Most People seem to agree that we cannot and do not want to go back to the past, but the reason given is often wrong; that time has moved on and what was can never be again. The truth is that we cannot go back to what we never left. Our home is the earth, our time the Pleistocene Ice Ages. The past is the formula for our being.
(Paul Shepard)

Friday, 28 September 2012

Old Men of the Ice Age

Lake Mungo footprints
Mungo man was one of Australia's first inhabitants. His people had arrived on the continent via southern Asia some 50,000 years before present (perhaps more). Beyond his first Australian status he is of interest because of the state he was in when he died. His teeth were fairly worn from eating or processing gritty material, while his canines had been removed, perhaps symbolically. His right elbow suffered bad arthritis which the archaeologists put down to him using a spearthrower.
 "Atlatl elbow" is well known to any who have practised a bit too much or too enthusiastically. I noted that the Mesolithic man from Aveline's hole in Somerset also had pre-arthritis in his right arm which could have been to do with using spears though bows had been about for some time then. If mungo man did use a spearthrower  it would set the date of use back some tens of thousands of years. I have long wondered whether the use of hunting weapons would leave traces on the skeletons of ancient hunters which could determine the technology used. Medieval archers are distinguishable from regular medieval folk from their unusually developed shoulders. So far I have not noted any papers dealing with this subject though there is work on H. neanderthal. I would have thought that in North America with its long use of atlatl there might be enough of a sample size to yield meaningful results.
 Mungo man was about 50 at the age of death, again this is an estimate based on wear and tear,  he was also pretty short at about 170cm, I have dealt with the knotty question of age estimates and living populations before but my interest was piqued by a comment made on the "perfect health diet blog".
 Paul Jaminiet asked if there had been any prehistoric hunters who had lived beyond the age of fifty, Even using estimation techniques which may be inaccurate there was a culture of Paleolithic South Indians who boasted many members reaching their sixth and seventh decades.
 One of Europes earliest human sites is at Sungir near Moscow. The site features the magnificent burial of six individuals two men several children and a woman. The site is often cited as the first examples of hierarchy and inherited status. I will get back to these claims. The sungir folk were in pretty good condition living on open tundra we might expect them to be pretty meaty in their diet and the evidence seems to back this up "The relatively wide medullary canal together with macroskelia contributed to a sharp increase of bone marrow cavity. This kind of structure is responsible for the adaptation to such formative factors as hypoxia and high protein level in traditional diets" 
Though they were covered in worked ivory this cannot be taken as evidence of mammoth consumption as mammoth ivory could have been obtained by other means. The cultures of the Ukraine are thought to have utilised found mammoth rather than hunted and evidence for mammoth hunting is pretty slim from this period.Modern Siberians have traditionally used mammoth ivory for hundreds of years. Isotope analysis could provide confirmation of the diet of the Sungir people.  Roughly contemporary burials from Italy and Britain do show that marine animals were a substantial part of the diet though these would be presumably missing from the middle of Russia see this post for potential problems with marine mammoth signatures.

 The male from Sunghir 1 was over 60  when he died he was tall and broad, the children were also well formed. Many Gravettian burials are burials of exceptional people, people with bone problems or extreme physical developments positing some to think that only the special shamans etc were buried. 
 There are clear similarities between the burials throughout Europe in that mammoth ivory special and enigmatic "wands" and plenty of red ochre are used throughout, as is special clothing. There are also some shared symbolic elements.
 So rich are the burials at Sunghir that many think that they represent a "royal family" and demonstrate the first glimmer of hierarchy (and the inevitability of such) in modern H sapiens. The burial at sunghir was used by David Lewis Williams in his book 'Mind in the Cave'  as proof that heirachy is the inevitable state of human kind and indeed a powerful evolutionary advantage. The fact that there is precious little evidence of hierarchy anywhere else in the Paleolithic or indeed Mesolithic and very rare occurrences of hierarchy in extant or observed hunter gatherers I felt undermined (actually, refuted) his case. That he had then built part of a book on this assumption led to me finding it rather hard to read. 
 The sunghir burials are assumed to be wealthy because of the amount of ivory they wore and the time it would have taken to produce the bead work. It all sounds convincing but then that's because we are modern people who have virtually no free time and who take the greater part of each day to meet our basic needs.Many Hunter peoples produce exquisite works of art and indeed as wealth and status are relative I would argue that a context of "ordinary folk" is needed before we can start describing people as wealthy.
King bling
 For example the King (Raedwald) buried at Sutton Hoo in a ship and tons of fancy weapons and gold was buried in far more style than the average wealthy Saxon who was buried with some weapons and other effects and in far, far greater style than poor Saxons who were buried with few possessions. In addition the grave goods represent a range of highly specialised skills that could only be maintained by patronage from a non labouring class. Swords constituted massively skilled workmanship as did armour, gold and jewel work let alone ship building. While the bead work of the Sunghir burials represented a great deal of work in terms of time the technology was not beyond any individual of the society. 
 We view everything through a cultural lens, in a society that has had thousands of years of gross inequality, hierarchies and domination it can seem inconceivable that societies can exist without these features. The gravettian "prince" has no real claim to royalty he was simply named "the Prince" by the archaeologist who described him scientifically.
 There is a ubiquitous tool of uncertain purpose now know as the "baton perce" or pierced baton this is something of a new name as they were known as Baton de commandment until recently, the interpretation being that they were something akin to royal sceptres total speculation but the speculation that stuck. The author Larry Barham in his (very good) book on Cheddar man is continually writing of the search for markers of hierarchy among the Mesolithic graveyards, you often find what you are looking for. Special treatment in terms of more grave goods appears to have been afforded older members of the society but there is no evidence for a kind of "upper class".

 Despite protests from ugly thugs about "alpha males" or hard nosed "realists" about Rosseauian fantasies, "natural" or evolved hierarchy is quite hard to detect in human beings. Marlowe writes that the vagaries of hunting ensure equality in the Hadza while the !kung are famously "ferociously egalitarian". Egalitarianism like sharing and some other less frequently mentioned traits are rather unique among primates. The tribes of the Pacific North West are the most famous of the non-egalitarian hunters. They however live on extraordinarily productive salmon runs which gives them access to the essential ingredients for hierarchy, stored wealth and a sedentarism. To refute the idea that hierarchy is natural to human beings I need to provide examples of a human culture that does not appear to exhibit a hierarchical structure hint; there are loads and they are all hunter gatherers. I would also state that to my knowledge no hierarchy can exist without a stored surplus and sedentism. Now both the surplus and sedentism were potentially present in Scandinavia during the Mesolithic as was some pretty endemic violence but evidence of hierarchy is pretty thin. The rather impressive Gravettian burials could potentially be glimmerings of hierachy or evidence that people had enough free time and resources to dress exceptionally well. Without a context of "peasants" stored resources and, possibly, semi permanent dwellings it seems more parsimonious to believe the latter.
 Given that the Whitehall study and numerous primate studies show a pretty interesting link between hierachy and human health the lack of hierarchy among extant hunter gatherers and paucity of evidence for such in the paleolithic should be of interest to the ancestral health movement. Like war, grains and environmental degradation hierarchy really took off in the neolithic and I feel would it would be justified calling it a Neolithic agent of disease. 


Women and Children

 Sources on request 
A while back I wrote a largely unread post on a certain vegan doctors assertion that there is an overemphasis on meat in hunter gatherer diets due to cultural prejudices. It is interesting that there is the continual assertion from the vegetables that anthropologists are largely concerned with male activities and overly report on the level of animals consumed (no such criticisms are made about honey which is also largely gathered by men). Condemning the  work of an entire scientific field mostly because you don't agree with their finding is , when you think about it,  staggeringly rude, ignorant and even arrogant.

 I have not really noticed any sexist bias in any of the anthropological papers I have ever read and in general both anthropologists and archaeologists show the same cultural biases of their cultural background, in modern times this would be an aversion to sexism/racism, indeed in the archaeology of the paleolithic there does seem to be a conscious desire to distance the discipline form the commonly held beliefs of thuggish meaty cavemen. Given that dietary studies are based on weighed food stuffs and other objective measurements and that anthropology is subject to the same peer review as other scientific disciplines it is hard to see where this bias would either creep in, or not be undermined by the evidence gathered. That, and many anthropologists are women.
Agta woman hunting
 Anyhow if we accept that provision of food is the most important activity a human can be involved in (ie. we take our culture's overwhelming bias that economic activity is the most important activity) the anthropological data still shows that women's provision of calories contains a great deal from animal sources and that lazy,sexist assumptions about gender roles are not appropriate for most hunter gatherer societies.
 In my last post on this subject I mentioned that hunter gatherer women collect eggs, reptiles, invertebrates  small game and birds and will also drive non-human predators off their kills. Women and children also assist in fishing and shellfish collection. None of these sources of food are minor if gathered in quantity and at certain times of the year are major calorie sources. Stephenson and Marlowe both report that baby birds are eaten in prodigious quantities and are a favourite food source.
 Hadza children are famously self sufficient and can provide a large proportion of calories by themselves from an early age, both by hunting and gathering while the Kalahari San don't even start to learn either hunting or gathering until they are adults. Black Elk, the Lakota Sioux talked of both hunting and fishing as a child and the instruction he received. For children at least physicality seems to be a determiner in how much food can be obtained though at least some cultural factor determines if or when a child starts foraging.
 "Mother and Father gone out hunting and leave us kids in camp when we get hunting we go hunting for little lizard get him cook it and eat him up....Soon as mother leaves little ones go hunting, kill animals...morning again father one he go hunting. All little kids go hunting self...mother go separate from father come back with big mob of animals. (Mardu woman from Kukaja community).
Pygmy net hunter child
 The mardu are a great example of how every member of this Aborginal Australian community hunts. Children are undirected by adults and form creches looked after by teenagers, this is an arrangement common to many hunter gatherer societies. Hunting success is dependent on their physical development unlike in adults where it seems to be based on experience and the children average about 400 calories anhour. The Mikea who dwell in a game depleted forest in Madagascar the children can forage a slightly lower 345 calories an hour (males) but youths can manage a much higher rate. This is from predominantly from tubers but both the Mikea and Mardu can provide far more calories than the more opportunistic Hadza children at 85 calories an hour.

 For children, environment, food resources and culture (mardu youths are considered adults for example) seem to be the biggest determiners of foraging success for different cultures. It is hard to cast such information back in time and any discussion of childhood foraging in the meso/palaeolithic can only really be conjecture. The Mammoth steppe of Ice age Europe was analogous to the African Savannah and the big game hunting lifestyle of H sapiens (determined by archaeology and the average height of the population of which more in the future) would suggest a strategy similar to Plains Indians or the Hadza. Indeed the Gravettian "prince" from Italy had been killed by a big cat and there would be a real risk of predation in Europe at that time. The more temperate environment of the later Mesolithic might have afforded more foraging opportunities for children especially given the importance of nuts and shellfish in the North.The greater threat of violence in some areas may well have curtailed foraging activity as it does for Hadza women who have to watch for Masai raping parties.

 Grandparents help with child rearing in many hunter gatherer societies and childcare is a far more communal activity than in our culture. However nursing infants do restrict female foraging, hunting may need a larger amount of physical strength but I would imagine the distances involved in hunting and the relative high risk of the activity make it unsuitable for women with children. However the Agta women in the Philippines actively hunt animals and indeed do so while carrying nursing infants. Moreover in communal hunts such as bison drives women  could and indeed did play a major role. Steffanson describes Inuit women driving reindeer into ambush choke points, this method of hunting reindeer was used in Scandinavia and the Stellmoor site is interpreted as a mass reindeer ambush.
 Further back in the Paleolithic interpretations of H.neanderthal bones from the Combe Grenal site in France show no difference in the paleopathology of the bones or teeth suggesting that women joined in with the rough, tough neanderthal way of hunting. I know of at least two male bodies from prehistory which show hypertrophy and extreme wear of the right arm and it would be interesting to see if any division of labour could be determined through paleopathology.
Rather than a subjugation of women a division of labour resulting in higher maternal care would be beneficial to the species H.sapiens, especially in an environment where big game hunting is of prime importance, and may well give the species an "edge".
meet the wife!
 So we can see that from the anthropology and perhaps archaeology there exists good evidence of female and children "hunting". The notion that modern evolutionary diets are based on an outmoded concept of hunter gatherer life and that in reality hunter gatherers ate a predominantly plant based diet provided by women runs counter to the evidence that...all hunter gatherers eat a considerable amount of meat in many forms even foraging peoples who are essentially refugees (San) or live in areas with hard hunting. Women and children can provide a substantial amount of calories especially in tropical areas many of which are from animal sources.That even if the notion were true it would not validate a vegan or even vegetarian diet as omnivory is irrefutably the human niche and all traditional societies eat animals. Vegetarianism is only possible through agriculture and specific environmental conditions and veganism is very much a product of the industrial world.
  "Sexist" may apply to some people who eat a "paleo" diet however it cannot be applied to the theoretical framework of the diet and to do so shows a major misunderstanding of the available data.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Samara 2012

 I spent a fun weekend throwing spears at one of the "European championships of archery and spearthrowing". This is a year long round of competitions which are held at various sites across much of continental Europe. Samara is in the Somme valley and was a pretty easy trek over by the car tunnel. I have been to some events a few years ago and was glad to finally get back. Samara is a very impressive museum and visitor centre which hosts a great collection of artifacts from the acheulian to the roman periods. It played a role in Caesers' conquest of Gaul and is set in some pretty countryside. The staff of the centre did a fantastic job hosting the event and the food provided (18 Euros for the competition dinner and breakfast) was of a good standard. It has been a while since I have eaten any bread so having a breakfast of...bread was a little odd, fortunately the French aren't rude enough to insult people with margarine and I was able to slather it in butter.
 The competitions are held over two days with the first day being for archery and the second for spearthrowing. The rules about kit are a bit stricter than most and no plastic nocks or metal points are allowed. Given the lightness of most primitive materials this provides a good challenge for making ballistically sound arrows and darts. Not being particularly fussed about the archery Steve and I just attended the spearthrowing Sunday
 The course is based on 10 targets at ranges from 8-26 metres the course is shot three times  for a total of thirty shots. For archery the scores a quite high as the course is not amazingly taxing however some of the throws are more than challenging for a spearthrower.
I'm not refusing to kiss I just "forgot" it is the custom in France
 The course was split into two with the higher part of the park being set at various levels and it involved shots both up and down hill which took some getting used to. We shot the upper section three times and shot the lower section after a break.  The lower section was set in a very handsome park, the targets were more level though there was the obligatory water feature.
 Like many atlatl events, what seems easy on paper turns out to be deceptively hard. I felt like I really didn't throw very well particularly on the upper sections where I contrived to miss the furthest and closest targets every time. I pulled myself together for the lower section where we all started to throw better.
 In great weather we joined a very welcoming group of throwers who I think had come just for the spear section as we had or perhaps they had not camped. There is a great sense of community at these events and it is apparent that their is a great deal of real friendship among the participants which manages at the same time not to be exclusive. Events are pretty short in comparison to the UK and I wonder whether the chatting time and meals contribute to this.
 Being gentlemen Steve and I elected not to show bad form and win and contented ourselves with 2nd and 19th place, which we were both happy with.
 Thanks to all at Samara and to the friendly and welcoming throwers of the championship I very much hope that we will be able to attend more or the events. Thanks also to Steve for the driving and for the questionable French take on McDonalds at the tunnel terminal.
 In the UK we will be throwing the last ISAC of the season this October on the 7th. We are also going to try to put up a few target round the wood, tuition and equipment will be happily provided please contact me for more details.
(I will upload more photos soon)