Roots. Africa and Asia in the Middle Pleistocene. Edited by L. Barham
and K. Robson-Brown
This volume is a result of a conference that was held at Bristol University in April 2000 to explore the current state of research into human evolution from an African and Asian perspective. The volume, paralleling the focus of the conference nails its colours to its mast early on. It reflects the research interests of the principle academics in CHERUB (Centre for Human Evolutionary Research at the University of Bristol), namely Lawrence Barham (Africa) and Kate Robson-Brown (Asia). The conference launched CHERUB, and this book is a fitting tribute to the success of both. The narrow geographical focus of its contributors was shadowed by a strong representation of 'Out of Africanists', the contributions to the volume therefore assume a recent origin for Modern Humans. In retrospect a few European papers would not have gone amiss, nor detracted from the interest of the volume. I am sure that Mark Robert's lecture on European Palaeolithic delivered one evening in Bristol Zoo would have added a further element of comparative interest (although what more long term residents must have made of his hunting hypotheses is anybody's guess). Another agenda lurks close to the surface. The editors are at pains to point out that the last major international conference on the Middle Pleistocene was the 1973 Burg-Wartenstein (Austria) meeting that launched the volume After the Australopithecines. The picture of the Middle Pleistocene world painted then is very different from that in these pages. The volume does not contain contributions by all the speakers, which is a shame as a number of intriguing papers are alluded to. Never mind, what is there is good. What is there is plank laid across the Middle Pleistocene of Africa and Asia.
The lay out of the volume has a pleasing logic and makes the journey from west to east easier for a dispersing armchair hominin to conceptualise - apart from a curious U turn at the end back to the Indian subcontinent.. Four chapters introduce the reader to the big picture. Professor Deacon takes the first steps and describes the impact of the 1973 conference and its 'sensible temporal benchmarks', lending the suggestion that much of 1973, reflecting the interests and knowledge base of the time, was about climate, culture, and chronology. The contributions in the present volume reflects a continued processualist underpinning to Middle Pleistocene studies, and these three themes are still very much in evidence. But the sophistication of supporting theory brought to bare is very different now. This is shown in Potts, Lahr and Foley, and Schwarcz's papers. Whether you agree with every aspect of them or not, these authors present models to explore the relationship between extinct humans and their physical environments both in Africa and during dispersal into Eurasia. These are stimulating papers. Schwarcz also alludes to the Antlantis of dating - the skinflint method, where by knapped stone could be directly dated. I'm tempted to say dream on - but what a dream.
The next three papers deal with the archaeological records from Middle Pleistocene Africa; Deacon and Wurz on South Africa, Barham on Central Africa and McBrearty on East Africa. These authors show just how much has changed since the early 1970s. McBrearty and Barham both describe a number of features in the sites they discuss that would have raised more than an eye brow in 1973. In the Twin Rivers sites there are backed pieces, including segments dated to Lupemban contexts between 275 and 170 ka; at Kapthurin points are possibly beginning to appear in the record at about 500 ka, with blades, many bipolar, being produced between 500 and 300 ka. Such residues of so called modern behaviour in MSA and even ESA contexts would have been considered unlikely by many of the Burg-Wartenstein delegates. Many of these authors ask us to question the compartmentalised views that slot behaviour, our ability to associate it to the residues of action, and traditional frameworks together. They make a persuasive case.
I was disappointed there was no separate chapter on the North African evidence, although it is woven into one of the succeeding three contributions. These papers by Hublin, Rightmire, and Brown, concentrate mostly on the skeletal evidence; Hublin focuses on the North African record, while Rightmire explores the relationships between the African and Asian Middle Pleistocene hominins. Brown's contribution is a well measured piece casting considerable doubt on the presence of hominins before a million years ago in China. Brown rightly airs the doubts concerning three of the major early hominin sites, Yuanmou, Longgupo - which initiated a brief Out of Asia debate - and Gongwangling. (I was particularly interested in his dismissal of Longgupo Cave. I remember viewing with great scepticism the stone tool illustrations accompanying the original Nature article - which even by the execrable standard of artefact drawings in that normally august journal - looked very dodgy indeed.)
The next set of papers walk us through the complex archaeological record of China and South East Asia Youping explores the incidents of early settlement in the Yangtze River Basin, Keates condenses an amazing amount of information on the archaeology of key Chinese Middle Pleistocene sites (and inadvertently demonstrates some of the differences in the historical outlooks of geographically distinct archaeological traditions, her figure 12.8a, a large 'point' from Dingcun, would in many African excavations have been classified as a minimally worked handaxe on a big (>20 cms) side struck flake), and Robson-Brown sets the palaeo-climatic record of mainland South East Asia against the sparse to non-existent Pleistocene record in this area. She highlights what an untapped potential this region is and briefly describes some truly innovative modelling work to predict areas wherein there may be higher possibilities of discovering fossils. An interesting adjunct to these Asian papers was a lecture, not included in this volume, by Potts. He described recent discoveries in the Bose Valley (now published in Science) of bifaces dated to about 800 ka. This is remarkably in accord with a < 1.0 mya age for hominin entry into China and South East Asia, particularly given some of the doubts expressed about early dates from Java.
The final set of papers follow a southern and then a westerly route as we hike across to Australasia and then backtrack to the Indian subcontinent. Storm contextualises the Australian evidence for Homo in terms of the potential for movement of animals and hominins across the island chains of Sunda and Sahul. I must confess this is an area I know next to nothing about, and as a 'quick and dirty' introduction to it, I got a lot out of this contribution. He also alludes to the fascinating reports of stone tools on the island of Flores at > 700 ka. This island has never been part of a land bridge and the implications of this, if robust, are quite staggering. Journey's end is Petraglia and the redoubtable Paddaya both of whom cross the tape with the Middle Pleistocene of India. Petraglia notes the oldest secure dates are >350 ka, and is certain that when sites with dateable sediments and secure artefact associations are identified this threshold will greatly increase. Whether his prediction of greater than 1.0 mya is proved true remains to be seen. He touches on a fascinating aspect of the Middle Pleistocene of the Old World. Why oh why are Acheulean bifaces so similar, both in appearance and in methods of production across such huge planks of time and space? Petraglia is almost certainly right that learning, and the adaptive advantage of certain basic skills were under strong selective pressure. Finally there is Paddaya's contribution on the archaeological record from the Hunsgi and Baichbal Valleys. Here is one of the jewels in the Middle Pleistocene crown, a long term extensive regional survey that has, as Paddaya unabashedly points out, shown the value of surface and near surface sites in the face of ever growing emphasis on single locations with deep stratigraphy. Damn right too. Although as time averaged as any deep gravel deposit with bifaces, Paddaya's paper in this volume reminds us that Middle Pleistocene landscapes were phenomenally rich, a factor that single site archaeologies often force us to forget. In areas like India, and parts of South Africa too, topographic stability, at least on a medium scale, can allow us insights into landscape use over time. This is as valid a goal of research as is the more microscopic scale of site focused investigations. His conclusions, which read like a District Attorney's list of indictments against the accused are consequently all the more germane.
This is a great book. It is important in that it crystallises a huge quantity of diverse temporal and spatial data from a wide variety of disciplines. It is a worthy successor to After the Australopithecines, and a must for every Middle Pleistocene book shelf. If that is not praise enough, it is another notable success for the Western Academic and Specialist Press.
Review Submitted: November 2002
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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