Parsing Pettit’s The Palaeolithic Origins of Human Burial

I’ve been struggling against my strong desire to avoid saying anything about Paul Pettitt’s book, The Palaeolithic Origins of Human Burial [it is perhaps more accurately described as a treatise on the evolution of responses to death among humans and their bipedal ancestors]. I’m not avoiding it because of anything he has to say about my critique of Middle Palaeolithic burials. It’s because I’m not as eloquent about some fallacious arguments as I am about others. [Believe it or don’t.] By the end of this blurt, Pettitt’s thesis will be shown for what it is–a sentimental piece of pseudo-science that ignores the similarities between the behaviour of chimpanzees and other mammals, and between mammals and other members of Animalia. So, on with the show.
     Remember me saying that Pettitt is careful to point out, repeatedly, that my work is ‘literature-based,’ as if that had any relevance whatsoever to the veracity of my arguments. Well, Pettitt’s entire thesis is based on written accounts of observations–by others–of chimpanzee behaviour in the presence of death. And there have been many, whether that be death by accident, by disease, by killing, or by neglect. And I’m reluctant to say much about his thesis because in so doing I’ll be denigrating his sentimental anthropomorphizing of the chimp behaviour he’s read about. Yet, without any warrant whatsoever for his conclusions, he ascribes complex emotional states to our closest relatives. Moreover, he builds, on a foundation of his tenuous inferences, an edifice of insupportable extrapolations from the chimp data. 
     I’ll give you an example. Pettitt recognizes that we humans are moved by observations of chimps when they encounter death. He and others of our species impute human emotions to those chimp behaviours where there may well be nothing in their actions that arises from the same meanings that we give death. Still, from his ‘feeling’ about these present-day observations Pettitt infers that the last common ancestor of chimps and humans must have had the same or a similar response to death as that which he ascribes to the present-day humans and chimps. And so, for example, he presumes to claim that the presence of Neanderthal skeletal remains in a cave is evidence of what he calls Funerary caching, whereby a corpse is placed 

in a chosen place, such as at the back of caves, in natural fissures, etc. Also the use of pits originally created for purposes other than burial… the place is given meaning beyond prosaic concerns such as corpse protection. Concepts such as ‘places of the dead’ may arise from funerary caching.

And porcines might take to the air in winged flight…
Having already prepared his reader to accept virtually any chimp behaviour with respect to a dead conspecific as  imbued with emotion and meaning [other, that is, than complete disregard] we are powerless to refute his claim that hominid skeletal remains in caves are there for a reason. This makes it mightily difficult for any archaeologist, say, like me, to rule out natural deposition, since, according to Pettitt, by virtue of its location any piece of a hominid must be seen as a purposeful act of caching. 
     And, if one swallows Pettitt’s thesis, the work of Sandgathe, Dibble, Golberg and others at Roc de Marsal amounts to a hill o’ beans. You’ll remember that they determined that the Neanderthal child must have been naturally buried in a naturally occurring solution cavity, which is probably the only reason it was preserved. On Pettitt’s account, this must have been a case of funerary caching. Full stop. No need for discussion. On to the next bit of fluff. 
     Hey! Not so fast!
     In the first place, the author is employing a fallacious form of argument known as petitio principii, or begging the question, in which a proposition is made that uses its own premises as proof of the proposition. Viz. Chimpanzees give meaning to death. Hominids must therefore give meaning to death. If we find evidence of death it must have been meaningful to another member of that hominid species. To accept any of Pettitt’s constructions of palaeo-reality, you first must accept that anything has ‘meaning’ for a chimp. As I’ve said before, the day a chimp can tell me the socially meaningful [to me] difference between filet mignon and hamburger, or between a Geo Metro and a Lamborghini, that’ll be the day that I accept Pettitt’s premises.
     In truth, Pettitt’s presentation evinces yet another example of a logical fallacy, the one known as argument from exclusion, or argument from want of evident alternatives. Here’s why. Unfortunately for Pettitt, chimpanzee behaviour with regard to death is not unlike that of elephants, dogs, cats (big and small), and a host of other animals among whose adaptations is a lick of what most would call intelligence–at a minimum the ability to learn behaviours from other members of their species. How solid does Pettitt’s theory of mortuary behaviour evolution look when you consider that chimps aren’t the only ones to act in a certain way in the presence of death. 
     Fer gawd’s sake, the only reason we’re able to teach elephants or dogs (and I might add, chimps) to jump through hoops is because they are social animals, and ones instinctively capable of learning. Using Pettitt’s criteria for what he calls mortuary behaviour we should regard elephant behaviour in the presence of death to stand as evidence of the elephant’s experience of what you and I would recognize as a meaningful occurrence. 
     So, at the end of the day, Pettitt’s book is a house of cards, built on sentimentality, and amounts to nothing short of pseudo-scientific quackery.
     Tell me I’m wrong! 

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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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