"Off With Their Heads," Cried the Queen. Neanderthal Remains From San Bernardino Cave, Italy, Aren’t!

Back in the late 80s, some well-meaning palaeoanthropologists dug up a few bits of bipedal ape skeleton at the cave of Saint Bernard, in Italy. Most likely because they were digging in what had previously been identified as a Mousterian level, when it came time to publish a description of the remains, they were described as those of H. neanderthalensis. The parties responsible:

Eligio Vacca and Giancarlo Alciati. (2000). “Observations anatomiques sur quelques restes humains du dépôt de la grotte de San Bernardino (Vénétie, Italie).” L‘Anthropologie 104:121–130.

Thanks to another group of smart people, we now learn that the San Bernardino remains weren’t those of a Neanderthal. They’re only about 1500 years old. This revelation comes courtesy of

Stefano Benazzi, Marco Peresani, Sahra Talamo, Qiaomei Fu, Marcello A. Mannino, Michael P. Richards, and Jean-Jacques Hublin. (2013). “A reassessment of the presumed Neandertal remains from San Bernardino Cave, Italy.” Journal of Human Evolution, 9 December 2013. Available online. 

Real Estate agents say “Location, location, location.” Palaeoanthropologists [the good ones, anyway] say, “Association, association, association.”

I haven’t mentioned Rule #1 in ages. I don’t think I’ve had occasion. But now I does, Precious. “Association” is the lynchpin of archaeology and palaeoanthropology. Any hypothetical traces of the two-legged ape must be “in association” if we want to argue that they were left behind at the same time. In all sorts of sedimentary archaeological contexts—otherwise known as sites—it’s frustratingly difficult to figure out what bits were contemporary and what bits weren’t. Association is profoundly important to “getting it right” when it comes to our interpretation of the diachronic processes that comprise our past and that of our close fossil relations.

Again, and again, and again archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists have made erroneous inferences because they misinterpreted the relationships between what they’re interested in and other bits that help them determine the age of their object of interest.

The putative Neanderthal remains from San Bernardino Cave are just one more in a long line of examples of the perils of interpreting association. As a matter of fact, association underlies the discipline’s response my questioning of Middle Palaeolithic burial. Others say that only purposeful burial can explain finding fossil skeletal elements in the same relationship as they had in life—also referred to as being “articulated.” And I’ve said that finding such remains can equally be explained by natural geomorphological processes.

Never mind. In honour of Benazzi et al.’s take-down of Vacca and Alciati (2000). A little Saturday evening diversion. Enjoy it. I’ll talk to you later. TTFN


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