Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Quartz, Cretan handaxes and Paleolithic seafaring

A couple of months ago, I posted on the recent discovery of quartz hand axes on Crete by Strasser and Runnels. That post spurred quite a bit of discussion, and I also provided some additional thoughts shortly thereafter, based on the colonization of Cyprus. Since then, we've ResearchBlogging.orglearned that these implements will be described in detail in the June issues of the journal Hesperia, and some decent photographs of some of the implements in question were published, which provides some more convincing data to sink your teeth into. Spurred by a paper I recently read (Broodbank 2006 - free pdf here), I figured I'd post my last impressions on this discovery until the paper actually comes out.

First, here's what one of those handaxes looks like (views from the front, two sides and back of the piece):

More photographs are also available in a nice slideshow provided by Boston University press release, and they give you an idea of the size of the handaxes and of how they might have been handled. The thing with quartz, however, is that it's very hard to see flaking landmarks on photographs. For what it's worth, I still think that at least that handaxe looks very rough in craftsmanship (e.g., uneven thinning, apparently no basal thinning, very sinuous edges). Although that's not too unusual for pieces on quartz, I really hope that this one's not their best looking one!

To summarize the debate a bit, Strasser, Runnels and company have found these quartz implements whose morphology is reminiscent of that of handaxes in deposits dating to ca. 130,000 years BP on Crete. This is significant because Crete appears to have remained an island detached from the European mainland for most of the Pleistocene, which implies any tool maker on the island must have originally arrived there through some form of seafaring.

The record of Lower Paleolithic finds on Mediterranean islands is largely unconvincing. As Broodbank (2006:204) states:

"Claims of Lower and Middle
Palaeolithic finds on the islands divide, as
Mussi (2001: 86) notes, into those that are
reliably documented but derive from locations
that were not insular at the time (such
as Capri [Mussi 2001: 86]), and those found
on definite palaeo-islands but that are contentious
in terms of their identification as
artefacts rather than geofacts, or whose dating
is uncertain, due to either the low diagnosticity
of the material itself, or the lack of a
scientifically dated context. A few cases, such
as a possible Lower Palaeolithic find from
Corfu (Kourtessi-Philippaki 1999: 283-84; cf.
Runnels 1995: 235 n. 48), fit both categories.
Where such claims have been subjected to rigorous
analysis, including re-examination of the
material and findspot, the conclusions have
tended to be negative."
Perhaps not insignificantly, one of the authors Broodbank cites as urging caution about accepting some of these early find uncritically is C. Runnels, who's one of the discoverers of the Cretan handaxes. Given their age, however, these implements are not really relevant to the question of a Lower Paleolithic settlement of Crete. However, they are very relevant to the question of Middle Paleolithic settlement of those landmasses. On this topic, Broodbank (2006:204-205) proposes that:

"Slightly more convincing, and therefore
intriguing, are a handful of findspots of probable
Middle Palaeolithic stone tools from
several of the smaller Greek islands, notably
in the Sporades (Efstratiou 1985: 5-6, 56-59)
and Ionian islands (Dousougli 1999; Kavvadias
1984; Kourtessi-Philliapaki 1999), but
potentially also on Melos in the Cyclades
(Chelidonio 2001). In the first and second
cases, the findspots lie close to foci of Middle
Palaeolithic activity in, respectively, Thessaly,
and Epirus/Albania/Dalmatia (Runnels
1995: 238-39; Runnels et al. 2004). In most
instances—probably all of the Sporades, save
the perhaps erroneous case of Skyros, for
which the only report is a newspaper article
written almost half a century ago (Cherry
1981: 44), plus Corfu and Lefkas in the Ionian
group—the islands concerned were almost
certainly joined to the mainland at the lower
sea levels that existed after the last interglacial
(Oxygen Isotope Stage 5e, dated to 128-
118,000 years ago). More interesting is the
case of Kephallonia (and probably conjoined
Zakynthos [Kourtessi-Phillipaki 1999: 284-
86]), where the tools, albeit not associated
with dated contexts, do seem bona fide, and
the island, although in a fault zone subject
to massive vertical movement, is likely on
bathymetric grounds to have been separated
from the mainland by one or more gaps of a
few kilometres (less than the 20 km reported
in Cherry 1990: 171). Still more surprising, but
unsupported by detailed study of material and
context, or independent dating, are the finds
from Melos, which would have been attainable
only via a chain of inter-island links, including
sea-crossings in the order of 10 km at average
Middle Palaeolithic sea level stands."
There therefore seems to be some prior evidence of potential evidence of a Middle Paleolithic on some of the Greek islands, albeit somewhat debatable and mostly found on islands relatively close to the mainland. That being the case, it may be that, if the Cretan material is shown to be unambiguous, it represents one more instance of fleeting island hopping. No matter, how fleeting, however, this behavior has profound implications for the behavior of the hominins (most likely Neanderthals) who engaged in it.

"Could it be that
the markedly indented coastline and mass of
offshore islands in the Ionian and Aegean seas
triggered a slight ‘stretching’ of behaviour?
Visits to the nearby Ionian islands from the
large base camps identified on the opposite
mainland are certainly compatible with what
we know of Neanderthal short-range mobility
(Gamble 1999: 239-43, 266), and also with
some simple propelled floating technique, but
visits as far afield as Melos are less so in
both respects. The potential implications for
the earliest Mediterranean maritime activity
and, equally, for Neanderthal cognitive and
learning abilities (Stringer and Gamble 1993;
Mithen 2005), are therefore quite substantial.
A thorough investigation of the Kephallonian
and Melian finds, combined with scientific
dating of their contexts, is clearly essential.
(Broodbank 2006:205)"
This echoes (and explains!) a lot of the press coverage that's been focused on these finds, and clearly underscores the potential significance of these stone tools. With that in mind, then, the Hesperia paper will need to clearly do the following in order for the finds to be considered credible:

  1. Provide some radiometric ages of the deposits in which the tools were found;
  2. Explain how the tools ended up in these deposits (i.e., are they in primary or secondary context? If secondary, where was the primary context?);
  3. Discuss why quartz seems to have been the raw material of choice when there are other sources of better quality workable stone on the island, which were exploited by later occupants;
  4. Present some information on the production sequences of these implements showing patterned human action;
  5. Distinguish this material from later (i.e., post-agricultural) occurrences of 'rough' stone tools made on coarse-grained raw materials; and
  6. Explain why a Middle Paleolithic industry should be comprised predominantly of Lower Paleolithic type implements (unless, of course, the handaxes got all the glory in the press reports and there actually is more to this assemblage).
Personally, I'd be very excited if these turned out to be credible, as it would provide further evidence of the flexibility of Middle Paleolithic hominins and force us to rethink how they engaged with their larger ecological realities. Also, it'd probably spur some new research on Paleolithic-age deposits in Mediterranean islands. This last point would be especially important, in my view, because even with the Cretan evidence, the record of Lower and Middle Paleolithci island living remains very scant, which begs for an explanation, since hominins should now be assumed to be capable of seafaring in the deep past.


Broodbank, C. (2006). The Origins and Early Development of Mediterranean Maritime Activity Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, 19 (2) DOI: 10.1558//jmea.2006.v19i2.199

New Four Stone Hearth Up at Ad Hominin

That emptiness you feel in your soul? Time to fill it up with the latest in anthropology blogging - to do so, simply hop on over to Ad Hominin where Ciaran has artfully compiled a hearty buffet of tasty anthro tidbits from all subdisciplines and fro all over the web. The next 4SH will be at Greg Laden's Blog (March 31). Happy reading!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mad Neanderthals, peer review and scholarly publication

There's been a growing rumble in the world of scientific publishing for the past several months, focusing especially on the nature and practices of the journal Medical Hypotheses. Briefly put, MH is a non-peer-reviewed journal that publishes original, controversial ResearchBlogging.organd thought-provoking ideas ("hypotheses" defined in the broadest possible sense, I guess you could say) about the medical realm sensu lato. Now, as reported by Science Insider, MH's editor, Bruce Charlton (here's his blog presenting his position on this affair), has all but been been fired as lead editor of the journal (unless MH is completely reorganized), mainly as a result of the brouhaha and subsequent fall-out over MH having accepted to publish a paper denying the link between HIV and AIDS. Indeed, some have gone so far as to wonder whether MH might be labeled "the most hated journal in science."

Orac provides a thoughtful dissection of some of the problems with MH and of the impact of publishing some of what was published in that venue in recent years. I doubt I could do much better than that in terms of providing background and context to the 'regime change' underway at MH. That said, I figured I'd throw out my two cents about this, given two things: 1) I've recently published something in MH; 2) what it means for the public understanding of scientific arguments; and 3) Elsevier's role in all this.

First, two years ago, a short commentary of mine was published in MH (Riel-Salvatore 2008), I hasten to add in response to a paper they had published, which I felt was very poorly argued and completely unsupported by the available data (Underdown 2008). To MH's credit, the process of publishing my reply was very smooth, transparent and, importantly, very quick. My comment was based on a post I first had up on AVRPI, a process I chronicled in detail before, and it took all of three months from the blog-to-published-comment process to unfold, which I was personally quite happy about. Likewise, I have to say that my impression throughout this process was that MH was quite open to even very 'vigorous' criticism of papers it published. It was also nice that you didn't have to pay to publish a comment, whereas you have to pay 'page fees' to publish an actual paper in MH (itself a questionable practice, especially if it doesn't result in open access to the paper in question, but that's another post for another time).

That said, there was a good reason why I felt the need to publish that comment, even though, as a non-peer reviewed piece on a non-peer reviewed piece, it was essentially a double net loss to my research productivity, especially since I had no personal stake in this, i.e, it didn't portray any of my own work negatively. That reason was the amount of play the original paper had received in the popular press. And this, fundamentally, is the issue I have with journals like MH. To the public at large, reading that a 'study' or a 'new paper' has been published in a 'journal' (especially if it is by someone described as a professor or researcher affiliated with a bona fide university), implies that it is a serious contribution to the literature on given debates. In this case, the 'mad Neanderthal' meme as a credible explanation for their disappearance went full-steam ahead, with no real detractors on the record. I suspect that this acceptance was due in no small part to the fact that it had been published in a 'journal', never mind the facts that authors basically need to pay to have their research published in MH, with no resulting public access, and the that, contrarily to most research on Neanderthals that makes its way to the popular press, this paper was not critically evaluated by peers of the author. This is not to say that non-peer reviewed publications don't have their own raison d'être, but rather that they need to be explicitly recognized as such, especially before results published in such sources get fed to the media.

As it is, to the non-specialist, MH certainly has the appearance of a peer-reviewed journal. For one thing, it's a 'journal.' For another, it's published by Elsevier, which touts itself as "the world’s leading publisher of science and health information" (from their website). With such backing, why wouldn't someone assume that MH is a reputable source? It's even got 'medical' right there in the title! Hell, I hadn't heard of MH before reading Underdown's paper, and my first reaction upon seeing it was an Elsevier pub certainly was that it was most likely a peer-reviewed journal. Plus, as this post's inclusion on Research Blogging shows, it even has a doi and everything, making the contents of MH appear as legitimate peer-reviewed publications, as does their inclusion in scientific databases like Web of Science. This is not to exculpate people who don't do their homework, but MH certainly has all the outside appearance of a peer-reviewed publication.

This leads to the third point, namely the business practices of Elsevier, who bought MH in 2002 (the journal was created in 1975). I think an important question to ask is why Elsevier bothered to acquire MH in the first place? Given its current double-take on MH's worth as a scientific publication, it kind of makes one wonder whether the goal of dominating as much of the scientific publishing market as possible made the higher-ups at Elsevier ignore the nature of that journal in their continuing efforts to take over an increasing share of the publishing world, no matter what the costs... I very much doubt that they had as their ultimate goal to make MH into a full-blown peer-reviewed publication (if so, why wait 8 years?), so what's the story here? I think we may be witnessing an instance of Elsevier's business model backfiring, and though they're clearly trying to shift the fall-out solely on MH, I think it ultimately highlights the hypocrisy that grows from the tensions between the mission of scientific publication and the business realities faced by publishing conglomerates within which individuals become increasingly faceless entities conceived more as profit-making devices than conduits for the wide and timely dissemination of scientific knowledge. I think this is all the more grating given that scientists are essentially forced to give away their work to be published in the 'right' Elsevier journals - and those of other large publishing companies - (even if in many cases their reputation far precedes their incorporation by Elsevier) for purposes of getting tenure, professional prestige, etc.

In any case, my point here is not to say that MH is all sorts of awesome and that Elsevier isn't. In fact, my only involvement with MH came as a reaction to a paper that I thought was of pretty low academic quality (which echoes some of the problems that precipitated the current fiasco) and which they nonetheless elected to publish, even though it echoed another short paper written almost 35 years prior (
Wolbarsht 1975). It also isn't that it is not a peer-reviewed journal - even Nature publishes some non-peer reviewed comments that are downright wretched (see a nice takedown here)and which I'm sure the yahoos who write them bandy about as "publications in Nature!" (hey they have doi's and issue/page numbers and everything!). Rather, I think that this whole situation points to some systemic problems in academic publishing, especially as practiced by large conglomerates increasingly detached from the goals and individual realities of the given journals they opt to take over, largely in the name of lucre more than any actual scientific mission.


Riel-Salvatore J (2008). Mad Neanderthal disease? Some comments on "A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction". Medical hypotheses, 71 (3), 473-4 PMID: 18524493

UNDERDOWN, S. (2008). A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction Medical Hypotheses, 71 (1), 4-7 DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2007.12.014

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

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Autobiographical notes on Sally Binford

A colleague recently pointed me to an oldish post on Susie Bright's blog (link just slightly this side of NSFW) which comprises an absolutely fascinating autobiographical interview with Sally Binford, published in Janet Clinger's book Our Elders, Six Bay Area Life Stories. When I say fascinating, I mean I literally couldn't stop reading it until I reached the end, so read it at the risk of your own time! Talk about a person who lived an interesting life and on her own terms.

I've mentioned before in passing how Sally Binford was one of the early figureheads of the 'New Archaeology' in the 1960's, and the interview provides a great deal of detail (some of which is not exactly complimentary) on her relationship with Lew Binford, as well as her life before and especially after her involvement with the New Archaeology. It also provides an insider's perspective on some of the politics of North American anthropology and academia during the Sixties. And I'm sure the students in my Lithic Analysis class who just had to wade through L. Binford's post-Sally 1973 paper on the 'functional' interpretation of Mousterian typological variability for yesterday's class will especially appreciate this quote from the interview:

"He was an extremely brilliant guy, but couldn’t write a sentence that made sense — that had a subject and a predicate. His writing was unspeakable. My job in the marriage became to translate what Lew wrote into English... I would attempt to steer him away from his more imaginative notions and help him in finding data to support the sounder ones, then help him write them up in comprehensible English."

Monday, March 08, 2010

60,000 year old decorated ostrich eggshell canteens from Diepkloof, South Africa

Sometimes, it's what a paper doesn't emphasize that's the most thought-provoking and has the most far-ranging implications. A case in point is the recent paper by Texier et al. (2010) on decorated (i.e., engraved/incised) ostrich eggshell fragments from the Middle Stone Age site of Diepkloof in South Africa. The paper provides a lot of This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orginformation about the sequence of deposits at the site, as well as on their archaeological contents. They emphasize specifically the layers attributed to the Howiesons Poort (HP), a prehistoric 'culture' associated with some of the earliest convincing evidence for symbolic behavior as well as sudden - and short-lived - technological innovation. Texier and collegaues refine our picture of the suite of original behaviors associated with the HP by presenting some fascinating data on the decorations they identified on fragments of ostrich eggshell found exclusively in those levels that date to between 58.1 +/- 1.9 and 63.3. +/- 2.2 thousand years ago (kya).

One of the real strengths of their analysis lies in the sample size they have at their disposal: to date, they've recovered fully 270 pieces of decorated ostrich eggshell, a number that dwarfs that of any contemporaneous sample of decorated objects, for instance those from the site of Blombos where only about 20 pieces of engraved ochre have been found distributed in deposits spanning about 25,000 years (Henshilwood 2009). To put this in perspective, this is less than one engraved piece per thousand years at Blombos, while the frequency of decorated objects at Diepkloof in more than an order of magnitude greater (i.e., ca. 27 pieces per thousand years), and likely much more than that in some cases, since most pieces appear to come from two stratigraphic units. What is more, as Texier et al. (2010: 1) argue, the engraved pieces from other MSA sites (including Blombos) "are characterized by a noticeable diversity of patterns, of raw materials selected for marking, and of chronocultural contexts." In contrast, at Diepkloof, "the large smaple size of EOES [engraved ostrich eggshell], its well-documented context, and the unequivocal ature of the markings offers a unique opportunity to study what constitutes the most reliable collection of an early graphic tradition" (ibid). The image below shows some of the decorated fragments in questions, as well as some of the range in engraved motifs:

Note that this is not the same figure as that illustrating the fragments in the actual paper, and they establish that the colors of the different fragments were caused by post-depositional exposure to heat and fire.

The analysis of the fragments themselves is quite interesting, and very well done. The authors document a shift over time in the predominant engraved pattern, from a 'hatched band motif' (as seen in the figure above) in the lower HP levels at Diepkloof to 'series of deeply engraved, straight, subparallel lines' in the upper levels (as seen in vignettes A and C in the figure below):

From: Texier et al. (2010): 2, Fig. 1.

The fact that Texier et al. (2010) manage to convincingly demonstrate the presence of diachronic trends in the patterns used to decorate pieces of ostrich eggshell is cool enough in and of itself (there are also two other, much more infrequent patterns that they identify). However, identifying this begs the question of why this material was being decorated in the first, and how it was used, since it clearly wasn't used as part of, say, ornaments. This is all the more intriguing given the abundance of fragments at Diepkloof, and given that the vast majority of them are very small (less than 20x20mm). An answer to this question is provided, at least partially, by the following figure comes in:

From Texier et al. (2010): 5, Fig. 5.

Texier et al. (2010: 5) indicate that the circular denting seen in both fragments above appears very similar in shape and position to the holes punctured through the top of ostrich eggs today to empty them out and subsequently use them as "a flask to store and transport various fluids, usually water" (which makes you wonder what other fluids people may have needed or wanted to carry around). In the ethnographic record, such canteens are often decorated in various ways to indicate either ownership or what was contained in it. If the analogy is appropriate, then, we have at least two potential interpretations for the meaning of the Diepkloof engravings. If one had to chose between those two, the diachronic trend described above, and the fact that there is some internal variability in both the hatched band and linear line motifs may suggest that it reflects individual 'signatures' of sorts within an accepted iconographic tradition. This is, of course, highly speculative and only one of potentially many interpretations, but no matter how you slice it, it gives us some very interesting insights in the social norms of the Howiesons Poort. Additionally, as alluded to in some of the press coverage of this report, it also provides some strong insights into how people might have dealt with climatic variability at the time to explore and exploit arid landscapes largely devoid of water. This is one of those far-ranging aspects I was referring to in my introductory sentence.

As with most reports of 'extraordinary' finds in HP levels, however, this paper also indicates that this remarkable behavioral innovation appears to have been a short-lived one (by Paleolithic standards, anyway!), and that after about 55kya, traces of such behaviors largely disappear from the record. Sooner or later, people are going to have to propose a coherent explanation for this apparently generalized pattern of discontinuous behavioral innovation. Either that, or new finds are needed to 'fill in' the long stretches of the Middle Stone Age that apparently lack the conspicuous evidence that has recently been coming to light in HP assemblages. In that light, I was pretty surprised to see Richard Klein as a coauthor on this paper, given his long-held position that convincing evidence for 'modern' behavior doesn't exist before ca. 50kya... could we be witnessing a change in perspective? I'll be curious to see how he discusses the Diepkloof material in upcoming papers...

Lastly, I have to give a Colbert-like' wag of the finger' to PNAS for its timing in publishing this paper... seriously, 60,000 year old decorated eggs! Had you waited a few more weeks, this paper could have been published in the weeks running up to Easter! I jest, of course; there's no sense in delaying the publication of a good paper, but still... I just can't help thinking about how an angle like that would have worked in the popular press!


Henshilwood, C., d'Errico, F., & Watts, I. (2009). Engraved ochres from the Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa Journal of Human Evolution, 57 (1), 27-47 DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2009.01.005

Texier, P., Porraz, G., Parkington, J., Rigaud, J., Poggenpoel, C., Miller, C., Tribolo, C., Cartwright, C., Coudenneau, A., Klein, R., Steele, T., & Verna, C. (2010). A Howiesons Poort tradition of engraving ostrich eggshell containers dated to 60,000 years ago at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, South Africa Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0913047107

Science one-liners

I've always felt that some of the best movie one-liners have been uttered by fictional practitioners of Science (yes, with a capital S!). For a long time, my favorite was "Back off man, I'm a scientist!" by Peter Venkman (played by the inimitable Bill Murray), which has the extra advantage of being part of the fantastic movie that is Ghostbusters.

On my last plane ride, I sat through the very so-so "Land of the Lost," which features Will Ferrel as paleontologist Rick Marshall. The movie itself was pretty lame, but people sitting next to me were jarred awake when I burst out laughing when he screamed: "Science shows no mercy, and neither do I!". It's not quite on the level of the Venkman one-liner above, but I thought it came pretty close. Anyone have any other good ones that come to mind?

Welcome Neatorama readers

Pretty cool (not to say neat): my post on mammoth remain hunting has been featured on Neatorama, which has been sending a decent amount of traffic this way. If you've landed at A Very Remote Period Indeed by way of Neatorama, welcome to AVRPI, and feel free to explore the archives... there's lots of stuff in there.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

More relic fail!

Just last week, I discussed how archaeology and relics often don't go together so well, with the former usually negating the validity of the latter. And so this week, when a report of the archaeological discovery of a nail like that used to crucify Christ (and even better, cherished by Knights Templar as a relic!), my archaeo-sense immediately started tingling and so did Chris' at A Hot Cup of Joe.

Turns out my finely honed archaeo-sense didn't lie to me. Chris Cunnyngham discusses the truly bizarre reality of the context of this find and finds it rather weak (go read the piece, you won't believe it!), concluding that

So, boiled down, this is what we have: A man buys an old building, pronounces it a nation, secedes from his country, proclaims himself Prince, conducts archaeological digs and claims to have found three Templar skeletons and a nail that may have been a venerated relic of a crucifixion. And if it was a crucifixion nail it was one of thousands available.

Sounds a little sketchy.

To make matters worse, yesterday Portuguese archaeologist Élvio Sousa, soundly debunked the whole report via a scathing statement on the CEAM (a Portuguese archaeological institute) web site, of which I reproduce the English component here:

The news published yesterday in England, on the assumed Roman relics found in archaeological excavations carried out at Fort São José, erected in the eighteenth century, at Funchal Port, Madeira, requires the following statement from the Scientific Council of CEAM:

1. Considering the scientific archaeological work done by CEAM at Fort São José (2004-2006), it is manifestly false, the news of the discovery of Roman objects, especially in an area (dig) that corresponds with the excavated area.

2. This dig identified, to the bedrock, objects dating from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although there are some traces that can date back to the seventeenth century.

3. The news of the findings of Romans relics is a “fantasy,” even more ridiculous by the sensationalist news of a wooden box (incredibly preserved, near the sea, over two thousand years), with three skeletons and three swords.

4. The nail that illustrates the news, if discovered inside the fort, is just an object used in residential constructions during the early Moderns times (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). Many nails like this were found in the excavations (2004-2006). Equally, the references to skeletons are also a creation, to give emphasis to the mythical theory.

5. This view is supported by the British archaeologist and expert in Roman archeology Brian Philp (Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit) who has been following the present study of archaeological materials in partnership with the Scientific Council of CEAM.

6. In conclusion: this is pure imagination, without accuracy and scientific credibility. We are not familiarized with Mr Christopher Macklin and Bryn Walters and we do not recognize in them, any authority in the findings within this Military construction.


Research Blogging Awards 2010

Research Blogging Awards 2010

You may have noticed a new widget on the right side-bar of this blog, one linking to the 2010 ResearchBlogging Awards, where I was shocked to see I had been nominated as one of the finalists for best social sciences and anthropology blogs, along with several other blogs some of which are on the AVRPI blogroll. This came as a humbling surprise, albeit I suppose also a flattering one

Regular readers will know that I usually append a ResearchBlogging vignette to the posts in which I discuss peer-reviewed papers. In their own words, RB is "a system for identifying the best, most thoughtful blog posts about peer-reviewed research. Since many blogs combine serious posts with more personal or frivolous posts, our site offers a way to find only the most carefully-crafted posts about cutting-edge research, often written by experts in their respective fields."

Basically, it's a neat system to diffuse the results of blogging on peer-reviewed research, that ensures that the reviewing is done by people with relevant background and qualifications. It also distinguishes bloggers that actually discuss the meat of given studies rather than just linking to or reposting press releases. As I've mentioned before, I think that this kind of quick and in-depth discussion is one of the aspects that make blogs so important and relevant. Plus, it can provide the seed for work that ultimately gets published.

Thinking about it a bit more, I'm very happy about this nomination, given that the time I devote to this blog is time I don't get to devote to A Very Remote Wife Indeed, my students, or my research. So, it's nice to have some kind of external recognition, and a thousand thanks to whomever nominated AVRPI. If you're interested in seeing the nomination go to the next level (i.e., for this blog to nominated as best social science/anthropology research blog of the year), you can vote at Research Blogging, from today until March 23. Here's how:

Voting: Voting for the winners will be conducted by invitation to bloggers registered with Invitations will be sent on Thursday, March 4. If you're registered with us, you may want to check your account to make sure your email address is up-to-date. If you're not registered (and you blog about peer-reviewed research), you still have time to register so you can vote. Visit this page for more information.

Awards: The awards will be announced on March 23, 2010.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Do you mammoth?

"Now entire villages are surviving on the trade in mammoth bones. And a new verb has entered the vernacular: mamontit, or "to mammoth" -- meaning, to go out in search of bones."

The LA Times has an article about one of the side-effects of the ongoing 'shrinkage' of permafrost in Russia (likely due to global warming): more mammoth carcasses are turning up. So much so, in fact, that it's engendered a whole industry based on the recovery and exportation of mammoth ivory. While the scale of this 'industry' is increasingly staggering, as the article notes, it's not exactly a novel phenomenon, although the intensity at which it's now unfolding certainly is

In truth, this trade is not entirely novel. Man has been hunting mammoths in Russia's icy north as far as memory reaches. The permafrost holds bones that bear workmanship from the Stone Age -- which scientists in Siberia sometimes call the "bone age" in homage to the many weapons and tools hacked from mammoth bones.

What is most troubling about this is the fact that frozen mammoths are a non-renewable resource (that just sounds odd to write!). Really, just like archaeological sites, every mammoth carcass potentially offers a wealth of evidence about the biology and behavior of these extinct animals, most of which will be lost unless it is properly recovered at the find spot. Not paying sufficient attention to context results in that much less information we can get on those shaggy beasts. I'm fully sympathetic to the 'people are doing this so they can eat' argument; that said, most of the people interviewed on the record in the article don't exactly seem to be part of the huddled masses this new form of 'mammoth hunting' purports to save from a life of misery. In fairness, one of the bone hunters does mention they're getting 'carbon' dates from the remains, but how good is the association, and what happens if the date is useless due to contamination or whatnot? And shouldn't they also be collecting DNA samples and contextual paleoenvironmental data? I don't know... the whole piece strikes me as describing more the culture modern 'mammoth cowboys' (and it's not flattering) than any kind of legitimate, justified and ultimately scientifically useful practices.

Faces of human evolution

The Smithsonian Magazine has a very nice online feature that presents seven reconstructions of various extinct hominins that John Gurche crafted for the new National Museum of Natural History’s David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins that opens in two weeks.

The piece describes how he "dissected the heads of modern humans and apes, mapping patterns of soft tissue and bone. He used this information to fill out the features of the fossils. Each sculpture starts with the cast of a fossilized skull; Gurche then adds layers of clay muscle, fat and skin."

I especially liked the quote about how he "even molds the hominids’ eyes out of acrylic plastic, eschewing pre-fabricated versions. "If you want the eyes to be the window to the soul,” Gurche says, “you have to make them with some depth."

To give you an idea of the quality of the reconstructions, here's one of his reconstructions, that of a Neanderthal male (what else!).

Evolutionary-Faces.html?c=y&page=6 ; copyright John Gurche.

These are extremely well done reconstructions, and quite accurate, IMO, and it helps that Gurche gives a bit of background on each of the hominins he reconstructed - gives a nice idea of how he approached this task. I should add that, really, the power of these reconstructions to help make human revolution more accessible to wider audiences can't be overemphasized. I once gave a presentation about what a paleoanthropologist does to a class of kindergartners, and they went absolutely nuts for this picture, mainly I think because they could more easily relate their own lives to that of a small hominin child (and since this was in Montreal, I didn't have to blur out the "boy parts")...

Of course, I didn't tell them just how accurate this picture is, what with the raptor in the upper left and the fact that there is good evidence the Taung Child bears traces that indicate he was likely killed by a bird of prey (Berger 2006)! That last image is drawn from The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans, put out by Yale UP and lavishly illustrated with high-quality reconstructions of extinct hominins. I drew on the illustrations of the book extensively when I taught Human Evolution at McGill a few years ago... lost that book in the recent move to Denver, though. Still dearly wish I had it!


Berger, Lee R. 2006. Predatory bird damage to the Taung type-skull of Australopithecus africanus Dart 1925. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 131:166-168.

New data on the Middle Paleolithic of Iran

There's been a glut of interest on the Middle Paleolithic of Iran in recent years, in part because of how distinctive the 'Zagros Mousterian' lithic industry is from more traditional European assemblages (e.g., Lindly 2005), and because the Shanidar Neanderthals were found in the area (though on the other side of the Iraq-Iran border), including the much debated 'Flower Burial' at Shanidar (Solecki 1971). In the past, this blog has touched on some recent discoveries on the Mousterian of that region, too.

The Zagros Mousterian is generally seen as being dominated by heavily retouched stone tools including scrapers and Mousterian points, though it does have some internal variability (Lindly 2005). This view has been extrapolated to much of the Iranian Middle Paleolithic, but recent research is starting to show that Middle Paleolithic technology was much more variable than previously believed, which is frankly unsurprising given the size of Iran and the topographical and environmental variability its modern boundaries encompass. Contributing to this finer grained understanding of the Middle Paleolithic, and presumably of Neanderthal behavior, in that region, are two new but very brief reports in the freely accessible Project Gallery of Antiquity, detailing the newly discovered sites of Mirak and Tapeh Mes.

The open-air site of Mirak is located some 220km east of Tehran at the edge of the Iranian Central Desert and stands out especially due to its sheer size (Rezvani and Vadhati Nasab 2010). The investigators report that the site extends over four hectares and comprises tens of thousands of stone tools, many of which are diagnostic Mousterian and Levallois types. The presence of such a large site in an open and arid setting and which contains so many implements very distinct from the heavily retouched tools clearly underscore how variable Middle Paleolithic occupations were in Iran. In addition, this new site along with many others cited in the report leads the authors to conclude that

"There is a common misconception that hominins spent most of their times in caves and rockshelters during the Upper Pleistocene. This idea has arisen largely from the difficulty of defining other types of site and their vulnerability today. But the new discoveries suggest that open-air sites were by far the more abundant."

Middle Paleolithic point from Mirak, Iran (from Rezvani and Vadhati Nasab 2010).

This view is certainly borne out by the report on Tapeh Mes, another open-air site but this one found a few hundred kms south of Tehran (Eskandari et al. 2010).Tapeh Mes is much smaller than Mirak: only 85 implements were recovered from an area of about 100x150m, including several centripetal Levallois cores on which an attribution to the Middle Paleolitihc is based. What is striking about Tapeh Mes is its location: it's found at an altitude of 2184m asl on the central plateau of Iran. Here, the morphology of the implements (and the absence of predetermined Levallois products) conforms much better to the idea of the Zagros Mousterian, as does the site's location in a high altitude setting. What sets it apart, though, is the fact that it is an extensive open-air locality, whereas most prior knowledge of the Zagros Mousterian was based on assemblages recovered either from caves and rockshelters.

Much of this material remains undated and only published in very summary form, but it testifies to how active Paleolithic research is in Iran these days. These reports, along with some of the work of other Iranian researchers such as F. Biglari (click for some free pdfs), is really providing us with an increasingly refined understanding of the behavioral variability of Middle Paleolithic hominins in the area. This is quite important as it fleshes out our understanding of these behavioral dynamics in what would have been part of the eastern end of the Neanderthal range, which is arguably the most poorly known.


Eskandari, Nasir, Akbar Abedi, Nazli Niazi, and Sa'di Saeediyan. 20010. Tapeh Mes: a possible Middle Palaeolithic site in the Delijan Plain, central Iran. Antiquity 84 (323):

Lindly, John M. 2005. The Mousterian of the Zagros: A Regional Perspective. Anthropological Research Paper, Arizona State University, Tempe.

Rezvani, Hassan, and Hamed Vahdati Nasab. 2010. A major Middle Palaeolithic open-air site at Mirak, Semnan Province, Iran. Antiquity 84 (323):