Well, Duh! The Phrase, "Goes Without Saying," Comes to Mind Upon Reading Brown et al. (2013), "Site Distribution at the Edge of the Palaeolithic World: A Nutritional Niche Approach" [Where Else But In PLoS ONE?]

Major. Major news emerging from PLoS ONE this week! Get a load of this.

Brown AG, Basell LS, Robinson S, Burdge GC (2013) Site Distribution at the Edge of the Palaeolithic World: A Nutritional Niche Approach. PLoS ONE 8(12): e81476. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081476

Unlike so many papers that have been ‘reviewed’ at The Subversive Archaeologist, this one doesn’t involve the authors taking a logical pratfall. Instead, Brown et al. offer us a statement of the obvious—you know, something along the lines of 

“Who shot him? I asked.
The grey man scratched the back of his neck and said: Somebody with a gun.”
― Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Don’t worry, guffawing is an appropriate response—both to the Hammett quote and to Brown et al.’s game[not]changing research findings. And, I’m not the only one who felt like mocking Brown et al.,  or feigning horror when I encountered the paper this morning—just look at what greeted me as the article was loading on Safari. 

[Just look at the photo, Dear. The photo! Not the rest of the ad!]

My analysis of this latest palaeoanthropological revelation from PLoS ONE will be very brief. So, before I proceed to expose yet another PLoS ONE howler, I’m gonna take a few minutes of your time to share an instant classic, courtesy of YouTube. [Apologies to my friends who might not be so fluent in English that this performance is an auditory blur—never mind, I think the parody is just as good without the sound.]  

Thanks to ID for thinking of me when he espied this gem.

Now, back to today’s episode of “The Subversive Archaeologist Show.”

See if you agree with me. It’s PLoS ONE—open source, free—so there’s no excuse for not looking at the paper with your own critical eye. I can’t help but conclude that there’s no “original contribution” here, unless you consider coining a new phrase reason enough to accept a paper for publication. [To be fair, the authors do introduce a novel analytical term—nutriscape—but I’m not sure it rescues this paper from the oblivion it truly deserves.]

Forgive me if what I’m giving you is oversimplified. Regardless of the hard work that went into the paper, the conclusions don’t repay the effort. So, let’s have a look at what the paper says of itself. Direct quotes will do nicely to illustrate the nature of this PLoS ONE article. First

During the last four interglacials the . . . richest Palaeolithic sites in terms of biface densities is [sic] strongly biased to the lower reaches of river valleys and sites which were above [Natural Tidal Limit] but in proximity to tidal rivers and estuaries. 

Let’s see . . . In the real world [as opposed to the Bizarro world the authors apparently inhabit] those sites couldn’t have been anywhere else BUT above the Natural Tidal Limit! That’s this paper’s first instance of stating the obvious. It’s not the last. OK. What about their idea to use the ecological circumstances of Middle Pleistocene sites to say something general about the behaviour of the bipedal apes that left their traces at those sites? 

First you and I must invoke the usual caveats having to do with visibility and the preferential choices that palaeoanthropologist make as to where they will undertake their research. You know. The sites we choose to work should be comfortably close to a bar or public house, not too far from centres of culture, and not so remote or inaccessible that we spend all our research funding just getting to and from the site. It’s well known that what palaeoanthropologists have to-date observed could be biased in untold numbers of ways, in turn biasing the authors’ ‘dataset’ and thus their analysis. Even if you ignore those two sources of bias, in the quote above the authors are inadvertently proclaiming their own biases [or the blinders/blinkers that they are wearing] when they say that their ‘data’ are strong. 

Glacial geomorphology provides a perfect example of the possible biases at work in patterning the ‘data’ that Brown et al. rely on. During interglacials, global temperatures are warm, arctic and antarctic ice sheets melt, and sea levels rise. During glacials, more of the Earth’s water ends up trapped in the ice sheets, and sea levels fall. In each of the interglacials covered in Brown et al.’s paper, sea levels would have been as high as, or higher than the present day. Okay, SA. What’s your point?

Okay, smarty-pants, what happens to rivers as the world’s oceans regress? South of the ice sheets, all things being equal, rivers begin to downcut and continue to do so until sea levels reach their lowstand. This is a time-transgressive process that, in more northerly latitudes,  proximity to the expanding ice sheets determines how deep and for how long a river will continue to downcut, or, for that matter, continue to flow. Brown et al.’s site sample is derived from the major river valleys of what’s now southern England and northern France, which would have been equally affected by climate. So, to the extent that these northern rivers could downcut, they would have done so, in equal measure, all things being equal [once again] [geomorphically speaking]

What of it? Who cares? We do, of course! Because, in the study area during glacial maxima, much of whatever bipedal apes left behind on or near a river’s floodplain would very probably have been disturbed or eroded completely, either by the downcutting stream or by mass wasting of the new valley’s sides due to the river downcutting in unstable, unconsolidated sediments. Have a look at the two diagrams I’ve just spent about four hours crafting. [A pitiful performance, I’ll admit. But at least this time I didn’t breach copyright!] 

Sure. Sure. I know. I know! Each river is unique, sacred in its oneness. But, in general, these are the two sedimentary regimes that help me to think about the Middle Pleistocene archaeological record in the area that Brown et al. have dealt with—what part of the record was [and wasn’t] or might have been ‘lost’ to glacial geomorphic processes. As you can see from the two cartoons, we palaeoanthropologists of northwestern Eurasia are mightily lucky that the most recent glacial maximum was less severe than the previous. Otherwise we might never have discovered the presence of Middle Pleistocene bipedal apes in areas near the great ice sheets.

‘Kay. So. What now? Now that we’ve dealt with the problematic ‘database’ that these authors use to ‘analyze’ some sites and niches, let’s have some fun.

Getting back to where we started. Remember that the authors have identified some salient points about Middle Pleistocene archaeological sites.

Location and topography of a bunch of Middle Pleistocene bipedal ape sites in southern England (top land mass), and northern France (bottom land mass). From Brown et al. (2013).

In their own words

[These places afford] access to water, safety from predators, lowest river crossing points (natural rivers are shallow and frequently anastomose in these reaches facilitating crossing)

River crossing points? Have they ever sashayed sur la Seine? Ventured to cross the Volga? Tip-toed across the Thames? They’re joking, right? I know some have claimed that Homo erectus could make a boat. Likewise the Neanderthals. Really, though, there’s not a scrap of evidence to support such arm-waving. But a boat would have been needed to ford most of streams in their analysis. [And they never explain the whole predator thing.]

and food resources. 

Mustn’t forget food resources. Well, duh! Why would they expect to find bipedal apes somewhere there wasn’t any food? Never mind. Brown et al. go to great lengths [no doubt at much expense of time and treasure] to classify the ecosystems in which these sites are found, and to judge them on their ecological merits.

In the above image, you see an encapsulation of Brown et al.’s ecological analysis. It emphasizes that, for Middle Pleistocene two-leggers, most of life’s necessities were to be found near the rivers, and not the uplands. There’s really nothing new, or even elegant about this inference. It’s been the same story since time immemorial. Or, to use a less hackneyed expression, for effing ever! The key is “Location, location, location.”

ecological classification . . . shows a marked potential locational advantage for floodplain zones as opposed to the forested slopes, plateaus and even clearings.

Sorry. I’m having trouble making sense of this phrase. I guess it means that, ecologically speaking, the sites used for their analysis were where the food was. Should this surprise us?

It is argued that this advantage may have included access to plants and animals which provided both essential energy and macronutrients but also critical micronutrients which maintained population health and maximised reproductive success and may have increased cultural complexity . . . .

Wow. There’s a mouthful. *cough* Are we to imagine that the two-leggers chose to hang out where they could score the best micronutrients? Whether or not they did, they certainly didn’t know they were increasing reproductive fitness by getting sustenance where it occured, instead of having to hike from a barren hilltop down to the river whenever the need to find food arose.

The upshot, according to Brown et al.? 

Such Palaeolithic diets . . . have been implicated in ‘healthy aging’, an emerging concept in evolutionary nutrition which has as its mantra ‘we are what we eat, but we should be what we ate.’ 

I’m thinking “Paleo Diet.” They’re joking. Right? Loren Cordain’s Paleo Diet?

It is possible these locations were perceived as ‘healthy/good places’ to which hominins returned on a regular, and prolonged basis,

Like I said: whether or not these critters ‘knew’ what they were doing, as good mammals they would’ve figured out where the food is. Wouldn’t they therefore tend to frequent such places [the way I used to frequent Joe’s winery until the cash ran out]?

and may have been ‘marked’ by their assemblage of artefacts . . . .

Am I hearing right? Are Brown et al. suggesting that ‘hand axes’ were left strewn about for the same reason that a dog pisses on fire hydrants? And, while I’m at it. If the ‘hand axes’ were ‘left’ where the good food was, why would the two-leggers ever have left? At this point in the paper I’m starting to lose patience. But it gets even better.

A possible symbiotic interaction through niche creation on floodplains is postulated between hominins, horses, freshwater fish (particularly eels) and beavers. 

Wow! Brown et al. have discovered that bipedal apes were part of an ecosystem. It included horses and beavers, and eels [mustn’t forget the eels, ’cause they’re important for the Paleo Diet.] The authors imagine that these four life forms lived in symbiotic relations with one another. They don’t say so, but surely they must be thinking of ‘mutualistic symbiosis’ as opposed to the other types of ‘symbiosis.’ Parasites, after all, have a symbiotic relationship with their host. Lichen is the result of a symbiotic relationship: it’s an organism made of a fungus and a blue-green alga living off each other. The ecological relationships Brown et al. discuss are just that—ecological relationships—which don’t need to be puffed up by calling them symbiotic. If the four organisms discussed in this paper are in symbiotic relationships, then so is every other organism on the planet!

[T]hese . . . important and revisited locations . . . support the contention that river valleys provided the nutrient-rich route-ways of exploration and utilization of Palaeolithic landscapes. 

I’m wondering if the beavers and horses knew they were living the good life in the best place on earth [the way Brown et al. propose was the case for the two-footed neighbours with their sharp rocks]. And what possible benefit could an eel secure by being eaten by a bipedal ape. I’m really lost, here.

Despite their best analytical efforts—and they’re nothing to sneeze at, believe me—the conclusions that the authors make are of the “goes without saying” sort. It’s a variant of “stating the obvious.” Even though they did a lot of work to arrive there, I’m not sure the journey was worth it, for us, or for them. At best Brown et al. give you a good idea of what happens to a person’s mind when they’re brought up on a steady diet of palaeoanthropological myth. When they reach disciplinary adulthood, they’re incapable of doing anything but re- re- re- reifying someone else’s myth. You’ve heard of the expression ‘standing on the shoulders of giants,’ often used to express how science has a cumulative dimension? I think it’s time for a new one. 

Whaddayathink of this? Instead of ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants,’ try ‘Pissing into the wind while scaling the newly clothed emperor, trying to get to the top of the beanstalk to meet Grandma, only to find that you’ve been swallowed whole by the nefarious wolf.’

It’s your turn. Meet me at Facebook and leave your suggestions. I’m off to tidy my micronutrient processing area.

Thanks for coming in today.
W. Olf

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.

Chazan’s Amazin’ Tunnel Vision: Truly A Chip Off The Old Block Of Bordes’s Palaeolithic Typology.

This is the story of the Finished Artifact Fallacy (FAF). It’s incessant mission: to infer strange new lithic technologies and new behavioural inferences: to boldly go where no palaeolithic archaeologist has gone before.

“Butchering with small tools: the implications of the Evron Quarry assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus,” by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013. 

From “Butchering with small tools: 
the implications of the Evron Quarry 
assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus,” 
by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013.

Allright. I know. I’m a Star Trek fan. And it’s probably very geeky to make an analogy between the FAF and the starship Enterprise‘s mission. Sometimes I just can’t help myself!

My paean to Star Trek was inspired by the just-published, peer-reviewed, “Butchering with small tools: the implications of the Evron Quarry assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus,” by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013. It may bear the Good Housekeeping Seal, but it is, fundamentally, flawed. The author, together with the Antiquity editors and referees ought to be charged with false and misleading advertising!

The intellectual earthquake that this paper represents cannot be underestimated. From it, we learn that “[s]mall tools are emerging as a common element of the Early Stone Age/Lower Palaeolithic toolkit … . On Oldowan sites, including Omo 57, Omo 123, Wonderwerk Cave and Sterkfontein, flakes under 20mm in maximum dimension [averaging between 22.2 mm and 37.9 mm] are a major component of the assemblage and an intentional product of knapping … ” [emphasis added]. Remember that last phrase. It becomes important further down.

Me, trying to wrap my
brain around this argument.

What’s wrong with me? I should be ecstatic that a palaeolithic archaeologist recognizes the central importance of flakes in the Oldowan and later technologies. But alas, my euphoria is still born. The author adheres to the old school of palaeolithic typology when he classifies some of the chipped stone pieces from Evron Quarry “choppers” and “polyhedrons.” And, in a stunning bit of ‘doublespeak‘ the author  proceeds to re-re-reify the notion of the ‘hand-axe.’ According to Chazan, small flakes predominate at Evron Quarry as an “adaptation of local materials that make poor hand axes.” Translation: Homo erectus was predisposed to make ‘hand axes,’ but couldn’t. So they used flakes by themselves as a substitute for ‘hand axes.’ Those flakes, he argues, “reflect a level of conceptual thought [i.e. “an ingenious improvisation on the part of Homo erectus”] that allowed the occupants of Evron Quarry to solve the problem of how to butcher an elephant using only the material at hand.” 

Almost takes your breath away. Don’t it? Wait a sec. Isn’t the material “at hand” always the only material ‘at hand?’ If those H. erecti were so clever, why didn’t they walk a few kliks and find better material? After all, one of the site’s early excavators declared the assemblage to be an artifactual accumulation of many temporally separate events. If that were true, surely during one of the times the H. erecti were elsewhere, they could have picked up some better material to take back to the quarry. [BTdub, that would be the Lower Palaeolithic equivalent of carrying coals to Newcastle!] Unless… No. Of course! I’ve got it! εὕρηκα! The explanation: at each of the times those bipedal apes left chipped rock on the ground at Evron Quarry, it was because they had just spotted [or caught a whiff of] the rotting carcass of an elephant. And, logically, fearful that the meat would be thoroughly spoiled if they spent time wandering around the countryside looking for the best raw material to make a ‘hand axe’ with which to butcher said carcass, they instead used whatever was ‘at hand.’ Nah. We should just take Michael Chazan’s word for it. Or not.

Do I really think Chazan is asking us to accept such a monumental shortcoming on the part of H. erectus? Evidently. But I’m not sure the author even realizes how badly this looks for an “ingenious” species like H. erectus. Even if that were its only shortcoming this paper would be an “archaeological howler.” But, buried in the data presentation there’s an even more fundamental error in thinking.

As if the author’s effusive praise for the quick-thinking H. erecti wasn’t comic enough when viewed in terms of my [half] facetious scenario, we learn that indeed there are ‘hand axes’ in the Evron assemblage. But these “are all very thick,” and “[u]nfortunately no complete handaxes were found in the excavation” [emphasis mine, SA]. Hmmm. In a minit I’ll be showing you the ‘hand axes’ from the quarry site. There were apparently quite a few, only no “complete” ones came from the three test pits that Chazan used as his sample, which he refers to as “the excavation.”

I’m reading between the lines, here. I’m guessing that Chazan refers to the Evron Quarry ‘hand-axes’ (those shown below) as “thick,” to imply that they haven’t been ‘thinned’ enough. They haven’t been thinned enough, says he, because the local raw material was shite. He’s willing to admit that they’re ‘hand axes,’ all right. But they’re crappy ones. So, if the Evron Quarry ‘hand axes,’ ‘choppers’ and the ‘polyhedrons’ were desired end products, where did all the flakes come from? Surely not from the 1.7% (15/845) of the assemblage that he calls ‘cores!’

It’s like this. Were he to entertain the notion that the ‘choppers,’ ‘polyhedrons’ and ‘hand axes’ were among the ‘cores’ that gave birth to the abundant small flakes, he would also have to consider the possibility that all the other ‘hand axes’ in all the sites, in all the world, are, after all, just cores. And that would naturally lead to the realization—the reality that dare not speak its name—might well be just a fantasy that exists only in the mind of [admittedly a great many] archaeologists. A reified category. In plain English, the ‘hand axe’—the ‘mental template’ supposedly in the mind of its maker, the ‘desired’ end product, the ‘finished’ artifact—is fallacious! Shiver my timbers!

The FAF would be nothing to worry about, were it not that, where the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic are concerned, its perpetuation is a pernicious and persistent obstacle to a better understanding of our origins. [IMHO, of course.] Now, let’s take a closer look at Michael Chazan’s argument. First, though, let’s look at the Evron Quarry ‘hand axes’ that didn’t appear in the author’s “excavation.”

“Butchering with small tools: the implications of the Evron Quarry assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus,” by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013. 
When is a ‘hand axe’ not a ‘hand axe?’ When it’s a core, of *cough* course! Remember that I can only imagine the following scenario if you first accept the author’s assertion that these ‘hand axes’ are ugly. So, on we go. If you peruse the above montage, you’ll notice that many of the flake scars on the ‘hand axes’ are on the order of 20 to 30 mm. That, coincidentally, was the range of sizes for site’s entire modified flake assemblage—the assemblage in which things called cores are thin on the ground, to say the least. Now, if one were to use Occam’s Razor, rather than Bordes’s typology, the logical explanation for the origin of said flakes is, most likely, those very ‘hand axes,’ the ‘choppers,’ and the ‘polyhedrons.’ [There is the possibility to apply a bit of hypothesis testing of the empirical kind with respect to my scenario… With only a few hundred pieces of rock, an enterprising archaeologist might try seeing if any of the useful small flakes could be refitted to the block of rock whence it came.]   
Check out the image below. The author calls these “pieces [of rock] … [bits that are] associated with handaxe manufacture” [emphasis added]. Isn’t it odd that, instead of calling them something like ‘hand axe fragments”he chooses to call them [things] “associated with handaxe manufacture?” Why can’t he just call a spade a spade? Why can’t he see that these, too, are cores, not quasi ‘hand axes’ bits? He has told us that the numerous flakes themselves were ” … an intentional product of knapping … .” Where does that leave the ‘hand axes?’ The author’s answer is that they simply weren’t there in the numbers that should be expected in a Lower Palaeolithic elephant butchering theatre. So, now, on the one hand we have the ‘hand axes,’ which are the desired end product of the H. erectus brain, and on the other hand we have the small, useful flakes. Here’s where it gets really tricky, philosophically speaking. Are the flakes really debitage? Or are the ‘hand axes,’ ‘choppers,’ and ‘polyhedrons’ just cores? 
“Butchering with small tools: the implications of the Evron Quarry assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus,” by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013. 
I’m not singling Michael Chazan out for punishment. He’s not alone in trying to ascertain how many bipedal apes can dance on the distal extremity of a ‘hand axe.’ Inevitably, by cleaving to the FAF, they’ll buy themselves “a ticket to obscurity” [excerpted from Famous Last Words of the Subversive Archaeologist, Vanity Press International, 2013]. I have to ask, “Has every archaeologist on the planet drunk the Bordesian typological Kool-Aid?” 
Source: Comme on dit en France, “Divine.”

And speaking of drinking. When I started to write this blurt it was last Friday afternoon. I took a moment to plug a very decent $5 sparkling wine that Trader Joe’s carries, and which I was, at the time, drinking. It’s officially called Trader Joe’s Blanc de Blancs Brut, and it’s very colourful on the tongue. It’s imported from France [so it must be good], and this grassy, pale beauty is every bit the peer of Freixenet, which at one time you could buy for $5, but which has suffered the fate of popularity, and had the price elevated due the disparity between supply and demand. [You know? I’ve always mistrusted the notion of supply and demand as the being the natural force determining value. It’s too easy, don’t you think, to consciously reduce output so as to encourage higher prices. The oil companies do it by limiting the number of refineries. OPEC does it by turning the well spigot a quarter turn to the right. Is it too far-fetched to think that wineries might do the same, even in the absence of demand in excess of production?

On the other hand, maybe drinking too much can engender conspiracy theories.

I look forward to seeing you next time. Thanks for visiting!


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.