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.