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2022-06-05 18:50:29   •   ID: 2336

Data Bias in Palaeolithic Archaeology

Figure 1
Figure 2
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Figure 4
Figure 5
Figure1-5: These are several Artifacts from the Le Moustier Type Station at the Vezere in the Perigord Noir near Les Eyzies- See: 2102 , 2242 and 1277

Except the tool in Figure 4 and 5, showing a heavily reworked scraper on a Pseudolevallois point, all items are coming from Peyrony's own collection and are said to be characteristic for the MTA assemblage from Layer G (MIS3) with a TL-Date of 50-55 k.a. BP.

Figure 6 shows a historical photograph with Peyrony at a stratigraphical section of the lower Abri. He points to the thick stratum which he called „Mousterian de Tradition Acheuleen“ (MTA).

Based on the Excavations at the lower Abri at Le Moustier, In 1920, D. Peyrony proposed to distinguish the MTA with bifaces from the „classic" Mousterian“ (Peyrony 1920).

The distinction between Bifaces from the Acheulian and Mousterian assemblages of the MTA in Europe has mainly been established by the shape and volumetric appearance of Handaxes: thick Bifaces, Ficrons, lanceolate, micoquian, amygdaloid or elongated as well as elongated cordiform Bifaces being more frequent in the Acheulian, while thin cordiform and isoscelic triangular Bifaces with biconvex cross-sections being characteristic of the MTA (Bordes 1961).

The definition of Mousterian of Acheulean tradition is based on the recognition of two tools that take on the status of fossiles directeurs: Bifaces and retouched back knives, almost absent from other late Mousterian facies (Mellars 1996).

Fancois Bordes also defined an evolution from MTA-A (many Bifaces and some backed knifes) to MTA-B (small number of Bifaces, higher number of backed knifes and "Upper Paleolithic" tools) on the basis of a limited data base of excavated ensembles: Pech-de-l’Azé I and IV, Le Moustier, and La Rochette.

The contour of the Bifaces also led him to propose an internal evolution within the MTA type A from industries with numerous large triangular bifaces to industries with dominantly cordiform bifaces (Bordes 1961).

However, most assemblages assigned to the MTA-B are either derived from old excavations and suffer from clear recovery biases (Abri Audi, La Rochette, layer H at Le Moustier) or are too small to properly evaluate their composition (Abri Blanchard, Quincay).

For years there was a broad consensus, that the MTA-B evolved further to the Chatelperronian, an opinion that was questioned only recently- see 1246

As a scientist, I have given all PhD students the task to always ask themselves which data biases occur in their work and are to be expected in already available older Publications. And I have also always asked myself the same question.

Against the background of the re-evaluation of classical Paleolithic sites in the Perigord, especially of Le Moustier, La Ferrassie, Combe Capelle and Combe Grenal I would like to briefly describe the many biases of Prehistorians and those of my own perception.

  • Selection biases occur when looking at samples that are not representative. It occurs by selective excavating only "Index Fossils" and by insufficient excavating techniques-e.g. by avoiding wet sieving, non-recording of the orientation of artifacts or incorrect labelling of tools.

    Prominent examples are known from D.A.E. Garrod‘s Excavations at Mt. Carmel, from A. Rust‘s Excavations at Jabrud or from Rieck‘s Excavations of the Vogelherd Cave and of course from the early excavations of Peyrony in the Perigord- The Dibble Group and French Researchers did a lot to revise these biases.

    Extrapolation of the Archeological Record of S/W- France to other remote regions remains a Problem in European Prehistory which could be termed: Geographical Selection Bias

  • Confirmation bias: Scientists see what they already believe, and leave feeling more convinced that their views are supported in reality

  • Historical Bias: Historical data bias occurs when socio-cultural prejudices and beliefs are mirrored into systematic processes. This is the problem with every Paradigm in Prehistory, for example a Cultural Historic, Ethnographic driven, Structuralistic or (Post)- Processual Approach

  • Availability Bias: Availability of data has a big influence on how we view the world. The now famous Spears of Schöningen, the Aurignacian art from the Swabian Jura were ignored for a long time, being available only in German language.

    While important and high quality data from Chinese Archaeologists are increasingly published in English and in high ranked Journals, Russian Scientists often seem still not to have arrived in the current discourses, mainly by their outdated approaches and communicating even important results in Cyrillic

  • Framing Bias: When presenting information, people present the data in a way that highlights only aspects that support their approach while they play down the aspects not fitting into their methodological thinkings. This kind of Bias is more common in Journal papers than in complete monographs, where the results have to be discussed in all aspects

  • Funding bias may lead to the selection of excavation results that favor a study's financial sponsor. It is precisely this bias that is difficult or impossible for outsiders to assess and scientific networks play an important role

  • Figure 6
    Related to the construction of a succession of MTA-A to MTA-B, a combination of biases play a role, that have already been described and criticized here: 1246 , here: 2102 , here: 2242 and here: 1277 .

    We never can escape data biases in the end, but should always be aware of their existence and try to avoid them as much as possible.

    To a avoid biases in the evaluation of the European Middle Paleolithic I personally suggest, that grouping lithic findings under “ techno-typological Complexes” is an outdated concept.

    High resolution data from the last decennia do not support the paradigm of an invariable and constant association of specific lithic artifacts: On the contrary the data speak in favor of a techno-typological continuum that is the consequence of a versatile adaption of Neanderthals according to socio-economic and geographic and climatic conditions, based on a pool of a common "savoir faire".

    Suggested Reading:

    Harold L. Dibble, Shannon J.P. McPherron, Paul Goldberg et al.: The Middle Paleolithic Site of Pech de l’Azé IV; 2019

    Harold L. Dibble et al.: The Middle Paleolithic Site of Combe-Capelle Bas; 2012


    Peyrony Collection