Thursday, December 20, 2007

2008 SAA preliminary program is up!

The preliminary program of the 2008 Society for American Archaeology annual meetings (to be held in Vancouver, Canada!) is now available online as a pdf. This one promises to be a good one for paleo-minded people. In addition to at least four general sessions devoted to the Paleolithic, the following symposia piqued my interest:




NEW VIEWS ON ANCIENT AFRICA-PAPERS IN HONOR OF C. GARTH SAMPSON (organized by Tom Minichillo and Britt Bousman)

ANALYTICAL APPROACHES TO PALAEOLITHIC TECHNOLOGIES (organized by Stephen J. Lycett and Parth R. Chauhan)

And, in the interest of shameless self-promotion,

NICHE CONSTRUCTION THEORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY (organized by Julien Riel-Salvatore and Lydia Pyne). If you're interested, you can find out more information on our session here.

Of course, the SAAs this year coincide with the annual meetings of the Paleoanthropology Society, which should make it even more interesting to be in Vancouver the week of March 23-30! See you there

Monday, December 10, 2007

Four Stone Hearth.... belatedly!

Well, I'm a bit late to the party, but you most definitely should check out the 29th Four Stone Hearth hosted by Tim at Remote Central.

Hot off the presses!

If you're genuinely interested in human evolution, you should probably read a forthcoming paper in PNAS entitled "Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution" by John Hawks and colleagues.

I'm reading through it as I type, but until I post some comments on it, feel free to check out what Greg Laden and Gene Expression have to say about it.

New preservation issues at Lascaux

The NY Times has an informative piece on a new fungus threat to the parietal paintings of Lascaux Cave, France.

The new fungus can be seen in the black patches above the horns.

No consensus has emerged among experts over whether the invading patches of gray and black mold are the result of climate change, a defective temperature control system, the light used by researchers or the carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors.
This follows on the heels of the unprecedented proliferation of Fusarium solani on sections of the cave's wall in 2001, following the installation of a new ventilation system at the site.
The new problem at Lascaux, however, does not appear to be linked to the fusarium fungus. Described by experts as black stains, the blemishes are in fact both gray and black. “They vary from a few millimeters to 4 centimeters,” said Mr. Geneste, noting that most are found in the passages where the rocks are most porous and paintings had faded the most long before modern man entered. While only a few stains have affected the paintings, they have now been found in some 70 different spots.
I didn't really buy the link the author tries to draw between this problem and global warming, although I'm sure it's not helping in the least. The situation appears a bit more complex and multifaceted, though thankfully less alarming than in 2001. Nonetheless, these preservation problems constitute, in a way, an archaeological tragedy, and not only because of the public's awareness of the site, its paintings and its Paleolithic age. Rather, it drives home the point that such caves are extremely scarce resources that need the utmost care if they are to be preserved for future generations and renewed scientific study. It also highlights just how fragile rock art can be, thus underscoring just how much of this archaeological material must have been lost over time. I certainly hope the responsible authorities will be able to promptly get this latest 'outbreak' under control.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I say Acheulean, you say Acheulian

To quote one cartoon character… do you know what really grinds my gears? Seeing the word “Acheulean” written as “Acheulian”. There, I said it. The Acheulean, of course, refers to the Lower Paleolithic industry found throughout the Old World and defined by the presence of bifacially worked core-tools commonly labeled ‘handaxes’ (though see Monnier [2006] for a recent reevaluation of the term and its definition). It is one of the most investigated periods of prehistory, yet it is cursed by inconsistent spelling of its name. A search in Web of Knowledge for paper titles shows that, of paper published on that industry over the past 52 years, 90 (or 56%) contain the word ‘Acheulean’ while 71 (or 44%) use the label ‘Acheulian.’ While a majority of researchers thus appears to use what I see as the correct spelling, a non-negligible fraction nonetheless uses the alternate form.

In any case, let me outline the reasoning behind my deeply held spelling intransigence. The names of most Paleolithic industries are derived from a series of localities in France thought, in the last years of the 19th century, to typify those industries. These sites (e.g., Saint Acheul, Le Moustier, Aurignac, La Gravette, Le Solutré and La Madeleine) gave rise to the labels we use today as loose descriptors of the kinds of stone tools we find in archaeological deposits. Since the localities were in France and selected by French prehistorians (in this case G. de Mortillet [1873]), the names they gave rise to were originally in French. In the specific case of the Lower Paleolithic industry with bifaces identified at the locality of Saint-Acheul, the French name for that industry and de facto chronological phase became Acheuléen, although the name itself admittedly slightly postdates the selection of Saint-Acheul as the type locality. Later, other languages simply adapted the French terminology, as shown in this non-exhaustive table:


Industry –


Industry –


Industry –






Le Moustier








La Gravette




Le Solutré




La Madeleine












What emerges from this overview that when an industry name ends in “ien” in French, it corresponds to an “ian” ending in English and “iano” in Italian. Likewise, the French “éen” turns into “eano” in Italian and “ean” in English, as demonstrated by the labels “Solutrean” and “Chellean.” Few if any specialists would spell ‘Solutrean’ as ‘Solutrian;’ in fact, a search for “Solutrian” in Web of Knowledge yields a single result, as opposed to 27 hits on 'Solutrean.' That being the case, why on earth should the French Acheuléen and the Italian Acheuleano be rendered into English as Acheulian as opposed to Acheulean? This is the only exception to the pattern of name conversion just highlighted, and also one that occurs only in the English language. I’m guessing it has to do with phonological drift in the early years of the discipline, but that’s just a hunch; to the best of my knowledge ‘Acheulian’ postdates ‘Acheulean’ in press by about a decade.

I’d like to stress that this is not an issue comparable to the spelling of ‘Neanderthal’ vs. ‘Neandertal,’ for both of which some historical justification can be found. This is an issue of bending the rules of terminological translation for no good reason. So let’s hear it for Acheulean!

But I don’t want to be despotic about this, so let me try an exercise in internet democracy: Dear readers, leave me a comment or vote below to let me know whether you spell it with an “i” or with an “e”… and if you have traditionally spelled it with an “i”, does this reasoning convince you to change your wayward practices?


Monnier, G. 2006. The Lower/Middle Paleolithic periodization in Western Europe: An evaluation. Current Anthropology 47:709-744.

Mortillet, G. de. 1873. Classification des diverses périodes de l'Âge de la Pierre. In Congrès International d'Anthropologie et d'Archéologie Préhistoriques, 6ème session, 432–459.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Other papers of note

The new issue of Antiquity contains a suite of other really interesting papers, making it well worth checking out.

Here's a few of them:

Biancamaria Aranguren, Roberto Becattini, Marta Mariotti Lippi and Anna Revedin
Grinding flour in Upper Palaeolithic Europe (25000 years bp)

The authors have identified starch grains belonging to wild plants on the surface of a stone from the Gravettian hunter-gatherer campsite of Bilancino (Florence, Italy), dated to around 25000bp. The stone can be seen as a grindstone and the starch has been extracted from locally growing edible plants. This evidence can be claimed as implying the making of flour – and presumably some kind of bread – some 15 millennia before the local ‘agricultural revolution’.

Phillip C. Edwards
A 14000 year-old hunter-gatherer's toolkit

A sickle, 21 flint lunates for tipping spears and evidence of the hunted quarry – gazelle bones – lay together by the wall of a Natufian building. The author deduces that these objects were contained in a bag and constituted the versatile working equipment of a hunter-gatherer.

Josephine J. McDonald, Denise Donlon, Judith H. Field, Richard L.K. Fullagar, Joan Brenner Coltrain, Peter Mitchell and Mark Rawson
The first archaeological evidence for death by spearing in Australia

An Aboriginal man done to death on the dunes 4000 years ago was recently discovered during excavations beneath a bus shelter in Narrabeen on Sydney's northern beaches. The presence of backed microliths and the evidence for trauma in the bones showed that he had been killed with stone-tipped spears. Now we know how these backed points were used. A punishment ritual is implied by analogies with contact-period observations made in the eighteenth century AD.

Judith Littleton
From the perspective of time: hunter-gatherer burials in south-eastern Australia

In this study of the Murray River basin in south-eastern Australia, the author shows that Aboriginal burials are persistently attracted to specific kinds of landscape feature intermittently over long periods of time. Some attributes of burial, like body position, vary from site to site and over much shorter periods; others, like orientation, are even more local, relating only to a specific group of graves. Burial rites are thus sets of variables which may be independent of each other and change at different rates. Far from reflecting cultural arrivals and departures, in south-eastern Australia burial grounds were never formally founded and continually abandoned.

There's also a brief report (available free of charge) by A.P. Derevianko, A.A. Anoykin, V.S. Slavinsky & M.A. Borisov on recent Paleolithic excavations in the Caucasus.

Farbstein and Svoboda in Antiquity

Having a sick day here at AVRPI, but between bowls of minestrone and listening to Six Parts Seven for restorative comfort, I was made aware of a new paper by Farbstein and Svoboda (2007) in the new issue of Antiquity. The paper is about new symbolic artifacts found at the Gravettian site of Predmostí, news of which had first circulated slightly over a year ago (see my comments here). Here's the summary (Antiquity doesn't do abstracts):
Two new examples of decorative art have turned up at the Gravettian site of Predmostí, dating to the twenty-sixth to twenty-fifth millennium BP: rectilinear grid patterns are executed on one side of flat bones, probably of reindeer. The authors speculate that the two pieces may have come from a single larger decorated object. The grids themselves join a growing repertoire of patterns known from Upper Palaeolithic society, but their role remains enigmatic: counting, calendars or ornament? Art or science?

Sounds like an interesting article, especially the section that discusses the potential function of these artifacts. At this point, I'd just like to mention that an artistic component in the artifact doesn't necessarily preclude a concurrent, more prosaic use. McGill unfortunately has a six month embargo on the online version of Antiquity, so if any readers have access to this paper, I'd very much appreciate if a copy could find its way to me.


Farbstein, R., and J. Svoboda. 2007. New finds of Upper Palaeolithic decorative objects from Predmostí, Czech Republic. Antiquity 81: 856–864.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Four Stone Hearth #28

Run - don't walk - over to Hot Cup of Joe to partake in the bountiful goodness of the latest installment of the Four Stone Hearth, including a link to a post by yours truly.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Paleolithic papers in Near Eastern Archaeology

The June 2006 issue of Near Eastern Archeology contains four papers, all of which deal with the Paleolithic. Included in this fine lot is a paper by the team of Mike Bisson, one of my colleagues at McGill, about their recent work in Jordan. I'm providing the abstracts of all these papers here:
The Pleistocene Peopling of Anatolia: Evidence from Kaletepe Deresi
By Ludovic Slimak, Damase Mouralis, Nur Balkan-Atli, Didier Binder, and Steven L. Kuhn
Anatolia has been called the crossroads of Eurasia, forming as it does a land-bridge between Europe, the Levant, and central Asia. Historical documents and the region's rich archaeological record provide ample testimony to frequent movements of people, ideas, and goods across Anatolia over the last few millennia. A range of evidence, both circumstantial and direct, suggests that humans and human ancestors repeatedly traversed the region in even more remote times.

Late Acheulian Variability in the Southern Levant: A Contrast of the Western and Eastern Margins of the Levantine Corridor

by Gary O. Rollefson, Leslie A. Quintero, and Philip J. Wilke

One of the fascinating aspects of the archaeology of very ancient times is that it offers glimpses of extinct lifeways. We find this particularly true for the cultural behavior of hominids during the Lower Palaeolithic. Interestingly, relatively little is known about the daily habits of people during the fairly well-studied period of the Acheulian in the Levant, in spite of numerous site discoveries of considerable note. Much of this deficiency results from a lack of preserved perishable goods; these seldom survive time depths in the hundreds of thousands to well over a million years. But also lacking is clear understanding of the behavioral significance of those objects that do survive the wear and tear of time, specifically the numerous stone artifacts. This article presents new research that assists our quest for understanding of these ancient lives.

Human Evolutions at the Crossroads: An Archaeological Survey in Northwest Jordan
by Michael S. Bisson, April Nowell, Carlos Cardova, Regina Kalchgruber, and Maysoon al-Nahar
Human evolution can be traced back 7,000,000 years. Modern humans evolved in Africa 160,000 years ago and as recently as 26,000 years ago we shared parts of the world with at least one other species - the Neanderthals. Since the discover of the first Neanderthal in 1856 in Germany, this species has generated controversy; specifically, there are questions concerning their genetic relationship to modern humans, their capacity for language and artistic expression, or the reasons for their extinction. Resolving thse debates in the long term depends on an accumulation of evidence for how Neanderthals adapted to the physical and cultural environments around them. In other words, in order to understand why they died, we need to first understand how they lived.

Shelter or Hunting Camp? Accounting for the Presenceof a Deeply Sratified Cave Site in the Syrian Steppe
By Bruce Schroeder

No abstract available.

The latest issue also contains a paper on the Lower Paleolithic of Iran:
The Lower Paleolithic Occupation of Iran
By Fereidoun Bigalri and Sonia Shidrang

Iran is a natural bridge connecting Western Asia to South and Central Asia and therefore, we might expect it to have been a main route for hominin expansion eastwards. Despite its strategic location, however, it has so far produced little evidence for early hominin occupation. The authors present here the results of new investigations in the region that affirm the archaeological potential of this region for understanding Lower Paleolithic hominin adaptaton to their environment.

This should all help shed greater light on the Pleistocene record of the Near/Middle East, which is always good, especially in light of some of my current projects. I'm especially excited about the Schroeder paper, since there haven't been a whole lot of publications about his work at Jerf Al-Ajla, which contains an important Middle-Upper Paleolithic transitional sequence (as well as some late Acheulean material).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

No good can come out of this...

"Rising pasta prices create panic in Italy"

This will end badly, mark my words... This report is actually a surprisingly lucid overview (for CNN anyway) of the situation caused by marked increases in the price of wheat (and other staple foodstuffs) worldwide. There are some interesting perspectives on both the prices consumers have been paying for staples over the past 20 years and on the implications of ethanol production for agricultural production.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Université de Montréal Lecture

If you 're around the greater Montréal metropolitan area and you want to learn more about Neanderthals, the Uluzzian and Paleolithic research in Italy, then by all means, come to my upcoming public lecture in the Université de Montréal department of anthropology.

When: Thursday, November 22, 11:30-13:00
Where: U de M., Room C-3061, 3150 Rue Jean-Brillant
What: "L’Uluzzien et la transition Paléolithique moyen-Paléolithique supérieur en Italie"

Friday, November 16, 2007

Archéologues québécois autour du monde / Québec archaeologists around the world

Here's some news about a conference entitled "Archéologues québécois autour du monde" (Québec archaeologists around the world) which will highlight the variety of archaeological research projects being undertaken by archaeologists residing in my fair province. It will be held in Montréal's Pointe-à-Callière Museum next weekend. You can check out a list of presenters and abstracts here (all in French, except for one). The topics are pretty far-ranging, but there's a couple of paleo-themed presentations that should be most interesting.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Fighting the tyranny of the ethnographic record!

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
In a short paper, R. Lee Lyman (U Missouri) shows how archaeological data can help flesh out ethnographic observations. I make a big deal about this because archaeologists dealing with prehistoric hunter-gatherers have often been accused of being interpretively 'railroaded' (not to say tyrannized) by the ethnographic record of extant hunter-gatherers (Wobst 1978).

What Lyman does in this paper is actually pretty straightforward, methodologically speaking. Briefly, having shown that the size of lower first molars can be used to distinguish males from female mink, he looks at the sex ratio seen in Mustela vison remains from the Cathlapote and Meier sites, both of which are late-prehistoric(ca. 1400-1800 AD) sites located in the Wapato Valley (in Oregon and Washington). Citing Buskirk and Lindstedt (1989), Lyman argues that "linear trap sets produce a more even sex ratio[i.e., between 1:1 and 2:1, for males], whereas traps placed in a grid catch more large-bodied individuals, typically males" (2007:92). This pattern is the result of sex-specific behavioral patterns. In his archaeological sample, the male:female ratio is at least 3.67:1 and at most 8.33:1, depending on how stringent one is with their sex-id stats. This suggests, then, that late-prehistoric foragers probably disposed traps in a grid rather than linear pattern.

This is where it gets especially neat. Since Franz Boas long ago wondered "How far can archaeological methods supplement ethnological information?" (1902:4), Lyman concludes:
Locations of traps used to take small mammals have, so far as I am aware, not been reported in the ethnographic literature for the Pacific Northwest. The archaeological data for mink recovered from sites in the Wapato Valley suggest that indeed archaeological data may supplement ethnographic data, because mink demography suggests traps were distributed in a grid-like pattern. (Lyman 2007:94)

In other words, rather than place them, say, only along waterways, late-prehistoric hunters of the Wapato Valley most likely set their traps all over the region's marshy lowlands. Given that the sites in question can be linked to the "Northwest Coast Culture Area" and given that ethnographic information available for groups derived from this culture area indicates that they trapped small mammals without specifying how that was done, this study provides a good instance of archaeological data (albeit informed by mammalogy) informing ethnographic observation. This is elegant corroboration of what Guenther (2007:374) terms "an ongoing, mutually strengthening partnership between the two disciplines [archaeology and ethnology], in their study of foraging societies."


Buskirk, S. W., and S. L. Lindstedt. 1989. Sex ratio biases in trapped samples of mustelids. Journal of Mammalogy 70:88-97.

Guenther, M. 2007. Current issues and future directions in hunter-gatherer studies. Anthropos 102:371-388.

Lyman, R. L. 2007. Prehistoric mink (Mustela vison) trapping on the Northwest Coast. Journal of Field Archaeology 32:91-95.

Wobst, H. M. 1978. The archaeo-ethnology of hunter-gatherers or the tyranny of the ethnographic record in archaeology. American Antiquity 43:303-309.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

McGill Journal of Education Helps Fight Creationism

I saw a few mentions of this online over the past two weeks, but only had time to check it out in detail today: The current issue (Vol. 42, no. 2) of the McGill Journal of Education is dedicated to the "Teaching and Learning of Evolution". It comprises an editorial, six research papers, two opinion pieces and a book review, all revolving around that central theme and all provided with English and French abstracts. Also, they are all available in pdf format free of charge, though you have the option of contributing a few dollars to keep the journal open access. There's some really thought-provoking and useful content in there if you have any link to the teaching of evolutionary biology, geology or any related discipline.

I'm especially glad that this is being published by a journal linked directly to McGill University, where I currently work, and to its Evolution Education Research Center, led by Brian Alters., who was one of the witnesses during the Dover trial. In related news, since I don't get PBS around these parts, I simply can't wait to check out PBS' "Judgment Day" available online in its entirety starting Nov. 16, 2007. 'Liveblogging' of the show from a number of trustworthy sources suggests it is quite a good program.

Mammoth hunters of the Russian Far East

They found one of their camps, apparently.

The site, found during a 2007 archaeological expedition to Lake Evoron, is the largest of four Stone Age sites, discovered near the Amur River so far, and was most likely established by mammoth hunters.

"We came to this conclusion after studying flint pikes, arrowheads and a stone scraper," Malyavin said, adding that a comprehensive archaeological excavation could take a couple of years.

Wait, what? Where the hell are the mammoth bones?! There better be some serious use-wear/blood residue analysis being undertaken if they want to make the case that people were hunting mammoths based on stone tools alone.

The modern Stone Age family

The Boston Globe has a feature entitled 'Stone Age Feminism?' (I have to wonder if they had a contest with CNN for the lamest spin on Stone Age news) which talks about how recent discoveries about Neanderthals (FOXP2, 'red hair', extension of their range to Siberia, etc.) may articulate with the argument put forth last year by Kuhn & Stiner (2006) that sexual division of labor was largely absent among Neanderthals. Some people have blogged about this (here and here), just as other have offered more thoughts about the 'spin' or 'framing' put on some of the recent genetic papers (here for FOXP2, here for MC1R). I'm not an anthropological geneticist, so I won't talk about those studies any more than I already have.

In contrast, although the Kuhn & Stiner paper has been discussed at length on some other blogs (including by John Hawks who was fairly critical of their argument), this renewed interest in it a year after its original publication prompted me to finally pitch in my two cents.

I suspect that there's two main ways in which the main conclusion of the paper was greeted by researchers. On one side, people who still think of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition in terms of a list of features that distinguish the UP from the MP (and by extension, modern humans from Neanderthals) probably clapped their hands excitedly before chiseling "sexual division of labor" into the stone tablet that bears the other commandments of modern human behavior. Nothing new under the sun here. On the other side, you have people who largely dismissed Kuhn and Stiner's argument by saying that it just doesn't jive with the paleoanthropological record, ethnographic analogy and/or common sense. Again, nothing too earth-shattering.

My own view doesn't really fall on a simple continuum between those two extremes. If someone held a pistol to my head and asked me to pick sides right there and then, I suppose I'd probably say I lean more towards this second pole (though if this situation really were to happen, I'd probably just say whatever the hell they wanted to hear!). However, if the same paleoanthropologically-inclined gun-toting individual was armed with, say, a musket (or any other weapon that would give yours truly a bit more time to talk), I would promptly qualify this statement by adding that, while it may not be congruent with all of the data we now have available, Kuhn and Stiner's paper is nonetheless quite an important contribution to studies of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition for two main reasons:

1) It bring together a wide range of archaeological data whose joint patterns previous synthetic treatments have been unable to account for convincingly. Admittedly, this is done at the expense of some of the finer details of the archaeological record (I think there's evidence Neanderthals exploited small game and plants, and that there's little evidences that modern humans engaged in substantially less close-range hunting), although this is perhaps unavoidable in any synthetic treatment of the evidence. However, it does propose a novel idea to account for some general patterns, although as John Hawks has pointed it is difficult to test empirically. The important thing here is to look at this as a new avenue of research, and not a paleoanthropological received truth to be accepted and repeated uncritically, a point unfortunately lost on the popular media.

2) Most importantly (and I think that's what Kuhn and Stiner were really going for), it forces researchers to come to grips with the idea that the Late Pleistocene archaeological record is now sufficiently well-known that we can and should be focusing on other questions than simply what techniques of tool manufacture hominins used, what their chronology was, what the oldest evidence for "behavior X" is, how hominins moved around and managed their resources, and what critters hominins were eating. These are all obviously critical questions (some that I tackle in my own work), but is there more to Paleolithic archaeology than this? According to that paper, yes. That Kuhn & Stiner tried to roll this specifically into the modern human origins debate, to which they have spent their whole career contributing, is perhaps best seen as secondary. On the other hand, it likely accounts for why the news outfits all latched on the "Stone Age feminism" angle - it's just too easy and speaks to contemporary issues almost more than it does about prehistoric life.

I was (and remain) a little surprised by the gusto with which some people reacted to this paper stressing that we might want to consider addressing social issues from a paleoanthropological standpoint (although I can understand that such reactions were mainly driven by empirical concerns). That idea is not exactly new, having been frequently presented and repackaged by researchers like Gamble (esp. Gamble 1999), sometimes on empirical bases much weaker than those invoked by Kuhn and Stiner (2006). Obviously, we must be careful not to get carried away in that direction and make sure that we can strongly link inference to hard data derived from archaeological research. However, given that we're dealing not only with prehistoric lifeways but with prehistoric people, I think there is a case to be made for looking at a new set of issues in contemporary paleoanthropology, although it is critically important that this work be as solidly anchored in the empirical record as possible. That peculiar vein of research may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it can be worth investigating, especially if we are to make Paleolithic research relevant to the broader world of hunter-gatherer anthropology.


Gamble, C. 1999. The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Kuhn, S. L., and M. C. Stiner. 2006. What's a Mother to Do? The Division of Labor among Neandertals and Modern Humans in Eurasia. Current Anthropology 47:953-980.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Four Stone Hearth #27

It's that time again... gather one, gather all around the latest installment of Four Stone Hearth, the blog carnival. This time around it's being hosted by Sam over at Sorting Out Science. It's really a pleasure to read and reflect about, so make sure you do yourself the favor of visiting that corner of the information superhighway.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The caveman in the mirror?

Meredith Small presents a humorous essay on "the scariest thing about Neanderthals."

The gist of her argument is that, despite their rough facades,

...these ancient fellow Europeans were also culturally sophisticated. They buried their dead, built shelters, made tools, used fire and hunted. The may have had language (DNA sequencing has also revealed they carried the FOXP2 gene which is linked to language ability). And they had brains 100 cubic centimeters larger than people today.

And so why have these interesting people been relegated to second-class citizen status?

Because they threaten us.

Neanderthals are chronologically the closest, and the most familiar, example that we have of our kind disappearing off the face of the Earth, and that means we can go too.

Of course, not everybody thinks of Neanderthals as second-class citizens. But, given that many people do, Small's essay is an interesting spin on the long-standing idea that Neanderthals can be argued to embody the us-vs-them perspective in paleoanthropology.

More on the "Red Lady"

Hot on the heels of the news that the Red Lady is older than previously thought, Greg Laden offers some additional thoughts on why he also thinks it might be tricky to infer that burial originated in Western Europe based on a new date from this burial.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Asking a "lady" her age

The 'Red Lady of Paviland' is a Gravettian burial originally found in 1823 Goat's Hole Cave at Paviland (UK), and which was recently returned to the National Museum of Wales from Oxford University where it had been kept since its discovery. The body is actually that of a young male and was found covered in red ochre as well as "with a number of artefacts including ivory wands, bracelets and periwinkle shells."

It was originally thought to date to about 18 kya, before more recent assays established it was 25-26 kya. Well, it turns out that Tom Higham and his team have determined it is, in fact, some 4000 years older, or "just over 29 kya".

Beyond the general 'older is better' paleoanthropological cachet of this new report, there are some interesting implications drawn from this new age:

"It would mean The Red Lady lived in an age when the climate was much warmer than it would have been 4,000 years later.

Dr Higham added: "The data that we have got now is making a lot more sense."

He said it was important for "our understanding of the presence and behaviour of humans in this part of the world at this time".

He also said it "might" suggest that the custom of burying people with artefacts originated in western Europe rather than eastern Europe as had previously been thought.

"This raises new questions about the way in which these people spread and lived on the continent," he added."

I don't know what else they're basing the claim for a Western European origin of burials, but a single burial is not much to go on for such an interpretation. I'm sure there'll be more about this in the write-up of the analysis, which should be published in the Journal of Human Evolution early in 2008 (the corrected proof wasn't available when I checked today).

An artist's rendition of the burial ceremony in the Gravettian

Monday, October 29, 2007

The size of one's package...

I’ve been struggling to find time to string together my first set of thoughts about the Marean et al. (2007) paper that came out about 10 days ago, and this since even before CNN was harping on about “Stone Age clambakes” (such a lame spin). So I figured I'd better do it now, while they were still fresh-ish…

A few things, as a preamble. First, if you want a “public” rendering of the study, you’re much better off checking out the official ASU press release than any of the media coverage that was heaped on the piece. Second, for a tongue-in-cheek spin on what the findings reported by Marean et al. (2007) might mean, check out this post on Hot Cup of Joe. Third, in the interest of full disclosure, Marean was one of my PhD committee members and I consider a number of the paper’s coauthors pretty good friends.

Moving on to the paper itself, the chrono-stratigraphy of the study seems beyond reproach to me. In other words, there’s no question we’re dealing here with an MSA coastal occupation beginning at least ca. 167 kya. Also, the GIS modeling of the paleo-shoreline (available as a [very large – 64 megs!] supplementary video) is very enlightening and the authors put it to very good use in inferring the most likely time of occupation of the site during the LC-MSA. As far as I know, it’s the first time this kind of video information is presented alongside a paleoanthropology piece in Nature, and I hope this is a trend that will stick for archaeological contributions, insofar as they are useful, of course.

By and large, what most strikes me about the paper is the discussion of a “behavioral package” that comprises coastal living, shellfish exploitation, ochre use and bladelet production. These elements are unquestionably all there at PP13B, but their varying representation across the LC-MSA stratigraphy strongly suggests that they were far from indissociable in evolutionary time, and this even at a single locale. Interestingly, this very fact emphasizes how dynamic the MSA appears to have been as a form of behavioral adaptation, even in its comparatively early phases. This contrasts with some views of the MSA as a single ‘thing’ across space and time. That said, it also raises the issue of whether we are, in fact dealing with a discrete “package” and of what elements are its essential features, for lack of a better term. I think that we still have some way to go in highlighting what the advantages provided by each of these different behaviors was, especially in different situational contexts, but it is very intriguing to first find them in association when the coast first appears to become more or less permanently occupied.

This discussion about a modern “behavioral package” (which is what they’re getting at, really), I feel, is the cornerstone of this piece. It also strikes at the beating heart of a long-standing and still unresolved question in paleoanthropology, namely what makes modern humans, well, “modern” in behavioral terms and what of these elements are the fundamental ones. The data put forth by Marean et al. suggest that the expansion of the diet breadth might be key, although it's clearly not sufficient on its own (hence the "package"). Regardless, this paper is important in fleshing out our understanding of the MSA in an otherwise poorly-known segment of its chronology and in reiterating how internally variable this industry can be.

As I implied at the beginning of this post, I mainly to get out what thoughts I’ve had time to formulate about this paper before it had been too long. I just might return with some more a little while later.


Marean, C. W., M. Bar-Matthews, J. Bernatchez, E. Fisher, P. Goldberg, A. I. R. Herries, Z. Jacobs, A. Jerardino, P. Karkanas, T.Minichillo, P. J. Nilssen, E. Thompson, I. Watts, and H. M. Williams. 2007. Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene. Nature 449:905-908.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ugg 4 Prez!

Finally, a clear paleoanthropological voice among the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination, courtesy of This Modern World:

Hat tip to Tom Minichillo.

Four Stone Hearth #26

The 26th installment of the Four Stone Hearth anthropology blog carnival is up at the Primate Diaries. There are, among other things, a thought-provoking essay on the origins of melody by Victor Grauer and a great discussion by Chris O'Brien of how ID - not satisfied in misrepresenting biological evolution - also misrepresents archaeology. Lots of good stuff there, so check it out, people.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Against Creationism in Canada

Scott Rowed writes a very good op-ed piece in the Calgary Herald criticizing the growth of creationism in Canada, and the age-old attempts of creationists to portray evolution as "just another theory". He also justly criticizes politicians like John Tory (Conservative Party Leader of Ontario) who are trying to derive political capital by pushing creationism in Canadian public schools.

I can only agree with Rowed when he argues that:

"Science and technology are the engines of our economy. If we indoctrinate our children with pseudo-science like creationism or intelligent design, or dumb down the curriculum to avoid "offending religious sensibilities," we are robbing them of exciting careers and harming Canada's future scientific and economic power.

The science curriculum need to be strengthened, not gutted. It needs to inspire young children with the wonders of distant galaxies and nebulas, with the vastness of geological time, and with the incredible diversity of life on Earth and how evolution shaped it."

Thanks to Greg Laden for making me aware of this one.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

McGill Lecture

For you readers in the greater Montreal area, it might interest you to know that I'll be giving a public lecture entitled "New Insights on the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition in Italy" in the Department of Anthropology at McGill University this coming Monday (Oct. 22). I'll be presenting a summary of my latest research on the archaeology of the last Neanderthals and the first modern humans in Italy, as well as outline some new research projects I've undertaken of late. The event will take place in the Stephen Leacock Building, Room 738, from 12:30-2:00PM. It's open to everyone, so come one, come all!

Newsflash: Neanderthals had modern FOXP2

So, as revealed in a study by Krause et al. (2007) currently in press in Current Biology, it turns out that:

"...Neandertals carried a FOXP2 protein that was identical to that
of present-day humans in the only two positions that differ
between human and chimpanzee. Leaving out the
unlikely scenario of gene flow, this establishes that
these changes were present in the common ancestor
of modern humans and Neandertals." (Krause et al. 2007: 4).

You can also read a press release here. In other words, despite some recent claims that 'modern' FOXP2 proteins would be shown to distinguish modern humans from Neanderthals (e.g., Klein 2003, Mellars 2006), it turns out that this is not the case after all. Since FOXP2 has been considered by those and other researchers as the basis for the capacity for modern language, should we now stop arguing about whether Neanderthals had the capacity (and therefore likely used) fully modern speech? Not to toot my own horn or anything, but this is exactly the issue that had been discussed in my post on Neanderthal tooth-picking and its implications for their linguistic abilities (check out the comments, especially). Obviously, FOXP2 is not the only gene involved in language, so the question isn't truly resolved, but it's the one that's most often and most vociferously brought up in debates about Neanderthal linguistic ability, so this is pretty big news indeed for paleoanthropologists.

In any case, here's the abstract of the Krause et al. piece:

"Although many animals communicate vocally, no extant
creature rivals modern humans in language ability.
Therefore, knowing when and under what evolutionary
pressures our capacity for language evolved is of great
interest. Here, we find that our closest extinct relatives,
the Neandertals, share with modern humans two
evolutionary changes in FOXP2, a gene that has been
implicated in the development of speech and language.
We furthermore find that in Neandertals, these changes
lie on the common modern human haplotype, which
previously was shown to have been subject to a selective
sweep. These results suggest that these genetic
changes and the selective sweep predate the common
ancestor (which existed about 300,000–400,000 years
ago) of modern human and Neandertal populations.
This is in contrast to more recent age estimates of the
selective sweep based on extant human diversity data.
Thus, these results illustrate the usefulness of retrieving
direct genetic information from ancient remains for
understanding recent human evolution."

And note that last bit about the age estimates - in the long run, I think this may turn out to be one of the more important implications of this study, as it emphasizes the need to look at what the paleoanthropological record itself tells us about these issues, as opposed to genetic studies on modern populations alone.


Klein, R. 2003. Whither the Neanderthals? Science 299:1525-1527.

Krause, J., C. Lalueza-Fox, L. Orlando, W. Enard, R. E. Green, . H. A. Burbano, J.-J. Hublin, C. Hänni, J. Fortea, M. de la Rasilla, J. Bertranpetit, A. Rosas, and S. Pääbo. 2007. The Derived FOXP2 Variant of Modern Humans Was Shared with Neandertals. Current Biology: DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.10.008.

Mellars, P. 2006. Why did modern human populations disperse from Africa ca. 60,000 years ago? A new model. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:9381-9386.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Pirate Arrrrrr...chaeology Update

It appears they want to bring up one of the canons from the ship that might be Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge. I had talked about this project a bit earlier this year. Keep posted for more on this.

Newsflash: Neanderthals could build stuff

The Mousterian site of La Folie, which is located just north of Poitiers (France), is the subject of an extremely well-done website (in French, unfortunately with no English translation). The site is dated by TL to about 57.7 +/- 2.4 kya and had thus far been the subject of a few preliminary reports that emphasized its contextual integrity and the identification of activity areas within it (Bourguignon et al. 2002, 2006). One of the key aspects of the site is that a number of approaches were combined to confidently establish the existence of regularly spaced postholes around its periphery (indicating the existence of a relatively large man-made structure) and discrete activity areas within the area circumscribed by this structure (slightly under 250 squared meters, over a thickness of about 10 cm). The absence of evidence for a central or transversal posts that would have been needed to support a roof suggests that the structure was a large (i.e., ca. 10m in diameter) windbreak rather than a tent or hut. The postholes were surrounded by limestone blocks used to anchor the wooden posts used in the structure, traces of which have clearly been identified through micromorphological analysis in at least one of the holes. Likewise, micromorphology identified a large area along one side of the structure that was devoid of archaeological remains, save for decomposed plant materials, which suggest that it represents a bedding area.

Use-wear and technological analyses show that the lithic industry used at the site is characteristic of the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition, and that it included a Levallois production strategy aimed at producing sharp flakes used to work a variety of materials (e.g., wood, skin, soft plant material). A few of these blanks were retouched to produce, among other things, retouched backed knives, but most of the lithics appear to have been produced and used relatively expediently. The investigators argue that the site served as a task site likely used in food procurement, although there are only scant details about this interpretation provided on the website.

All in all, this is a very eloquent presentation of the results of this excavation and it demonstrates how relatively dry archaeological data can be presented in an engaging way to the public at large. On a more technical level, as had already been documented at the Middle Paleolithic site of Tor Faraj in Jordan (Henry et al. 2004), this confirms that Neanderthals were able to partition and clearly organize their living space, in contrast to claims that "well organized sites" only appear in the Upper Paleolithic.


Bourguignon, L., Sellami, F., Deloze, V., Sellier-Segard, N., Beyries, S., Emery-Barbier, E. 2002. L’habitat moustérien de « La Folie » (Poitiers, Vienne) : synthèse des premiers résultats. Paléo 14:29-48.

Bourguignon, L., Vieillevigne, E., Guibert, P., Bechtel, F., Beyries, S., Émery-Bariber, A., Deloze, V., Delahaye, C., Sellami, F., Sellier-Segard, N. 2006. Compléments d’informations chronologiques sur le campement moustérien de tradition acheuléenne du gisement de la Folie (Poitiers, Vienne). Paléo 18:37-44.

Henry, D. O., H. J. Hietala, A. M. Rosen, Y. E. Demidenko, V. I. Usik and T. L. Armagan. 2004. Human Behavioral Organization in the Middle Paleolithic: Were Neanderthals Different? American Anthropologist 106:17-31.


My friend and former ASU postdoc Chris Fisher - a geoarchaeologist at Colorado State University who works mainly in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin (Michoacán, Mexico) - was recently awarded the 2007 Gordon R. Willey Prize by the Archaeology Division of the AAA. This was for a paper based on his doctoral research research published in American Anthropologist in 2005 in which he looked at human-environment interactions in his study area. Fisher argues that contact led to a precipitous decline in indigenous population meaning that the land management system they had developed could not be maintained, thus leading to widespread landscape degradation. It's a very good paper, and you can read it as a pdf here. Congrats Chris!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New insights on raw material use

At the moment, I'm wrapping my head around two papers about patterns of raw material procurement and use in archaeological assemblages.

In the first, Jelmer Eerkens et al. (2007 - available as a pdf on Eerkens' web page) use obsidian characterization to demonstrate how different components of a lithic assemblage (i.e., small flakes vs. large flakes vs. formal tools) can yield different and complementary patterns of raw material use and how focusing on small flakes can inform us of broader behavioral patterns of the people responsible for depositing the assemblage, even if larger pieces are missing, either through curation or looting. I'll have a bit more to post on this paper soon, but it's a very demonstration of why archaeologists need to pay attention to all the pieces in their assemblage if they wish to accurately depict prehistoric life.

The second paper, by Lucy Wilson, I've just started reading, so I'll have to post more about it later, but its starting point is quite thought-provoking and, in spite of its conceptual simplicity, has not previously been used before in lithic analysis, to the best of my knowledge. Wilson uses 'gravity modeling' (similar to that used in economics and other social sciences) to predict how attractive given sources of raw material would have been to foragers in their vicinity and to extrapolate from this a baseline of how prevalent they should theoretically be in lithic assemblages found at a given point on the landscape. This, in turn, allows us to tease apart the influence of the natural abundance and flaking properties of given materials from that of 'other' factors leading to raw material source selection, thus potentially paving the way for a discussion of 'social' factors linked to the use of various lithotypes. This one sounds quite good, so check again soon for a more detailed post on this one.


Eerkens, Jelmer W., J.R. Ferguson, M.D. Glascock, C.E. Skinner, and S.A. Waechter. 2007. Reduction strategies and geochemical characterization of lithic assemblages: a comparison of three case studies from western North America. American Antiquity 72:585-597.

Wilson, L. 2007 (in press). Understanding Prehistoric Lithic Raw Material Selection: Application of a Gravity Model. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 14. DOI: 10.1007/s10816-007-9042-4.

Fuel and mining magnate backed UK challenge to An Inconvenient Truth

Wish I could say I was surprised, but by now I've grown too cynical or jaded (or both) by the frequency at which such revelations percolate in the media following the release of allegedly "neutral" challenges to scientific consensus.

Check out the full story here.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Not much time to post this week since my "free time" has been coopted by the family unit to help in crushing crates and crates of grapes in preparation of this year's supply of Castello Salvatore... I just got home now, and I'm exhausted; we crushed about 40 cases of grapes tonight: Cabernet Sauvignon (yeah!), Pinot Noir (hm), Zinfandel (not my call). Should make for a good range this year, though.

Now, to make this relevant to archaeology, I should mention that the fantastic (and very well-written) book Ancient Wine by Patrick McGovern was brought up in conversation a number of times this evening. The first instance, between me and my father, concluded thusly:

Me: "... as McGovern claims in that book Ancient Wine that I gave you a copy of last Christmas."

Him: "Oh yeah, yeah..."

Me: "So you'll remember winemaking is first documented in the Neolithic, at the site of Hajji Furz Tepe, in Iran..."

Him: "..."

Me: "You never read the book, did you?"

Him: "Well... no... but it was a very thoughtful gift!"

Anyway, all of that to say that, here at A Very Remote Period Indeed, we're all about actualistic studies, be they in flintknapping or winemaking. I like to think of it as a form of ethnoarchaeology (yeah, that's the ticket!). The really fun part of all this, of course, is when we finally taste the end product to test the rather lengthy list of hypotheses I have about just how people might have used this stuff in the past... salute!

Friday, September 21, 2007

How modern are the hobbits' tools?

There is one passage in the Tocheri et al. (2007) paper that hasn't gotten all that much attention in the media frenzy about the fact that this study 'proves' the hobbits were a different species:

"Our analyses support hypotheses that LB1
is descended from a hominin ancestor that
migrated out of Africa before the evolution of
the shared, derived wrist morphology that is
characteristic of modern humans, Neandertals,
and their last common ancestor. The association
of LB1 with direct evidence of stone
flaking technology comparable to that found at
Oldowan or other Lower Paleolithic sites
throughout the Old World provides
additional support for the hypothesis that the
earliest hominins to use and make stone tools
retained primitive hominin wrist morphology.
The structurally modified
wrist of modern humans and Neandertals
probably evolved sometime between 1.8 and
0.8 Ma. These structural modifications
form a morphological complex that may
represent an adaptation for better distribution
of forces radio-ulnarly across the wrist to
facilitate the full commitment to tool-related
manipulative behaviors that arose in the
hominin lineage leading to modern humans
and Neandertals." (Tocheri et al. 2007: 1745; references excised).

In my view, this passage is of capital importance because it narrows the range of interpretation of the stone tool assemblage associated with the H. floresiensis remains. Here's what they look like in the original Morwood et al. (2004) pub:

(From Pharyngula)

To recap, there are those who think that these tools are basically "Upper Paleolithic", which has been taken to mean either that 1) small-brained hominids can manufacture such things (Morwood et al. 2004) or 2) that such tools can only be manufactured by modern humans, which means that LB1 is most likely a microcephalic H. sapiens that lived about 18 kya (Martin et al. 2006). Some scholars (e.g., Brumm et al. 2006) have argued that there are strong continuities between Lower Paleolithic industries found elsewhere on Flores, and recently the 'modern' features of the lithic assemblage associated with LB1 have been downplayed significantly, suggesting it is relatively simple and part of a technological sequence that involved the production of both 'core tools' and flakes (Moore and Brumm 2007).

Personally, I have never been especially convinced by the claims for systematic blade technology associated with LB1. The two 'macroblades' (a, b) and two 'microblades' (e, f) illustrated by Morwood et al. (2004: Fig. 5) aren't very regular (the central dorsal ridges are not straight in any of them) and none of their platforms (from what can be seen) are truly 'lipped', unlike the platforms usually generated by soft-hammer production (which is largely employed in true blade production). Furthermore, the illustrated "burin core" really looks to me like a flake core from which a series of small flakes with subparallel edges were knocked off, not a bladelet core. None of this really conforms to the "narrow blades removed sequentially from blade cores" alluded to by some detractors (in Culotta 2007:741) who considers they can only be produced by H. sapiens (a misleading assertion anyway [Bar-Yosef and Kuhn 1999]). Rather, M. Moore and T. Sutkina , who have studied the tools, argue that they represent fairly "simple stone artifacts" (in Culotta 2007:741), which happen to include a few flakes that are twice as long as they are wide - the traditional, if slightly outdated, definition of a blade.

Also keep in mind this "trade secret" of archaeologists: the pieces selected for illustration in published papers are usually the "best looking" ones. In other words, if people want to show they have blades in their assemblage, they tend to illustrate the best examples, even if they don't necessarily accurately reflect the range of products they're actually dealing with. If they had regular, textbook blades in their assemblage, I'd be very surprised that Morwood et al. (2004) had chosen not to illustrate them instead of the ones presented in Fig. 5.

In any case, this is where the Tocheri et al. (2007) paper comes in: Blade technology and prepared core technology, which Neanderthals and modern humans are known to have been able to produce, requires a substantial degree of skill and manual dexterity. The tools at Liang Bua do not reflect this kind of manual dexterity and indeed appear to be very close to Lower Paleolithic freehand flake production strategies. This is the kind of technology which could be expected to be associated with pre-modern wrist morphology, which Tocheri et al. (2007) make a strong case for. For me, this is an instance of two sets of paleoanthropological evidence potentially coming together rather nicely and coherently to support one another, and it would lend credence to the hypothesis that the wrist morphology of LB1 was typical of the hominins who produced the stone tools found at the site. While this study obviously doesn't resolve the issue of whether LB1 represents a distinct species and while it is possible for modern humans to produce more rudimentary lithics, the various evidential threads do seem to be starting to come together as an integrated whole.

This discussion and the new paper nonetheless raise a few more issues for me: looking at the scans of various kinds of wrist bones presented in the paper, it looks like the LB1 bones are most similar to those of chimps, not those of early Homo or Australopithecus. What gives? Granted, there aren't very many bones of fossil hominins that we can compare the LB1 wrist to, but what might be the implications of this for the taxonomic designation of LB1 and, especially, for the necessary morphological and neurological preconditions for systematic, purposeful tool production?


Bar-Yosef, O., and S. L. Kuhn. 1999. The big deal about blades: laminar technologies and human evolution. American Anthropologist 101:322-338

Brumm, A., F. Aziz, G. D. van den Bergh, M. J. Morwood, M. W. Moore,I. Kurniawan, D. R. Hobbs, and R. Fullagar. 2006. Early stone technology on Flores and its implications for Homo floresiensis. Nature 441:624-628.

Culotta, E. 2007. The Fellowship of the Hobbit. Science 317:740-742.

Martin, R. D., A. M. MacLarnon, J. L. Philips, and W. B. Dobyn. 2006. Flores Hominid: New Species or Microcephalic Dwarf? The Anatomical Record A 288A:1123-1145.

Moore, M., and A. Brumm. 2007. Stone artifacts and hominins in island Southeast Asia: New insights from Flores, eastern Indonesia. Journal of Human Evolution 52:85-102

Morwood, M. J., et al. 2004. Archaeology and age of a new hominin from Flores in eastern Indonesia. Nature 431:1087-1091.

Tocheri, M. W., C. M. Orr, S. G. Larson, T. Sutikna, Jatmiko, E. W. Saptomo, R. Awe Due, T.Djubiantono, M. J. Morwood, W. L. Jungers. 2007. The Primitive Wrist of Homo floresiensis and Its Implications for Hominin Evolution. Science 317:1743-1745.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Of wrists and hobbits

There's a short feature in Nature News that reports the publication of a paper by Matt Tocheri (Smithsonian) and colleagues in tomorrow's issue Science. This is the published version of the paper Tocheri presented at the Paleo meetings this year, in which they presented an analysis of the wrist morphology of LB1 (H. floresiensis), which they show is very different from that of modern humans. If LB1 was microcephalic, this would be somewhat unexpected, so this paper overall lends support to the "hobbit as separate species" camp.

The Nature News feature also includes some comments by Dan Lieberman and Robert Martin about the discovery. Check out also this interview with Tocheri about the paper.

Shell working and behavioral modernity

The most recent Current Anthropology contains a paper by K. Szabó and colleagues (2007) about the behavioral implications of shell working dating back to 28-32 ky bp at Golo Cave, on Gebe Island (E. Indonesia). Here's the abstract:

"The evolution of anatomical and behavioural modernity in Homo sapiens has been one of the key focus areas in both archaeology and palaeoanthropology since their inception. Traditionally, interpretations have drawn mainly on evidence from the many large and well-known sites in Europe, but archaeological research in Africa and the Levant is increasingly altering and elaborating upon our understanding of later human evolution. Despite the presence of a number of important early modern human and other hominin sites in Southeast Asia, evidence from this region has not contributed to the global picture in any significant way. Indeed, the acknowledged simplicity of lithic assemblages has led generations of scholars to assume that Southeast Asia was far from the cutting edge of behavioural evolution. Comparison of sophisticated shell tools fromlevels dated to 32,000–28,000 b.p. in eastern Indonesia with lithic artefacts recovered from the same levels and an assessment of raw material procurement suggest that using lithic technologies as markers of behavioural complexity may be misleading in a Southeast Asian context and, indeed, may be hampering our efforts to assess behavioural complexity in global and comparative frameworks."

The paper contains a very good description of the distinct technological pathways followed by the Golo Cave hominins to fashion implements out of shell and stone. While their discussion is somewhat limited by the small sample sizes with which they had to deal (51 lithic artifacts, 14 shell artifacts), they do make a strong case that the two kinds of materials were worked in different manners. Further, they adequately emphasize that the worked shell material (i.e., the opercula of Turbo marmoratus, a marine snail) was collected through targeted procurement in subtidal or lagoonal waters - not opportunistically as an expedient alternative to stone. And this, they argue, represents evidence of "behavioral modernity" because materials that were not immediately available were not worked in the same way as stone, which was worked at Golo Cave in an essentially expedient manner. That is, material that was more difficult to obtain was worked more carefully than that which was easier to procure.

They present, in my view, a solid discussion about how different this kind of shell working is from that documented in the Mousterian of Grotta dei Moscerini (Italy), where shells appear to have been collected opportunistically and worked in much the same way as stone flakes. That said, I disagree with their implication that the shell working documented at Golo Cave really is evidence of "modern behavior", at least as they seem to be conceiving it. This is a point made well in I. Davidson's comment on the paper: Szabó et al. don't clearly define what they mean by "modern behavior" which makes it difficult to situate their argument in the broader debate about this issue. From the paper, I gather that they see modern human behavior as being qualitatively different from that of non-modern hominins such as, for instance, Neanderthals. This is why they discuss the differences between their case study and the Moscerini shell artifacts. Now, as I've said, there's no question that shell working at Golo and Moscerini are very different in nature. However, the subsequent implication is that this is proof-positive that Neanderthals were not behaviorally modern, at least not in the same way as the Golo Cave foragers.

This is where I disagree with them: their argument basically boils down to claiming the fact that the Golo Cave toolmakers treated hard-to-procure material in a different, more elaborate way than more easily accessible stone is evidence of modernity (and perhaps even of symbolic behavior, though this is simply stated and not discussed in any depth in this paper). In light of this, I just want to point out that there is plenty of evidence that Neanderthals managed (i.e., knapped) different kinds of raw materials in very different manners, even within single assemblages. Talking about what I know best, in the Mousterian (and Uluzzian) of the Salento peninsula, "formal tools" were much more often made on flint, chert and quartzite, which are not available locally (i.e., were most likely procured 100+ km away). Likewise, the whole operational sequence of production is usually not documented in those sites, implying careful management and transport of these prized mineral resources. Locally available limestones, in contrast, were frequently worked, by and large in very expedient manners. A similar, though not identical, situation is documented at other Mousterian sites where long-distance raw material procurement is documented, for instance at Champ Grand, in France (which I discussed previously here), where exotic materials are found mainly as heavily retouched tools that likely doubled as portable cores (Slimak and Giraud 2007).

All in all, Szabó et al.'s study is an interesting presentation of the different technological responses of Pleistocene foragers to different kinds of raw materials. As well, their desire to transcend the essentialism of the usual 'trait list approach' to the definition and archaeological recognition of "behavioral modernity" is laudable and one with which I am in fundamental agreement. However, if their argument for behavioral modernity at Golo Cave is accepted at face value, the implication is that Neanderthals were also behaviorally modern, in at least some (important) respects...


Slimak L., and Y. Giraud. 2007. Circulations sur plusieurs centaines de kilomètres durant le Paléolithique moyen. Contribution à la connaissance des sociétés néandertaliennes. Comptes Rendus Palevol 6:359-368.

Szabó, K. , A. Brumm, and P. Bellwood. 2007. Shell Artefact Production at 32,000–28,000 BP in Island Southeast Asia. Thinking across Media? Current Anthropology 48:701-723.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Pasta Strike!

Italy Urged to go on Pasta Strike!

Hmmm... doubt that'll work, though it is for a good cause. I, for one, abstained from consuming my almost-daily dose of semolina-based ambrosia, if only to show support for The Cause. Frankly, though, I only heard about this today - you'd think they'd have publicized it a bit better.

Latest Four Stone Hearth is up and running

Run, do not walk, over to John Hawks' blog to check out the latest installment of Four Stone Hearth! Once again, there's lots of goodies gathered in there!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Clean-toothed Neanderthals

In case you haven't heard, two Neanderthal molars were recovered at the ca. 68.4 kya Spanish site of Pinilla del Valle, near Madrid. While finding any Neanderthal remains is always good news to me, the spin taken on those two (and, presumably, the reason which such a comparatively small find wound up being news on Reuters and El País) is that they display grooves that have interpreted as evidence for habitual toopicking. Martín Cagliani and John Hawks have already mentioned a 2003 paper by L. Hlusko to make the point that this discovery should come as no surprise since there is suggestive evidence of toothpicking going back to about 1.8 mya (on the Omo L 894-1 RP3 specimen).

I agree with them that the discovery as such should come as no surprise. However, I'd alo like to point out another CA paper on the topic of toothpicking,- this one by Agger et al. (2004), which has a set of altogether different implications. Agger et al. (2004:403)) argue "that toothpicking behavior may represent indirect evidence for the evolution of the biological capacity for language." Briefly, this is due to the presence of cranial nerve V, the largest branch of which controls (among other things) lingual movement and makes the teeth and gums extremely sensitive to various irritants. And toothpicking is one way to remove small irritants lodged between the teeth and/or in the gum. They conclude that:

"As anyone who has had small pieces of food caught between his or her teeth or has developed a tooth chip is aware, such occurrences cause a sensation out of proportion to the size of the food matter or tooth defect. This exquisitely sensitive neural pathway for conveying proprioceptive information to higher brain centers can only be routed via a developed and functioning cranial nerve V. As a result, oral dental sensations promote the obligatory postprandial toothpick, at least in modern times and plausibly in early hominids. The proprioceptive information is not only protective but critical feedback for the tongue posturing necessary for speech.

Thus it appears that both a highly developed afferent cranial nerve V (trigeminal nerve) and VIII (auditory nerve) are needed for input to the Broadman's area along the perisylvian fissure of the human brain, the region of the brain that is critical for the formulation of speech. We hypothesize that the ability to sense and remove food particles between teeth occurred approximately 2 million years ago as a result of selective pressures driving the evolution of complex vocalization of the hominid frontal-parietal lobe." (Agger et al. 2004: 403).

So, if Agger et al. are correct, the Pinilla del Valle discovery might imply not only that Neanderthals could and did practice some form of dental hygiene, but also - and perhaps mostly importantly - that they had the capacity for speech, as is also suggested by the presence of an essentially modern hyoid bone in the Neanderthal larynx (Arensburg et al. 1989).


Agger, W. A., T. L. McAndrews, and J. A. Hlaudy. 2004. On Toothpicking in Early Hominids. Current Anthropology 45:403-404.

Arensburg, B., A. M. Tillier, B. Vandermeersch, H. Duday, L. A. Schepartz, and Y. Rak. 1989. A Middle Palaeolithic Human Hyoid Bone". Nature (338): 758-760.

Hlusko, L. J. 2003. The Oldest Hominid Habit? Experimental Evidence for Toothpicking with Grass Stalks. Current Anthropology 44: 738-741.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Yeahs and grumbles...

Not much time to post today, having spent most of it trying to figure out the SAA's "new and improved" all-electronic submission system for the 2008 meetings in Vancouver. Not too happy right now... spent most of the afternoon trying to figure this out, what a huge pain.

On the plus side, the contents of Ofer Bar-Yosef and João Zilhão's Towards a Definition of the Aurignacian are available as pdfs free of charge on the Trabalhos de Arqueologia web page or by clicking here. Some good papers in there... read 'em if you're serious about your transition studies and epistemological issues in archaeology/paleoanthropology.

Also of important note: check out the semi-final program (also available as a pdf) of the "Integrated Methodological Approaches to the Study of Lithic Technology" conference to be held in Florence, Dec. 13-15, 2007 are available on this section of the IIPP website. Looks like one that shouldn't be missed by people with rocks on the brain...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"Some sort of protohuman"

Here's a link to a report on the Discovery Channel's web page about a paper in press in the Journal of Human Evolution by R. Yeshurun and colleagues (Yeshurun et al. 2007). The paper reports on the 200 ky-old Middle Paleolithic assemblage from Misliya Cave, in Israel, and the authors principal conclusion is that, whoever deposited the assemblage, displays 'fully modern' hunting patterns (i.e., the targeting of prime-aged animals, the extraction of a maximum amount of nutrients through marrow extraction, etc.).

View of Misliya Cave (from The Zinman Institute of Archaeology's web site).

Here's my favorite quote of the report: "Because no human bones have yet been found in the cave, Yeshurun and his colleagues cannot identify which human species was responsible for the hunting. Given the early date, however, they suggest it was some sort of protohuman."

Now, I'm almost certain the authors themselves didn't use the term protohuman, which is weirdly anachronistic, though I confess to finding that it's got a nice ring to it... no? Basically, however, it implies that the assemblage could have been by Neanderthals, since there are no known modern human remains dating to this period in the Levant. If this was indeed the case, it would seem - once more - than Neanderthals were, among other things, fully capable hunters.

All kidding aside, though, this study - by avoiding discussing the taxonomic affiliation of who accumulated the Misliya Cave assemblage - further demonstrates the need to carefully decouple behavior from biology. This is a point that has been abundantly demonstrated for the past decade and a half (at least), but apparently remains a point to be established for some.

Also, there's some interesting discussing about population densities at that time, but having not yet fully read the paper, I'll reserve my thoughts on that for a bit later.


Yeshurun, R., G. Bar-Oz,and M. Weinstein-Evron. 2007 (in press). Modern hunting behavior in the early Middle Paleolithic: Faunal remains from Misliya Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel. Journal of Human Evolution: doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.05.008