A Kick-Ass Scientific Illustration to Illustrate an Ass-Kicker of an Epistemological Dilemma

I’m gonna treasure this.

‘Remains of Holocene giant pandas from Jiangdong Mountain (Yunnan, China) and their relevance to the evolution of quaternary environments in south-western China,’ Nina G. Jablonski, Ji Xueping, Liu Hong, Li Zheng, Lawrence J. Flynn, and Li Zhicai. Historical Biology: An International Journal of Paleobiology 24:527-536, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08912963.2011.640400

Thank you Nina Jablonski of the Cal Academy et al. for this beauty of a graphic. I can’t wait to erect it the next time I’m forced to comment on the idea of purposeful anything at Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca, Spain. In fact. I might just say something right now, because this illustrates what I mean when I talk about equifinality.

I suppose we can’t altogether rule out purposeful disposal of the panda dead by other pandas. No, wait! That’s not true. We can. If today’s pandas aren’t capable of it, it’s unlikely that yesterday’s pandas were. And so, if this can happen naturally to a panda it can equally naturally happen to one or more members of the species Homo antecessor. [Take a deep breath before saying the following out loud] You can take Paul Pettitt‘s* position and say that the Sima de los Huesos bipedal apes could have been cacheing their dead in a depositional environment virtually identical to that of the unfortunate panda’s (something that neither Pettitt nor anyone else could ever in a million years verify empirically), or you could take the only truly logical position and say that, while it may have been the case that someone dropped each and every Homo antecessor individual into the Sima de los Huesos, it’s equally likely that, panda-like, those Iberian Penisula exponents of Homo heidelbergensis were unfortunate enough to lose their footing at the top of a 13-m deep natural trap. Ergo, there’s no power whatsoever in the Pettitt hypothesis, which is merely a restatement of the same claims made by Juan Luis Arsuaga, one of the principles of the Atapuerca projects. [Yep. The guy even has his own Wikipedia entry.]
     A tip o’ the hat to Trina MacDonald for first bringing this to my attention, all the way from (near) Melbourne by internet Pony Express.

* You could pay the $115 for the hardcover, or just $7.48 for the Kindle edition. You can probably guess which one I purchased!

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Drop Dead! One Of These Days I’m Really Gonna Lose It! Sima de los Huesos Was a Cemetery????

Did he fall? Was he pushed? Or, did he jump?

If I didn’t know it was a story from Spain I’d have to say that this is truly *cough* galling!

 El hallazgo de la falange de un niño en esta campaña ha venido a reforzar la teoría que manejaban los investigadores de que la Sima de los Huesos alberga un santuario en el que se realizarían ritos funerarios. «Se trataría del primer santuario de la humanidad», explicó Arsuaga, quien argumentó que no existen restos en toda Eurasia de este calibre. «Es la prueba más antigua de un comportamiento funerario y de una acumulación colectiva», recalcó.

The short paraphrase is this: according to its excavation team, northern Spain’s extremely well known hominid site, Sima de los Huesos, near Atapuerca (Burgos, Castile and León), is rife with the remains of Homo heidelbergensis [or H. antecessor, if you prefer] because it was the site of ritual disposal of the dead! Make. It. Stop. Please!
     It’s been said before, of course, and lately it has sparked Sheffield’s Paul Pettitt to invoke no end of totally untestable hypotheses about the ‘evolution’ of mortuary behaviour. And, of course, the media everywhere love to report spectacular archaeological claims. But what are we talking about, here? Graves? Tombs? A mausoleum? Perhaps a columbarium? Well, no.

That’s gotta hurt!

     In fact, the circumstances of deposition can easily be guessed by translating the site’s name into English. The word ‘simaen Español means, variously, abyss, chasm, or deep fissure]. And the phrase ‘de los huesos’ means ‘of the bones.’ Yes, subversive archaeologists everywhere, the Sima de los Huesos is what’s commonly called, in palaeontological circles, a natural trap.

Journal of Human Evolution (1997) 33, 109–127

What’s the archaeologist’s ‘prime directive’? That’s right. Make every effort to rule out natural causes before imputing the observed phenomenon to hominid behaviour. So. Have J.L. Arsuaga et al. attempted to rule out natural processes? Hardly. They might as well claim that the thousands of cave bear and other animal bones were disposed of in a ritual fashion. I dunno…maybe they have already. Talk about myth-making in archaeology!
     I’m outa here.

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