Neanderthals, Mushrooms, and Twine, and . . . Wait! What?

I gotta tell ya. The shine is really off the apple of paleoanthropology these days.

I think this pretty much says it all—from Hardy et al. (2013) “Impossible Neanderthals? Making string, throwing projectiles and catching small game during Marine Isotope Stage 4 (Abri du Maras, France). Quaternary Science Reviews 82:23-40.

[One] line of argument often generally speaks of “Neanderthal” capabilities or behaviors as if this group of hominins always did the same things no matter the temporal or ecological circumstances . . . 

Can you think of an assertion that is more blatantly ridiculous from an evolutionary perspective, and at the same time such a reductio ad absurdum of the arguments that they’re referring to, regardless of those arguments’ particulars? Here are their antagonists:

Wynn, T., and R.L. Coolidge. (2004). “The expert Neandertal mind.” Journal of Human Evolution 46:467–487. [Both  friends of the Subversive Archaeologist.]

Fa, J.E., J.R. Stewart, L. Lloveras, and J.M. Vargas. (2013). “Rabbits and hominin survival in Iberia.” Journal of Human Evolution 64:233–241. [A paper that was refereed by, among others, Clive Finlayson.] 

Stiner, M.C., and S.L. Kuhn. (2009). “Paleolithic diet and the division of labor in Mediterranean Eurasia.” In: Hublin, J.J., and M.P. Richards (Eds.), The Evolution of Hominin Diets: Integrating Approaches to the Study of Palaeolithic Subsistence. Springer, New York, 157–169. [Two people of inestimable intellectual stature, even if they’re on the other side of the paleoanthropological fence from yours truly.]

Hardly what I’d call anti-Neanderthal ranters and ravers. So. Bzzzzt. You are the weakest link. Goodbye!

Even if the Neanderthals were—merely—another species adapting genetically and behaviorally to its circumstances—like, say, a bacterium or a fungus—no paleoanthropologist in their right mind would propose such a counter-intuitive and . . . just wrong . . . hypothesis. This is wrong on so many levels.

So, Hardy et al. are already skating on thin ice as far as this subversive is concerned. And IT’S ONLY THE FIRST PARAGRAPH!

If that were the end of their REFEREED JOURNAL ARTICLE, it would be bad enough. But, of course, it doesn’t end there. And we have Quaternary Science Reviews to thank for it, together with the so-called referees, of course. Quaternary Science Reviews should be demoted to stenographer at the New York Times* for publishing such so-called research.

But, don’t listen to me! I’m just a jaded underemployed academic with an [hand] axe to grind.

Instead, listen to the authors. They really know where it’s at.

The other [line of argument] emphasizes an increasing recognition of the variability of Neanderthal behavior and the elucidation of previously unrecognized behaviors including personal ornamentation a wide and varied diet . . . , and even maritime navigation . . . .

A smiling Clive Finlayson and a vulture ‘skin.’ According to Clive, the Neanderthals were preferentially offing black-feathered birds for their colourless feathers [black being, as you’re very well aware, not a colour—but rather, the absence of colour], although that’s not how the stenographic media portrayed this incomprehensible paleoanthropologist’s claim. Clearly the Neanderthals weren’t capable of aesthetic symbolic thought if they went around wearing the feathers of an excrement-eating seeker after carrion.

This recognition of behavioral variability through space and time argues for adaptation of Neanderthal groups to local conditions . . . .

Indeed. These authors have made a fatuous claim—that ‘others’ deny that the Neanderthals could adapt to local conditions. Those ‘others?’ The pieces of work [yes, that was deliberate] to which Hardy et al. are referring? Por ejemplo,

1. Finlayson, Finlayson, and Finlayson (see above) and the alleged Neanderthal penchant for black vulture feathers [a class of bird that begins its meal at a dead quadruped by sticking its hairless neck up the poor dead beast’s anus and scarfing until it opens up a big enough hole in its rear to access the really good stuff];

2. A bunch of surface finds on a Greek island that LOOK like Mousterian flakes, extrapolated to a Middle Paleolithic high sea level stand occupation requiring boats.

Ferentinos, G., et al. (2012). “Early seafaring activity in the southern Ionian Islands, Mediterranean Sea,” Journal of Archaeological Science 39:2167–2176.

We have a delivery of one very large Straw Man. Who wants to sign for it?

BUT, Hardy et al. don’t stop there. Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my! Mushrooms and twine! Middle Paleolithic mushroom butchery, and stone tools wrapped in string. And raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens! Okay, I might’ve exaggerated a bit there. But I was serious about the mushroom butchery. “Ahh, mushroom butchery,” you say. “Wait! What?”

No kidding. Well, maybe not mushroom butchery. But the authors make much of their finding some fungal spores on one of their stone tools. They suppose that it could even be mushroom spores. I ask you, what novel and, of course, highly adaptive neanderthal behavior would be implied by the presence of mushroom spores on a stone artifact? I think we can rule out mushroom harvesting. What about slicing and dicing? Julienned [no doubt black] mushrooms, anyone? Why did I never think of this before? Neanderthal haut cuisine? Welcome to Chez Thog. Tonight we’re offering a nice little mushroom nappé on our signature vulture ala Marsala. With a freshly plucked black-feather garni.

And then there’s the little matter of the string, wrapped around the artifacts. The title mentions projectiles. I’m guessing a vicious variant of the well-known South American bolo, but with sharp flakes instead of ho-hum spherical projectiles.

Ya see, the authors went looking for anything of interest [to them] that they could find in any ‘residues’ they could see on any stone artifacts they recovered. Of course, they gave no thought to the way that those ‘residues’ arrived on those flakes, preferring instead to assume that they were the result of Neanderthal use of the flake for particular purposes, which, of course, would be straightforwardly inferable from whatever it is they found. For example, twisted plant fibres.

These fibers are not twisted in their natural state (K. Hardy, 2008; Hurcombe, 2008) which suggests that they were twisted by the inhabitants of the Abri du Maras and may therefore provide evidence of the manufacture of string or cordage. In previous woodworking experiments involving incising, planning, whittling, scraping, and boring (Hardy and Garufi, 1998), no twisted fibers were observed. Unpublished experiments conducted by BH involving the scraping, cutting, and slicing of a variety of non- woody plants (roots, tubers, reeds, etc.) also produced no twisted fibers such as those observed here. While not definitive, the lack of twisted fibers in these experiments lends some credence to the hypothesis that these derive from cordage.

You see, we are told, only fibrous plants, first of all, have fibers. And fibrous plant fibers aren’t twisted in the naturally occurring fibrous plants. So if you find twisted plant fiber in a residue on a stone flake, it must’ve been unnaturally twisted first, and it must then have been incorporated in the residue of use during some other non-naturally occurring event. Ipso facto, something must have been purposefully twisting the plant fibers to make something out of twisted plant fiber. And, of course, the only thing that could be made from purposefully twisted plant fiber is twisted fiber cordage. Now, to be fair, the authors only suggest. But SOOOOOO much is implied by their mere suggestion that they might as well have come right out and said Neanderthals made string and tied it around their artifacts. Hence, my joke re: a vicious bolo. So, let’s see that twisted plant fiber!

You’re going to have to look closely. Very closely. Because, in each case, the string is represented by single strands of plant fibre. Remember that one micron is a thousandth of a millimetre. So, the fibre in image A is approximately a half a millimetre long. OMG! Those must have been some really nimble-fingered Neanderthals! Especially if you consider the strand [well, strand fragment] in image B. Frankly, I think the only thing that’s being twisted here is reality. The tragedy for paleoanthropology is that it got published.

All right. So, I’m having fun. But what if those inferences are true? What if the mere presence of a [very] short strand of twisted plant fiber was slam-dunk evidence for cordage manufacture in the Middle Paleolithic? Or fungal spores for mushroom butchery. Did it ever occur to these authors to wonder just how those residues arrived on some stone artifacts in a collapsed rock shelter in France?

Evidently not. I’ll pause here to make a suggestion to the authors. If there were a way to test your MP residues for the presence of rodent DNA I think it’d be a good idea.

I’m being presumptuous. I know. But I need to remind Hardy et al. that archaeological sites are dynamic depositional environments. Just because a piece of chipped stone is discarded or lost doesn’t mean that it’s state at that moment is the state in which it’ll remain for the next 40 or 50 or more thousand years. Take a look at the stratigraphic profile that the authors helpfully provide.

Those brown squiggles? They’re undoubtedly tree roots, even though we’re not treated to a key in this publication. And those spaces labelled TERRIER? That’s French for ‘burrow.’ These are two examples of my reason for reminding the authors that even a collapsed rock shelter is a dynamic depositional environment—for all time!

Burrowing anythings are burrowing for just one thing—to make a comfy place to hide out, have babies, keep warm, you name it. And, if there are two burrows visible in the twentieth century, you can be fairly certain that there were others in earlier centuries, to say nothing of earlier MILLENNIA! And, like Clive Finlayson’s happy-go-lucky, vulture-loving Neanderthals who don’t mind a bit of shit lying around, neither do rodents. They live in their shit and their piss. What’s your best guess as to the possibility that the burrowing furry creatures that made those TERRIERs left shit residue on the stone artifacts that happened to be incorporated in their home-sweet-homes? And what, d’ya think, those small furry creatures ate? Plants? Maybe fibrous ones? Hardy is personally responsible for the so-called experimental work that underpins many of this paper and others’ wondrously fantastic middle-range linking arguments. I wonder. Has Hardy done any experiments that show the condition of the plant fibres that make a progress through a rodent gut? ? ?

I hardly think so. And I’m wondering if Hardy et al. thought hard, at all.

I hope you enjoyed this trip down yet another rabbit hole—speaking of small, furry, burrowing creatures, in this case a lagomorph.

*The so-called newspaper that, among other ginormous gaffes, gave us the aluminum tubes that Saddam Hussein was supposedly using to weaponize chemical weapons.

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