Patronizing the Paleolithic: And I Don’t Mean Like A Diner At Your Favourite Restaurant

I’ve been thinking about the implications of what I said yesterday about the Clovis “points” being the first example of a stone artifact that bears unequivocal evidence of its maker’s intention to haft it to a shaft. If you missed it, here it is, for you, Dear Reader, direct from its one-day-long run on Palaeoanthropologica at Facebook.

I’ve remarked on this before, in my critique of Belfer-Cohen and Hovers’ “In the Eye of the Beholder: Mousterian and Natufian Burials in the Levant,” Current Anthropology 33:463-471, 1992. 

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 . . . 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’m thinking as I put this passage into today’s blurt.] 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. 

And so, when I went off yesterday about hafting and Clovis points, it emanated from the same place in my viscera whence came my lecture to Belfer-Cohen and Hovers.
To the rank and file of paleoanthropology, I say just this.
The object pictured below—a “Levallois Point” from Kebara Cave—

is not the equivalent of the things pictured below—Clovis points from the East Wenatchee Clovis Site (also called the Richey-Roberts Clovis Site or the Richey Clovis Cache).

And, unless you’re prepared to admit that you’re ascribing similar motivations and cognitive abilties to the authors of both ‘types’ in the same way that you would when praising a child for tacking a piece of lath at right angles to a 4×4 and calling it an airplane, as far as I’m concerned, you can publish your rubbish in PLOS ONE, claiming that experiments clearly demonstrate the ability of a “Levallois point,” or any pointy piece of rock, to pierce animal hide, or to open a hypothetical mortal wound in a hypothetical warm-blooded creature. But, know that it and similar work will always be tantamount to saying to the kid, “Let’s take it up on the roof and see if it’ll fly.” And you thrust it into the air. And, well, fly it does! Just like a fighter jet plane in a strafing dive—except that it didn’t pull up at the end, which is just an incremental improvement and doesn’t detract from the thing’s ability to fly straight down at great speed. And you can document it, and others will model it, and still others will multi-dimensionally image it in ways that no one has done before. And the referees will jump on it and say, “Oooooh! You have to publish this, Dude!”

And then I can say that it’s not a lot like the flight of an SR-71. But you’d wag your finger at me and tell me that to say so is an example of my culturally bound, or ethnocentric, or ageist, or even racist, value judgement, and not worthy of an enlightened anthropologist. And all I can say in response is that you’re being patronizing toward your favourite bipedal ape species, and not recognizing it in the way that a truly contextual anthropologist would. Furthermore, we’re no closer to the truth of what went on in the Paleolithic, now that you’ve published your scientistic mumbo-jumbo. And you might say, “But, hey, at least we’re keeping ‘the conversation’ going.” And, of course, I’d demur, and say, “Why that conversation? Can’t we be a little less silly and a lot more reasonable? We might as well be publishing about the possibility that Neanderthals built houses of cards, since we know they could knock off a mammoth with a sharp rock, and a house of cards is easy by comparison.” [A house of cards. There’s a metaphor for these times.]

But, then I’d sit back, remembering that you’re publishing in PLOS ONE and I’m just a blogger, who, everyone knows, is sitting in my virtual pajamas in my in-reality-dead mother’s basement, tapping away in my totally uniformed and (thankfully for the discipline) ineffectual way for anyone to read and believe, but who, if so, is demonstrating that they’re ill-equipped to tell the difference between my pseudo-science and your ‘real’ science—the best reason ever for dismissing blogging out of hand. And here I’ll stay.

Oh, and by the way, here’s a picture of that SR-71. Just one specification will help you comprehend how far above my lath and 4×4 creation this mechanical beast was. Maximum speed: Mach 3.3 (3,540+ km/h at 24,000 m—give or take its operating ceiling). For those of you who, like me, are a little unable to fasten on the real implications of such numbers, think of it this way—the fastest rifle bullet emerges from the firearm’s muzzle at around Mach 3.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

My lath and 4×4 airplane sat on the top of the porch for weeks before I resigned myself to the fact that it’d never fly—no matter how much I willed it to.

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The Slippery [Not] Slope of Historical Sciences: Archaeologists Take Note

I’n’t geomorphology wonderful!

For as long as there’ve been people to visit Death Valley, there’ve been aware of a persistent natural mystery. What is moving those rocks around. Check it out. These aren’t like crop circles. No one’s out there pushing these things around, leaving no footprints. And you can forget alien teenagers out joyriding trying to befuddle the small-brained bipedal apes. This stuff is real. 
It doesn’t surprise me, and it shouldn’t surprise any thoughtful geomorphologists, that there’s a perfectly good natural explanation. [Middle Paleolithic archaeologists and paleoanthropologists should probably pay close attention, here.]
These playas are dead horizontal. So, no solifluction. Aeolian forces? Hardly likely. Any other possibilities? Well, even on extremely gentle slopes ice is capable of moving objects along non-random paths, specifically little spicules. Butzer described it in Archaeology as Human Ecology. It’s one of the many cryoturbation processes known to occur in the frostier places on Earth. But, Death Valley? One of the—and one annum recently the—hottest place on the planet? Yep. Death Valley. It gets cold there in the winter. And, now, some poor sods who were braving the sub-freezing days and nights noticed one of these rocks, making its progress across the valley floor.
They took some time lapse photos and stitched them into a movie. See below.

Crazy, huh? I love it!

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