Protsched!

The Guardian has this story on the ouster of Prof. Dr. Reiner Protsch von Zeiten from the University of Frankfort. In another opportunity for creationists to say “I told you so,” Protsch allegedly systematically misdated putative archaeological remains, passing recent skeletons off as early modern Europeans. He also allegedly embezzled university collections by selling skulls in to private collectors and others in the United States and elsewhere. The Guardian article is the best I’ve seen so far at giving Protsch’s history and telling details. I met Protsch a few years ago, and I have to say he is as flamboyant as described. He was also quite clearly a “smooth operator,” a quality that must have been very well developed if he carried off the extent of frauds that are chared against him. </p>

We used to have a saying for skulls that had been destroyed in a futile process to date them: they were "Protsched." In other words, Protsch has had a reputation as a bit of a screw-up in paleoanthropology for a long time. How he came to have a relatively powerful position at a German university is part of the legacy of problems in that system over the past thirty years or more. What is unfortunate is that he really did destroy some specimens and damage others, he really did hold back the progress of science in examining the population history of Northern Europe, and he has finally succeeded in giving paleoanthropology a very public shiner.

The discovery of the misdatings by Protsch is not the whole story about problem datings, though. It is now clear that none of the early modern remains from Western or Central Europe are older than around 25,000 years. The inclusion of very recent skulls in this early sample by Protsch's dates led to some confusion about the morphology of early modern Europeans, by making them look more "modern" than they really were. But those dates did not themselves create the notion of a significant early modern presence alongside the Neandertals.

That notion is not entirely gone, since it remains possible that as-yet-undiscovered modern humans were the makers of the "Aurignacian" industry. But this case has significantly weakened over the past few years. The most important result is that we can now raise the possibility of a real transitional population in Western and Central Europe, one where individuals may have had a mixture of Neandertal-like and modern-like features. Known fossils from between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago do in fact show a mixture of such features, although it has been possible to argue that this one or that one is "basically a modern human with a few Neandertal features" or vice versa. The bottom line is that the "full pattern" of features is going to start failing more and more often as a criterion for defining Neandertals and early modern Europeans. And that is all to the better.