Putting down roots

Last year, I reported on the strontium isotope study that showed that the Lakonis Greek Neandertal individual died at least 20 km from the place he was raised.

The best comment, by Clive Finlayson, made the post’s title: “We’re talking about humans, not trees.” As in, what’s the big deal? If Neandertals were bears, wolves, raccoons, deer, or almost any other large Palearctic mammal, a dispersal distance of 20 km would be completely unremarkable.

Well, I said at the time that Neandertal mobility is a controversial topic. Now in the early bin at Journal of Archaeological Science is a critique of the paper that did the isotope work.

The criticism by Nowell and Horstwood is basically methodological – they argue for drilling the teeth instead of laser ablation. In that respect, the critique (and the response by Richards and colleagues) are inside baseball as far as I’m concerned – each has reasons for supporting their own line of isotope testing. The technical issues are important, and worth as many exchanges as it will take to air them.

But I’m interested in the broader issue – why should we be surprised if Neandertals moved? In one section of their critique, Nowell and Horstwood give reasons why the “migration model” proposed by Richards and colleagues may be in error. So there you have it – “migration” across 20 km from the seashore to a cave is officially a surprising inference worthy of skepticism and doubt!


Nowell GM, Horstwood MSA. 2009. Comments on Richards et al., Journal of Archaeological Science 35, 2008 Strontium isotope evidence of Neanderthal mobility at the site of Lakonis, Greece using laser-ablation PIMMS. J Archaeol Sci (early online) doi:10.1016/j.jas.2009.01.019

Richards M, Grimes V, Smith C, Smith T, Harvati K, Hublin J-J, Karkanas P, Panagopoulou E. 2009. Response to Nowell and Horstwood (2009). J Archaeol Sci (early online) doi:10.1016/j.jas.2009.03.009