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Eugene Morin. Reassessing Paleolithic subsistence: the Neandertal and modern human foragers of Saint-Cesaire.

EUGENE MORIN. Reassessing Paleolithic subsistence: the Neandertal and modern human foragers of Saint-Cesaire. xxvi+358 pages, 116 illustrations, 61 tables. 2012. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 9781-107-02327-7 hardback 65 [pounds sterling].


The Palaeolithic site of Saint-Cesaire (Charente-Mari times, France) is well known to those interested in human evolution because of the Neanderthal skeleton found there in 1979. Many other and better preserved skeletons are known; however, this one is noteworthy because it was found in a Chatelperronian context--a techno-tradition long recognised as 'transitional' between the Middle Palaeolithic of Neanderthals and the Upper Palaeolithic of modern humans. Before the discovery of the Saint-Cesaire skeleton, the Chatelperronian was generally thought to have been produced by modern humans; the unanticipated discovery of an associated Neanderthal skeleton initiated a shift in our thinking about Neanderthal behavioural variability and its relationship to the Neanderthals' eventual fate--replacement by modern humans.

Many years after Francois Leveque excavated the site, Eugene Morin uses the discoveries from Saint-Cesaire to shed light on this pivotal time in human prehistory. In Reassessing Paleolithic subsistence, Morin conducts a detailed analysis of the animal bone remains from the sequence at Saint-Cesaire, which spans the period from the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition to the Evolved Aurignacian, to explicitly test one explanation for the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans. Few well-excavated faunal assemblages span this period, and Morin takes advantage of the opportunities provided by such a collection of material. As is often true in archaeology, however, the assemblage turns out to be less ideal than initially assumed; recent reanalysis of the associated stone artefacts by Jean-Guillaume Bordes (cited in the volume as pers. comm. 2011) reassigns the Proto--and Early Aurignacian assemblages to the Middle Aurignacian and recognises a stronger Mousterian component to the Chatelperronian assemblage. While this means that the period most closely associated with Neanderthal replacement has therefore not been captured, much remains to be learned from Morin's study.

Morin sets up his study in a straightforward manner; he aims to test Jim O'Connell's (2006) intensification hypothesis, which proposes that early modern humans were able to expand demographically and replace Neanderthals because they had broader, more diverse diets. O'Connell's model and Morin's investigation are grounded in human behavioural ecology, and subsequent predictions flow from there. Initially, the test appears straightforward; however, the setting is Late Pleistocene Europe with its highly variable glacial and interglacial environments. This complicates the analysis by providing an alternative explanation for any identifiable subsistence changes. Despite this, Morin finds the faunal assemblages from late Middle Palaeolithic and early Upper Palaeolithic contexts, including Saint-Cesaire and elsewhere, to be quite similar. Ultimately, Morin concludes that: 1) changes in large prey were closely related to changes in climate; 2) there is as much variation within these groups as there is between them; and 3) more widespread indicators of dietary intensification are not consistently seen until later in the Upper Palaeolithic.

This wide-ranging volume--including detailed data on such diverse topics as prey running speeds, reindeer antler growth, climatic reconstructions and the relationship between species diversity and human population density--has many strengths. First and foremost is Morin's clear hypothesis-testing approach, which is firmly based in the foraging models of human behavioural ecology. These models allow Morin to articulate clear testable predictions, and this volume provides a strong example of this approach. Second, Morin emphasises a quantitative and statistical approach to faunal analysis, which is facilitated by the models from human behavioural ecology. Third, Morin takes a strong comparative approach to the interpretation of faunal remains. Initially, he begins with a diachronic investigation of the Saint-Cesaire sequence, which he then expands to include the Chatelperronian and Early Aurignacian assemblages from the relatively nearby sites of Grotte du Renne (Arcy-sur-Cure) and Abri Pataud. Finally he includes a quantitatively based consideration of assemblages from other regions of Europe and southwest Asia. Doing so highlights the fourth strength of the book--its abundant tables and appendices of data. Faunal analysts wanting to take a similar approach often struggle to find comparable data sets, as Morin did himself. Faunal analysts produce large amounts of data; however, too often they are not consistently collected and presented, so others are unable to take advantage of them. Morin is to be thanked for all the detailed primary and secondary data that he makes available.

Morin's volume leaves open a few questions for further examination. First are the assumptions behind O'Connell's proposal, which includes Neanderthals and early modern humans sharing similar life history traits and age structures. Are these valid? Recent analyses of dental incremental structures and tooth-wear indicate differences between the two groups and, therefore, question these assumptions. Second is the prediction that Neanderthal and modern human diets would have been identical in overlapping ranges (as discussed on p. 17). This would be true if their technology was identical; however, modern human and Neanderthal stone-working technologies were different, and their other technologies likely were, too. How would these technological differences interact with the intensification hypothesis? Is it possible that early modern human success rates were higher (which unfortunately would be difficult to track through our current methods of faunal analysis)? Finally, how can we reconcile the similar dietary breadths detected in Morin's analysis with the dissimilar diets detected through stable isotope analyses of the bones of Neanderthals and early modern humans in Europe (Richards 2009)?

In sum, this volume is a significant contribution to human evolutionary and faunal studies. Morin is to be congratulated for pushing faunal analysts to think creatively about their data; the animal bones preserved in archaeological sites can tell us much more than just 'what hominids ate', and Morin highlights well how these bits of bone can be used to address major questions in human evolution.


O'CONNELL, J.F. 2006. How did modern humans displace Neanderthals? Insights from hunter-gatherer ethnography and archaeology, in N J. Conard (ed.) When Neanderthals and modern humans met-. 43-64. Tubingen: Kern.

RICHARDS, M.P. 2009. Stable isotope evidence for European Upper Palaeolithic human diets, in J.-J. Hublin & M.P. Richards (ed.) The evolution of hominid diets: integrating approaches to the study of Palaeolithic subsistence: 251-57. Dordrecht: Springer.


Department of Anthropology, University of California, Davis, USA

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Author:Steele, Teresa E.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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