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ESHE 2012 Meeting Report: Neanderthal Edition!

It's taken me a few days to recover from the European Society for study of Human Evolution (ESHE) meeting last week in Bordeaux, France, which was intense as conferences always are, and had some very early mornings. ESHE12 was excellent on the whole, with improvements on last year including joint plenary sessions each morning (held in one room and beamed to the overflow theatre) followed by parallell sessions of papers on either "stones or bones": that is, archaeologically or osteologically-focused topics.

Parallell sessions do mean there was still some dashing between rooms going on, but it wasn't as difficult at last year at Leipzig where the sessions were in separate buildings. Also, I think speakers are generally understanding about people coming in and out of rooms during talks as long as they're quiet- I know it doesn't bother me. There were an awful lot of great papers at ESHE, and obviously blogging about all of them is a bit much. But I do want to cover the ones I enjoyed the most, and I think splitting them along "Neanderthal/lithic vs. everything else" lines is probably the best way to avoid a massive post. So here is the post focusing on topics featuring Neanderthals or lithics, or things kind of related to those.
First morning of conference, VERY early! Image: author
Before I get onto talking about some of my favourite papers from the conference, I should just say that this was an especially exciting trip for me. Thanks to the Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship I've been awarded, I will be moving to Bordeaux next summer to start a two-year research position. I'll be working with researchers at the PACEA laboratory, which happened to be the host for this year's ESHE meeting. So it was very nice to get my first look at my new home city, and also meet some of my colleagues-to-be. I'll do a separate post on the beautiful architecture I discovered walking around the city.

Place de Parlement, Bordeaux. I think I'll like living here! Image: author

I was tweeting from the conference too, and managed to cover most of the papers I saw, in addition to some posters. I really enjoy live-tweeting meetings, not only because it's nice to help out colleagues who couldn't attend, but I hope non-specialists who follow me also find it interesting to hear about cutting-edge human origins research. Check out a Storify page of the conference tweets, done by Brenna Hasset. A few people were confused about my "@LeMoustier" tag I'd added to my conference badge, and even with this I managed to miss meeting up with some Twitter buddies! However I did have the pleasure of meeting Scientific American's Kate Wong in person, someone whose coverage of human origins stories I must have been reading since I first decided I wanted to become a researcher.

Two solidly Neanderthal-focused papers were by Colin Shaw and Jay Stock. The first talk was in a plenary session, but I actually ventured into the osteo session for the second ;) . Both papers focused on features of Neanderthal anatomy, and the implications for movement of different types. The first looked at the dimensions of tibias relative to upper body bones. Tibia cross-sectional geometry is related to the intensity of terrestrial locomotion; in other words, the amount of walking/running you do can change the shape of your bones. If you are a runner, you'll have more robust tibias compared to your arms, whereas if you're a typical Western urbanite you'll have a lower ratio. Swimmers have even lower scores, because although they might use their legs the same as most people, they use their arms far more.
The paper's authors compared the size of the tibia relative to the upper body  in European and Near Eastern Neanderthals, Late Stone Age (LSA) African people, Upper Palaeolithic Europeans and modern extreme cross-country athletes. The results showed that all the Middle Palaeolithic individuals had upper bodies within the range or higher than modern samples, but that their tibial robusticity was either equal to or greater than that seen in LSA or modern cross-country athletes. There was however variation within the Neanderthal sample, with some being more extreme than others, and a similar pattern was seen in the Upper Palaeolithic individuals. The paper's conclusion was that this must reflect long-distance terrestrial locomotion, though what kind isn't clear.
The second paper was based on experiments aimed at determining which physical actions could explain another feature of Neanderthal anatomy: asymmetries in their humeri (upper arm bones) much greater than those in modern people (link to open access paper). This suggests they were using their dominant arm much more extensively causing them to develop greater strength. Previous research had suggested this could be due to thrusting spears, but certainly to me this seems odd- Neanderthals probably wouldn't have been actually hunting every day, and they would've needed to be doing an awful lot of spear-training to create a strong signature. Shaw et al. used volunteers to determine the forces involved in different actions using the arms, and concluded that while spear-thrusting didn't match the patterning seen, the actions required to process animal skins into hides using scraping movements did.

Two very nice flint tools classified as transverse scrapers, from Pin Hole, Creswell Crags. Such tools were probably multi-use, rather than being used only to work skins. Image: author.
 I was really interested in both these papers, so I spoke to the authors afterwards who were kind enough to listen to my thoughts. I found the conclusion of "long distance" mobility in Neanderthals pretty intriguing given my annoyance with the "Neanderthals had small territories" models that are based on the generally short distances stone tools were transported. I asked whether it was possible to tell if the tibial patterning derived from running a lot, or from walking long distances, but apparently it's not.  I suppose it might be theoretically possible for Neanderthals to have been running after big game a lot within very small areas, but to me it doesn't seem likely there would be enough animals consistently in one area. I think it makes much more sense for Neanderthals to have genuinely been moving very long distances in pursuit of resources; after all, either the examples of 2-300 km lithic transport distances were either moved by individuals on extended trips, or they are the result of exchange, something few researchers seem happy with. Incidentally, I include other Neanderthals in the list of resources groups would have had an incentive to travel a long way for; the fact that groups needed to be able to meet and exchange individuals for reproduction to occur isn't included in our models of territoriality/ social networks nearly often enough in my opinion. Something else that would also be interesting to look at is potential differences between interglacial and glacial Neanderthal mobility: did living in forested environments as opposed to open steppe-tundra leave an imprint on their bones?
In regard to the asymmetric humeri paper, my comment was that perhaps instead of focusing on scraping hides, the researchers should widen the net to include more other processing tasks involving the production and especially the use of stone tools. Although Colin Shaw did acknowledge that archaeologists' propensity to call all abruptly retouched tools "scrapers" had influenced his choice of title and focus, he did say that the actions involved in actually knapping stone do not really use the same muscles (anterior and posterior deltoids) as those causing the humerus asymmetry. I suggested other activities such as butchery (meat, sinew and bone processing) as well as wood working- which we know from usewear Neanderthals were doing a lot of- could be contributors in addition to working skins (probably tailored suits by the way, not loose hanging affairs which wouldn't have provided enough thermal insulation in cold periods).

Harold Dibble gave a great talk on a subject he has been working on for a long time: the relationship in lithic technology between exterior platform angle and platform depth in flaking stone. This was probably a pretty hardcore talk for the non lithic specialists, but I enjoyed it. By using mechanical, and therefore controlled, experimentation, Dibble can demonstrate that by increasing the external platform angle relative to depth, flakes are produced with greater edge length relative to their mass. Translated from stoney jargon, this means that changing the angle you hit the core, as well as how far in your blow strikes, means you can produce flakes that are larger but thinner.
A fundamental assumption is that the most important factor in lithic techno-economics is the amount of cutting edge you can extract from your raw material. So making thinner flakes with more edge overall is a more economic use of stone resources. Dibble took a very large scale approach to the archaeological record, and suggests an overarching pattern of increasing economy through time. Early Stone Age flakes from the African Oldowan are variable in size, but have average levels of economy, measured by edge : mass. By the Middle Palaeolithic, techno-economics have become improved, but interestingly through two approaches. Prepared core technology, or the Levallois technique, permits control over the flakes produced, and, depending on the style used, can result in either wide/long and thin flakes.

 Levallois point, showing lots of edge compared to thickness. Image:  José-Manuel Benito Álvarez , used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
The other system is found in Quina technologies, essentially a method used on long stone nodules, where flakes are removed a little like slices of sausage. These flakes themselves are not especially economic purely in metrical terms, but they are a good way to work difficult nodules. Much more importantly according to Dibble, the fact they are heavily re-sharpened over time means that they can be extremely economic. In the Later Stone Age of Africa and the Upper Palaeolithic of the Near East, the culmination of economics in regard to platform depth and exterior angle is seen in the development of punch techniques for blade production.
Re-sharpening as a practice isn't limited to Quina technologies in the Middle Palaeolithic (and I'm sure Dibble knows this, having been a major proponent of studying how tools change in form over their lifetimes). But I think his point is that Quina technology is intended from the start to include re-sharpening as part of its economic trajectory. I'd say this is true of other Neanderthal technologies including bifaces, and it's also linked to the fact that most of the tools found at long distances from their sources are both made on higher quality stone, and larger than average, two factors which to me suggests the need to re-sharpen tools as part of mobile toolkits was anticipated by Neanderthals. Dibble's suggestion that lithic specialists should be recording his two metrics however I'm not sure necessarily true; do we need these measures when we can determine that flakes are being managed in other ways?

Brad Gravina (who will be a colleague of mine at PACEA, and was really welcoming) gave a talk on new evidence about the end of the Mousterian (Neanderthal culture) in South West France. He pointed out that since the 'classic' sequence of stone tool industries for the region was first proposed by Paul Mellars in the 1970s, the wide amount of variability both within the industries defined by Francois Bordes and even within individual assemblages has been increasingly recognised. The chronological patterning is looking more and more complex, and it's not possible anymore to separate the Late Middle Palaeolithic of MIS 3 (Marine Isotope Stage 3, c. 60-30 Ka) based only on its age or the accompanying fauna.
Brad looked again at some of the classic sites including Layer J from the lower shelter at Le Moustier dug by Peyrony in the early-mid 20th century, and a 1982 trench from the same site to ask what these collections actually represent. He found that the more recent excavations at Le Moustier had more small flakes than Peyrony's collection, and also had a much higher density of objects per m2. This suggests we should be very careful about relying on old collections which were used to define cultural units, becayse they may be biased towards larger/more 'interesting' tools and flakes due to the excavation methods of the time.
Regarding the sequence of deposits, he essentially concluded that the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition (MTA) Type B industry, traditionally thought to underlie the Chatelperronian (a transitional industry before the Upper Palaeolithic), in some sites is not the final Mousterian industry. Instead, sequences seem to end with discoidal-denticulate assemblages, followed by Mousterian with Levallois and large scrapers, then the Chatelperronian. This is important because the Chatelperronian's 'transitional' character (bone/ivory ornaments, blade technology, Upper-Palaeolithic type tools: see papers here, here, here) has been suggested by some researchers to have developed directly from the MTA-B, and therefore is an indigenous Neanderthal culture, not a modern human import or a result of acculturation.

Bone ring from Chatelperronian levels at Grotte de Renne, Arcy sur Cure. Image: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France
Kindler and Gaudzinski-Windheuser spoke on how the first hominins entering Europe around a million years ago may have been filling vacant predator niches. This was really interesting, and was based on examining what the predator "guild" (I love that term) configuration was at that time, and how there may have been a space for specialized pack-hunters of large game. In the European Early-Middle Pleistocene many prey species were increasing in size, but the predators were limited to solitary ambush felids such as the sabretooth cats Homotherium and Megantereon, the European jaguar, puma, lynx and a massive cheetah (c. 130 kg, larger than those extant in Africa; go check out Mauricio Anton's blog, a fantastic artist who visualises extinct animals). Although there were also bears and a giant hyaena (Pachycrocuta), the only pack hunters were small wolves and wild dogs (I never knew wild dogs were in Europe!). The speakers then pointed out that in the Near East at this time from sites such as Ubeidiya we know early hominins, probably Homo heidelbergensis, were already hunting medium and large game and presumably doing this co-operatively. The vacant niche for pack-hunters in Europe would have meant that people could have moved north without needing to compete directly with existing carnivores. The hominins-as-pack-hunters model has been applied to Neanderthals too, and its something I've been thinking about regarding territory size and social networks (...which is why it's in this Neanderthal edition of my ESHE reports!).

Predictably there were some disputes during questions for papers, mainly regarding issues surrounding the dating of the industries termed "transitional": the Chatelperronian in SW France and also some Spanish sites following a talk by Zilhao et al.. Despite an embargo on new results from the Grotte de Rennes at Arcy sur Cure, \france Talamo et al. presented new chronological data from the site of Les Cottes, one of the only sites in Europe with a complete and defined sequence of the different archaeological cultures from late Middle Palaeolithic, Chatelperronian and Aurignacian- the earliest Upper Palaeolithic (William Rendu, another new PACEA collague, also spoke about the archaeology of the site). The dating methodology at Les Cottes was to sample the best preserved bone, whether or not it had any humanly caused modifications which is in contrast to the Oxford Radiocarbon lab methodology. Their results were challenged in the questions, based on several outliers being present among other things. I'm not a radiocarbon expert, and it does seem to me that the two positions regarding the Chatelperronian dating are pretty entrenched. Some of the older sites may have to be abandoned as they're compromised in terms of people's faith in their archaeological integrity, and no amount of looking at the archives again will help. I think what we need are more new sites excavated carefully like Les Cottes, ideally with human remains present, and also co-operative dating programs between many labs before people will be willing to come to an understanding.

Look out for the next installment of my ESHE meeting reports, this time on non-Neanderthal focused papers.

Party at the Musee d'Aquitaine, beautiful building with really nice Palaeolithic collection. The canapes were amazing too, but they ran out of wine! Image: author


Millán Mozota said…
Thanks for the impressive report.
I only find a bit weird Dibble apportations, because all of them (and particulary the Quina questions) have _already_ been heavily studied and heavily published by french-first-then-spanish researchers, as Turq, Bourguignon, Baena, Carrion, Roussel, Soressi, Rios-Garaizar, etc), since the late eighties.
Timmay said…
Modern Hyenas hunt in packs. Given the size of the giant hyena, it likely would have hunted in smaller groups more akin to the size of a pride of lions, but I don't see why it would have been a solitary hunter.
Hi Millan, yes it was an interesting paper by Dibble, it was really a position piece I think, he focused a lot on the experimental results (lots of graphs!), and I think was trying to argue that this measurement is necessary for all researchers.
Hi Timmay,
Yes I did wonder this myself, I am going only on what was presented by the speakers. I presume there is a valid ecological argument, perhaps to do with size, for example tigers are larger than lions? I'm no expert though, and I'm sure there is interesting stuff to be found on the web about this if you look.
Thanks for the comment!

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