I attended the 2015 meetings of the Society for American Archaeology in San Francisco this past April (yes, again I am behind in my posts). Although I wasn't able to stay for the whole event, I did get a chance to see some really great talks. We presented a couple of posters on our recent work at Olduvai Gorge as well. As usual, I'll present the highlights from my notes:
- Paul Goldberg and his colleagues provided some new geoarchaeological results from the important Paleolithic site of La Ferrasie (Dordogne, France). The Middle Paleolithic deposits at La Ferrasie, which date to between 90,000 and 45,000 years ago, represent one of the most important, and continuous, MP sequences in western Europe. Even more critically, several partial Neandertal skeletons were recovered from the site, most of them in 1909. One thing that I learned is that the cave is actually made up of two distinct areas, an eastern and western, both of which, as Goldberg and his colleagues showed, with different formational histories. What is more, the artifacts found within the cave's sediments were likely originally discarded somewhere else and only later washed in to their final location. Goldberg also talked a bit about La Ferassie 2, which is the partial skeleton of an adult whose exact provenience and age was still poorly understood. Although they were unable to relocate the exact find spot for this individual, they sampled some sediments from the original foot (currently housed in the Musée de l'Homme) and were able to match them to the sediments from their Layers 4-5, which are dated to around 45,000-50,000 years ago.
- Probably the most fascinating talk that I saw was given by Thomas Morgan and his colleagues entitled "The social transmission of Oldowan lithic technology." They conducted an elegant experiment in which novice knappers were permitted to learn Oldowan lithic technology in one of four ways: (1) through reverse engineering (that is, by looking at finished products); (2) observation only (that is, by watching someone else create flakes without the benefit of active teaching); (3) simple, "ape like" teaching; (4) gestural teaching only (that is, being taught by an expert with gestures but no words); and (5) with fully verbal teaching. The results showed that novices created more, and more useful, flakes with the benefits of teaching, particularly verbal teaching. What intrigued me was that there was no evidence that observational learning was any better than reverse engineering. So, apparently, watching someone is no better than simply looking at finished products.
- I attended a really fun session in honor of the 20th anniversary of the publication of Robert Kelly's "The Foraging Spectrum", which is a landmark book in the study of hunter-gatherers. Nick Conard and Britt Starkovich humorously critiqued the behavioral ecological approach championed by Kelly through, among others things, references to Jerry Garcia (you had to be there). Raven Garvey and Robert Bettinger presented a fascinating case study of two hunter-gatherer groups that, despite living in very similar environments (the subarctic and subantarctic), exhibited very different levels of technological complexity. They argued that culture, and the density of social networks in particular, encouraged (or discouraged) the invention, adoption, and spread of ideas. Thus, for them, ecological and adaptive factors can only go so far in explaining hunter-gatherer diversity. Mike Cannon and David Meltzer offered a mathematical model to explore foraging options when resources become limited. They asked, essentially, when, and under what circumstances, will a group of hunter-gatherers either (1) move on to use familiar resources elsewhere or (2) stay put and learn how to exploit new resources. The highlight of the session was, of course, Bob Kelly's reflections on writing the book. His story about the genesis of the title was especially interesting: he had decided on a title (I can't remember what he said it was now) but the Smithsonian Press had asked him to change it to something more catchy. He told this to his wife, who was flipping through a magazine at the time, and she came back with "Why don't you call it the 'Foraging Spectrum'"? The rest is, as they say, history!
- Mathieu Lejay and his colleagues presented some data on Aurignacian-aged fireplaces from France. What I found interesting (and it makes sense once you think about it) was that their experimental work showed that bone-fed fires tend to be more bioturbated than wood-fed fires because of the increased organic content.