Friday, November 6, 2015

Paleolithic research in the Armenian Highlands and Anatolia

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.
I should also point out that Phil was able to bring together Turkish and Armenian researchers to discuss Paleolithic archaeology. This shows the power of science in general, and archaeology in particular, to transcend political and ethnic enmity and bring together people with common goals. I was honored to be part of such a momentous event.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Off to Turkey!

I am leaving tomorrow for Ankara, Turkey, where my colleague Phil Glauberman has organized a workshop entitled "Palaeolithic Research in the Armenian Highlands and Anatolia". I am honored to be included in this event, which will bring together an international contingent of researchers that work on the Middle Paleolithic in a very under-appreciated and understudied region. I'll be presenting on our recent work at Bagratashen 1. It's been 15 years since my last visit to Turkey, so I'm looking forward to the trip. Check back soon for a post that summarizes the event...  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Society for American Archaeology meetings 2015

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.
Overall, a really enjoyable meeting...

Back from the Gorge...

I returned from Tanzania last Thursday. We had another successful field season and another great group of students for the field school. Updates to come...

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

American archaeology in the 21st century

Every year we  present the Distinguished Alumni Award (DAA) to recognize graduates of the Department of Anthropology at UNCG. This year's winner was Lea Abbott, who is currently the Assistant State Archaeologist for North Carolina. Lea graduated from UNCG in the late 1970s, and his primary research interest is lithic technology. Our DAA committee, however, asked Lea to focus on the role of archaeology in the 21st century and the career prospects for our students, and he delivered with a great talk.

First, he summarized wonderfully the place that archaeology occupies in the broader context of humanity. Archaeology, according to Lea, is important because (1) it helps to round out history (he used the example of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, as his talk was given on the anniversary, April 9th, of that seminal event in American history) and (2) it is the major venue by which the world's historic and prehistoric heritage is preserved (he mentioned the recent destruction of archaeological sites associated with unrest in the Middle East).

The students at the presentation were, unsurprisingly, also interested in jobs. Lea pointed out the intimate relationship between archaeology and development in the United States. Federally funded development projects require an assessment of the archaeological (or cultural) resources that may be impacted by the work, and there are many, many contract companies that provide this service. One only needs to drive down I-40 in North Carolina, Lea commented, to see new solar energy farms popping up, all of which required archaeological assessments prior to construction. This amount of work in cultural resource management rises and falls with the broader economy: lots of development, lots of archaeological jobs. Lea seemed to think that with the economy in an upswing the number of archaeology jobs for anthropology and archaeology graduates will be on the rise.

Lea also outlined some of the biggest issues that will confront the next generation of archaeologists. One of the most urgent is related to rising sea levels. There are, in North Carolina alone, ~5,800 archaeological sites that lie at or <30 feet above current sea level, and they are being eroded away at an alarming rate.

He concluded by offering some advice to students, particularly those who wish to pursue graduate studies. First, and most importantly, people who make a career of archaeology have to feel it not only "up here" (he pointed to his head), but "in here" (he pointed to his heart). If that doesn't apply to you, then archaeology is probably not a great career choice. Get engaged immediately, he also said, as professors have a lot going on, and students that are engaged tend to get great dissertation projects. He also recommended that students have a back-up. Take courses that will provide you with skills that can get you a job outside of archaeology.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Disasters and social change

Under the guidance of our Department Head, Bob Anemone, the Department of Anthropology at UNCG initiated a brown bag lecture series entitled "How I spent my 'summer vacation'," with "summer vacation in quotations because we (the anthropology faculty) are active researchers who conduct much of our field work and data collection during the summer months.

On April 1, our colleague Art Murphy presented on his work in Mexico on human responses to disasters. For the last few years, he has been working on the ABC Day Care Center Fire, a tragic event that eventually resulted in the death of 49 children. He is currently on a Fulbright in Mexico and, while there, he was asked to work on a more recent disaster, the chemical spill at the Buena Vista del Cobre mine. There is a lot going on in both cases, not the least of which is politics, but there is one point that Art made that resonated with me. It is often assumed that disasters−take Hurricane Katrina or the Haiti Earthquake−highlight social inequalities and are thus movers of social change. While the former is true, Art pointed out that the latter is typically not: as things calm down, people try to recreate and preserve the system of inequality that existed before the disaster. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

19th century German science as seen through literature

Another post from my lengthening backlog...

The Lloyd International Honors College at UNCG hosts an event they call "Food for Thought," which brings UNCG scholars to speak about lively topics. I had never attended, but I saw the title for the February 11 talk, "Visions, Dreams, and Divinations: Literature and Science around 1800," and was intrigued by the fact that a visiting German scholar, Susanne Gomoluch, was speaking. Apart from my interest in the history of science, I've spent quite a bit of time in Germany, so, my interest piqued, I went.

She began by providing some historical background, and the political situation in Germany during the late 18th and early 19th century is particularly critical. At the time, what is now Germany was a loose confederation of autonomous states and principalities that was, until 1806 when it was dissolved by Napoleon, the Holy Roman Empire. This was followed by several loosely affiliated German confederations until the eventual unification of Germany under a single government in 1871.

Holy Roman Empire on 1789. By Robert Alfers via Wikipedia.
The looseness of the political arrangement is important in this context because there simply was no unified policy towards anything. Germany lagged behind Great Britain and France in industrialization, for example, largely because of this lack of centralized decision-making. This also meant, though, that a diversity of perspectives on science emerged in the German states. Dr. Gomoluch spoke about a number of interesting issues, but the most fascinating was a character named Karl Phillip Moritz (1756-1793). Moritz, among other things, was a high school teacher, professor of archaeology and, most pertinent here, the editor of Das Magazin zur Erfahrungsseelenkunde als ein Lesebuch für Gelehrte und Ungelehrte (The Magazine of Experiential Psychology as a Reader for Scholars and Laymen), which was one of Germany's first journals of psychology. The journal featured much early work on mental pathology, deaf studies, social deviance, and the interpretation of dreams.

An interesting presentation, and LIHC also provides a pretty nice spread of food...