|The Roc de Marsal child skull and facial reconstruction
CREDIT: © PLAILLY/ATELIER DAYNES/EURELIOS
After again reading Michael Balter’s September 21, 2012 article in Science I was a bit taken aback by the part where he talks about my work. A friend suggested that I try sending a letter to the editor. It was knocked back. So, aware as I was that Science allowed e-comments on its web journal, I asked the editor to up it there for me. Et voilá, here it is.
However, assuming it’s behind the Science pay wall, I’ll save you the trouble. Here’s what I wrote.
I fear you may have promulgated a misconception in Michael Balter’s September 21, 2012 article “Did Neandertals Truly Bury Their Dead?” It mentions my 1989 and 1999 contributions, then states that “at the time [of their publication], most archaeologists rejected Gargett’s arguments.” To the great detriment of my work, the article juxtaposes that statement with a quote from one of my detractors, Maureille, who avers that “[Gargett’s arguments] were based on nothing, no data.” Your readers are forgiven if they accept this pronouncement as fact. With your assistance I wish to set the record straight.
My publications were the first, and remain the only, explicit examinations of the ‘evidence’ of Neanderthal burial. For me, this issue hinges on an archaeological dictum, that one must first rule out natural processes before imputing one’s findings to purposeful (or cutural) behavior. Indeed, no amount of wishful thinking or ‘nothing buttery’ can erase the ambiguity inherent in archaeological traces that could have been the result either of natural or cultural processes.
Contra Maureille, rather than basing my work on “nothing, no data,” I examined the literature, the only public account of the empirical findings that others have claimed as evidence of purposeful burial. Furthermore, my work is grounded on a far broader spectrum of expectable, natural processes than the burial claimants ever considered. In the end I argued that natural processes could not be ruled out as the cause of archaeological traces claimed as evidence of purposeful Neanderthal burial. Thus, my work was based on ‘something,’ and the data I employed are identical with those to which Maureille cleaves.
Ironically, it may be the inferences of purposeful burial that turn out to have been based on “nothing, no data” whatsoever. I live in hope!
That was fun. Next.