Monday, November 21, 2011

Archaeology and pepper spray

Pepper spray has been in the news for all the wrong reasons these past few days, after being used unnecessarily on UC Davis students protesting tuition hikes and income inequality. Several professors have already bravely denounced this chilling excessive violence by police, and Rosemary Joyce (a Berkeley archaeologist) gives us a bit of context on the long history of how chili by-products have been used as tools of coercion in pre-Columbian Mexico:

In a sixteenth-century painted manuscript today known as the Codex Mendoza, a few pages depict what are represented as norms of raising children among the Mexica of Central Mexico (commonly referred to as the Aztecs). These idealizations-- which should be thought of as formal idealizations, not norms-- include the actions that children were threatened with if they were not compliant with authority. We have no way of knowing if these actions were ever carried out, or how often: but what is clear is that they were corporal punishments. And primary among them was exposing a defiant child to the smoke from burning chili peppers.

That relationship-- of domination by threat of punishment-- is what, for me, hovers in the background every time pepper spray is used by police on the people. And policing should not be punishment.
For an interesting, eye-opening and shocking review on the history and true potency of pepper spray, you should also check out this very informative post by Deborah Blum.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Write, and write right!

This piece from a couple of years ago and entitled "Righting your writing" has been making the rounds in my FB network. It provides a pretty good series of tip/strategies for scientists to write more clearly. One that stood out to me was the one about developing daily writing habits

Write daily for 15 to 30 minutes
During your daily writing sessions, don’t think about your final manuscript. Just write journal entries, says Tara Gray, director of the teaching academy that provides training and support to New Mexico State University professors. “People think there’s two phases of a research project—doing the research and writing it up,” she says. Rather than setting aside large chunks of time for each activity, combine them to improve your writing and your research. The first time Gray encouraged a group of faculty members at New Mexico State to adhere to this schedule for three months, they wrote about twice as much as their normal output.
I can't emphasize how important this is. For one thing it builds discipline about getting something on the page everyday. For another, it does wonders to declaw the idea that writing has to be perfect on the first go-around. What I mean by this, it that it makes writing a lot less daunting if you do it habitually, and train yourself to expect that for every 10 words you write, you may end up keeping only one or two in the end. Even if you keep just that fraction, it adds up over time into lines, paragraphs, pages, sections, chapters and even dissertations. In a way, it's really just the academic equivalent of Stephen King setting daily writing goals of 1,000 or 2,000 words (King 2000), except that here you're writing to get in the habit of writing about your work, not fiction, and to fit that habit in the rest of your day.

This is incidentally the key piece of advice from J. Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes A Day (Bolker 1998). I rarely recommend books as must-reads for graduate students, since everyone's trajectory and style is so different. Bolker's book is one of the few exceptions to this general rule: it really does a wonderful job of showing the importance and, frankly, the healthiness of making writing a routine exercise as opposed to something that is better saved for intense bursts. Now - spoiler alert - the book doesn't actually show you how to write your dissertation (or thesis, or paper, or whatever) in 15 minutes a day. But it does provide a really clear framework for how to think about and structure your writing, and especially developing healthy writing habits. And the key thing about this is also what T. Gray mentions in the quote above: in my experience, approaching writing in this way does allow you to write more and write better overall. It also provides you with a much better use of your time for those 15-30 minutes 'dead periods' between classes or meetings than just surfing the net!

That said, I don't know about the 'journal entry' approach advocated by Gray, but to each is own. Frankly, the important thing is really just to write something, anything daily. It may sound silly, but for a great many people, it works and it helps make the whole process of academic writing that much easier and, dare I say it, appealing.


Bolker, J. 1998.Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis.Owl Books, NY.

King, S. 2000. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, NY.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Neanderthals shellfishing 150,000 years ago

The news is out: the site of Bajondillo, in southern Spain, has yielded clear evidence of Neanderthals collecting and eating shellfish as far back as 150,000 years BP, and pretty much continuously, though at different intensities, after that. One obvious thing to point out: this is almost as old as the earliest evidence of modern humans collecting shellfish (Marean et al. 2007), and the way Neanderthals did it seems to have been constrained by very similar considerations, namely how far the beach was from a given site in the past. The paper itself (Cortés-Sánchez et al. 2011) is published in PLoS ONE, which means that it's freely accessible.

Today's kind of a hectic day (giving a free, non-technical talk at the Colorado Scientific Society tonight, levaing for a trip tomorrow), but this paper is a real game changer on several levels, so check back soon, cause I'll have much, much more to say about this. Exciting times for Neanderthal Studies, I'll tell you that much!


Cortés-Sánchez M, Morales-Muñiz A, Simón-Vallejo MD, Lozano-Francisco MC, Vera-Peláez JL, et al. 2011 Earliest Known Use of Marine Resources by Neanderthals. PLoS ONE 6(9): e24026. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024026

Marean CW, Bar-Matthews M, Bernatchez J, Fisher E, Golberg P, et al. (2007) Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene. Nature 409: 905–908.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Mousterian wooden spade from Abric Romani, Spain

A group of researchers from the IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) reports on the discovery of a handheld wooden implement from Mousterian deposits at Abric Romaní, Spain. The tool was found in Level P which dates to about 56,000 years BP, and its morphology suggests that it might have been a small spade/shovel, or perhaps a poker, given its association to a hearth. In the interest of clarity, let me emphasize that what was recovered is actually a travertine impression of that tool. However, that impression is so detailed that it was possible to identify the precise morphology and dimensions of the spade- or poker-like object (I actually think it looks more like some kind of spatula or knife - it'd be interesting to run some experimental work on the functional and ergonomic properties of this object), as well as the fact that it was made out of the wood of a coniferous species, likely pine.

A view of the travertine impression found in Level P, along with a reconstruction of the wooden object that left it.
© Jordi Mestre/IPHES.

Detail of the impression of the Level P wooden object. © Jordi Mestre/IPHES

This is not the only wooden object that was recovered from the Mousterian levels of Abric Romaní. For example, last year, I discussed the finding of a worked wooden pole that was likely used as part of a structure in level N dating to ca. 55kya (Vallverdu et al. 2010). In that case, the impression indicates that the object was over 5m in length, and shows clear evidence of having been whittled down to a specific morphology, namely that it is devoid of branches, and that it shows a slight tapering from 6cm in width at its base to 3cm in width at its top. This pole-like morphology suggests to Vallverdu et al. (2010: 143) that it was probably used as part of a structure like a fairly simple lean-to.

What I didn't discuss in that post is that there are other levels at Abric Romaní that have yielded evidence of wooden implements: Level H (~45-49kya) contained two dish-like wooden objects (one  32cm by 22cm in dimensions, the other about 22cm by 17cm and elliptical in outline). The larger object was made of juniper wood, and it was flat on its underside and bore a depression in the center of its top surface, reinforcing the idea it might have been a vessel of some sort. That level also yielded a third wooden object. This one was also flat, but displays a pointed end. This odd morphology made it more difficult to attribute it a possible function, but it certainly suggest that it had been worked by humans. These finds are described in details by Carbonell and Castro-Curel (1992). 

Three years later, the same researchers reported on the existence of wood pseudomorphs from Level I at Abric Romaní (Castro-Curel and Carbonell 1995). This layer dates to about 46-49kya, again the tail-end of the Mousterian in the region. In contrast to Level H, it wasn't wood fragments per se that were recovered in Level I, but rather hollows in the travertine that were later filled with plaster to produce casts of the objects that decayed and left their (very detailed) impression in the travertine at the site. Here, one of the pseudomorphs was a worked, tapering tree trunk (3.5m in length, 109cm wide at its base, 45cm wide at the top - both ends of the tree had been hacked off in the Mousterian). But the most striking recovery in that level is that of Pseudomorph 2, which was a set of three straight, rod-like pieces of wood recovered in a roughly triangular arrangement overlying a hearth. It was interpreted by the authors as most likely representing a tripod used in 'food processing' - probably cooking/boiling  (Castro-Curel and Carbonell 1995: 378). 

So, what's the big deal about this new find? Well, a few things. First, it's the only object like it known from the Paleolithic. There are other wooden implements known from a few sites - for instance, the well-known Schoeningen spears (Thieme 1997) - but this is, to my knowledge the first evidence of such a portable pointed object clearly intended to be used in one hand. Its morphology is also unique: according to a report in El Mundo that provides additional information on the find, its handle was 17cm long by 4cm wide, while its 'blade' was 15cm long by 8cm wide, and triangular and pointed in outline. Given that there is now plenty of evidence that some stone tools were hafted by Neanderthals, it should come as no surprise that there are functionally distinct components in this tool. However, what is really striking is that, in spite of Paleolithic archaeologists' obsession with stone tools, Neanderthals seem to have been perfectly content to use wood as the 'active' component of at least some of their tools.

Second, along with the other evidence for use of wooden objects at Abric Romaní, it suggest that the use of wood as a building material was a constant of Neanderthal adaptation. The importance of this is not fully appreciated since wood only rarely preserves, but the peculiar sedimentary conditions at Romaní (especially the conspicuousness of carbonate/travertine accumulations) give us an unparalleled look at the prevalence and diversity of how wood was used by Neanderthals for other things than fueling fire and hafting stone tools. Although naysayers will point out that one of the most common traces of use identified on stone tools has been linked to woodworking, I've never felt that researchers gave those observation their full consideration. Finding actual wooden implements shows what Neanderthals might have been making out of wood, and the range of these objects found at Romaní broadens our view of how diverse and important wood technology must have been for Middle Paleolithic foragers.

Lastly, it tells us something about how Neanderthals considered some of their material culture. In this instance, there is no indication that the object was broken. Yet, it seems to have been discarded rather unceremoniously by tossing it into a smouldering and partly extinguished fire (per El Mundo) that only partly carbonized it instead of consuming it completely. While we lack information about how Level P was occupied (i.e., was it occupied, say, long-term as a base camp, or fleetingly as a task site), the find indicates that there were certain contexts in which Neanderthals were perfectly OK with the notion of discarding objects that were still usable. Maybe spade/pokers like this one were relatively easy to manufacture and were considered unimportant or too bulky to be worth carrying from one site to another. Whatever the case may be, it suggests some labor-intensive objects could be considered disposable at least under certain circumstance, and it provides us with a really provocative glimpse into the nature and breadth of Neanderthal technology and how they thought of it.

Via: Millán Mozota.


CARBONELL, E., & CASTRO-CUREL, Z. (1992). Palaeolithic wooden artefacts from the Abric Romani (Capellades, Barcelona, Spain) Journal of Archaeological Science, 19 (6), 707-719 DOI: 10.1016/0305-4403(92)90040-A  

Castro-Curel, Z., & Carbonell, E. (1995). Wood Pseudomorphs From Level I at Abric Romani, Barcelona, Spain Journal of Field Archaeology, 22 (3), 376-384 DOI: 10.1179/009346995791974206  

Thieme, H. (1997). Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany Nature, 385 (6619), 807-810 DOI: 10.1038/385807a0  

Vallverdú, J., Vaquero, M., Cáceres, I., Allué, E., Rosell, J., Saladié, P., Chacón, G., Ollé, A., Canals, A., Sala, R., Courty, M., & Carbonell, E. (2010). Sleeping Activity Area within the Site Structure of Archaic Human Groups Current Anthropology, 51 (1), 137-145 DOI: 10.1086/649499

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Svante Pääbo lecture on his recent genetic work

TED has a video up of Svante Pääbo discussing his (team's) recent research on the genetics of Late Pleistocene human populations. It's a good primer on the latest work on Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA, and their implications for the relationship of these populations to early modern humans.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Multimillennial Neanderthal occupation at La Cotte de St. Brelade

The BBC has a brief news story about some of the results of new excavations conducted at the site of La Cotte St. Brélade (Jersey, Channel Islands). The site is perhaps most famous for having yielded clear evidence for the systematic slaughter of mammoths and wooly rhinos by Neanderthals, which prompted a reevaluation of their hunting abilities (Scott 1980). That analysis, however, suggested that these animals were accumulated at the site over brief timespans.

The question of how long Neanderthals occupied La Cotte is where the overview of this new research project gets especially interesting:

"La Cotte's collapsed cave system contains intact ice age sediments spanning a quarter of a million years, revealing a detailed sequence of Neanderthal occupation and occasional abandonment, against a background of changing climate.

"The site is the most exceptional long-term record of Neanderthal behaviour in North West Europe," says Dr Matt Pope from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London.

"At La Cotte, we get to see far more than a glimpse of their behaviour, we get to see generation upon generation of Neanderthals returning to the same place under lots of different environmental conditions."

In other words, this new fieldwork (including investigations at other sites, btw) is shedding very interesting new light on how Neanderthals occupied the sites under different conditions, and - most importantly - why their behavior varied over time. As someone who's argued for a long time for the need to develop methods that allow us to develop long-term diachronic perspectives in order to understand the full range of Paleolithic lifeways (e.g. Riel-Salvatore and Barton 2004, Riel-Salvatore et al. 2008), I'm very excited about such reports. It'll also be extremely interesting to see how the artifacts collected in older excavations compare to those found by the new project. This new project, incidentally, has a nifty little web site that provides a lot of pertinent information about the new project at La Cotte and nearby sites, as well as other components of their research agenda, including some underwater survey. Check out The Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey project (which includes one team member who's commented on this blog before).


Riel-Salvatore, J., & Barton, C. (2004). Late Pleistocene Technology, Economic Behavior, and Land-Use Dynamics in Southern Italy American Antiquity, 69 (2) DOI: 10.2307/4128419

RIEL-SALVATORE, J., POPESCU, G., & BARTON, C. (2008). Standing at the gates of Europe: Human behavior and biogeography in the Southern Carpathians during the Late Pleistocene Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 27 (4), 399-417 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2008.02.002

Scott, K. (1980). Two hunting episodes of middle Palaeolithic age at La Cotte de Saint-Brelade, Jersey (Channel Islands) World Archaeology, 12 (2), 137-152 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1980.9979788

Thursday, August 25, 2011

170,000 year-old human skull fragment found at Lazaret

A couple of weeks ago (Aug. 13, to be precise), part of a hominin frontal skull fragment was found during excavations at Grotte du Lazaret, near Nice, France. The find was first reported in a series of French media outlets, but it wasn't removed until just a couple of days ago, after it was apparently given time to dry, as reported in the first English-language report I've seen about the find. Based on the presence of incompletely fused suture, M.A. de Lumley is quoted as saying the skull fragment belongs to an individual who died around 25 years of age.

The skull fragment in situ. Image from
The level in which the skull was found is described as dating to ca. 170,000BP. While the dates at Lazaret are a little bit fuzzy (see the variability and reversals in the sequence reported in Michel et al . 2008), while the level in which the cranium fragment was found is not mentioned in the reports, an age like that places it in OIS 6, which is consistent with what it known at the cave. The intriguing aspect of the report is that the skull is described as belonging to a H. erectus individual. Taxonomically, in my book at least, Europe around that time was peopled by Neanderthals, which makes a H. erectus attribution all the more intriguing. Of course, it may have to do with differences in nomenclature, whereby some researchers don't recognize H. heidelbergensis as a valid taxon, preferring to lump everything that preceded Neanderthals into the H. erectus category. Of course, the Michel (2008) paper still uses the term 'anteneanderthal' to describe the fossils found at the site, so that might have something to do with it. Still, given the recent history of human paleontological research in Europe, that's certainly a view that stands out as a bit odd. That's doubly true if you consider that 'classic' looking Mousterian assemblages such as that from Lazaret are known from throughout the continent at that time, and are often assumed to be the handiwork of Neanderthals. In any case, it'll be really interesting to see where this specimen falls, morphologically speaking, once it (and its context) are published fully. Whatever the case may be, it's certainly a very significant addition to the fossil record of the Middle/Late Pleistocene of the northern Mediterranean.


Michel, V., Shen, G., Valensi, P., & de Lumley, H. (2009). ESR dating of dental enamel from Middle Palaeolithic levels at Lazaret Cave, France Quaternary Geochronology, 4 (3), 233-240 DOI: 10.1016/j.quageo.2008.07.003

Hear, hear!

There's a great op-ed piece by Richard Dawkins in the Washington Post, where he excoriates politicians that are ignorant of evolutionary theory and milk that fact for political gain. The best quote?

"... a politician’s attitude to evolution, however peripheral it might seem, is a surprisingly apposite litmus test of more general inadequacy. This is because unlike, say, string theory where scientific opinion is genuinely divided, there is about the fact of evolution no doubt at all. Evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science, and he who denies it betrays woeful ignorance and lack of education, which likely extends to other fields as well. Evolution is not some recondite backwater of science, ignorance of which would be pardonable. It is the stunningly simple but elegant explanation of our very existence and the existence of every living creature on the planet. Thanks to Darwin, we now understand why we are here and why we are the way we are. You cannot be ignorant of evolution and be a cultivated and adequate citizen of today."

Couldn't agree more, and this goes for politicians here and back home!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Stay classy, Kellogg!

In face-palm news for the day:

The Maya Archaeology Initiative, a nonprofit that supports education for Guatemalan children, is challenging a claim by Kellogg’s, the maker of Froot Loops and other sugary breakfast products, that its use of a toucan image infringes on the cereal giant’s Toucan Sam character.

I think this one doesn't even need any extra snark. I really hope Kellogg gets shot down on this, and that the Maya Archaeology Initiative gets a major boost in publicity as a result! 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Back in Denver!

I'm back from the field and getting ready for the new term which starts on Monday at UCD! I'm teaching Introduction to Archaeology (ANTH 1302) and Lithic Analysis (ANTH 4330/5330) this term. It should be an interesting semester - I'm moving into my new lab space, revamping Intro, and working on a bunch of different (and exciting!) projects, some of which I'll be discussing on this blog in the coming weeks and months.

Also, I'm excited that we have Sandi Copeland as a visiting professor in our department this year. Sandi's been using isotope analysis to reconstruct some aspects of sociality in early hominins in East Africa, and her recent Nature paper's been discussed in numerous media outlets over the summer. If you want an overview of what she's up to and what she studies, Live Science has also just published a really good interview with her that covers all of that, and which I urge you to go read.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Arabian Middle Paleolithic and the southern route of human dispersal

In a comment on my last post, Maju who's a regular commenter on this blog, pointed out that recent finds in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf suggest that modern humans might have been present in the Middle East by the time Shanidar 3 was killed. Some of the specific evidence in support of this that has come out in the past year include that presented by Armitage et al. (2011) and Rose (2011), and a more recent paper by Petraglia et al. (in press), which he briefly discussed in a post of his own. Here, I just want to provide some additional thoughts about this series of papers, and what they tell us about the modern human population dynamics in the region.

Armitage et al. (2011) report a series of three stratified assemblages from the site of FAY-NE1, in the Jebel Faya in SW Arabia, near the Straits of Hormuz. The interesting thing about these assemblages is their age, and the fact that their typology suggests affinities - or lack thereof - to assemblages from other regions. The oldest assemblage dates to ca. 125kya (dated through single-grain OSL), and the authors argue it shows affinities to assemblages of similar age in East Africa. On that basis, they argue for an early dispersal of modern humans out of Africa along the so-called 'southern route', which comprises the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula and Indian subcontinent. They link this, in turn, to a potential early population of modern humans in Indian prior to the Toba super-eruption ca. 74kya (Petraglia et al. 2011 and references therein). The later assemblages from FAY-NE1 are older than ca. 40kya, and show little to no affinities to either the MSA/LSA or the Levantine Paleolithic. Armitage and co. interpret this as evidence of their not having been made by Neanderthals, but don't really explore this issue in great depth. They conclude that human occupation of FAY-NE1 and Arabia more broadly would have been tethered to humid periods that made it hospitable to humans, who would have disappeared from the interior of the peninsula during arid periods.

Rose (2010), on the other hand, argues that one area that humans might have found refuge in during these hyper-arid periods would have been the Persian Gulf. Because it is comparatively shallow, arid periods (which correspond with colder periods associated with decreased sea level) would have effectively exposed much of the gulf, which would have been associated with perennial sources of water, which would have acted as a drawing force for human populations from surrounding areas. In a nutshell, the 'Gulf Oasis' would have provided something of a safe haven for humans at times where both Arabia and parts of Iran would have been too inhospitable for humans to occupy. If modern humans were present in the region by 125kya, it stands to reason that the people who would have congregated in the 'Gulf Oasis' would have been modern humans, who could have in turn recolonized the areas to the E and W of the Gulf during wetter periods. The prolonged isolation of people in the Gulf Oasis during prolonged (multi-millennial) episodes of dessication would have lead to cultural drift, perhaps explaining the unique configuration of Assemblages A and B from FAY-NE1 (Armitage et al. 2011).

While these new data are very interesting, they still concern the potential presence of humans mainly along the coasts. What this means is that they tell us little about whether or not humans ventured far inland and/or northwards, and what this implies about their interactions with other, putatively 'archaic' human populations in those areas. A new paper by Petraglia et al. (in press), however, helps shed some light on this situation. These authors present a preliminary report on the site of Jebel Qattar 1, located near Jubbah, Saudi Arabia, on the shores of a paleo-lake. This places the site smack-dab in the center of northern Saudi Arabia, hundreds of kilometers from any coastal area. The site dates to ca. 75kya (OSL), which associates it with comparatively moist conditions that would have made the region habitable by humans.

Overall, the presence of JQ1 agrees with the scenario for human occupation of inland Arabia proposed in the previous two papers. Namely, it shows that people would have ventured far inland only during comparatively moist periods. What is really interesting here, however, is that the assemblage found at JQ1, in contrast to those from FAY-NE1 (Armitage et al. 2011), fits well within what Petraglia and Alsharekh (2003) have described as the Arabian Middle Paleolithic, which shows some affinities to the Levantine Mousterian. However, as the authors state

"Given the current absence of pre-Holocene hominin fossils in Arabia, and the fact that Levantine Mousterian assemblages are associated with both early modern humans and Neanderthals, caution is warranted in attributing a maker to the JQ1 and other Arabian Middle Paleolithic assemblages." (Petraglia et al. 2011: 4)

Here, I just want to point the contrast between this assemblage, and those from FAY-NE1, who show affinities either to the MSA or to no other known industries to the West. What this means for the presence of modern humans in the northern Zagros, close to Shanidar, remains an open question. It may well be, however, that what was happening along the coast of the Indian Ocean during the Late Pleistocene may have been quite different from what was happening in the interior of the landmasses it borders on, with attendant implications for scenarios about modern human dispersals. I close with words by Petraglia et al. (2011:4, references excised) to that effect:

"If modern humans were responsible for the early Arabian toolkit, then our findings contradict the argument that the dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa was accompanied by a microblade technology 60 ka ago. Furthermore, the presence of JQ1 in the interior of northern Arabia, 500 km from the nearest coast, indicates that an exclusive coastal corridor for hominin expansion out of Africa can no longer be assumed."

Hat tip: For what they were... we are.

PS: I should also mention here that Michael Petraglia and his team have a blog, Ancient Indian Ocean Corridors, where they post about the Indian and Arabian Paleolithic , issues related to their ongoing research in those areas.


Armitage, S., Jasim, S., Marks, A., Parker, A., Usik, V., & Uerpmann, H. (2011). The Southern Route "Out of Africa": Evidence for an Early Expansion of Modern Humans into Arabia Science, 331 (6016), 453-456 DOI: 10.1126/science.1199113

Petraglia, Michael D., & Alsharekh, Abdullah (2003). The Middle Palaeolithic of Arabia: Implications for modern human origins, behaviour and dispersals Antiquity, 77 (298), 671-684

Petraglia, M., Alsharekh, A., Crassard, R., Drake, N., Groucutt, H., Parker, A., & Roberts, R. (2011). Middle Paleolithic occupation on a Marine Isotope Stage 5 lakeshore in the Nefud Desert, Saudi Arabia Quaternary Science Reviews DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2011.04.006

Rose, J. (2010). New Light on Human Prehistory in the Arabo-Persian Gulf Oasis Current Anthropology, 51 (6), 849-883 DOI: 10.1086/657397

Monday, May 30, 2011

Who really killed Shanidar 3?

Fun with footnotes, today at AVRPI!! You'll remember that a couple of summers ago, a study by Churchill et al. (2009) tried to argue that the cut marks on a rib from the Shanidar 3 Neanderthal were the result of a wound inflicted by a modern human on that poor sap. Naturally, the science press had a field day with this, although several commentators argued that the evidence presented by Churchill and co. had been stretched way too thin, and that there really was no way to know who (what?) had killed Shanidar 3.

I just finished reading a paper by Trinkaus and Buzhilova (in press) on the death of the Sunghir 1. Sunghir 1 was an old man dating to the Early Gravettian (somewhere b/w 28-24kya) who was buried with an extremely lavish set of grave goods, including ornaments comprising several thousands of mammoth ivory beads, ivory bracelets, a schist pendant and a lot of red ochre spread over the entire burial. There is no question that this is one of the most remarkable Upper Paleolithic burials know.

How does that relate to Shanidar 3, you ask? Well, beyond the fact that Shanidar 3 has been argued to be an intentional burial, Trinkaus and Buzhilova report that, during a renewed inventory of the Sunghir 1 remains undertaken in 2009 which included a careful cleaning of the remains, they identified "an oblique defect, medial-caudal to lateral-cranial, on the left ventral corner of the body" of the Sunghir 1 first thoracic vertebra (T1). I'll return to the details of the Sunghir 1 injury in an upcoming post, but suffice it to say here that they are able to show that the lesion is indicative of a wound inflicted by a sharp implement and that would have been lethal to Sunghir 1.

OK, so returning to our dead homies Neanderthals, this study provides the third most ancient case of a weapon-inflicted wound leading to the death of a Paleolithic forager, the other two being Saint-Cesaire 1 and Shanidar 3, in decreasing order of age. Both of these have been described by Churchill et al. (2009) has resulting from inter-specific violence by modern humans on Neanderthals. However, Trinkaus and Buzhilova argue that "[i]n neither of them is there sufficient evidence, given current geochronology and available technology to meaningfully hypothesize intergroup aggression.". Their justification for this different assessment is then provided in one of the most epic and detailed footnotes I've come across, which I quote in full here:

Churchill et al. (2009) have argued that the injuries to Shanidar 3 and Saint-Césaire 1 are likely to have been perpetrated on these Neandertals by early modern humans. They argue for probable regional sympatry of Shanidar 3 with early modern humans in southwest Asia and certain sympatry for Saint- Césaire 1 in western Europe and superior projectile technology among early modern humans with respect to the Middle Paleolithic Shanidar 3. However, their argument, despite caveats, requires distortions of the relevant geochronology, misrepresentation of the available technology, and special pleading. In western Europe, there is no evidence for (presumably modern human associated) Aurignacian levels stratified below those of the (Neandertal associated) Châtelperronian (Bordes, 2003; Zilhão et al., 2006), as it is at Saint-Césaire (Lévêque et al., 1993), and all of the reliable dates place the Châtelperronian prior to the Aurignacian (Zilhão & d’Errico, 2003). The one radiometric date for the Saint-Césaire Châtelperronian level, a TL date (36 300±2700 cal BP) (Mercier et al., 1991), has a sufficiently large standard error to make it inappropriate to date the burial relative to Châtelperronian or Aurigiacian levels in the region. There is therefore no evidence, either paleontological or by assuming that the earliest Aurignacian was made by modern humans, that there were modern humans in western Europe at the time of Saint-Césaire 1. Churchill et al.’s assessment of the relative ages of Shanidar 3 and early modern humans in southwest Asia confuses radiocarbon and calendar years and makes unwarranted assumptions of who was responsible for which technocomplex; a reassessment of the available dates for diagnostic human remains, plus the stratigraphic position of Shanidar 3, clarifies the chronology. Shanidar 3 derives from near the top of Level D of Shanidar Cave, but stratigraphically well below the radiocarbon dates of ~47 and ~51 ka 14C BP (~51 and ~56ka cal BP) (Trinkaus, 1983). The youngest Middle Paleolithic modern humans within southwest Asia (at Qafzeh and Skhul) are MIS 5c in age (~90–100 ka cal BP) (Valladas et al., 1988; Stringer et al., 1989), and hence much older. Modern human remains do not reappear in southwest Asia until at least 35 ka 14C BP (~40 ka cal BP) (Bergman & Stringer, 1989), ~15 000 years later. In the Zagros the Baradostian technocomplex, the more recent phases of which are associated with modern humans (Scott & Marean, 2009), is dated to ~36 ka 14C BP (~41 ka cal BP) (Otte & Kozlowski, 2007). In addition, contra Shea & Sisk (2010), there are no diagnostic human remains associated with the eastern Mediterranean littoral IUP, that is ~35 ka 14C BP (~40 ka cal BP); Qafzeh 1 and 2 are undated, Ksar Akil 1 is younger, and the few IUP Üçağızlı teeth may well be Neandertals (Neuville, 1951; Bergman & Stringer, 1989; Gulec et al., 2007). One must go to equatorial Africa to find roughly contemporaneous modern humans (Haile-Selassie et al., 2004). With respect to technology, either Châtelperronian or Aurignacian lithics could have inflicted the frontal wound on Saint-Césaire 1. Although Middle Paleolithic spears appear to have mostly had relatively thick lithic points (Shea, 2006), thinner tools capable of producing the Shanidar 3 injury are represented in the Shanidar (and southwest Asian) Middle Paleolithic (Skinner, 1965). Moreover, one has to go to southern Africa to find evidence for contemporaneous ‘advanced’ projectile weaponry (Shea, 2006; Lombard & Phillipson, 2010; but see comments and caveats in Villa & Soriano (2010) and Lombard & Phillipson (2010)). Therefore, contra Churchill et al. (2009), the Shanidar and Saint Césaire Neandertals had the technology available to inflict their respective wounds, and there is no evidence (direct or indirect) for synchronous and sympatric modern humans. It is inappropriate to infer that individuals responsible for the Shanidar 3 and Saint-Césaire1 injuries were other than Neandertals." (Trinkaus and Buzhilova, in press: 7).

So, in a nutshell, there is no good reason to assume that the wounds sustained by Shanidar 3 were inflicted by modern humans. In fact, all of the available evidence points to Shanidar 3 having lived at a moment when only Neanderthals were kicking around the Zagros, and that they had access to technology that could well have left the mark found on the Shanidar 3 ribs.

Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, setting the record straight on this destroys any evidence for the interactions between Neanderthals and modern humans having been strictly inimical and violent. For another, it provides up a fascinating and heretofore underappreciated glimpse into the range of interpersonal relations Neanderthals could have had with other Neanderthals. Given the tendency by many to see Neanderthal behavior has homogeneous and monotonous, emphasizing that their interactionswith others of their kind were occasionally violent to the point of being lethal contributes to showing them to have been all too humans in certain respects.


Churchill, S., Franciscus, R., McKean-Peraza, H., Daniel, J., & Warren, B. (2009). Shanidar 3 Neandertal rib puncture wound and paleolithic weaponry Journal of Human Evolution, 57 (2), 163-178 DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2009.05.010

Trinkaus, E., & Buzhilova, A. (2010). The death and burial of sunghir 1 International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.1227

Friday, May 06, 2011

Feelgood Friday feature

How's this for an inspirational story? A professor suffering from terminal cancer insisted on giving his current students their last lecture, even though he'd be hospitalized, so he did it via Skype, hospital gown, tubes and all. Hard not to be moved moved by Prof. Kielhorn's dedication to his students and his teaching.

At 79, Kielhorn was just one class short of finishing 45 years of teaching without missing a single day.With his perfect attendance at risk, Kielhorn reminded his oncologist at Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview, Texas: "I have class tomorrow at 3 o'clock." That's when his daughter, Martha Croft, and granddaughter, Courtney Bellamy, came up with a plan and started making arrangements for Kielhorn to give his last class via teleconference from the hospital. "Either we were going to break him out or they were going to bring the Skype in," Croft said with a laugh.

45 years of teaching without missing a single class?  So much for university professors not giving a damn about students and/or teaching. That kind of devotion to university education is incredible, and something to aspire to. I for one already can't claim that distinction, so hats off to you, sir!

Scientists of the world, unite!

Last week, I mentioned that scientists - in this case, specifically anthropologists - need to develop strategies to better control the narratives about their research that get circulated in popular media. To me, the need to do so is spurred by both the public interest in anthropological research as well as the need to make science relevant, interesting and exciting to a broader swath of society than it currently is. I also think that scientists have a duty to reach out to the public and talk about what it is they do and why it matters. Really, we need to be able to do this no matter how narrow and specialized our specific field on inquiry. In part, I feel it's the minimum we can do considering the amount of public funding most of us get for our research. As well, if we hope to get the public excited about the scientific inquiry and kids about careers in science, making efforts and taking steps to reach broader audiences should not only be commendable, it should be a professional imperative.

The fine folks at Scientific American seem to be thinking along very similar lines. Under the aegis of the Nature Publishing Group, they're spearheading an effort called "1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days" that "aims to help with all of those goals by making it easier for scientists and teachers to connect. The idea is simple. We seek scientists who are willing to volunteer to advise on curricula, answer a classroom's questions, or visit a school." They have a sign-up sheet for interested scientists - including a category specifically for anthropologists! - and they'll take care of matching interested parties with interested schools in their area. Sounds like a win-win to me, and you only have to volunteer as much as you are comfortable or able to. Get to it, folks!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The raw and the cooked, caveman redux

A few months ago, Henry et al. (2011a) published a truly remarkable study that analyzed the phytoliths and starch grains that had gotten encrusted in the dental calculus (i.e., plaque) of three Neanderthal individuals, two from the site of Spy (Belgium), and another from the site of Shanidar (Iraq). Their study provided the first direct evidence that plant foods were an integral part of the Neanderthal diet by identifying phytoliths (the microscopic silicate 'skeletons' of plant parts that are unique to each plant species) of date palms in the calculus of Shanidar III, and starch grains attributed to various species of wild barley and legumes. The Spy I and II specimens yielded no phytoliths, but did yield starch grains that indicate they consumed water lily corms as well as some variety of sorghum and five other types of plants. The fact that these plant microfossils were found on the teeth of both Spy specimens is a strong indicator that these plants were part of the diet of that group as a whole, too. And the fact that Neanderthals from such distinct ecological settings preserve direct evidence of plant consumption suggests that it was a widespread dietary behavior, an observation that contrasts markedly with the 'Neanderthals as super-carnivore' idea that's been growing in the literature.

As if that wasn't enough, however, some of the starch grains found in the calculus of Shanidar III also had a peculiar morphology ("partly gelatinized") that matched that of experimental cooked barley starch grains. Further, Henry et al. (2011:487) observe that "The overall pattern of damage to the starch grains matches most closely with that caused by heating in the presence of water, such as during baking or boiling, rather than “dryer” forms of cooking like parching or popping (38). The finding of cooked Triticeae [barley] starches on the Shanidar teeth reinforces evidence from other studies that suggest that Near Eastern Neanderthals cooked plant foods." In other words, not only can we tell that Neanderthals cooked some of the plants they consumed, we can even get an idea of how they cooked them, most likely through boiling or baking. To me, this is doubly (triply?) neat because it also tells us something about the cooking technology this very likely required, namely some kind of cooking vessel, made out of either leather or wood.

However, Collins and Copeland (2011) now have a letter in press at PNAS that argues that Henry et al. (2011a) did not properly account for alternative manners in which starch grains can become partly gelatinized through various forms of diagenesis, that is post-depositional chemical or physical alteration, or what we commonly think of as decomposition. This diagenesis could have been triggered by both the presence of water in the cave sediments and/or their exposure to high heat.

I'm happy that PNAS actually gave Henry et al. (2011b) a chance to respond to this letter at the same time. In their reply, they point out, first,  that the heat and humidity required to prompt 'spontaneous' gelatinization would be extremely unlikely to be present in cave sediment. They also indicate that complementary analyses of starch grains on stone tools from some of the same contexts from which teeth associated with altered starch grains are not altered, in contrast to what would be expected if these processes were affecting whole archaeological layers. Specifically, it suggests that lithics were used to process uncooked plant matter that was then cooked and later consumed by Neanderthals. Overall, the evidence therefore continues to indicate that Neanderthals not only ate plants, but also cooked them to both facilitate their consumption and increase their nutritiousness.


Collins, M., & Copeland, L. (2011). Ancient starch: Cooked or just old? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1103241108

Henry, A., Brooks, A., & Piperno, D. (2010). Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (2), 486-491 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016868108

Henry, A., Brooks, A., & Piperno, D. (2011). Reply to Collins and Copeland: Spontaneous gelatinization not supported by evidence Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1104199108

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Osama bin Laden, sasquatch and human biogeography

Science has a post on their website about a little study (Gillespie et al. 2009) that came out a couple of years ago that applied some Editor's Selection IconThis post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgkey biogeographical principles to provide a prediction of where Osama bin Laden might have been hiding. The paper was discussed in Scientific American when if first came out, but now has received a ton of attention because the authors' predicted hiding place for bin Laden ended up being only 268km away from the large compound in Abbottabad where he was dispatched by a team of US Navy SEALS a couple of days ago.

The principles that underpinned Gillespie et al.'s study are actually fairly straightforward. First, organisms tend to stay closest to areas that they are comfortable in (taken here to be the area immediately around Tora Bora). Second, within those area, organisms tend to concentrate on larger 'islands' where propitious conditions are found - in this case, it meant cities where individuals can be more inconspicuous, on top of having access to the amenities needed for both hiding and coordinating further action. Lastly, within such islands, organisms will tend to map onto localities that can support their life history characteristics, in this case the size of bin Laden's entourage and the physical space and specific resources they would need to be able to thrive.

A lot of the comments on the Science page and other places are critical of the study, saying it wasn't, in fact, very precise, and saying its findings have been misrepresented. Fair enough. But what's really interesting is that the study was still correct enough to identify the region, the kind of place (i.e., a city) and the kind of structure (a large-ish compound, not a cave!) where bin Laden was found. To focus on the fact that they didn't identify the exact city is to miss the broader point here: biogeography is useful to predict the kinds of areas that given organisms will be found in, and usually not pinpoint exact locations, though informed suggestions as to these can certainly be made. The authors' suggestion that bin Laden would be found hiding in a city within one of the provinces or FATAs (federally administered tribal areas) closest to Tora Bora (which was bin Laden's last reported position according to outside sources) basically proved correct. Detractors will say that this is so general as to be useless, but if you think about how you would structure the use of resources to track an individual in such a large region, you could do a lot worse than that as a starting point to develop a plan of action.

Now, you may well be asking why the hell am I talking about bin Laden and biogeography on this blog which usually focuses on archaeology and paleoanthropology. Well, that's because biogeography is becoming increasingly used in paleoanthropological research to map out areas that would have been best suited for the needs of various kinds of past hominin communities. Specifically, ecological niche modeling has been used to reconstruct the preferred habitats of given species or industries (Banks et al. 2006). This is done specifically by extrapolating from the ecological contexts in which given sites have been recovered what would have been the preferred ecological conditions for the hominins responsible for accumulating them. An example of this is a paper in which the potential extent of various Upper Paleolithic bifacial tools was inferred based on where they have been found over the past 150 years or so of research (Banks et al. 2009). Some members of the same team have also used this approach to reconstruct what the preferred habitats of Neanderthals and early European modern humans (Banks et al. 2010). In this case, they were able to suggest that the ecological niches most prized by both groups of hominins would have overlapped to a very large degree, implying that the two would have likely come into direct contact, leading to a situation whereby modern humans probably drove Neanderthals to extinction through some form of competitive exclusion.

Ecological niche modeling yields very interesting and though-provoking results, but it remains a means to en end, a tool rather than a be-all-end-all kind of approach. As in most models dependent on inputted information, the quality of the patterns it generates is constrained by the quality of the empirical data used in the first place. This was best demonstrated by a recent paper by Lozier et al. (2009) in which they used georeferenced sightings of sasquatch drawn from the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization website to extrapolate the eoclogical niche and most likely range of that cryptozoid in western North America (as an aside, do check out the BFRO website, for a good look into how organized modern cryptozoology can be - and while you're there, since this week's my birthday, consider ordering a BFRO polo shirt for me!). The paper yields a convincing map of where sasquatch are most likely to be found... a distribution, which incidentally corresponds almost exactly to the modeled ecological niche of brown bears, providing one explanation for what many (if not all) sasquatch sightings may actually have really been of.

The point here is that you can model the ecological niche of any georeferenced dataset, so you need to amke sure your data are really appropriate for the question you're trying to answer. Just because you get an output doesn't mean you necessarily had reliable data on which to base it in the first place. This is a good example of the issues related to the GIGO problem (reconceptualized for non-computer scientists by M. Wolpoff here). In the case of modern humans and Neanderthals, this means specifically that you're limited to dated sites with good provenience information, which captures only part of the relevant sites. It also means that you're basing a species-level attribution on lithic assemblages, which is notoriously problematic (e.g., Clark and Riel-Salvatore 2006).

This is also true for biogeographic approaches in general, and especially as they are applied to people, who have broader sets of motivations than most other animals. Returning to 'where in the world is was Osama bin Laden', this means that to be as precise a predictive model as possible, the Gillespie et al. paper should have considered things like the distribution of religious groups in the various areas they proposed (Haider 2009). From my perspective, it's clear that the predictive potential of Gillespie et al.'s study would have been enhanced had they also considered anthropological and cultural geographic factors to make this a true study in human biogeography. For instance Haider (2009) specifically argued that it's unlikely that a Sunni Muslim like bin Laden would have sought refuge in Parachinar, which is a mostly Shiite city. On the other hand, guess which large city in the radius originally proposed by Gillespie et al. is found in a mostly Sunni province? That's right, Abbottabad. Obviously, there are others, but it goes to show that by explicitly incorporating social factors, biogeographic studies focused on humans can be that much more precise.

Edit 05/05/2011: Whoa - this has been the most popular post ever on this little blog! It was even picked as one of this week's ResearchBlogging 'Editor's Selection'. The moral of all this: obviously, I need to write about terrorism and Sasquatch a lot more frequently!


Banks, William E., Francesco d'Errico, Harold L. Dibble, Leonard Krishtalka, Dixie West, Deborah I. Olszewski, A. Townsend Peterson, David G. Anderson, J. Christopher Gilliam, Anta Montet-White, Michel Crucifix, Curtis W. Marean, María-Fernanda Sánchez-Goñi, Barbara Wohlfarth, and Marian Vanhaeren. 2006. Eco-Cultural Niche Modeling: New Tools for Reconstructing the Geography and Ecology of Past Human Populations. PaleoAnthropology 2006:68-83

Banks, W., Zilhão, J., d'Errico, F., Kageyama, M., Sima, A., & Ronchitelli, A. (2009). Investigating links between ecology and bifacial tool types in Western Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum Journal of Archaeological Science, 36 (12), 2853-2867 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.09.014

Banks, W., d'Errico, F., Peterson, A., Kageyama, M., Sima, A., & Sánchez-Goñi, M. (2008). Neanderthal Extinction by Competitive Exclusion PLoS ONE, 3 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003972

Clark, G.A., and J. Riel-Salvatore. 2005. Observations on Systematics in Paleolithic Archaeology. In Transitions before the Transition (E. Hovers and S.L. Kuhn, eds.), pp. 29-56. Springer, New York.

Gillespie, T.W., J.A. Agnew, E. Mariano, S. Mossler, N. Jones, M. Braughton, and J. gonzalez. 2009. Finding Osama bin Laden: An application of biogeographic theories and satellite imagery. MIT International Review:

Haider, M. 2009. A Response to Professors Gillespie and Agnew on "Finding Osama bin Laden". MIT International Review:

Lozier, J., Aniello, P., & Hickerson, M. (2009). Predicting the distribution of Sasquatch in western North America: anything goes with ecological niche modelling Journal of Biogeography, 36 (9), 1623-1627 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2009.02152.x

Monday, May 02, 2011

Things to kill when you're original, affluent and social...

I have to admit this made me laugh.


So, it's kind of a silly comic, definitely good for a few chuckles. Yet, when you take a second to think about it, there's a lot packed into it. In two little panels, the cartoonist manages to bring up two of the biggest misconceptions about prheistoric hunter-gatherers: 1) that hunter-gatherers spend only a small amount of time a day foraging for food and have an abundance of leisure time to devote to other pursuits; and 2) that modern humans actively killed off Neanderthals.

Now while some people still believe that confrontational, violent interactions occurred at least some of the time when modern humans and Neanderthals crossed paths (e.g., Mellars 2005), faithful AVRPI readers will know by now that this view not only glosses over a ton of inconvenient evidence, but also doesn't really jive with what we know about how groups of hunter-gatherers really compete with one another (cf. O'Connell 2006).

The first component, though - the 4-5 hours of work thing - is more interesting. It taps into a now outgrown view of hunter-gatherers as having comparatively easy lives, where only a few hours a day were spent procuring food. This idea derives from the notion of the "original affluent society" first promulgated by M. Sahlins during the Man the Hunter conference (Sahlins 1968). That conference was held in Chicago in 1966 and was published as an edited volume by the same name in 1968 (Lee and de Vore 1968). Using some of the data on foraging returns that Lee had collected, Sahlins argued that foragers like the Kalahari San groups only spent a few hours a day foraging for food, spending the rest of their time gossiping or involved in assorted leisure activities.

This was pretty revolutionary for the time. Up to that point, hunter-gatherers had been seen by most anthropologists as perpetually living difficult, physically demanding lives and as always living on the brink of starvation. Sahlins' perspective, on top of having a catchy name, was the perfect foil to that traditional view, on top of providing a view of 'people closer to nature' as living what was in many ways possibly a better life than 20th post-industrial Westerners that fit in well with some of the counter-culture ideas in vogue at the time.

However, in spite of its conceptual and socio-political sexiness, the 'original affluent society' was just as unrealistic a view as that of perpetually hungry foragers. For one thing, it was based on observations made on a handful of forager societies, and even if it had been true for them, it would have been unwarranted to transpose it to all hunter-gatherers in all times and places. Second, Sahlins ignored the fact that several hours were also employed processing the food resources gathered in the 2-4 hours he saw as a typical work day for hunter-gatherers. Thorough reviews and criticisms of the OAS model include those written by Bird-David (1992:26-28) and Kelly (1995:15-19).

Anyhoo, all of this to say that, in addition to being funny on the face of it, this little comic is doubly funny to the informed reader, since it also capitalizes (maybe unwittingly) on two anthropological idea that have very much outlived their original usefulness. 


Bird-David, N. (1992). Beyond "The Original Affluent Society": A Culturalist Reformulation Current Anthropology, 33 (1) DOI: 10.1086/204029

Lee, R.B., and I. DeVore. 1968. Man the Hunter. Aldine, Chicago.

Kelly, R.L. 1995 The Foraging Spectrum. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Mellars, P. (2005). The impossible coincidence. A single-species model for the origins of modern human behavior in Europe Evolutionary Anthropology, 14 (1), 12-27 DOI: 10.1002/evan.20037

O'Connell, J.F. 2006. How did modern humans displace Neaderthals? Insights from hunter-gatherer ethnography and archaeology. In When Neanderthals and modern humans met, (N. Conard, ed.), pp. 43-64. Tubingen: Kerns Verlag.

Sahlins, M. 1968. Notes on the Original Affluent Societies. In Man the Hunter, (R. Lee and I. DeVore, eds.), pp. 85-89. Aldine, Chicago.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Neanderthal use of coal

A little while ago, someone contacted me asking if there was any evidence that Neanderthals had ever used coal. This is an interesting question, and one about which there is only little available information. In fact, there is almost no evidence of Neanderthals using coal, but the proof that does exist is very intriguing. The single instance comes from the Mousterian site of Les Canalettes, France (dating to ca. 73,500 years BP), where the structure of some of the charcoal recovered by archaeologists suggests Neanderthals exploited a local outcrop of coal. Originally (Théry et al. 1996), it was suggested that Neanderthals at the site used coal (lignite) during periods when firewood might have been less abundant, that is when forest cover shrank. A few years later, however, the same authors was determined that trees would have always been sufficiently available around Les Canalettes, which indicates that Neanderthals purposefully exploited coal for a variety of potential reasons (Théry-Parisot and Meignen 2000). An English summary of this research (Goldberg and Sherwood 2006:29) concludes the following:

"Les Canalettes is a shelter in the Causse du Larzac region of France. It contains Mousterian remains dating to the last glacial, about 73.5 ka. Most interesting is the occurrence of what appears to be burned lignite, which was likely used as fuel and was available as close as 5–15 km from the site, well within the acquisition zone of raw materials. Analysis of wood remains in the site suggests that people used coal when wood was in short supply. Furthermore, experiments by Théry-Parisot demonstrated that the occupants were familiar with some of the burning characteristics of the fuel. For example, adding lignite to a fire which no longer exhibited flames added significantly to the burning duration, thus permitting rekindling of the fire at a much later stage and prolonging the ability to heat. In addition, the study found that a hearth mixed with dried wood and lignite, consumed 4 times less wood than a hearth simply using rotted wood. These results provide important insights, suggesting that Neanderthals exhibited a clear knowledge of the combustible properties for diverse fuels."

So, yes, there is evidence from a one site that Neanderthals used coal, and this evidence suggests they were fully aware of its combustible properties. However, so far it's only been found at one site, which suggests it wasn't a widespread behavior. So, it's not a ton of evidence, but it's certainly suggestive. What's especially interesting, however, is the fact that at Les Canalettes, Neanderthals were well aware of coal's properties. This indicates that, no matter where they lived, Neanderthals could develop a very thorough knowledge of the properties of the various resources that were available to them. Considering especially that Les Canalettes falls towards the later end of the Neanderthal timeline, it also fits in comfortably with the recent conclusions that Neanderthals by that time were regular fire-users, if not paleopyrotechnologists (say that ten times fast!), as based on the review of the evidence recently proposed by Roebroeks and Villa (2011).


Goldberg, P., & Sherwood, S. (2006). Deciphering human prehistory through the geoarcheological study of cave sediments Evolutionary Anthropology, 15 (1), 20-36 DOI: 10.1002/evan.20094

Roebroeks W, & Villa P (2011). On the earliest evidence for habitual use of fire in Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (13), 5209-14 PMID: 21402905

Théry, I., J. Gril, J.L. Vernet, L. Meignen, and J. Maury. (1996). Coal used for Fuel at Two Prehistoric Sites in Southern France: Les Canalettes (Mousterian) and Les Usclades (Mesolithic) Journal of Archaeological Science, 23 (4), 509-512 DOI: 10.1006/jasc.1996.0048

Théry-Parisot, I., and L. Meignen. 2000. Economie des combustibles dans l’abri moustérien des Canalettes, de l’expérimentation a` la simulation des besoins énergétques. Gallia Préhistoire 32:45–55.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Stone Age ≠ Caveman!!! Archaeology, science, the media, and some tangential thoughts on the 'gay caveman' story

By now, you've surely heard all the media hoopla about the alleged 'gay caveman' found in the Czech Republic that's been all over the news and internet for the past few weeks. Ugh! Y'know, I just got done reading Ben Goldacre's fantastic book Bad Science in which he bemoans (and entertainingly skewers!) the way medical findings are consistently distorted in the media, where flashy headlines seem to be more important than the actual facts. Well, I'm sure Ben would be (un)happy to know that this kind of media hype also sadly characterizes the way many archaeological findings are presented to the public at large.

This post might turn into something of a rant, cause there's a lot to talk about surrounding all of these issues, so let me start by the beginning, namely the find itself. It's a Corded Ware burial of a skeleton sexed as male found lying on its left side, with the head pointing to the West. That position is usually associated with females in that prehistoric culture, as are the various pots the burial contained. So, archaeologically, that's a neat find. Something unusual that does suggest - if the sexing is correct - that the individual might have had a distinct identity in that cultural context, which to be fair is pretty much all the archaeologists actually said about it. And that's good, because without more info, it's really impossible to say anything more about that person's identity. Yet, all the media reports are talking about "the first known gay caveman" so what gives? Well, truth of the matter is, the find has been misinterpreted, indeed distorted by the media. Shocking, I know. All. Sorts. Of. Wrong. You wanna know how bad the distortion has been? Read this story on LiveScience. Then read the posts on the topic by Rosemary Joyce, Bone GirlJohn Hawks and the very thoughtful post by Eric Michael Johnson which provides a really good discussion of third genders and the range of sexual identities present and accepted in many cultures.

You know, the mess the media have made here of confusing biological sex, gender, identity and sexual orientation is a perfect example of why people need to be exposed to at least some anthropology, even before college. Without going into detail here, let me just state they're not the same thing. They can be related, obviously, but they're not the same, and the distinctions matter, especially when you're using one of these dimensions (in this case biological sex) to infer some of the other ones. It gets even more problematic when bones and archaeological remains (i.e., a biased sample of all the evidence you would need to intelligently discuss these issues) are all you have to go on. Let's be clear: I'd be more than happy if we could get at an archaeology of homosexuality, as there is every reason to believe it was a fact of life in the past just as it is today (see Eric's post mentioned above). It's just that this particular story doesn't get it right, and that rubs me the wrong way, especially given how the media has sensationalized their spin on the discovery

To me, the most aggravating aspect of this media circus is what wasn't actually discussed in any of the breathless "OMG gay caveman" reports. What I mean here is that, had this story actually been true - let's assume for a second that we did have a gay caveman, or whatever - not one of the reports bothered to discuss the broader implications of the find. This is one grave found among many others, so what does it means that this clearly distinct individual was casually buried among many other Corded Ware individuals? Given the bigotry that is all too pervasive in today's society and all the ranting and raving about 'traditional' and 'normal' values that seeps into the political and social spheres, you'd think that finding evidence that people in the 'olden days' did not bother to marginalize gay individuals is even more noteworthy. But apparently, this kind of story just doesn't seem to be as interesting as catchy headlines today. Absurd.

One thing that several bloggers have seized on is the mischaracterization of this burial as somehow representing a caveman. I mean, by all that is unholy, the dude(tte) was buried with pottery, the very anathema of cavepersonhood! I think Rosemary hits the nail on the head here when she points out that the term was likely chosen to elicit the most visceral kind of contrast-based reaction between stereotypical views of cavemen and homosexuals in the public at large. My beef here is how the hell did the slip from pottery-using Neolithic person to 'caveman' happened. Reading the news reports, you see a lot of emphasis on the fact that the Corded Ware culture begins at the tail end of the Neolithic and last into the Copper Age of Central Europe. And I think that this is where we have the 'wormhole' (which, given my penchant for naming things right in Stone Age archaeology, you know I'm going to dive into): Neolithic refers to the "New Stone Age", where ground stone technology becomes ubiquitous, in contrast to the chipped stone tools that dominate the Paleolithic or "Old Stone Age". You see where this is going: do you think a reporter on the trail of of juicy story is going to let the distinction between a 'new' and and 'old' Stone Age get in the way of the fact that this individual can somehow be tied to the Stone Age as a whole? Of course not! So this burial goes from being Neolithic to belonging to the Stone Age, and from there, you're one lowly step away from cavemen... and a great headline! This is another reason why you need qualified people writing about archaeology. This is all the more true in cases where it ties to issues as volatile in their socio-political echoes as sexual identity. So, again, goes to show people need at least some background in anthropology and archaeology, if only so they can make out the general outlines of our species' evolutionary history and how given finds fit therein.

At the SAA meetings, I had a good talk with a friend about how news stories on archaeological research so often get their facts wrong. It echoed a discussion we had in our department earlier this term when Jim Potter came and gave a talk on his recently published work on the Sacred Ridge assemblage of human remains that showed evidence of perimortem processing (Potter and Chuipka 2010). Somehow, a sober archaeological analysis of these patterns got translated into the media as evidence for widespread cannibalism in the prehistoric US Southwest, when nothing of the sort was actually said, either in the paper itself or in interviews by the researchers. In fact, the paper itself argues that cannibalism is not the best explanation for the patterns they identified! How the topic veered so dramatically away from the archaeological reality is anyone's guess, but the need for a good story seems to be rather importantly involved.

This, to me, suggests that it may be time for anthropologists and archaeologists to get some actual formal training in PR or media relations as part of their education. We bemoan that we too often lose control of the narrative of the stories published on our work, yet we're the ones who are most intimately familiar with the studies that get reported on. Are people who are not trained in anthropology really the best ones to 'translate' our results and their significance for the public at large? Hardly. We should be able to express why something's important without having to transit through a middleman who all too often lacks the proper background to really fully digest anthropological research.

My own experience with this has been limited to dealing with my university's PR office, and I have to say that it was pretty good. The reporter I dealt with, David Kelly, was really enthusiastic and did not hesitate to ask questions, and likewise, I didn't hesitate to correct misunderstandings, etc. I think that we developed a good back and forth built on mutual trust, and that the news story was, as a result, quite a bit better than many I've read on similar topics. On talking to other colleagues that have had their work covered by the popular press, I also get the feeling that my experience as a whole was more positive than most. Maybe it has to do with the process being conducted 'in house' where both parties had something to gain from this being done right. I think that this also set the stage for positive interaction with members of the media who later contacted me, since they had a good, reliable base on which to build.

So, how does this all relate to 'gay cavemen'? Basically, we need to be careful about how we phrase things when presenting them to the public in order to steer the public narrative in a way we are comfortable with. This means that we somehow need to become better at (re)taking control over the narrative about our work that gets circulated in the media. To paraphrase an argument made by Goldacre, people aren't stupid, and they can follow fairly complicated argument, if given the chance. Not only that, but there also is a large amount of interest in anthropological research writ large. So, there is no need to dumb it down to the point where the story bears almost no resemblance to the original research, and such distortions are clearly not just the price to pay to have our stories get coverage in the media. We can and must do better.


Potter, J., & Chuipka, J. (2010). Perimortem mutilation of human remains in an early village in the American Southwest: A case for ethnic violence Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 29 (4), 507-523 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2010.08.001