Breaking bones: Nature or Culture?
A way to break bones? The weight of intuitiveness
Recommendation: posted 03 August 2020, validated 14 September 2020
The nature of breaking long bones for obtaining marrow is important in Paleolithic archaeology, due to its widespread, almost universal, character. Provided that hammer-stone percussion marks can be correctly identified using experimental datasets (e.g., ), the anatomical location and count of the marks may be taken to reflect recurrent “cultural” traditions in the Paleolithic . Were MP humans breaking bones intuitively or did they abide by a strict “protocol”, and, if the latter, was this protocol optimized for marrow retrieval or geared towards another, less obvious goal?
The new preprint by Vettese and colleagues  took a novel approach to this question, by conducting an experiment which involved novice butchers, relying on nothing but their intuition, and recording the way in which they broke marrow-rich bones. Some variability was noted in the “intuitive” patterns; indeed, future studies replicating this experiment and adding more variables such as more experienced butchers and non-bovid bones are warranted. Similarities in the means by which novice butchers break bones was also observed, and especially telling is the strong effect of anatomical features in most bones, except for the femur.
This paper provides a baseline for location analyses of percussion marks. Their dataset may therefore be regarded as a null hypothesis according to which the archaeological data could be tested. If Paleolithic patterns of percussion marks differ from Vettese et al.’s  “intuitive” patterns, then the null hypothesis is disproved and one can argue in favor of a learned pattern. The latter can be a result of ”culture”, as Vettese et al.  phrase it, in the sense of nonrandom action that draws on transmitted knowledge. Such comparisons bear a great potential for understanding the degree of technological behavior in the Paleolithic by factoring out the “natural” constraints of bone breakage patterns. Vettese et al. [3: fig. 14] started this discourse by comparing their experimental dataset to some Middle and Upper Paleolithic faunas; we are confident that many other studies will follow.
Pickering, T.R., Egeland, C.P., 2006. Experimental patterns of hammerstone percussion damage on bones: Implications for inferences of carcass processing by humans. J. Archaeol. Sci. 33, 459–469. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2005.09.001
Blasco, R., Rosell, J., Domínguez-Rodrigo, M., Lozano, S., Pastó, I., Riba, D., Vaquero, M., Peris, J.F., Arsuaga, J.L., de Castro, J.M.B., Carbonell, E., 2013. Learning by Heart: Cultural Patterns in the Faunal Processing Sequence during the Middle Pleistocene. PLoS One 8, e55863. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0055863
Vettese, D., Stavrova, T., Borel, A., Marin, J., Moncel, M.-H., Arzarello, M., Daujeard, C. (2020) A way to break bones? The weight of intuitiveness. BioRxiv, 011320, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Archaeology. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.03.31.011320
Beatrice Demarchi and Reuven Yeshurun (2020) Breaking bones: Nature or Culture?. Peer Community in Archaeology, 100004. 10.24072/pci.archaeo.100004
The recommender in charge of the evaluation of the article and the reviewers declared that they have no conflict of interest (as defined in the code of conduct of PCI) with the authors or with the content of the article.
Evaluation round #1
DOI or URL of the preprint: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.03.31.011320
Author's Reply, 28 Jul 2020
Decision by Beatrice Demarchi and Reuven Yeshurun, posted 04 May 2020
We have now received three reviews for your preprint entitled “A way to break bones? The weight of intuitiveness”. We are pleased to say that these were all positive and agree that this is an important paper, which makes a relevant contribution to the study of bone breakage for marrow extraction and, by inference, of complex behaviours e.g. in the Palaeolithic. Furthermore, the reviewers concur that the methods are sound and the conclusions justified and, as such, they recommend publication, provided some minor issues are addressed:
- The clarity of the manuscript could be improved by subjecting it to another round of editing. Sometimes your arguments are not sufficiently clear or ambiguously phrased. For example, what is “quasi-systematic” marrow extraction or “quasi-systematic conservation of the epiphyses”?
- The presentation of the figures and their captions needs to be improved - Various edits and requests for clarification should be dealt with (see below) Reviewer #1 (Alan Outram) points out that more space could be devoted to discussing future avenues of research, e.g. the impact of cultural preferences on this practice (cooking methods, different implements, presence/absence of periosteum…). Furthermore, reviewers #2 (Terry O’Connor) and #3 have provided more detailed comments, which are listed below.
We would ask you to revise the manuscript within one month, according to the comments of the three reviewers, and to submit the revised preprint, along with a detailed point-by-point response. We shall be happy to recommend it, pending suitable minor revision.
Looking forward to receiving your revised manuscript.
Beatrice Demarchi & Reuven Yeshurun