"Intelligent Design" "Science" in Paleolithic Archaeology? I’m Shocked.

It’ll come as no surprise to you that I just can’t let the “Handaxe as Art” and “Levallois Technique as Science” crowd get too complacent.

Wait! I misspoke. I meant that I can’t let them continue in their complacency without now and again reminding them that they’re on very shaky empirical ground.

Today, I’m going to try a new tack. So different, in fact, that I think it’s positively brilliant. [I might as well—it’s unlikely they’ll think so!]

Okay. Here it comes. To say that the shape of a so-called hand axe is predetermined is tantamount to claiming that the God of Abraham created every living thing on earth.

Here’s why I can say so with confidence. I’ll start with an rock.

“Why a rock?” you ask. You have to ask? I should have thought it’d be obvious. Look at how smooth it is. How perfectly rounded it is. How beautifully elliptical it is. Surely this must be the work of some minor deity! Or, perhaps, even, a major one. This rock came out of the ground all rough and angular, and by [name your favorite deity]’s grace, today it is a work of uncommon beauty and symmetry. Observe. And be amazed.

Okay. I’m being a bit sarcastic. Do you blame me? This rock, with its no-doubt angular but roughly oblong beginnings, has undergone a gradual process of evolution at the ‘hands’ of—not a god—but of flowing water. Simple as that. By a random process of attrition—the removal of as little as a molecule at a time of its original mass, by friction and percussion against other similar clasts—this rock has attained an almost perfectly symmetrical ellipsoidal shape in three dimensions, and a very nearly burnished surface. However did it get this way?

Well, I’ve already let the cat out of the bag. It wasn’t a deity—an intelligent creator. Just good ol’ Nature—what a geoarchaeologist would term a natural process. You know! The sort of natural process that a good archaeologist is supposed to rule out before claiming that an extraordinary bipedal ape was the creator.

“But wait!” you say. “Nobody’s suggesting that this lump of [What is it? Quartzite?] is an act of God. I know where you’re going with this. And I think you’re setting up a straw man argument!”

Hey! Settle down. It would be a straw man if it weren’t that paleoanthropologists have always looked at the shape of hand axes as desired end products of a purposeful set of flake removals. I don’t have to go into detail to remind you of the innumerable times you’ve read drivel like this in the literature . . .

Production of large flakes as blanks for bifaces–handaxes are notably rare in the Qesem Cave assemblages (e.g., Fig. 3, and a roughout on a large flake, Fig. 4). Raw material used for handaxes was non-homogeneous, relatively low quality flint that differed from the materials used for any of the other production trajectories. It appears that the hand axes were made on large flakes, but apart from the single preform made on a large flake there are no traces of their production in the form of detached flakes or very large cores. The production of large flakes in the Lower Paleolithic is considered a conspicuous and characteristic cultural phenomenon . . . . The use of large flakes for shaping handaxes at Qesem marks the end of this tradition. (“Qesem Cave: An Amudian Site in Central Israel,” Gopher, A., R. Barkai, R. Shimelmitz, M. Khalaily,  C. Lemorini, I. Heshkovitz, and M. Stiner. Journal of The Israel Prehistoric Society 35, 69-92,  2005.)

Look at Figure 4. If you threw this presumed “roughout” into the sandy gravels on a modern-day beach in North America’s Pacific Northwest, what shape do you think it would eventually take?

Right-y-oh! A nicely rounded teardrop in plan; in all likelihood a somewhat flattened ovoid when viewed from the distal end. I’ll leave it up to you to imaginate what it would look like from the side.

The bipedal ape and the energetic sand and gravel beach have one fundamental similarity. Neither the ape nor the ocean NEEDS to have the least concern for the ultimate shape of this lump of rock for it to turn out either as something Gopher et al. would want to call a hand axe, or that I’d want to call—simply—a biface. As Gopher et al. so kindly point out, this “roughout” began as a big flake. If the ape removed flakes repeatedly, following a random pattern that affected all of the flakable edges equally, the result would be an angular version of the nicely rounded alternative that was subjected to the whims of ocean waves.

There is no difference between the arguments of Creationists, Intelligent Design mavens, and these paleoanthropologists and thousands of others who claim that the so-called hand axe is a purposeful creation.

I rest my case. And, in that case, I’m going to get some rest.

Nighty, night!

SUBVERSIVE SHIRTS—The online store. Exclusively at the Subversive Archaeologist and street fairs around the Pacific Northwest Order Online window.amznpubstudioTag = “thesubvearcha-20”;

Chazan’s Amazin’ Tunnel Vision: Truly A Chip Off The Old Block Of Bordes’s Palaeolithic Typology.

This is the story of the Finished Artifact Fallacy (FAF). It’s incessant mission: to infer strange new lithic technologies and new behavioural inferences: to boldly go where no palaeolithic archaeologist has gone before.

“Butchering with small tools: the implications of the Evron Quarry assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus,” by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013. 

From “Butchering with small tools: 
the implications of the Evron Quarry 
assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus,” 
by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013.

Allright. I know. I’m a Star Trek fan. And it’s probably very geeky to make an analogy between the FAF and the starship Enterprise‘s mission. Sometimes I just can’t help myself!

My paean to Star Trek was inspired by the just-published, peer-reviewed, “Butchering with small tools: the implications of the Evron Quarry assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus,” by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013. It may bear the Good Housekeeping Seal, but it is, fundamentally, flawed. The author, together with the Antiquity editors and referees ought to be charged with false and misleading advertising!

The intellectual earthquake that this paper represents cannot be underestimated. From it, we learn that “[s]mall tools are emerging as a common element of the Early Stone Age/Lower Palaeolithic toolkit … . On Oldowan sites, including Omo 57, Omo 123, Wonderwerk Cave and Sterkfontein, flakes under 20mm in maximum dimension [averaging between 22.2 mm and 37.9 mm] are a major component of the assemblage and an intentional product of knapping … ” [emphasis added]. Remember that last phrase. It becomes important further down.

Me, trying to wrap my
brain around this argument.

What’s wrong with me? I should be ecstatic that a palaeolithic archaeologist recognizes the central importance of flakes in the Oldowan and later technologies. But alas, my euphoria is still born. The author adheres to the old school of palaeolithic typology when he classifies some of the chipped stone pieces from Evron Quarry “choppers” and “polyhedrons.” And, in a stunning bit of ‘doublespeak‘ the author  proceeds to re-re-reify the notion of the ‘hand-axe.’ According to Chazan, small flakes predominate at Evron Quarry as an “adaptation of local materials that make poor hand axes.” Translation: Homo erectus was predisposed to make ‘hand axes,’ but couldn’t. So they used flakes by themselves as a substitute for ‘hand axes.’ Those flakes, he argues, “reflect a level of conceptual thought [i.e. “an ingenious improvisation on the part of Homo erectus”] that allowed the occupants of Evron Quarry to solve the problem of how to butcher an elephant using only the material at hand.” 

Almost takes your breath away. Don’t it? Wait a sec. Isn’t the material “at hand” always the only material ‘at hand?’ If those H. erecti were so clever, why didn’t they walk a few kliks and find better material? After all, one of the site’s early excavators declared the assemblage to be an artifactual accumulation of many temporally separate events. If that were true, surely during one of the times the H. erecti were elsewhere, they could have picked up some better material to take back to the quarry. [BTdub, that would be the Lower Palaeolithic equivalent of carrying coals to Newcastle!] Unless… No. Of course! I’ve got it! εὕρηκα! The explanation: at each of the times those bipedal apes left chipped rock on the ground at Evron Quarry, it was because they had just spotted [or caught a whiff of] the rotting carcass of an elephant. And, logically, fearful that the meat would be thoroughly spoiled if they spent time wandering around the countryside looking for the best raw material to make a ‘hand axe’ with which to butcher said carcass, they instead used whatever was ‘at hand.’ Nah. We should just take Michael Chazan’s word for it. Or not.

Do I really think Chazan is asking us to accept such a monumental shortcoming on the part of H. erectus? Evidently. But I’m not sure the author even realizes how badly this looks for an “ingenious” species like H. erectus. Even if that were its only shortcoming this paper would be an “archaeological howler.” But, buried in the data presentation there’s an even more fundamental error in thinking.

As if the author’s effusive praise for the quick-thinking H. erecti wasn’t comic enough when viewed in terms of my [half] facetious scenario, we learn that indeed there are ‘hand axes’ in the Evron assemblage. But these “are all very thick,” and “[u]nfortunately no complete handaxes were found in the excavation” [emphasis mine, SA]. Hmmm. In a minit I’ll be showing you the ‘hand axes’ from the quarry site. There were apparently quite a few, only no “complete” ones came from the three test pits that Chazan used as his sample, which he refers to as “the excavation.”

I’m reading between the lines, here. I’m guessing that Chazan refers to the Evron Quarry ‘hand-axes’ (those shown below) as “thick,” to imply that they haven’t been ‘thinned’ enough. They haven’t been thinned enough, says he, because the local raw material was shite. He’s willing to admit that they’re ‘hand axes,’ all right. But they’re crappy ones. So, if the Evron Quarry ‘hand axes,’ ‘choppers’ and the ‘polyhedrons’ were desired end products, where did all the flakes come from? Surely not from the 1.7% (15/845) of the assemblage that he calls ‘cores!’

It’s like this. Were he to entertain the notion that the ‘choppers,’ ‘polyhedrons’ and ‘hand axes’ were among the ‘cores’ that gave birth to the abundant small flakes, he would also have to consider the possibility that all the other ‘hand axes’ in all the sites, in all the world, are, after all, just cores. And that would naturally lead to the realization—the reality that dare not speak its name—might well be just a fantasy that exists only in the mind of [admittedly a great many] archaeologists. A reified category. In plain English, the ‘hand axe’—the ‘mental template’ supposedly in the mind of its maker, the ‘desired’ end product, the ‘finished’ artifact—is fallacious! Shiver my timbers!

The FAF would be nothing to worry about, were it not that, where the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic are concerned, its perpetuation is a pernicious and persistent obstacle to a better understanding of our origins. [IMHO, of course.] Now, let’s take a closer look at Michael Chazan’s argument. First, though, let’s look at the Evron Quarry ‘hand axes’ that didn’t appear in the author’s “excavation.”

“Butchering with small tools: the implications of the Evron Quarry assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus,” by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013. 
When is a ‘hand axe’ not a ‘hand axe?’ When it’s a core, of *cough* course! Remember that I can only imagine the following scenario if you first accept the author’s assertion that these ‘hand axes’ are ugly. So, on we go. If you peruse the above montage, you’ll notice that many of the flake scars on the ‘hand axes’ are on the order of 20 to 30 mm. That, coincidentally, was the range of sizes for site’s entire modified flake assemblage—the assemblage in which things called cores are thin on the ground, to say the least. Now, if one were to use Occam’s Razor, rather than Bordes’s typology, the logical explanation for the origin of said flakes is, most likely, those very ‘hand axes,’ the ‘choppers,’ and the ‘polyhedrons.’ [There is the possibility to apply a bit of hypothesis testing of the empirical kind with respect to my scenario… With only a few hundred pieces of rock, an enterprising archaeologist might try seeing if any of the useful small flakes could be refitted to the block of rock whence it came.]   
Check out the image below. The author calls these “pieces [of rock] … [bits that are] associated with handaxe manufacture” [emphasis added]. Isn’t it odd that, instead of calling them something like ‘hand axe fragments”he chooses to call them [things] “associated with handaxe manufacture?” Why can’t he just call a spade a spade? Why can’t he see that these, too, are cores, not quasi ‘hand axes’ bits? He has told us that the numerous flakes themselves were ” … an intentional product of knapping … .” Where does that leave the ‘hand axes?’ The author’s answer is that they simply weren’t there in the numbers that should be expected in a Lower Palaeolithic elephant butchering theatre. So, now, on the one hand we have the ‘hand axes,’ which are the desired end product of the H. erectus brain, and on the other hand we have the small, useful flakes. Here’s where it gets really tricky, philosophically speaking. Are the flakes really debitage? Or are the ‘hand axes,’ ‘choppers,’ and ‘polyhedrons’ just cores? 
“Butchering with small tools: the implications of the Evron Quarry assemblage for the behaviour of Homo erectus,” by Michael Chazan. Antiquity 87:350–367,  2013. 
I’m not singling Michael Chazan out for punishment. He’s not alone in trying to ascertain how many bipedal apes can dance on the distal extremity of a ‘hand axe.’ Inevitably, by cleaving to the FAF, they’ll buy themselves “a ticket to obscurity” [excerpted from Famous Last Words of the Subversive Archaeologist, Vanity Press International, 2013]. I have to ask, “Has every archaeologist on the planet drunk the Bordesian typological Kool-Aid?” 
Source: Comme on dit en France, “Divine.”

And speaking of drinking. When I started to write this blurt it was last Friday afternoon. I took a moment to plug a very decent $5 sparkling wine that Trader Joe’s carries, and which I was, at the time, drinking. It’s officially called Trader Joe’s Blanc de Blancs Brut, and it’s very colourful on the tongue. It’s imported from France [so it must be good], and this grassy, pale beauty is every bit the peer of Freixenet, which at one time you could buy for $5, but which has suffered the fate of popularity, and had the price elevated due the disparity between supply and demand. [You know? I’ve always mistrusted the notion of supply and demand as the being the natural force determining value. It’s too easy, don’t you think, to consciously reduce output so as to encourage higher prices. The oil companies do it by limiting the number of refineries. OPEC does it by turning the well spigot a quarter turn to the right. Is it too far-fetched to think that wineries might do the same, even in the absence of demand in excess of production?

On the other hand, maybe drinking too much can engender conspiracy theories.

I look forward to seeing you next time. Thanks for visiting!


SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist‘s facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett’s news feed), on Robert H. Gargett‘s Academia.edu 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.