British Archaeology, no 10, December 1995: Letters

Apes and humans

From Mr Philip Kiberd

Sir: I was very interested to read your feature on primate tool-use (`From modern apes to human origins', October), having several moons ago examined the subject for my undergraduate dissertation.

I fail to see any evidence that artefacts in the archaeological record may be those of apes or monkeys. It is likely that many of the early tools may have been made by Australopithecines, as well as by the Homo lineage. Paranthropus robustus may have used tools to obtain roots and tubers, and recent work by Randy Susman also suggests this hominid may be the maker of the stone tools found at Sterkfontein - a possibility I hinted at in my 1988 dissertation. I also believe Paranthropus bosei was a tool-user, as Louis Leakey originally suggested.

It is unlikely that apes made stone tools in the distant past. The tools used by chimps in the forests of Liberia and the Ivory Coast are of a recognisable type, usually a pounding stone. We don't know how long chimps have been using stone tools to open nuts, but it is possible they began as a result of humans doing the same. Some of the earliest observations were of chimps re-using stones and anvils left by humans. Moreover, the form of the tools that chimps use in the wild and in captivity is quite specific and unlike any of the stone tools found in the archaeological record.

The tool-use and tool-making of capuchins may be no more significant than that of other non-ape tool-users. Many animals have been regularly observed to use tools, including sea-otters, elephants, Egyptian vultures, bears, and Galapagos finches. All this tells us is that the level of intelligence needed to use external objects to perform tasks is not necessarily high.

The point was raised that tool-use and tool-making goes through an evolutionary process of materials, from plants to stone - a somewhat 19th century perspective. Rather than using woody material first and then stones, the most suitable material for the job at hand would have been selected. The mental and physical manipulation of an object is more significant, in any case, than the material used. A tool constructed out of several twigs fixed together is as complex as a stone with its corners knocked off. Even so, complexity is not always a guide to intelligence; and a simple tool that works may be all that is needed.

As for bonobos, love, and human origins, much as I admire the work of primate researchers, I cannot but feel that models for past hominid societies sometimes reflect more the political concerns of modern man than those of past savannah dwellers. Is it a coincidence that in an increasingly violent world, the models that come to the fore are those of a far-distant peace-loving ape-people in which females (not males) get down to a bit of cuddling when they fall out? Yet in my experience, bonobo-like use of non- reproductive sex in human society tends to be the cause of tension, rather than defusing it. And if bonobos are a viable model for our earliest ancestors, then either someone got fed up with all the loving and peace, or something else went drastically awry. Perhaps it was just too good way back then.

Yours faithfully,
Field Officer
Tempvs Reparatvm
25 October

Past vegetarians

From Mr Rick Toomey

Sir: I write with reference to your news item on the discovery of possible Mesolithic enforced vegetarians (`Mesolithic food industry on Colonsay', June), which has since been picked up by the magazine The Vegetarian.

The first problem with the interpretation is that the lack of bone on the site may be the result not of prehistoric human behaviour, but of taphonomic processes. Bone frequently does not preserve well, or at all, in open-air sites. Is there any reason why bone should preserve well in this particular case?

There are many sites that do not have plant remains, but do have bone. Are these evidence of cultures that do not use plant products? They certainly have not been interpreted as such.

Another important question is about the nature of the site. Is the site some sort of `special use' site that does not represent the general lifestyle of the people? Or is the site a seasonal occupation site that doesn't represent the diet of the full year? A 9,000-year-old vegetarian culture is not impossible, but before we can accept the idea fully, we need a more complete analysis of the site.

Yours faithfully,
Illinois State Museum
Urbana, USA
10 October

On not reading

From Ms Cherry Lavell

Sir: Mike Heyworth's plea (`Why are archaeologists not reading?', October) clutched an icy hand at my memory cells, because in the many years when I was editing British Archaeological Abstracts I wrote similar despairing pieces myself.

The first was in 1981, followed by two more in 1984 (one of those being entitled `Why don't you want to know?' when I showed how important papers were being missed). A sharp aside on the same theme appeared in DV Clarke's Beatrice de Cardi lecture for 1983. And those were in the heady days when there were 600 subscriptions, compared to half that number now!

I used to think it would take a generation for archaeologists to accept abstracts as an essential part of life, the way scientists do. Well, a generation has gone by since we started issuing them. What about it, people?

Yours faithfully,
London NW1
12 October

From Mr Ian Haydock

Sir: As an example of that rare combination, the librarian/archaeologist, I wish to add to Mike Heyworth's comments on the British Archaeological Bibliography. At library school I was taught, and further experience has underlined, that any discipline worthy of calling itself such has some kind of indexing or abstracting service. The volume of literature in most areas is such that no practitioner could hope to read everything, and these services exist to organise material so that the user can find what he/she is looking for.

So why are we not using BAB? If we don't know what our colleagues are doing, and what evidence they are producing, do we not run the risk of reinventing the wheel constantly with countless small variations, and not progressing to link two wheels together on an axle?

Digging is without value if it is not written up. It is still without value if we don't know the existence of the written text.

Yours faithfully,
Library Systems Officer
University of Birmingham
23 October

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