Monday, April 28, 2008

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.


Anne Gilbert said...

I am exceedingly glad that the journal Paleoanthropology is freely available to anyone who wants to download the pdfs. It's a real help. Especially when you are following topics like transitional industries, or stratification at Chatelperronian sites.
anne G

Alexandre Steenhuyse said...

This is just so exciting, I printed them earlier and I didn't have time to read them. Both articles look extremely "detailed" (to be nice). I'll comment on my blog and I can't wait to read your comments... and when we thought this was over...

Anonymous said...

I suppose it is no big surprise that Mellars and Gravina responded forcefully to the critique(s) of their paper. That said, the repeated impugning of the intellectual honesty of a respected set of scientists in print (as opposed to the more common whispering campaign) is clearly over the line.

Anne Gilbert said...

I haven't (yet) read what either set of workers has to say, but in response to "anonymous", it should be firmly kept in mind that paleoanthropology and prehistoric archaeology are often rather "quarrelsome" disciplines. And harsh words are often exchanged.
Anne G

Anonymous said...

Please read the summary of harsh words in Zilhao et al's final reply, it goes beyond "quarrelsome." FYI, I am a PhD paleoanthropologist/prehistoric archaeologist and have been personally involved in exchanges of this nature, yet still found Mellars and Gravina's choice of words shocking. Their response goes well beyond a defense of or an attack on ideas. I will be interested in your opinion after you get a chance to read the exchange.

Maju said...

It certainly has some taste to the worst talk shows.

Anyhow, the main point of discrepance seems to be wether Delponte was a competent archaeologist (in which case Mellars is right) or a fraud (in which case Zilhao is right).

Rising suspicion on the professionality of a colleague is certainly letting the genie out of bottle. Even if Zilhao is right, Mellars defense looks at least good-hearted. If Zilhao happens to be wrong, he (and his team) will really have something to meditate about.

It would be nice if some neutral archaeologists could asess the main points of the dispute - for the sake of clarity (and hopefully some peace).

Anonymous said...

I don't think Mellars and Gravina are the only ones to blame here! The harsh words (in publications and during conferences) started from the other side, from one of the authors in particular... This of course does not however justify anything, none of the name calling.