Regourdou Redux, All Over Again.

Obi-Wan Kenobi was using a little Force-ful mind control there. Effective, in a fiction. But, in reality, I can’t help thinking there’s a history of transgenerational mind control in paleoanthropology. How else to explain the persistent fiction that Middle Paleolithic hominids buried their dead?

Everyone knows that to “assume” often results in making asses out of all who make an unwarranted assumption. That’s why I’m forced to conclude that many of my peers are, to put it in the vernacular, inadvertent asses. Another way of putting it is that they “drank the Kool-Aid,” and are therefore physically incapable of making informed, critical, decisions about even the most egregious examples of unwarranted inference making in the paleoanthropological canon.

Only someone who is thoroughly enchanted by the mind control that exists in paleoanthropology could be bamboozled by the claims that some of their peers have made. Indeed, it seems as if all critical ability flies out the window whenever someone makes a claim about something that Neanderthals could do. No inference is too shaky, or too insufficiently supported, or too preposterous, to go unquestioned.

Unbelievable flights of fancy emanated from La Grotte de Regourdou (Montignac, Dordogne, France) in the 1950s and ’60s, thanks to Eugène Bonifay and Bernard Vandermeersch [with whom, by the way, I have, or had, a convivial relationship back in the 1980s]. These included a Neanderthal burial and—hold on to your hat—a purposefully buried bear!

Before you go and get all excited, let me assuage your fears. I’m not bringing this up again just to whine and piss on Grandma’s grave . . . again. Rather, I have a scholarly purpose. Somehow or other I missed a recent article presenting a taphonomic examination of the carnivore bones from Regourdou. I’m a couple of years behind the curve here, but, in this business that’s the blink of an eye. So, what’s the story? Just wait. It’s sweet.

“L’OURS QUI A VU L’HOMME ? Étude archéozoologique et taphonomique du site paléolithique moyen de Regourdou (Montignac, Dordogne, France),” by N. Cavanhié. PALEO 21: 39–64, 2009–2010.

So. Let’s see. Bonifay and Vandermeersch excavated. Vandermeersch later creates a new journal PALEO in his own image. Cavanhié, decades on, sees a project in the Regourdou carnivore remains. Cavanhié needs access. Bonifay is one of the gods of French archaeology. Whom among the gods would one choose to cheese off if one wished to work on his fauna? Additionally, how near to finished, to say nothing of published, does Cavanhié get if Cavanhié so much as mentions the Subversive Archaeologist’s early career attempt to show the discipline the error of Bonifay’s ways? And where, if anywhere, would Cavanhié choose to publish? Right you are!

So, a few choice quotes to remind you of how mindless one can become when one’s mind is controlled by the likes of Eugène-i-Wan Kenobi.

The excavators ascribed an anthropic origin to the presence of bears at the cave.

Like, bears couldn’t get into caves themselves!

According to them, Mousterian people linked the bear to the belief in resurrection because of his capacity for hibernation, and consumed it in the cave during funeral meals.

Never heard that one before. Stunning, ain’t it? So reasonable, and yet “Oh, so untestable!”

The Mousterian people would then deposit the skins, the head and the paws in structures (pits and tumuli [piles of rock]).

This is the first I’ve heard to suggest that the bear ‘burial’ wasn’t a complete skeleton.

In the opinion of the excavators, the relationship between Mousterian people and bears was visible in the Neanderthal grave because two bear shin bones were placed in the same position as the Neandertal shin bones, which were absent.

That’s some really, really arcane ritual stuff. O’ course, if you look at the Neanderthal remains that were recovered from the putative grave, you’ll see that the tibiae weren’t the only missing bits. Indeed, most of the lower limbs are absent. Ironic, isn’t it? No matter how hard those Neanderthals tried to “protect” the “corpses” of their “kin” they didn’t always succeed. Somehow or other those pesky taphonomical thingies succeeded in scuppering their best intentions. Those taphonomicals are even more impressive in this case, since, as you’ll see a little further down, they managed to wriggle their way into a “tumulus” forming the ‘grave’ [read: a collection of rocks containing the bones] and rubbish the skeleton—leaving only what you see in the image below. [By the way, the lower three rib fragment on the left of this image aren’t hominid. But, who am I to use an ad hominem argument to discredit somebody who arranged these remains eons ago and took the only photo of them that I could find on the web?]

Regourdou 1. Putatively buried.

Back to the great quotes . . .

In addition, this grave . . . was associated with a pit . . . , which for the excavators, represented an inhumation of a bear after ritual consummation [sic] . . .. For these authors, the bear bone accumulations are wholly anthropic, but for others authors, a natural mortality (during hibernation) can be envisioned . . . .

Wow! That was a brave move—suggesting that there may have been a natural explanation for the bear remains. Alas! Although there was a reference to the proposed natural explanation, Cavanhié somehow overlooked Gargett 1989 [in which I thoroughly defused Bonifay’s every claim, including that of bear burial], and instead cites a compatriot, Fosse 2002, of whom, of course, I’d never heard, nor of the paper. Obviously, my review copy of L’ours et l’homme: Colloque d’Auberives 1997 is missing in the mail, and lying in some ‘dead letter’ office in Mombassa [or similar].

Fosse, P., P. Morel, et J.-P. Brugal. “Taphonomie et éthologie des Ursidés Pléistocènes.” In : Tillet, T. and L.R. Binford L.R. (éds), L’ours et l’homme: Colloque d’Auberives 1997, 79-101, 2002.

[Fosse, by the way, is French for hole in the ground—quite a career choice for M., Mlle, or Mme. Fosse!]

As for the natural vs Neanderthal cultural depositional circumstances of Regourdou 1, the image below was taken during its excavation. I can see what’s most likely a Neanderthal humeral head and what’s likely its dislocated diaphysis casting a shadow in the upper right, a bear’s distal tibia poking out and also casting a shadow, and at the same level, what I think must be a partially exposed bear fibula. These remains are clearly disarticulated and disturbed. Ironic, as I mentioned above, considering the trouble Bonifay claims the Neanderthals went to to “protect” the “corpse,” as you’ll see in a moment.

I’m even more sceptical of Bonifay’s claims, now that I’ve seen these two photo-documents of the remains and the one below showing the demolition excavation of the site.

Regourdou during Bonifay’s demolition excavations. Notice the collapsed cave’s proximity to the modern-day surface.

Now, let’s have a look at Cavanhié’s depiction of the pit and the pile that were said to have been the graves of a bear and a Neanderthal [actually this is one of Bonifay’s original illustrations, with Cavanhié’s embellishments]. 

The “Sépulture humaine” is the Neanderthal ‘burial.’ “Fosse 4 C” is subtitled “inhumation d’ours.” “Inhumation” is a burial, and an “ours” is an bear.
Speaking of bears. Being a bear of little brain, can anyone explain to me how Bonifay  could have distinguished between the artificially darkened rocks he called the “Sépulture humaine” and the rocks of the “Mur Nord” [north wall]? Ouija board? Tarot? Crystal ball? And, just out of curiosity, where did all those rocks come from???
Kay, so, have another look at the demolition excavation photo, above. See the ground level? Regourdou is a collapsed cave. The excavated portion was beneath the final roof collapse, which formed the modern land surface. This is shown beautifully in Bonifay’s diagram, below.

The letter S in the profile above denotes the modern-day surface. The notation “ch” indicates that this infilled limestone feature was what geologists called a chimney—an opening to the surface through which outside sediments made their way into the cave proper. All of the rocks that look like parts of a brick wall are the rubble of repeated major and minor roof collapse that ultimately buried the ‘archaeological’ strata of this site. I’ve indicated various bits of cave breakdown material, from the small stuff that’s clearly part of the chimney’s breakdown, to the middling sized stuff interspersed with the gigantic blocks in the upper middle, to the elongated blocks that are lying conformably on the central talus cone—the slanting surface that’s implied by their orientation, even thought there’s no symbolic depiction of what they’re resting on.

In the complex profile above, please note the scale, and the stratigraphic units labelled IVA, IVB, and IVC, respectively—indicating the Neanderthal burial tumulus [cairn or rock pile], the ‘north wall,’ shown here as an elongated lens, and the bear burial pit, looking like an empty space in a stratum overlain by IVB. [That, in itself, should set off alarms, since, in the profile below, IVC abuts IVB, which, stratigraphically speaking, indicates contemporaneity, not diachronic episodes—and, where, by the way, is the big flat rock that the bear was found under?] Also note, if you can, that these three features occur along the line between squares G3-4 and B3-4.

The image above is an enlarged cross-section that follows a line parallel to, and less than a metre closer to the observer than the more-complex cross-section above it—i.e. the section line spans G3 and C3. As you can also see, this close-up includes not only the Sépulture humaine—now a burial pit—but also the Mur nord, shown now as an unnatural, vertically oriented accumulation of boulders, and the gigantic [more than 2 tonne] Grande dalle, or ‘big flat rock,’ which the Neanderthals were said to have placed over the dead bear. Burly folk, the Neanderthals!

K. So, now we’ve seen the Neanderthal’s final resting place depicted as a cairn and a rock-filled depression. Wait. What? Yep. The wall is either a very wall-like vertical structure or an elongated lens—take your pick. And the bear burial, more like a dolmen, really, rather than the lidless stratum depicted in the previous section, or a fosse.

Now have a look at the cross-section below. This one is at right angles to the two up above. IVA is once again shown as a cairn—it’s a shape-shifter! Note also that there is no sign of IVB—the wall—or IVC—the bear burial. That’s interesting all by itself, since in this view IVA—the lonely tumulus cum sépulture humaine—is depicted as a pile of rock beginning against the cave wall in Row 1, and ending somewhere in Row 3. In other words, not only is IVA shown here as a pile and not a basin, but it’s also drawn in a completely different place than it’s shown in the detailed profile above.

W.T.F? W.T.F., indeed!

Now for the really subversive bit.
Or, should I say, the really sensible bit.
All of the illustrative material I’ve shown you here attests to one gigantic reality that seems to have excaped not only Bonifay, but also Cavanhié and EVERYONE ELSE IN THE PALEOANTHROPOLOGICAL COMMUNITY WHO’S EVER REFERRED TO THIS CRAP AS BEING INFERENTIALLY SOUND!
This is a karst landform. This was a subterranean cave. It was developing along the lines of squillions of similar geomorphic formations across the globe. In such places the following can be said, UNEQUIVOCALLY
1. The breakdown products of the vertical and sub-vertical surfaces of the cave [colloquially called walls] will fall vertically and come to rest on the floor of the cave immediately below their previous location.
2. The breakdown products of the upper horizontal and sub-horizontal surfaces of the cave [colloquially called the ceiling] will come to rest on the floor of the cave immediately below their previous location.
The floor of the cave is sloping.
Now, Grasshopper, look at the detailed profiles again. More UNEQUIVOCAL reality.
1. Sediments entering through the chimney will form a cone of talus.
2. Breakdown products of vaults forming in the ceiling will tend to fall in a circumscribed area directly beneath the developing vaults, forming cones of talus, or in the near-term, piles.
3. The sloping surface on which the large flat rocks are resting near IVC are resting on a humungous talus cone that formed beneath a vault or a chimney not shown, at a time when the cave volume was more open.

In such circumstances, it can be stated UNEQUIVOCALLY that on a steep-enough slope
1. Any breakdown products that are sub-round will immediately roll to the bottom, forming murs, ‘walls,’ at the base of planar slopes, and sépultures in naturally formed basins.
2. Any breakdown products that are laminar will come to rest conformably on the slope, or bridging nearby naturally accumulated tumuli or murs. forming what might appear to be a lid over a fosse, or basin.
We can thus state, UNEQUIVOCALLY, that
1. The inferences of purposeful burial and constructed walls at Regourdou are a very large, steaming pile of . . . it.


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Throwing in the Towel Thanks to Pinnacle Point, South Africa. As If.

At home. Under the weather. What else to do but watch the news ticker. It is ablaze with the latest news from Pinnacle Point in South Africa. The first word I had of it was a headline about this piece, just published, in Nature

In the article, long-time acquaintance and Mousterians ‘R’ Us advocate Sally McBrearty extolls the collection of more evidence for modern human behaviour at around 70,000 years. Sally was commenting on a Letter to Nature also published electronically yesterday. 

As you know from reading the SA, there are plenty of claims out there for modern human cognitive abilities or behaviours, or both, going well beyond 100 ka–blade industry at Kathu Pan 1 and Qesem Cave; hafting with bitumen or birch tar, and so on. However, as you also know, I’ve been critical of a great many of them. 
     Yet, according to the age estimates for unequivocally modern human activities at places in southern Africa, such activities are occurring at an age anywhere from 30 ka to 60 ka earlier than they do in Europe and southwestern Asia. For example, finds of decorated ochre and pigment processing ‘kits’ at Blombos Cave ca. 75 ka. In today’s piece by Brown et al. we’re hearing about use of the bow and arrow ca. 70 ka [I haven’t had the time to examine the actual evidence for the claim other than to note that they refer to the microlithic portion of the assemblage consisting of small backed blades.]. This of course is one of the inferences frequently made for the kind of stone tools comprising the Howieson’s Poort phase of what in Africa is called the MSA (Middle Stone Age). 

PP5-6 excavation. Deeply stratified and sharply inclined, much like a cone of talus [Credit: Erich Fisher; (inset) Simen Oestmo] © Science/AAAS.

I’ve previously said quite a bit about these early dates, here and here. However, this latest publication, and an earlier one from the same [or similar] group of authors, published in Science a few years back  claims [and at this point I have no reason to doubt them] that they have evidence of heat treating lithic raw material to make it more workable, between about 70 ka and 164 ka! This would be a great discovery even if a mere 30,000 years old. Unfortunately for me, these two inferences–of bows and arrows and heat treating–leave me with a new emotion–dismay–at the precocity of the ancient southern Africans. That’s because these microliths and heat-treated lithics from Pinnacle Point derive from a part of the Pinnacle Point locality known at PP5-6, which is generally described as a rock shelter.

Pinnacle Point PP5-6. Tarpaulin covers the excavations. © Science/AAAS.

      In my earlier rantings I suggest that using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) age determinations drawn from buried cave sediments may be the culprit, artificially overestimating the age of these patently modern human assemblages. That’s because there’s really no way of knowing, a priori, whether or not an individual quartz sand grain had ever been exposed to the sun, much less for how long. [This, you’ll remember, is a crucial assumption of the technique.] It’s this uncertainty that causes OSL experts to undertake what appears to me to be a complex series of calculations and extrapolations designed to overcome the potential shortcomings of the technique. However, a rock shelter is a bit stickier. Presumably a rock shelter would be exposed to sunlight year in and year out, and thus you might imagine that any quartz grain that came to rest there had been exposed to sunlight long enough to have its ‘clock’ set to zero [unless, of course, that grain had been stripped from older deposits, redeposited in the rock shelter and immediately covered by sufficient material to preclude its being affected by the sunlight thereafter–like, perhaps, at night]. Now, after about a day and a half of off and on Googling I’ve been able to sight nothing written that describes the geomorphic history of PP5-6. Nevetheless, I have a hypothesis that will allow me at least some peace of mind. Given its proximity to a series of true caves at Pinnacle Point, and given its location at the edge of the escarpment that contains those caves, it seems highly likely that, while exposed today, the sediment accumulation at the site occurred inside a cave in which the roof and shoreward wall have subsequently collapsed and migrated down slope.
   So, unless I’m mistaken, I have no more reason to accept these early dates from the Pinnacle Point locality than I do the others from caves in South Africa. I know that the Very Serious Palaeoanthropologists like Curtis Marean will simply scoff at my scepticsm. Nevertheless, one can’t help but wonder. And one day, perhaps, someone will try to directly date a piece of bone from one of those amazingly old stratigraphic units and Voila!
     I live in hope. No. Scratch that. As John Cleese’s supine character in Clockwise moaned, ‘It’s not the despair…It’s the hope.’


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