Clive Gamble interviewed by Matt Pope on BBC Radio Four

Clive Gamble was interviewed by Matt Pope for the BBC Radio Four “History of Ideas”. Matt is a member of the AHRC Project: Crossing the Threshold: Dynamic transformation in human societies of the Late Middle Pleistocene project.

The audio is available on the BBC Radio Four website. It was broadcast on Friday 30 Jan 2015. Clive’s section begins at around 2 minutes 40s in, where he talks about the evolutionary trade off between larger brains and smaller intestines. So bigger brains and shrinking guts require higher quality foods and increased technological sophistication. Clive suggests that we could not have survived, in the form we are, without technologies such as fire and stone tools.

You can read Clive’s contributions to this blog via his author page.

Postcard from France


Loading the van
Loading the van

This year’s C.A.H.O. Palaeolithic field trip to France, with the Captain William S. Davies (C.A.H.O.’s new director!!) at the helm.

Today was our first full day in France. We caught the boat from Portsmouth yesterday for a mid-afternoon sailing and were in Caen by late evening. An early start (ish) saw us on the road heading southwards for north central France. You get a real sense of how flat the loess plain is between the coast and Paris as you drive, and of course beneath the fields and trees are a wealth of Late Middle Pleistocene sites waiting to be discovered. Before we started I was priviledged to see a minor miracle in the art – no the science – of putting a large volume of kit into an astonishingly small space as Jo, Sarah and Cathy decided they would take charge of the packing. With nine people and all their gear, this is one thing you have to get right. They did, and we were away.

There were two sites on the afternoon’s agenda. The first was the museum at Grand Pressigny. Wow – a museum dedicated to flint, does it get any better? – well its Neolithic, but you cant have everything. I’d never seen the famous livres de beurre as these big honey coloured cores are called. They are knapped by a PCT for the purpose of making between five and ten long blades. They were knapped by masters of their craft and then traded out of the region, possibly by the makers themselves. It seemed ownership of such a blade, or a knife made from one, may have conferred much prestige on its owner. They are dated to between 2009 and 2003 BC. Like so many French museums this one is a thoughtful blend of detailed information (no dumbing down here) and elegant presentation. This was my first time here, and the museum has not been long open. If you are ever in the area its well worth the detour.

From there it was a short drive to the Roc-aux-Sorciers, another newish museum and another one where presentation and design have been carefully and successfully blended. Here a long freeze of horses, bison, wild goats and other animals was discovered in the 1950s and investigated by Suzanne de Saint-Mathurin and Dorothy Garrod. A modern projection onto a replica of the original rock shelter surface gives a marvellous impression of the contoured surface of the original, and how the artists used the cotours to convey movement within the animal freeze. Being a Lower Palaeolithic man myself I claim no knowledge of this kind of late Magdelenian art, but I was amazed by the two human faces on the freeze, and the stylistically similar ones at la Marche 30-40 km away. There, our guide told us, they have complete figures (and the Roc-aux-Sorciers has copies of them). There is something rather unsettling about looking at a face from 15,000 years ago. The reconstruction and visual show are effective and very atmospheric.

The evening was spent staying with friends of William, Chris and John Lees who lived nearby. We will long remember their kindness and hospitality. Tomorrow we penetrate even further south to fabled Les Eyzies. More from there later.

As always, wishing you were here

Mac, William, Paul, Jo, Cathy, Sarah, Adam, Tanner and Christian

Baker’s Hole Palaeolithic site: new work

The site - a little overgrown!
The site – a little overgrown!

I’m happy to report an award of a grant from English Heritage to conduct a field survey of this important Palaeolithic site. I will be leading the project, which follows from a preliminary survey supported by Natural England which established that the site was currently in poor condition, leading to it being placed on the national register of Monuments at Risk. The site is unusual in being statutorily protected both as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. English Heritage and Natural England are therefore working together with the University Archaeology Department to secure the site’s future and understand it better. The survey will enable urgently needed investigations to review the condition of this rare example of a Palaeolithic Scheduled Monument, and recommend future management strategies to ensure its long term preservation in good condition. The project will also allow new research to be conducted at the same time, which it is hoped will add some detail to the complicated picture of early Neanderthal colonisation of the UK c. 250,000 years ago, and the relationship of colonisation events with climate and sea level.

Work is planned to take place in September this year, and we look forward to providing on-site updates.

The Evolutionary Uses of Imagination

I have just published a post on fifteeneightyfour, the blog of Cambridge University Press. Here is a taster. You can read the remainder via the link at the bottom.

Why are we so imaginative? What possible use is there in passing through the looking-glass with Alice or supposing that the moon is inhabited by creatures with aerials growing out of their heads? These are some of the wilder flights of our imagination and not shared by everyone. But doesn’t all this fantasy complicate our lives unnecessarily? Isn’t life difficult enough without keeping track of all the characters in Game of Thrones? Wouldn’t we be better off as cold rational creatures – a world of bean counters rather than hedge fund managers? But without this capacity to take the metaphorical plunge or make the leap into the unknown, we wouldn’t be human, we wouldn’t have a shared past and, I suspect as well, that we wouldn’t be found in nearly every nook and cranny of the earth.

See more on fifteeneightyfour

The death of prehistory

I know this will upset many archaeologists but let’s admit it, prehistory is dead. Adding a pre- to history no longer makes any sense. Pre-history rightly belongs to the Jurassic’s dinosaurs and the wriggling worms of the Cambrian explosion; those shaley superstars Opabinia and Wiwaxia that Stephen Jay Gould trumpeted so loudly in Wonderful Life. Human prehistory deserves better than being lumped with big lizards and creatures with less neurons than an Arctic midge.

What to put in its place? Deep history is the obvious candidate. Deep in the sense of extremely ancient but also a human history told through stuff rather than through texts. The latter belongs to the realm of Shallow history; shallow only in time-depth not in methods or insights. Both histories need each other. Shallow history needs to understand the evolutionary drivers that account for human motivation and desire. It needs to see how engagement with stuff created the fabric of history. Deep history needs the inspiration of ethnography and the complex stories that emerged as societies intertwined at a global scale. Combined they provide a compelling story of humanity.

John Lubbock

The big story from Deep history is a simple sound-bite: We are all Africans. The narratives of Shallow history are about two things that happened in the last 500 years; the documentation of human diversity that arose as we set out from Africa to become the only earth-wide species and the many reunions of humanity associated with that original global diaspora. And that’s the problem with human prehistory. It sets up a barrier, a break-point in what should be a seamless story of biology, culture and society told through the medium of stuff; bodies, books and beaker pottery.

2013 is the centenary of the death of John Lubbock, Lord Avebury. In a few days time we will all enjoy the Easter Bank Holiday, his gift as an MP to an over-worked Victorian world. As a boy Lubbock shared his love of beetles with his older neighbour Charles Darwin. His father-in-law, General Pitt-Rivers, became with his legislative help the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Britain. In 1865 the thirty-one year old Lubbock published Pre-Historic Times, As Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. He wasn’t the first to use the term but he certainly popularised it. This remarkable book with its hyphenated title has cast a long shadow. But it served its purpose long ago. We now know how to study the human past through the study of cultural and biological stuff drawn from locales, places and landscapes. So, could there be a more fitting centenary celebration for one of the giants of archaeology than to bury his creation, Pre-history, where it belongs – in the history books? Prehistory is dead, long live deep human history!