Touchstone Thursday: Brian Hayden’s The cultural capacities of Neanderthals: a review and re-evaluation*



This Thursday’s touchstone is a booby-trap, of sorts. Brian Hayden was a mentor during my undergraduate studies at Simon Fraser University. He employed me as a researcher, as a field assistant, and teaching assistant. He was gracious enough to have included me as co-author on publications dealing with a wide range of theoretical issues: Middle-Palaeolithic tool specialization, Australian Aboriginal site structure, Maya ethnoarchaeology and the development of socio-economic inequality, site-formation processes and lithic raw material variability on the inter-montane plateau of southern central British Columbia
     I’m certain that his recommendation was influential in getting me into the Ph.D. program at Berkeley, and his example as a field archaeologist was crucially important to my maturation with respect to interpreting the archaeological record. 
     But in one area he was always denigrating: he thought I was mad for suggesting that the evidence for Neanderthal burial was reproachable.
     I’m probably flattering myself to think so, but I’ve long believed that it was the May 1989 publication of my article, ‘Grave Shortcomings: The Evidence for Neandertal Burial,’ that spurred him to write his paper, ‘The cultural capacities of Neanderthals: a review and re-evaluation,’ which he submitted for publication in May 1990, which was accepted with revisions in July 1992 and was published in 1993 (Journal of Human Evolution 24:113-146). 

I referred above to this touchstone as being a booby trap. Here’s why. Rather than holding the work up as a source of illumination, as I’ve done in the past, I’m using it as a foyle and a means to bring in a very recent piece of work by the same author. Just today I noted a USAToday report on the news ticker saying that he’d published another apology for the Neanderthals–this time having to do with evidence for their social structure. 

     What’s evident to me, and which will become clear to you when you’ve looked at both, is that the author seems to have an almost praeternatural inclination to defend the Neanderthals’ reputation as the equal of modern humans. His tactics, to my eye, are almost quaint, given a good deal of research that he hasn’t cited, much less, evidently, encountered (including mine on Middle Palaeolithic burial and cave bear spatial patterning). Odder still is Hayden’s long-lived antipathy for detractors of the Neanderthals. In his 1993 article he characterizes them in this way

And in an article just published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, he has something eerily similar to say about this, his least favorite group of scholars

‘In sum, various of these authors suggest that for Neandertals there were minimal cognitive abilities; no conception of time; no equivalent of modern speech; no symbolic abilities or even words for tools (therefore no tool typologies and no resulting techno-complexes); minimal or no innovation capacity; an inability to work ‘natural’ materials such as bone or antler; an inability to establish long-distance social relations; minimal social organization; no complex site structure; no ritual frameworks; and a lack of sexually integrated communities (males and females were supposed to have lived in separate groups). These are damning claims with shades of Marcelin Boule’s concepts of Neandertals from a century ago (Fig. 1).’ [italics mine]

For emphasis, Hayden includes this illustration as his Figure 1. 

1909 illustration drawing on Marcellin Boule’s reconstruction from the skeletal remains of the ‘Old Man’ of La Chapelle-aux-Saints.
And I’m guessing that by putting up this image we’re supposed to be appalled at this representation of his revered Neanderthals, almost, one would think, in the same manner that enlightened anthropologists of the early and mid-twentieth century looked at earlier representations of the putative human races, wherein artists portrayed the darker skinned inhabitants of this world with depraved, simian features, with disgust and contempt.

     I’m, for one, not cowed by Hayden’s chivalrous attempt to shame his readers into treating his Neanderthals with the same dignity we would afford to contemporary humans. And his articles have done little [go figure] to disabuse me of my own interpretation of the Middle Palaeolithic archaeological record. The reason is not what you might think.

     Sure, I can fault him because he reasons from his understanding of modern people and interprets the archaeological record of the Neanderthals as if the formal similarity between the patterns he sees in the ethnographic present and those reported from Neanderthal sites must therefore result from the same mental equipment. That’s what undermines his entire argument. But my big beef with these two Hayden articles is that he is utterly uncritical of the claims he uses to support those arguments. His evidentiary foundation is entirely of the kind philosophers call ‘appeal to authority.’ In other words, if it gets into print, he’ll use it as evidence. You can probably guess that 

I’m unlikely to treat any such arguments with much respect.

     I’ll give you just one example of what I’m talking about. I’ve chosen this one, out of a legion of possibilities in the two papers, because I’ve recently posted on this example of Hayden’s ‘evidence’ to support his inference of Neanderthal group size at Moldova I 

 in the Ukraine. In the just-published paper on social structure, Hayden recalls the claims of mammoth-bone structures that caused me to LMAO a few weeks ago. 

From Hayden 2012. The lozenge-shaped outlines are Hayden’s addition, representing ‘sleeping areas.’

Drawing on the ethnographic record, he pencils in some sleeping positions and decides that the ‘social group’ size would have been between 16 and 20. This he contrasts with claims that Neanderthals rarely, if ever, lived in groups. This and several similar extrapolations are all Hayden thinks he needs to silence the Neanderthal critics.
     You’ll remember Hayden’s example from my recent post, One Mammoth Steppe Too Far, and the image below, from The Subversive Archaeologist’s Dictum.

Moldova I (Ukraine). The site plan illustrates mammoth remains that in all likelihood accumulated when the animals became mired in the predominantly clay site sediments, and were then butchered by the Middle Palaeolithic inhabitants of the region. From Demay, Péan and Patou-Mathis (2011). 

 Hayden’s rendering is based on the area labelled ‘Circular accumulation of mammoth bones,’ and demonstrates his slavish reliance on others’ findings, no matter how improbable, as long as it shows the Neanderthals in a good light. Indeed, it’s clear to me that Hayden would rather trot out the slightly smelly old chestnuts than confront, head-on, the evidence and the arguments of those he characterizes as the heirs of Marcellin Boule.  
     That’s about all I have for the moment, except to say, as would the French in such circumstances: touché, Brian.

[Once again I find myself feeling a bit exclusionary by zeroing in on matters having to do with the Middle Palaeolithic of Europe. It’s partly my experience, and, as I’ve said before, partly because the MP is such a fecund field in which to erect fanciful interpretations and (apparently) never be called on them! I’d be glad for some suggestions for cannon fodder from other times and places. Hint. Hint.]


2 thoughts on “Touchstone Thursday: Brian Hayden’s The cultural capacities of Neanderthals: a review and re-evaluation*

  1. I have met Brian twice. I am sure he does not remember the firs time, because we were sharing a taxi with Francois Bordes and given the choice who would have wanted to talk to me!
    The second time I was “introduced” by you, Rob, at the SAA in St Louis just after today's touchstone had been published. I told him that he did not do himself a service by repeating the old chestnut about handaxes being made deliberatedly to preserve the fossil in the middle of one of the flat surfaces. He even went so far as to send me a reprint with a kind note which said “I am sure that Neandertals could have removed the fossil if they had wanted to.”
    Now my point about the couple of examples where fossils are preserved is that it is a quite extraordinary thing that they are so scarce. The flint in these parts of southern Britain occurs in chalk and fossils are not scarce. f there had been a desire to preserve the fossil in the flint's cortex, there would have been many. I then go on to say that these examples were preserved because they were in the middle of the flat surface and normal flaking of the margins of these objects would not have removed flakes which included the fossils.
    You are right, Rob, to have a go at Hayden. He has made many important observations and written many justly cited papers, but he does have this blind spot which prevents him from using his normal critical abilities on the evidence before him. He knows these things about British flint, and about knapping, but he is unwilling to put the logical argument. Why? Well, because he thinks they could have removed the fossil if they had wanted to. They did not, so they did not want to, so they wanted to preserve it. I say, well, perhaps they did not want to either because they did not want to because they did not care less about the fossil one way or the other, or because their objective was to make flakes, not to remove the fossil.

    Like

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