[Note: this has been altered from the original. It’s now nearly 5 hours since I first published this. As you read along, you’ll encounter the changes, and the original text.]
In two previous blurts at The Subversive Archaeologist, here and here, I provided some history and geological background to Rendu et al.’s paper that says they’ve corroborated the century-old claim that the La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neanderthal was purposefully buried.
Rendu, et al. (2013). “Evidence supporting an intentional Neandertal burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints.” PNAS (some time recently). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1316780110
In all sincerity, I applaud the authors’ efforts to sort out the site formation processes at La Bouffia Bonneval. [I’m being serious, now. Quit makin’ those funny faces! Despite my theatrical sarcasm and occasional whiffs of disdain, I think their ambition is remarkable.] The authors are unlike so many archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists before them, who largely dismissed my 1989 observation in Current Anthropology—that natural depositional circumstances could easily account for every putative Middle Palaeolithic (MP) purposeful burial.
|The not-really-very-accurate museum diorama purporting to display the LCS1 Neanderthal skeletal remains as they looked during the 1908 excavation. Despite the attempted verisimiltude, this display doesn’t accord with what little we know of the remains, derived from miniature plan and profile illustrations and two photographs of the skull and associated near-cranial skeletal elements.
Thus, this paper by Rendu et al. sets itself apart from almost all their colleagues—at least the authors are taking seriously the possibility that the Old Man of La Chapelle may have been naturally buried. But they aren’t the first. Sandgathe et al. crossed the finish line to examine that possibility. Their second look at the Roc de Marsal child’s depositional circumstances concluded that it had likely been interred naturally. It’s refreshing to be taken seriously, even if ineptly.
For me, purposeful MP burial is one—and may be the only true nexus—of importance to our understanding of Neanderthal cognitive ability. In the collective palaeoanthropological worldview, the inference of purposeful burial made imaginable all later claims for complex, modern human, Neanderthal behaviour. MP bipedal apes were undoubtedly extremely clever when compared with all of the primates that preceded them. Evidence for burial imbued Neandethals with a mind that knows itself, a mind that pondered the ineffable, that dreamed of an afterlife, and that had human emotions. I believe it’s still an open question whether they controlled fire. Yet controlling fire would mean they were really clever. But what they thought about fire cannot be straightforwardly inferred from the behaviour. Notwithstanding the legitimate argument that purposeful burial may say nothing substantive about the Neanderthal’s cognitive or emotional life, inferring a cosmology is much more plausible when one thinks of burial, as opposed to controlling fire.
Don’t forget that Paul Pettitt has erected an entire cosmology around completely untestable, phantasmagorical, propositions as to the evolution of burial. Even I haven’t been as far out there in the aether as Pettitt. At least I cleave to empirical observation. Pettitt relies on imaginary scenarios that can neither be falsified not instantiated. But that’s his problem [and, I might add, that of his adherents]. Unfortunately every palaeoanthropologist that believes the Neanderthals buried their dead slavishly lap up each of Pettitt’s zany hypotheses, and the task for empirically grounded archaeologists and palaeanthropologists becomes manifestly more difficult.
|Nothing escapes the SA’s gaze
You may already know that I have doubts about ALL claims of modern-human-like abilities in the Neanderthal repertoire. But this one issue—purposeful burial—is, I believe, paramount.
Rendu et al. thought they’d contribute by going back to La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze, France) and removing the backdirt from the early twentieth-century excavations of Bouyssonie, Bouyssonie, and Bardon [B, B, & B]. Rather than just mimeographing the century-old findings, the authors have made new observations, and applied much-more up-to-date analytical techniques to sort out the depositional circumstances of the Old Man of La Chapelle’s final resting place. Don’t get too excited. Sandgathe et al. found intact deposits at the Roc de Marsal, from which they inferred the depositional circumstances of the Neanderthal child. Because they merely swept out the cave to reveal the lowest reaches of the 1908 excavations, and because they have no recourse but to assume that they’ve found the true extent of the putative burial pit, as you’ll see, that assumption is a really dicey one. Thus, all we get from Rendu et al. is their best guess as to what happened, without any warrant either for their guesses or their unfounded conclusions.
The authors have erected an argument that falls well short of empirical certitude [if that was ever possible]. Like good scientists, they relied on empirical observation. That alone makes their paper a refreshing change from the orthodox view, which usually amounts to saying that Gargett’s just wrong. I hesitate to say that Rendu et al. are wrong. I should leave that up to you. However, if they are wrong, and I’m wrong, the discipline will still be left to deal with the thorny issue of equifinality when they attempt to explain what B, B, & B report they found.
Enough ancient history! Erm . . . let’s take it from where we left off. Shall we?
I think it best to let the authors do the talking. I’ll butt in when necessary.
The sediments were backfill of the Bouyssonies’ excavations both inside and outside, except for small areas where in situ deposits were identified inside the cave.
That makes it kind of a ‘re-exhumination.’ [Forgive me. I’m a little amused that, for some inexplicable reason, Rendu et al. piece-plotted each and every artifact recovered in the 1908 backfill.] And we’re walking . . .
Excavations . . . exposed a 39-cm-deep subrectangular depression cut into the substrate marl.
Wanna know exactly how SUB-rectangular it was? It’s subrectangular like a triangle is subrectangular! It’s subrectangular the way a kangaroo is subrectangular. No rectilinear shape that I’m familiar with bears what appears to be a perfectly semi-circular portion of its margin. The authors manage to duck criticism with their next assertion, which they hope we’ll accept as the god’s honest truth.
]By the way. If you’re new to the crazy and wonderful domain of the archaeologist, take note. Neither the caption for this photo, nor the text of the article, gives us any indication where in the site this is. I had to do some pretty fancy orienteering just to figure it out. The line described by the folding ruler, and the exposed profile, must be the line between the 73rd and 74th grid columns, which you can see in the plan drawing that follows this photo.
Don’t you do this to your readers! Please. It’s unprofessional, and it only leads to accusations of incompetence, both on the part of the authors, and the editors of the journal in which it appeared.]
The authors continue
The upper part of the pit is damaged
There’s the other shoe! Damaged? That’s a curious assertion if they’re trying to ascertain whether or not the depression was created naturally. Specifically, what did they imagine it was going to look like if they’d never seen it before? And what, exactly, did they mean by “damaged.” I think I can explain, which the authors seem disinclined to do. Have a look at the side-by-side profiles that I’ve carefully laid out so that the scales match.
In the recent excavation the exposed pit doesn’t have the nicely vertical sides of the one you see in the 1908 profiles. It’s clear to me that the authors have based their “damaged” assessment on their trust that the surface they exposed should have looked more like the one depicted in 1908.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to know if the 1908 excavators were fudging their observations of the pit they found. The authors say that the pit had been “damaged.” That is a completely unwarranted assumption. And it’s an inference without evidence. Enough nit-picking, Rob!
Returning to the author’s account
the lower part [of the pit] is 140 cm long and 85 cm wide . . . . The interface of the backfill and the substratum is clear and regularly concave in this area.
After a very brief respite from the nit-picking . . . let’s try a little ‘ground-truthing.’ Shall we? Rendu et al. say nothing to justify their choice of measurement landmarks. As you’ll see, they’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do—beginning with their evident inability to identify the ‘bottom’ of an archaeological feature.
In the enlarged profiles you see below, it’s insanely unclear as to why the authors ignored the the true low points along the A–B cross section. Instead, they’ve arbitrarily defined the span they measured. This suggests forcefully that they’re simply accepting the sizes in the 1908 report as gospel, and [maybe even unconsciously] allowing their expectations to govern their observations. That was, after all, the most likely reason for saying that the pit they uncovered was “damaged.”
In the above illustration I’ve scribed lines parallel to the drawing’s horizontal grid lines. The vertical line delineating the pit’s bottom at the A end is fairly close to a ‘bottom,’ if you decide that the bottom occurs at the abrupt change in slope. The measurement point at the B end is much more problematic. It lies toward the lower end of the gentle slope, yet there’s no apparent reason for choosing that point rather than another point along the line that slopes up from the bottom of the pit in the direction of B.
As for the C–D profile, the designation of ‘bottom’ seems equally arbitrary. Again, the bottom-most and the next-lowest points are ignored in favour of the span they’ve indicated. In this case I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, because their idea of the pit’s bottom comes close to where I’d have put it—at the break in slope [which, being reasonable, isn’t where what I’ve labelled the ‘true bottom,’ rather, it’s almost exactly where the authors have indicates.]
The question, “What’s going on?” keeps ricocheting around in my head. The 1908 plan [a little scroll in the up direction] depicts a ‘grave’ that’s about 100 by 200 cm. So, I’m truly baffled now. If Rendu et al. weren’t measuring so that their pit had more or less the same dimensions as the one in the 1908 plan, then what were they thinking?
The next of Rendu et al.’s assertions is so far from reality as to seem almost bizarre.
[The uncovered pit’s] position is identical to the location of the burial pit indicated in the Bouyssonies’ figures . . . . This is . . . supported by the relative position of the pit in relation to the relief of the roof . . . observable in the excavation pictures from the early 20th century.
Their lovely plan drawing says just the opposite. Have a look [scroll up]. OK. The two depictions do overlap—the 1980 plan in red and the authors’ in dark grey. But the authors’ plan of the pit is by no means “identical to the location of the burial pit indicated in the Bouyssonie’s figures,” as the authors have stated. Believe me. I’m smelling a lot of smoke and seeing my reflection in a gazillion mirrors!
I’m not quite sure why Rendu et al. are so keen to persuade us that what they found was the very depression that B, B, & B excavated all those years ago. It’s not as if there could have been another one in roughly the same part of the cave! So, why do they care? Their readers certainly would have no doubt that the authors found the “right” pit feature. Indeed, it all seems rather trivial to me. [And wouldn’t have been a real howler if they hadn’t been able to locate it?] I read ’em as I see ’em.
Earlier in the paper the authors recorded that in each of the neighbouring bouffiae they excavated they found periglacial effects, mostly what they refer to as cryoturbation. In La Bouffia Bonneval, they also found what they interpret as being the result of cryoturbation. Here’s a picture.
K. So. The next assertion is rather bizarre, I thought.
the pit does not have the same morphology as the cryoturbation cells, ruling out a periglacial origin.
Um. No one’s ever proposed that the pit could have been the result of periglacial geomorphic changes. I guess the authors are trying to ‘cover all their bases,’ even those ‘bases’ that have no existence on this mortal plane.
No tool marks into the marl were detected. However, the pit cut partially through a cryoturbated fissure (stratigraphic unit C5) that contained Quina artifacts.
This can’t be! A fissure that’s been subjected to cryoturbation? Even cutting the authors some slack for not being native English speakers, and even forgiving Erik Trinkaus for the absence of anything that comes close to editing [even though that’s his marquee billing at PNAS], you might have thought that a body calling itself THE [US] National Academy of Sciences could have done a bit better. [Oh. And, BY THE WAY, how did they end up with a stratigraphic unit labelled C5 in a deposit that contained exactly one layer of backdirt?]
OK. What they meant was this: the ‘cell’ was actually an “injection feature” brought about by permafrost conditions some time before the Old Man was buried.
[that the “cryoturbation cell” contains Quina artifacts] demonstrates that the area of the depression was at least partially modified for the burial of LCS1, removing accumulated cultural debris and sediment. This modification would have happened after the formation of the cryoturbated fissure, thus after the Quina deposit.
Therefore, based on the excavations along the La Chapelle-aux-Saints cliff, an anthropogenic origin for the depression that contained the articulated remains of LCS1 at the bouffia Bonneval is the most parsimonious explanation.
Occam’s Razor. Parsimony. You say to-mah-to and I say to-may-to. Why, then, did we not hear about this “cell” in the 1908 report? B, B, & B were keen to publish a third cross section, because they thought the little depression they found nearer to the mouth of the cave had been a part of the mortuary ritual at La Chapelle-aux-Saints. Check it out.
Funny. Odd, really.
Even if B, B, & B have represented the pit accurately in their cross sections [which I’m beginning to doubt], they must therefore have been the ones who “damaged” the pit after they’d removed LCS1. I wouldn’t rule it out. Most archaeologists probe what, to them, appears to be an artifactually ‘sterile’ substrate. If so, what reason would they have had to probe further once they encountered the “cryoturbation cell?” None that I can think of. And, if B, B, & B did not represent the pit accurately in their cross sections, and indeed excavated a pit that was the very pit that Rendu et al. exposed, there’s still no reason to think that the breached “cryoturbation cell” had been exposed during the Middle Palaeolithic burial ritual that the authors claim as fact.
If you’re feeling a bit woozy from all of the twists, turns, ups, and downs contained in Rendu et al., join the club. The author’s claims rest on nothing. What they’re telling you is completely illogical, ON THE EVIDENCE. Sorry for shouting. I just wanted to emphasize that bit. Next we get a brief taphonomic assessment.
The results of the comparative taphonomic analysis of the human and faunal materials demonstrate that the LCS1 Neandertal corpse was rapidly interred and protected from the postdepositional modifications experienced by the faunal remains.
At the author’s use of the words “the articulated remains of LCS1” the hair on the back of my neck stood up straight. It’s like fingernails on glass to me. Some people think that an articulated skeleton is prima facie evidence of purposeful burial. I happen to disagree. But, even if that were true, the Old Man must have been in pretty rough shape when they buried him. Rendu et al. have presciently published the illustration you see at left. All of the unfilled portions are bits that didn’t survive purposeful burial. Look at all the missing parts that B, B, & B DIDN’T find in the putative grave!
If the Neanderthals did such a bang-up job of protecting the corpse, where’s the rest of the Old Man? The authors don’t mention burrowing animals, which could have spirited away the missing remains. They do, however, stress how beautifully preserved the Old Man’s bits were, which speaks highly of the soil chemistry’s propensity for preserving collagen and apatite. So, no rodent disturbance. Good preservation. Why the missing parts?
The substrate is a very dense material. It’s virtually impossible . . . No. It is impossible for the missing bits to have percolated downward in the sedimentary column due to any number of phenomena—so often the case when burial occurs in unconsolidated sediments.
Nope. They bits they found were extremely well preserved. EXCEPT for the ones that weren’t preserved at all! The authors can’t invoke random diagenesis to explain the missing parts. Am I making myself clear. I’ll sum it up.
Neither the reconstructed burial, nor the two 1908 plan drawings showing the skeleton give any reason for the authors to assert that LCS1’s remains were IN ANY WAY articulated!
In fact, as laboratories of burial site formation processes go, La Bouffia Bonneval is a really good example of what happens when a dead animal’s remains are gradually buried by natural sedimentary processes. Yet the authors want to ignore all the signs and instead make up a story without any evidence.
The existence of an artificially modified pit and the rapid burial of the body constitute convincing criteria for establishing purposeful burial during the Middle Paleolithic of Western Europe.
The authors don’t know when to quit.
Whether the origin of the pit is natural or anthropogenic is not considered here as a discriminatory factor because the opportunistic use of natural depressions in funeral practices has already been demonstrated in Upper Paleolithic contexts . . . and therefore cannot be ruled out as a possibility.
People! Know when to stop arguing. With this last statement you’ve effectively negated every observation and inference that you’ve made to this point! You. Just. Don’t. Get. It.
The lack of information about the original stratigraphy and excavations makes it impossible to address the dynamic sedimentary processes involved in the filling of a pit.
I hate to be the one to say it, but, in 1989 I pointed out that B, B, & B depicted the stratification at La Bouffia Bonneval in such a way as to nullify their claim for purposeful burial. Don’t take my word for it. Remember what association is? Remember what I’ve said about the only un-equivocal evidence for purposeful burial? A new stratum, created at the time of the interment, which is distinct from the sediments into which the ‘grave’ was dug, and also distinct from those that accumulated after interment. Remember? So, we’re expected to forget that B, B, & B illustrated the stratification at La Bouffia Bonneval like this?
Come on! The profile above shows the skeletal remains as part of a monolithic stratum, Stratum 1. In other words, B, B, & B couldn’t distinguish between those sediments that covered the remains, and everything that was deposited afterward until Stratum 2 showed itself, at least 50 cm above the pit. [Stratum 2, by the way, is clay.]
However, three arguments support the rapid burial of the corpse: the completeness of the cranial and infracranial elements, the existence of anatomical connections, and the preservation patterns seen on the cortical surfaces of the bones.
Jesus H. Christ! That’s like saying the sky is blue because the sky is blue. The point is not that relatively rapid burial occurred! The point is whether or not the rapid burial was the result of purposeful behaviour on the part of the Neanderthals that survived the Old Man. The authors have yet to address that in any meaningful way.
Microstratigraphic observation of the edges of the depression indicates that it postdates both the accumulation of Quina Mousterian deposits and their postdepositional cryoturbation and, therefore, that, originally, it cut through sediment fill, first, and then the bedrock itself.
I wasn’t there, either for the original discovery, or for Act II, the re-exhumination. So, you could say I have no authority here. But if the authorities are Rendu et al., you can bet you’ll be getting tarnished observations.
The anthropic origin of the excavation of this feature is the parsimonious reading of the evidence; a geogenic origin can be excluded, and there is no evidence that cave bears used the site for hibernation (and the site is too shallow for that to be possible in the first place).
So, they’ve pretty much ruled out everything that was never postulated as the origin of the ‘pit.’ And they haven’t yet refuted the proposition that the pit was a solution feature. They don’t need to consider other possibilities, because the authors are now the experts in the depositional history of La Bouffia Bonneval. After all, they were the ones who scooped out all the backdirt to reveal the supposedly pristine pit from which LCS1 was excavated! [Snark intentional.]
[I wish I could blame fatigue, either physical or emotional. But I can’t. Marco Langbroek, friend of the SA, points out that the legend of the following plan clearly states that the notch was created by B, B, & B, probably to remove the skull en bloc, which I told you about in Part One. The good news? Rather than revealing me to be a complete boob, Marco has nailed an issue that I was unable to sort out until now. So. I’m going to strike through what I wrote previously so there’s a record of my faux pas, and what I’m adding subsequent to Marco’s comment will appear in bold italics. K?] I’ve been waiting to call your attention to a notation on the author’s site plan, which gives us the ‘true’ location of the B, B, & B burial pit. There’s a tiny anomaly recorded here that’s not mentioned in the text. I’m speaking of the “Notch” that, according to the key, was excavated by B, B, & B to extract LC1’s skull.
The notch is, as it were, an annex to the ‘pit’. W. T. F.? W.T.F.?
This just keeps getting better. Okay. So, we have a pit feature. We have the remains of a Neanderthal. We have a claim that the pit was artificially constructed.
And yet the constructors were so inept that when it came time to inter the dead relative they had to excavate an annex to the prepared grave to accommodate their beloved’s head! That’s Neanderthal forethought for you!
Needless to say the authors don’t mention the “Notch” in the text—they’d have been nuts to do so. Perhaps it was a mistake to leave the “Notch” in the drawing and legend. If so, we’re very lucky, because this cinches it for me. The authors are off their collective rocker. If the “Notch” is external to the “pit,” and it was cut out by B, B, & B, the puzzle is solved. Given the disparity between the location and morphology of the 1908 pit and where it was found, and what shape it was when exposed, the authors’ idea that it had been “damaged” makes perfect sense.
Do the math.
B, B, & B drew a nice straight-sided ‘grave’ [see above]. Rendu et al. exposed a depression that bore little resemblance to the one illustrated in B, B, & B’s publications. Rendu et al. explained the difference by claiming that the original pit had been “damaged,” a conclusion that must have arisen from the belief that the 1908 diagrams were accurate. However, even though damaged—severely—Rendu et al. were able to observe a notch that B, B, & B made to remove the skull en bloc from the straight-sided pit. ]That makes no sense.] How could Rendu et al. identify the notch as such, if it extended the already damaged upper part of the pit? I’m sorry. I messed up the notch thing in the beginning. Either Rendu et al. are misidentifying a portion of the damaged upper portion of the pit, and calling it the “notch,” or the “notch”they discovered gives lie to the presumed accuracy of B, B, & B’s profile drawings. Either way, Rendu et al.’s argument amounts to nothing.
There was no “damage.” That inference was an error that B, B, & B forced Rendu et al. to make. The 1908 illustrations are nothing like the reality that Rendu et al. observed. Thus, the pit wasn’t damaged, and the Neanderthals didn’t dig through the marl into the “cryoturbation cell.” Rendu et al. are innocent dupes! They got suckered into fronting for B, B, & B, and substantiating their claim of purposeful burial on bogus information. My sympathies to the Rendu équipe.
how can one possibly argue that the ‘pit’ itself was constructed, or altered, for the express purpose of burying a conspecific?
Un. Be. Lieve. A. Bull! At least now I can claim a little ‘closure’ on some of the mysteries surrounding La Bouffia Bonneval and the century-old inference of purposeful Middle Palaeolithic burial.
And, believe it or don’t, I haven’t addressed all of the shortcomings in Rendu et al. I do think, however, that I’ve exhausted the pertinent problems with Rendu et al.’s paper. I’m pretty much exhausted myself! [Apologies, again, for my slack brain in places. Call it Post-Christmas Syndrome.]
I know I should be preparing a rootin’ tootin’ finale.
On the other hand, by now, like me, you’re probably over this whole sad chapter in the discipline of archaeology and palaeoanthropology. I say we just let it go, as it were, with a dying fall. A perfectly apt metaphor, calendrically speaking.
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall.
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more,
’Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, naught enters there,
Of what validity and pitch so e’er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute! So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
(Twelfth Night I.i.1–15)
Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.
Have a very Merry Christmas!
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