Monthly Archives: November 2009

La Brea Woman: Image Controversy

La Brea Woman forensic reconstruction.

I came across this interesting article chronicling an emerging controversy in Los Angeles.  I never knew that human remains had been found in the La Brea tar pits, but a partial skeleton of a young female had been on display until recently in the George C. Page Museum there.  At some point, a museum  volunteer made forensic-style reconstructive drawings of this young woman.  Now the museum is trying to prevent their publication, a move which some claim is designed to help prevent their repatriation.

Are illustrations of human remains tantamount to display of the human remains themselves?  Is the display of a cast any different?  The forensic reconstructionist apparently used the cast, not the actual skull. But consider the process of making a cast: is not that a greater insult to the dead than merely handling their bones would be?  In any case, these forensic reconstructions contain a little too much interpretive latitude: consider the Kennewick man reconstruction whose resemblance to Patrick Stewart has done nothing to quell the notion Kennewick man was ‘Caucasian’. Further, the forensic reconstructions include disturbing “cutaways” revealing the reconstructive process and producing an otherworldly, inhuman appearance (see below).

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Seward Peninsula Mastodon Tusk – “too old”, therefore Too Old.

Worked 35,000 year old mammoth tusk from Alaska. Note scale! Source: Gelvin-Reymuller et al.

This is getting a little out of the area, but I’ve just run across a report by Gelvin-Reymuller et al.  (download PDF) on the finding of a worked mammoth tusk from the north side of the Seward Peninsula.  That is on the west-central Alaska coast near the closest approach to Asia, and hence smack in the middle of Beringia.  The tusk is interesting in its own right, of course, but doubly so when we see that it was dated to well before the last glacial maximum:

Though the age of the tusk is only peripherally relevant to the significance of the reduction described in this paper, the tusk was sampled for dating. A single bone collagen sample from the tusk was dated by Beta Analytic, Inc. following standard pretreatment and analytical procedures. A 5.2 g of sample was first removed from an inner area, well beneath a surficial treatment of Elmer’s Glue-All which the tusk’s discoverer had initially applied to the surface. The resultant AMS date was 35,150 +/- 530 BP (Beta-189092). …… The latest mammoth remains in mainland Alaska are dated to around 11,400 BP.   Since the age of this tusk places it beyond the range of initial human habitation in the New World, as currently understood, we posit that the tusk was worked by later inhabitants of the area.

The authors note that it is possible to diagnose from the reduction strategies used whether ivory was worked when fresh/green or when already subfossilized,  though curiously they draw no such conclusions about this particular piece.  I find it intriguing how a central Beringian artifact made on a 35,000 year old material is so readily characterized as a recent manufacture.  While this piece would pre-date the earliest known record of extreme NE Asia and while I wouldn’t second-guess the authors nor impugn their motives and while it is certainly possible that a fossil mammoth tusk was worked at a much later date, I’m, uh, just sayin’.   This paper is interesting on a number of levels, not least as an example of stickhandling around competing paradigms.

Detail of working method of Alaskan tusk. Source: Gelvin-Reymuller et al

Somenos Creek CRM

Diagonal exposure of apparent 2000 BP house at Somenos Creek.

I don’t know too much about the Somenos Creek development in the Cowichan Valley which is discussed in this column in the Times-Colonist:

The North Cowichan story goes back to 1972, when Schmidt was among the developers who bought 100 acres of farmland. About 300 homes eventually arose on what became Timbercrest Estates. Not developed was a six-acre piece where human remains were found in 1992, and where archeological investigations later turned up a feature — a hearth, perhaps, or a house foundation — dating back to the time of Christ.

The Cowichan Tribes think there’s more to be found, that it is important to preserve all six acres, perhaps use it for educational purposes, but Schmidt thinks a dozen houses can be built around the perimeter of the area of proven archeological significance. The natives’ hope now is that government will recognize the importance of the property and buy it, an idea they pitched to cabinet minister Kevin Krueger last week. His reaction? “It wasn’t negative, so I think that’s positive,” says Cowichan Tribes lands-research director Diane Hinkley.

Krueger says there isn’t money to buy such lands outright, but he wants to see what can be done to work things out.

For his part, Schmidt just wants to be done, one way or the other. Either the province or Ottawa buys the land, or he applies for a development permit. “I’m into it too deep to just let the land sit there.”

One of the researchers sent me a copy of the report, and there is a fairly compelling set of features unusual in (a) being inland (b) including an inland shell midden component and (c) including a large subsurface sub-rectangular, sharply defined feature which appears to be the remains of a house dating to ca. 2100 BP.  This makes the site of unusually high archaeological significance – not to mention there are numerous human burials (analysed in Doug Brown’s MA thesis) and extensive archaeological deposits of other kinds.  The house feature is remarkably similar to a contemporaneous feature I saw being excavated a few years back at Esquimalt Lagoon.  We know very little about houses from this period, particularly houses found in inland contexts.  What is striking about the newspaper column above is that it reports the developer has managed to put houses onto 94 of 100 acres, and is now champing at the bit to develop, or be compensated for, the last 6 acres.  I mean, seriously, George Schmidt of Timbercrest Estates, you have achieved 94% of the development you sought.  How about leaving the burial ground alone?  You bought the land in the 1970s.  Surely you have made your money back many many times over. A donation of this small parcel as a heritage park would be a classy move.

Somenos house? feature

Somenos feature - note sharpness of vertical section indicating probable use of plank retaining.

Mt. Rainier Archaeology

Some artifacts from Mt. Rainier. Source: Tacoma News-Tribune.

The Tacoma News-Tribune has a nice story about high-altitude archaeology on the flanks of Mt. Rainier.  Sites date back to over 9,500 cal.BP (presumably cal. BP, that is) and some include microblade technology.  If I read the article right, the microblade component dates to about 7600 years ago.  There is an older report on Mt. Rainier archaeology here by Greg Burtchard, but it seems this recent work is what has produced the older dates.  It’s also very intriguing to see ancient “cooking pits” including some that the authors suggest were continuously used for the full 9,600 years of occupation:

The site has also produced other ash evidence, coming from cooking pits.

“They’re small and not elaborate, but pretty clearly they were cooking with hot stones. But I don’t know what they were cooking,” Mierendorf said. “That implies more than just traveling through the area.

“These are repeatedly used, including one individual pit used and reused for all 9,600 years. I’ve never seen anything like that in 40 years of professional archaeology.”

It’s good to see work done in the higher elevations, and is reminiscent of Rudy Reimer‘s more theoretically-driven  work in the highlands of Squamish territory. It will be great to see if there is a full report put out soon so I can see the microblades and the cooking pits – if it is put on the web like the earlier report, so much the better!



I hereby challenge rockwash to go out and get one of these trowel tattoos.  Or be like Brad and get the coveted Ötzi tattoo.  Or check here for more science tattoo inspiration.  (Ötzi really did have tattoos, BTW).

Icey Dead People.

Paisley Cave Update

Paisley Cave human coprolite dating older than 14,000 cal BP. Source: PBS.

There is a tantalizing news item in a recent edition of Nature indicating that the team led by Dennis Jenkins has found a bone tool in the old layers at Paisley Cave in southern Oregon.  This cave already returned a number of pre-Clovis dates on human coprolites.  Although there was some vociferous opposition to this finding, a vigorous defence of these feces was mounted and to my mind was effective.  (Note that one of those claiming the human poop is actually camel poop posts a slightly hysterical online comment on this Nature news item.  This charge of excess fibre is dealt with in Gilbert et al’s 2009 rebuttal in Science, which is not mentioned in the Nature comment.  Clearly there is a new generation of data-selective Clovis Police being groomed out east.)

Anyway, this bone tool, which I assume will be published soon, is said in the Nature article to date to 14,230 cal. BP, from which I infer a 14C estimation of about 12,250 – exactly contempraneous with the poop.  According to the article,

The dating of the bone tool, and the finding that the sediments encasing it range from 11,930 to 14,480 years old, might put these questions to rest. “You couldn’t ask for better dated stratigraphy,” Jenkins told the Oregon meeting.

Seeing the tool itself will of course be very interesting and hopefully definitive, as there is a long history of bone pseudo-tools in North American archaeology.  So far this date has only been announced at an unspecified “meeting” and peer reviewed publication will be essential to form a final judgment.

You can watch a PBS news clip on the poop discovery from a link here which gives a good idea of the setting of the cave, and also includes nice footage of Luther Cressman!

Camel astragalus from Paisley Cave. Source: U of Oregon.


Dalton, Rex. 2009. Oldest American artefact unearthed: Oregon caves yield evidence of continent’s first inhabitants.  Nature: doi:10.1038/news.2009.1058.

Another snag for “Clovis First”

Mastodon! From: Science 20 November 2009

Abundant megafauna are important to the Clovis-First model of the peopling of the Americas because the mechanism for what was considered to be an exceptional event or series of events was overkill of these large, naive, critters .  Overkill led first to localized extirpations (moving the Clovis folks along on a bow-wave of blood) and ultimately to megafaunal extinctions across the hemisphere.

Sad, then, for that particular story and its storytellers, to see recently reported results in Science which track (through samples of dung fungus) a millenium-long decline in mastodon and other megafauna before the arrival of Clovis.  This decline might relate to climate change or to the influence of pre-Clovis humans – it’s too early to say.  But as the graph below shows, the decline set in pre-Clovis at about 14,800 cal B.P., and by the time of Clovis (ca. 13,500 cal B.P.), far from being hyperabundant, herbiferous megafauna seem to have been at a historically low level of population.  Vegetation change (often used to track climate) was a result of this die-back, not the cause of it.   Perhaps this remnant megafauna population was then finished off by Clovis, but that is hardly a bow-wave of blood scenario, but rather a “mopping up” of increasingly scarce game.  Has there ever been as misunderstood an archaeological concoction as the Clovis Culture?

Update: The Guardian has coverage, incongruously illustrated by the RBCM’s life-sized mammoth model.


Jacquelyn L. Gill, John W. Williams, Stephen T. Jackson, Katherine B. Lininger, Guy S. Robinson.

Pleistocene Megafaunal Collapse, Novel Plant Communities, and Enhanced Fire Regimes in North America.

Science 20 November 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5956, pp. 1100 – 1103

DOI: 10.1126/science.1179504

Pre-Clovis decline of large herbivores. Source: Science 20 November 2009

Pitt Rivers Museum Haida Collection on

Any idea what activity is being represented on this Haida argillite carving?

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is one of the world’s great ethnological museums.  Indeed, it is largely presented as a “museum of a museum”, with artifacts and curios displayed in glass cases in juxtapositions that made sense to anthropologists.  Now I see they are putting some of their collection online – one of many interesting innovations going on at that museum.  The Haida Collection which Cara Krmpotich has worked on consists of 200 really well composed and lit photos on the website.  Cara notes that she hopes making this material available in this manner will facilitate its use by Haida people and I expect they will (indeed one person with a Haida name has been commenting on some of the photos).  Coincidentally, I see there has recently been a Haida delegation to the Pitt-Rivers museum.

In any case, the flickr set is a fantastic set of images of Haida art and technology. It would be nice to have the full catalogue information or other information associated with these, or at least a statement that such information is lacking.  While there are visually spectacular items throughout the set, also check these plain spoons from SGang’gwaay, Tanu’uu and Masset,  this bird bone whistle, and this tidy little loop of twine.

Haida wooden labret at Pitt Rivers museum.

Vapourware: Journal of Northwest Archaeology

Looks like someone at SFU is about to launch a new archaeology journal focusing on archaeology of the Northwest.  (Presumably NW North America, but you never know when it comes to SFU).  The pages are formatted, but blank, except for the instructions to authors.  I hope this journal template turns into something real.

Argillite Beaver

Haida argillite pipe representing the SS Beaver. Photo: University of Aberdeen.

The SS Beaver was a prominent early side-wheel trading ship on the NW Coast.  Nice to see it memorialized by Haida argillite pipe in the Marischal Museum collection of the University of Aberdeen, along with some other exceptional Haida pipes.  Apparently donated to the museum by the former Captain of the SS Beaver, William Mitchell, this pipe sports a rotating side wheel carved from whale bone, a beaver figurehead, and someone peeking out of the cabin windows, perhaps Capt. Mitchell himself who probably commissioned this carving.  Some other close ups (in an awkward zoomable interface) are  available on the Scots and Aboriginal People in the Fur Trade site.  More on the SS Beaver here.

A figure looking out the window of the SS Beaver pipe.