Overheard At The Bar: "Hi, Babe. My Name’s Cliff. Drop Over Some Time!"

Okay, so I’m not adept with pickup lines. Maybe instead I could set myself up as an archaeological fortune teller. At least that way I’d get paid for laughing in the face of ludicrous knowledge claims from scientists who really shouldn’t be allowed near archaeological sites, assemblages [faunal or other], individual artifacts, and especially Bunsen burners and breakable labware!

From my old friends at Phys.org comes this revelation:

“Hold your horses,” you say. “there weren’t any danged mammoths in Jersey!” True, but their rellies were found all over Manhattan long before it was sold to your forbears. And, let’s face it, you and I both know that, right under our noses, there are Neanderthals travelling the NY subway every week-day, on their way to jobs as stockbrokers, personal trainers, massage therapists, acupuncturists, and middle management. Wait! All of this is beside the point, because the article refers not to the city so great they named it twice, nor its poor neighbour across the Hudson, but rather to the island of Jersey, one of the so-called Channel Islands that lie between England and France, in the English Channel—or La Manche, if you happen to be Francophilic. Plenty of Neanderthals and mammoths running around those parts back in the day! You betcha.

From The Sun, March 25, 1925.

[At the risk of removing myself from the gene pool prematurely by divulging my age in calendar years, this story takes me back, way back, to my days as an undergraduate at Simon Fraser University. I was well aware of the claims being refuted. So it was that, before I was even half-way through reading the Phys.org article’s title I knew what was coming, and which site it was coming from.]

It was La Cotte de St. Brelade, nowadays a rather bleak place hard by the icy cold waters of the North Sea. Back in the Middle Ages mid 1980s I was every bit as sceptical as I am now. And K. Scott had recently published inferences from the examination of two penecontemporaneous faunal accumulations found in rocky crevices, which to that author suggested [argued might be a little too charitable] that those wily Neanderthals [females, almost certainly] had herded wooly mammoths and rhinos right up to a rocky fissure and bade them, lemming-like, jump to their collective death[s].

Scott, K. “Two Hunting Episodes of Middle Palaeolithic Age at La Cotte de Saint-Brelade, Jersey (Channel Islands).” World Archaeology 12:137–152, 1980.

At the time I found Scott’s claim preposterous on the face of it. But, I hadn’t yet gained the expertise interpreting animal bones from archaeological sites to be sufficiently critical. Therefore, at the time, based on nothing but my ‘reading’ of Middle Palaeolithic archaeology, my fearless prediction was that Scott’s claim would one day be thrown out.

Indeed, to my mind the illustrations that follow represent Scott’s imaginary scenario, and what was, more than likely, the grim reality of the La Cotte Neanderthals.

And so, “Hail the conquering Heroes!”

Scott, B., M. Bates, R. Bates, C. Conneller, M. Pope, A. Shaw & G. Smith. “A new view from La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey.” ANTIQUITY 88:13–29, 2014. Retrieved 20140307; accessed at http://antiquity.ac.uk/ant/088/ant0880013.htm

Careful reconstruction of La Cottes’s Pleistocene palaeotopography, together with a refined stratigraphic sequence, enable another Scott, et al. (2014) to turn conventional wisdom on its head [gotta love it!], and negate [provisionally, at any rate] the notion that Neanderthals were clever enough to do what modern people have done since at least the early Holocene.

To put at least some of this in the context of ‘reading’ the archaeological record, remember that we can’t make knowledge of the past except by reference to processes that we can observe today, or inferences of past processes that have been tested and retested and are, plus or minus, robust theories of past events.

So, what could the mass-kill-site advocate Scott possibly have used as the analogy from which to infer purposeful Neanderthal behaviour from a couple of bone piles shrouded in löess? [And, which Scott et al. refute.] My gut tells me that such scenarios were born out of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century ethnographic, ethnohistorical, and archaeological investigations in northern North America. Indeed, without the knowledge corpus to which we now turn, Scott may never have imagined that, at La Cotte, the archaeological 2 + 2 = a pile of beguiled, dismembered behemoths.

I’m referring to the well-documented practise of First Nations and Inuit people stampeding large herbivores, though guile, to somewhere that would enable killing in numbers sufficient to provision large groups of people like you and I, often for long periods. On example springs to mind, that of the buffalo jump, employing a promontory such as the one at the site of Head-Smashed-In, near Fort Macleod, Alberta, pictured below.

The cliff face in the middle distance was the point of departure for the hapless bison. It’s about 11 m high (36 ft).
The promontory at Head-Smashed-In buffalo jump, near Fort Macleod, Alberta.

Here, dozens of bison at a time were killed and butchered. In the photo above, the talus slope in the foreground was the killing ground.

The drawing from 1854, shown below, shows how Aboriginal peoples used drive lanes to funnel the buffalo toward the cliff.

A mass kill shown in plan. 

Plains dwellers lined up on either side of a converging ‘drive lane,’ using makeshift flags to frighten and cause the animals to run straight for the killing ground. This illustration depicts a First Nations bison killing ground: the sideways ‘V’s represent the encampment of teepees, and the lines with circles at one end represent the people. A similar practise was used by Arctic and Sub-Arctic peoples to run caribou toward a killing ground. Often, to make up for small numbers of human actors, these northerners installed inuksuit (sing. inuksuk), virtual people erected along the drive lane, like the one shown at right. I’m unaware of any historic analogues to such practises in the so-called Old World. [But I’m quite happy to be disabused of this claim, should you no different.]

Bottom line? No European Head-Smashed-In-like episode took place at La Cotte de Saint Brelade.

I know. I know! Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. So, just because it can no longer be claimed that Neanderthals were capable of such actions doesn’t mean that sceptics like me can claim that they wouldn’t have been capable. Keep hoping, you Neandertals ‘R’ Us people. “Hope,” he said, “is all you’ve got.”

And so ends another chapter in the multi-year voyage into and back out of archaeological reality. Return next time for a thrilling to yesteryear.

See you on the flip-flop!

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