Taking Apart (Disarticulating) A Myth About Skeletal Preservation In Caves and Rockshelters

Today’s blurt may veer in the direction of stridency. So, you’ll want to turn down the volume on your digital device so as not to experience οὖς τραῦμα [ear pain]. Oh. And. By the way, I’m not bitter!

Some time back I presented the untold story of Kebara 2, the partial Neanderthal skeleton. I reproduced an image of the remains, in situ, including the stratigraphic column on which it lay. The image clearly shows evidence of special depositional circumstances beneath Kebara 2, which go a long way toward explaining the presence of the burial pit inferred by the excavation team, and the good preservation of the skeletal elements that remained.

Today I want to return again to my thrilling days of yesteryear (I was graciously given a place on the excavation team during the 1989 field season). This time I want to talk about an oft-cited facet of burial taphonomy, one that those who have made claims of purposeful Middle Palaeolithic burial rely on very heavily—the occurrence of articulated skeletal elements, fossil remains with some or all skeletal elements found in the same spatial relation to one another that they would have had in life. [You know. With the knee bone connected to the thigh bone, etc.]

Archaeologist F. Turvil-Petre in Zuttiyeh Cave, 1925–1926.
[I’m a big fan of the excavation technique reproduced here.]
[Legalized pot hunting is more to the point.]

I’ve recently come under fire, again, for attempting to counter the claim that articulation has a one-to-one correspondence with burial. I was responding to Hovers, E. and Belfer-Cohen, A. “Insights into early mortuary practices of Homo.” In: S. Tarlow and L. Nilsson-Stutz (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial (Oxford University Press, Oxford), 631–642, 2013. My thoughts precipitated a brief conversation with Erella Hovers in which, for the umpteenth time, she expounded the theory that a fossil found with elements articulated is prima facie evidence for purposeful burial. As Hovers and Belfer-Cohen put it

A basic criterion, without which the discussion of intentionality of burial would be moot, is a considerable degree of skeletal articulation. 

Well, evidently the claim of purposeful burial doesn’t hold for the numerous vertebrates excavated with complete, articulated skeletons. They, of course, were buried naturally by the special depositional circumstances in caves and rock shelters, debris flows and mass drownings. I find that double standard to be … a double standard!

In my 1989a, 1989b and 1999 and 2000 efforts to deconstruct Middle Palaeolithic burial, I noted that articulated skeletal elements are those that were plus/minus rapidly buried, or in some fashion protected from disturbance while they were buried by the gradual build-up of sediments. Special depositional circumstances are commonplace in caves and rock shelters. Special, yes; but not unexpected. Purposeful burial is a special depositional circumstance.

In those earlier publications I mentioned palaeontological occurrences of articulated skeletons. Contrary to Hovers and Belfer-Cohen’s assertion that articulation equals purposeful burial, these complete animal skeletons were, more than likely, not purposefully buried by conspecifics. Those observations clearly fell on deaf ears, and right across the archaeological universe. Erella still feels justified in claiming that articulated fossil bipedal apes could not have been preserved with portions of the skeleton articulated without having been buried purposefully.

After all, Erella is an authority on purposeful burial. She dug one up. The Amud 7 infant, a partially articulated, wee bairn of the Neanderthal persuasion [the second sense]. This great good fortune has given Erella a bully pulpit from which to propound her version of archaeological reality, which culminated in the invitation to contribute to the Oxford Handbook.

Be all that as it may. Today I want to present a brief case study that altogether dismantles the assertion [not an argument, remember] that finding articulated skeletal remains means that they must have been purposefully buried.

While I was in Israel in 1989 I was treated [and I mean it] to site visits that would interest all of you palaeoanthropologists of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic. One of those stops was Zuttiyeh Cave, on the Wadi Amud, near the Sea of Galilee [Yeppers, such biblical places exist. It doesn’t prove the existence of god, or the Jesus story, mind you, it’s just cool that there is so much historicity in a document that moves many hundreds of millions of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim devout.]

Approximate location of Mugharet el-Zuttiyeh (“Cave of the 
Robbers”), in Wadi Amud, which drains to the Sea of Galilee 
(also Kinneret, Lake of Gennesaret, or Lake Tiberias).

In the satellite map at left I’ve indicated Mugharet el-Zuttiyeh’s location, roughly [in the third sense of the word]. It contains/ed a Lower-Middle and Middle Palaeolithic assemblage and a frontal bone that has flummoxed human paleontologists ever since its discovery in the 1925-1926 expedition of F. Turville-Petre (who’s shown above, during his pillaging excavation of Zuttiyeh Cave).


There’s no special reason why Zuttiyeh should be my case study today. What I’m about to show you could have happened [and most likely did happen] to all of the Middle Palaeolithic individuals that we now know as the ‘fossil record’ of that region, and others.

Today Zuttiyeh cave exists in a xeric environment. It also occurs within the biogeographic range of the striped hyaena, Hyaena hyaena (Linnaeus, 1758). This factoid is très important because hyaenas are adapted to eating bone, in addition to flesh, the target of all other carnivores. The manner in which hyaenas are able to reduce a prey animal’s remains to a scattering of bone scraps is part of the lore of taphonomy. All of us acknowledge the hyaena’s ability to mess with carcasses [and bipedal ape corpses]. In fact, Erella Hovers and a bajillion other Palaeolithic archaeologists cite hyaena behaviour as one of the reasons they conclude that we would never find articulated skeletons of fossil bipedal apes were it not for purposeful burial. Even today, hyaenas exhume recently buried human remains and have their special—bone crushing and consuming—way with the corpse.

Entrance to Zuttiyeh Cave, Wadi Amud, Israel (Robert H. Gargett photo).

Hyaena hyaena distribution.

Nevertheless, in the theoretical mind of most palaeoanthropologists, hyaena presence in a palaeofauna would guarantee disturbance of any unprotected carcasses/corpses on the landscape, or in caves and rock shelters. I mention hyaenas here because their presence in the wilds of present-day Israel underscores the implications of the cow ‘mummy’ that I observed inside Zuttiyeh cave in 1989 [and which is shown below].

Desiccated bovine inside Mugharet el-Zuttiyeh, near the Sea of Galilee, Israel, May–June, 1989.
(Robert H. Gargett photo)

You’ll notice that there is no flesh on these bones, and that in the case of some skeletal elements, even the longer-lasting connective tissue has been reduced or removed by microbial activity [evident in the collapse of the rib cage]. What you don’t see is any indication that this individual suffered from rigor mortis that would have distorted the animal’s repose. What you also don’t see is disturbance by carnivores—especially those ravening, bone-consuming hyaenas—or any other agents of disturbance. What you do see is the raw material for a buried, articulated skeleton of a bovid [were it to have occurred in different depositional circumstances]. For example, if this animal had died on a down slope near the cave wall it would have been buried much more rapidly than it would if it had died out in the open, as this one did.

There are myriad ways that vertebrate remains might persist with skeletal elements in articulation, even in the presence of disturbance agents. I tried to elucidate many in my 1999 paper. Yet, Erella Hovers has always propounded ‘articulation’ as evidence for burial, even without other observations to back it up. Listen to what she and her co-authors have said over the years.

In the highly dynamic environments of the Levantine caves during Mousterian times, hominid occupation commonly alternated with the activities of other animals, and the residues of both were often subjected to severe disturbance prior to further sediment deposition. Under such circumstances, the articulation of Middle Paleolithic hominid skeletons is the major criterion for their designation as intentional burials Rak et al., “A Neandertal infant from Amud Cave, Israel.” Journal of Human Evolution 26:313–324, 1994.

You simply can’t generalize in this way without offering evidence. Although they pay homage to the ‘dynamic’ animal community in evidence, they pay no attention to the equal certainty of variability in those communities.

The ungulates found in the MP faunal assemblage at Amud are not cave dwellers, and would have been brought into cave mainly as part of the dietary systems of either hominids or carnivores. Hovers, et al., “The Amud 7 skeleton—still a burial. Response to Gargett.” Journal of Human Evolution 39:253–260, 2000.

Despite the confidence expressed in this statement, you’ve seen living proof in the image above [or, rather, dead proof] that their assertion is a generalization that cannot be sustained.

Lastly, I want to present the earliest example of the failed mind set of Erella and her collaborators. This is from Belfer-Cohen and Hovers (1992).

The original excavators of the Levantine Middle Palaeolithic sites routinely used the skeleton’s state of articulation as the criterion for identifying burials . . . . They never elaborated on the point, ap­parently because it seemed self-evident. Later research­ers have carried this attitude even farther, often neglect­ing the state of articulation. [Sally] Binford . . .  for one, proposes the very broad criterion of “the presence of an excavated grave and/ or an arrangement of the body or body parts which seem to preclude natural agency.” Presumably, the last part of this sentence also relates to articulation. Harrold . . . ,  in  contrast,  regards as intentional burials only  those  cases  furnishing “some strong positive indication to the effect, such as strongly-flexed body position or unequivocal association with a burial trench or grave goods.” It should be stressed that isolated skeletal fragments may represent remains both of disturbed intentional burials and of ran­dom, natural deposition. Archaeologically, distinction between the two may be difficult if not impossible. Thus skeletal articulation remains the single unchallenged criterion for intentional burial. Belfer-Cohen, A., and E. Hovers. “In the Eye of the Beholder: Mousterian and Natufian Burials in the Levant.” Current Anthropology 33:463-471, 1992.

It’s hard for me to fathom how the authors of this last credo have any authority in the matter. They cite decades old pronouncements [and interpret them in only one of several possible ways]. Once again, they ignore competing arguments [mine, e.g.]. Moreover, that they can characterize any kind of deposition as ‘random’ is their self-inflicted stake through the heart. There is nothing ‘random’ about natural deposition. The only randomness truly in evidence here is the choices that these authors make in support of their pet theories.

I’m tempted to say “it’s all a crock.” Except, animal bone people reading this will know that Crocuta crocuta is a species of hyaena. And, I wouldn’t want anyone accusing me of making bad puns.

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