Karen Ruebens, Part Two: It Was Touch And Go, But the Neanderthals Still Can’t Grab a Break. Beam Me Up, Scotty, There’s No Cultural Traditions Here

My last post began a critical review of 

Ruebens, K., “Regional behaviour among late Neanderthal groups in Western Europe: A comparative assessment of late Middle Palaeolithic bifacial tool variability,” Journal of Human Evolution (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.06.009

in which she rationalizes the various European Late Middle Palaeolithic (MP) stone bifaces. In my previous post I had a little fun with the five categories of biface that she settled on as suitable for comparison across Late MP Europe. My favourite is the fifth and final type: the Partial Biface. [For which we are given no information as to the reason for calling it that. I mean, really, whether or not its partial is irrelevant if what you’re dealing with is Mousterian bifaces. If you are able to tell that it was once a larger bifacially flake artifact, it’s still a biface!]

It turns out that Ruebens took an excruciatingly long path to settle on those five types. It was a journey that she could have cut short if only she’d asked me. After all of the various attributes were tabulated, the five types are just those that you would have arrived at following a traditional morpho-typological regime. Be that as it may, the author moved on. I’ve created a montage of the bifaces published in three photographs in the paper. They appear below.

Add caption

Having once established the five types for comparison, the author went looking for geographical patterning. In so doing she discovered what, to her, looked like three distinct regions of Europe, in which the Neanderthal inhabitants maintained a tradition (or three) of making and using artifacts only of a certain kind and in numerical proportion to one another, throughout the Late MP. That’s a revolutionary claim. Unfortunately the revolution turns out to be a dud.

It seems we’ve caught François knapping!

The deeper I get into this paper, the more I’m disappointed that it was published in the high-impact Journal of Human Evolution. For, when I began looking closely at the fourteen sites that the author personally examined, and which appear on the map below. It shows the extent of the three “culturally” distinct regions that the author proposes—the Mousterian of Acheulean Traditon (MTA), the Mousterian with Bifacial Tools, and the Keilmessergruppen (KMG). No, the letters in the initialism MTA are not transposed. The initialism for the MTA was born in France in the mid-twentieth century, to one François Bordes, the primary author of the French palaeolithic typology. He dubbed assemblages fitting this pattern Le Moustérien de Tradition Acheuléenne. Hence MTA.

I hope it’ll become clear to you, as it has to me, that this study is a total disaster. 

Big mistake. You look at the map above and you see three areas encircled by dashed lines—one yellow, one blue, and one red. And, in the absence of descriptive information [of which there seems to be in regard to this graphic] you might think that the little triangles that denote the locations of the 14 sites the author personally examined for this work. However, the reader who’s interested enough to go looking, you aren’t told the regional affinity of any of the 14 until the paper’s done. Yep, those bits of information occur in Table A.1. There the author gives us the “General characteristics” of those fourteen sites. Table A.1 is first mentioned in the Materials and Methods section, where the author explains 

. . . detailed typo-technological attribute data was collected from 1303 late Middle Palaeolithic bifacial tools from 14 case study sites. These 14 assemblages were selected to form a sample representative of the bifacial tool variation across the study area, including classic French MTA and German KMG assemblages, assemblages from other, lesser-studied areas, [AND] assemblages that do not conform to the MTA/KMG dichotomy (for an overview see Table A.1). [emphasis mine: hold that thought]

We’re told that the 14 provide a ‘representative’ sample. We’re also told that, in addition to the MTA and the KMG, there are other assemblages . . . and [those] that do not conform.

There’s no subterfuge there. But unless you’re aware of what’s to come, those ‘other’ two kinds of assemblages are just there, something, presumably, for the author to deal with further on. Later on, they are referred to again, this time as “other biface bearing entities.” Yet, all through the meat of the paper, we’re repeatedly informed that the 1303 artifacts cluster in patterned ways in three [count ’em, three] regions. It came as a surprise to me, and I’m certain it will for everybody that’s read this paper, there is, in fact, a fourth kind of assemblage that doesn’t fit in the tripartite regional picture. In Table A.1 these are referred to as “Other.” And, as you can see, there are FOUR OF THE EFFERS!

Once again I’m having to place it sideways for legibility.

The FOUR of the fourteen sites that, oh, by the way, didn’t fit into one of the author’s three ‘cultural traditions’ are: Sint-Geertruid, Grotte du Docteur, Champlost, and Abri du Musée. That’s juicy. No? Four of the sites that appear in the distribution map of ‘regional cultural traditions’ don’t belong. This paper should have had an epigraph: Caveat emptor. So, we’re down to nine sites that Ruebens has used to construct her cultural ‘typology.’ But, the revelations don’t stop there.

EVEN MORE DISTRESSING, Table A.1 informs us that the ‘assemblages’ from Sint-Geertrud, Bois-du-Rocher, and St-Julien de la Liègue were all surface collections amassed unsystematically over the past, oh, century or so. *big exclamation mark emerges from writer’s head* What? That’s really bad.

So, I think there’ll be no detractors if I toss out the four sites that Ruebens deems to be ‘other,’ and ignore the surface collections from Bois-du-Rocher and St-Julien de la Liègue.

If you’re keeping score, six of the fourteen “Case Study” site collections have just shown themselves to be worthless. That leaves eight that are, we’re told are, really, really, comparable and useful for such regional comparisons. Oh, yeah. I remember, Ruebens also included insights drawn from publications dealing with 67 other sites across Europe. That sounds good, I know. And it might have rescued her thesis if it hadn’t been for this, which the author leaves behind as she breezes past in a vapour,

In many [of the 67 other] site reports, exact numbers are not given for the different types of bifacial tools. 

 Wait for it . . .

Therefore for comparison purposes the occurrence of bifacial tools was divided into four categories: absent (blank), low (50%).

Quelle desastre! Who knows how much weight the author gave to these so-called data? It’s a good thing we don’t need to know. This whole house of cards comes down right before your eyes, and just a little further down.

After ferreting out the details that are only to be found in Appendix A, someone more critical than I might understandably suspect that, in the distribution map (repeated below), the author might appear to be being disingenuous. I don’t say that. But some might. Simply because there is no fine-grained discussion of this crucial graphic. If there had been, I might not have been duped by what I see in this map. I shows all 14 of the ‘Case study’ sites personally examined by the author [which we now know to be, in fact, eight in total.]

See all those sites within the boundary of the MBT? Does it surprise you that TWO of them are classed as MTA: Bois-du-Rocher and Saint-Just-en-Chaussée. In fact, only two of those sites illustrated within the MBT area are classified as MBT. And one of them we have already tossed—St-Julien de la Liègue—because it was all collected from the surface over the past century or so. The remaining three sites shown within the bounds of the MBT ‘cultural tradition’ area are from the “Other” category, i.e. cannot be assigned to any of the three ‘traditions’ that Ruebens has erected in this paper. Meet me after this map. So, you see, this map is almost completely misleading.

Okay. Where do we go from here? There are still eight ‘Case Study’ sites and the information from the 67 published assemblages. Do they still tell the same story? In a word? No. And I’ll show you why right now!

The two images that follow are based on a geological map, which I serendipitously found while searching on the Google for Europe+map+karst. The areas shown in blue are karst. They are the only places on that map where bipedal apes would have found flint. In the map immediately below I’ve plotted [as nearly as I could] those fourteen sites from the Ruebens map, above. The second map shows Europe without the six collections that we’ve had to toss out.

BEFORE. Yellow dots: MTA. Green dots: MBT. Red dots: KMG. Purple dots (!): OTHER. Source give in the next caption.

And after the six unsuitable sites are dropped.

AND AFTER. Ruebens ‘Case Study’ sites after culling the sic that are unsuitable for these purposes. Yellow dots: MTA.  Green dot: MBT. Red dots: KMG  Source: University of Aukland, School of Environment, “World Map of Carbonate Outcrops 3.0.”

We’re not through, yet. Even if, and I mean IF, the data from the 67 published collections made this paper a slam dunk, the only map that matters is the one right up there. And now I’ll tell you why, if you haven’t already figgered it out.

In addition to the ‘data’ that I’ve been discussing to this point [including yesterday’s post], Ruebens’s gives us a half-dozen morphological comparisons that I’m choosing not to worry about right now. I don’t think they’ll help the argument one bit. During her discussion of the THREE ‘regional traditions,’ we get the following graph, showing the relative proportion of raw material types found in the fourteen “Case Study” sites that I’ve been discussing thus far. Oops! I meant to say eight! No worries!

Figure 5. Proportional occurrence of different bifacial tool concepts across different macro-regions based on the data from 14 case study sites (Table 9) and 67 comparison sites (Table B.2). Northeast’ relates to the German sites (n: 15), Southwest’ to the sites from southwest France (n: 13) and Central Northwest Europe’ to the sites from the Netherlands (n: 3), Belgium (n: 19), Britain (n: 7), northern France (n: 8), western France (n: 7), and eastern France (n: 9). [taken verbatim from Ruebens 2013]

For those of you who are red-green colour-blind, the stacked bars illustrate the relative proportions of the five artifact concepts/types/traditions that Ruebens has defined, from left to right, and darkest to lightest. NOTE: here Ruebens employs the entire corpus of 14 ‘Case Study’ sites and the 67 published reports. So, this graph is the only place you’ll see what the author has used to construct and instantiate the three [not four] Neanderthal ‘cultural traditions.’You’ll see on the bottom bar that in the region the author terms the ‘southwest’ the numbers of hand axes approaches 90 percent of the overall assemblage. For the central area the hand axe proportion is just over 60 percent. In the northeast it’s less than 10 percent.

Ruebens concludes that these apparently persistent assemblage patterns are a clear indication of cultural traditions, and Neanderthal smarts.

Culture. Yep. Neanderthal culture. Cultural traditions. Time-honoured traditions. Dad and Mum showing little Eva and Adama how to make little sharp rocks from big dull ones.

Sorry. But Ruebens paints a completely erroneous picture with these data.There is really no evidence to support her thesis. And there is a perfectly good explanation for the distributions she has inadvertently come across.

Now, have a look at this map of Europe showing areas where one might acquire flint, by far the best material available, and perhaps, on balance, the best, all-round knapping rock of them all. The circles roughly outline the northeast (red), central (green) and southwestern (blue) regions used in the graph shown above.

Remember that the blue bits are sources of flint. 

What do you see within those three areas that Ruebens obviously did not see, much less consider? Yeppers. Blue stuff. Flint-bearing rock. So, now what do you think best explains the relative proportion of hand axes in each of the three circled regions—culture? Nope. I have a rock-solid alternative explanation. Lithic analysts call it curation, I believe.

In the northeast (red circle), where good chipping rock is really, really scarce, I’m proposing that if you live in that red circle, whether you’re a Neanderthal or one of us, any worthwhile lump of flint that you could get your mitts on would be used, retouched, used, retouched, used, retouched, and used to within an inch of its imperishable life. Moreover, if the FAF is correct, and I believe it is, the dearth of workable rock in Germany meant that if you got to the stage where in the southwest the lump would yell “Hand Axe” to unwitting palaeoanthropologsts, you wouldn’t stop to admire it’s symmetry.

On the other hand, if you lived in the central portion (green circle), where good rock is abundant, but not ubiquitous, depending on your location you’d either think you were in flint heaven and be a total profligate, or conserve, conserve, conserve like those poor buggers in Germany.

As for the southwest of France. Le magnifique Sud-Ouest! Wine. Great food. An equable climate, which would have come in handy to a Neanderthal as the world descended into the last major ice age. Again, depending where you are, you’d have to be stingy or you could say forget it, as, no doubt those in the yellow dots near the Dordogne Valley must have done. 

I think I can stop here. I was gonna go into great [and, frankly, mind-numbingly boring] detail about the metric comparisons, but I don’t think it’s necessary at this point.

I trust that you’ve enjoyed this trip to Late Mousterian Europe. Join me next time for another trip down Mythopeoia Lane.

Your comments will always be welcome. It’s Miller time.

Adios, muchachos!


SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist‘s facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett’s news feed), on Robert H. Gargett‘s Academia.edu page, Rob Gargett‘s twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog’s RSS feeds. You can also become a ‘member’ of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You’re the reason I do this.

More Re: Karen Ruebens* and Neanderthal Lithic Cultural Traditions [?]—Part The First

Over the last two years I’ve barked at and bitten the referees and editors of most of the journals we depend on for new knowledge of us and our origins: Science, Nature, Quaternary Research (QR), QR InternationalQR ScienceJournal of Archaeological SciencePNAS, and the hapless PLOS ONE.

Moving right along . . .

The other day I promised more detail as to why I think Karen Ruebens’s arguments in the Journal of Human Evolution (JHE) couldn’t stand up to critical scrutiny. Today, I’m fulfilling that promise. This must be your lucky day!

Go here to access the paper.

I’m finding that I’m spending a lot of time on this critique. I suppose it’s worthwhile to suggest a good reason as to why I should expect you or anyone else to follow me down this path. I think there’s a really, really, important reason for both.

Karen Ruebens is claiming to have achieved what could not be achieved by others in the . . . oh . . . hundred-plus years that archaeologists have been seriously studying the Middle Palaeolithic (MP).

Think about it. It’s akin to a fossil hunter revising the entire bipedal ape taxonomy and phylogeny. It’s no small thing. And the media are already running with it, and in many languages.

It’s for this reason it’s imperative that we take a very close look at the premises, the evidence, and the arguments used in support of Ruebens s claims. If her claims becomes orthodoxy, those of us on this side of the palaeoanthropological fence will be rolling it uphill on an even steeper slope.

Get it?

Got it?


This paper deals with the “late” MP, about 115,000 ka to about 35,000 ka [i.e. Marine Isotope Stages (MIS) 5d–3, see below]. It was a time during which the Neanderthals had the run of Ice-Age Europe and western Asia—at the same time as the global climate was deteriorating. As you can see from the graphic below, the late MP started off at the height of the last interglacial. Initially the Neanderthals enjoyed a climate much like that of today. But, by the time Neanderthals disappeared from the fossil record, Earth’s climate was on its way to being the coldest it had been for several hundred thousand years. The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) occurred considerably later, and by that time our direct ancestors had been the sole inhabitant of Europe for some 20,000 years.

Marine Isotope Stages of the last 300,000 years. Dashed yellow line marks the division between warmer and colder global climate. Dashed grey lines delineate the late Middle Palaeolithic period discussed in the Reubens paper.

Actually, as I began reading this paper I had high hopes, because of what motivated the author: to unjumble the tangle of lithic technological terms and local and regional temporal and typological nomenclature used throughout Europe by palaeolithic archaeologists. Ruebens focusses on bifacially flaked stone artifacts from the last 20 kyr or so of the MP [from about 60 ka to about 40 ka], and a broad swath of Europe including France, England, the low countries, and Germany.

Data collection was aimed at acquiring observations on

1. artefact condition [oddly, not defined, nor does it form part of the presentation];
2. technology—raw material, blank, cortex, back, cross section, shaping and edge angles;
3. typology—both bifacial tool concept and bifacial tool type;
4. measurements and ratios. 

I put the terms concept and type in italics for a good reason: those words are a red flag to me. A concept can reside in the mind of the archaeologist; or, its use can bely the presumption or interpretation that a concept was formed in the head of, in this case, a Neanderthal rock knocker. As for the notion of a type, many of the 50 or so MP types defined by François Bordes are now seen as representing a stage in a time-transgressive sequence of flake removals that had no object other than to create and maintain a useful cutting edge. Many of Bordes’s types were erected due to what’s come to be known as the Finished Artifact Fallacy (FAF)—the idea that although we are able to group like with like, the group’s constituents need not result from deliberate action. Harold Dibble’s careful work on lithic reduction sequences gave us the best illustration of the FAF.

From Harold L. Dibble, “The Interpretation of Middle Paleolithic Scraper Morphology,” American Antiquity 52:109-117, 1987.

The Ruebens paper’s major claims are concisely laid out in the abstract, a snippet of which is reproduced below.

     Results indicate a high level of variation among individual bifacial tools and assemblages. Each bifacial tool concept is correlated with various methods of production, resulting in large degrees of morphological variation. Despite such variation, a distinct three-fold, macro-regional pattern was identified: the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition (MTA) in the southwest dominated by handaxes, the Keilmessergruppen (KMG) in the northeast typified by backed and leaf-shaped bifacial tools, and, finally a new unit, the Mousterian with Bifacial Tools (MBT), geographically situated between these two major entities, and characterised by a wider variety of bifacial tools.
     Differing local conditions, such as raw material or function, are not sufficient to explain this observed macro-regional tripartite [word missing? division?]. Instead, the MTA and KMG can be viewed as two distinct cultural traditions, where the production of a specific bifacial tool concept was passed on over generations. Conversely, the MBT is interpreted as a border zone where highly mobile groups of Neanderthals from both the east (KMG) and west (MTA) interacted. [emphasis added]

This isn’t the first time the author uses the term correlated, and while it’s denotatively correct in this context, the reader’s thoughts instantly presume that some robust statistical analyses will be presented. They never materialize. [Further down, these correlations will figure prominently.] Then the other shoe drops. We learn that the author has found evidence of cultural traditions in her research. I was on pins and needles to see the data! 
But, before getting into the gritty business of typologies, I want to pause and consider what the abstract tells us about the primary finding of Ruebens s work. I don’t know about you, but after I read the abstract and consulted the map at left, my first impression was that what’s identified as “a border zone,” and a third “distinct cultural tradition”—the MBT—appears to be anything but. Seriously, the MBT is not a “border zone,” even if it says so in the paper. The MBT spans the breadth of the MTA, yet it overlaps the KMG only for about half the length of the total overlap between the MTA and KMG. Moreover, this reader is wondering just how the author managed to distinguish between the two ‘cultural traditions,’ MTA and MBT, if the MBT is superposed. I say to author Ruebens: “Do tell!”

As I pored over the text and tables in this paper, it became clear to me that results are squarely based on the a priori presumption that the shiny biface thingies called different names in different places WERE, in fact, the result of concepts in the Neanderthal consciousness—she accepts, holus-bolus, the reality of the various artifact types. Having mentioned the FAF in her introduction, the author completely ignores it for the remainder of this paper. So, she addressed the 25 differently named biface types, lumped like with like, and arrived at five categories, or types, concepts, cultural traditions—you name it. 

Okay. Let’s look at what the author distilled from the plethora of counter-productive local nomenclature and typologies. [Sorry to have to put up the entire table in what follows.]

Ruebens states that the five divisions are 

defined by a diagnostic combination of technological and typological attributes, including the location and extent of the bifacial shaping and/or retouch, the number of cutting and backed edges, the cross section of the piece and its overall outline shape (Table 3). All five concepts can be viewed as rather distinct, with only few transitional forms being present in the archaeological record. Since each concept is based on least common denominators, morphological variation is present within each category, as expressed by differences in size and exact outline shape.”

I know exactly what the term lowest common denominator means in arithmetic. However, I have no idea how I’m to understand its use in this context. I’m guessing it must be used figuratively. Unfortunately, it’s never mentioned again. Table 3 follows. I had to put it sideways to make it legible. Sorry.

After having a look at Table 3, I think I might have a better understanding of what the author is trying to tell us when using the term correlation. I believe it’s that her five concepts share many traits among them, but that each one has a unique ‘signature.’ Let’s look closer at Table 3, although I have to say off the bat that it doesn’t inspire confidence. 

Call me a pedant, if you want. But, I believe we can toss out the category “Location of shaping/retouch.” Why? Because Ruebens has told us she’s undertaking a study of bifaces! So, there’s not much point in using ?bifaciality? as one of the diagnostic criteria. No. Wait! She’s at least partly justified in using this parameter—one of the five type/concept/cultural traditions is bifacial  only some of the time. Hold the phone. What, fer gawd sakes, is a “partial biface?” A lump of rock is either a bifacially flaked something-or-other, or it’s not! More reason to toss out the category.

You are the weakest link! Say goodbye to “Location of shaping/retouch.”

I also think we can toss out the attribute of backedness? I mean, once you’ve recognized a feature of some artifacts, and called it backing, you shouldn’t NEED any other criteria to distinguish backed things from things having no back. “Back” is an especially shaky criterion if three of the types may or may not be backed [which is what I take the term ‘variable’ to mean in this context]. Thus, this category is useful only useful, all of the time, to help distinguish hand axes from backed bifaces. What good is that?

Dave, what parting gifts do we have for “Back”?

Number of cutting edges seems another tosser. ‘Cause, if backed bifaces and bifacial scrapers can have 1 or 2 cutting edges, and the other three can have only 2, then we’re talking about seven types, not five. Fat lot of good that does! “Cutting edge” [which this research isn’t, by the way] is only useful for distinguishing between the three that always have 2 cutting edges and the four other types that can’t seem to make up their minds.

Gong! Get that talentless “Cutting edge” off the stage.

So, where does that leave us? Let’s re-jig Table 3 using the criteria left once the unhelpful ones are tossed out.

Once the array is culled to this point, it’s clear that “outline shape” is capable—all by itself—of uniquely identifying the five concepts that Reubens has proposed.

I guess it’s all right if Ruebens wanted to go to so much trouble to substantiate the five concept type traditions. Problem is: to be usefully critical of this paper, this poor reader was compelled to go through the truly painful process that I’ve just dragged you through. Worse, others might be tempted to ask the question, “Where was the editor when this paper was undergoing review for its publishability? Where were the referees?” I’d never ask such questions. But others might.

So, you’ve just seen the author find a very strenuous way to replace good, old fashioned, typology.

It’s time we saw some of those shiny bifacial thingies.

I extracted these images from each of the three figures in Ruebens’s  paper, resized them to the same scale, and placed ‘like with like.’ Here’s what I got. Look long and hard, but not too. Your head might explode.

As you can see, the objects in the left part of the frame are all termed hand axes. The others fall under what the author refers to as “backed and leaf-shaped bifacial tools,” which comprise the other four concept/type/traditions. Can you see the same things I see? For example, how do you get a leaf shape out of any of those objects on the right? No plant that I know of has such asymmetrical leaves! And, frankly, the whole issue of the so-called backed artifacts gives me hives. I could easily see any of the ‘backed’ artifacts in this array arising from continued flake removals on a ‘hand axe’ such that it ceases to look like a hand axe. [Remember the Dibble diagram up top?]

Logically, the proximal—butt—end of the ‘hand axe’ that’s been whittled down to something resembling the bottom four on the right. That butt would be identified as the backed portion, and the final flake removals on the opposite margin created one final cutting edge before it was dulled beyond usefulness and discarded.

Tell me I’m wrong. Isn’t that what the FAF is all about? Regardless of your position on hand axes, it’s straightforward: if the FAF is in play with hand axes, logically we should be able to see the results of gradual further reduction along the lines that we saw in Dibble’s work with MP scrapers.

Fellow FAFsters, start your engines!

[By the way, no doubt because I’m Anglophone and geographically deprived, I’d never heard of either the Keilmesser or the Faustkeilblatt before today. Live and learn.]

Table 3 isn’t all that this paper is about. If it were, I’d be breathing easier. Instead, Ruebens goes on to consider other parameters of European MP bifaces in an effort, one imagines, to bolster her identification of the five concept/type/traditions and to set the stage for the new map of MP Europe. I’m keeping an open mind. [As if.]

So, we’ve come to the point where I sum up this installment of my remarks on the Ruebens paper.

Here it comes. The summary.

I hope that the referees and editors are squirming by now. This story doesn’t have a happy ending for the JHE crew, and it’s not the fault of the author.

Next time I’m gonna get into the metrics of this revision of the MP of Europe. Hold on to your hat!

* I apologize for spelling the author’s name incorrectly throughout the earlier version of this piece.


SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist‘s facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett’s news feed), on Robert H. Gargett‘s Academia.edu page, Rob Gargett‘s twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog’s RSS feeds. You can also become a ‘member’ of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You’re the reason I do this.