No, Paola Villa and Will Roebroeks, los neandertales no eran estúpidos! Pero muchos arqueólogos podrán ser estúpidos, o de manera más correcta, los más crédulos!

UPDATE 20140503 12:43 UTC: I wish to apologize to Paola Villa for allowing several misspellings of her given name to appear in the original version. I’d also like to say sorry to readers, who expect and deserve better. 

Ripped from the headlines!


News to me!

Portrait of a H. Neanderthalensis—man about town—posing with his 1932 Type 41 Bugatti Royale. Gianoberto Maria Carlo “Jean” Bugatti (not pictured) designed this 12.7 L 8-cylinder coupé that some think is the most elegant automobile ever built.

Let’s get one thing straight. I’ve never called a Neanderthal stupid, let alone the entire species. All I ever did was suggest that the widespread perception of them as having been more or less like you and I is based almost entirely on shaky inference-making, fallacious argument, perversely misplaced formal analogies, and a seemingly never-ending propensity to  hypothesize purposeful behaviour to explain unique or anomalous archaeological phenomena without first considering the range of physical and behavioural processes that could have created the Middle Palaeolithic archaeological record.

1931 Bugatti Royale Kellner Coupé

Let me be clearer. I wouldn’t call a Neanderthal ‘stupid,’ any more than I would call a bonobo ‘stupid’ because it couldn’t see the social significance of the difference between an ’97 Geo Metro and the beauty pictured here. I know, because I drive the former—gleaning more negative style points than almost anything else on the road—and one of the six produced still stands as one of the top 10 most costly road decorations ever sold at auction.

“As dumb as a mob o’ galahs.” Galahs are relatives 
of the parrot, and notoriously given to making what
seems like a lot of fuss about nothing—a lot like 
quail in the Americas. In the Australian English 
vernacular the simile applies to someone who’s 
evidently under-equipped to tie his** own shoelaces.

Besides, it wouldn’t make sense to deride a Bonobo, any more than it would to make fun of a microbe. To be ‘stupid’ first requires having the ability to engage in a conversation like this one, with another human being. It makes even less sense for serious scholars to claim that the Neanderthals were stupid, or that we are superior to them in any way; scholars who have done so should be sent to anthropological remedial school.


I have, on occasion, derided sheep* and galahs [above right] as perhaps the most senseless of warm-blooded animals. But never a Neanderthal—not in a scholarly vein, at any rate. [A golden Marshalltown to anyone who proves me wrong.] Why would I make such a specious value judgement? I can observe the cleverness of bonobos in the present. However, unlike the palaeoanthropological cognoscenti, I still haven’t perfected the arcane science of seeing into the bipedal-ape past using just the unmitigated objectivity of my 21st-century scientific, cultural, filter.

Scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey depicting the earliest bipedal apes being inspired by a monolith placed by an extra-terrestrial species, with the intent of kick-starting human cognitive evolution. Note: these are not bonobos. These are meant to represent our human ancestors. Any resemblance to the antagonists in the Planet of the Apes film series is, I’m certain, the result of chance and the then-current perception of what the earliest human ancestors were probably like. Planet of the Apes and 2001 both appeared on the silver screen in 1968. [Jung would have had something to say about that, I’m sure.]

I can’t disparage the Neanderthals. On the evidence, they lasted longer than we skeletally moderns have, and a whole lot longer than we cognitively modern H. sapiens. Although I won’t say that the Neanderthals were ‘limited’ because they were different from us, I will say that some archaeologists do seem limited—relative to the rest of their species and others of their ilk—because they are evidently unable to crowbar themselves out of their own disciplinary cultural context long enough to entertain the possibility that I—and others who share the same intellectual pathology—might be making more sense than the endless parade of Neanderthals ‘R’ Us cheerleaders and their often warrantless [much less well-warranted] premises based on century-old perceptions. The Neanderthal palaeoanthropological corpus is, like the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, all shiny and polished—where numberless neophytes have reverently fondled it and eventually fallen under its mesmerizing, doctrinal spell. Kinda like the way a pair of H. sapiens colleagues who’ve just published something to much media acclaim [something which, I must say, is exhilarating].

Villa, P., and W. Roebroeks. (2014) “Neandertal Demise: An Archaeological Analysis of the Modern Human Superiority Complex.” PLoS ONE 9(4): e96424. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096424

The authors are long-time acquaintances whom I would presume to call colleagues—I’m really not sure how they view me. They’re not friends, but amicable and high-profile archaeologists I’ve supped with and sipped with [but not slepped with, mind you!], and who are lovely human beings, who’ve made brilliant contributions—both to our understanding of how we got here, and to archaeological practice. Paola Villa’s lithic refitting study shattered the myth of a structure at Terra Amata, and is part of archaeological legend, even if it didn’t result in her immediate promotion to the palaeoanthropological pantheon. Given the persistence of the myth of Terra Amata, I can’t help but think that Paola must be as bitter as I that the standard story has such staying power.

Henri de Lumley’s interpretation of spatial relations at Terra Amata, Nice, France [ca. 400 ka] included an altogether unwarranted claim that the H. antecessor occupants built a structure of saplings planted in the ground, anchored by rocks. Paola Villa painstakingly refitted lithics and demonstrated that the ‘occupation layers’ de Lumley ‘observed’ were hopelessly mixed, and that his interpretation was not supported by the evidence he employed.

Kayso, according to Nature, PLOS ONE‘s—the open-access, online wunderkinde and flavour-of-the-month publishing juggernaut—raison d’etre is radical. PLOS ONE “will publish first, judge later.” I couldn’t agree more! All PLOS ONE concerns itself with, according to their publication criteria, is that

1. The study presents the results of primary scientific research [emphasis added rhg].
2. Results reported have not been published elsewhere.
3. Experiments, statistics, and other analyses are performed to a high technical standard and are described in sufficient detail [n/a rhg].
4. Conclusions are presented in an appropriate fashion and are supported by the data [emphasis added rhg].
5. The article is presented in an intelligible fashion and is written in standard English. [this shouldn’t even be an explicit criterion for publication—who would publish anything less in an English-language vehicle?]
6. The research meets all applicable standards for the ethics of experimentation and  [n/a rhg] research integrity [emphasis added rhg].
7. The article adheres to appropriate reporting guidelines and community standards for data availability.

Hmmm. I’m probably just quibbling. Nevertheless, it’s an open question whether or not Villa and Roebroeks (2014) is “primary” research. After all, the common gloss of the term follows closely this quote from Purdue University’s OWL pages discussion of Primary Research.

Primary research is any type of research that you go out and collect yourself. Examples include surveys, interviews, observations, and ethnographic research. A good researcher knows how to use both primary and secondary sources in her writing and to integrate them in a cohesive fashion. 

Like I said. I’m just quibbling. But it must be said, this paper is a review article, not primary research. Yet, despite this paper’s clear deficit where its minimum publication criteria are concerned, PLOS ONE obviously thought this paper important enough to give it the same “accelerated publication” that has attracted multitudes of archaeologists of all stripes since its inception—and, for my part, some of the worst written, worst argued, least scientific work that I’ve ever seen, either in print, or online. [‘Cept maybe for something Paul Pettitt put up years ago, but I won’t go there now.]

Gawd forbid that the discipline had been deprived of this paper for a nanosecond longer than it was! My word! Palaeoanthropological methods, grand ecoevolutionary theories, whole archaeological research programmes, and countless grant applications might have suffered in limbo had this paper been delayed in the publication pipeline of a more mature outlet, a refereed journal, one with a solid, long-standing reputation within the archaeological community for publishing important contributions—like Nature, or Science, or the Journal of Irreproducible Results, or even PNAS—rather than one such as PLOS ONE that will evidently publish anything that seems even marginally scientific and, greatest goal of all, potentially newsworthy [I’ll spare you my views on who and what decides what that might be]. Living with the knowledge that they’ve effectively sold out to instant gratification—and, perhaps, the promise of near-term professional advancement—is for Villa and Roebroeks, and of PLOS ONE. It’s not my problem. All I can do is endure the tripe that the moribund media headlines scream at me from the SA news ticker, and hope to make a decent effort at pointing out the shortcomings of whatever comes out of PLOS ONE‘s intertube entrails.

Where to, now that I’ve vented a bit? I’d ask you to guess, but it would be unnecessarily coy. Where else, but down the proverbial rabbit hole we go—at least as deep as is necessary to discover the nature of this paper’s “primary” contribution. I hope my friends will excuse me for, among others, citing my own primary research to that end. [Notice that I didn’t put that occurrence of ‘primary’ in quotes—neither sarcasm quotes, nor non-standard-usage quotes.] At least when I make a knoweldge claim I give more than one example of what I’m talking about. That, as you’ll see, is something Villa and Roebroeks have eschewed in this case.

What follows is my response to this latest PLOS ONE scholarly ‘omega.’

Forgive me, Paola and Will, for you know not what I do.

The authors purpose to

test the strength of the archaeology-derived hypotheses for Neandertal extinction . . . [using] a comparative study of the archaeological record of Neandertals and contemporary modern humans . . . between 200 and 40 ka.

Let’s see how ‘primary’ and ‘scholarly’ their ‘study’ is.

First up: language evolution and the question of whether or not I could be having this conversation with a Neanderthal. Rather than spend any time at all discussing THE crucial importance of assessing the one ability that, if found lacking, would forever stand to distinguish Neanderthals from us, the authors choose merely to denigrate efforts to infer language from the archaeological record,

Explanations for the demise of Neandertals have been developed at various levels of abstraction, and include topics notoriously difficult to study in the archaeological record, such as ‘‘complex symbolic communication systems’’ . . . , ‘‘fully syntactic language’’ . . .  or ‘‘cognitive capacities’’ in general.

and then to quote one—just one—non-archaeologist linguist, to put to rest the notion that this is a worthwhile avenue of enquiry. Rudi Botha is a colleague, too, and I have no major quarrel with what he says about language evolution and efforts to track it. However, I do object to Villa and Roebroeks’s summary dismissal of the whole enterprise using just one quote from Rudi’s work.

Botha has shown the assumptions and series of inferential steps some of these authors had to make before being able to squeeze ‘‘language’’ out of their mute artefacts . . . , see also . . . pinpointing the weak spots in the steps leading from observations about archaeological phenomena to statements about the presence of ‘‘fully syntactical language’’.

You’ll notice that the authors’ ‘primary research’ effort declines to mention perhaps the most insightful, psychologically, and archaeologically informed study to date on the palaeoanthropology’s great potential to pinpoint the time that bipedal apes like you and I became capable of conversations such as the one we’re having right now. [Warning to the reader, sincere, but unselfconscious plug of a friend’s work in progress.] William Noble and Iain Davidson’s Human Evolution, Language and Mind: A Psychological and Archaeological Inquiry took on the complex task of modelling the origins of language with special reliance on primate behaviour studies and a bona fide evolutionary perspective—something that slipped Stephen Mithen’s mind in his labyrinthine constructions of a way that language might have evolved like the stages of a Medieval cathedral. Novel, catchy, even elegant, but hardly science, and never evolutionary science. I doubt, Dear Reader, that you’ve even heard of it.

In their “comparative study of the archaeological record of Neandertals and contemporary modern humans” Villa and Roebroeks spend even less time on Hunting Methods and Diet, citing just four papers. On Organized Use of Space, the authors mention only the claims for vegetable ‘bedding’ at Sibudu Cave, putatively in the Middle Palaeolithic [MSA] of southern Africa. They pay little more than lip service to space use as a crucial category in the investigation of modern human origins. They cite Lombard’s (2012) “Thinking through the Middle Stone Age of sub-Saharan Africa,” informing us that

“the deliberate use and organization of living space’’ [is] ‘‘an important trait of culturally modern behavior

And here’s where I get to whinge a bit. It looks as if the authors have managed to miss my own, ground-breaking, primary research contribution to archaeological method and theory. I don’t say so out of some precious belief that my work is special. Rather, I believe that scientists who claim to have combed the literature for material pertinent to their subject should bloody well do so, and not choose to ignore, or omit out of ignorance, primary research that could inform—or question—their thesis. It’s not as if I buried my work in some obscuroid journal. I published a book. It’s in libraries. It’s sold [or not] on Amazon. But, for reasons known only to Villa and Roebroeks, my work escaped their notice. It’s no skin off my nose. However, it does suggest to some that we should take their review with a grain of salt.

In the palaeoanthropological literature it’s a little-known—or little acknowledged—factoid that yours truly has actually [en verité] made a primary contribution to the methods and theories that archaeologists use to interpret past events. When I was casting about for a dissertation topic, I settled on a methodological study, both because after the “Grave Shortcomings” debacle I wanted to make a be seen as capable of making a positive contribution, and because it seemed to me that any ‘interpretations’ of spatial patterning at archaeological sites pre-dating the arrival of modern humans in Europe ca. 40 ka implicitly depended on the idea that only people like us partition space according to cultural prescriptions, e.g. on the basis of gender, or age, heredity, or vocation. I had anecdotal evidence that any animal inhabiting an enclosed space, such as a cave or rockshelter, was capable of leaving behind ‘spatial patterning.’ [In plain English, ‘spatial patterning’ means the non-random, horizontal distribution of material of all kinds.] Villa and Roebroeks mention only the vegetation at Sibudu Cave in their drive-by treatment of site structure. But New Archaeologists from Binford to Koetje have discovered non-random artifact distributions at MP sites, and claimed that they represent culturally determined spatial segregation of activities.

Castle Budišov, near Czech Republic. 
One of the campuses of the Moravian Museum.
This is where yours truly, the Subversive Archaeologist, 
undertook Ph.d. research.

So, I spent ages trying to find a palaeontological cave site of a large mammal [cause that’s what we are]. Esmée Webb was the next-to-last person whose advice I sought. She suggested that I get in touch with Karel Valoch at the Moravské Zemské Muzeum in Brno, in what was then, still, Czechoslovakia. The rest, as they say . . .  Cave Bears and Modern Human Origins: the Spatial Taphonomy of Pod Hradem Cave, Czech Republic . . . was published in 1996. Since that time a total of 8 scholars have cited it. Despite the resounding dismissal it received, it demonstrated, beyond doubt, that cave bear and wolf behaviour produced non-random, behaviourally meaningful, spatial patterning of bones and bone fragments. *crickets*

It may strike only me as odd. However, to cite one non-archaeologist on the value of spatial patterning in recognizing modern human behaviour, and not to mention my unique, epochal, iconoclastic, earth-shaking, primary research cannot be seen as merely an omission. It’s a shoddy piece of research. No doubt in my mind why it was published in that joke of a research outlet, PLOS ONE.

I’ve probably said more than was necessary about this article. It falls short on so many fronts that, were I to have been the one to publish it, there would have been such an outcry that I might never have been heard from again.

I’m out of gas. So, I’ll let you carve into the rest of Villa and Roebroeks—I haven’t the heart.

Thanks for visiting. Thanks for listening.

* Sheep are the only species of mammals introduced to Australia that have never, NEVAH, survived in the wild. Goats do it. Cats do it. Rabbits do it. But sheep? Sadly, no.
** I use the

Oldowan [from Melka] Kunture is Not a Star Wars Character

A couple of weeks ago I clicked through to Erin Wayman’s Smithsonian blog, Hominid Hunting. The post I was curious about is part of a series called ‘Becoming Human‘ and the article in question was ‘The Origin of Stone Tools.’ I was struck by the graphic accompaniment to Erin’s article, reproduced here, and especially the caption from Erin’s blog, which is given verbatim below it.

‘Oldowan choppers are among the oldest-known type of stone tools. Image: Didier Descouens/Wikicomons’

The image depicts a chipped stone artifact from Melka Kunture, in Ethiopia. Its age and the conventions of African archaeology demand that it be referred to as an Oldowan tool, after Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the famous pair of Mary Leakey and Louis B. Leakey toiled for many decades. The artifacts pictured above could be as old as 1.7 Ma. However, artifacts just like these have been securely dated to 2.6 Ma elsewhere in Ethiopia, at Kada Gona.
     The caption reads ‘Oldowan “choppers”.’ ‘Chopper’ is one of the names that Louis Leakey gave to these early artifacts, and so, it would seem, has everyone else since the 1950s. The trouble is…where’s the evidence that this object was the desired end product such that it represents a distinct ‘type’? The evidence, I’d say, existed only in the mind of L. S. B. Leakey, himself. And the trouble with that? Well, many, many archaeologists have used and continue to use Leakey’s classification and, implicitly, it’s underlying lines of reasoning. And, after a time, use becomes convention, convention becomes unexamined ‘truth,’ and pretty soon it’s 2012 and the whole world thinks these objects are the typological equivalent of arrowheads–in other words the desired end product. Damage to the discipline? You betcha! Retaining such labels is counterproductive–it serves only to perpetuate and further solidify the reification that what you see in the illustration are truly the desired end products in the minds of the creatures that made them.
     So, Gargett, if they’re not choppers [or picks, or discoids] what are they? It’s not rocket science. I have to give the crafty bipedal apes credit for coming up with the ‘idea’ of banging one rock against another to remove a sharp edged fragment. Surely this was a stunning accomplishment for mammaldom. But really, aside from the energy required to remove said fragment, there’s nothing unique about such an act in the wide world of animals. We all remember that a species of Galapagos finch snaps off cactus needles to use as probes to extract insects from their hiding places. How far apart are the two behaviors? In fact I’d say they were pretty much identical, and probably used about the same cognitive structures, one being the avian version and the other, the ape. Both behaviours are reductive–one species bangs a rock against another rock to remove a piece to use to cut something; the other snaps off a twig to use as a probe. Both use the portion removed to effect their purpose, not the thing that remains after the removal. We wouldn’t dream of looking at the cactus, seeing that it’s missing a needle, and give it a special name that implies that it was the end product ‘desired’ by the finch. Why then should we conceive of the rock, lighter by one shard, as being conceptually different than the cactus? The only answer to that, as far as I can see, is that there is no good reason other than the misguided mindset of numerous archaeologists over the past century or so.
     Having said that, do I still need to explain why the artifact shown above isn’t what Leakey said it was? Oh, all right, in the view on the upper left, the ‘chopper’ has a relatively straight break margin. Thinking that this artifact was the end product, and your purpose is to ascribe a function to it, you might interpret such a shape in terms of a technology that you know modern humans have used for tens of thousands of years, and continue to use to this day. You’re going to think that the object looks [very roughly] like an axe or a meat chopper.
     In a similar vein, the view on the upper right shows the artifact having a bit of a point. Using the same level of imagination that made the first view into a chopper, the one on the upper right resembles a pick more than an axe. And thus, the artifact could just as well have been classified as an Oldowan ‘pick.’
     But why should we think that such artifacts were the intended end product? Isn’t it much more likely that the flakes struck off were the ‘desired end product,’ and the remainder just the ‘core?’ At least if we adopt a stance like this we won’t be privileging one set of behaviours over another. A number of archaeologists working today accept the essential ‘core’-ness of Oldowan artifacts. However, many of them believe that we can conserve these anachronistic classifications because they allow us to quickly characterize an assemblage. My credulity is strained to the limit by such arguments. To what end? What, I ask, is the point of knowing how many lumps of rock were discarded after one, two, three, or more flake removals?
     I’ll admit, it’s easy to pick on the Oldowan artifact classification and see it for what it is. It’s straightforward [as I see it]. Unfortunately, as I’ve stated before, the question of what was really the intention of the rock-knocker becomes crucial to the archaeological narrative as we get closer in time to the present. As you’ve seen before on the Subversive Archaeologist, it’s this notion of the finished artifact fallacy that’s at the heart of my critique of the so-called Levallois technique in the Mousterian [and, of course, the critiques of Iain Davidson and Bill Noble].
     I’ll save another examination of the Levallois technique for another time. I hope you had a fine weekend. Back to work tomorrow!

[This article has been updated to remove text referring to the illustration as three different Oldowan artifacts. It’s not. A tip o’ the hat to the ever-perspicacious Marco Langbroek for breaking the news to me in one of his comments.]

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