J. Riel-Salvatore, et al. I.C. Ludeke, F. Negrino, and B.M. Holt. (2013). “A Spatial Analysis of the Late Mousterian Levels of Riparo Bombrini (Balzi Rossi, Italy),” Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 37:70—92, 2013.
you’d think that the authors had some seriously cool shit to tell us about. Here’s a smattering. How many times can you say the same thing, but in different ways? Let us count the ways.
Times of India
Neanderthal ‘Homes’ were Tidy and Organised
Arizona Daily Star
Neanderthals organized their caves around tasks, study says
Neanderthals Organized Their Homes Like Humans, Study Says
New evidence suggests Neanderthals organized their living spaces
Neanderthals give new meaning to ‘clean up your room’
Neanderthals organized caves around tasks, study says
Neanderthals Were Neat Freaks: Inside the Original Man Caves
Neanderthal Shelters Were Organized By Activity, New Excavations Show
Anthropologist finds that Neanderthals had organized living spaces
Neanderthals Organized Their Living Spaces, Scientists Say
Voice of America
Neanderthals Organized Homes by Activity
Neanderthals organized their living spaces like modern humans
Nature World News
Neanderthals Were Efficient Homemakers, Study
Science World Report
Ancient Neanderthals Organized Their Homes Like Modern Humans
Anthropology | Smithsonian Magazine
Neanderthals May Have Practiced the Ancient Art of Interior Design
Neanderthal homes were tidy and organised: Ancient shelter reveals that living spaces were carefully divided into a kitchen and bedroom
[The headlines are so many and various that Vivaldi would have envied the collective genius displayed! Or, should that have said, “Carl Jung?”]
Given the coverage this one article has received, what I’m about to relate to you, Dear Reader, might be a tad surprising. Indeed, when the cards have fallen wherever they might, it’ll become clear that there is a very well-oiled outreach / public relations / propaganda machine attached to one of these authors!
Let’s get started. Shall we?
Hands up everybody who’s read Cave bears and modern human origins: The spatial taphonomy of Pod hradem cave, Czech Republic. Don’t feel bad. Nobody else read it either. Jim O’Connell called it “schizophrenic.” I’m fairly certain that Mary Stiner didn’t before she opined on the bears at Yarimburgaz. [Lived too long with taphonomy, I’m guessing.] And almost certain that Ofer Bar-Yosef didn’t. Any bets that Julien Riel-Salvatore read it? Keep your money. He didn’t. Know how I know? Because, if he had he’d never have made the mistake of writing a pile of noisome . . . archaeological myth, much less have had the really bright idea to publish it in . . . of all the inscrutably bizarre places . . . that never-was paragon of palaeoanthropological peer review, The Canadian Journal of Archaeology. [I’ll give you a moment to drink that in.]
Moment of silence, please, in memory of that journal’s reputation. Especially now that the UC Denver crew have had their way with it.
Ripari Bombroni is in the extreme west of Italy, where it butts up against Monte Carlo, which, if you think about it, is fitting. After all, the authors have “won big” to judge by the media attention.
|From Riel-Salvatore, et al. 2013|
As for the site, itself, the illustration at left is a general plan of the excavation at Ripari Bombrini. Riel-Salvatore et al. (2013) use the sediments recovered to argue for, among other inferences, Neanderthals having used their living space in patterned ways—just as you and I would. We do it for reasons having to do with the cultural constructions of gender, age, social status, and perceived necessity, among other reasons. The meanings with which we humans imbue space are well understood. HOWEVER [and I can’t stress this enough], no one has yet adequately argued for the existence of meaningfully constituted space use among our near relations, the Neanderthals and other bipedal apes that made stone artifacts collectively termed Mousterian.
Riel-Salvatore et al. are no exception. Except that, in their case, the ‘evidence’ for meaningfully constituted space use among Neanderthals is as vanishingly little as is the site itself. I hope to demonstrate that their assertions amount to nothing more than an off-the-top-of-my-head claim, an exaggerated claim, a stretch-of-the-imagination claim, an utterly failed claim.
For any of you who’ve been sleeping, or elsewhere, or both, for the last couple of years, you’ll need to know that there is great debate about the place of the Neanderthals in our family tree. It’s a hot potato because Neanderthals lived right up until the time that people like you and me entered what’s now Europe around 50 to 40 ka.
To my great distress, there has been a blizzard of outrageous claims for modern-human-like behaviours in MP bipedal apes. Each builds on the other, like so many playing cards. I seem to be fighting a losing battle against what passes for scholarly inference-making. I’ve had lots of practice. But, in general, the archaeologists that inhabit the Olympus of social science have ignored what I’ve had to say, or have dismissed it without so much as breaking a sweat to show me where I’m wrong.
And the band plays on. Today’s beaut of a knowledge claim is just one more brick in the wall.
In the plan I’ve added a simple annotation to point out the hatched area denoting what is a low, bedrock outcrop, inferred as the “back wall” of what somebody has inferred is a collapsed rockshelter. This “back wall” figures prominently *cough* in the authors’ claims. But you don’t need to memorize its location—I’ll be referring to it many times more before I’m done.
Each square in the plan measures 1 m by 1 m. Note the “pylon” and the “back” wall of the shelter. Note also that the entirety of the Mousterian/Middle Palaeolithic portion is shaded dark grey. Try to ignore this figure’s title, “Aurignacian 1,” because it has no bearing on the claims that Riel-Salvatore et al. make in this paper. However, it’s a mystery why they couldn’t have at least scribbled out “Aurignacian 1” and pencilled in “Ripari Bombrini,” or some other more generic decription than one that refers to the modern human archaeological traces that the authors presumably encountered before they hit the MP layers.
Make note of the area represented by the diagonal, parallel lines. It shows where there is “no stratum present.” Note that it comprises . . . oh, I’d say . . . 40 percent of the “Mousterian” excavation. Thus, Riel-Salvatore et al. are arguing from observations gleaned from a column of sediments approximately 4 m long, 60 cm wide, and give-or-take 1 m deep. That’s about the volume of a small bedroom closet. I’d be afraid to bet the farm on such a small volume of any site. But I’m not Julien Riel-Salvatore [obvies].
If I were being vituperative, which is not my way, I’d say that this next photo is—or should be—the source of some embarrassment for Riel-Salvatore, et al. That’s because this expansive, wide-area excavation [gawd I wish there was an emoticon for ‘sarcasm’!] at Riparo Bombrini is the foundation for some hair-raisingly unsupported [and insupportable] Middle Palaeolithic palaeoanthropology.
|North is on a line from bottom left to top right, and is, undoubtedly in the direction of the grid strings that divide the ‘site’ from side to side.|
So. What do we see in this seagull’s-eye view? Having seen the ‘site’ plan, you’ll recognize the trench in which these people are excavating—it’s the entire site. I’ve indicated the features shown on the plan, and some others that aren’t described in the paper. OK. There’s the “pylon” near the top of the photo. And there’s the
rock outcropping “back” wall of the shelter near the bottom. You can also clearly see in this photo what isn’t noted on the plan: a) the site’s proximity to a busy rail line, and b) the three-rail fence bordering the rail right-of-way.
A few observations are in order.
Top-left guy’s behind is about 2 m from the rail line. That’s close.
But what I find truly amazing is the uniform edge of the site that parallels the rail line. It must have been created by some really fine bulldozer work at the time of the rail line’s construction. Or, there could be another explanation.
Help me here. What theoretical construct in archaeology would lead an excavator to say that something isn’t there when, clearly, it is? Two words. Construction. Debris.
Now you can understand why the edge of the rail line is so . . . linear. It looks like some sort of combination retaining wall and pedestrian pathway. See? There’s a smooth surface pointing up at you in the photo. You can tell it’s horizontal because it’s parallel with the fence rails. Further down you’ll see evidence that those rails are horizontal. So, for the time being, let’s assume that the photographic evidence tells us that, at a minimum, the authors are excavating next to an artificially constructed retaining wall that has a smooth, level top surface of some indeterminate extent. I say ‘indeterminate’ because the authors don’t say what it is. We can’t infer that what we see here is the remnant of a wider, smooth, level pathway that needed to be peeled back before the excavation could take place. Let’s just assume, as the authors no doubt wish us to, that what we can see is all there was of the upper surface of the retaining structure.
Somehow the authors knew when they were excavating in undisturbed Mousterian sediments. That’s very fine work. But, I’m curious as to their criteria for what was and what wasn’t undisturbed. I don’t have an answer. Maybe one of you would like to address the authors to find out.
One last note before I move on. It’s kind of a spoiler. Pop down a bit to where the three stratigraphic plans appear. You’ll notice that M1 through M3 are ‘lumped.’ *cough* Notice also all of the amorphous grey-shaded areas. In the key those are labelled, simply, rock. Although the two kinds of feature are almost identically ‘coloured’ on the plan. Regardless, it appears as if there were a goodly number of rocks in the upper Mousterian levels.
Okay, with all that in your head, look again at the seagull’s-eye view, up above. Not only did the excavators accurately trace the boundary between the disturbed and the undisturbed sediments, but they also decided that the large number of rocks in the upper part of the Mousterian stratigraphic column weren’t just more construction rubble. This is a mystery to me. And it should be to you.
It’s almost miraculous, don’t you think? First that the railroad construction was arrested less than a metre from an important MP archaeological site. Second, these obviously head-on-straight excavators could tell construction rubble from “collapsed rockshelter” rubble. I guess it’s not, technically, miraculous. But it certainly is a very convenient pair of occurrences from the archaeologist’s point of view. I’ve been in the field I’ve spent years on my knees. It’s devilishly difficult to recognize the backdirt from someone else’s excavation when you’re digging in the same area. It’s not always possible. But somehow Riel-Salvatore et al. were expert enough to know where the construction disturbance ended and the Mousterian sediments started. Extraordinary.
See you after the site profile.
You’ve now seen the seagull’s-eye view of the excavation. Now have a look at it from the point of view of a sceptical graduate student. The photo below is a bipedal-ape view of the area.
Kayso. Let’s see these magnificent patterns—the ones the media are so enamoured of at the moment.
Sadly the contents of M1 through M3 had to be mushed together because even in so small an excavation the authors describe the difficulty of following depositional units across the 4-m long by 60-cm wide excavation. They state
As a side-note, during this process, it proved necessary to combine Levels Ml, M2, and M3 into a single composite level due to vagaries in the excavation process that made it difficult to disentangle them towards the back of the shelter.
Now, there’s no shame in having encountered such circumstances—they’re a commonplace in cave and rockshelter excavations. However, this in no way absolves the authors of having made some outrageously ambitious inferences on the basis of their limited excavation, and what amounts to non-existent analytical techniques brought to bear on their observations.
The only noteworthy observation . . . of the gross distribution of artifacts in the Mousterian deposits . . . was . . . identification of a recurrent very narrow linear gap running approximately NW-SE through units AA1 and BB1, roughly paralleling the back wall of the shelter.
On the plans above, this hypothetical “dripline” is indicated by a bold, dashed, line. [Which, by the way, is the straightest damned dripline I’ve ever seen! Hardly seems like it could have occurred naturally. But then, maybe it didn’t.]
One possible tentative interpretation of this gap is that it [ . . . is . . . ] the dripline of the rockshelter prior to its collapse. . . . areas inside and immediately outside of rockshelters were often associated with different kinds of activities . . . . That being the case, the interpretation of the linear gap corresponding to the shelter’s former dripline is potentially testable by the identification of different concentrations of artifacts on either side of it.
Whoa there. Teachable moment: Riel-Salvatore et al. are setting you up for a fallacious argument, one of which I’m certain they’re unaware. It’s alternatively called ‘begging the question’ and ‘assuming the initial point.’ [Don’t get confused with the conversational English use of the term, which roughly translates to “brings up the question.”] Begging the question is an informal logical fallacy—the circular argument—in which the outcome is predetermined by the choice of starting point. In this case, the authors have hypothesized a “dripline.” See how they set up the test of their hypothesis.
To this end, each piece-plotted artifact was therefore also assigned to one of three areas in the site: the “back” of the shelter, comprising the area between the dripline and the back-wall; the “front” of the shelter, comprising the area to the west of the dripline in the trench itself; and the “outside” of the shelter, corresponding to squares D1 and E1 in Level M1-3 . . . .
Do you catch the circularity? First they propose that a line exists that separates the dry part from the wet part—their “dripline.” Having established a hypothetical division in the site, they propose to see if the stuff outside the dripline is statitsically different from what went on ‘within’ the shelter. They are artificially subdividing the site’s contents based on their creation of a hypothetical division with which to prove the existence of that subdivision. Sorry. Inference just doesn’t work that way.
Assigning each artifact to its area of origin is important since the excavated areas across these various “zones” varies from level to level . . . , which may influence interpretations based on variability in their relative densities.
Now that you’ve finished your orientation, we can begin to examine the authors’ claims. In brief, they are as follows, straight from the horse’s mouth.
Hearths are identified . . . at the back of the shelter . . . similar to that of “sleeping hearths” identified at other Mousterian sites [using equally shaky analogical reasoning]. . . . . [T]he distribution of artifacts is shown to co-vary with the nature of the prevalent mobility strategies in use at different times over the site’s occupational history. Notably, use of the site as a logistical base camp is correlated with the presence of hearths and the accumulation of noisome debris beyond the dripline and outside of the shelter. Other uses of the site seem to have favored the discard of some classes of artifacts within the shelter itself. This shows that Neanderthals were indeed able to organize their use of space in patterned and somewhat predictable manners, and that the length and nature of their occupation of the rocksheiter need to be taken into account in such analyses.
Bloody marvellous, ain’t it? We’ve got noisome refuse in the fantasy “outside” of the shelter, and hearths near the fantasy “back” wall. In between we have evidence of the inhabitant’s mobility strategy. That would be in the fantasy “front” of the “shelter.’
I’m impressed! I’m also mystified! And a bit sceptical! After all, we’re talking about a total area approximately 60 cm by 400 cm. I think even a modern human would have difficulty locating a “back,” “front,” and “outside” in the space of 4 m.
Logical fallacies aside, let’s just do a reality check. In the unlabelled view from a seagull’s perspective the hypothetical dripline roughly corresponds to the line described by the left-most excavator’s left side [the one nearest the choo-choo tracks].
OK. Now, guy sitting on the right is in the “back” part of the site. Guy standing and person squatting in yellow are in the “front” of the shelter. And guy bending over at left is on the putative “outside.” And what do the authors tell us about they’re proposed spatial divisions?
If you were yellow person, you’d be in the “front” of the “shelter.” Whether yellow person or one of our modern-like Neanderthals in that location, it’d be darned difficult not to be whiffing some really ‘noisome’ odours. We are, after all, talking about a metre’s distance. I’m pretty sure that even standing guy, between one and two metres from the “outside,” would have smelled a pile of putrefying animal remains. That leaves guy by rock—erm, sorry, the “back wall” of the cave. Maybe if he had a fire going he wouldn’t be able to smell it. In all, three and a half metres doesn’t seem to me to be far enough away for a modern-human-acting Neanderthal to have dumped the rubbish. What’s going on? To employ a hackneyed and, by now, anachronistic epithet: Epic. Fail. No. 1.
At left is the plan of Mousterian 1, which, you’d have to think, was pretty ballsy of the authors to publish after telling us that they were unable to distinguish between M1, M2, and M3 across the entire site. Quelle surprise!
I guess I should cut ’em some slack. After all, we’re talking big news here if the authors have indeed found unequivocal evidence of meaningfully constituted spatial patterning in the Middle Palaeolithic.
Okay. What do we have here in M1? No hearths. [I guess it was a warm year on the MP Mediterranean.] We see a bunch of rocks, mostly on the shelter’s fantasy “outside.” We’ve also got a bunch of Xs and +s (bones and artifacts), scattered randomly, to my eye.
I’m also not seeing an unbroken empty space where the “dripline” is drawn. I suppose the real evidence for the dripline must be in M2 through M5, and we mere mortals shouldn’t question the authors, even though they’ve provided us no real evidence for their fantastic claims. Nope. I’m not seein’ any patterns jumping out at me.
No. Wait. I see something! Remember the “Stratum not present” in the various plans? Look how abruptly it decides to be present at the top margin of square DD-1. That’s odd. Don’t you think? Hmm. Probably nothing. My aging eyes playing tricks on me.
All right. All right! I’m gonna stop the coy act. And I’ll give up on the ‘argument by innuendo’ tactic.
What the authors obviously consider to be an ironclad inference—the rock referred to as the “back” wall—is a bit of a reach, to say the least. Even if you ignore the impossibility of all their other claims, you need to take seriously their inference that the bedrock outcrop is “the back wall” of the “shelter.” [Someone should’ve told them that in the map, the ‘site’ is shown hugging the cliff, nowhere near the excavation.
So, how in the Hell did they infer a) that this bedrock outcrop was ever the “wall” of anything, and b) that it was the “back” wall of the putative rockshelter? The outcrop identified as “wall” has little or no vertical mass. Aren’t “walls” supposed to have a primarily vertical orientation? And what about it’s being the “back” wall? Why am I—why are we being fed this nonsense about Neanderthals ordering their space just as would you and I?
I’m reminded of an old amusing aphorism.
Question: Why does a dog lick its balls?
Answer: Because it can.
I must conclude that it’s much the same as the dog. We’re all being fed this nonsense from Ripari Bombrini because the authors could get it published. That’s reason for another shout out to the Canadian Journal of Archaeology.
These authors have no evidence for their claims. None.
I’m sorry, Canadian Journal of Archaeology. You’ve been had by a sweet-talker from the lower 48. And you’ve lost your flower in doing it.
Which brings me full circle to my brief rant at the top. The archaeological literature contains an entire volume devoted to demonstrating that non-sapient animals are capable of creating non-random spatial patterns a cave. It’s called Cave bears and modern human origins: The spatial taphonomy of Pod hradem cave, Czech Republic, and it’s for sale. But I wouldn’t waste my time trying to buy it. Apparently it”s being sold for thousands of dollars on Amazon. I can tell you, it’s not me doing the selling! But it was me doing the writing. And the research. And the analysis.
Okay. So, Rob. You think you know something about spatial taphonomy. It’s true. I practically invented it!
But who took any notice? I think you can figger it out.
So, what modern analogues do Riel-Salvatore et al. bring to bear in support of their claim to have found modern-human-type patterned space at Ripari Bombrini? None. Rien. Fuck all! Here is the totality of their ‘effort’ to rule out animal-type behaviour at Ripari Bombrini.
Preliminary analyses have identified less than a handful of carnivore fragments for the entire Late Mousterian of Bombrini . . . . Along with the fact that the spatial distribution varies in predictable ways with reconstructed Neanderthal mobility strategies and that carnivores do not create combustion features, let alone accumulate them in patterned ways, this low incidence of carnivores at the site suggests the preliminary spatial patterns identified at Bombrini most likely reflect patterns in human behavior.
Their leap of logic from “not carnivore” to “not animal” to [definitely] “human behaviour” without stopping to think, has no warrant whatsoever. Quite apart from the “combustion” features, there’s no way that a statistical analysis would support a single one of their claims.
Honestly, if this paper is what passes for scholarship in today’s palaeoanthropology, our beloved discipline is in worse shape than I thought.
Thanks for hanging in there again. You’re good to me!
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