The Four Stone Hearth #28

Thank you for reading this edition of the Four Stone Hearth. As most of you are aware, the Four Stone Hearth (4SH) is a bi-weekly blog carnival dedicated to anthropology, welcoming post submissions on all aspects of anthropology. The name is taken from the “four” major fields in anthropology: archaeology, cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and linguistics.

If you’re new to blogging, a carnival is an event much like a magazine in that it is usually a regular event that has a common theme and includes articles by many different authors. The difference being that this magazine has editors who take turns “hosting” the event and by publishing it on their own blog. That makes the host’s blog a hub to the articles. The benefit to the host and those that submit articles is increased web traffic and the opportunity to get your writing noticed by people who share their interests. If you would like to host an upcoming 4SH or if you’re interested in sending articles and posts please send an email to (hosting), or (article/post submission).

This week’s edition is below the fold, so please click the “Read More…” link and visit the authors of some of the best anthropology writing in the blogosphere!

-Carl Feagans

Cosmopolitan – Bringing Archaeology into Forensics

This is one of my favorite articles so far. Anatoly Venovcev, a 2nd year archaeology student in Canada, discusses an experiment directed by his professor in which archaeological technique is applied to forensic examination of a house fire, complete with pig carcasses! Everyone listed in the 4SH today wrote some good stuff, but I’m sorry, Anatoly wins this week’s Editor’s Choice Award. Did I mention he included pig carcasses?

Archaeozoology – Exploitation of Wild Mammals in South-west Ethiopia during the Holocene
Archaeozoo is the nom de blog of the author of this article, which is a very interesting read. The author compares and contrasts the biodiversity, particularly with regard to faunal populations of past and present-day Ethiopia and the Afar rift of Africa. Human activity truly can be inferred from examining faunal remains and this article reveals a few tidbits of information on how this is possible. – Nakalipithecus nakayamai, a Miocene Ape from Kenya
Kambiz discusses recent PNAS paper on the Nakalipithecus nakayamai, a Miocene Ape from Kenya, and goes into some detail regarding the dentition. Included in this article are photos of a mandible and upper canine of the Miocene ape. For any student of primate evolution or anyone interested in primate evolution, this article is a must.

Remote CentralProfessor Teuku Jacob – December 6, 1929 – October 17, 2007
Tim Jones highlights the career, achievements and, perhaps, the shortcomings of Professor Teuku Jacob, the most senior palaeoanthropologist in Indonesia who recently passed away. Jacob was recently criticized regarding the damage suffered to the Liang Bua 1 fossil set (Homo floresiensis, a.k.a. the hobbit), but, as Tim shares with us, Jacob was very influential and notable in paleoanthropology and Indonesia. Our condolences to the family and friends of Teuku Jacob.

Shared Symbolic StorageEvolutionary Metaphysics V
Michael writes that this is an article that should be of interest to anthropologists since it relates to the evolution of the human mind and language. It’s so rare that we get posts on linguistics that I dived right into this post almost as soon as it arrived in my inbox. I plan to read his other stuff as well, since linguistics is a field that I find fascinating.

Hot Cup of JoeRock Art Analysis
My own short post on rock art analysis. This was originally hosted at, but I think it got lost in the server change earlier this year, so I thought I might give it new life.

The posts above were submitted directly by the authors, and I thank them, as I’m sure you do. But this isn’t the limits of anthropological writing in the blogosphere. There are hundreds of blogs that deal with some form of anthropology or another, so I took the liberty of piecing together a list of articles available, most of them from authors we all know and love already, but, hopefully, there will be some new blogs you can add to your own personal list. If you’re like me, your feeds are out of control, but I try to read them all! For those blogs included below that normally contribute regularly to 4SH but didn’t get around to it, we understand! It’s the holidays… your busy! (Note, if I included anyone that would rather not be listed, please send me an email or leave a comment and I’ll remove your post. Maybe).

Thank you, Tim, for providing links to most of these!

The rest:

Aardvarchaeology – Anders Söderberg on Sigtuna Metalworking

A Very Remote Period Indeed – The modern Stone Age family Archaeology – New Dating Technique Tested at Lene Hara Cave

Afarensis – Dover Comes to PBS – The AAA decides to oppose HTS Anthropology and More on the AAA’s decision to oppose the HTS

Antiquarian’s Attic – Two Brothers

Bad Archaeology – Modern Ruins

BLDG Blog – Inside The Vault

Centauri Dreams – A Technological Civilization by Night

Dieneke’s Anthropology Blog – How humans became warlike altruists

Exploring Our Matrix – The Atheist Contribution to World Civilization

Greg Laden’s Blog – Modern Humans and Neanderthals: Did they “do it?”

Hominin Dental Anthropology – New Kenyan fossil at 10 Ma

John Hawks – An interview with Mica Glantz

NorthState Science – Exploring Our Matrix – And Why Intelligent Design Forced Me To Leave The Church

Old Dirt, New Thoughts – A Cold End to the Church Dig

Savage Minds – Family Affair, II: “traditional” families and child abuse

Writer’s Daily Grind – Cavemen, the TV show

Yann Klimentides – Recent revisions regarding how the genome works

Remote Central – 7,000-Year-Old Cave Paintings Found Near Chichen Itza


Rock Art Analysis

Rock art analysis has received a bad rap in archaeology over the years, but in the last decade or so, some advances have been made to begin changing that. It’s easy to see why many archaeologists might have a hard time with rock art in general: rock art is near impossible to accurately date and its artistic nature makes interpretation very subjective. Is the image a symbol for an idea or concept that is consistent from site to site and even cross-culturally, or is it merely the artistic expression of the individual who created it? Does the scene depicted in a rock art panel represent a real event, a myth or story, or is it just the daily musings of an artistically inclined hunter-gatherer?

Despite past marginalization of rock art analysis, the glyphs and images painted, etched and carved are artifacts of the past. They’re material remains of an ancient culture and, in some cases, are all that remain to speak for that culture. Luckily, new techniques and standards are being developed to overcome the marginalization of rock art and look at it with an objective and scientific eye.

Among the chief concerns of archaeologists in examining a rock art site is dating. When were the images on the rock created? Where they created at once? Were there earlier registers with later ones added in stages? Was maintenance done over the millennia on one or more registers? If one register was maintained by re-applying pigment, and not others, why is this so?

There are a few different relative dating techniques that can apply to rock art: examining how one motif overlays another; dating intrusions like water stains; dating artifacts found in the vicinity; and so on. But these only give relative dates to each other and no absolute date from which to begin. There are, however, a few techniques that are being developed that can absolutely date rock art.

Rock Varnish Dating

Microbes on the rock surface capture fine particles of dust that build up laminations in a micro-stratagraphic sequence. From this, several methods can be used to derive an age of the varnish and, thus, the earliest possible age for the glyph. The first involves measuring the cation-ion ratio. The chemistry of the rock varnish is examined at the microscopic level to determine the rate at which major trace elements like potassium and calcium are leached out compared with other elements like titanium. While not the most precise of dating methods, CR dating does compare very well to dating a site based projectile point and ceramic styles.

A second technique involving rock varnish is VML (varnish miscrolamination). This technique looks at rock varnish layers in a way similar to dendrochronology in that it depends on the consistent application of varnish layers over time with exception to significant climatic interruptions. And, it is these climatic interruptions that are depended upon to create visible markers in the layered sequence since they result in micro-stratigraphic layers that are rich or poor in manganese for wet and dry conditions respectively. There appears to be good use for such techniques in samples with ages over 10,000 years.

A third method involves accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS) radio-carbon dating of organic matter that can become trapped in small crevices and cracks. Like each of the rock varnish techniques, AMS depends on the fact that the varnishing of the rock surface occur after the glyph has been etched. The AMS method can also be used on pictographs, however, if the pictograph was painted with a charcoal-based paint or one created with an organic binder like blood or saliva, assuming that he organic compounds can be extracted. Pictographs can also be dated using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) of wasp or swallow nests since the period in which the quartz granules contained in the nest matrix have been deprived of sunlight, all the while building up luminescence, can be determined. Such a technique doesn’t tell when the pictograph was painted, of course, but it can tell at least how long it’s been present.

The subject of rock art analysis is one that is fascinating and it’s a topic that I, for one, intend to follow more closely. One of my primary interests in archaeology is that of ancient religions and beliefs and, for the pre-literate, pre-pottery societies artistic representation on rock surfaces is among the only material remains these societies have left behind. Indeed, being pre-literate in no way implies that these people did not have stories to tell and a desire to share them with subsequent generations. If one assumes that these people were aware that oral traditions naturally suffer from accident omission, forgetfulness, and exaggeration, wouldn’t it follow that they would want some sort of framework from which subsequent story-tellers can flesh out the tale? Tales of origins, tales of tricksters, tales that answer the why and how questions that burn in all of us. Are we so different today with our blogs and our YouTube and countless other means of recording our histories and the things that we find significant in our attempts to answer the questions of why and how?

The following is a bibliography that I hope others may find useful. Much of the above was derived from it, but I’ll include a few sources I have yet to read but are on my list.

Further Reading:

Dorn, Ronald I; Jull, A.J.T.; Donahue, D.J..; Linick, T.W.; Toolin, L.J. (1989). Accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating of rock varnish. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 101, 1363-1372.

Dorn, Ronald I.; Whitley, D.S. (1983) Cation-ratio dating of petroglyphs from the Western United States, North America. Nature, 302, 816-818.

____ (1984). Chronometric and Relative Age Determination of Petroglyphs in the Western United States. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 74, 308-322.

Liu, Tanzhuo; Dorn, R.I. (1996). Understanding spatial variability in environmental changes in drylands with rock varnish microlaminations. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 86, 187-212.

Liu, Tanzhuo; Broecker, W.S. (2000). How fast does rock varnish grow? Geology, 28, 183-186.

Liu, Tanzhuo; Broecker, W.S.; Bell, J.W.; Mandeville, C.W. (2000). Terminal Pleistocene wet event recorded in rock varnish from the Las Vegas Valley, southern Nevada. Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, Paleoecology, 161, 423-433.

Valledas, H.; et al (1992). Direct Radiocarbon Dates for the Prehistoric Paintings at the Altamira, El Castillo and Niaux Caves. Nature, 357, 68-70.

Call for Submissions: Four Stone Hearth

The next edition of the Four Stone Hearth will be hosted here on 11/21/07 –that’s Wednesday!

Think about it: lots of folks will be off for Thanksgiving… sitting around… reading blogs on the computer since they’re not at work. Get that exposure for your blog this week! Send your latest anthropology writing to me at cfeagans AT gmail DOT com.

So far, I have 2 submissions! The latest is in linguistic anthropology. Send articles, posts, and blog entries related to archaeology, cultural anthropology, physical/medical anthropology, and linguistics. If I don’t get anything, I’ll browse the anthro-blogs and find something, so if you see an article of your listed and you’d rather it isn’t, send me an email or leave a comment and I’ll remove it.

Carnival Time!

The 27th edition of the Four Stone Hearth is up at Sorting Out Science. Sam Wise has done a great job presenting some of the best in anthropological blogging in the last week or two.

I’ll be hosting this carnival here in a fortnight, so if you have posts you’d like to suggest from your own blog or others, email them to me at cfeagans -AT- gmail -DOT- com.

In the meantime, visit Sam and check out the other anthro blogs linked in the FSH this week.

If you’re interested in hosting a Four Stone Hearth blog carnival on your blog, send an email to Martin Rundkvist through Submissions for upcoming FSH’s can be sent to and they’ll be redirected to the host.

The "Number One on Google" Meme

By way of Northstate Science, who saw it first at Pharyngula, and apparently originated from World’s Fair about 2 weeks ago (I’m behind on my blogging…), comes a meme with “the premise that you will attempt to find 5 statements, which if you were to type into google, you’ll find that you are returned with your blog as the number one hit.”

Here is my five:

  1. Hot Cup of Joe
  2. Kevin Trudeau Pseudoscience
  3. Chariots Egyptian Abydos
  4. Howler Monkey Vocalizations
  5. Pseudo-Archaeology Bosnian Pyramid

Cavemen Liked Big Butts and They Cannot Lie

Acouple of online editions of U.K. newspapers reported the recent finds of 30 carvings recovered at an archaeological site in Poland, dating to about 15,000 years ago. Most anthropologists and archaeologists would probably be immediately familiar with the Venus Figurine motif, but the recent media report was been picked up by a few blogs, each appealing to the title gag.

(Note: This post originally appeared on in March 2007 and I was considering a follow up post linking to it, but couldn’t find it in the archives. I think a few posts were lost Kambiz’s server move. I’m reposting it here and using it for my Four Stone Hearth entry this fortnight with more (hopefully) on the Venus Figure motif in the future.)

Venus Figurines of the Paleolithic and Their Caricatured Features

Admittedly, the gag is funny, but looking deeper at the Venus Figurines reveals an interesting and fascinating motif and one that, amazingly enough, spans large geographic and chronological ranges. The distinctive motif has been found from Spain and France to Russia and back down to Anatolia and Mesopotamia (Turkey and Iran/Iraq). They date to as far back as 24,000 years and as recent as the Bronze Age, perhaps about 5,000 years ago.

Venus of Willendorf
The motif itself includes several prominent and relatively consistent features. In almost all cases the figure is obese, often very obese. Voluptuous breasts and thighs, and an overall curvaceous appearance are features present almost without fail. Other frequently occurring characteristics include the presence of unusually small arms and legs, prominent buttocks, the lack of feet, and obvious vaginal features like a pronounced vulva. Regional features are also notable: the Venus of Willendorf, perhaps the most recognizable Venus Figurine, appears to be wearing a hat or headdress. The goddess figurines of Çatalhöyük are depicted seated in a throne flanked by felines with her hands resting on their heads. She’s also presented as giving birth and James Mellart, who excavated Çatalhöyük in the 1950s, interpreted the shrine where such a figurine was discovered to be a birthing place. A goddess seated between two felines was also found in a Çatalhöyük granary, suggesting that fertility may, indeed, be a theme there.

But did cavemen prefer big butts? The recent media reports about the Polish Venus carvings note that historians attribute this reverence for curves and voluptuousness as attributes that were considered to be ideal for prehistoric societies since they implied wealth and healthy diet.

They also suggested she would be a successful mother, able to produce lots of children and sent out a message to other men that her partner was a strong and successful hunter – making him more attractive to other women.

But this is the Venus Figurine simplified. The fact is, any speculation on what the figurines really meant is, well, speculation. It’s a fact that they span many societies and still have a relatively common appearance. It’s a fact that they greatly out-number male figurines. It’s a fact that the earliest figurines accurately represented what a fat woman looks like, so there must have been fat women from whom the craftsman / artist derived inspiration. It’s a fact that the earliest figurines included details like vulva. And it’s a fact that some features were prominent (breasts, stomachs, buttocks, vulva) and detailed while others were not (feet, arms, face). It’s a fact that red ochre has been found in association with some of the figurines.

When these facts are considered, it becomes clear that the artist spent some time on the details that he wanted to be noticed and diminished the details that were insignificant. The Venus of Willendorf, for instance had a hat: a very detailed and complex representation of a woven textile that must have involved much of the artist’s time. Seven concentric rows that circle a rosette comprise the headgear and dimples, folds and rolls of adipose were carefully crafted. Yet, the artist omitted a face and feet. Could this mean she’s an anonymous representation of the “perfect” woman for the sophisticated hunter-gatherer? Or could it have been a way of representing a generic mother goddess? The pronounced vulva and red ochre that the Willendorf figure was painted in may have, together, been reminiscent of menstruation and thus fertility. Certainly a prehistoric woman with large stores of fat would be better equipped to nourish children and a caricatured, obese representation might have been used to refer to the mother goddess who nourishes all life. Her lack of feet (they weren’t broken off –they were never added) may have been intentional, affording the goddess figurine no way to depart from her assigned station (a birthing shrine or granary); or, maybe, the artist simply wasn’t good at feet and didn’t find them important. Without feet, the figurine couldn’t have been stood up nor would it sit or lie in any manner that appeared natural or intended. But it could be held and the person holding it would feel the curves and the shape of the figure.

Originally, the Venus Figurine was named “Venus” as a joke. A pejorative meant to demean the “uncivilized” and “primitive” opinion of beauty that the “caveman” obviously had. The irony isn’t lost, however, if the figurine motif is, indeed, a goddess. Venus was, of course, the Roman goddess of beauty and love, an analog of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, and consistently depicted in the nude. The Roman/Greek version, however, is more in line with the modern (or, at least, Western) idea of beautiful, sensual, and sexually attractive with her thin form and ample, but not pendulous, breasts. Nor was her pubic region depicted as more than a mere space, absent of vulva, vaginal lips, and the details present in her more ancient predecessor.

There is much more that can be written on the Venus Figurine, so perhaps I’ll revisit this subject again in the future. But I’ll close with the following thought: the most convincing evidence to me that the Venus of Willendorf (and, therefore, probably most of the Venus figurines) was a goddess and not a representation of an actual person is the hat and lack of face. Traditionally, representations of elites (kings, queens, nobility, and gods) include headgear. That the face was omitted might signify that there was more anonymity involved than a female ruler, shaman, oracle, or other elite. Certainly the reverence for feminine attributes might indicate matriarchal societies existed, or at least a much less patriarchal one than more recent human cultures are guilty of.

Further Reading:

Evans, Martin (2007). Why cavemen liked curvy cavewomen … like Kylie. Daily Express, Tuesday, March 13, 2007.

Soffer, Olga; Adovasio, J.M.; Hyland, D.C. (2000). The “Venus” Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic, Current Anthropology 41, pp. 511-537.

Tutankahmen on Display – the Anniversary of the Discovery of his Tomb

Gold—everywhere the glint of gold! These were the words of Howard Carter as he recalled first seeing the antechamber of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb as he flicked his flashlight back and forth. Revealed to Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon were effigies of Tutankhamen himself, falcon-headed figures, a golden throne, overturned chariots, a gilded snake, and other treasures. It must have been a terrific sight -one that most archaeologists never come close to seeing as they meticulously dust and scrap matrix away from broken potsherds and dull-by-comparison hearths. And today, November 4, marks the anniversary of Carter and Carnarvon’s discovery of Tutahnkamen’s tomb, perhaps the single most celebrated pharaoh of ancient Egypt.

And this week, archaeologists removed Tutankhamen’s mummy from its sarcophagus, placing it on display in a climate controlled display case. According to the BBC, “only about 50 living people have seen the face of the boy king, who died more than 3,000 years ago” until the display that took place today. Part of the reason for the new venue is due to the heat and humidity introduced into his tomb each year by tourists. But I’m sure another consideration is revenue:

“The golden boy has magic and mystery and therefore every person all over the world will see what Egypt is doing to preserve the golden boy, and all of them I am sure will come to see the golden boy,” Egypt’s antiquities chief Zahi Hawass told reporters before the body was moved.

Howard Carter and his team (Lord Carnarnvon died a few weeks after the tomb was opened from an infection brought on by a mosquito bite, giving rise to the “curse” myth) set a standard for meticulous excavation of the tomb. It took him nearly a full decade to photograph and record all the details of Tutankhamen’s tomb which contained 5,398 items! This, in spite of the fact that thieves made off with at least 60 percent of the original jewelry based on calculations made from comparing the 200 or so pieces that remained with packing inventories. Most of these that remained were actually in Tut’s sarcophagus and wrapped in his linens.

The mummy itself didn’t fare so well by today’s standards of excavation, however. While removing the treasures, Carter dismembered Tutankhamen and “used hot knives and wires to remove the gold mask which was fused to Tutankhamen’s face by the embalming process.”

Tutankhamen was actually laid out in the sun so the heat would soften the resin and allow the team to remove the wrappings and the artifacts.