Tag Archives: archaeology

Where is the debris from the Japanse Tsunami?

Almost exactly one year ago, a very large double strength tsunami struck the Pacific Coast of Japan and washed a huge amount of stuff out into the sea. The oceanic born debris of terrestrial origin looked in places like this:
i-ee4748701494dc92f830c54debca0514-debris_japan_tsunami_2011_boat-thumb-500x284-73036.jpeg

Subsequently attempts were made to model the movement of the debris in the Pacific. Some of the debris would likely end up on the coast of the US, so some of the models asked that question: When can Tsunami Salad start to wash up on the beaches of California, Oregon and Washington? I’m sure that everyone who’s thought about this for even a few seconds realizes that when this happens, it will not look like the picture shown above. It might be just the occasional floating bit of plasticky stuff used to make cars or boats or beach-side furniture, bits and pieces of household debris, and the occasionally recognizable Hello Kitty item. Furthermore, these items will be few and far between and by this time, likely, rather sun baked.
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The Pre-Clovis Debra L. Friedkin site

ResearchBlogging.orgButter Milk Creek is a Texas archaeological site and an archaeological complex located rather symbolically a couple of hundred miles downstream from the famous Clovis site in New Mexico. It is the most recently reported alleged manifestation of a “pre-Clovis” archaeological presence. The most important thing about this site is probably this: It is well dated (though the dates need to be independently verified or otherwise run through the gauntlet of criticism dates of important sites are always subjected to) and there are a lot of artifacts at the site. The importance of the number of artifacts is two-fold: It means that the site is unambiguously evidence of human activities and not of the activities of, say, a ground squirrel burrow into which a random artifact from a later time fell, and it means that researchers will be able to say something interesting about the lithic (stone tool) technology represented there.

In order to understand why a “pre-Clovis” site is interesting, one needs to understand the peculiar nature of American archaeology and its conceptions of prehistory.
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Happy Birthday Maria Reiche

Maria Reiche was an archaeologist and mathematician who worked on the Nazca lines in Peru. Originally, she worked with Paul Kosok, who discovered the remarkable drawings, and starting in the mid 1940s, Reiche mapped in the drawings. She believed that the lines represented a calendar and a sort of observatory. She is probably single handedly responsible for the preservation of these important archaeological features.

She died in Lima in 1998.

Several crackpots have suggested that the Nazca lines, since they can only be taken in visually from a height achievable only with flying machines such as airplanes, helicopters, hot air balloons or … whatever … must have been drawn for the benefit of aliens in their UFOs.

Great Moments in Human Evolution: The Invention of Chipped Stone Tools

Or not.

Much is made of the early use of stone tools by human ancestors. Darwin saw the freeing of the hands ad co-evolving with the use of the hands to make and use tools which co-evolved with the big brain. And that would make the initial appearance of stone tools in the archaeological record a great and momentous thing. However, things did not work out that way.
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Beer is fundemental

Back in the 1980s, archaeologists working in the middle east realized one day that the origin of agriculture …. domesticated barley, to be exact … in that region was all about beer. This is because this early barley could not be de-shelled to make flour. The only practical way to consume it was to make beer out of it.That explained a lot of things…Now, there is a report that the origin of chocolate is also all about beer. Continue reading Beer is fundemental

British Colonialist Archaeology: More of the same?

[A repost from gregladen.com, unmodified]There is a ceremonial burial in Britain .. ceremonial because it has some red stuff smeared on bone … that has now bee dated to a few thousand years earlier than previously thought (to ca 25,000 years old).

Age of earliest human burial in Britain pinpointed from PhysOrg.com
The oldest known buried remains in Britain are 29,000 years old, archaeologists have found – 4,000 years older than previously thought. The findings show that ceremonial burials were taking place in western Europe much earlier than researchers had believed.[]

Some have suggested that this is evidence that ceremonial burial may have been invented in Western Europe rather than elsewhere. Let me tell you why that is an overstatement.1) “Ceremonial burial” is redundant. Never mind those absurd theories that for the first several tens of thousands of years people buried their dead to get rid of the smell, and not for ritual reasons. It is reasonable to assume that those that buried their dead did so for “ceremonial” or “symbolic” (whatever term you like) reasons. Today, there are people who have “ritual” behavior but who do not bury their dead. Thus, the link between burial and ritual behavior or symbolic capacity is arbitrary and not very useful. In other words, I question the premise of the question: “When did ritual behavior begin” in relation to burial per se.2) There is nothing special to separate any “gracile” population from another with respect to brains and behavior. So, if we find several instances of ritual activity associated with gracile Homo sapiens, the best guess for the minimum age for the beginning of that activity may be the beginning of the visible evidence of that species. This is highly conjectural. Archaeological evidence for a particular behavior that is concentrated in the later period of Homo sapiens would not suffice for such a conjecture. For example, the earliest evidence for the practice of agriculture is about 10,000 years old, so it would not be reasonable to argue that agriculture was a common practice before that. But, if there is evidence of a behavior linked to “ritual” scattered throughout the paleolithic. This evidence is expected to be rare to begin with, so a scattering with no clear demarcation in time could be reasonably thought of as evidence for this behavior being a species typical trait for gracile Homo sapiens. The question then arises: Do we see this behavior emerge at the origin of this species/subspecies, or does it develop shortly thereafter, or is it a behavior that existed in some for prior?3) There is specific evidence of ritual behavior some connected to burial prior to 25,000 years ago. Kebara has a Neanderthal skeleton that is a burial. Yes, it is true that some researchers have suggested that this is not a burial, but they are in my opinion wrong about this. We can discuss this at another time if you like. For now, I’ll just say that Kebara is a nearly complete skeleton, with only a few bones missing some of which (the lower legs/feet) were clearly removed by previous excavators using crappy excavation techniques, and the head removed probably in antiquity, some years after the burial itself happened. (One mastoid process of the skull is intact, the rest of the cranium gone). This burial is about 65,000 years old.In Southern Africa and elsewhere there are a number of other objects with red stuff (ocher) spread on them, or that otherwise suggest symbolic/ritual behavior, dated to roughly the same age (at least in terms of order of magnitude) as Kebara.There is evidence that gracile Homo sapiens existed at just under 120,000 years ago in Southern Africa, and there is evidence of other “modern” behaviors, in terms of food gathering and lithic technology, dating back much farther in time.So, in my opinion, the new British date is cool, but it is primarily a moderate yet important adjustment to the existing data set. It does not change our thinking about anything except the local sequence for Britain.

Man the Hunter and Human Evolution

hunting, human evolution

Hunting and Human Evolution


I’ve never been that big of a fan of hunting as the explanation for everything that happened in human evolution, and I’ve tended to explore other areas more. This has led some to believe that I’m simply against acknowledging any role of hunting in human prehistory and evolution. This of course is not true at all, but I do think the issue needs to be addressed in a more complex and subtle way than it usually is. The present comments are a tiny contribution towards a much larger requirement of thought and discussion.

Why is hunting thought to be a key factor in human evolution? Partly because it was once widely believed that among the primates, only humans ate a fair amount of meat (not counting insects). If human hunting and meat consumption was unique among primates, then the evolution and effects of this behavior could easily be understood as vitally important. Moreover, a lot of fieldwork and thinking about human evolution centered on Europe, where cave paintings of animals were common, with some hunting themes seemingly represented in these paintings.

Of course, the uniqueness of human hunting behavior is now understood to be a gross overstatement. There is hunting of mammals and the like by several primates, and in particular, chimpanzee hunting (mainly of monkeys) is fairly common.

We now know that almost all of the important events that have happened in human evolution (since the chimp-human split) happened in Africa, and that the European record, while interesting, is not the primary record for these events. Therefore, one would think that the European bias would be somewhat reduced in current thinking (the fact that it is not is of great interest, but I’ll not go into that here!).

But I think the most important reason for hunting taking center stage in the study of human evolution, to what appears to be an unjustified level, has to do with the nature of “Man” and the nature of “Hunting.”

Have you ever been hunting, or been along with others while they did so? I’ve accompanied both North American game hunters (armed with firearms) and Efe foragers (armed with arrows and spears). Most of my time has been in the latter pursuit, and in a few instances, I joined the hunt not just as an observer but as a participant/observer.

I don’t think hunting is a normal human activity in the same way that hunting is a normal lion activity, or a normal wolf activity. Humans seem to react to hunting in a very powerful way, similar to how humans react to violence in general (and hunting seems to be fairly violent) or to certain kinds of sporting events (as observer or as participant). A lot of yelling and screaming and jumping around can ensue under certain conditions. Yes, most forager groups disdain bragging and avoid giving too much credit to any individual for being a great hunter, but the visceral reaction to, say, a near miss or to those moments when the hunted animal turns on the hunter (usually only briefly and to the animal’s final chagrin), is powerful and can’t be covered up or put into the background by cultural norms of modesty.

The Real Reason We Hunt?


Richard Wrangham thinks that it is possible that hunting by chimpanzees is more important as a form of male bonding than it is as a form of food acquisition. He bases this assertion on two things. First, the chimpanzees at Kibale, where he works, seem to hunt more when there is abundant non-meat food (i.e., fruit). Hunting is not used by these chimps as a way to supplement their diets. Hunting is not part of a sensible ecological strategy for garnering energy from the environment, but rather something that is done when one has the extra time and energy. The second part of his argument (as I understand it) is that one of the most critically important things a male chimpanzee can do, in evolutionary/fitness terms, is to be adept at cooperating with other males of it’s group, to facilitate the act of killing extra-group chimpanzees. The experience of hunting monkeys and the male-male interaction that relates to this primes and prepares the chimps for this important yet rare event. Hunting monkeys is training for being an effective, fierce, demonic male chimp.

Is this the case in humans? There is no way to know this at this time. There certainly are groups of human foragers (in the ethnographic present) who rely so much on meat that hunting is basically a form of subsistence, no matter what other function it may have. Even when plant foods are abundant, meat is still important to almost every group of forager (and non-forager, likely) as a source of “complete proteins.” All traditional human hunting is imbued with ritual and ceremony that exceeds that generally linked with gathering. So in the end, there is evidence that hunting can be and often is an ecologically important activity for human foragers. There is also evidence that hunting is (probably) always an important social activity, mainly among men.

[Ask me later: Why a photograph of the Afrikaans Language Monument in this particular place, at this particular time…]

“Man The Hunter”


So, now, return to the idea that the “man the hunter” concept is something that derives from the nature of “Man” and the nature of “Hunting.” As you may have guessed, I’m not using the incorrect gender non-neutral term “Man” to refer to humans. I’m talking about men. Guys, to be more exact. Guys, for various reasons including insecurity about reproduction as well as food and subsistence, etc., tend to invent methods of bonding that can sometimes be quite elaborate. In many societies, throughout time, hunting has probably been one of these methods. Certainly, many of the male scholars who first looked into human evolution were themselves hunters (shooting quail on the moorland, big game in East Africa, etc.) and had a good, Victorian understanding of this process of bonding.

When a 19th or 20th century guy archaeologist holds a beautifully made, often phallic-shaped obsidian spearhead in his hands, feeling it’s heft and running his fingers along the still sharp, elongated, stone-hard edge, he is bonding with another guy, of a much earlier time period, who could probably have killed his quarry just as effectively with a sharp stick, but opted instead to produce, carry around, display, and use this really cool piece of gear. So it’s a guy thing, and it’s a gear thing. It’s sort of a guys-with-gear thing.

Hunting isn’t likely the driving force in human evolutionary change, but it can certainly be an important human activity that is related to human evolutionary change.

One final brief note on something to be addressed at another time: The assumption that hunting by men is central to human evolution has led many to assume that hunting drove the evolution of tool use, and thus, tool use is a male thing. This contradicts the best evidence we have about technology in primates, which suggests that females, not males, are the tool makers, tool users, and the teachers (or at least facilitaters) who pass this ability on to subsequent generations. So, gear, it turns out, may be more of a girl thing after all.