In their spirited defense of Pedra Furada as an archaeological site, Boëda et al (2014a, 2014b), argue that an archaeology developed for the curated assemblages and formal features of the European Paleolithic is not equipped to recognize a New World Pleistocene of expedient cobble industries and low density occupations. As I’ve previously discussed for Santa Elina, Monte Verde I, and the Cerutti Mastodon, in the absence of other evidence of human activity, the key question for all these sites remains the identification of lithics as tools and of broken bones as processed by humans.

Boëda et al, as well as several of the commenters on the article, agree we must develop different cognitive frameworks to recognize different archaeologies and that the uniformity of archaeological thinking prevents the mainstream from recognizing an obvious New World archaeological Pleistocene. I will argue, on the contrary, that we must apply a single set of principles when determining whether an assemblage is archaeological, and that these principles must be designed to protect us against false positives.

In a generally supportive comment on Boëda et al (2014), Knutsson (2014) concedes that the sort of cobble based quartz technology claimed for Pedra Furada “is hard to read even for a skilled lithic analyst”. The quartz assemblages, like those of Scandinavia of which Knutsson is perhaps the leading expert, have “low form variability” and “there are basically no formal tools”. Having spent my 20s and 30s working just across the Gulf of Bothnia on very similar sites, I would point out that

  • they do contain at least some, very rare, but still some, formal tools.
  • At least some of the assemblages are found in the context of formal features. The later ones are associated with house floors, hearths, middens, and even megastructures (Bracewell 2011) but even the earliest, least structured ones are at least sometimes found in fields of pits.
  • the quartz tools and debitage are at least sometimes not found co-mingled with material from their natural sources.

In other words, the broken stones and broken bones are one of several converging lines of evidence that establish the archaeological nature of an assemblage.

In the absence of these features, of the occasional formal tool, and of a clear spatial separation between some of the lithic assemblages and their geological sources, one would be justified in questioning whether quartz assemblages like those in Northern Fennoscandia are archaeological at all. In fact, it is entirely possible that the bulk of what is collected as archaeological quartz in the region really isn’t. There is a tendency (to which I plead guilty) to recognize quartz as archaeological once we know that we are on (or at least near) a solidly archaeological site. While all this clearly argues that the Pedra Furada and other related quartz assemblages could be archaeological, it also highlights that there is no demonstration that they are.

In the context of this critique of European Paleolithic hegemony, it was refreshing to read Roebroeks et al’s (2017) review of Untermassfeld as evidence for occupation of interior Europe 1 million years ago (Landeck and Garcia Garriga 2016). They apply to Untermassfeld the same critique that others have applied to the Cerutti Mastodon site, to Pedra Furada and to Monte Verde 1. They show very clearly that the same basic principles can and should be applied to the critique of any archaeological claims in the absence of evidence other than allegedly processed bones mingled with environmental samples and expedient stone tools mingled with geological assemblages. Is there a statistical difference between the archaeological assemblage and the matrix from similar non-archaeological deposits? Can non-archaeological deposits in this matrix be recognized at all? Is there selection of bone elements relative to the environmental signal? Absent formal lithic industries, human remains (including, nowadays, soil DNA), and archaeological structures, these are the two lines of evidence that must be pursued. Even rigorously pursued, they are tenuous in the absence of others. On the basis of their reanalysis of Untermassfeld, Roebroeks at al (2017) make a convincing argument against its status as an archaeological site.

Far from being used to include the European Paleolithic and exclude the New World Pleistocene from the human story, these analytical principles were actually elaborated during the eolith controversy (De Bont 2003, O’Connor 2003, Sommer 2004), specifically for the purpose of excluding dubious European sites and cleaning up the database of the Paleolithic.

It is not a problem to hold claimed archaeological sites in a purgatory of possibles, no matter what their age or location. It is far more damaging in the long-run, as the eolith case demonstrates, to consecrate them as archaeological without adequate evidence.

References

Boëda E, I Clemente-Conte, M Fontugne, C Lahaye, M Pino, G Daltrini Felice, N Guidon, S Hoeltz, A Lourdeau, M Pagli, AM Pessis, S Viana, A Da Costa, E Douville 2014a. A new late Pleistocene archaeological sequence in South America: The Vale da Pedra Furada (Piaui, Brazil), Antiquity 88:927-955.

Boëda E, C Lahaye, G Daltrini Felice, N Guidon, S Hoeltz, A Lourdeau, AM Pessis, S Viana, I Clemente-Conte, M Pino, M Fontugne, M Pagli, A Da Costa 2014. The Peopling of South America: expanding the evidence, Antiquity 88:954-955.

Bracewell J 2011. Moving with the times: a case study of adaptation to changing environmental conditions in coastal northern Finland, Archaeological review from Cambridge 26:8-22.

De Bont R 2003. The creation of prehistoric man: Aimé Rutot and the eolith controversy, 1900-1920, Isis 94:604-630.

Knutsson K 2014. Simple need not mean archaic. Antiquity 88:950-953. Landeck G, Garcia Garriga J. The oldest hominin butchery in European mid-latitudes at the Jaramillo site of Untermassfeld (Thuringia, Germany). Journal of Human Evolution. 2016;94:53-71. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2016.02.002

O’Connor A 2003. Geology, archaeology, and the raging vortex of the eolith controversy, Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 114:255-62.

Roebroeck W, S Gaudzinski-Windheuser, M Baales, RD Kahlke 2017. Uneven data quality and the earliest occupation of Europe: the case of Untermassfeld (Germany), BioRxivhttps://doi.org/10.1101/211268

Sommer M 2004. Eoliths as evidence for human origins? The British context, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 26:209-241.

3 thoughts on “What’s good for the American Pleistocene is good for the European Lower Paleolithic: Untermassfeld, Santa Elina, Pedra Furada, and Monte Verde

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