This Argument Has A Few Holes In It. 80-odd-Thousand-Year-Old Shell Beads From La Grotte des Pigeons, Morocco and Blombos Cave, South Africa

Grotte des Pigeons in eastern Morocco, near the village of Taforalt. Photo by Abdellah Elbadaoui (Panoramio/GoogleEarth).

As I continue to wend my way through the literature I’ve missed during my absence from palaeoanthropology, I’m forever discovering scholarship that makes me think I’m on the other side of Alice’s looking glass. Yesterday, while nosing around in search of background knowledge for the Subversive Archaeologist, I found another beaut that I can’t ignore. And today I found it a companion. The two articles concern recovery of perforated marine shells from about 80 ka at the site known as Grotte des Pigeons [pictured above], near Taforalt in Morocco and at Blombos Cave, in South Africa. Of greatest interest to me is the way the authors attempt to rule out natural processes in pursuit of an explanation for their presence in the caves.

I hope to show why their efforts are insufficient, and why we should treat with caution these claims for modern human behaviour at such early dates. Remember Rule #1? Rule out natural site formation processes before invoking human or hominid activity. Its corollary is this: to rule out natural processes you need to keep in mind that different processes can result in similar archaeological ‘signatures.’

For example. Remember Raymond Dart and the “osteo-donto-kerartic culture” of the australopithecines? Dart had observed the behavior of members of traditional societies in southern Africa. He noted that when attempting to extract marrow from the long bones of their prey, they employed what Dart referred to as “the crack and twist” technique. The marrow seeker would strike the shaft hard enough to crack it. Then, grasping one end in each hand, the hunter would twist the ends in opposite directions until the shaft broke open. On the basis of these observations Dart proposed that the presence of similarly broken fossil bone meant that the Australopithecines had been hunting, then cracking and twisting the long bones to extract the marrow. It was many years before someone pointed out that the same effects can result from carnivore modification, and that it was much more likely that the presence of bones broken in that way was the result of carnivore behavior, rather than that of small, bipedal apes. Dart had premised his explanation on the only analogous process of which he was aware at the time. Such shortcomings permeate the archaeological canon. They remind us that we must always consider the possibility of equifinality—the idea that more than one process can result in a given set of observations. Moreover, to determine whether your observations are humanly or naturally produced, you need to involve as broad a range of present-day analogies as is possible. In the case of Grotte des Pigeons and Blombos Cave, the archaeologists have posited evidence that is sufficient to explain what they recovered, but their evidence is by no means the only possible explanation, nor necessarily the most parsimonious. At best their evidence is equivocal [a accusation that I’ve used over and over again in my work].

Enough preaching. On to the sea shells.

At La Grotte des Pigeons and at Blombos Cave excavators recovered small marine invertebrate remains that were altered from their natural state. In all, 13 were recovered from Pigeon Cave, and 41 from Blombos. The shells are perforated, and some bear a polish, which, the authors propose, you might expect if these objects had been strung like beads on a necklace. In addition, some very small patches of iron oxide were found on a few, which suggests to the authors that the putative shell beads had been artificially coloured with ochre. In the illustrations below you see the entirety of the collection from La Grotte des Pigeons. [I’m impressed by the presentation—for each artifact all six aspects are illustrated. Compare this to the artful display of the Blombos shells, further down, which is arranged so as to illustrate the path through which some twine might have passed.]

When viewing these images, keep in mind that the shells themselves measure about one centimeter across and slightly more in the longest dimension. Thus, the perforations are on the order of 500 microns in diameter. Note also that a great many of the perforations are irregular, and look more like they’ve been broken open rather than having been drilled.

From Bouzouggar, A., N. Barton, et al. (2007). “82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(24): 9964-9969. Specimen 14 is a modern-day individual.

The photo montage below seeks to illustrate the areas of ‘unnatural’ polish and other markings on several of the Pigeon Cave shells. The authors claim that these are likely to be the result of having been strung like a strand of … well, beads. I’d have to say that these aren’t patterned alterations.

From Bouzouggar, A., N. Barton, et al. (2007). “82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(24): 9964-9969. (Scale bar: A, C, E, and G = 1 cm; B, D, F, and H = 500 mm [sic].) [They must mean microns.] 

The photomicrographs below illustrate the red oxide on some of the putative beads from Pigeon Cave. The reddish material adhering to some of the shells from the cave was chemically characterized as hematite. Hematite is also known as ochre. As I stated above, there appears to be little rhyme nor reason to these alterations.

From Bouzouggar, A., N. Barton, et al. (2007). “82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(24): 9964-9969. (Scale bar: A, C, E, and G = 1 cm; B, D, F, and H = 500 mm [sic].) [They must mean microns.] 

At Blombos Cave the story is much the same. Total number is larger; different species; similar alterations. And I would make the same statement again: beyond the mere presence of fenestrations, their morphology and other modifications to these shells is hardly what I’d call patterned.

Henshilwood,C., d’Errico, F., et al. (2004). “Middle Stone Age Shell Beads from South Africa.” Science 304:404. 
Fig. S1. (A) Juvenile (1), sub-adult (2-4) and adult (5) Nassarius kraussianus shells from the modern biocenosis of Duiwenhoks estuary (Cape Province, South Africa) showing gradual size increase and thickening of the lip (solid line). Blombos MSA beads (R) are all made on adult shells (scale bar, 1mm). (B) Perforation types observed on N. kraussianus shells from modern and archaeological collections. The shaded area indicates the variability in hole locations. Types 6 and 8 on the dorsal side, found respectively on 63% and 24% of MSA beads, are observed on 2% and 3% on natural shells (N=2587) from Duiwenhoks and Goukou River estuaries. Type 1 on the ventral side (P, Q), produced by the predator Natica tecta, is present on 60% of shells from modern thanatocoenoses (N=1836) and absent on MSA beads. (C) Perforations on the dorsal side of dead N. kraussianus from the Goukou estuary. (D-I) Macro- and SEM photos of use wear on two MSA N. kraussianus shells (E,H, scale bar, 1 mm; F,I, scale bar, 500μm). (J-O) Macro- and SEM photos of a modern (J-L) and LSA (M-O) N. kraussianus shell showing absence of wear facet on lip (K, scale bar, 1mm; L, scale bar, 200μm; N, scale bar, 500μm; O, scale bar, 200μm). (P-Q) Ventral aspect of a modern N. kraussianus with hole drilled by Natica tecta (Q, scale bar, 500 μm). (R) Perforations on two orange MSA N. kraussianusshell beads from Blombos Cave (scale bar, 1 mm). (S) Typical white N. kraussianus shell beads with large perforations from Blombos Cave LSA levels. Verbatim from Henshilwood,C., d’Errico, F., et al. (2004). “Middle Stone Age Shell Beads from South Africa.” Science 304:404. 

So, at La Grotte des Pigeons and at Blombos Cave, archaeologists were compelled to interpret the origin and mode of deposition of these objects. I won’t suggest that they were grasping at straws to give these finds importance from an evolutionary standpoint. I’ll let you be the judge.

Both sets of authors use evidence from ethnography, natural history, or geology. For example, we know the shells don’t occur naturally in these caves. Simple enough. True enough. But, how do we assess their assertion that the shells could have been purposefully transported to these sites only by humans or hominids?

Likewise the perforations. The authors are aware that these tiny mollusks have mollusk predators that are able to drill through the shell and feed on the animal within. In the image immediately above, in P and Q, you see a hole drilled by Natica tecta. The Blombos Cave excavators note that such artifacts of predation show up 60% of the time in the natural death assemblages of this species. They also point out that they see none of these perfectly drilled fenestra in their archaeological sample. What are we to make of that?

Of the facetting noted on several of the shells, both sets of authors claim that these must have arisen due to repeated contact between either bead and bead on a string of beads, or between some form of cordage or other material and the beads that were strung on.

Finally, the ochre. What can we make of the microscopic presence of hematite on some of the shells from La Grotte des Pigeons?

Let’s take the transport agent to start with. Although the sea today splashes directly below Blombos Cave, that’s not so for Pigeon Cave. The sea was also more or less close to Blombos cave at 80 ka. Not so for Pigeon Cave. If the same transport agent moved the shells from the seashore to the caves, it was capable of moving them several tens of kilometers. So. Was it humans/hominids, or was it something else? I’ll admit that my efforts resemble more ‘back-of-the-napkin’ research than scholarly rigour, I was able to find at least one potential non-human transport agent capable of introducing such shells into the sediments at both caves—terns. Birds. The brown noddy [Anous stolidus] is known to collect such shells and incorporate them in their nests. The noddy is a tern. Terns occur throughout the world, and the brown noddy is native to South Africa and Morocco, as well as almost everywhere else in the world. How could one possibly rule out the possibility that these birds, or other occasional collectors, introduced these items to the archaeological context?

The authors would say that the nature and placement of the holes suggests human agency and the polish and traces of hematite support that conclusion. What about those holes? For starters, another quick trip to the internets tells me that at least two groups of animals are capable of boring through mollusk shell and that it is a commonplace the world over. The one below is riddled with tiny perforations caused by a species of sponge. Yup. Sponge. In addition, as you’ll have learned from the Henshilwood et al. paper, many species of predatory mollusks bore through other mollusk’s shells to get at the living creature within. You’ll be thinking “Yes, but the archaeological shells from Pigeon Cave and Blombos are not as beautifully regular as those left by sponges, or, for that matter by Natica tecta.” True enough. They appear to be ragged, not drilled. More on that after the pretty picture.

Far be it for me to accuse palaeo people of having a courser aesthetic sense than I, but the majority of the perforations claimed to be the result of human/hominid activity look as if they’ve been punched out by pressure applied either from the outside or from the inside. Who’s to say that those rough perforations weren’t the result of inadvertent pressure [underfoot, for example, or in pounding surf]? It’s logical to assume that pressure placed on a part of the shell where a sea creature’s boring had previously weakened that portion of the shell would be capable of punching out a larger hole. Damned difficult to choose. Don’t you think? Natural? Or not?

I realize that I’m merely casting doubt on the conclusions of the Blombos and Pigeon Cave archaeologists. Unlike the law, I can’t employ the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ criterion when I’m interpreting an archaeological site. But let’s face it. These claims are at best tentative, and would require, I believe, extensive experimental, ethnoarchaeological, and ethological examination before we accept them as fact.

Ooops. almost forgot. The polish. I think the presence of polish on just a few specimens should rule out any notion that they’d been strung like beads on a necklace. At a minimum the authors would want to examine ethnographic strings of similar or identical shells before claiming that the rare facets they find are due to rubbing of one shell against another on a string. Moreover, if such shells are susceptible to wear when suspended on a string, they can just as easily get worn on a beach that comprises numerous other such shells. After all, they all originated at the water’s edge. And, although the authors acknowledge that certain kinds of damage might be possible at the beach, their investigations of present-day death assemblages of these animals reveals to them that the modifications to the archaeological specimens are unlike those occurring on present-day strands. To that I would only say that time passes and circumstances change. What effect would over-harvesting of sponges have on the frequency of perforations on modern day mollusk death assemblages in Morocco? Or pollution in the Mediterranean? Or different substrates at different times at Blombos? I think you get my point.

And finally the ochre. Again, if ochre can occur in a cave at a distance from the ocean, it can occur at the sea-side.

For all of the reasons I’ve given here, it’s clear to me that the claims from La Grotte des Pigeons and Blombos Cave should be viewed with extreme caution, if only because they’re extreme claims for modern human behaviour at extreme time depth.

I hope you enjoyed this little road trip to the seaside. See you *cough* next time.

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Laying Some Groundwork by Revisiting Belfer-Cohen and Hovers 1992: ‘In the Eye of the beholder: Mousterian and Natufian burials in the Levant.’

Know what? I really hate the way I vacillate. 
Back and forth. 
Should I? Shouldn’t I? 
She loves me. She loves me not. 
It’s downright upsetting!

I guess I could look on the bright side. 
They say that if you’re gonna be wishy-washy, you might as well be consistent about it. Well, if that’s the case, I’ll make the All-star team with ease! 

Today’s oeuvre proves [couldn’t resist that lovely bit of assonance] that I’m an inveterate vacillator [nor that aliquot of alliteration]. 

From the reader’s perspective I must look like the substance-abuser who can’t get that next fix off his mind. 

Franz Ritter von Stuck 1920 


I wish I didn’t have to. I wish they’d just listen!

Sisyphus, give me all your strength! 

[This rock gets heavier every time I push it up that hill. And, I ain’t gettin’ any younger.*] 

And now, downward to the past…like any good archaeologist.

‘Grave shortcomings: the evidence for Neandertal burial,’ [my BA Honors essay] was published in 1989. One of the first major publications that mentioned my then-recent work was ‘In the Eye of the beholder: Mousterian and Natufian burials in the Levant‘ by Anna Belfer-Cohen and Erella Hovers (Current Anthropology 33, 463-471, 1992). Their paper tries to make the case that if one applied the same stringent criteria as that scallywag Gargett does for recognizing purposeful burial in the Middle Palaeolithic, even perfectly good modern human burials wouldn’t pass muster. They’re right. But that doesn’t change a thing. A fact’s a fact [as long as your premises are well-warranted, which theirs arent’].

My purpose in writing today is two-fold. I hope to demonstrate just how the authors and everyone else [including Paul Pettitt] were happy to accept the [largely] argumentum ad hominem criticisms published along with ‘Grave shortcomings,’ and to carry on as if [and in all likelihood] they had never seen my dispositive responses to all of my ur-detractors. After that, I want to tell you what I [still] think of their argument. And all because of that pesky Paul Pettitt. I need to do this to get you ready for what I want to say about his book [which is where the whole vacillation thing comes in].
     In early 1991 Adam Kuper sent me a draft of the Belfer-Cohen and Hovers paper ‘for [my] assessment.’ At the time he was the editor of Current Anthropology [and there was no doubt in my mind that he would have had a sly smile on his face as he penned his signature on that letter]. I mention this now because I think it would be valuable, finally, for someone other than Kuper, Belfer-Cohen and Hovers to see my remarks. For those of you who’ve never encountered ‘In the eye of the beholder’ you need only visit and view or download the University of Chicago Press e-document by clicking here. I urge you to have a look. It shouldn’t take long to read. And I think it’s an exemplum of the programmatic ignorance of my work at that time.
Here’s what I thought. 

[You’ll notice that in places I refer to items that were apparently axed before publication. Nothing major. But if you do your literary archaeology you’ll see that my review at least had some effect!]

1991 May 4

Dear Professor Kuper:

I’m put in a difficult position reviewing this paper. Unless I recommend publication (which I don’t), the authors will view my comments as prejudiced—both because of what they argue is my bias toward the extant species of the genus Homo, and because I’ve been vocal in my criticisms of previous attempts to argue for burial in the Middle Paleolithic (specifically among Neanderthals). But comment I must, and I hope that I don’t come off sounding shrill.

At the outset, let me say that I think this kind of comparative study is required. Belfer-Cohen and Hovers have demonstrated, quite convincingly, that the criteria often employed by Middle Paleolithic specialists when assessing the question of burial are not germane. I should note that, although they don’t restate the criteria I advanced, there are some fairly rigid guidelines in my 1989 CA paper that replace the questionable linkages between behaviour and archaeological remnants so prevalent in the literature (and, I might add, which the authors choose to perpetuate), such as flexion, articulation, so-called grave offerings, and so on. I’m speaking of the necessity of finding a clearly defined new stratum created at the time of burial. If, as Belfer-Cohen and Hovers argue, traditional criteria do nothing to support the archaeological inference of burial among modem populations, what possible use can they be in recognizing perhaps the first instances of burial among other hominid taxa? This is a point I’ve made before.

Recreation of the excavation of
Teshik-Tash I, a Neanderthal boy

I may as well be straightforward on another subject: I have trouble with much of the argument in this article, because there is no explicit treatment of my 1989 paper. The authors merely stale that “[Gargett’s] view has been widely rejected on several grounds.” This is not followed by a single reference to a published refutation of my work. I find this to be perhaps the greatest obstacle to their argument. In rejecting, out of hand, my thesis regarding the “burial” of Neandertals, they treat the 1989 paper as a monolith. Thus, my arguments dismantling the laughable inferences of ritual goat horns at Teshik-Tash, for example, are lumped together with my (according to them “unconvincing”) arguments about purposeful burial there and elsewhere. As a result, their analysis perpetuates what are very likely myths about Neandertal behavior. Any archaeologist today should look at the Teshik-Tash material and recognize it for what it is, i.e. not a circle of horns placed points down in the sediments surrounding the alleged burial. Yet later, when Belfer-Cohen and Hovers discuss similarities between the Neandertal “burials” and those among the Natufians, they refer to “Certain spatial arrangements,” including the case “known from outside the Levant, … where the skeleton of a child was surrounded by a ring of 5-6 pairs of horn cores of Capra siberica.” I could raise equally damaging questions regarding each and every one of the proposed similarities between the MP and UP situations, but that would take far too long. I hope that this example suffices to make my point. By using such questionable “spatial arrangements” in their analysis, the two classes of material (one from the Middle Paleolithic and one from the Upper Paleolithic) are said to appear similar. Yet, I’ve argued that they’re not comparable, and, whether or not I’m right in this, the authors don’t dealt with my arguments in any meaningful way.

Rather than labelling us intellectual bigots, perhaps Belfer-Cohen, Hovers and others should examine the implicit beliefs and motivations that lead them to accept very tenuous arguments for what are called symbolic or ritual behaviors on the part of Neanderthals and other Middle Paleolithic hominids. Moreover, when they treat a portion of reindeer backbone or pig manidible as grave offerings, isn’t it just a little patronizing, if not paternalistic, to suggest that “the mundane ‘grave goods’ associated with Middle Paleolithic skeletal remains may reflect the simplicity of the material culture and of the social organization.” Is not this tantamount to saying that there’s a direct relationship between the presence/absence of ‘grave goods,’ their ‘sophistication,’ and the degree of cultural ability? Since this is something that Belfer-Cohen and Hovers would argue against, I find it interesting that they would introduce such a notion at this point in their argument. A pig mandible, if it were in fact shown to be an object placed with a purposely buried individual (and could be demonstrated to have had some symbolic meaning to that hominid, which would be difficult to argue from the archaeological evidence), should not be looked down upon as ‘mundane’ (or that it represented an incipient kind of symbolic behavior) simply because it does not conform to the investigator’s (culturally bound) ideas of what constitutes ‘sophisticated’ funerary offerings. I would add that the enigmatic structures mentioned in their paper, such as “talking tubes” or “eternal flames” associated with Natufian burials, do not carry such inherent meanings—these are constructions of their excavators and are not self-evident. I’m struck by the ease with which Belfer-Cohen, Hovers and others accept such inferences and speculation as a reasonable construal of the archaeological remains. 

When the authors say that “mental templates as to what a burial should look like … are projected  onto the past, regardless of contextual background,” it’s to all my predecessors,’ and not to my arguments, that they must be referring. It was to just those contextual backgrounds that I was turning in my 1989 paper, while every other worker has relied on culturally bound assumptions about what burial should look like (including such things as degree of flexion, presence of grave goods, or the presence of a grave). In this regard, Belfer-Cohen and Hovers do not escape criticism. 

I haven’t been convinced by their argument about a prejudice on the part of workers like me who seek a better understanding of the behavior of Middle Paleolithic hominids. I strongly suggest that it’s their own belief about the humanity of Neandertals and other Middle Paleolithic hominids that leads them to accept questionable evidence about a whole range of behaviors that simply haven’t been adequately demonstrated. I’d add that, while there’s a necessity to document and compare mortuary treatment in the Late Pleistocene and Holocene with that alleged for the earlier period, I don’t find the authors’ approach thorough or rigorous. I reiterate that I think it’s a mistake to discount my arguments out of hand. And it’s equally misguided to repeat the inferences of those who quite obviously carry the same bias as Belfer-Cohen and Hovers. 

Calling three large stones and a rhinoceros tooth a “spatial arrangement” associated with the Kebara infant seems to me to underline what I said above about the paternalistic and inherently biased viewpoint of ‘the other side.’ Another example: employing Smirnov’s arguments is suspect, because he not only accepts (again uncritically) all the earlier inferences of ritual and burial, but he also adds some new ones of his own (“hearths underlying” hominid skeletal material seen as some kind of ritual architecture). That Belfer-Cohen and Hovers refer to secondary and tertiary “evidence” (such as the work of Smirnov) in the construction of their argument, and prefer to ignore the original reports upon which my argument was based is a very big omission. They prefer to rest their out-of-hand rejection of my thesis on some comments of questionable value following my article in CA (none of which were refereed, and all of which were disposed of in my reply). The authors have also failed to cite my later comments (CA 30:326-329) which amplify and further clarify my argument. Indeed, in employing the inferences of Okladnikov regarding the Teshik-Tash goat horns, I have to wonder if they have even read my paper.

My “opinion” about Neanderthals notwithstanding, these authors have simply failed to provide any new “evidence” for the purposeful burial of any Middle Paleolithic hominids. And, though it was not their intention, their argument is all than much weaker for this lacuna. Classifying, as they do, material alleged to be associated with Middle Paleolithic hominids as “grave goods” or “grave structures,” and to include them in a comparison with material similarly classified from the later period, is methodologically unsound, at best. Moreover, they have not provided any convincing “evidence” that those who choose to question inferences of modern behavior among Middle Paleolithic hominids are any more biased than are the authors in the opposite direction.

It’s probably easy to see that this paper frustrates me. I hope I’ve managed to achieve a degree of objectivity in my comments. Anna and I have had this conversation before. I don’t wish my review to be seen as a personal attack, which it most definitely is not. There are real problems with their presentation of “data” and with the sociopolitical context of their work. Their study represents another recitation of inferences that I’ve rightly called into question, and so far no one has adequately refuted my arguments. In sum, I’d recommend that Current Anthropology reject this paper in its present form. Perhaps if the authors could mount a credible refutation of my 1989 arguments, and manifest a little self-reflexivity of their own rather than simply accusing others of implicit bias, this paper might stand on its own—especially if it could be argued that both sides owe their inferences to their biases (which I’m not sure is possible). As it is, it wouldn’t be suitable for the reports section of CA, either, unless the Middle Paleolithic “data” are left out along with the argument about bias. The perceived lack of regularity in Natufian burials is interesting in itself. But as a contrast to inferred behavior in the Middle Paleolithic, it loses power. At least until further notice, we may be comparing apples and oranges. If the editor chooses to publish this article in the form it now takes, it should indeed be accompanied by comments, and I’d like to have the opportunity to voice my criticisms (especially since I seem to be one of only a few misguided individuals who adopt a “non-human until proven human” stance in this debate).

Rob Gargett

Now the 2012 Gargett’ll fess up. I’m blurting this now because Paul Pettitt refers to this article by Belfer-Cohen and Hovers when he begins his wrestling match with my work. 

‘My opinion that Gargett’s attempt to deny any Neanderthal burials is largely unconvincing obviously requires justification. Many of his specific and literature-based readings of the data have been questioned by the original excavators (see responses to Gargett 1989) and other specialists (e.g. Belfer-Cohen and Hovers 1992)…’

I should let you know that not one, single, original excavator commented in Current Anthropology alongside my 1989 paper. [Bullshit Score: Pettitt 1, Gargett 0.] And whaddaya think he means by emphasizing that Belfer-Cohen and Hovers are ‘specialists’? Wanna know what I think? It’s because he thinks that I’m a poor excuse for a specialist. I’m not claiming that excavating for more than 6 weeks at Kebara Cave and 3 weeks at Roc Allan, a French rockshelter makes me one of his remarkable ‘specialists.’ However, he has no right, and no evidence, to relegate me to the category of ‘literature-based know-nothings’ who haven’t got any right to complain about what the other grown ups are doing. [Bullshit Score: Pettitt 2, Gargett 0.]
     This isn’t over.

[Just so you know. No one is more surprised than I that I’m still bashing away at the edifice more than 20 years on. You’d have thought that by now someone would’ve mounted a serious challenge, as opposed to the reality–simply dismissing my arguments out of hand.]

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