RPHGM Workshop 2016, Montreal


In February the project held its first physical workshop, supported by funding from INQUA, a Connexion Grant from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Universite de Montreal.

Between February 11-13th Canada welcomed a contingent of international researchers with beautiful but increasingly glacial weather (reaching -28 C at one point, -35 with windchill!), and for those discovering the city for the first time, it was a great experience.

Thanks to INQUA funding, we were able to fund presentations by two PhD students as well as a large number of Early Career Researchers; in total 40% of speakers were women. In addition, the workshop was also attended by U. de Montreal students.

Workshop programme

Programme 2
Workshop programme

Meeting activities

The first day consisted of 12 presentations, following an introduction to the project. Papers covered a wide range of topics (see image above), showing the fascinating diversity in current approaches to understanding prehistoric mobility; some of which are described here.

Erick Robinson spoke about INQUA Project 1404, which among many activities includes links to research aimed at modelling cultural responses to palaeoenvironmental change, and gave interesting information about the structure of their project database. This includes building ‘palaeoscapes’ to understand species distributions over time.

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Dario Guiducci brought in aspects of mobility concerned with way-finding, dispersals and how people read landscapes, and discussed modelling the structure of landscapes in comparison to archaeological site locations. In the case study region of Aurignacian Cantabria, there seems to be a favouring of sites within highly ‘legible’ environs.
The potential of carnivores as models for mobility was presented by Elinor Croxall, by comparing home ranges and ecology, in combination with the ethology of predators themselves. While Elinor’s research focuses on Neanderthals, this clearly has relevance more widely.
In a similar vein, Alex Pryor discussed new approaches to mid-Upper Palaeolithic mobility through examining evidence for plant use. In particular the importance of wood for fuel availability was stressed, and ways to identify the use of food storage in the record, both of which having impacts on levels of mobility.
The key role of stable isotope studies to analysis of mobility was underlined by Kate Britton, who gave a talk detailing current methodologies, as well as potential pitfalls in terms of not assuming uniformitarianist principles were in action. Similarly Suzanne Pilaar Birch’s presentation discussed case studies of isotopic studies, and highlighted the potential for examining mobility of one particular species, the red deer.
The isotopic thread continued with Jaime Hodgkins’ research, combining ecology with a novel material, ostrich eggshell, to examine changes in the distances MSA foragers at Pinnacle Point travelled to source this high-energy food. She also mentioned current work in examining ecological variables in the context of Neanderthal and early modern human occupations in Italy, which included a stunning video combining drone footage of the area with scanned visuals of the cave interior.
Multi-proxy angles for examining mobility were the focus of William Rendu’s talk, covering developments in models combining faunal and lithic data, to examine hunting patterns across different technological traditions. Focus on hunting also formed the subject of research on local environment exploitation at Amud Cave, Israel, presented by Gideon Hartman, in combination with consideration of social and demographic contexts.
An example of combining differenct approaches to one material was found in Telmo Pereira’s talk, which applied geology and ecology, focusing on studying lithic raw materials to understand the relationship between stone sources and archaeological sites. This includes sampling the wider landscape rather than simply outcrops, and comparing the material properties of rocks themselves to understand why people favoured them.
Two final papers addressed other aspects of lithic analysis in relation to mobility. Julien Riel-Salvatore presented on the theory and method of “whole assemblage behavioural indicator” lithic studies, and how palaeoecology can further refine this, while Miquel Roy Sunyer discussed long-term research that examines Neanderthal lithic sourcing and territories on a whole-landscape scale in North East Spain.

Following the presentations during the generous time allotted for questions and discussion, many interesting points were raised. The contributions of the discussants were especially valuable at this point, raising the issue of the multi-scalar patterning of mobility, as well as the concept itself being multi-dimensional. Ariane highlighted the space in the project to include more information from palaeoecology and palaeobotany, in particular recent advances around spatial ecology, as well as considering in more detail work like Dario’s on human landscape perception and its enabling of mobility. Adrian spoke about the importance of considering mobility as an adaptive response, and how this might give useful diachronic and synchronic perspectives.

Although technical issues made webcasting the workshop impossible, we were able to share the event via live-tweeting by several of the participants.

The second day of the workshop was a full morning’s roundtable, aimed at discussing the project direction and practicalities. Many participants raised further questions regarding the previous day’s presentations, and there was significant attention paid to how the project can provide a useful resource.
Discussion included the following areas:

  • the role of seasonality- identification, proxies, and impact; for example resources (lithic, plant or animal) that were only available at limited times of the year
  • comparing lithic and subsistence catchments via resource mapping
  • the importance of better integration of anthropological/ethnographic data to underpin archaeological models, e.g. expectations for social aggregation into systems of mobility, other ‘non-rational’ reasons for moving
  • comparisons between North America and Europe- why lithic transport distances are so different
  • focusing on Neanderthal mobility adaptations: general variability, and case study of their forest adaptations
  • wider comparative study examining hunter-gatherer resilience to climate and environmental shifts, managed via new mobility
  • methodological questions for the project, including database structure (using the Stage 3 Project as a partial model), and how to synthesize data from different literatures, at both the site level, and inter-site/larger scale, e.g. genetics data

Future activities

Promising publication plans agreed by participants include a multi-authored position paper outlining why mobility is important, and its relevance to wider questions, as well as how we can access it within the archaeological record. Following this, rough plans for topic-specific papers authored/co-authored by project participants were also discussed. Progress on publications will be communicated, with an aim for the first ‘position paper’ to be started within the next few months.

We would like to thank in particular the funders, as well as the Departement d’Anthropologie for hosting our event, and Professor Ariane Burke and Dr Adrian Burke for their extremely useful role as discussants over the two days.


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Beautiful canoe and kayak outside the workshop venue

First project webinar

In mid-November the project held its first meeting, albeit digitally, using online ‘webinar’ software. Despite a few technical issues, the meeting was a great success overall, lasting two hours in total.

A reasonable number of project members were able to take part, either using their microphones to talk directly, or the text chat function. These actually worked extremely well in combination, allowing others to comment unobtrusively while someone else was speaking.

After an introduction to the project given by Julien and Rebecca, we opened up discussion more broadly, asking what members were interested in from the project in terms of coverage, types of data etc. The themes evolved quite quickly towards some detailed considerations of the compatibility of different proxies for modelling mobility, and possible ways the project could be focused initially.

Some of the very interesting areas that were covered:

  • How we can improve mobility modelling using lithics (most commonly used for basic range estimates from a centripetal perspective to individual sites), by matching other proxies ?
  • The value of material objects will differ, therefore this needs to be considered if using for example lithics vs. shell as range markers, because they are likely to have been moved further when exchange is active
  • Can we produce range estimates for the fauna found at sites? Direct vs. estimate methods, i.e. isotopic tracking vs. biome/ecological mapping.
  • Wood / plants might be considered as a resource; they are potentially regions that will be preferentially targetted for movements; is it possible to model their occurrence, similar to geological areas for lithics?
  • Perhaps plant communities sourcing can also be linked with faunal sourcing
  • Mobility of the resources/proxies themselves needs to be considered: fauna naturally move, but water does not; wood and lithics become mobile through action of people

We also touched on some of the issues involved in multi-proxy work, and the aim of the project to build a resource useful to other researchers. Some important questions raised were whether some parameters should be targetted/prioritised for the datasets; and who will use the database. Additionally, practical first steps were considered in regard to identifying the best regions to focus on in terms of areas with high quality, temporally-deep, well-researched records that include multiple proxies. In particular, France was suggested as a good match for comparing lithics and fauna using strontium data.

It was clear that there is a great deal of enthusiasm for the project, and the webinar outcome was very positive for the upcoming meeting in Montreal in February, where participants will be able to pursue the topics covered more intensively within a workshop setting.