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Unravelling Human Origins 2013 report: Neanderthal edition

My first science report from January's Unravelling Human Origins 2013 conference, held in Cambridge is here finally, a bit delayed, but I thought I'd better get on with it as this week I'm going to another amazing conference (more on this later). Going to meetings is always inspiring, and the UHO meeting stimulated some riffing from me on new subjects of gender representation and social media outreach which you can find in an earlier post.
But now! You're here for the delectable Neanderthal research that was presented, so this is my pick- other equally groovy Palaeolithic science will be reported after this in a separate post.

There were quite a few papers and posters on Neanderthals, and interestingly four of them were focused mainly on subsistence: what Neanderthals were eating, something which is a very fast-moving area of research right now and is in many ways really making us re-think long-held views of Neanderthals as mega-carnivores.

I didn't get much time at this conference to check out all the posters in detail (too busy talking to people!), but I did catch one by a multi-author team that is part of the wider project I'll be working with in France soon, headed by Jean-Paul Raynal of Universite Bordeaux, and Marie-Helene Moncel of the French National Museum of Natural History. The poster, by Michaela Ecker (University of Oxford) et al. used stable isotope analysis (see great explainer here) of animal and Neanderthal teeth from the very cool Middle Palaeolithic site of Payre, south-east France. Apparently, this is the first time stable analysis of carbon and oxygen has been applied to Neanderthal teeth- I'm always yearning for more use of stable isotopes because they can tell us so much about diet AND mobility, but remember, ancient hominin teeth are a very precious and finite resource. It's great that a wider variety of techniques are now being applied. By analysing the different 'flavours' of oxygen and carbon present in the Neanderthal and animal enamel, Ecker et al. found that many herbivores had stable diets locally over very large spans of time, even including major climatic and environmental shifts. They also determined that there were differences in the diet of the Neanderthals at Payre vs. the other carnivores, especially wolves. This is very interesting given that this species has sometimes been used as a model for how Neanderthals may have been organising themselves in terms of group hunting.

Were Neanderthal hearths like these being used frequently for cooking, and thereby giving a falsely high isotopic measurement in their teeth? Image: Taken for education purposes from the fantastic Parc Prehistoric Capellades website on Abric Romani

Isotopes also featured in a very interesting talk by Noreen Tuross, Elizabeth Harvey and Linda Reynard, all from Harvard. The main take-home was that we need to be very cautious about the dominant models of Neanderthals as top trophic-level carnivores which were based in large part on nitrogen isotope studies. Tuross pointed out that isotopes are a very complex area of research which we're still learning about, and some things may "come back to bite us". Primarily, not only alcohol, but also cooking can really affect nitrogen isotopes, leading to higher signatures of the sort that have been interpreted as evidence of Neanderthals eating a diet extremely high in meat, or an order similar to carnivores such as hyaena and wolf. Tuross went as far as to say that these models of massively-high meaty diets are no longer supportable based on the nitrogen data. This is all very intriguing, given recent evidence that Neanderthals were not only eating more plants than we thought, but they may also have been cooking them, including using boiling. Tuross pointed out too in answer to a question that not only cooking in containers, but on open fires will affect isotopes. So, have we been mistaking less frequent roasted meat for a hyper-carnivore diet? It will be interesting to see more on this.

Continuing the subsistence focus was a talk by Karen Hardy (Autonoma University of Barcelona) and Stephen Buckley (University of York), following up on their recent publication that has provided more evidence to the growing pile that Neanderthals were using plants, both for eating- including carbohydrates and fire-cracked starch granules- and probably also for medicinal purposes at El Sidron cave, Spain, some 50,000 years ago. By analysing dental calculus, they identified compounds that come from yarrow and chamomile, two plants that offer little in terms of micronutrients and are in addition very bitter. They are used by modern humans almost exclusively in a medicinal context rather than for energetic needs. Hardy pointed out that as the El Sidron Neanderthals had the same gene as we do for tasting bitter things, this strongly suggests that if Neanderthals were eating them it was because they intended to do so, not due to accidental or random consumption. The ability to identify bitter-tasting plants is important to many animals for survival reasons, but Hardy also drew attention to "zoopharmacognosy" (new favourite word!), the habit of many animals to self-medicate using various substances against the effects of parasites or being forced to eat other toxic materials. You've probably seen in wildlife documentaries that many animals in jungle environments congregate at ponds where clays are available at the surface, which can counteract plant toxins, while some primates have been suggested to eat rough leaves as a measure against intestinal parasites. Hardy argued that Neanderthals must have done this too to some extent as a survival mechanism, and their use of bitter herbs is suggestive of a very extensive knowledge of plants. We certainly know from other sources including use wear on tools, preserved wood remains, and 'negatives' or casts in the speleothem floor deposits at Abric Romani that Neanderthals were engaging with wood an awful lot, and they were also using birch bark to make hafted tools. So really using plants for food and medicine would fit into this picture.

Natural casts of wood from the amazing Neanderthal site of Abric Romani, where not only are pieces of wood probably brought in as fuel preserved, but also a possible tripod over a hearth, most of a tree that had it's branches removed, and also some sort of handled knife-like tool made of wood. Photo: By 120 / V. Mourre (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Two other presentations about plant use in the Palaeolithic were given, although not specifically about Neanderthals. Alex Pryor (University of Cambridge) and a large multi-institutional team working on the incredible Upper Palaeolithic site of Dolni Vestonice in eastern Europe have used a new methodology during excavations of 100% floatation: this isn't a reference to that new-agey relaxation technique, but to an archaeological technique of passing excavated sediment through a series of increasingly smaller sieves using water. This catches very tiny organic remains such as beetle wings, bones from small rodents and pieces of plant remains. Pryor reported finding many remains of acquatic plants, and also USOs: underground storage organs such as tubers, which are often quite nutritious. These seem to have been processing into "plant mash", although in different ways. The team is in the process of creating a reference collection of the types of plants found in the 'mammoth steppe' environments of the Upper Palaeolithic, including subjecting them to charring and processing methods. 
Martin Jones (University of Cambridge) spoke more broadly about plant use in the Palaeolithic, and made the point, coming back to Neanderthal diet again, that even people living in the artic today who subsist almost exclusively on meat still have to eat some fish, as well as a lot of fat. The Inuit may only have 1% plants in their diet, but it's important. Jones also pointed out that boreal environments are the toughest in which to live in terms of the plants available, although we should probably remember that today's arctic tundra/boreal forests are not like the glacial environments of the Palaeolithic, where types of plants, insects and animals lived together in communities that we don;t see anywhere today.
There was some interesting discussion around all these 'foody' presentations, including people wondering why there isn't more evidence of edible insects in archaeological sites, whether the use of funghi would be possible to identify, and how we would determine archaeologically a diet very high in fat, for example from mammoths.

Mammoths were central to two linked talks which focused on Neanderthal behaviour & diet at La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey. The first speaker was Geoff Smith (@geoffrymsmith) from the RGZM in Germany, talking about exploitation of megafaunal in the Palaeolithic as a whole: that is, mammoths and other hefty species such as woolly rhinoceros, while later Beccy Scott spoke about the wider archaeology at La Cotte. Both speakers are part of the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey project, which I was also involved with in 2010-11. Smith's talk called for caution in the interpretation of archaeological assemblages where we find the remains of megafauna alongside stone tools, especially where scenarios of active hunting are presented. An example is the famous site of Lynford Quarry, without doubt the best Middle Palaeolithic (Neanderthal) site we have in the UK. Formed primarily of a preserved river channel, filled with dark brown and black organic deposits, the site was found just over ten years ago as part of observations of active quarrying in Norfolk: essentially vigilant watchers saw handaxes and large bones sticking out of waste piles in the quarry, which led to full excavations.

Geoff Smith with some of the mammoth bones from La Cotte de St Brelade: were these the result of a mass kill event, or simply remains from occupation of the site, perhaps driven up the ravine system below? Photo: author.
Although this site was interpreted as evidence of mammoth exploitation and possibly even hunting of sick individuals by Danielle Schreve (the faunal expert involved in the official site report, available free as a pdf here), Smith has previously published his re-interpretation of the assemblage, stating that the Lynford remains are probably a natural accumulation. While there is evidence of Neanderthals exploiting the remains of other mammals there (smashing woolly rhinoceros teeth), he does not see any direct evidence of this for the mammoths, and even the age of the animals suggests non-human action in their accumulation.
This situation is in direct contrast to the evidence of mammoth and woolly rhinoceros butchery found at the second site Smith discussed, the famous claimed mass-kill layers from La Cotte de St Brelade. This site forms the centrepiece of QAEJ research, through re-analysing the original excavated collections. La Cotte, a true mega-site, is famous to many students of archaeology as for a long time it's been presented as the only clear evidence of single mass-kill hunting events by Neanderthals, with supposed implications for cognition.
However the QAEJ project is now calling into question this mass-kill hypothesis, from several standpoints. Geoff's work on the bones themselves demonstrates that for a supposed "mass" kill of a whole herd, there are in fact quite small numbers of animals involved. Furthermore, the particular marks on the bones demonstrating butchery are the same as those found in other layers that clearly result from occupations of the site by Neanderthals.

Looking down into the La Cotte ravine, the route which was originally proposed as a mass-kill jump site. The archaeology was in the main ravine and inside the area underneath the arch. By Danrok (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Beccy Scott continued the sceptical approach to the mass kill hypothesis, noting that it's pretty difficult to imagine driving a herd of very large animals over the headland above La Cotte in its present topographic configuration; in the past it was even less suited to this kind of hunting. Instead, the new interpretation being suggested by the ongoing QAEJ research is that the "mass-kill" layers are taphonomic illusions: the bones from normal occupation in the cave on two occasions escaped the typical trampling and splintering seen in other layers because they are from abandonment phases. Immediately above each of the supposed kill layers are thick loess deposits: wind-blown dust created by crushed rock underneath glaciers. They mark the onset of intensely cold glacial climates- just what you'd expect to cause the site to be abandoned, and also acted to preserve the last heaps of bones that happened to be in the cave before it was its resident Neanderthals left or died out. The fact this seems to have happened twice is testament to the incredible archive of human history preserved at the site. Scott also presented results from the wider multi-disciplinary research undertaken by other QAEJ members, including a spectacular reconstruction of the landscapes now submerged by the sea, immediately in front of the La Cotte ravine. An offshore bathymetric (sea floor depth) survey has revealed that La Cotte originally stood at the head of a large valley, hemmed in on either side by granite outcrops, itself part of a larger system of east-west valleys and gorges. This new perspective totally transforms our view of the site in its wider landscape: perhaps there was no need to drive mega fauna over the top of the cliff, when the existing topography created a perfect dead-end run into in the ravine.

Looking out over the submerged landscape in front of La Cotte de St Brelade. The tops of the other granite outcrops running horizontally can be seen. Photo: author.

Three other talks presented data and some more speculative ideas about Neanderthals.
Kristen Heasley (University of Southtampton) spoke about her on-going PhD research into Neanderthal lithic (stone) resource management and transport in north-east Italy. Her work is showing that Neanderthals there, as in many other places, were carrying mobile toolkits with them through the landscape, which further adds to the body of evidence that they were anticipating future needs on large scales.
Karen Ruebens, now at the RGZM following her PhD, presented the results of her study into whether the apparent dichotomy between two later Neanderthal lithic cultures is real, or an artifact of the history of research. I've written here before about Karen's work because it is closely linked to my own research, and in fact we are now writing a paper to publish together. The Mousterian and the Micoquian are the two 'technocomplexes' in question, both including bifaces, tools that have been worked on both sides, but with very different methods of production and maintenance, as shown by Karen during her talk. She also suggested there is a possible contact zone based on mixed assemblages in northern France and Belgium.

Finally, the last paper I want to cover was by Penny Spikins, who has over the past few years become increasingly interested in Neanderthal cognition. For her talk at UHO she focused on Neanderthal children in the archaeological record, noting that they've been pretty much ignored aside from research into biology and ontogeny (the differences between how quickly Neanderthal and Homo sapiens children developed). She also pointed out that one third of Neanderthal burials are the remains of young children under fours years of age, indicating that children must have not only been central to the lives of Neanderthals, but also the way they dealt with their dead. Spikins further suggested we look for their presence in the archaeological record through items that could be toys, and proposed very small handaxes as one possibility. I'm not very sure about this myself, as certainly in Britain, there is a correlation  between handaxe size and raw material availability, so it would be hard to disentangle economic concerns from social. I would have liked to see more data on the types of 'burial' she was drawing on, as there is a vast difference between whole anatomically-linked bodies, and small collections of bones of an individual. I do agree entirely with her major point, that we should, in seeking to extend our enquiry into the social lives of Neanderthals, not forget about the children. But I think at present it's very hard to find them in the record.

Nice museum diorama from the French National Museum of Prehistory at Les Eyzies, showing a Neanderthal child sitting with an adult. Photo: author.
To finish, and coming back to the first talks, I'd love to see more application of stable isotope analysis to Neanderthals, including whole groups from sites and children. It would be interesting to look at dietary differences, and also their mobility: how far did children travel from their birth area and whether different members of groups were coming from different areas.

Anyway that's it for this post, I'll be writing more on some other papers I really enjoyed from the UHO conference, and in just a couple of days, hearing some more exciting research at the European Palaeolithic conference being held at the British Museum alongside the incredible Ice Age art exhibition that I can't wait to see.
Thanks for reading, and I would love your comments.


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