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Unravelling Human Origins 2013 report: general Palaeolithic edition

Here's the somewhat delayed report from the January Unravelling Human Origins Conference held at Cambridge University. I've already written a post on the papers that focused on Neanderthal archaeology, so here are the rest that I found most interesting.

Probably my favourite talk was a double-act by Jessica Cooney and Sarah Evans, both students at Cambridge. I got one of those "wow, what cool research... wish I had done that for my PhD" moments. Part of the reason I chose my undergraduate institution back in 2000 was because they ran a rock art course, and I've always had a soft spot for Upper Palaeolithic art, especially cave (or parietal) art. Cooney & Evans' work is great because, with others, it is taking new perspective on this already intensely-analysed material record, through trying to move away from notions of iconographic meaning, and instead focus on the social context of art: who was creating it, how, and what effects did it have on those who made and experienced it in terms of facilitating social interactions. One of their projects is continuing work started by Leslie Van Gelder and Kevin Sharpe focusing on finger flutings (marks made by dragging fingers through the soft surface of cave walls), a very common feature in decorated caves, but one which has been consistently overlooked in favour of the more glamorous paintings and figurative engravings. Cooney and Evans here were emphasising how quantitative study of rock art can give us a path through the pitfalls of subjectivity, for example there have been many previous attempts to identify shapes in flutings. Their talk reviewed how this type of reearch has been able to identify the movements of individuals through the cave at Rouffignac, France, known for its incredibly rich flutings in particular chambers. For example, distinctive marks made by the fingers of a young girl, estimated to be about five years old through detailed comparative analysis, are found throughout the cave, even in dark isolated areas. What relationship did this girl have to the other small group of individuals identified who marked the cave with their bodies? It is possible to track how people interacted as they made the flutings?
I find this research exciting and fresh, and my brain is already thinking about other caves around the world that this method could be applied to, for example there is a site in Australia (Koonalda Cave) which is similarly rich in flutings.

Satellite image of the Thar desert . Image: NASA (open use)

James Blinkhorn, who has just joined the department at PACEA, Bordeaux, reported on his PhD fieldwork in the amazing landscapes of the Thar Desert, in Rajasthan, India and Pakistan. This region wasn't always the challenging environment it now is. In MIS5e (roughly 120,000 years ago when the climate was slightly warmer than today, and sea-levels higher) there was a large river-system which is still visible to sub-surface surveys. The Thar would then have been a gateway into India rather than a barrier, and indeed there are 100s of surface sites known, however very few excavations. Blinkhorn described his own new excavations at Katoati, near the already dug site of 16R Dune. This is dated to MIS5-3 (roughly 130-30 ka), and they have found primary core reduction that appears to be in-situ. This indicates the high potential for this region, and James is actually in India right now continuing this research. A paper is in press now and available on his site.

Becky Farbstein talked about her new work with a large team excavating the enormous Vela Spila cave, in Croatia. This site contains some very exciting figurative ceramics that Becky has already published and blogged on, but this talk had a wider focus. Between the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic layers, there was significant changes in the symbolic/art artefacts. Primarily, there are no ceramic objects from the later layers, while shells increase in importance, when the site may have become a workshop, and which may be linked to sea level rise making shells more accessible. I cover more on her work on the figurines in my upcoming post on the European Palaeolithic conference.

A enjoyed a few papers that focused on primates. Victoria Tobolsky's paper was scheduled to be a poster, but due to another speaker not being able to make it, got upgraded to an oral presentation. Tobolsky is focusing on a deceptively simple question: if we look at the capabilites of extant primates, it seems that all the requisite features of knapping (stone-tool making) are present, although in different species, for example capuchins use stones to crack nuts, long-tailed macaques do this to access molluscs, and chimpanzees can be taught to fracture stone. Her MPhil is looking at why no primates other than our own ancestors seem to have made the leap to fully working stone, a major research question for many scholars right now. I pointed out during questions that even though Kanzi the bonobo can produce flakes by hitting a core with a hammerstone, he does not seem to understand the complex mechanics of striking different distances from the core margin, never mind following through sequences of flake removals using scars as platforms, yet we see this in almost the very oldest tools archaeological record (something I've written on here). The question of how we would identify cruder tools in the record is quite a tricky one.

Capuchin monkeys Image: by Frans de Waal (CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons)
A speculative talk on the emergence of mortuary behaviour by Paul Pettitt was also quite interesting, although as he acknowledged, his dataset is very small. He looked at how chimpanzees interact with each other in situations where they've been observed in the context of a recent death. It's a frequently debated question as to what extent chimps may 'grieve', although footage of them acting in highly agitated ways while surrounding the corpse of a troop member demonstrates they are emotionally disturbed by death. Pettitt's limited analysis of data on these so-called 'funerals' is suggestive that the context of death is important in structuring social relations. More chimps seem to be involved when the death was violent, and interestingly because chimps are so interested in corpses, the recently dead can gain a higher social standing than they had in 

Image source:

William Davies wrapped up the conference with a talk that was more ideas-heavy, critiquing Renfrew's "Sapient Paradox" model (i.e. the supposedly long gap between anatomically modern humans gaining large brains, and starting to do 'interesting' things like farming and building megalithic structures) as biased because of its emphasis on sedentism. Davies also reflected on why we still aren't really using Clive Gamble's "locales" model of the archaeological landscape, to get away from the dichotomy of intra- vs. inter-site analysis. After all, he pointed out, our sites are just activity areas. He then went on to talk about boundaries to locales, both spatial and temporal, which I found very interesting, especially the fact that curated artefacts effectively stitch activities together both within AND between locales. This is something I've written about myself regarding Neanderthal composite technology, which will be published as a chapter in an edited volume (the abstract is on my Academia page).

There were many other interesting papers which I've not covered here for space issues, but some of which are discussed by Becky Farbstein in her blog post on the conference, so go check it out!


Anonymous said…
Great review! I will forward the link to the committee so they can check it out, especially Conney and Evans :)

Thanks Pia! It was a super conference.

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