The Untermassfeld Controversy

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Ancient European humans and their near relatives such as late Homo erectus, “archaic” Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans all come from an African stock. While some of the variation we see in these late members of the genus Homo certainly arose in Eurasia, these groups all represent either African populations or stems coming off an African trunk.

There are two chronologies proposed for the early occupation of Europe, for the time before these branches are clearly visible. The “long chronology” has human relatives in Europe perhaps as far back as two million years, and the “short chronology” has these human relatives at around a half million years ago or later.

The truth is probably this:

There could be occasional and not permanent (in an archaeological sense) of Mediterranean region occupation, off and on, perhaps a million years ago but north of the great mountain range known locally as the Pyrenees or the Alps, and perhaps east of the Rhine, only the short chronology is overwhelmingly evident. Even here, there is a longer and a shorter part to the short chronology. Over the longer term, perhaps as far back as 700,000 years ago, there is human occupation represent by late Early Stone Age (or what the Europeans call Lower Paleolithic) artifacts, in the form of Acheulean hand axes and such. After around 350,000 years ago, there is a greater number of sites across a larger area and, likely, longer term occupation. But even this is not necessarily a fully established continental or regional occupation. The continuation and intensification of the previous 1.5 million years of climate shifts — the coming and going of “ice ages” — forced these folks to contract their ranges, perhaps going locally extinct at times, often likely replaced by new groups coming in fresh from Africa.

But there is Untermassfeld and a few other sites suggesting a more geographically expansive and earlier chronology.

Untermassfeld is a an archaeological site in Schmalkalden-Meiningen district, Thuringia, Germany. The site was purported to include Lower Paleolithic (Early Stone Age) Oldowan (or Mode I) technology in association with animal remains dated to just over one million years ago. Hammer stone marks and cut marks were also reported for some of the bones, which if believed confirms a direct human involvement with the bone remains. This was reported by researchers Landeck and Garcia Garriga in the Journal of Human Evolution as “The oldest hominin butchery in European mid-latitudes at the Jaramillo site of Untermassfeld (Thuringia, Germany).” The abstract of that paper reads:

The late Early Pleistocene site of Untermassfeld, dated to the Jaramillo subchron (ca. 1.07 millions of years ago), is well known for its rich Epivillafranchian fauna. It has also recently yielded stone artefacts attesting hominin occupation. Now, we report here, for the first time, evidence of hominin butchery such as cut marks and intentional hammerstone-related bone breakage. This probable subsistence behaviour was detected in a small faunal subsample recovered from levels with Mode 1 stone tools. The butchered faunal assemblage was found during fieldwork and surveying in fluvial riverbanks (Lower Fluviatile Sands) and channel erosion sediments (Upper Fluviatile Sands). The frequent occurrence of butchery traces on bones of large-sized herd animals (i.e., Bison) may imply a greater need for meat in seasonal habitats characterised by a depletion of nutritive plants in winter. Early access to carcasses, before their consumption by carnivores, provided hominins with sufficient quantities of meat. This access was acquired with a Mode 1 lithic industry, to ensure food procurement and survival at high latitudes in Europe. Stone tools and faunal remains with signs of anthropic intervention recovered at Untermassfeld are evidence of the oldest hominin settlement at continental mid-latitudes (50° N).

There are other papers on this site as well, making parallel claims.

Such a phenomenon, a site that is an island unto itself, with evidence not matching anything nearby, sitting by itself in time and space, is always suspect, always provisional, until more is known about the site itself, and the region, and the overall suggested human activity and occupation. Or, until it is shown to be in some way bogus. We appear to be going through the latter transition now. A non-peer reviewed paper was just published making the following claim:

Here we evaluate these claims and demonstrate that these studies are severely flawed in terms of data on provenance of the materials studied and in the interpretation of faunal remains and lithics as testifying to a hominin presence at the site. In actual fact any reference to the Untermassfeld site as an archaeological one is unwarranted. Furthermore, it is not the only European Early Pleistocene site where inferred evidence for hominin presence is problematic. The strength of the spatiotemporal patterns of hominin presence and absence depend on the quality of the data points we work with, and data base maintenance, including critical evaluation of new sites, is crucial to advance our knowledge of the expansions and contractions of hominin ranges during the Pleistocene.

There is no question that Untermassfeld is an important paleontological site. In fact, it is possibly the most important site in the region for that time period. This is one of the largest assemblages of bones and has revealed several previously unknown species since work started there in the late 1970s.

Here’s the thing. The human evidence, which consists of hundreds of modified animal bone fragments and human altered stone tools, reported by a team of researchers and presented in papers such as the one cited above, were studied by a team that seems to have never visited the site other than as tourists. The new, as yet unreviewed paper, suggests that these researchers may have accessed Untermassfeld surreptitiously (to obtain at least one photograph they used in publications). Otherwise they were not involved in the site directly.

The moment I learned that, an alarm went off in my head. Several different alarms, actually. Was this academic poaching? A team of researchers doing work on material they had not been granted permission to see? Was it researchers liberating material that has been held by the only instition that has officially worked on this site, for several years, that should have been published year ago? Is this some sort of academic rivalry that is developing into a fight over the provenience of bones? Again? (I’ve seen all this before in Southern Africa and elsewhere).

Or, is it possible that the new unreviewed paper has uncovered either some sort of misconduct or, as many seem to be suggesting, not misconducted research (as it were) but misguided research, whereby legitimate conclusions have been based on evidence that does not actually exist. (Which would make the conclusions non-legit, of course).

The new paper notes that the team suggesting human activity here, Landeck and Garcia Garriga, had written of the bones that they were ‘assembled during “archaeological rescue operations at the Untermassfeld site in the late 70s and early 80s”.’ Yet, apparently, no such rescue operations or collection occurred, according to everyone else. They further suggest that of these several hundred bones and stones, most are simply not from this site.

One bone with an interesting and complex history, studied by Landeck and Garcia Garriga, can be traced to Untermassfeld, and it was known to have been stolen from the site in late May or early June 2009 (during the Pentecost weekend). The bone had been pried from a concretion of bone, leaving part of it in situ, thus confirming its origin. Apparently this sort of vandalism, including removing material, has occurred at his site numerous times between 2002 and 2012.

In 2014, two parcels were delivered to the museum that contained material from this site, origin of the packages unknown. They contained bone and rock that an unsigned letter claimed to be from the site. Part of the bone that had been pried from the excavation in 2009 was among them. Parts of the same bone are still missing.

The origin and history of the lithic material (stone tools, or supposed stone tools) is even less clear.

The authors conclude that the majority of the material used to link human ancestors and 1 million year plus site is of dubious origin at best.

But, there are some bones and stones that are linked to the site and that can be studied to test the idea that human ancestors lived here, and butchered up animals. The authors of the new paper examine this material and find it unconvincing.

That paper states:

In summary, the studies claiming an early hominin presence at Untermassfeld are severely flawed in terms of data on provenance of the materials said to have been studied and in terms of (absence of) information on where the material is deposited. At least one of the faunal remains does come from the site, but the provenance of the lithics is completely unknown. The sample of faunal remains and lithics that we were able to study does not show any traces of hominin interference, and does not testify to a hominin presence at the site: we have no idea where the rest of the assemblage allegedly studied by Garcia Garriga and colleagues is stored and hence what it looks like, but based on the published finds that we were able to evaluate, Untermassfeld is not an archaeological site. As mentioned above, the Untermassfeld project has from the very beginning taken into consideration a possible presence of traces of hominin activities [42, 43], but more than three decades of fieldwork at the site, with 90 months of excavations there, as well as subsequent laboratory analyses by a wide range of specialists, so far did not yield any indication of a hominin presence in the fossil bearing deposits, not in terms of lithic artefacts, nor in hominin modifications of faunal remains. To clean up the record of the Early Pleistocene occupation of Europe, Untermassfeld should not be considered an archaeological site.

So, does this destroy any hope of a significant European “early chronology.” No. There are other bits and pieces of evidence that suggest … hold on a second, the new unreviewed paper has something to say about that too. Without going into detail (as the paper does) this evidence is weak as well.

… solid evidence for a hominin presence in the Early Pleistocene is indeed rare, suggestive of an intermittent presence, with the earliest sites located at most 40 degree North – as is the case across much of Eurasia, from northern Spain (Atapuerca), toDmanisi in the Georgia all the way to the Nihewan Basin in northern China [87]. In the very final part of the Early Pleistocene hominins, at around 800-900 ka, may have expanded their range temporarily northward, following the European coastal areas, when conditions permitted. It is only much later, around 600 ka, that the record changes significantly, with an increase in site numbers all over western Europe, suggestive of changes in the character of hominin presence in this part of the world. These archaeological changes occur around the time period of the emergence of the Neanderthal lineage, which can be seen as independent – palaeontological- evidence for continuity of hominin occupation from that time period onward, minimally at the scale of Europe. Neanderthal populations expanded their range eastward, into the central parts of Europe from the middle part of the Middle Pleistocene, ~350 ka, onward, incorporating more challenging continental environments, an expansion that has been related to the development of new cultural and possibly biological

This is not the last word on this issue, as you may have already suspected.

According to a write-up in Nature,

Expressions of concern published on each of the three papers note that the location of the Untermassfeld material “was not stated accurately in the publication”, and that the authors have been unable to adequately clarify where it is now. Landeck and Garcia Garriga declined to comment to Nature on the specific details of the notes but said that they plan to publish a response.

Sarah Elton, … an editor at the Journal of Human Evolution, says that an investigation into the accusations is ongoing….

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5 thoughts on “The Untermassfeld Controversy

    1. You are fair dinkum a frickin idiot.
      This story is not about fucking USA bullshit.
      Christ some seppos just cant think of anything else except their own shit hole. Its like a wierd syndrome or disorder.
      Read the piece again and you might find information pertaining other people and other places.
      Science and academia and human curiousity are universal , as is fraudulent or dubious behavior.
      Bones in Europe from yonks ago have zero to do with American police issues.
      Only a complete fuckwit would attempt to conflate a link.

      Bit curious about any finds of fish or other aquatic life ( eel or tortoise maybe ) in really old sites, in Europe or anywhere else.

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