"...the behaviour of most present day humans remains moderated by magical thinking-type mental processes (lack of integration between the left prefrontal cortical areas and memory), underwritten by sub-optimal cause and effect perception."

Robert G. Bednarik, An aetiology of hominin behaviour, Homo, 2012

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Modern Human Superiority Complex

Neandertal Demise: An Archaeological Analysis of the Modern Human Superiority Complex by Paola Villa and Wil Roebroeks published recently in PlosOne represents an extraordinary feat of accomplishment by relinquishing the argument that a cognitive advantage previously held to characterise the quintessential difference between Homo sapien sapiens and Homo sapien neanderthalis can be observed from the truncated archaeological record. They do this in a manner which ensures that the fundamental premises of the Out of Africa replacement hypothesis are not challenged and neatly conclude that what they perceive as the demise of Neanderthals was “more complex” than previously suggested.

This demise or disappearance perceived in the archaeological record is pinned down by Villa and Roebroeks to a period “between approximately 45 and 35 thousand years ago”. The references provided in support of this particular assertion include Douka et al (2013) which concerns only the chronology of Ksar Akil, Lebanon, and the Zilhao piece on issues with dates, taxonomy and cultural associations in supposed Neanderthal-Modern human contact neither of which identify a clear or convincing picture of Neanderthal extinction or disappearance. They further state that in western Eurasia Middle Palaeolithic technologies associated with archaic populations (Neanderthals) are replaced by a population of “modern humans (Homo sapiens) with Upper Palaeolithic technologies. The first reference cited in support of this claim is Higham et al (2011) which only refers to the earliest inferred examples of evidence for “anatomically modern humans” (AMH) in northwestern Europe. This is based on the circular assumption that the scant evidence of etic stone tool artefact types found are diagnostic of "AMH". Likewise Higham et al (2012) only tests the dates at one site within a narrow context concerning art and music. Even combined, all three references referred to do not persuasively support the aforementioned claim that there was a replacement of technologies and/or populations during the time frame quoted. No evidence disputing this supposed replacement of technologies and/or populations is considered although of course there exists plenty.

Contrary to the authors assertions, the study of the “transition” process in Eurasia does not integrate the data coherently across a wide range of disciplines or at least not according to the dominant narrative of the replacement hypothesis and hence partially explains the reason for publishing their own paper in an attempt to salvage some credibility. Amongst the shortcomings of this mythical-like narrative are the key failures to;

Account for the reduction in brain size observed occurring during this period at a rate 37 times that of the previous encephalization,

Provide any evidence of a direct replacement of technology ,

Account for in-situ development from Mode 3 to 4,

Reconcile dates which do not accord with this model, (e.g. Mode 4 developing in some areas as early as 54,000 years ago and in others as late as 8,000 years ago)

Or likewise explain away the abundance of evidence for art, culture and technology that preceed and therefore do not accord with this model.

In case there is any doubt, Villa and Roebroeks have clarified that the wide acceptance of the genetic argument is largely on the basis of the botched work of Cann et al which was refuted soon after it was first published. Of course they fail to mention any of the major problems with the genetic model put forward. This “genetic evidence” was they claim, later supported by fossils which showed that African were “far more modern looking” than their Neanderthal counterparts.

Omo Kibish 1 and the Herto skulls are cited as evidence of this perceived but ill-defined “early modern human morphology” emerging in East Africa 195 kya.

The Omo Kibish fossils offer some modern features, but also substantially archaic ones too, especially Omo 2 which is very robust. The dating is insecure, the latter a surface find.

The Herto skull (BOU-VP-16/1) is outside the range of all recent humans in several cranial measurements and is essentially archaic also.

Whilst on the one hand it may seem reasonable to suggest that some characteristics of “modern human morphology” (whatever that may be) are visible in these fossils such a claim fails to address the more important and fundamental criticisms that these characteristics are juvenile ancestral traits, and conversely, also fails to account for supposedly “Neanderthal” traits persisting in present day humans. More specifically Villa and Roebroeks do not demonstrate any sharp morphological or genetic separation between the gracile Homo sapiens and the robust Neanderthals as is required to support the replacement hypothesis.

By implication recognising that archaeologists “began looking for modern behavioural markers” at African sites (to confirm their pre-established belief systems?) Villa and Roebroeks proceed to test the evidence of this exercise in confirmation bias within the boundaries of a framework that does not challenge the core hypothesis of the OOA replacement model as they openly acknowledge.

Transitional industries and indeed any evidence (such as in-situ development from Mode 3 to 4) which counters the underlying premise of this poorly defined and dated replacement is specifically avoided on the grounds that it does not support the hypothesis - this appears remarkable in a peer-reviewed journal such as PlosOne. Likewise Châtelperronian dating conflicting with this narrative is also rejected on the same basis. The full implications of taphonomic logic have not been considered and it appears that Roebroeks and Villa make the common mistake of assuming that the earliest evidence is evidence of the earliest occurrence whilst compounding their errors by referring to a very limited set of data concerning the aetiology of hominin behaviour.

The body of the work therefore is based on the futile task of disproving the claim that the relatively few “modern behavioural markers” perceived to exist in support of a qualitative cognitive difference exemplified in the elusive “anatomically modern humans” were valid when it was perfectly apparent all along to anyone studying the epistemology of Pleistocene archaeology and particularly Palaeoart that examples to the contrary abounded. With observations such as “no clear archaeological signature” the paper’s authors offer excuses referring to new data some of which is already more than twelve years old and of which represents only a fraction of the evidence which has refuted this claim for many more years such as seafaring in Wallacea, etc.

Tellingly they refer to the “impossible coincidence” that what they still perceive to be a period of stasis spanning 300,000 years and including the use of hafting, personal ornaments, etc., is described as “rather monotonous” (despite the broad range of the Neanderthal “repertoire” acknowledged) was apparently interrupted by the arrival of AMH of which they can provide no clear evidence either in the fossil, genetic, stone-tool or cultural record.

This paper has a narrow frame of reference which renders it largely redundant in the wider context of Pleistocene archaeology. In fact, it was refuted before it was published.

This blog first appeared on 03/05/2014