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2020-01-15 14:52:43   •   ID: 2145

A Taxonomic Crisis in Prehistoric Research?

Figure 1
Figure 1 and 2: "Acheulean Biface" from the Bergerac area in the Dordogne (ventral and dorsal view). Figure 3 and 4: "Acheulean Biface" from Saint-Même-les-Carrières in the Charente (ventral and dorsal view). Figure 5: "Mousterian Scraper" from the Station Amont de La Quina (Charente).

The designation of stone tools as Handaxes and Scrapers goes back to the 19th century and remained part of a "common speech" among specialists in Paleolithic Archeology. Anyhow there are a lot of inconsistencies in the nomenclature: see for example here 2125 .

Further examples for techno-typological taxonomic pitfalls can be found here: 2143 , here 2135 , and here: 1159 .

Figure 2
Sink Taxonomic Entities ? The well known dilemma about labeling Middle Paleolithic stone tool industries was recently reiterated by S. Shea. Later he generalized his critique to the question if we should not abandon any systematization.

Shea argued that:“ Labeling an assemblage "Mousterian", tells one little about its antiquity. Mousterian occurrences are spread out over all of Europe, western Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent and North Africa between 30-200 k.a.

It tells one nothing about the palaeoenvironmental context in which the assemblage was deposited. Mousterian assemblages occur in deserts, grasslands, temperate woodlands, boreal forests, and alpine steppe. Classifying an assemblage as Mousterian does not help one pin down the biological identity of its authors. We currently lack any method deduced from contrasts in hominin fossil morphology for differentiating Mousterian tools made by Neanderthals from ones made by H. sapiens or other hominins

Undoubtedly Shea is right, but doesn't he expect too much from a simple classification? His questions could only be answered by an ideal Paleolithic Pompei and not by the scattered Archeological record known at the moment.
Figure 3

Natasha Reynolds and Felix Riede discussed similar reservations about the taxonomic status of European Upper Paleolithic industries more carefully without iconoclastic attitudes (2019).

The basis of Archaeology, and indeed every science remains the classification of Objects. Classification is the operation of distributing objects into classes or groups which are, in general, less numerous than them.

Classification has a long history that has developed during several periods: (a) Antiquity, where its lineaments may be found in the writings of Plato and Aristotles; (b) The Age of Enlightenment with natural scientists from Linnaeus to Lavoisier; (c) The 19th century, with the growth of chemistry, Sociology and evolutionary theory; and (4) the 20th century, with the arrival of mathematical models and computer science.

Figure 4
The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus is regarded as the founder of the current system of taxonomy, as he developed a system known as Linnaean taxonomy for categorizing organisms and binomial nomenclature for naming organisms.

With the advent of such fields of study as phylogenetics, cladistics, and systematics, the Linnaean system has progressed to a system of modern biological classification based on the evolutionary relationships between organisms, both living and extinct.

Classifying artifacts from remote times can be done in a number of ways:

  • Morphologically: For example the class of Handaxes can be clearly defined by its 3-dimensional morphologies and the same holds true for the class of scrapers- examples are displayed in this post
  • Functionally: For example Projectiles, Cutting tools, scraping tools...
  • every conceivable form of classification

The Taxonomic Crisis is not the crisis of using classification systems per se, but a crisis of not unified classificatory systems and a crisis of biased data, published according the regional research traditions.

A unified nomenclature, the spirit of primary data-sharing for meta-analysis is already common in many disciplines since years (including my own discipline: Medicine) and is the prerequisite of handling Big-data. Handling Archeological data in this way will result in a better Archaeology.

Other issues are equally important but subordinated. Importantly the reconstruction of the past will only be valid if these "secondary" issues are resolved.

  • The construction of Entities coupled with strong either inductive or deductive middle-ranged theories
  • the involvement of other disciplines like Cultural Anthropology, Genetics, Linguistics, and Sociology
  • Interdisciplinary building up new syntheses has to be done very careful and is a late process during analytical work.

    Importantly we should avoid any apodictic attitudes, such as Gordon Willey's and Philip Phillips (1958) stance that “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing,”