I returned safe and sound from Anakara a couple of weeks ago (an unexpected overnight stay in Terminal 5 at JFK not withstanding) and am happy to report that the trip was well worth it. It was an intimate event, with 14 papers and perhaps 20-30 audience members. Some highlights:
- The first paper was by Amilié Vialet and her colleague M. Cihat Alçiçek, who discussed the Kocabaş skullcap. I was particularly interested to hear this talk, as I knew next to nothing about this important hominin fossil. The remains consist of the frontal and parietal of a hominin that were recovered in 2002 during quarrying activities in the travertines of the famous Pammukale (Turkish: "Cotton Castle") hot springs (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) in western Turkey. (I actually visited this area, which also includes impressive ruins from Greek and Roman times, on a vacation way back in 2001.) The top of the skullcap was literally shaved off by heavy equipment (unfortunately, the rest of the skull, nor any other part of the skeleton, have ever been recovered) but, thankfully, the recovered bones were brought to the attention of Alçiçek, who recognized their importance. John Kappelman and his colleagues had previously published on the remains and suggested that (1) they dated to ~500,000 years ago, (2) provisionally, they represented H. erectus; and (3) the individual suffered from the earliest known case of tuberculosis. Vialet (who, apart from being a world-class paleoanthropologist, is a genuinely nice person) summarized more recent work on the fossil. Perhaps most importantly, they push back the age of the remains using a variety of dating techniques to ~1.4 million years ago, which makes them among the oldest in all of Eurasia. An audience member asked Vialet about tuberculosis, and she vacillated, saying that a confident diagnosis from their team would need to await further analyses. Their 3D reconstruction of the cranium, however, suggested a closer affinity of Kocabaş to Homo ergaster fossils from Africa rather than early Homo (including the crania from Dmanisi) fossils or later, classic Homo erectus populations from Asia. Vialet suggested, then, that Kocabaş represents an "expansion [from Africa that is] different from that represented by the Dmanisi fossils". It is becoming increasingly clear that the movement out of Africa by hominins ca. 2 million years ago was a complex series of events (emphasis on the plural) that involved many populations, some of which were able to establish long-term occupations and others that quickly went extinct. The new information from Kocabaş certainly reinforces this idea.
- What followed was a series of papers by our Turkish colleagues that summarized the Lower and Middle Paleolithic of Anatolia. What struck me is that apart from a few notable exceptions (Kaletepe Deresi 3, Karaïn Cave, Yarımburgaz Cave, and Üçazğlı Cave), much of what is known is based almost exclusively on surface assemblages that lack key contextual information (chronometric dates, paleoenvironmental reconstructions, etc.). For example, Kadriye Özçelik reported on surface surveys that documented for the first time the presence of Paleolithic material in the Denizli Basin of southwestern Anatolia (this is the same region in which the Kocabaş fossil was uncovered). It is quite amazing, if you think about it, that it took until 2014 to officially recognize the presence of Paleolithic tools in this region, especially since, as I later learned, handaxes have been known in Turkey since 1896. While those of us working in Armenia faced a similar situation−that is, a dependence largely on surface finds−a great deal of progress has been made on this front in the last 10 years, due largely, I think, to the support of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, which has done much to nurture Paleolithic research in Armenia. My conversations with Turkish researchers revealed that it is extremely difficult to acquire permits to even examine and collect surface assemblages in Turkey, much less excavate stratified sites. Until that changes, I fear that our knowledge of Paleolithic settlement in modern Turkey will continue to lag behind that of other nearby countries.
- Our paper summarized work on Bagratashen 1, and we officially announced OSL dates from the Middle Paleolithic horizon of around 35,000 years ago. While Middle Paleolithic sites of this age are not unusual, the types of stone tools uncovered from the deposit look like artifacts from other parts of the southern Caucasus and the Levant that are much older, somewhere around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago (see my previous post on Bagratashen 1 here). So, either our dates are way out of whack (which is possible), or we have an example of technological convergence where culturally and temporally unrelated hominin groups independently converged on similar tool types. There is a long history in archaeology of viewing stone tools to track human populations. That is, particular cultures made particular types of tools, so if you find similar tools, you have the same people. However, folks have long pointed out that, as complex a technology that lithic manufacture can be, there are only so many ways that one can reduce a chunk of rock into different shapes. Dan Adler and his colleagues made precisely this point in their paper about their excavations at Nor Geghi 1 in Armenia. What they found is that at about 330,000 years ago, folks in Armenia were creating both bifacial artifacts typically associated with the Acheulean and Middle Paleolithic Levallois products at the same time. This shows definitively that, at least at Nor Geghi 1, making Acheulean bifaces has little to do with being part of an Acheulean "culture" that represents a particular group or species of hominins. Likewise, it seems that the appearance of Levallois technology, again at least in Armenia, need not necessarily represent a new group or species of hominin. Perhaps it is time, as Dan simulated with a humorous slide, to flush many of these stone tool "cultures" down the toilet.