Over the last two years I’ve barked at and bitten the referees and editors of most of the journals we depend on for new knowledge of us and our origins: Science, Nature, Quaternary Research (QR), QR International, QR Science, Journal of Archaeological Science, PNAS, and the hapless PLOS ONE.
Moving right along . . .
The other day I promised more detail as to why I think Karen Ruebens’s arguments in the Journal of Human Evolution (JHE) couldn’t stand up to critical scrutiny. Today, I’m fulfilling that promise. This must be your lucky day!
|Go here to access the paper.|
I’m finding that I’m spending a lot of time on this critique. I suppose it’s worthwhile to suggest a good reason as to why I should expect you or anyone else to follow me down this path. I think there’s a really, really, important reason for both.
Karen Ruebens is claiming to have achieved what could not be achieved by others in the . . . oh . . . hundred-plus years that archaeologists have been seriously studying the Middle Palaeolithic (MP).
Think about it. It’s akin to a fossil hunter revising the entire bipedal ape taxonomy and phylogeny. It’s no small thing. And the media are already running with it, and in many languages.
It’s for this reason it’s imperative that we take a very close look at the premises, the evidence, and the arguments used in support of Ruebens s claims. If her claims becomes orthodoxy, those of us on this side of the palaeoanthropological fence will be rolling it uphill on an even steeper slope.
This paper deals with the “late” MP, about 115,000 ka to about 35,000 ka [i.e. Marine Isotope Stages (MIS) 5d–3, see below]. It was a time during which the Neanderthals had the run of Ice-Age Europe and western Asia—at the same time as the global climate was deteriorating. As you can see from the graphic below, the late MP started off at the height of the last interglacial. Initially the Neanderthals enjoyed a climate much like that of today. But, by the time Neanderthals disappeared from the fossil record, Earth’s climate was on its way to being the coldest it had been for several hundred thousand years. The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) occurred considerably later, and by that time our direct ancestors had been the sole inhabitant of Europe for some 20,000 years.
Marine Isotope Stages of the last 300,000 years. Dashed yellow line marks the division between warmer and colder global climate. Dashed grey lines delineate the late Middle Palaeolithic period discussed in the Reubens paper.
Actually, as I began reading this paper I had high hopes, because of what motivated the author: to unjumble the tangle of lithic technological terms and local and regional temporal and typological nomenclature used throughout Europe by palaeolithic archaeologists. Ruebens focusses on bifacially flaked stone artifacts from the last 20 kyr or so of the MP [from about 60 ka to about 40 ka], and a broad swath of Europe including France, England, the low countries, and Germany.
Data collection was aimed at acquiring observations on
1. artefact condition [oddly, not defined, nor does it form part of the presentation];
2. technology—raw material, blank, cortex, back, cross section, shaping and edge angles;
3. typology—both bifacial tool concept and bifacial tool type;
4. measurements and ratios.
I put the terms concept and type in italics for a good reason: those words are a red flag to me. A concept can reside in the mind of the archaeologist; or, its use can bely the presumption or interpretation that a concept was formed in the head of, in this case, a Neanderthal rock knocker. As for the notion of a type, many of the 50 or so MP types defined by François Bordes are now seen as representing a stage in a time-transgressive sequence of flake removals that had no object other than to create and maintain a useful cutting edge. Many of Bordes’s types were erected due to what’s come to be known as the Finished Artifact Fallacy (FAF)—the idea that although we are able to group like with like, the group’s constituents need not result from deliberate action. Harold Dibble’s careful work on lithic reduction sequences gave us the best illustration of the FAF.
|From Harold L. Dibble, “The Interpretation of Middle Paleolithic Scraper Morphology,” American Antiquity 52:109-117, 1987.|
The Ruebens paper’s major claims are concisely laid out in the abstract, a snippet of which is reproduced below.
Results indicate a high level of variation among individual bifacial tools and assemblages. Each bifacial tool concept is correlated with various methods of production, resulting in large degrees of morphological variation. Despite such variation, a distinct three-fold, macro-regional pattern was identified: the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition (MTA) in the southwest dominated by handaxes, the Keilmessergruppen (KMG) in the northeast typified by backed and leaf-shaped bifacial tools, and, finally a new unit, the Mousterian with Bifacial Tools (MBT), geographically situated between these two major entities, and characterised by a wider variety of bifacial tools.
Differing local conditions, such as raw material or function, are not sufficient to explain this observed macro-regional tripartite [word missing? division?]. Instead, the MTA and KMG can be viewed as two distinct cultural traditions, where the production of a specific bifacial tool concept was passed on over generations. Conversely, the MBT is interpreted as a border zone where highly mobile groups of Neanderthals from both the east (KMG) and west (MTA) interacted. [emphasis added]
Okay. Let’s look at what the author distilled from the plethora of counter-productive local nomenclature and typologies. [Sorry to have to put up the entire table in what follows.]
Ruebens states that the five divisions are
“defined by a diagnostic combination of technological and typological attributes, including the location and extent of the bifacial shaping and/or retouch, the number of cutting and backed edges, the cross section of the piece and its overall outline shape (Table 3). All five concepts can be viewed as rather distinct, with only few transitional forms being present in the archaeological record. Since each concept is based on least common denominators, morphological variation is present within each category, as expressed by differences in size and exact outline shape.”
I know exactly what the term lowest common denominator means in arithmetic. However, I have no idea how I’m to understand its use in this context. I’m guessing it must be used figuratively. Unfortunately, it’s never mentioned again. Table 3 follows. I had to put it sideways to make it legible. Sorry.
After having a look at Table 3, I think I might have a better understanding of what the author is trying to tell us when using the term correlation. I believe it’s that her five concepts share many traits among them, but that each one has a unique ‘signature.’ Let’s look closer at Table 3, although I have to say off the bat that it doesn’t inspire confidence.
Call me a pedant, if you want. But, I believe we can toss out the category “Location of shaping/retouch.” Why? Because Ruebens has told us she’s undertaking a study of bifaces! So, there’s not much point in using ?bifaciality? as one of the diagnostic criteria. No. Wait! She’s at least partly justified in using this parameter—one of the five type/concept/cultural traditions is bifacial only some of the time. Hold the phone. What, fer gawd sakes, is a “partial biface?” A lump of rock is either a bifacially flaked something-or-other, or it’s not! More reason to toss out the category.
You are the weakest link! Say goodbye to “Location of shaping/retouch.”
Dave, what parting gifts do we have for “Back”?
Gong! Get that talentless “Cutting edge” off the stage.
Once the array is culled to this point, it’s clear that “outline shape” is capable—all by itself—of uniquely identifying the five concepts that Reubens has proposed.
I guess it’s all right if Ruebens wanted to go to so much trouble to substantiate the five concept type traditions. Problem is: to be usefully critical of this paper, this poor reader was compelled to go through the truly painful process that I’ve just dragged you through. Worse, others might be tempted to ask the question, “Where was the editor when this paper was undergoing review for its publishability? Where were the referees?” I’d never ask such questions. But others might.
So, you’ve just seen the author find a very strenuous way to replace good, old fashioned, typology.
It’s time we saw some of those shiny bifacial thingies.
I extracted these images from each of the three figures in Ruebens’s paper, resized them to the same scale, and placed ‘like with like.’ Here’s what I got. Look long and hard, but not too. Your head might explode.
As you can see, the objects in the left part of the frame are all termed hand axes. The others fall under what the author refers to as “backed and leaf-shaped bifacial tools,” which comprise the other four concept/type/traditions. Can you see the same things I see? For example, how do you get a leaf shape out of any of those objects on the right? No plant that I know of has such asymmetrical leaves! And, frankly, the whole issue of the so-called backed artifacts gives me hives. I could easily see any of the ‘backed’ artifacts in this array arising from continued flake removals on a ‘hand axe’ such that it ceases to look like a hand axe. [Remember the Dibble diagram up top?]
Logically, the proximal—butt—end of the ‘hand axe’ that’s been whittled down to something resembling the bottom four on the right. That butt would be identified as the backed portion, and the final flake removals on the opposite margin created one final cutting edge before it was dulled beyond usefulness and discarded.
Tell me I’m wrong. Isn’t that what the FAF is all about? Regardless of your position on hand axes, it’s straightforward: if the FAF is in play with hand axes, logically we should be able to see the results of gradual further reduction along the lines that we saw in Dibble’s work with MP scrapers.
Fellow FAFsters, start your engines!
[By the way, no doubt because I’m Anglophone and geographically deprived, I’d never heard of either the Keilmesser or the Faustkeilblatt before today. Live and learn.]
Table 3 isn’t all that this paper is about. If it were, I’d be breathing easier. Instead, Ruebens goes on to consider other parameters of European MP bifaces in an effort, one imagines, to bolster her identification of the five concept/type/traditions and to set the stage for the new map of MP Europe. I’m keeping an open mind. [As if.]
So, we’ve come to the point where I sum up this installment of my remarks on the Ruebens paper.
Here it comes. The summary.
I hope that the referees and editors are squirming by now. This story doesn’t have a happy ending for the JHE crew, and it’s not the fault of the author.
Next time I’m gonna get into the metrics of this revision of the MP of Europe. Hold on to your hat!
* I apologize for spelling the author’s name incorrectly throughout the earlier version of this piece.
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