There are two competing paradigms about Neanderthal capabilities and culture. The first considers Neanderthals to be cognitively inflexible, with a limited use of technologies that was unresponsive to environmental change. The second recognises a much wider range of behaviours and technologies, with adaptation to specific local conditions. The paper considered in this blog belongs to the second of these perspectives: the reported work considers artefacts from a cave that was occupied by Neanderthals and dated about 90,000 years ago.
"Here, we present evidence for behavioral variability and complexity among Neanderthals at the beginning of Marine Isotope Stage 4 (MIS 4) at the Abri du Maras located above the Ardeche River in southern France. Using residue analysis of stone tools with supporting evidence from zooarchaeology, we show that Neanderthals at the Abri du Maras had a detailed knowledge of their surrounding environment, captured fast and agile prey (rabbits, fish and birds), exploited a range of plant species, and used composite technology such as hafted stone points and the manufacture of string and cordage. Overall, we present evidence which demonstrates that Neanderthals at the Abri du Maras were far from inefficient foragers." (p.24)
Not just a pretty face (Image: Nikola Solic/Reuters, source here))
Many flake stone tools have been recovered. Microscopic examination of their surfaces has revealed a remarkable variety of traces providing clues about Neanderthal capabilities and lifestyle. The most noteworthy relates to tiny fragments of twisted plant fibres. This is considered to be evidence for human activity: gathering plant material, retting or shredding to extract fibres, twisting to create threads or string, and cutting a length with the stone tools.
"These fibers are not twisted in their natural state 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, no twisted fibers were observed. Unpublished experiments conducted by BH involving the scraping, cutting, and slicing of a variety of nonwoody plants (roots, tubers, reeds, etc.)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. Future experiments involving cordage and plant processing will help clarify the potential sources of twisted fiber." (p.27,29)
Circumstantial evidence is provided by observations of micro-wear of flake tools that show indications of being hafted to produce stone-tipped javelins. Other uses for string can be inferred because there is evidence at this site that Neanderthals went fishing and at other sites that they crossed open water in boats.
"Since macroscopic remains have not been found prior to 19 ka, it is important to examine other less direct forms of evidence where fiber or string production may leave traces on a microscopic level which may be visible through use-wear and residue analyses. For most of the Paleolithic, the best potential source of evidence for cordage is stone tools. Hurcombe (1998) describes several different points in the chaine operatoire of fiber production where stone tools are likely to be used, including plant harvesting, processing of fibers, and cutting loose ends from cordage.
The production of string along with simple knowledge of knotting, weaving, and looping, make possible a wide range of products including "nets, containers, packaging, baskets, carrying devices, ties, straps, harness, clothes, shoes, beds, bedding, mats, flooring, roofing and walling". In addition, string facilitates the construction of complex, multi-component technologies such as hafts or snares. Finally, string would have been essential for seafaring, maritime technologies used for the colonization of islands, and for many types of fishing." (p.34)
We cannot consider all the evidences discussed by the authors. However, they make an interesting comment on how expectations (influenced by presuppositions) affect research programmes.
"Paleolithic archaeologists have a tendency to focus heavily on reconstructing subsistence activities. Within subsistence, the focus is primarily on animals with even more narrow focus on large animals, partly because their remains preserve better. This focus is justified to some extent as archeologists can only work with the evidence they find. However, this means we are missing a huge component of everyday life. The preservation bias of the archaeological record limits the avenues being investigated. The fiber evidence presented here is a reminder that if we don?t look for it, we won?t find it." (p.35)
We shall pass over much interesting discussion of evidences and reach their conclusion. The authors have used their detective skills to reconstruct a community of Neanderthals that appears to be indistinguishable from modern humans.
"The Abri du Maras overlooks the Ardeche River in south-eastern France. The combination of analyses presented here (mainly residue analysis) has provided a more detailed view into Neanderthal lives than is generally possible. Neanderthals at the Abri du Maras caught and consumed a wide variety of foods, from large herbivores to rabbits, fish, plants, and possibly birds. The occupants of the Abri du Maras may have also been engaged in a variety of other activities: gathering mushrooms, gathering raw materials and manufacturing string, woodworking, constructing composite technologies such as complex projectiles and possibly nets or traps. Given the wide variety of resources exploited at the Abri du Maras, we should heed Hockett's recent caution that we may have "under-appreciated the amount of non-mammal foods eaten by Neanderthals". We would add that the high diversity of resources used by Neanderthals has been generally under-appreciated for decades." (p.38)
This fascinating insight into community life is worthy of our attention because the group members were Neanderthals. For too long, they have been portrayed as pre-human and have been used to buttress evolutionary stories about the origins of mankind. However, archaeological evidence discussed here (and here) suggests that these stories are embellished with evolutionary spin. The evidence shows that Neanderthals are human cousins and deserve quite a different place in history. Unfortunately, this truth about Neanderthals has been missed in the past because the presumption of evolutionary transformation has constrained the minds of researchers. They illustrate the maxim: "if we don't look for it, we won't find it."
Another recent finding that is related to this theme is that a Neanderthal community in Italy organised their cave in a way that is recognisably human. The punchline is the same: here are "close cousins" that do not deserve to be called pre-human.
"Scientists have found that Neanderthals organized their living spaces in ways that would be familiar to modern humans, a discovery that once again shows similarities between these two close cousins. The findings, published in the latest edition of the Canadian Journal of Archaeology, indicate that Neanderthals butchered animals, made tools and gathered round the fire in different parts of their shelters. "There has been this idea that Neanderthals did not have an organized use of space, something that has always been attributed to humans," said Julien Riel-Salvatore, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver and lead author of the study. "But we found that Neanderthals did not just throw their stuff everywhere but in fact were organized and purposeful when it came to domestic space." [snip] "This is still more evidence that they were more sophisticated than many have given them credit for. If we are going to identify modern human behavior on the basis of organized spatial patterns, then you have to extend it to Neanderthals as well." (source here).
Impossible Neanderthals? Making string, throwing projectiles and catching small game during Marine Isotope Stage 4 (Abri du Maras, France)
Bruce L. Hardy, Marie-Helene Moncel, Camille Daujeard, Paul Fernandes, Philippe Bearez, Emmanuel Desclaux, Maria Gema Chacon Navarro, Simon Puaud, Rosalia Gallotti
Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 82, 15 December 2013, Pages 23?40
Abstract: Neanderthal behavior is often described in one of two contradictory ways: 1) Neanderthals were behaviorally inflexible and specialized in large game hunting or 2) Neanderthals exhibited a wide range of behaviors and exploited a wide range of resources including plants and small, fast game. Using stone tool residue analysis with supporting information from zooarchaeology, we provide evidence that at the Abri du Maras, Ardeche, France, Neanderthals were behaviorally flexible at the beginning of MIS 4. Here, Neanderthals exploited a wide range of resources including large mammals, fish, ducks, raptors, rabbits, mushrooms, plants, and wood. Twisted fibers on stone tools provide evidence of making string or cordage. Using a variety of lines of evidence, we show the presence of stone projectile tips, possibly used in complex projectile technology. This evidence shows a level of behavioral variability that is often denied to Neanderthals. Furthermore, it sheds light on perishable materials and resources that are not often recovered which should be considered more fully in reconstructions of Neanderthal behavior.
A Spatial Analysis of the Late Mousterian Levels of Riparo Bombrini (Balzi Rossi, Italy)
Julien Riel-Salvatore, Ingrid C. Ludeke, Fabio Negrino, and Brigitte M. Holt
Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 37(1), 70-92 (2013)
Abstract: We present a preliminary analysis of the spatial distribution of various artifact classes in the Late Mousterian levels of Riparo Bombrini (northwest Italy). This work shows the presence of a consistent gap in artifacts across all levels, which is interpreted as reflecting the position of the dripline prior to the shelter's collapse. Hearths are identified in levels M1-3, M4 and M5, and their position at the back of the shelter is similar to that of "sleeping hearths" identified at other Mousterian sites. Lastly, the distribution of artifacts is shown to co-vary with the nature of the prevalent mobility strategies in use at different times over the site's occupational history. Notably, use of the site as a logistical base camp is correlated with the presence of hearths and the accumulation of noisome debris beyond the dripline and outside of the shelter. Other uses of the site seem to have favored the discard of some classes of artifacts within the shelter itself. This shows that Neanderthals were indeed able to organize their use of space in patterned and somewhat predictable manners, and that the length and nature of their occupation of the rockshelter need to be taken into account in such analyses.
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