Homo erectus. Image: Henry Gilbert and Kathy Schick (Wikimedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0)

A tip o’ the fedora to for this archaeological howler.


D’you remember that story about the guy in [I think it was] Arizona who reckoned he had Acheulean—therefore Homo erectus—stone artifacts from surface sites? It’s a Bizarro World we live in.

Now we have a similar claim from Europe, where they oughta know better!

A rock, in all likelihood a hammerstone, was lifted from a newly plowed field near Lehberg bei Haidershofen in the Lower Austrian part of the Enns (a southern tributary of the Danube River)—the field that’s illustrated below. The hammerstone has a semi-circular reddish stain on it. That stain could have been imprinted by an ochre encrusted Homo erectus hand. Or not.

It’s axiomatic that the minute the word ‘ochre’ is mentioned, palaeolithic archaeologists and palaeoanthropolgists go ape-shit. Only humans use ochre—ipso facto whoever used that rock was a human. Except, in this case it’s highly unlikely. The caption for the plowed field mentions areas that are rich in ochre. You can almost make out the areas that are redder than others.

Archaeologist A. Binsteiner tells us that the ochre-stained hammerstone was found on the same surface as some well-rounded bifaces he found [that may well be Acheulean hand axes.]

Unfortunately for Binsteiner and the media stenographers that picked up the story, without stratigraphic correlatives two artifacts found at the surface are just that—two artifacts found on the surface.

There’s no hope of ascertaining the temporal relationship of any two artifats found on the surface that Bitsteiner criss-crossed while searching for evidence that aliens created the pyramids. The photo below is of the fundstellen [find spot] of a handaxe and a phalliform that has use wear from, apparently, pecking another rock, which was also found nearby. The caption, loosely translated, refers to this as the “stratigraphy” of the find spot.

Archaeologist Binsteiner also identified several other well-rounded bifacially flaked artifacts from the same locality—the ground surface shown above. The archaeologist reckons that the sediments that make up this open-air site are at least 500,000 years old.

I presume that’s why he thinks that the ‘handaxe,’ the hammerstone, and the phalliform river-rolled rock are contemporaneous. If YOU think that’s a sensible interpretation, hang around after my talk. I have a bridge in New York that I’m keen to unload for a song.

As these things go in archaeology, it’s quite possible that the ochre hand print is half a million years old, and that it was put there by a precursor of the human species. It’s also possible that pigs will fly, and that roses will emerge from one of my orifices the next time I have a BM.

If you were wondering why this field in Austria hasn’t been featured in Nature, wonder no more. You could put it down to  archaeologist Binsteiner not being boastful. After all, his earlier finds have been reported in some very-not-well-known journals,  such as Linzer Archaeologie Forschungen, Oberösterreich Heimatblätter, and
Archaeologie Online. Meaning no disrespect, I’m guessing that A. Bitsteiner had no choice but to publish in the literary backwaters of European archaeology.

I’m kinda sorry about the circumstances. I’m sure there are many palaeolithic archaeologists who’d’ve eaten up this putative phalliform, almost as rapidly as they would a vulviform engraving on a rock surface in the Dordogne. Although, seeing a phallus in this rounded example of sedimentary rock—identifying it as a phalliform—probably says more about A. Bitsteiner’s unconscious than he’d have liked if he’d been aware of his own neuroses! Wait a second! What’s that I see in the superior view? Is that an inscribed male urethra? I think it is. Well! Dang! I’m wrong again! The stylized urethra petroglyph is the proof that Bitsteiner was right, after all. This is a phalliform and I’m blind.

I’m also nearly out of breath at the staggering discoveries here revealed. Especially the mortar and pestle shown at right. That’s way more ‘cultural’ than we’ve seen from H. erectus before now. Where are the Arsuagas of the discipline? Where the De Lumleys? They should be here, if only to witness the silliness that sometimes passes as archaeology.

Obviously there’s a lesson here.

If you’re surface collecting and you find a dinosaur fossil next to an Acheulean handaxe, do you announce loudly that you’ve found evidence that dinosaurs and bipedal apes were contemporaries?

No. You understand that, for as long as the locality you’re surface-collecting has been a surface, the potential for finding items on that surface, from vastly different geological epochs is, one would have to think, high.

Your Honour. The prosecution rests. You’ll get no further phallicisms from me!

Pardon Me, Fred, But Is This Your Freudian Slip Showing? I Think Not.

As you may have guessed, anyone who published titles like “Grave Shortcomings” and “Middle Palaeolithic Burial is Not a Dead Issue,” might be amused at any similarly layered article title. I’m also someone who lets go a deep sigh of resignation when reading most article titles in my field. They not only leave a lot to be desired semantically, but also semiotically: dull as dust and twice four times so unhelpful as to be diffusely obfuscatory.

A brief paddle around the scientific title pool in just the last few days.

“Random and centrality-based emergence of leaders.”
A study of how peer pressures influences society.

“Hollywood Diversity Brief: Spotlight on Cable Television.”
Which concludes that shows having ethnically disparate characters garner better ratings for their writers.

These two articles might be pulling them in in Peoria with the right bait. Instead the authors go for the big surprise effect, preferring to say nothing of any importance in perhaps the most important words in the entire articles—the titles. What average Joanne in these disciplines—after skimming an email digest or a table of contents—could know that these two papers bore anything worthwhile? Seriously.

The big surprise for authors such as these comes when they discover no one reads or cites their [quite probably] important findings because the titles were so generic as to be a waste of printer’s ink. Physician, heal thyself. And guarantee more citations!

But crummy titles aren’t my problem. So, why start out with this? I just wanted to provide some background to the art of article titles before I introduced the following little gem, the title of which leaves no doubt what it’s about, and at the same time manages to coyly stick it to the discipline of palaeoanthropology.

Thank you, Fred Spoor! This is delicious. Don’t you think so, ID?

“Palaeoanthropology: Small-brained and big-mouthed,” Nature 502:452–453. doi:10.1038/502452a
(Published online 23 October 2013.)

A tip o’ the hat to friend of the SA, Patrick Randolph-Quinney, for notifying his facebook friends of this tidbit of Fred Spoor’s oeuvre. The title is close to slanderous! Unless, of course, the title is just a case of the author’s majestic Freudian Slip showing. Nah! But it does give Fred Spoor an out if they come after him for slander. And, thanks to the title, this latest contribution of his will attract the attention of everyone who wears the label palaeo [or paleo] anthropologist—and a huge audience not directly engaged in piecing together our evolutionary history from scraps of fossil bone.

Spoor’s Nature News & Views piece is aimed at the leaders of the Dmanisi, Georgia excavations of ~1.75 Ma fossil-bearing dirt. They recently described the latest in a long line of beautiful Hominids [sensu here]:

Click to go to the article on the Science web site.

A through F: Dmanisi cranium (D4500). 
G: Dmanisi cranium ( D4500) and mandible (D2600) form the complete skull. From Lordkipanidze et al. (2013).

Dozens of lifetimes have been spent in fruitless pursuit of even one such beautifully preserved hominid specimen. For the Dmanisi crew, it’s just the latest. [I know people who’d refer to theirs as disgustingly good fortune. But they’re not bitter!]

The problem for the Dmanisi lot, and Spoor’s main point, is that in the Science article they argue that the entire catalog of ~2.5 Ma to ~?1.77 Ma African, European, and Asian fossils represents a sole, but genetically variable species, that of Homo erectus (Dubois, 1892) [at one time referred to as Solo Man from Java]. Theirs is the quintessential evocation of the Multiregional Origins Hypothesis for the evolution of modern humans. And they couldn’t be more wrong.

But, I’ll let the palaeoanthropological sharks have their feeding frenzy. Fred Spoor has merely fired the first shot across Lordkipanidze et al.’s bow.

Dmanisi hominid skull (D4500/D2600) in norma lateralis

So, “Thanks! Fred Spoor” for leaving your steaming trace on the doorstep of the Dmanisi excavators, and that of the discipline at large.

I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Until next time!


SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist‘s facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett’s news feed), on Robert H. Gargett‘s 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.