Defending One’s Honour in Cyberspace: My Beef with Michael Balter’s Science Article on Neanderthal Burial

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.

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3 thoughts on “Defending One’s Honour in Cyberspace: My Beef with Michael Balter’s Science Article on Neanderthal Burial

  1. If neanderthal man did not bury their dead, then who invented burials and cemetery monuments then? Were the early men died and left to rot in the open field? No one can really say unless they are “neanderthal” themselves or they have the right reasons to believe.

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  2. Your questions go to the nub of the issue of when hominids became human. Your final statement, too, is [pardon the expression] dead on.
    We aren't Neanderthals, and so we are left with their archaeological and palaeontological record with which to make inferences of how they behaved and, if in fact they did, how they might have thought about their behaviour. Those who claim to have evidence of purposeful burial are on no firmer footing than I when it comes to saying exactly what our archaeological discoveries meant to a Neanderthal.
    Once we agree that all of the 'evidence' for burial among Middle Palaeolithic hominids is equivocal, we have nothing left but to imagine that their dead were treated no differently than those of the cave bear, or the cave hyaena, or similar animals.
    And, until such time as we have unequivocal evidence of purposeful burial of the dead in the Middle Palaeolithic, we are left with only one answer to your first question: people like us performed the first burials and created the first material culture of the mortuary kind.
    Thanks for dropping by. I hope you'll read other of my blurts. Regards,
    Rob

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  3. It's proven that hominids have started the burial practice but what's more remarkable is the earliest true burial is found near the gates of Europe as well as Israel and in Nile river. This was made by modern man, maybe because their brains are more developed and the emotions have more depth. I wonder how and who first used epitaphs?

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