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ESHE 2012 Meeting report: general Palaeolithic edition

Here's the next installment of my favourite papers from the European Society for study of Human Evolution meeting held recently in Bordeaux (#ESHE12 on Twitter) a couple of weeks ago. It was a great conference with many very interesting papers and posters!

A stand-out paper early on was the talk by Henry Bunn et al. on the evidence that early hominins at Olduvai Gorge almost 2 million years ago were actively procuring carcasses - i.e. hunting them-, based on the age profiles of the different large animal species at the site. Not surprisingly this seems to have been the big story picked up by the media too. Bunn started by questioning "how formidable would a 1m tall hominin have been?", suggesting we should re-evaluate our conceptions of the hunting ability of these early people. The site in question, FLK-Zinj, was excavated early on by the Leakeys and dates to c. 1.84 Ma. It is now being re-investigated by a large multi-disciplinary landscape project. The talk contrasted different methods for determining the question of early hominin hunting: 1) modifications to the surface of bones, for example cut-marks, 2) analysis of the types of bones present focusing on meat-bearing parts, and 3) examining the mortality profiles of the animals, old they were based on dental evidence. The mortality profile method attempts to use testable predictions of the kinds of animals that should be present based on different types of hunting or scavenging. The main conclusions were essentially that the age profiles did not match that from passive scavenging (eating the remains of carnivore kills), and that predation (hunting) would be easier than aggressive scavenging (driving carnivores away from their kills). Analysis supported this, with the mortality profiles of large bovids from FLK-Zinj not matching those for leopards, lions or hyaenas. Although they acknowledged more work was needed, they suggest that the hunting going on at Olduvai may be ambush hunting.

Homo habilis viewed as hunters. Image: Raul Martin/MSF/Science Photo Library,
 It was nice seeing the photos during Leakey et al.'s Koobi Fora fossils talks, where the new KNM-ER 62000 face emerged out of the sediment block, described as starting off looking like a potato! Although in my undergrad days I knew all the early hominin fossil codes, I've since forgotten a lot of them, so the detailed comparisons between KNM-ER 62000 and others such as KNM-ER1470 and OH7 went over my head.

A really great paper I enjoyed was a very detailed examination of the shell beads from the African Middle Stone Age (MSA) site of Blombos Cave, South Africa by Marian Vanhaeren et al.. This incredible site has already produced some amazing finds indicating complex human behaviours pretty early, including engraved ochre and pressure flaking of tools c. 75 Ka, bone tools c. 80 Ka and evidence for use of marine resources almost 150 Ka. The people living there were early anatomically modern humans, essentially looking like people living today.
The new research on MSA beads from the site shows first that shell beads were a tradition at Blombos that lasted for several thousand years. However, over that time the bead 'fashion' did not remain static. There is evidence from detailed analysis of the beads themselves that during particular phases, the beads show regularity in manufacture and the way they were strung together (based on usewear and experimentation). But moving up the stratigraphic layers, these features change, demonstrating an evolution of the way these symbolic artefacts were used.
The research determined that the beads were knotted in two precise ways: either as knotted pairs, or continuous strings, both producing very distinctive wear patterns. They also reported on finding at least one clear spatial cluster which may represent the remains of the original beadworks. This is supported by the fact that the stringing methods are coherent within the clusters, although whether they were necklaces or not is still unclear. The paper also explored colour modification of the beads. Some of the beads were darkened, which at Blombos is unlikely to be a naturally occuring process. Further experimental work showed that heating in a fire in a reduced oxygen atmosphere could produce the black colouration, and also changes the shell structure, which is observed on the artefacts themselves. Other non-pierced shells at Blombos were also affected by heat-darkening, so the intentionality of the process is not certain, although apparently there are some light and dark-coloured spatial clusters of shells.

Nassarius shell beads, pierced and with ochre, from Still Bay levels of Blombos Cave, c. Image: Chenshilwood at en.wikipedia, used under terms of GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
An interesting aspect of this research is whether the changes through time at Blombos in shell fashion were something that evolved within a particular culture, or whether it represents people coming in from other groups with different social traditions. Something that might be relevant to this is the fact that the size of the shells also changes between levels; this is not explicable due to changes in ocean temperature affecting the molluscs because the metrics vary in the opposite direction as would be expected based on climatic correlation. Instead, Vanhaeren suggests that the source of the shells used for the beads were two different locations. Is it more likely that the people at Blombos chose a new source with smaller shells than previously used, or that a new social group occupied the cave, bringing different regional knowledge of shell resources?

There were a lot of other very interesting papers, including a slightly provocative talk by Gopher and Barkai which suggested that the Levant could be the region of origin for Homo sapiens. Their theory is based on the research from Quesem Cave, Israel, where between 400-200 Ka various behaviours are found including habitual fire use, spatial organisation of site use, systematic blade production, backed points and intensive recycling including production of tiny "Janus" flakes (flakes removed from inner surface of other flakes, a highly economizing behaviour) which were used for butchery. Combined with this, there are skeletal remains that have features similar to early H. sapiens.  They hypothesize that incoming/existing H. erectus populations were forced to change to hunting smaller prey when elephants disappeared locally, creating a selection for more complex behaviours. I expected some discussion and debate after this paper, but nobody really got into it.

A genuinely controversial talk was on a new Brazilian site (Vale de Pedra Furada) with quartz lithics being claimed as humanly made, but the date reported here was at least 24 Ka based on Optically Stimulated Luminescence (essentially dating the last time sand grains were exposed to light), which would be extremely early for South America. The speaker, Lahaye, is a dating specialist, and it was a real shame that the archaeologists were not present because she received a lot of scepticism regarding the veracity of the lithics as anthropogenic. I must say, the images were not particularly inspiring, and during questions Paul Mellars stated that he'd seen more sophisticated Oldowan artefacts... I'd have to agree, even taking into account the raw material isn't the nicest in the world.

There were also many many posters in the two sessions (which were very hot and stuffy!), the abstracts for which you can read at the ESHE website. I tweeted photos of some of my favourites (bias admission: they're my friends' posters!), including Karen Ruebens on Late Middle Palaeolithic bifacial industries, Elinor Croxall (@smelinor) on approaching Neanderthal territoriality using ecology and Rachel Bynoe's work on cataloguing the Pleistocene fossil resource of the North Sea. Karen and Rachel are from the Centre for Archaeology of Human Origins (CAHO), at University of Southampton where I did my MA, and Elinor is at Leiden.

I'll end here, although I might write more on specific papers as I look over my notes again. If you want to read brief coverage of most of the papers I attended, and those I missed, check out Brenna Hasset's Storify page of all the tweets she and I did during the conference.


Thomas Woodall said…
It would be nice to have such posters printed on coated paper dividers to pique children's interest on the subject. Thanks for sharing!
Glad you enjoyed this, it's good to share the interesting stuff from conferences. I agree there should be more on the Palaeolithic taught in schools, virtually nothing in UK.

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