Neanderthals, Mushrooms, and Twine, and . . . Wait! What?

I gotta tell ya. The shine is really off the apple of paleoanthropology these days.

I think this pretty much says it all—from Hardy et al. (2013) “Impossible Neanderthals? Making string, throwing projectiles and catching small game during Marine Isotope Stage 4 (Abri du Maras, France). Quaternary Science Reviews 82:23-40.

[One] line of argument often generally speaks of “Neanderthal” capabilities or behaviors as if this group of hominins always did the same things no matter the temporal or ecological circumstances . . . 

Can you think of an assertion that is more blatantly ridiculous from an evolutionary perspective, and at the same time such a reductio ad absurdum of the arguments that they’re referring to, regardless of those arguments’ particulars? Here are their antagonists:

Wynn, T., and R.L. Coolidge. (2004). “The expert Neandertal mind.” Journal of Human Evolution 46:467–487. [Both  friends of the Subversive Archaeologist.]

Fa, J.E., J.R. Stewart, L. Lloveras, and J.M. Vargas. (2013). “Rabbits and hominin survival in Iberia.” Journal of Human Evolution 64:233–241. [A paper that was refereed by, among others, Clive Finlayson.] 

Stiner, M.C., and S.L. Kuhn. (2009). “Paleolithic diet and the division of labor in Mediterranean Eurasia.” In: Hublin, J.J., and M.P. Richards (Eds.), The Evolution of Hominin Diets: Integrating Approaches to the Study of Palaeolithic Subsistence. Springer, New York, 157–169. [Two people of inestimable intellectual stature, even if they’re on the other side of the paleoanthropological fence from yours truly.]

Hardly what I’d call anti-Neanderthal ranters and ravers. So. Bzzzzt. You are the weakest link. Goodbye!

Even if the Neanderthals were—merely—another species adapting genetically and behaviorally to its circumstances—like, say, a bacterium or a fungus—no paleoanthropologist in their right mind would propose such a counter-intuitive and . . . just wrong . . . hypothesis. This is wrong on so many levels.

So, Hardy et al. are already skating on thin ice as far as this subversive is concerned. And IT’S ONLY THE FIRST PARAGRAPH!

If that were the end of their REFEREED JOURNAL ARTICLE, it would be bad enough. But, of course, it doesn’t end there. And we have Quaternary Science Reviews to thank for it, together with the so-called referees, of course. Quaternary Science Reviews should be demoted to stenographer at the New York Times* for publishing such so-called research.

But, don’t listen to me! I’m just a jaded underemployed academic with an [hand] axe to grind.

Instead, listen to the authors. They really know where it’s at.

The other [line of argument] emphasizes an increasing recognition of the variability of Neanderthal behavior and the elucidation of previously unrecognized behaviors including personal ornamentation a wide and varied diet . . . , and even maritime navigation . . . .

A smiling Clive Finlayson and a vulture ‘skin.’ According to Clive, the Neanderthals were preferentially offing black-feathered birds for their colourless feathers [black being, as you’re very well aware, not a colour—but rather, the absence of colour], although that’s not how the stenographic media portrayed this incomprehensible paleoanthropologist’s claim. Clearly the Neanderthals weren’t capable of aesthetic symbolic thought if they went around wearing the feathers of an excrement-eating seeker after carrion.

This recognition of behavioral variability through space and time argues for adaptation of Neanderthal groups to local conditions . . . .

Indeed. These authors have made a fatuous claim—that ‘others’ deny that the Neanderthals could adapt to local conditions. Those ‘others?’ The pieces of work [yes, that was deliberate] to which Hardy et al. are referring? Por ejemplo,

1. Finlayson, Finlayson, and Finlayson (see above) and the alleged Neanderthal penchant for black vulture feathers [a class of bird that begins its meal at a dead quadruped by sticking its hairless neck up the poor dead beast’s anus and scarfing until it opens up a big enough hole in its rear to access the really good stuff];

2. A bunch of surface finds on a Greek island that LOOK like Mousterian flakes, extrapolated to a Middle Paleolithic high sea level stand occupation requiring boats.

Ferentinos, G., et al. (2012). “Early seafaring activity in the southern Ionian Islands, Mediterranean Sea,” Journal of Archaeological Science 39:2167–2176.

We have a delivery of one very large Straw Man. Who wants to sign for it?

BUT, Hardy et al. don’t stop there. Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my! Mushrooms and twine! Middle Paleolithic mushroom butchery, and stone tools wrapped in string. And raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens! Okay, I might’ve exaggerated a bit there. But I was serious about the mushroom butchery. “Ahh, mushroom butchery,” you say. “Wait! What?”

No kidding. Well, maybe not mushroom butchery. But the authors make much of their finding some fungal spores on one of their stone tools. They suppose that it could even be mushroom spores. I ask you, what novel and, of course, highly adaptive neanderthal behavior would be implied by the presence of mushroom spores on a stone artifact? I think we can rule out mushroom harvesting. What about slicing and dicing? Julienned [no doubt black] mushrooms, anyone? Why did I never think of this before? Neanderthal haut cuisine? Welcome to Chez Thog. Tonight we’re offering a nice little mushroom nappé on our signature vulture ala Marsala. With a freshly plucked black-feather garni.

And then there’s the little matter of the string, wrapped around the artifacts. The title mentions projectiles. I’m guessing a vicious variant of the well-known South American bolo, but with sharp flakes instead of ho-hum spherical projectiles.

Ya see, the authors went looking for anything of interest [to them] that they could find in any ‘residues’ they could see on any stone artifacts they recovered. Of course, they gave no thought to the way that those ‘residues’ arrived on those flakes, preferring instead to assume that they were the result of Neanderthal use of the flake for particular purposes, which, of course, would be straightforwardly inferable from whatever it is they found. For example, twisted plant fibres.

These fibers are not twisted in their natural state (K. Hardy, 2008; Hurcombe, 2008) which suggests that they were twisted by the inhabitants of the Abri du Maras and may therefore provide evidence of the manufacture of string or cordage. In previous woodworking experiments involving incising, planning, whittling, scraping, and boring (Hardy and Garufi, 1998), no twisted fibers were observed. Unpublished experiments conducted by BH involving the scraping, cutting, and slicing of a variety of non- woody plants (roots, tubers, reeds, etc.) also produced no twisted fibers such as those observed here. While not definitive, the lack of twisted fibers in these experiments lends some credence to the hypothesis that these derive from cordage.

You see, we are told, only fibrous plants, first of all, have fibers. And fibrous plant fibers aren’t twisted in the naturally occurring fibrous plants. So if you find twisted plant fiber in a residue on a stone flake, it must’ve been unnaturally twisted first, and it must then have been incorporated in the residue of use during some other non-naturally occurring event. Ipso facto, something must have been purposefully twisting the plant fibers to make something out of twisted plant fiber. And, of course, the only thing that could be made from purposefully twisted plant fiber is twisted fiber cordage. Now, to be fair, the authors only suggest. But SOOOOOO much is implied by their mere suggestion that they might as well have come right out and said Neanderthals made string and tied it around their artifacts. Hence, my joke re: a vicious bolo. So, let’s see that twisted plant fiber!

You’re going to have to look closely. Very closely. Because, in each case, the string is represented by single strands of plant fibre. Remember that one micron is a thousandth of a millimetre. So, the fibre in image A is approximately a half a millimetre long. OMG! Those must have been some really nimble-fingered Neanderthals! Especially if you consider the strand [well, strand fragment] in image B. Frankly, I think the only thing that’s being twisted here is reality. The tragedy for paleoanthropology is that it got published.

All right. So, I’m having fun. But what if those inferences are true? What if the mere presence of a [very] short strand of twisted plant fiber was slam-dunk evidence for cordage manufacture in the Middle Paleolithic? Or fungal spores for mushroom butchery. Did it ever occur to these authors to wonder just how those residues arrived on some stone artifacts in a collapsed rock shelter in France?

Evidently not. I’ll pause here to make a suggestion to the authors. If there were a way to test your MP residues for the presence of rodent DNA I think it’d be a good idea.

I’m being presumptuous. I know. But I need to remind Hardy et al. that archaeological sites are dynamic depositional environments. Just because a piece of chipped stone is discarded or lost doesn’t mean that it’s state at that moment is the state in which it’ll remain for the next 40 or 50 or more thousand years. Take a look at the stratigraphic profile that the authors helpfully provide.

Those brown squiggles? They’re undoubtedly tree roots, even though we’re not treated to a key in this publication. And those spaces labelled TERRIER? That’s French for ‘burrow.’ These are two examples of my reason for reminding the authors that even a collapsed rock shelter is a dynamic depositional environment—for all time!

Burrowing anythings are burrowing for just one thing—to make a comfy place to hide out, have babies, keep warm, you name it. And, if there are two burrows visible in the twentieth century, you can be fairly certain that there were others in earlier centuries, to say nothing of earlier MILLENNIA! And, like Clive Finlayson’s happy-go-lucky, vulture-loving Neanderthals who don’t mind a bit of shit lying around, neither do rodents. They live in their shit and their piss. What’s your best guess as to the possibility that the burrowing furry creatures that made those TERRIERs left shit residue on the stone artifacts that happened to be incorporated in their home-sweet-homes? And what, d’ya think, those small furry creatures ate? Plants? Maybe fibrous ones? Hardy is personally responsible for the so-called experimental work that underpins many of this paper and others’ wondrously fantastic middle-range linking arguments. I wonder. Has Hardy done any experiments that show the condition of the plant fibres that make a progress through a rodent gut? ? ?

I hardly think so. And I’m wondering if Hardy et al. thought hard, at all.

I hope you enjoyed this trip down yet another rabbit hole—speaking of small, furry, burrowing creatures, in this case a lagomorph.

*The so-called newspaper that, among other ginormous gaffes, gave us the aluminum tubes that Saddam Hussein was supposedly using to weaponize chemical weapons.

Even Less Proof That Neanderthals Buried Their Dead

Yesterday, The Subversive Archaeologist, your favourite blog, received a comment on the third of three posts relating to Rendu et al.’s recent claim to have uncovered new evidence that the Old Man of La Chapelle had been purposefully buried. It came from reader Morley Eldridge. His is as disinterested a response as one could possibly hope for. Morley is steeped in the late-pre-European invasion archaeology of North America’s Northwest Coast—about as far from Late Pleistocene France as you could imagine. Or maybe not. As he points out the ‘soil’ chemistry of shell middens and calcareous caves are very alike. His comment raises many issues that I’m pretty sure some readers will have shared. I immediately crafted an appropriate response, but was hamstrung by the character limit on Blogger/Google Comments.

So, I emailed Morley the piece, and asked if I might put up his comment and my response. He gave the green light. His comment is reproduced verbatim, as are my responses. I’m adding visual aids of what Morley’s referring to. [And in the captions some after-the-fact facts that you should keep in mind.]

The Subversive Archaeologist (SA)received this comment December 31, 2013, from Morley Eldridge (ME), President of Millennia Research Limited of Victoria, BC.

ME: OK. Had to read all three posts a couple of times to get it straight.

SA: I’m sorry if I didn’t present it coherently. I do try.

ME: I do believe you are basically right Rob, and that Rendu et al were mistaken in the belief that the originally published profiles and plan had to be essentially accurate.The notch is damning if the differences in pit location and morphology are supposed to be due to ‘damage’.

SA: But only basically? Just checking.

The Notch appears on the right-hand site plan. The original outline of the “grave” and position of the deceased are in red. The Rendu et al. excavation revealed that the “grave’s” location was about a metre away from the original presentation. Long-time friend of the SA, Marco Langbroek, advises me that the notch was very likely created during excavation, when the skull and associated bits were removed en bloc. If true, it’s proof that the excavators, Bouysonnie, Bouysonnie, and Bardon (B, B, & B), did a piss-poor job of drawing their plan. The claim that they fudged their published observations is further supported by the excellent duo of photographs that Rendu et al. published, showing the newly excavated 1908 pit compared with the recent exposure.  
There can be no doubt that B, B, & B fudged their site plan and profiles. In these two views, taken from precisely the same vantage point, the size and location of the pit appears identical. Moreover, the Notch created for removal of the skull en bloc appears to have been made almost directly below the shield of rock/travertine that can be seen in both photos of the site post excavation, and in the mid-excavation photo below. 
The pit during excavation. The excavator in red is perched precariously on a half-metre sized island of backfill, hard up against the shield rock formation. Judging by the concave profile visible beneath excavator in red, the notch had to have been almost underneath the shield of rock. It’s difficult to imagine how B, B, & B could have been so far off the mark in their plan drawing. Moreover, the skull’s location almost beneath the shielding rock can easily explain why the skull was excavated virtually pristine. In such locations, preservation is bound to be better than any portions of the carcass that were further away (in this case, all of the post-cranial skeleton). 

ME: Whats left is essentially an amorphous depression that contained a remarkably intact skeleton,

SA: I’ve done the math. About 50% of the skeleton is represented.

The 50% estimate is a charitable one. The true number is close to, but does not reach, 50%. If I may be allowed a bit of after-the-fact analysis, you’ll notice that the backbone is well represented. I’ve previously argued that the Kebara Cave Neanderthal’s backbone would have been preserved best of all, because lying on its back means that the vertebrae and associated soft tissue would have been first to be covered by accumulating sediments. If I’m right, and LCS1 was naturally buried, it stands to reason that his backbone would survive better than the rest of the skeleton. 

ME: and which was excavated by the standards current to the early 20th century.

SA: I have no doubt that the excavation techniques were less fine-grained than some being done today. But if Rendu et al. found very little skeletal material that B, B, & B missed. But it’s not the digging technique that fell down on the job. Neither is it the stratification observed or the stratigraphic interpretation. It was fudging the record of observations that seems to have led most of us astray for more than a century. There’s no recovering from fudged records.

ME: Has there been a concerted effort to search for the century-old field notes, or letters written to colleagues while in the field?

SA: An excellent question. But not one, I’m afraid, that I’d be enabled to undertake.

This is the only fine-grained depiction of the LCS1 Neanderthal. There are no photographs taken at the time. We have only the two views of its skull, which was removed en bloc. This representation is a museum diorama, and it clearly includes discrepancies from the original position of the remains. As I observed previously, the mandible is not in the same place as it was in the bloc that included the cranium. As for the rest, all we have to go on is the one, tiny, plan drawing of the remains that was published in 1908. And even there, one can see obvious differences between the remains as drawn by B, B, & B, and those depicted in the diorama.

ME: The position of the body looks very much like what we see in purposeful flexed pit interments in shell middens here.

SA: Which is why B, B, & B argued that LCS1 was emplaced in what looked to them like a sleeping posture. My response: death during sleep would produce the same result.

ME: The skeleton is much more intact than what we normally see, though, and I’m not bothered at all by the missing elements.

SA: We’ll have to agree to disagree on that point.

ME: Shell middens have similar chemistry to limestone and marl that preserves bone well but causes inexplicable bone loss on the micro-scale.

SA: I agree that chemistry is very important. But, in what is to all intents and purposes an impermeable basin, it’s hard even to imagine that the groundwater makeup could vary so much on a metre scale. It’s expecially difficult for me to accept that chemical variability is at fault, given the author’s description of the excellent preservation of those bits that were recovered.

ME: Plus we get all kinds of turbation and other taphonomic processes.

SA: That’s true. None were ever proposed or observed. And, as I point out, they weren’t being transported downward in the column because the depression is impermeable.

ME: I suppose some unwell Neanderthal may have crawled to the lowest point of a rockshelter, curled up into a fetal position, then expired and was somehow rapidly covered with a cultural matrix containing tools etc. naturally, and before the scavengers had time to do much gnawing.

SA: This is where you and I disagree the most. If LCS1 had expired in winter, and had frozen to death, in the north-facing bouffia it might have been June before it thawed. Scavengers are far less interested in a carcass after it has been frozen, and microbes, too, do far less microbing once a carcass has been frozen—so you don’t see the effects of bloating that you do in a carcass that wasn’t frozen.

ME: If the skeletal position was more higgelty-piggelty I’d offer up the suggestion, that I haven’t heard postulated before (what say you, Rob, is the following behaviour known to palaeoanthropologists?), that perhaps a bear (U. arctos) could have buried him and covered him with dirt and debris, as grizzlies here are fond of doing with moose and caribou, and the occasionally human (some of whom have recovered enough to crawl out and away and live to tell the tale).

SA: That’s good to know. But of course, thanks to the fudged record, we have no good idea what arrangement the skeletal elements were in at the time they were excavated.

ME: One of my most scary times in the bush was realizing that the stink of rotting flesh was correlated with the pits and excavated hollows in a ridge-top aeolian (?) sand deposit and with the numerous grizzly bear tracks we’d been looking at – the bears usually hang around to guard such delicacies as they ripen. I don’t see why bears wouldn’t also do this in a convenient cave with soft-ish marl and midden, and it would be extremely hard to distinguish this from a purposeful burial.

SA: Thanks, Morley! Another arrow in my quiver!

ME: Obviously for one reason or another occasionally the bear doesn’t return to his cache. But the regular flexed body position would suggest this wouldn’t be an explanation here- unless the skeletal depiction was also ‘cleaned-up’ by the illustrator.

SA: Which, sadly, we’ll never know. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Morley. I’m hoping you have a prosperous new year.