Karen Ruebens, Part Two: It Was Touch And Go, But the Neanderthals Still Can’t Grab a Break. Beam Me Up, Scotty, There’s No Cultural Traditions Here

My last post began a critical review of 

Ruebens, K., “Regional behaviour among late Neanderthal groups in Western Europe: A comparative assessment of late Middle Palaeolithic bifacial tool variability,” Journal of Human Evolution (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.06.009

in which she rationalizes the various European Late Middle Palaeolithic (MP) stone bifaces. In my previous post I had a little fun with the five categories of biface that she settled on as suitable for comparison across Late MP Europe. My favourite is the fifth and final type: the Partial Biface. [For which we are given no information as to the reason for calling it that. I mean, really, whether or not its partial is irrelevant if what you’re dealing with is Mousterian bifaces. If you are able to tell that it was once a larger bifacially flake artifact, it’s still a biface!]

It turns out that Ruebens took an excruciatingly long path to settle on those five types. It was a journey that she could have cut short if only she’d asked me. After all of the various attributes were tabulated, the five types are just those that you would have arrived at following a traditional morpho-typological regime. Be that as it may, the author moved on. I’ve created a montage of the bifaces published in three photographs in the paper. They appear below.

Add caption

Having once established the five types for comparison, the author went looking for geographical patterning. In so doing she discovered what, to her, looked like three distinct regions of Europe, in which the Neanderthal inhabitants maintained a tradition (or three) of making and using artifacts only of a certain kind and in numerical proportion to one another, throughout the Late MP. That’s a revolutionary claim. Unfortunately the revolution turns out to be a dud.

It seems we’ve caught François knapping!

The deeper I get into this paper, the more I’m disappointed that it was published in the high-impact Journal of Human Evolution. For, when I began looking closely at the fourteen sites that the author personally examined, and which appear on the map below. It shows the extent of the three “culturally” distinct regions that the author proposes—the Mousterian of Acheulean Traditon (MTA), the Mousterian with Bifacial Tools, and the Keilmessergruppen (KMG). No, the letters in the initialism MTA are not transposed. The initialism for the MTA was born in France in the mid-twentieth century, to one François Bordes, the primary author of the French palaeolithic typology. He dubbed assemblages fitting this pattern Le Moustérien de Tradition Acheuléenne. Hence MTA.



I hope it’ll become clear to you, as it has to me, that this study is a total disaster. 

Big mistake. You look at the map above and you see three areas encircled by dashed lines—one yellow, one blue, and one red. And, in the absence of descriptive information [of which there seems to be in regard to this graphic] you might think that the little triangles that denote the locations of the 14 sites the author personally examined for this work. However, the reader who’s interested enough to go looking, you aren’t told the regional affinity of any of the 14 until the paper’s done. Yep, those bits of information occur in Table A.1. There the author gives us the “General characteristics” of those fourteen sites. Table A.1 is first mentioned in the Materials and Methods section, where the author explains 

. . . detailed typo-technological attribute data was collected from 1303 late Middle Palaeolithic bifacial tools from 14 case study sites. These 14 assemblages were selected to form a sample representative of the bifacial tool variation across the study area, including classic French MTA and German KMG assemblages, assemblages from other, lesser-studied areas, [AND] assemblages that do not conform to the MTA/KMG dichotomy (for an overview see Table A.1). [emphasis mine: hold that thought]

We’re told that the 14 provide a ‘representative’ sample. We’re also told that, in addition to the MTA and the KMG, there are other assemblages . . . and [those] that do not conform.

There’s no subterfuge there. But unless you’re aware of what’s to come, those ‘other’ two kinds of assemblages are just there, something, presumably, for the author to deal with further on. Later on, they are referred to again, this time as “other biface bearing entities.” Yet, all through the meat of the paper, we’re repeatedly informed that the 1303 artifacts cluster in patterned ways in three [count ’em, three] regions. It came as a surprise to me, and I’m certain it will for everybody that’s read this paper, there is, in fact, a fourth kind of assemblage that doesn’t fit in the tripartite regional picture. In Table A.1 these are referred to as “Other.” And, as you can see, there are FOUR OF THE EFFERS!

Once again I’m having to place it sideways for legibility.



The FOUR of the fourteen sites that, oh, by the way, didn’t fit into one of the author’s three ‘cultural traditions’ are: Sint-Geertruid, Grotte du Docteur, Champlost, and Abri du Musée. That’s juicy. No? Four of the sites that appear in the distribution map of ‘regional cultural traditions’ don’t belong. This paper should have had an epigraph: Caveat emptor. So, we’re down to nine sites that Ruebens has used to construct her cultural ‘typology.’ But, the revelations don’t stop there.

EVEN MORE DISTRESSING, Table A.1 informs us that the ‘assemblages’ from Sint-Geertrud, Bois-du-Rocher, and St-Julien de la Liègue were all surface collections amassed unsystematically over the past, oh, century or so. *big exclamation mark emerges from writer’s head* What? That’s really bad.

So, I think there’ll be no detractors if I toss out the four sites that Ruebens deems to be ‘other,’ and ignore the surface collections from Bois-du-Rocher and St-Julien de la Liègue.

If you’re keeping score, six of the fourteen “Case Study” site collections have just shown themselves to be worthless. That leaves eight that are, we’re told are, really, really, comparable and useful for such regional comparisons. Oh, yeah. I remember, Ruebens also included insights drawn from publications dealing with 67 other sites across Europe. That sounds good, I know. And it might have rescued her thesis if it hadn’t been for this, which the author leaves behind as she breezes past in a vapour,

In many [of the 67 other] site reports, exact numbers are not given for the different types of bifacial tools. 

 Wait for it . . .

Therefore for comparison purposes the occurrence of bifacial tools was divided into four categories: absent (blank), low (50%).

Quelle desastre! Who knows how much weight the author gave to these so-called data? It’s a good thing we don’t need to know. This whole house of cards comes down right before your eyes, and just a little further down.

After ferreting out the details that are only to be found in Appendix A, someone more critical than I might understandably suspect that, in the distribution map (repeated below), the author might appear to be being disingenuous. I don’t say that. But some might. Simply because there is no fine-grained discussion of this crucial graphic. If there had been, I might not have been duped by what I see in this map. I shows all 14 of the ‘Case study’ sites personally examined by the author [which we now know to be, in fact, eight in total.]

See all those sites within the boundary of the MBT? Does it surprise you that TWO of them are classed as MTA: Bois-du-Rocher and Saint-Just-en-Chaussée. In fact, only two of those sites illustrated within the MBT area are classified as MBT. And one of them we have already tossed—St-Julien de la Liègue—because it was all collected from the surface over the past century or so. The remaining three sites shown within the bounds of the MBT ‘cultural tradition’ area are from the “Other” category, i.e. cannot be assigned to any of the three ‘traditions’ that Ruebens has erected in this paper. Meet me after this map. So, you see, this map is almost completely misleading.

Okay. Where do we go from here? There are still eight ‘Case Study’ sites and the information from the 67 published assemblages. Do they still tell the same story? In a word? No. And I’ll show you why right now!


The two images that follow are based on a geological map, which I serendipitously found while searching on the Google for Europe+map+karst. The areas shown in blue are karst. They are the only places on that map where bipedal apes would have found flint. In the map immediately below I’ve plotted [as nearly as I could] those fourteen sites from the Ruebens map, above. The second map shows Europe without the six collections that we’ve had to toss out.

BEFORE. Yellow dots: MTA. Green dots: MBT. Red dots: KMG. Purple dots (!): OTHER. Source give in the next caption.

And after the six unsuitable sites are dropped.

AND AFTER. Ruebens ‘Case Study’ sites after culling the sic that are unsuitable for these purposes. Yellow dots: MTA.  Green dot: MBT. Red dots: KMG  Source: University of Aukland, School of Environment, “World Map of Carbonate Outcrops 3.0.”

We’re not through, yet. Even if, and I mean IF, the data from the 67 published collections made this paper a slam dunk, the only map that matters is the one right up there. And now I’ll tell you why, if you haven’t already figgered it out.

In addition to the ‘data’ that I’ve been discussing to this point [including yesterday’s post], Ruebens’s gives us a half-dozen morphological comparisons that I’m choosing not to worry about right now. I don’t think they’ll help the argument one bit. During her discussion of the THREE ‘regional traditions,’ we get the following graph, showing the relative proportion of raw material types found in the fourteen “Case Study” sites that I’ve been discussing thus far. Oops! I meant to say eight! No worries!

Figure 5. Proportional occurrence of different bifacial tool concepts across different macro-regions based on the data from 14 case study sites (Table 9) and 67 comparison sites (Table B.2). Northeast’ relates to the German sites (n: 15), Southwest’ to the sites from southwest France (n: 13) and Central Northwest Europe’ to the sites from the Netherlands (n: 3), Belgium (n: 19), Britain (n: 7), northern France (n: 8), western France (n: 7), and eastern France (n: 9). [taken verbatim from Ruebens 2013]

For those of you who are red-green colour-blind, the stacked bars illustrate the relative proportions of the five artifact concepts/types/traditions that Ruebens has defined, from left to right, and darkest to lightest. NOTE: here Ruebens employs the entire corpus of 14 ‘Case Study’ sites and the 67 published reports. So, this graph is the only place you’ll see what the author has used to construct and instantiate the three [not four] Neanderthal ‘cultural traditions.’You’ll see on the bottom bar that in the region the author terms the ‘southwest’ the numbers of hand axes approaches 90 percent of the overall assemblage. For the central area the hand axe proportion is just over 60 percent. In the northeast it’s less than 10 percent.

Ruebens concludes that these apparently persistent assemblage patterns are a clear indication of cultural traditions, and Neanderthal smarts.

Culture. Yep. Neanderthal culture. Cultural traditions. Time-honoured traditions. Dad and Mum showing little Eva and Adama how to make little sharp rocks from big dull ones.

Sorry. But Ruebens paints a completely erroneous picture with these data.There is really no evidence to support her thesis. And there is a perfectly good explanation for the distributions she has inadvertently come across.

Now, have a look at this map of Europe showing areas where one might acquire flint, by far the best material available, and perhaps, on balance, the best, all-round knapping rock of them all. The circles roughly outline the northeast (red), central (green) and southwestern (blue) regions used in the graph shown above.

Remember that the blue bits are sources of flint. 

What do you see within those three areas that Ruebens obviously did not see, much less consider? Yeppers. Blue stuff. Flint-bearing rock. So, now what do you think best explains the relative proportion of hand axes in each of the three circled regions—culture? Nope. I have a rock-solid alternative explanation. Lithic analysts call it curation, I believe.

In the northeast (red circle), where good chipping rock is really, really scarce, I’m proposing that if you live in that red circle, whether you’re a Neanderthal or one of us, any worthwhile lump of flint that you could get your mitts on would be used, retouched, used, retouched, used, retouched, and used to within an inch of its imperishable life. Moreover, if the FAF is correct, and I believe it is, the dearth of workable rock in Germany meant that if you got to the stage where in the southwest the lump would yell “Hand Axe” to unwitting palaeoanthropologsts, you wouldn’t stop to admire it’s symmetry.

On the other hand, if you lived in the central portion (green circle), where good rock is abundant, but not ubiquitous, depending on your location you’d either think you were in flint heaven and be a total profligate, or conserve, conserve, conserve like those poor buggers in Germany.

As for the southwest of France. Le magnifique Sud-Ouest! Wine. Great food. An equable climate, which would have come in handy to a Neanderthal as the world descended into the last major ice age. Again, depending where you are, you’d have to be stingy or you could say forget it, as, no doubt those in the yellow dots near the Dordogne Valley must have done. 

I think I can stop here. I was gonna go into great [and, frankly, mind-numbingly boring] detail about the metric comparisons, but I don’t think it’s necessary at this point.

I trust that you’ve enjoyed this trip to Late Mousterian Europe. Join me next time for another trip down Mythopeoia Lane.

Your comments will always be welcome. It’s Miller time.

Adios, muchachos!

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