies produced in any given year.

What's that you say? Oh right, this is an archaeology/anthropology blog. Uh, ok, well. Here you go! Did you know that the earliest documented zombie outbreak is at the important MSA site of Katanda (Brooks 2003; McBrearty and Brooks 2000; Yellen et al. 1995)? And that, just last year, excavations at Hierakonpolis, Egypt, revealed the first unambiguous evidence for a zombie outbreak in urban settings? Happy Halloween, folks!


Brooks, M. 2003. The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead. Three Rivers Press, New York.

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.

Yellen, JE, AS Brooks, E Cornelissen, MJ Mehlman, and K Stewart. 1995. A Middle Stone Age worked bone industry from Katanda, Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire. Science 268:553-556.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

New blogs on the block

About ten days ago, I attended a little function here at McGill to honor the teaching skills of my friend Stephen Chrisomalis, now an assistant professor at Wayne State University. The reception was held because Steve was awarded a McGill Arts Undergraduate Society Excellence in Teaching Award at McGill, where he worked until this summer.

And I have to say, it's richly deserved. Beyond being an original thinker whose archaeological research is strongly and profitably rooted in comparative approaches, Steve (who incidentally was my TA in my very first archaeology course when I started out as an impressionable BA student at McGill back in 19coughcough) approaches teaching with more enthusiasm than I've seen in pretty much anyone involved in academia and, with his 'Cartesian' mindset (i.e., non-linear, which I definitely mean as a compliment!), he has the knack of coming up with innovative ways to get archaeological and anthropological matters through to students in ways that are both innovative and grounded in easily relatable topics and forms of material culture. It's a rare ability indeed, and one that I envy quite a bit now that I've started teaching on something resembling a regular basis. Habitual readers of AVRPI may remember that I had mentioned his Dollarware Archaeology website a few months back. Well, not only does he have a couple more such websites (here, here and here) where he compiles information and papers produced by the students in some of his courses, one of these is the topic of a talk he recently presented on the social underpinnings of stop signs in Montreal.

And, for another 'not only', it was my great pleasure to see recently that Steve has started his own blog, Glossographia, since blogging and new media through which to communicate anthropology writ large to a broader audience was a topic which we often discussed last year, as I was starting my postodc at McGill. Now, you'll have to excuse him if he tarnished what is otherwise an outstanding blog by talking about yours truly in one post, but I highly recommend checking it out and commenting on his posts. You won't be sorry!

Now, I've added a link to Glossographia in the links section of this humble blog, so you have no excuse not to check it out. But, I also want to point out two recent additions to the blogroll: Publishing Archaeology, by Mike Smith (a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University - where I got my degree) who champions the causes of open-access publishing in archaeology and of how to disseminate archaeological literature as widely as possible (among other topics); and Middle Savagery, the brainchild of Berkeley PhD student Colleen Morgan, who devotes a lot of time and energy to how digital technologies can serve the needs and further the goals of archaeology and rendering accessible to a wider audience. Check out all three blogs, people! You'll come out of the experience a better person, if maybe one with slightly less free time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The relevance of archaeology?

At the beginning of my Archaeological Methods class earlier this fall, I told my students that archaeology matters because it's "important." By that I meant that archaeology is the only discipline that can provide us with a relatively objective measure of how things were in the past, even following the advent of writing.

In that light, I was excited to read a short paper by Paul Minnis in the latest SAA Archaeological Record (unfortunately available only to dues-paying SAA members) in which he talks about the usefulness of recovering paleobotanical remains of extinct domesticated plant species from archaeological deposits, mainly in the context of ensuring that we have a record of past domesticated plant species. This, he cogently argues, can be beneficial for contemporary debates about world hunger and plant conservation biology:

It would be a logical question to ask what value these extinct crops have beyond simply understanding the past. There are several potential practical uses. First, it may be possible to redomesticate these plants—-we have the best evidence that they can be domesticated because they once were, if the need arises. Their value may well increase further with more sophisticated techniques to manipulate genes independent of breeding of whole plants. Valuable marshelder genes, as an example, could be useful without having to redomesticate the plant itself.

There is additional use of these data. The current distribution where specific crops are grown may not reflect the areas where they could be farmed. Given the accelerated replacement of traditional crops and cultivars, there is every reason to believe that their areas of cultivation have been greatly reduced. The archaeological data, therefore, can provide direct evidence for locations where specific crops might be grown but not longer are.

In a similar vein, it is likely that what appears to be marginal farming areas will need to be brought into cultivation to feed an expanding human population and deal with changes in the organization of food production. Often ancient people had already farmed such locations. Lithic mulching, chinampas farming, and sunken fields are but three examples of the human creativity in developing techniques to grow crops in difficult locations. The archaeological record can provide clues as to the types of crops that might be viable in these locations and may even provide examples of novel farming techniques used to grow them in the past.
(Minnis 2008:50)

I have to say, I'm really liking the kinds of papers that have been coming out in the Archaeological Record lately. Short, to the point, and often emphasizing the relevance of archaeological practice today, albeit from an insider's perspective. What's not to love?


Minnis, P. 2008. Valuing Archaeology. New futures for ancient crops. The SAA Archaeological Record 8(5): 41,50.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Cannibalism at Krapina - or not!

The issue of Neanderthal cannibalism has a long history and a number of important behavioral implications, some of which I've already discussed in a prior post. Two sites are usually invoked to make the case for Neanderthal cannibalism, Moula-Guercy in France (Defleur et al. 1999), and Krapina, in Croatia. A good review of the abundant literature on Krapina up to 2006 is available freely in pdf format (Frayer 2006), should you be interested. Krapina is especially important because of the large number of highly fragmented Neanderthal remains (800+) that have been found there - indeed, the fragmentary nature of the remains has been intimately linked to the case for cannibalism, being often interpreted as evidence of bones being broken to get at the marrow they contained.

So it's with great interest that I saw a paper by Jörg Orschiedt (2008), in the latest issue of Quartär. It's in German, but the English abstract reads as follows:

The Krapina case – New results on the question of cannibalism of Neanderthals.

The human skeletal remains from Krapina / Croatia of almost 900 fragments have been considered for a long time as a proof of Neanderthal cannibalism. Although this opinion was frequently criticised, the fragmentary nature and traces of manipulations on the skeletal remains were mentioned as evidence. Several investigations resulted in contradicting interpretations whether the condition of the human remains are the result of burial activities or ritual cannibalism. The re-examination of the skeletal remains was carried out in order to put a closer look to the breakage patterns and the cut marks. The revision of the inventory of human remains shows that certain skeletal elements like the facial skeleton, skull base, hand- and foot bones as well as vertebrae are underrepresented or missing. It seems therefore unlikely that the bodies were buried in anatomical connection. The investigation also proved that the breakage patterns were not caused by human activity. Although several bones especially the long bone diaphysis, clavicles and pelvis fragments display breakage patterns related to perimortem breakage like spiral fractures, any kind of human activity is absent. In fact the breakage is related to sediment pressure, particularly to rock fall, and carnivore activities. Damage on bones caused by carnivore activity is well visible by bite marks on long bone fragments and on Cranium 3.Any detailed analysis of the cut marks is problematic, since the bones were covered with shellac. Therefore, the analysis by a scanning electron microscope did not yield any significant result. The study of the cut marks revealed serious doubt on their nature. The macroscopic investigation, however, showed that the traces are not consistent regarding their orientation and location with traces commonly related to disarticulation and dismemberment activities. Cut marks related to this kind of activity usually occur in areas of muscle attachments and joints. Several cut marks show evidence for a recent origin. The most striking evidence for this is found on a long bone splinter of a diaphysis. The cut marks located on this fragment cut through the “F” [for femur] written in ink of the bone. The shellac was added only later covering the bone. It seems possible in only two cases that cut marks on two scapulae were caused by dismembering activities. The well known Cranium 3 exhibits possible cut marks on the frontal bone, which might indicate skinning activities like the removal of the scalp. Nevertheless the position and the small size of the marks fail to prove such an activity. A ritual behaviour might be a possible explanation.

If this taphonomic analysis is correct, it certainly throws a sizable wrench into the argument for one of the most celebrated cases for Neanderthal cannibalism. The possible evidence for scalping is also very intriguing.


Defleur, A., T. White, P. Valensi, L. Slimak, and É. Crégut-Bonnoure. 1999. Neanderthal Cannibalism at Moula-Guercy, Ardèche, France. Science 286:128-131.

Frayer, D. W. 2006. The Krapina Neandertals. A Comprehensive, Centennial, Illustrated Bibliography. Zagreb: Croatian Natural History Museum.

Orschiedt, J. 2008. Der Fall Krapina – Neue Ergebnisse zur Frage von Kannibalismus beim Neandertaler. Quartär 55:63-81. (with English abstract).

Modern is as modern does?

ResearchBlogging.orgSince I last posted, there's been a lot of 'chatter' on the interwebs about the 'modernity' displayed by Neanderthals in their subsistence patterns, because they appeared to have hunted very similar ungulates than Aurignacian foragers and, especially because they have been shown to procure and consume sea mammals exactly as early modern humans at Gibraltar. All sorts of people have talked about the latter (here, and here), but there's one aspect of this discovery that's been puzzling me ever since I read the actual report (Stringer et al. 2008), and it's got me adjusting my spectacle and saying "Not so fast..."

That aspect is, quite simply, the frequency of sea mammal remains present in those assemblages. Now, the authors and commentators have been right in emphasizing that both Middle and Upper Paleolithic hominins display the same behavior and that is a big deal: it is one more solid uppercut to the jaw of the argument that Neanderthals and modern humans were somehow fundamentally different from a behavioral standpoint. That this is true for subsistence patterns is especially important since, as a colleague of mine likes to emphasize, it's how much calories you can extract from an environment that allows you to have more babies and keep them alive (i.e., be reproductively successful)! So, showing that people in the late Middle and early Upper Paleolithic procured resources similarly is an important observation indeed. This is the basis on which people can somewhat legitimately claim that Neanderthals could act in 'modern' ways.

In contrast, my view is that the sea mammals from Gorham's and Vanguard Caves do not support the idea that Neanderthals acted in a recognizably modern way. But here's the catch: neither did the early Upper Paleolithic, presumably modern human, foragers! In other words, yes, Neanderthals and early modern humans acted in comparable manners, but no, that behavior is not what we can really consider modern, based on what we know from historic and prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

What leads me to this conclusion is the proportion of sea mammals to other animals at those sites. I consider the mollusks uncontroversial, since there's plenty of evidence they were exploited by coastal Neanderthal and early modern humans as far back at OIS 6. So, focusing on sea mammals and fish, what do we get?

We get a really weird pattern! Let's start with the material from Vanguard Cave (Stringer et al. 2008: Table 1). We have a NISP (number of identifiable specimens - I could use MNE's instead, but the results are only marginally different, and laden with their own peculiar problems) of 9, with NISP's of 172 for terrestrial herbivores and 20 for carnivores. This means that herbivore remains are almost 20 times more abundant than those of sea animals. Perhaps even more interestingly, carnivore remains are twice as abundant as those of sea animals. The authors talk about the low rate of carnivore gnaw marks on the sea and land mammals at the site (in addition to the absence of traces of human processing on the carnivore remains), implying that carnivores and humans probably occupied the cave at different times. That being the case, it means that carnivores that were not accumulated by humans are twice as frequent as the sea mammal remains.

Before discussing what I think this means, let's turn to Gorham's Cave, where modern human behavior is presumably also documented, in Level III (Stringer et al. 2008: Table 4). In this case, for Neanderthals (Level IV), if you lump together seal and fish (NISP = 3), it means that herbivores (NISP = 49) are 16 times more frequent than sea animals. As for carnivores (NISP = 36, again assumed to be non-accumulated by humans), they are 12 times more frequent than sea critters. In Level III, the sea animal NISP is 5, while that of herbivores is 186 (37 times more frequent than sea animals!) and that of carnivores is 30 (or six times the amount of sea critters). There are also some interesting patterns of small game use at Gorham's, which I'll return to in a bit.

But first why is this pattern of relative representation of sea animals important? Because this is not how ethnographically documented foragers that depend on sea animals. In fact, foragers that have access to sea mammal tend to focus on them a lot! The data I summarized above suggest that the sea mammal:herbivore ratio of the Gibraltar assemblages is as follows:

Vanguard: 172:9 = 19.1
Ghoram's IV (Neanderthal): 49:3 = 16.3
Gorham's III (H. sapiens): 186:5 = 37.2

In contrast, for ethnographically-documented forager groups that depend to sea animals and land mammals, the same ratio ranges from 0.16 (meaning sea animals are six times more frequent than land mammals in the group's diet) to 12 (where land mammals are 12 times more frequent than sea resources) (this is based on data summarized in Kelly 1995: Table 3-1). That latter figure is probably an overestimate, however, since the one group that is associated with the ratio value of 12- the Aeta - procures extra amounts of meat to trade for carbohydrates with neighboring agriculturalists, a situtation that is clearly inappropriate for the comparison being undertaken here. Shifting to the next group down the list of most 'meat vs. fish', we get the Nunamiut, with a ratio of 8.7. This allows us to complete the table above thusly:

Assemblage Ratio
Vanguard 19.1
Ghoram's IV (Neanderthal) 16.3
Gorham's III (H. sapiens) 37.2
Most sea mammal focused hunters 0.16
Least sea mammal focused hunters 8.7/12

Whether we go with the Aeta or the Nunamiut, the picture is the same: the ratio of land to sea resources of hunter-gatherers is much lower than that documented in any of the three assemblages presented by Stringer and colleagues (2008). Notably, the ratio for those foragers that heavily depend on sea resources is smaller by orders of magnitudes than that found in any of the Gibraltar assemblages. Perhaps most importantly, the Gibraltar ratios are much, much higher than those of those hunters that target the least amount of sea mammals in their diets.

Plainly put, this means that when foragers exploit sea animals, they exploit a hell of a lot more of them than is documented in Vanguard and Gorham's Caves. One may quibble about the fact that I overlooked the Vanguard mollusks in this analysis, but since these are absent from the Gorham's Cave faunal assemblages discussed here, for the purposes of comparing early H. sapiens and Neanderthal behavior, the case stands nevertheless. In short, what we're seeing at Gibraltar bears departs significantly from the subsistence strategies of known forager groups.

Now, obviously, we have to be careful not to impose on the past observations from the present, the old "tyranny of the ethnographic record" (Wobst 1978). However, there is a reason why people focus on sea animals when they have access to them: they are often full of sweet, delicious fat. So, when they know when, where and how to procure sea animals (even if it's only on a yearly basis, when they are most likely to be found beached), hunter-gatherers will preferentially target them, and accumulate them in large numbers. Most critically, the Gibraltar pattern departs significantly from that of those foragers that depend the least on sea critters, which should give one some serious pause.

Stringer et al. (2008: 14323) argue that the presence of sea mammal remains in all the levels of Vanguard Cave and in the Neanderthal and H. sapiens deposits of Gorham's Cave reflects

"that Neanderthals were not only systematically exploiting terrestrial mammals but also marine mollusks, pinnipeds, and cetaceans. Their distribution through the stratigraphy suggests that securing marine mammals was not an accidental or isolated practice, but a focused behavior possibly repeated seasonally or over longer periods... Significantly, the range of species exploited and the age distribution pattern of the prey strongly indicate that the coastal exploitation of resources by Neanderthals was not a sporadic and isolated occurrence but one that required a knowledge of the life history of prey and its seasonality."

Color me skeptical here, and this in spite of my opinion that the behavioral capacities are still systematically underappreciated in contemporary paleoanthropology. But overall, we're talking about numbers of sea animal remains that are absolutely dwarfed by the preponderance of land mammals and that in all cases are significantly rarer than even those of carnivores that occupied the site when humans were absent. Call it what you will, but this is not a behavior that is modern in any real way.

The take-home message here is that, just because some behavior is associated with morphologically 'modern' humans, it does not mean that it is actually modern. In the end, who knows, maybe Neanderthals and early European H. sapiens did exploit sea mammals seasonally - but empirically, the evidence presented by Stringer et al.(2008) rather points to unsystematic, opportunistic acquisition of parts of beached carcasses. But the fact that the Gibraltar data are so odd in light of everything we know about the subsistence patterns of sea-oriented foragers underlines the importance of always defining what is meant by 'modern behavior' and of situating behavioral reconstructions of Neanderthals and early H. sapiens in the broader context of the hunter-gatherer behavioral record. Doing so usually yields some very interesting results indeed!


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

Stringer, C. B., J. C. Finlayson, R. N. E. Barton, Y. Fernandez-Jalvo, I. Caceres, R. C. Sabin, E. J. Rhodes, A. P. Currant, J. Rodriguez-Vidal, F. Giles-Pacheco, J. A. Riquelme-Cantal (2008). From the Cover: Neanderthal exploitation of marine mammals in Gibraltar Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (38), 14319-14324 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805474105

Wobst, H. M. 1978. The Archaeo-Ethnology of Hunter-Gatherers or the Tyranny of the ethnographic record in Archaeology. American Antiquity 43:303-309.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fear and loathing in the Pleistocene

There are a couple of interesting items on Neanderthals coming our way today, courtesy of the National Geographic. First is this short video that presents the contrasting views of I. Tattersall and J. Hawks on modern human-Neanderthal interactions:

Did Man Kill the Neanderthals?

Now, I'm sure it was unintentional, but this cracked me up: as the narrator announces "Today, it’s obvious who dominates the planet" and pauses, the video cues to a shot of John standing in the middle of Times Square(?), looking straight into the camera! And it's only fitting, really, considering the refreshing perspective Hawks brings to the debate over competition between the two hominin groups (transcripted by yours truly):

"It would be insane to go out and pick a fight. You’re not a military organization going in, looking to conquer. You’re a small group yourself. You sort of have to find a way to live with the locals and, as you do that, you learn from them to some extent. And the locals learn from you.

I feel like the defense attorney for the Neanderthals sometimes. I’m trying to see the ways that they overlap with us and trying to add complexity to the story because any story that involves things happening over a continent over thousands of years has got to be complicated."

Good little video, overall, though I was a bit aggravated by the conclusions narrated towards the end of the video: "Fossils are inconclusive, the answer lies in DNA." Well, no, actually. DNA provides some information, fossils provide other types of information and archaeology provides yet other information, all of which is necessary and complementary to reach an adequate understanding of this process. I hammer this a lot to my students and in my work, but it really cheapens the practice of physical anthropology and archaeology when they're considered only as icing on the interpretive cake of evolutionary genetics. Bones and stones (to simplify) are not just ancillary evidence: they're critically important sources of data that need to be accounted for fully as opposed to simply made to fit in the models derived from other disciplines. It's often all too tempting to grant greater weight to the conclusions of disciplines that are more directly grounded in the life sciences, but it's important to realize that they're also fraught with internal tensions and debates and wide-ranging differences in interpretation.

This ties in neatly with the second NG item, namely a report on a new reconstruction of a Neanderthal female. Here's a shot of this beauty:

But what you should really check out is the set of photos related to this reconstruction. Five pictures in, there's an especially great shot of the Neanderthal woman (nicknamed Wilma) thrusting a spear and sporting an extensive set of black tattoos on her back and upper chest. Now, why is this so neat (beyond being the closest thing to Neanderthal fetish/alterna-porn you're likely to ever see - I mean, it's a naked chick with tats and a weapon!)? Because the reconstruction is based on genetics, skeletal anatomy and archaeology. You have the genetics that have informed the artists about the likely hair and skin color of the Neanderthal. You have the skeletal morphology dictating the overall look and posture of the thing. And finally, you have the archaeology contributing some additional behavioral information. In this specific case, the reconstruction draws on discussions about the fact that Neanderthal females may have been integral to large game procurement strategies (i.e., no sexual division of labor) and on the fact that Neanderthals appear to have used manganese as a coloring material to on their skin. Kudos to the artists for artfully integrating all three lines of evidence!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Well, look at that...

Most of the feedback I've gotten about this blog over the past couple of years has been generally positive, thought most of it is usually qualified with formulas to the effect of "I don't know where you find the time" and "What concrete purpose does it serve?"

Well, over the summer, a commentary of mine came out in the journal Medical Hypotheses. It's entitled "Mad Neanderthal disease? Some comments on "A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction" (Riel-Salvatore 2008). Regular AVRPI readers might find that title sounds familiar, and they would be right. "Mad Neanderthal Disease?" was also the title of a post I wrote last winter in reaction to the publication of a paper by. S. Underdown (2008) and the considerable media buzz it generated.

After I wrote that post, a reader - who happened to agree with me - asked me what the point of posting this (and other things) only to the web was, since, in practice, my comments left no durable trace in 'The Literature' (y'know, the stuff that leaves a tangible papertrail). I've always said that I think of blogging first and foremost as a way of forcing myself to articulate first reactions to articles and newsreports that I read, and to engage a wider audience in debates over archaeology, anthropology, and other topics. This post was a case in point. I received several comments on it, including one that pointed me to a reference to Homo sapiens cannibalism/handling of the dead that I'd overlooked in my original post, and - very recently - another one that brought to my attention an old paper on a very similar model (Wolbarsht 1975) (in fact an extremely similar model, down to the virus, ethnographic comparisons, and mode of transmission).

So, having taken the time to write the post anyway, all I had to do was pull up the file that contains its text (I save all of my posts as individual text files, should Blogger ever decide to cancel this fair blog), add the missing ref, format it for length and style, write a short cover letter to the editor, log on the Medical Hypotheses online submission service, and voila!, a submitted paper. In all, it took maybe an extra hour of work. Funny thing is, had I not blogged about this, I don't think that I would have bothered to write a comment on the Underdown paper in the first place, probably reserving my thoughts for 'over beer' discussions with colleagues.

Arguably, this is not exactly a full-blown peer-reviewed publication. However, it goes to show two things: first, blogging is useful as a catalyst to write, engender debate and refine one's ideas. In my case, this is further demonstrated by another paper of mine (this one currently in press in a bona fide peer-reviewed archaeology journal) that incorporates edited passages of an earlier post; in this case too, the time that elapsed between my writing that post and my writing that academic paper (along with the discussion that post generated) was crucial in helping me develop ideas I originally put together over two years ago now. This ties into the second thing I want to say about blogging: it can have a very real, tangible academic output. Between converting/adapting/incoporating blog posts into 'proper' (or rather, standard) academic papers and helping one to develop thoughts without actually setting out to write in the formal, somewhat more rigid style and structure of an academic paper, blogging can certainly be a stimulus for one's academic output. And this, of course, is in addition to the benefits of making academic literature accessible to a larger public, providing a critical assessment of discoveries that are 'published' only through press releases (*cough*cultofthepython*cough*), and other benefits discussed by Hawks in a thoughtful post about two months ago (John, if you read this, congrats on the tenure, btw!).

Now, I'm not saying this will be true for everyone, and I'm definitely not saying that all my posts are 'papers in becoming' or inherently worthy of publication in peer-reviewed venues (far from it). However, I would argue that it is certainly not a waste of time that might have been devoted to other pursuits, which I think the rest of my academic and personal record demonstrate (this is in addition to the fact that it actually doesn't consume as much time as many people seem to think). Obviously, this approach means that I'm occasionally blogging about 'work in progress' and one might rightfully argue that this exposes me to a form of intellectual 'sniping.' But, beyond the fact that I don't think too many people would want to do that in the first place (especially with my position on some debates!), the beautiful thing about blogs is that everything is neatly chronicled online, with dates and all - if one adds to that the occasional mention of my posts by other bloggers, what this all amounts to is what I think is a fairly secure barrier against sniping, should I ever need one. Plus, most of these ideas I've already presented at meetings anyway, so it's not like they've been exactly secret!


Riel-Salvatore, J. 2008. Mad Neanderthal disease? Some comments on "A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction." Medical Hypotheses 71:473-474.

Underdown, S. 2008. A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction. Medical Hypotheses 71:4-7.

Wolbarsht, M. L. 1975. The Demese ef the Ne'enderthels: Wes Lengege E Fecter? Science 187:600-601.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Yours truly, rearranged!

Here are some anagrams (give or take a letter) of my name concocted by some of the students who took my Human Evolution class this past summer.... and I just don't know what to make of this common theme:

"Jail, a volunteer's lie."

"Learn evil jail routes."

Jail? Evil? Lies?! Seriously?! My oh my... well, maybe the first two aren't that far off the mark, but I never imagined it'd be so transparent!

Luckily for me, there were also some francophones in the class:

"Je rase le lutin ravi." (English: "I shave the delighted imp.")

... hmmm, on second thought, I really don't know how I feel about that one either!


While I'm running around and posting this belatedly, I nonetheless want to encourage you to take the time to sit back and enjoy as you sip heartily the dark anthropological nectar pouring out of A Hot Cup of Joe for the latest installment of Four Stone Hearth. I'm a bit late to the parade, but better late than never!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Funding culture in Italy

The New York Times has an excellent article summarizing a range of reactions to the decision of the Berlusconi government to allocate only 0.28% of its budget to the Ministry of Culture, which oversees, among other things, the maintenance and development of museums, as well as a sizable fraction of archaeological research in Italy. That's for all archaeology in Italy... with its wealth of Roman and other Classical cultures, I shudder to think how little of even that 0.28% will go to prehistory.

This opening excerpt, about the Pigorini Museum (one of the most important ones in Italy for ethnography and prehistory) wrenched my heart:

On some days visitors to the Luigi Pigorini National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography here may find its director in the front booth handing out entrance tickets. It’s not a meet-and-greet situation: The museum is chronically understaffed.

In recent weeks museumgoers have tended to speed past the glass-encased artifacts from Oceania and Asia or skim Homo’s evolution to sapiens. They can’t afford to tarry. The Pigorini has no money for air-conditioning, and the Roman sun is merciless.

“We barely have enough money to keep the lights on, or pay for a cleaning staff,” said Vito Lattanzi, director of educational services and of the Mediterranean collections at the museum, which is also a research institute. The custodial staff has been pared down to 11 from 30. Ten years ago there were eight to a shift; now there are four, and in most cases two are volunteers.

The article also does a very good job exploring the reasons behind the disinterest in private donation to support much cultural research in the peninsula, and the tensions about the perception of the need for private funding within the cultural world. Definitely worth a thorough read.

The unbearable lightness of the Paleoltihic record

Whenever I read a report like this one, on the recovery of organic Neolithic artifacts including a birch bark quiver, a wooden bow and parts of leather pants (oh yeah!!), I can't help but to wonder how little we actually know about the richness of the material culture of earlier periods of prehistory.

Preservation bias has a lot to do with why so much Paleolithic archaoelogy is focused on the study of chipped stone technology. And whenever people get too carried with studying stone tools (yes, I've been told that this is possible...), I always like to dredge up this quote about the Wola of Papua-New Guinea:

"While lithics form a unique source for studying prehistory, among the Wolachert is only one among 255 types of raw material. Stone may not have been as significant to the user as it is to archaeologists... Clues to the relative importance of stone lie in a detailed understanding of the local resource base, evidence for subsistence strategies and the types of tools found." (Sillitoe and Hardy 2003:563).


Sillitoe P., and K. Hardy.2003. Living Lithics: Ethnography and archaeology in Highland Papua New Guinea. Antiquity 77, 297:555-566.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Surveying surveys

The most recent Project Gallery in Antiquity contains a set of three reports of new Paleolithic surface assemblages from Greece (Mortensen 2008), Iran (Jamialahmadi et al. 2008) and India (Chauan and Patnaik 2008). Mortensen presents a small lithic assemblage form the locality of Loutró, on the southern coast of Crete, which he attributes to the Lower or early Middle Paleolithic on typological grounds (note: all pictures are from the reports which I discuss sequentially in this post).

While he recognizes that a representative sample of artifacts from Loutró will only be collected through a systematic survey of the locality and the gully around it, Mortensen claims that this “might suggest that the first humans reached the island across the sea from Libya. That an early contact between northern Africa and southern Europe existed already during the Palaeolithic periods is a hypothesis now supported by most scholars.” I actually don’t think this is a widely held view, but – if these artifacts can be considered creadible – they do suggest that islands such as Crete might have been settled comparatively early on. Only time will tell.

Jamialahmadi et al. (2008) present some very preliminary results of a survey they conducted in northeast Iran to assess the abundance of its Paleolithic record. In this case, they identified 15 artifact-bearing localities near the Kashafrud and Jamrud rivers, at least two of which (Ghaleh-Gak and Polgazi) have yielded artifacts that, on typological grounds, appear Lower or Middle Paleolithic in age.

They conclude that this survey “revealed the great potential of north-eastern Iran in general and of the river Kashafrud in particular for Palaeolithic studies. Sporadic Palaeolithic finds in this region and neighbouring areas (Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) support the hypothesis that the region delimited today by the geographical boundaries of Iran has been used repeatedly in the Pleistocene period as a migratory pathway linking East with West.” Again, I’m not necessarily convinced that sporadic finds are necessarily indicative of a repeatedly used interregional human corridor, but the data are certainly suggestive of early human presence in those areas as well.

Chauan and Patnaik (2008) also report on preliminary findings of a survey in the Narmada Basin, in India. In this case, the intent of the survey is to obtain contextual information for the taxonomically and chronologically ambiguous. In contrast to the other two reports discussed here, this project “includes systematic surveys, documentation and collection of various types of specimens for geological, palynological and lithic analyses.” In other words, it should yield a representative sample of what is to be found along the Middle Narmada, and in fact “A long-term objective is to map localities using GIS for reference purpose and predictive modelling. It is clear that habitation probably occurred along the peripheral zones, closer to the Vindhyan Hills rather than in the vicinity of the main channel of the Narmada River.” Predictive modeling is basically highlighting which contextual factors (e.g., sediments, distance to river, slope, etc.) are most often associated with archaeological sites, to then target similar deposits in order to maximize the likelihood of finding sites – if this proves fruitful, some general patterns of human behavior can also begin to be outlined for the timespans under consideration here, once again the Lower and early Middle Paleolithic.

The Narmada survey also explicitly focuses on the collection of other types of archaeological evidence, including notably animal bones and dating samples.

From my perspective, this is an interesting set of reports because it illustrates well different manners in which archaeological sites all belonging to the same general periods can be encountered, a topic which we’re about to discuss in my Archaeological Methods class this term. The Loukó finds apparently represent a chance encounter, while the other two projects are bona fide surveys. Only the Narmada project appears to be systematic, however, meaning that it is organized according to regularly spaced/defined spatial units, some of which are then selected for thorough inspection to form a statistically representative sample of the region as a whole. In contrast the Iranian project appears to be a combination of a systematic and survey and chance encounters: you have an area that has reported archaeological potential, which limits your survey area, but within it, sites are encountered as one goes. My point here is not to critique the various strategies used in the identification of these three reports, but rather to emphasize how very different approaches have the potential to increase our knowledge of the archaeological record, albeit in very distinct ways.


Chauhan, P. R., and R. Patnaik. 2008. The Narmada Basin Palaeoanthropology Project in central India. Antiquity 82(317):

Jamialahmadi, M., H. Vahdati Nasab, and H. Fazeli Nashli. 2008. Kashafrud revisited: discovery of new Palaeolithic sites in north-eastern Iran. Antiquity 82(317):

Mortensen, P. 2008. Lower to Middle Palaeolithic artefacts from Loutró on the south coast of Crete. Antiquity 82(317):

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Read 'em up! New Four Stone Hearth

It's that time again... there's a new installment of the Four Stone Hearth over at Tangled Up in Blue Guy. It's the "layman edition" so even if you don't do much anthropology, you've got no excuse to not check it out...

Where have I been?

Due to the prolonged period of silence on this blog, some of you might have begun to think that I've been hiding in a deep hole these past few months...

... and you wouldn't have been completely wrong! Now that I've managed to climb out, however, stay tuned for some new posts as this new academic year revs up!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Think Indiana Jones - in a dumpster!

MSNBC has a feature on the "10 worst jobs in science" available online. And lo and behold, an archaeological subfield made the cut:

No. 4: Garbologist

Think Indiana Jones—in a Dumpster

Archaeologists usually pick through ancient garbage. But William Rathje of Stanford University won't wait. Since 1973 the self-termed "garbologist" has sifted through at least 250,000 pounds of refuse to analyze modern consumption patterns and how quickly waste breaks down. He typically drills 15 to 20 "wells" to the bottom of a landfill, some 90 feet deep, and pulls 20 to 30 tons of material from each well, which he and his students then catalog. What he's learned: Dirty diapers make up less than 2 percent of landfills, while paper accounts for 45 percent. Hot dogs can last up to 24 years in a dump, and there is a correlation between cat ownership (litter) and National Enquirer readers (discarded copies). Rathje looks at other trash, too. One project involved scouring garbage cans in Tucson, Arizona, cataloging candy wrappers and used dental floss, toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes to compare survey claims about dental health with reality. The conclusion: There's far more junk out there than ways to get it off your teeth.

It comes in right behind elephant vasectomist, hazmat diver and... oceanographer?!

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Paleolithic of the Middle East

If you're interested in the Paleolithic archaeology of the Middle East and surrounding regions, I'd like to point you towards the web site of a recent conference that addressed specifically that topic. The symposium was entitled "The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in the Middle East and Neighbouring Regions" and was hosted by the Institute for Prehistory and Archaeological Science of the University of Basel (Switzerland). The program and abstracts are available online and emphasize the range of interesting research that is currently going on in that part of the world.

Hat tip: F. Biglari.

Why I should watch less TV...

By chance, I caught the last segment of last night’s installment of “The Hour” on CBC, where one of the guests was Ben Stein promoting his recent anti-evolution movie Expelled. When I’ve watched it, I’ve generally liked “The Hour” and the irreverent tone struck by its host, George Stroumboulopoulos. But what I saw yesterday was a real let-down, I have to say. There were essentially no substantive questions about anything in the movie and what the basis is for the latest mouture of creationism, so-called intelligent design. Given Stroumboulopoulos’ penchant for pop culture references, I at least expected some pointed questions about how the film illegally used clips of songs by John Lennon and The Killers, but nope, not even that! And, in contrast to the notion that the movie’s been well-received in the US, check out a compilation of reviews of it on Rotten Tomatoes - less than stellar, especially if you compare it to other movies released on the same day, and to other documentaries.

Instead, the interview consisted of softball questions, and really focused on Stein’s status as a minor pop culture reference. This is perhaps not surprising given the show’s generally chummy attitude towards its guests (which is nice, overall, don’t get me wrong), but still. That’s not an absolution from asking questions that actually matter and objectively addressing an ongoing controversy. Anyway, in the few minutes of the interview actually devoted to the film, Stein was allowed to spout off nonsense about how evolutionary theory (what he calls ‘Darwinism’) is directly linked to the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, how there is ample evidence that everything in the universe is intelligently designed, and how people who espouse this newfangled form of creationism (recognized as such as a result of the Dover trial) have systematically been booted from academic positions because of that belief.

The 4-5 minutes devoted to the film were so dizzyingly choke-full of disinformation and outright lies about evolutionary theory that it’s hard to know where to start. Frankly, I was embarrassed that such a concentrate of lies was allowed to be shown on the English-language version of Canada’s national public broadcaster. To show just how warped Stein’s understanding of science is, let me just us emphasize here that he has recently stated that “science leads to killing people.” Really? Science has nothing good to offer? In contrast, to him, religion just leads to a very glorious place – as we all know, there are no documented instances of religion leading to killing people…

Since the movie isn’t, as far as I know, distributed in Canada (and certainly not in Montréal), let me just point interested readers to the Expelled Exposed website (created by the US National Center for National Education), since it contains a wealth of information that directly address, correct and refute the many, many of the incorrect claims that constitute the backbone of this film. You might also want to watch this video on YouTube to get an idea of the rest of Stein's ideas in this day and age.

Friday, May 09, 2008

This is kinda cool...

Nothing at all to do with anthropology/archaeology, but this is a pretty cool idea: This UK band (The Get Out Clause) was kinda strapped for cash when time came around to make a video for their first single. So what did they do? They stood in front of ca. 80 CCTV cameras located in various public locations around Manchester and played out the song. Then, they requested the footage, using a clause in the Data Information Act that grants people access to such footage, did a few nips, tucks, and cobbles (and apparently interspersed a couple other shots of their own - the stuff that doesn't have id info at the bottom), and voilà, a videoclip. The song itself leaves me neither hot nor cold (well maybe just a bit more hot than cold), but it's a neat idea and an equally neat, if backhanded, commentary about the increasing surveillance our lives are being subjected to. Kind of old news, based on when this was posted to the YouTube, but good stuff nonetheless!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Four Stone Hearth #40 @ Remote Central

The new Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is up now, and you can get to it by clicking here! It's being hosted by Tim Jones at Remote Central, and if the anthro bug bites ya in the next two weeks, feel free to submit an entry by stopping by the FHS web page!

New pierced shells from Grotte des Pigeons


It appears, that they have found yet more pierced Nassarius gibbosulus shells in Grotte des Pigeons (near Taforalt, Morocco) during excavation conducted in March and April 2008. That would be 20 more shells, to be precise, which may be as old as 85,000 years BP, or slightly older than the ones Bouzouggar et al. (2007) published last year.


From the news report:

In 2007, Bouzouggar and Barton discovered 14 perforated shells in the same cave.

"This discovery shows that the making and use of objects of finery is very anchored in the traditions of Morocco's prehistoric people," said Bouzouggar, in whose opinion the country is the original centre of artistic and symbolic creation.

Objects of finery discovered in Morocco are "now considered to be even more ancient than those discovered in Algeria, South Africa and in Palestine", said the culture ministry.

Well, I don't know that these new finds do anything to establish that the practice of piercing and wearing shells is older in Morocco than it is at Skhul (ca. 100-135kya), but we can't say without seeing more information on the finds. From what I gather from a press release by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture (in French), this claim may be based on an assessment that the two shells from Skuhl cave (which I talked about here) "are difficult to date due to uncertainties about the context in which they were found," in part because they were recovered so long ago, in the 1930's. If you buy this, then the earliest shell beads would, in fact, be from Morocco.

The burials of five children dated to at least 12kya were also apparently found during the same field season. The children's remains were covered in ochre, buried under stone blocks with animal bones. Can't wait to hear more about these finds!

Friday, May 02, 2008

Paglicci Cave in risk of collapse

Terrible news from Italy, where a section of the the exterior wall of Paglicci Cave (aka Grotta Paglicci, whose Gravettian and Aurignacian assemblages I discussed previously) has collapsed, thus threatening the integrity of the cave as a whole:

The report includes some comments by Annamaria Ronchitelli and Vincenzo Pazienza:

President of the Paglicci Study Centre, Vincenzo Pazienza, made an urgent appeal to incoming premier Silvio Berlusconi and Puglia region president Nichi Vendola for funds to secure the cave after a section of its exterior wall collapsed on Tuesday.

''It's extremely important to safeguard the cave for research to proceed: if the wall collapses completely it will obstruct the entrance to the grotto,'' he said.

His plea was backed by Annamaria Ronchitelli of Siena University, who leads a team that has worked in the cave for the last 40 years.

''If we're going to continue excavations in the cave, the structure needs to be safe and and we need to guarantee that the archaeologists will be unharmed,'' she said.

I hope the responsible authorities find a way to intervene and stabilize the cave as soon as possible, as it is, quite literally, the only one of its kind in Italy. Beyond having yielded several Paleolithic burials (some of whom have yielded some of the earliest modern human DNA samples), the site is among a handful in Italy to have yielded parietal art. In addition of that, it has yielded the oldest dated proto-Aurignacian assemblage in southern Italy, part of a nearly continuous sequence of archaeological remains spanning the Late Pleistocene, and very probably more. Here's a video of the cave (in Italian) which shows the cave, along with the stratigraphy and footage of excavations at the site, including the uncovering of one of the Gravettian burial.

It'd certainly provide a golden opportunity for Berlusconi to endear himself to archaeologists, were he to promptly intervene in this matter. I'll be sure to keep readers updated with any developments on this story.

Other links:

"Per la grotta dei graffiti imminente rischio di crollo" - La Repubblica, newsreport with a bit more on the history of safety issues at the cave.

"Stone Age cave risks collapse" - Life in Italy

"Historic Italian cave may collapse" - United Press International

"Historic Italian cave may collapse" - Daily

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Pod Mrcaru - High Rates of Selective Change in Italian Wall Lizards

In class today, I referred to a recent report on very fast rates of evolution in allochtonous Italian wall lizards (Podarcis sicula) introduced from a neighboring island to the Croatian island of Pod Mrcaru in 1971. It appears that, on top of outcompeting the indigenous lizard population, they have undergone extremely rapid morphological change in less than 40 years, evolving new gut adaptation (i.e., cecal valves, to slow down the passage of food through the gut, to favor digestion of plant matter) and a squatter, more robust skull better suited to chewing plants, which constitute the main source of lizard food on the island. The report, perhaps a bit exaggeratedly, refers to this as "fast track evolution."

The rapid physical evolution also sparked changes in the lizard's social and behavioral structure, he said. For one, the plentiful food sources allowed for easier reproduction and a denser population.

The lizard also dropped some of its territorial defenses, the authors concluded.

Such physical transformation in just 30 lizard generations takes evolution to a whole new level, Irschick said.

It would be akin to humans evolving and growing a new appendix in several hundred years, he said.

"That's unparalleled. What's most important is how fast this is," he said.

Neat stuff. The report includes some cautionary statements by a McGill biology professor (Andrew Hendry), but overall's he seems on board with the gist of the study. The article version of the study can be found by clicking here, and some good comments were provided on several blogs, including Pharyngula and GrrrlScientist.

Welcome ANTH 203C: Human Evolution!

I've started teaching the summer installment of our introductory "Human Evolution" course today, and might thus be shifting the focus of AVRPI some for the coming weeks to deal more with general issues in human evolution and evolutionary theory. If you've come here from the 203C WebCT, welcome and feel free to explore a bit!

Monday, April 28, 2008

From the Comments: More NESPOS

I recently received the following update from Marcel Bradtmöller, one of the people involved in NESPOS, which I had blogged about a few months back:

... since January we had run a lot of modifications on the Open Space of NESPOS so everyone can get a clearer view, of the inside of the project. For students the costs are really low (30€ per year) and you get the software suite for free.
If you get interested, feel free to contact us under

The site is indeed updated and looks like an even more useful resource. You can get yourself there by clicking here!

All You Ever Wanted to Know about Grotte des Fées de Châtelperron.... Almost

The latest issue of PaleoAnthropology is out, and it's a good one... it contains not one, not two but three papers about whether or not claims that there is an Aurignacian-Châtelperronian interstratification at Grotte des Fées de Châtelperron (Gravina et al. 2005, Mellars et al. 2007), the type-site of the Châtelperronian technocomplex. Since PaleoAnthropology is an open-access journal, all these papers are available as freely downloadable PDFs, along with another one and several book reviews, including one by yours truly.

The first is a long and detailed paper by Zilhão and colleagues that builds on their prior short rebuttal of Gravina et al.'s case (Zilhão et al. 2006) . In this new publication, they provide a detailed history of research at the site, an in-depth assessment of the stratigraphy documented at the site by prior researchers, as well as a review of the archaeological material recovered from both the Châtelperronian and the Mousterian deposits at the site (Zilhão et al. 2008a). This is accompanied by a reply by Mellars and Gravina (2008), in which they criticize what they consider to be Zilhão et al.'s unnecessarily complex and convoluted arguments against the presence of an interstratification. The series concludes with a reply by Zilhao et al. (2008b) entitled "Like Hobbes' Chimney Birds" in which they accuse Mellars and Gravina of not paying sufficient attention to the substance of the arguments which they raised in their refutation of the interstratification thesis at Grotte des Fées de Châtelperron.

I've been doing more thinking about this issue lately myself, so I'll probably have more to say about these papers in short order. In any case, mark my words when I say that this will not be the last exchange about this issue, especially since the wording of all three papers leaves no doubt about the unfortunately unsurprising fact that neither camp has been swayed by the other's arguments. While there are other ways of looking at the relevant data, these papers focus on the 'nitty gritty' of identifying relevant artifacts and their position within the deposits. Not that there's anything wrong with that, quite the opposite, but at this point of the debate it might also be important to start thinking a bit more about how to actually identify interstratifications 9so people can agree on the baseline criteria necessary to define them) and, if they do exist, what they might mean beyond the fact that people making different artifacts were occupying the same spots over timespans of several thousand years. I've already blogged about some of these issues before (and also here), but there definitely remains much to be done on that front.


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

Mellars, P.A., Gravina, B., and Bronk Ramsey, C. 2007. Confirmation of Neanderthal/modern human interstratification at the Chatelperronian type-site. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104: 3657–3662.

Mellars, Paul, and Brad Gravina. 2008. Châtelperron: Theoretical Agendas, Archaeological Facts, and Diversionary Smoke-Screens. PaleoAnthropology 2008: 43-64.

Zilhão J., d’Errico, F., Bordes, J.-G., Lenoble, A., Texier, J.-P., and Rigaud, J.-Ph. 2006. Analysis of Aurignacian interstratification at the Châtelperronian-type site and implications for the behavioral modernity of Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 103: 12643–12648.

Zilhão, João, Francesco d'Errico, Jean-Guillaume Bordes, Arnaud Lenoble, Jean-Pierre Texier, and Jean-Philippe Rigaud. 2008a. Grotte des Fées (Châtelperron): History of Research, Stratigraphy, Dating, and Archaeology of the Châtelperronean Type-Site.
PaleoAnthropology 2008: 1-42.

Zilhão, João, Francesco d'Errico, Jean-Guillaume Bordes, Arnaud Lenoble, Jean-Pierre Texier, and Jean-Philippe Rigaud. 2008b. Like Hobbes' Chimney Birds PaleoAnthropology 2008: 65-67.