[Updated] The Subversive Archaeologist’s Plaint: ‘Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me’


Some of you may have seen a comment from Maju informing me that I’m a bigot because I happen to think that the Neanderthals aren’t our cognitive equals. Maju unsubscribed from this blog because he believes I’m biased against Neanderthals, whom he considers to be among his forbears. What Maju has failed to realize is that I’ve got lots of reasons to think the way I do about the Neanderthals, based on my ‘reading’ of the archaeological record. And, rather than making fun of the Neanderthals, I’m much more likely to mock the authors of the extraordinary claims that have been made for their cognitive capabilities.

With Maju’s gripe in mind, you might well be wondering if there’s any evidence that could make me change my mind about the possibility of the Neanderthals being the cognitive equals of modern humans. You might be surprised to learn that the answer is ‘Yes.’ But I won’t ‘believe’ just any evidence. In fact, it’s my singular purpose to expose bad inference-making for what it is, as you know. I won’t accept ‘any’ evidence if it’s wholesale rubbish, untestable imagineering, or just one of two or more possible inferences that could be made from the observations–that’s Rule #1.

I do think that Neanderthals were clever bipedal apes, as are we. And, of course I think their genome must have been doing something right to have enabled them to persist as a recognizable morphospecies for so long. We have abundant evidence for that. But when it comes to the notion of what stands as ‘evidence’ for their cognitive abilities, I think the discipline could use a bit of remediation.

All claims to have ‘evidence’ of something need to be examined for their veracity. I’ll give you a contemporary example: Mitt Romney says ‘such and such’ in a presidential debate. You may be inclined to believe him, or not. But how you go about assessing the veracity of his statement? In the empirical and epistemological world the answer to that isn’t the personage (their electability or ability to drink beer with the good old boys), and it’s not about your political stance. Checking a candidate’s veracity is about seeing if an argument measures up to a close, empirical examination of the premises behind the statement and the logic of the links between the premises and the conclusion. In political discourse [as opposed to archaeological science–most of the time] it’s common for two sides to have wildly different interpretations of the ‘facts’ in question–this is known colloquially as ‘spin.’ It’s the spin that needs to be examined, in and of itself. However, if it’s the case that the polar conclusions are the result of equifinality, and it’s logically impossible to choose between them, in politics it’s not a problem. That’s because, from the point of view of the voters, the political arena can countenance two interpretations that are equally well supported (I suppose). It’s okay in a political arena because one of the interpretations will no doubt suit even the most discerning voter if there’s no way to distinguish unequivocally between them. [I’m not sure that’s the case where Governor Romney is concerned, but that’s another question–one for the American electorate to decide.]

It’s not okay for two competing explanations of the archaeological record to be treated in the same manner as in the example above. For me, the question of which inference to accept isn’t about politics. We’re not voting on an issue, we’re presumably heading for a more realistic understanding of what came to pass millennia ago. And thus, where there are competing explanations it’s illogical and unscientific to choose bipedal apes over nature as the explanation for the archaeological observations. After all, we’re talking about determining whether or not the Neanderthals were our cognitive equals (whatever that might mean), and in most cases it means deciding on whether or not to accept what’s claimed as evidence to be the very first occurrence of a given behaviour in the history of bipedal apes–one that can be equated with modern human capabilities. To my mind that makes it even more important–crucial, if you must know–to resist accepting one favored ‘interpretation’–one ‘claim of evidence’–when others are equally (and I mean equally) likely.

I, for one, know how easy it is to get caught up in a belief based on just one possibility when there are other, more parsimonious, interpretations. However, since I began to write as the Subversive Archaeologist I think I’ve managed to ‘expose’ as equivocal [at a minimum] a goodly number of well-established and widely accepted claims for ‘evidence’ of modern behaviour amongst the Neanderthals: hafting, mastic making, eagle-talon beading, featherbedding, insecticidal mattress-making, and so on. Before SA came along, the discipline had incorporated those claims into their ‘modeling’ of ‘hominin’ cognitive evolution. Don’t ask me whether or not I’m prepared to change my view. What are they prepared to do with their models now that they’ve been shown there’s a whiff of ambiguity about those claims for hafting, mastic making, feathered capes, eagle talon jewellery, and so on, and so on? Are they prepared to unhinge their overall view of the Neanderthals from what they’ve now come to know are equivocal arguments, and reassess their long-held beliefs? I doubt it.

You might think that my view of the Neanderthals should have changed in light of recent work. Indeed it has! My view of Neanderthals as clever apes–and not the cognitive equals of modern humans–has been reinforced and strengthened of late, simply because of the fantastic nature of most of the recent claims, and their utter failure to overcome the buggaboo of equifinality. Note that, here, I’m including the recent genetic findings of Svante Pääbo and others, which I find incapable of escaping from the noose of ambiguity as to when interbreeding may have occurred between the Neanderthal and the skeletally modern lineages, and whether or not we were like us at the time.

Do I think my view of the Neanderthals might ever change? Yes, although my hunch is that it won’t need to. But before I change my mind the discipline will have to be much better disciplined when it comes to making claims based on equivocal ‘evidence,’ or worse, no evidence at all [and here I’m thinking about Paul Pettitt’s extended thesis on the evolution of what he calls mortuary practices, or J. L. Arsuaga’s claim that the Atapuerca bipedal apes were flinging their dead down a natural well].

In that case, you may well ask what it would take to convince me that Neanderthals were the cognitive equals of people like you and me. Easy. It would take just one Neanderthal skeleton, unequivocally buried, with a string of eagle talon beads around its neck, a hafted knife or spear unequivocally associated with it [preferably gripped in its paw], a treatise on the rationale for the Levallois so-called technique, a wedding ring made with gold from northeastern Africa [preferably around its ring finger first phalanx], a bundle of black feathers flung over its back, wearingf a black feathered cape over a well-tailored wooly mammoth skin jerkin and matching loincloth, a Betty Crocker cook-book in one hand and a box of matches in the other. I think you get my point.

Getting back to the reason Maju unsubscribed, which was my response to Nathan Wales’s ‘Modeling Neanderthal Clothing Using Ethnographic Analogues.’* I believe the paper falls short of making a convincing argument, even though it’s convincing within the context of the data sets that it considers. However, it seems to me that it’s premised on the notion that Neanderthal behaviour and modern human behaviour are commensurable–i.e. that one can be understood in terms of the other–that modern analogues can be used to model any bipedal ape’s behaviour other than that of modern humans. I believe that this approach is philosophically flawed. Because of how I view the ‘evidence’ I happen to believe the two species are incommensurable. But it matters very little what I think.

However, until and unless there is clear, unequivocal evidence that the two species’ behaviours are commensurable, the discipline ought to proceed with a fair bit more caution. Alas! Regardless of what I think, Wales and many others believe that our behaviours and those of the Neanderthals are commensurable, because of their common belief in a long list of equivocal claims for all sorts of modern human behaviours that have been unjustifiably imputed to the Neanderthals over the years, beginning with purposeful burial [and you know what I think about that]. To conduct oneself as do Wales and others serves no one, least of all the discipline of archaeology, and it certainly doesn’t suit me. As long as I’m able, within reason, and within empirical and epistemological bounds, to posit natural causes or alternative interpretations of what others claim to be evidence of Neanderthal cognitive abilities, I’ll not go along with the rest of the discipline. And, as long as my alternatives can be upheld, the rest of them cannot imperiously claim to ‘own’ the correct interpretation.

[Update 20121022.1200 UTC: It occurs to me that we might begin by using ethological analogy when examining the movements of the Neanderthals. Then, at least, if anomalies begin to appear in comparison with other species in the top carnivore guild, we can investigate those for their bearing on the question of cognitive abilities in Homo neanderthalensis.]

*Abstract

Although direct evidence for Neanderthal clothing is essentially nonexistent, information about Paleolithic clothing could provide insights into the biological, technological, and behavioral capabilities of Neanderthals. This paper takes a new approach to understanding Neanderthal clothing through the collection and analysis of clothing data for 245 recent hunter-gatherer groups. These data are tested against environmental factors to infer what clothing humans tend to wear under different conditions. Beta regression is used to predict the proportion of the body covered by clothing according to a location’s mean temperature of the coldest month, average wind speed, and annual rainfall. In addition, logistic regression equations predict clothing use on specific parts of the body. Neanderthal clothing patterns are modeled across Europe and over a range of Pleistocene environmental conditions, thereby providing a new appreciation of Paleolithic behavioral variability. After accounting for higher tolerances to cold temperatures, it is predicted that some Neanderthals would have covered up to 80% of their bodies during the winter, probably with non-tailored clothing. It is also likely that some populations covered the hands and feet. In comparison with Neanderthals, Upper Paleolithic modern humans are found to have worn more sophisticated clothing. Importantly, these predictions shed new light on the relationship between Neanderthal extinction and their simple clothing.

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2 thoughts on “[Updated] The Subversive Archaeologist’s Plaint: ‘Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me’

  1. OK, I'll feed you this for free. HOw do you think Neandertals coped with cold climate? If you think that they adapted physiologically, how did the cope with climate change? What predictions would you make about Neandertal distribution and skeletal anatomy in light of your answers? Is there evidence to support your proposition? If there is good, if there isn't, what would the implications of that be?

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