Thursday, 11 November 2010

Mary Stiner Lecture: Cave Bears and Neanderthals

Mary Stiner and Steven Kuhn, both from the University of Arizona, are visiting professors at the UCL Institute of Archaeology through UCL's Leverhulme visiting professor scheme, and they are conducting a series of lectures about their research on Palaeolithic Archaeology over the next few months. 

On a Monday evening, Mary gave her second talk on Cave Bears and Neanderthals.  Her first, on cooperative hunting and meat sharing in the late lower palaeolithic, I had to miss due to work- but I was luckily able to make the second one (I also missed Steven Kuhn's first lecture, on ornamentation as information technology, but I try not to think about it as I really wanted to see that one!).  I will try my best to attend more of the public lectures Mary Stiner and Steven Kuhn and report on them here, when I can get away from my desk.

Mary introduced her topic with how cave bears are often depicted in conflict with prehistoric humans, as they were both users of caves.  She said there was a grain of truth in this, as they overlap both in time and space in Europe.

The cave bear was the largest bear of all time- even slightly bigger than the Kodiak bear, although even more robust.  The Kodiak bear, however, has a different morphology and habits.  It can climb trees when young, and is built for strength not speed.  The cave bear, which was probably much more slow and lumbering, with an absolutely massive cranium, lived on a seasonal veggie diet, and therefore hibernated in the winter.

Mary discussed the proposed cave bear cult briefly.  The type site for this is at Drachenlock, in the Swiss Alps.  There a cave bear skull was found with a femur (?) stuck through the zygomatic arch.  It looks at first glance very indicative of some sort of symbolic placement.  This and other sites, Mary said, have been increasingly embellished over time.

It makes sense to consider the odd placement of cave bear bones as being related to human ritual- bears are revered ethnographically by pretty much every human group that lives near them (I immediately thought of Native groups of the Pacific Northwest where I am from, as well as the Ainu of Japan who have a really interesting bear festival called Iomante- and for anyone who has read or seen the movie Clan of the Cave Bear, it will seem quite familiar!).  Associations between humans and bears in the archaeological record have been located in three circumstances in the archaeological record:
  • Cave art (ex. Chauvet cave- note, these paintings are made after Neanderthal occupation of Europe)
  • Bear remains in human middens (someitmes cutmarked or burned)
  • Bone accumulations (of mostly bear bones) with stone tools also present
Mary then went on to discuss in more detail a site in Yaraimburgaz Cave, Turkey.  It is a large cave abundant with cave bear bones in stratigraphic association with stone artefacts.  One part of the cave had actually been used as a Byzantine church.

The layers were dated by ESR (Electronic Spin Resonance) to 211-226 ka BP, which was during a cold interval within MIS 7.

The bones were scattered, some broken and some whole.  Most of the bones were not articulated other than the odd paw.  93% of the bones belonged to one type of cave bear.  There was also a very diverse range of other species present, and there was no burning and few (possibly 2) cut marks, if any, on the bones (not cave bear bones).

The lithics associated with it were not Mousterian, and were primative looking.  There were 1674 in all, of which 602 had been retouched.

Mary's question was, then, "why do the bear bones and the artefacts co-occur"?  She considered that:
  • Bears are sensitive about their locations when they hibernate, and keep food debris away rom the cave as it betrays their location to predators (also, interestingly, when a bear is hibernating it becomes odourless because its metabolism drops so low and it manages to reuse its own waste)
  • The mortality rate is high near the end of hibernation because of starvation
  • Skeletons are often moved around by other bears, and they can acumulate along with the slow sedimentation of the cave.
Mary looked at the mortality pattern in the cave.  Many bears were juveniles and old age adults, while prime age skeletons were comparatively rare.  There was also a relatively complete body part representation (although it was scattered). 

There was extensive gnawing on the bones, especially toe bones, which alludes to low traffic in the cave over a very long period of time.  There was a lot of gnawing from wolves, and wolf scat.

Mary also  looked at the % of bones gnawed with the % where marrow was accessed in a Pearson correlation matrix which I will not be able to comment on!  But there were some lovely charts and the interpretation that the lithics showed little relationship to the other remains.

Her final interpretation was that the cave represents a "palimsest of disparate events".  Bears used the cave for hibernation, and there was heavy use over generations with long quiet intervals in between.  Hominids and other carnivores only visited the cave briefly.

Because of the high proportion of retouched tools (which implies high mobility), few tool marks on the bones, no evidence of fire, no carcass processing, she interpreted that people were stopping at the cave, but not staying.

Next week (15 November) Mary will be speaking on the division of labour and diet diversification in the Mediterranean Palaeolithic.  I'll try my best to catch it!

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