Still No Proof That Neanderthals Buried Their Dead. Part One.

O.M.F.G! I Don’t Know Whether to Laugh or Cry.  The Old Man of La Chapelle is a Zombie!

No doubt you’ve seen it in your local paper or on the news, or in a Smithsonian blog, or a White House communiqué. We’ve all just learned that Gargett was wrong all along, that there was never any doubt  that the Old Man of La Chapelle was, indeed, indubitably, unequivocally, purposefully buried by his Neanderthal buddies. It’s like living in a nightmare.

Rendu, et al. (2013). “Evidence supporting an intentional Neandertal burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints.” PNAS (some time recently). [And edited by none other than my old pal, Erik Trinkaus.]

Honestly? I would rather not take anyone “to school.” But, they kept it going. And now I’m gonna hafta douse this re-mythification with more fact than the authors will know what to do with. And maybe then they’ll understand. [It’ll be a frosty day in Hell.]

Okay, I’m only gonna say this once. I don’t want to try to get it published, which I have no doubt I could, but then I’d be repeating myself. And no self-respecting INTJ/ISTJ would want to do that. I’ve already published a very good argument as to why this creature was very probably buried

naturally. And now, OMG. It lives again. These ‘scientists’ have done what I have to believe is their very best work. I’m not laughing, even though their whole paper is ludicrous, because everybody on earth now believes even more strongly than before, that Neanderthals buried their dead, built rockets to the moon, and who knows what else!

These authors’ argument is not subtle. Nor is it one that’s very well thought out. The authors have cooked up some stale leftovers, and added a dash of who-knows-what, to try and convince us that, what they’ve been certain of all along is the real truth.

I s’pose I should be flattered, ’cause I had the misfortune of trying to burst their inferential balloon in 1989 and again in 1999. But who takes any notice? Effin’ nobody takes notice. Despite what they tell you, La Chapelle-aux-Saints was not purposefully buried.

It’s the myth that wouldn’t die. It’s a zombie hypothesis [and just as likely to be true as the very popular fictional life-form, to judge by the recent spate of movies and television series with zombies as the antagonists]. So, if you happen to be Dr. Rendu, or any of the other authors, or if you’ve read all about it in the Enquirer or something like that, and have come here looking for a good laugh at my expense, I would ask you to pay close attention. Because this will need all of your attention.

I’ll use no sleight of hand. No prestidigitation. I mount no illusions. I’m so effing tired of bullshit archaeology and the credulous editors of peer-reviewed journals that . . . Oops! I said a bad word. Well. Ignore it. Oh, but don’t ignore the figure captions, unless you want to miss a crucial bit of this story.

One other thing. This may well turn out to be the longest piece I’ve ever written at The Subversive Archaeologist. That’s because I’ll be more or less acting as a mentor to you, and by proxy, the authors. I’ll be teaching you stuff, and walking you through the maze of smoke and mirrors, and in the end, to enlightenment. OK. That was a bit of vainglory. But, given that the brightest minds of French archaeology [and those people think no one else on earth can compare] don’t seem capable of GETTING IT! . . .

I’m going to assume no prior knowledge on the part of anyone reading this. That means that I’m going to have to teach. And teaching takes a lot longer than telling. Dear Reader, if any or all of this is old hat to you, I’ll respectfully say you’re full of it. That’s because no one else on this planet has thought about this shit for as long as I, in as concentrated a fashion, with as much objectivity and expertise as I. And that’s not a delusion of grandeur. It’s fact. O’ course, that doesn’t guarantee that I’m right. But I’ll always be “righter” than the rest.

In the photo above, you see the cranium (indicated by the top yellow arc), supraorbital tori, the browridges (the two arcs side by side), and mandible (bottom arc) of La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1 (Thanks to Don of Don’s maps for dredging this photo up, and to the photographer,  l’abbé Jean Bouyssonie. I don’t know if this image is claimed to be of the specimen in situ [meaning, in place as it was being excavated]. I’ve heard rumours that the excavators sort of reburied the specimen when a team of big-wigs from the big museum came by to authenticate the discovery. It looks to me as if the whole lump of earth in which these parts of the skeleton were found had been removed en bloc [in a block of sediment sufficient to remove the parts without disturbing their relationships to one another]. Keep this in mind when we get a little further down, because the bloc en which the cranium and mandible are cradled is probably . . . I’m going by the well-known dimensions of that beautiful fossil cranium . . . a minimum of 5 cm, and, given the angle at which the photo was taken, could be twice that and more.

Above you see the cranium and mandible of La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1 (Thanks, again, to Don of Don’s maps for dredging this photo up, and to the photographer, l’abbé Jean Bouyssonie.] You’ll notice that the mandible is almost cradling the individual’s face. The line of the mandible’s bottom is, give or take, at 45° above the horizontal as compared to the cranium.

So, now that you’ve paid close attention to the two iillustrations above, take a look at what’s commonly called the reconstruction of the Old Man of La Chapelle’s ‘grave.’ At least one of the things you see is not like the other in the top two actual photos of the relationship between the cranium and mandible of the Old Man.

There’s a reason that post-modern anthropologists shy away from calling such displays “reconstructions.” That’s because in most cases such displays aren’t “re”- “contructions” at all. They’re actually “con” “structions” based on what the scientist and the museum diorama maker think it may have looked like before it was dug up. [I’m certain that any similarity between the cant expression ‘con,’ meaning ‘confidence man’ or ‘grifter,’ and the prefix of the word construction is purely coincidental.] In this case, the mandible is lying on its bottom—not at 45° to the horizontal—and most definitely NOT cradling the facial part of the cranium as it did when it was excavated. Instead someone has placed the cranium and the mandible together, much as they would have been if the individual had, indeed, been buried soon after death and before the soft tissue had decayed. Not so La Chapelle-aux-Saint 1.  
Now that you’ve seen the “reconstructed” head bits, look at the whole shebang, below.

And now compare the museum display with the only—so far as I know—drawing of LC1, as I propose to call him, which appeared in the 1908 publication, reproduced below. I don’t know if we can take the original drawing as the closest to reality. But I DO know that we can’t trust the museum display, either. The drawing and the “re” construction are, patently, different. Not hugely. But, different, nonetheless. For example, look first at the ribs in the display. Those on the right of the backbone [as viewed here] are nicely in order, with the curves all aligned and so forth. The ones on the left of the backbone [as viewed here] are, oddly, upside down relative to where they should have been if the individual had been buried before the soft tissue decomposed. Compare the display ribs with those illustrated below. The ones on the left are in the right relationship to the backbone, and the opposite of those in the display. The ones on the right in the diagram are anything but neatly arranged as they might have been in life.

I can’t emphasize enough how these little discrepancies chip away, inexorably, at the foundation of the myth surrounding not just LC1, but all of the putative Neanderthal [and other Middle Palaeolithic] purposeful burials. Little by little that foundation is undermined. And one day, “in the fullness of time,” I might not have to keep killing this myth, as as if it were my personal vampire or zombie!

Plan of the Bouffia de La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Bouyssonie, Bouyssonie, and Bardon 1908).

And now, the present circumstances, and the reason for my labours.

For 105 years it rested there, warm and cosy under its blanket of backdirt from Bouyssonie, Bouysonnie, and Bardon’s excavations at La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze, France) in 1908. Alas. It was a short-lived respite for the long-time resting place of the Old Man of La Chapelle. 

If you’re an anthropologist taught in the four fields, as most are in North America, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about. The three Bs dug up the mostly complete skeleton of an adult Neanderthal, and reported on it here

Bouyssonie, Bouyssonie, and Bardon. 1908. “Découverte d’un squelette humain moustérien à la bouffia de La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze).” L’Anthropologie 19:513-518.

[Rob’s translation: Discovery of a mousterian human skeleton in the bouffia of La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze)]

The three found it in a depression in the marl [which is a kind of un-rockified version of limestone]. The illustration below (also in the 1908 publication) clearly show a very regular-looking depression in which the dense-black-coloured Neanderthal bones are depicted—to my eye—as if the skeleton’s head appears to be about the lowest part of the skeleton in this view. In fact, if this were an accurate depiction of the depositional circumstances of this specimen, I’d be very suspicious as to whether or not the skeleton and the depression were contemporaneous—unless the funeral-home workers thought that the marl looked too hard and so they sort of nested the corpse in some of the dirt before they piled more dirt on top.

Fact is. If this depiction is accurate, there’s no way in Hell that any archaeologist with half a brain would argue that the skeleton and the depression are contemporaneous [which, by the way, they would need to be if the depression had been dug to receive the corpse]. No. No. No! It’s just one more reason why we should be sceptical of the original inference of purposeful burial, and this zombie version that I’m having to deal with in the present.

And, please, if you’re one of the authors, DON’T start back-peddling and saying, “Mais oui, Rob. But the illustration you’re referring to can’t be expected to be absolutely accurate.”


Give. Me. A. Break. If that’s true, and we can’t trust the original publication, and we can’t trust the “re” construction at the museum, all we can do is refer to the 1908 photos of the specimen and say, with assurance, that the rest of what’s been published and mulled over and believed and been made orthodoxy is a CROCK!

I think I’ll stop there for today. This is a logical point to do so. And I wouldn’t want to overwhelm you with my criticism of Rendu et al. You’ll need to be fresh when you confront what I have to say.

Thanks for joining me on this most amazing ride. TTFN 

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist‘s facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett’s news feed), on Robert H. Gargett‘s page, Rob Gargett‘s twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog’s RSS feeds. You can also become a ‘member’ of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You’re the reason I do this.

Karen Ruebens, Part Two: It Was Touch And Go, But the Neanderthals Still Can’t Grab a Break. Beam Me Up, Scotty, There’s No Cultural Traditions Here

My last post began a critical review of 

Ruebens, K., “Regional behaviour among late Neanderthal groups in Western Europe: A comparative assessment of late Middle Palaeolithic bifacial tool variability,” Journal of Human Evolution (2013),

in which she rationalizes the various European Late Middle Palaeolithic (MP) stone bifaces. In my previous post I had a little fun with the five categories of biface that she settled on as suitable for comparison across Late MP Europe. My favourite is the fifth and final type: the Partial Biface. [For which we are given no information as to the reason for calling it that. I mean, really, whether or not its partial is irrelevant if what you’re dealing with is Mousterian bifaces. If you are able to tell that it was once a larger bifacially flake artifact, it’s still a biface!]

It turns out that Ruebens took an excruciatingly long path to settle on those five types. It was a journey that she could have cut short if only she’d asked me. After all of the various attributes were tabulated, the five types are just those that you would have arrived at following a traditional morpho-typological regime. Be that as it may, the author moved on. I’ve created a montage of the bifaces published in three photographs in the paper. They appear below.

Add caption

Having once established the five types for comparison, the author went looking for geographical patterning. In so doing she discovered what, to her, looked like three distinct regions of Europe, in which the Neanderthal inhabitants maintained a tradition (or three) of making and using artifacts only of a certain kind and in numerical proportion to one another, throughout the Late MP. That’s a revolutionary claim. Unfortunately the revolution turns out to be a dud.

It seems we’ve caught François knapping!

The deeper I get into this paper, the more I’m disappointed that it was published in the high-impact Journal of Human Evolution. For, when I began looking closely at the fourteen sites that the author personally examined, and which appear on the map below. It shows the extent of the three “culturally” distinct regions that the author proposes—the Mousterian of Acheulean Traditon (MTA), the Mousterian with Bifacial Tools, and the Keilmessergruppen (KMG). No, the letters in the initialism MTA are not transposed. The initialism for the MTA was born in France in the mid-twentieth century, to one François Bordes, the primary author of the French palaeolithic typology. He dubbed assemblages fitting this pattern Le Moustérien de Tradition Acheuléenne. Hence MTA.

I hope it’ll become clear to you, as it has to me, that this study is a total disaster. 

Big mistake. You look at the map above and you see three areas encircled by dashed lines—one yellow, one blue, and one red. And, in the absence of descriptive information [of which there seems to be in regard to this graphic] you might think that the little triangles that denote the locations of the 14 sites the author personally examined for this work. However, the reader who’s interested enough to go looking, you aren’t told the regional affinity of any of the 14 until the paper’s done. Yep, those bits of information occur in Table A.1. There the author gives us the “General characteristics” of those fourteen sites. Table A.1 is first mentioned in the Materials and Methods section, where the author explains 

. . . detailed typo-technological attribute data was collected from 1303 late Middle Palaeolithic bifacial tools from 14 case study sites. These 14 assemblages were selected to form a sample representative of the bifacial tool variation across the study area, including classic French MTA and German KMG assemblages, assemblages from other, lesser-studied areas, [AND] assemblages that do not conform to the MTA/KMG dichotomy (for an overview see Table A.1). [emphasis mine: hold that thought]

We’re told that the 14 provide a ‘representative’ sample. We’re also told that, in addition to the MTA and the KMG, there are other assemblages . . . and [those] that do not conform.

There’s no subterfuge there. But unless you’re aware of what’s to come, those ‘other’ two kinds of assemblages are just there, something, presumably, for the author to deal with further on. Later on, they are referred to again, this time as “other biface bearing entities.” Yet, all through the meat of the paper, we’re repeatedly informed that the 1303 artifacts cluster in patterned ways in three [count ’em, three] regions. It came as a surprise to me, and I’m certain it will for everybody that’s read this paper, there is, in fact, a fourth kind of assemblage that doesn’t fit in the tripartite regional picture. In Table A.1 these are referred to as “Other.” And, as you can see, there are FOUR OF THE EFFERS!

Once again I’m having to place it sideways for legibility.

The FOUR of the fourteen sites that, oh, by the way, didn’t fit into one of the author’s three ‘cultural traditions’ are: Sint-Geertruid, Grotte du Docteur, Champlost, and Abri du Musée. That’s juicy. No? Four of the sites that appear in the distribution map of ‘regional cultural traditions’ don’t belong. This paper should have had an epigraph: Caveat emptor. So, we’re down to nine sites that Ruebens has used to construct her cultural ‘typology.’ But, the revelations don’t stop there.

EVEN MORE DISTRESSING, Table A.1 informs us that the ‘assemblages’ from Sint-Geertrud, Bois-du-Rocher, and St-Julien de la Liègue were all surface collections amassed unsystematically over the past, oh, century or so. *big exclamation mark emerges from writer’s head* What? That’s really bad.

So, I think there’ll be no detractors if I toss out the four sites that Ruebens deems to be ‘other,’ and ignore the surface collections from Bois-du-Rocher and St-Julien de la Liègue.

If you’re keeping score, six of the fourteen “Case Study” site collections have just shown themselves to be worthless. That leaves eight that are, we’re told are, really, really, comparable and useful for such regional comparisons. Oh, yeah. I remember, Ruebens also included insights drawn from publications dealing with 67 other sites across Europe. That sounds good, I know. And it might have rescued her thesis if it hadn’t been for this, which the author leaves behind as she breezes past in a vapour,

In many [of the 67 other] site reports, exact numbers are not given for the different types of bifacial tools. 

 Wait for it . . .

Therefore for comparison purposes the occurrence of bifacial tools was divided into four categories: absent (blank), low (50%).

Quelle desastre! Who knows how much weight the author gave to these so-called data? It’s a good thing we don’t need to know. This whole house of cards comes down right before your eyes, and just a little further down.

After ferreting out the details that are only to be found in Appendix A, someone more critical than I might understandably suspect that, in the distribution map (repeated below), the author might appear to be being disingenuous. I don’t say that. But some might. Simply because there is no fine-grained discussion of this crucial graphic. If there had been, I might not have been duped by what I see in this map. I shows all 14 of the ‘Case study’ sites personally examined by the author [which we now know to be, in fact, eight in total.]

See all those sites within the boundary of the MBT? Does it surprise you that TWO of them are classed as MTA: Bois-du-Rocher and Saint-Just-en-Chaussée. In fact, only two of those sites illustrated within the MBT area are classified as MBT. And one of them we have already tossed—St-Julien de la Liègue—because it was all collected from the surface over the past century or so. The remaining three sites shown within the bounds of the MBT ‘cultural tradition’ area are from the “Other” category, i.e. cannot be assigned to any of the three ‘traditions’ that Ruebens has erected in this paper. Meet me after this map. So, you see, this map is almost completely misleading.

Okay. Where do we go from here? There are still eight ‘Case Study’ sites and the information from the 67 published assemblages. Do they still tell the same story? In a word? No. And I’ll show you why right now!

The two images that follow are based on a geological map, which I serendipitously found while searching on the Google for Europe+map+karst. The areas shown in blue are karst. They are the only places on that map where bipedal apes would have found flint. In the map immediately below I’ve plotted [as nearly as I could] those fourteen sites from the Ruebens map, above. The second map shows Europe without the six collections that we’ve had to toss out.

BEFORE. Yellow dots: MTA. Green dots: MBT. Red dots: KMG. Purple dots (!): OTHER. Source give in the next caption.

And after the six unsuitable sites are dropped.

AND AFTER. Ruebens ‘Case Study’ sites after culling the sic that are unsuitable for these purposes. Yellow dots: MTA.  Green dot: MBT. Red dots: KMG  Source: University of Aukland, School of Environment, “World Map of Carbonate Outcrops 3.0.”

We’re not through, yet. Even if, and I mean IF, the data from the 67 published collections made this paper a slam dunk, the only map that matters is the one right up there. And now I’ll tell you why, if you haven’t already figgered it out.

In addition to the ‘data’ that I’ve been discussing to this point [including yesterday’s post], Ruebens’s gives us a half-dozen morphological comparisons that I’m choosing not to worry about right now. I don’t think they’ll help the argument one bit. During her discussion of the THREE ‘regional traditions,’ we get the following graph, showing the relative proportion of raw material types found in the fourteen “Case Study” sites that I’ve been discussing thus far. Oops! I meant to say eight! No worries!

Figure 5. Proportional occurrence of different bifacial tool concepts across different macro-regions based on the data from 14 case study sites (Table 9) and 67 comparison sites (Table B.2). Northeast’ relates to the German sites (n: 15), Southwest’ to the sites from southwest France (n: 13) and Central Northwest Europe’ to the sites from the Netherlands (n: 3), Belgium (n: 19), Britain (n: 7), northern France (n: 8), western France (n: 7), and eastern France (n: 9). [taken verbatim from Ruebens 2013]

For those of you who are red-green colour-blind, the stacked bars illustrate the relative proportions of the five artifact concepts/types/traditions that Ruebens has defined, from left to right, and darkest to lightest. NOTE: here Ruebens employs the entire corpus of 14 ‘Case Study’ sites and the 67 published reports. So, this graph is the only place you’ll see what the author has used to construct and instantiate the three [not four] Neanderthal ‘cultural traditions.’You’ll see on the bottom bar that in the region the author terms the ‘southwest’ the numbers of hand axes approaches 90 percent of the overall assemblage. For the central area the hand axe proportion is just over 60 percent. In the northeast it’s less than 10 percent.

Ruebens concludes that these apparently persistent assemblage patterns are a clear indication of cultural traditions, and Neanderthal smarts.

Culture. Yep. Neanderthal culture. Cultural traditions. Time-honoured traditions. Dad and Mum showing little Eva and Adama how to make little sharp rocks from big dull ones.

Sorry. But Ruebens paints a completely erroneous picture with these data.There is really no evidence to support her thesis. And there is a perfectly good explanation for the distributions she has inadvertently come across.

Now, have a look at this map of Europe showing areas where one might acquire flint, by far the best material available, and perhaps, on balance, the best, all-round knapping rock of them all. The circles roughly outline the northeast (red), central (green) and southwestern (blue) regions used in the graph shown above.

Remember that the blue bits are sources of flint. 

What do you see within those three areas that Ruebens obviously did not see, much less consider? Yeppers. Blue stuff. Flint-bearing rock. So, now what do you think best explains the relative proportion of hand axes in each of the three circled regions—culture? Nope. I have a rock-solid alternative explanation. Lithic analysts call it curation, I believe.

In the northeast (red circle), where good chipping rock is really, really scarce, I’m proposing that if you live in that red circle, whether you’re a Neanderthal or one of us, any worthwhile lump of flint that you could get your mitts on would be used, retouched, used, retouched, used, retouched, and used to within an inch of its imperishable life. Moreover, if the FAF is correct, and I believe it is, the dearth of workable rock in Germany meant that if you got to the stage where in the southwest the lump would yell “Hand Axe” to unwitting palaeoanthropologsts, you wouldn’t stop to admire it’s symmetry.

On the other hand, if you lived in the central portion (green circle), where good rock is abundant, but not ubiquitous, depending on your location you’d either think you were in flint heaven and be a total profligate, or conserve, conserve, conserve like those poor buggers in Germany.

As for the southwest of France. Le magnifique Sud-Ouest! Wine. Great food. An equable climate, which would have come in handy to a Neanderthal as the world descended into the last major ice age. Again, depending where you are, you’d have to be stingy or you could say forget it, as, no doubt those in the yellow dots near the Dordogne Valley must have done. 

I think I can stop here. I was gonna go into great [and, frankly, mind-numbingly boring] detail about the metric comparisons, but I don’t think it’s necessary at this point.

I trust that you’ve enjoyed this trip to Late Mousterian Europe. Join me next time for another trip down Mythopeoia Lane.

Your comments will always be welcome. It’s Miller time.

Adios, muchachos!


SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist‘s facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett’s news feed), on Robert H. Gargett‘s page, Rob Gargett‘s twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog’s RSS feeds. You can also become a ‘member’ of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You’re the reason I do this.