It’s About Time! El Sidrón Neanderthals are 49 kyr old, not 10


I truly believe that Tom Higham can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Well. Maybe not. But he has served notice to the palaeoanthropological community that there’s a new sheriff in Temporal Town.

Photo credit: Nel Acebal, Elcomercio.es

Today Phys.org alerted me to the existence of new, more accurate and precise dates for the El Sidrón (Asturias, Spain) Neanderthals. And, once again, as it was at Kents Cavern and elsewhere, T.F.G. (call me Tom) Higham’s (Oxford) is the fount of this new information on old stuff. Using an ultrafiltration pre-treatment protocol on Neanderthal bone, the team is now reporting that they’ve obtained a date of 48,400 ± 3200 bp (OxA-21 776).

Tom Higham

WOOD, R. E., HIGHAM, T. F. G., DE TORRES, T., TISNÉRAT-LABORDE, N., VALLADAS, H., ORTIZ, J. E., LALUEZA-FOX, C., SÁNCHEZ-MORAL, S., CAÑAVERAS, J. C., ROSAS, A., SANTAMARÍA, D. and DE LA RASILLA, M. (2013), A NEW DATE FOR THE NEANDERTHALS FROM EL SIDRÓN CAVE (ASTURIAS, NORTHERN SPAIN). Archaeometry, 55: 148–158. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4754.2012.00671.x

This should put the kibosh, once and for all, on the fantastic notion, propounded last year [and spectacularly amplified in the mediaNew York Times are you listening?], that the ancient artwork at El Sidrón Castillo* Cave might have been attributable to Neanderthals.  Recall that those claims were being raised because the dates obtained ranged from 10,000 to about 46,300 BP (Torres et al. 2010).

I refrained from saying much last year, mostly ’cause I figgered you might be getting bored listening to my naked [incessant, really] scepticism about any claims of Neanderthal sophistication. But now I can say that nobody, perhaps not even the excavators themselves, thought such an amusing suggestion might have been the reality.

In addition to quashing the notion that Neanderthals in Spain were artistically precocious, this new date pretty much closes the door on the idea of an Iberian refugium for late-surviving Neanderthals.

I know. I know. I’m as naïve about radiocarbon physics as I am about anybody else’s radiometric dating prestidigitation. So, how is it that I can so readily accept some results and not some others. Some might call this unscientific. My expectations are based on a certain familiarity with the corpus of knowledge surrounding the Neanderthals. And it’s not scientific, for a very logical [philosophically speaking] reason. What’s known in philosophy of science as the contexts of “discovery” and “justification”[i.e. how we arrive at our hypotheses and how we support or refute them] are almost always independent of one another. Thus, even if I literally dreamed up an idea, it’s nevertheless subject to instantiation and later justification [A.K.A. hypothesis testing]. Getting back to the physics, in this case the mostly likely outcome was achieved [as far as my dreams are concerned], and by someone [and his technique] about which no one that I know [or know of] would [or could] dispute. In today’s example, there’s nothing like the uncertainty of provenance or of technique that I see, for example, in the luminescence dates from southern Africa. For that reason, if for no other, I have no aversion to hanging my hat on Higham’s test tubes, and getting on with my business.

You know how much I hate saying “I told you so.” There! I didn’t say it.

* In the original version I erroneously identified the art as having been at El Sidrón. It’s El Castillo. The substance of the comment remains the same—the Neanderthals, in all likelihood, were nowhere to be seen when the artwork was being created at El Castillo.

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