Monday, February 11, 2008

Mechta and Afalou: Do they and the so-called "Mechtoids" constitute a type with the "Cro-Magnon"?

The “Mechta” have been characterized as African based “Cro-Magnon types”. Obviously enough morph-metric distinctions have been observed between the “Mechta” and the “Cro-Magnon” specimens, so as to assign them in distinct but related groups; however, does the “Mechta”, and ultimately “Cro-Magnon”, really represent a bio-anthropological “type”? Does it persist today? These are the questions that will be explored herein.

Let’s start this journey of brief exploration with an extract from Brace et al. 2005:

The North African Epipalaeolithic sample was made based on specimens from Afalou and Taforalt in Morocco [Mechta-Afalou (?)]…

Paul Broca himself had promoted the view that the Basques represent the continuing existence of the kind of Upper Paleolithic population excavated at the Cro-Magnon rock shelter in the village of Les Eyzies in the Dordogne region of southwestern France in 1868 (38-40). Shortly thereafter the “old man” -“le vieillard” -found in that rock shelter was elevated to the status of typifying a whole “Cro-Magnon race” regarded as ancestral to not only the Basques but also the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands (37, 41-44)... 

When the Basques are run with the other samples used in Fig. 1, they link with Germany and more remotely with the Canary Islands. They are clearly European although the length of their twig indicates that they have a distinction all their own. It is clear, however, that they do not represent a survival of the kind of craniofacial form indicated by Cro-Magnon any more than do the Canary Islanders, nor does either sample tie in with the Berbers of North Africa as has previously been claimed (37, 44-45). …

To test the analysis shown in Fig. 3, Cro-Magnon, represented by the x in Fig. 4, was removed from the European Upper Palaeolithic sample and run as a single individual. Interestingly enough, Cro-Magnon is not close to any more recent sample. Clearly Cro-Magnon is not the same as the Basque or Canary Island samples. Fig. 4 plots the first and second canonical variates against each other, but that conclusion is even more strongly supported when canonical variate 3 (not shown here) is plotted with variate 1. If this analysis shows nothing else, it demonstrates that the oft-repeated European feeling that the Cro-Magnons are “us” (46) is more a product of anthropological folklore than the result of the metric data available from the skeletal remains...

That said, more extracts to examine…

From Andrea Byrnes' website, we are told:

A child burial was found at Taramsa-1 dating to this time (c.55,000BP): “The poorly preserved bones were those of a subadult ‘anatomically modern human’ similar in appearance to the Mechtoid populations of the north African Epipalaeolithic. The position of the body, as well as the depth of the pit in which it was found . . . suggest that the child had not died in this location but had been deliberately brought here to be buried” (Midant-Reynes 1992/2000 p.37).

And then...

"Gebel Sahaba produced 59 skeletons, all semi-contracted on their left sides (head orientated east, facing south). The graves are simple pits with sandstone capstones. Associated tools date the site to around 12,000 BP. 24 of the individuals appear to have met with **a violent and unnatural death** (chert points were embedded in bones and skulls, and severe cut-marks appear on some of the bones. Women and children represent around 50% of the cemetery. The features are mechtoid or “mechta-afalou” (Phillipson 1985, 1993, p.34). Dating relies mostly on typological associations. The toolkit includes burins, flakes, backed flakes, bladelets, end-scrapers and geometric microliths, and is very similar to and usually associated with the Qadan at around 1200 BP."

Present author's take: Interesting...the proposed fate of those "Mechtoid" remains, i.e., violent death in the Nile Valley region! Could this make a case for a near extinction via sustained violence against these groups? Surely, as anatomically modern humans, they must have had something going for them, to avoid this [extinction via violence brought to bear by other ethnic groups] from happening; e.g., "at least" retreat to some other location, no? Even then, would this necessarily apply to populations in Western Africa, where relatively wider distribution of specimens tagged as “Mechta“ or “Mechtoids“ were recovered?

Continuing with examination of pieces of information from various sources:

Midant-Reynes informs us about an Epipaleolithic Fayum specimen..."The body was that of a 40 year old woman with a height of 1.6 meters, who was of a more modern racial type than the classic "Mechtoid" of the Fakhurian culture, being generally gracile, having large teeth and thick jaws bearing some resemblance to the modern "negroid' type." — B. Midant-Reynes, The Prehistory of Egypt, Pg 82.

Raises the question of the notwithstanding recognition of the Mechta-Afalou specimen as anatomically modern types, whether the comparison of their "modernity" with other anatomically modern human variants lies in the "robusticity" of the remains, or the age, or both!

From Briggs, notwithstanding his obvious prejudiced tone, we have:

"The Negroid increment of which there is evidence in some of our Northern Neolithic Series, notably Kef-el-Agab 1 and Troglodytes 1, may have well come in the same way from the South to add to the already slightly Negroid Hamitic cast of the African Mediterraneans and of their partial derivative, the Mechta-Afalou Type."

...and what are we told about these so-called "African Mediterraneans", well...

"...Type B which fits, in all essential respects, the usual definition of the Mediterranean racial type, but sometimes shows also certain morphological peculiarities commonly known as "Boskopid," as well as Negroid features among females. Type B therefore was classified as African Mediterranean...It may have well acquired its "Boskopid" traits on the road, near the headwaters of the Nile, and kidnapped a few Negro or heavily Negroid women on its way west before turning northward into Northwest Africa. The peculiar characteristics of such women could have been restricted largely to females, at least for a time, by artificial selection in the form of preferential mating."

Source: Briggs, Stone Age Races of Northwest Africa, pgs 81,89.

Note: The so-called "Boskopid" is supposedly related to the South African Khoisan groups.

From Briggs' claims, it would appear that the Mechta-Afalou, just as their supposed "partial" ancestors, i.e., the African Mediterraneans, were NOT devoid of traits typologically attributed the "Negro".

Keeping in mind the likes of the Nazlet Kharter [see extract below]...and the earlier snippets the present author posted on finds of Upper Paleolithic/Epipaleolithic "Mechtoid" remains in the Upper Nile Valley [recalling that, the burial site of at least one specimen dated back to 55,000 BP, while that of several more other specimens dated to a much later period, i.e., 12,000 BP], it would be interesting to see where these "Mechtoid" groups fit in, in terms of chronology of their appearance in the region and social status during those time frames.

From Keita, we have:

"Descriptions and photographs of late Paleolithic remains from Egypt indicate characteristics which distinguish them clearly from their European counterparts at 30,000 and 20,000 years BP (cf. Thomas 1984; Stewart 1985; Angel and Kelly 1986). These distinguishing characteristics, commonly called "Negroid," are shared with later Nile Valley and more southerly groups. It is not important to label "Negroid," only to note that they are shared with a wide range of African populations. Epipaleolithic "mesolithic" Nile Valley remains have these characteristics and diverge notably from their Maghreban and European counterparts in key cranio-facial characteristics (see comments in Keita 1990) although late Natufian hunters and early Anatolian farmers (Angel 1972) shared some of these traits, suggesting late Paleolithic migration out of Africa, as supported by archeology (Bar Yosef 1987). Lumping the epipaleolithic remains of the Nile Valley and even those from the Maghreb, into one group has little to support it..." — Keita, Studies and Comments on Ancient Egyptian Biological Relationships, 1993.

The last piece of the above is particularly interesting, because it goes back to the theme of the questions raised above, i.e. about the legitimacy of pooling the so-called “Mechtoid” or even “Cro-Magnoid” specimens together into types or typological entities.

Reading on, we are told:

"...Wiercinski (1965) noted an increase in the "African" (Negroid) element in crania recovered from the early dynastic tombs of Abydos as compared to the previous period. His taxonomy, like others, seems to have a narrow conception the of the range of real "African" variability. In general, this restricted view presents all tropical Africans with narrow noses and faces as being related to or descended from an external, ultimately non-African peoples. However, narrow-faced, narrow-nosed populations have long been resident in Saharo-tropical Africa (Gabel 1966; Hiernaux 1975; Rightmire 1975; Schepartz 1987) and their origin need not be sought elsewhere. These traits are also indigenous. The variability in tropical Africa is expectedly naturally high. Given their longstanding presence, narrow noses and faces cannot be deemed "non-African"..." — Keita

Indeed, some of these features mentioned—such as the narrow nasal index, coupled with mild to low prevalence of prognathism and other characteristics generally associated with the stereotypical “Negro”—have undoubtedly influenced folks like Briggs to reckon certain prehistoric Saharan specimens to be part of the so-called “Mediterranean“ typological family, as was the case with what he dubbed as “African Mediterraneans”; right from the horse’s mouth: “**already slightly** Negroid Hamitic cast of the African Mediterraneans”

However, as pointed out in the extract above, such traits have long been resident to African natural environment, and their origins need no extra-African explanation.

As Hiernaux put it, and as Keita noted, morpho metric variability is quite high in sub-Saharan Africa alone:

Jean Hiernaux "The People of Africa" 1975
p.53, 54

"In sub-Saharan Africa, many anthropological characters show a wide range of population means or frequencies. In some of them, the whole world range is covered in the sub-continent. Here live the shortest and the tallest human populations, the one with the highest and the one with the lowest nose, the one with the thickest and the one with the thinnest lips in the world. In this area, the range of the average nose widths covers 92 per cent of the world range: only a narrow range of extremely low means are absent from the African record. Means for head diameters cover about 80 per cent of the world range; 60 per cent is the corresponding value for a variable once cherished by physical anthropologists, the cephalic index, or ratio of the head width to head length expressed as a percentage....." 


"A quick glance at Figures 4a and 4b will show that the relatively shortest noses occurs only in the tropics, and observation confirms the fact that the nasal bridges of the peoples in question are low as well as being short. At first it seems as though no consistent sense could be made from such an observation since such people as the inhabitants of East Africa right on the equator have appreciably longer, narrower, and higher noses than people in the Congo at the same latitude. A former generation of anthropologists used to explain this paradox by invoking an invasion by an itinerant "white" population from the Mediterranean area, although this solution raised more problems than it solved since the East Africans in question include some of the blackest people in the world with characteristically wooly hair and a body build unique among the world's populations for its extreme linearity and height."

More from Hiernaux:

"Now as mentioned in Chapter 3, the fossil record tells of tall people with long and narrow heads, faces and noses who lived a few thousand years BC in East Africa at such places as Gamble's Cave in the Kenya Rift Valley and at Olduvai in northern Tanzania. "There is every reason to believe that they are ancestral to the living 'Elongated East Africans'. Their features can be found in several living populations, who are very dark skinned and differ greatly from Europeans in anumber of body proportions. Neither of these populations, fossil and modern, should be considered to be closely related to Caucasoids of Europe and western Asia.."
(Hiernaux 1975:62)

The “characterizations” of the “African Mediterraneans” and their “partial derivative” Mechta-Afalou suggest that they could well attain a relative “intermediary” position between northern Eurasians and tropical Africans in a plot of averages of cranio-morphometric centriods. Centroid plots can hide the precise nature of variability within a sample, and so, to that extent, these “African Mediterranean” and “Mechta-Afalou” specimens may assume ‘intermediary’ position, as did the following in Keita‘s centroid plot, although the precise nature of variability respective to the former and Keita’s samples may well be discernable vis-à-vis one another…

“The variability in the population in Upper Egypt increased, as its isolation decreased, with increasing social complexity of southern Egypt from the predynastic through dynastic periods (Keita 1992). The Upper Egyptian population apparently began to converge skeletally on Lower Egyptian patterns through the dynastic epoch; whether this is primarily due to gene flow or other factors has yet to be finally determined. The Lower Egyptian pattern is intermediate to that of the various northern Europeans and West African and Khoisan." — Keita.

To be able to determine whether “Mechtoids” or “Cra-Magnoids” represent a type, one has to examine elaborate cranio-morphometric comparative analysis between the specimens contained in these groupings, and Collin groves work gives us opportunity to do this to some extent:

From Collin Groves, whose reactionary approach to bio-anthropology is all too apparent, the following was presented in his paper of “The terminal Pleistocene and early Holocene populations of northern Africa”, 1999:

To the southeast, further cranially robust remains have been described from Nubia, on the Egyptian-Sudanese border (Anderson 1968; Wendorf 1968a, b; Carlson and Van Gerven 1977). Exactly the same process of gracilisation seems to have taken place in this region; Carlson and Van Gerven (1977) attributed it to a change in masticatory function, associated with the processes leading to the adoption of agriculture. The largest collection, from Tushka and Sahaba, was described by Anderson (1968); he considered them in the context of “Negroid origins”, but ended by concluding that they are strongly resemble the “Maghrebian Cromagnoids”, as he called Mechta-Afalou populations, but considered that they were “half-way to ‘Negroidization’”, and demonstrated the late derivation of sub-Saharans from Caucasoids.

There are therefore a number of hypotheses about these terminal Pleistocene samples, which we propose to test this paper:

—1. That the Mechta-Afalou populations are a generalized “robust” Homo sapiens population (Lahr 1994), or alternatively that they are robust because they are “Cromagnoid” in morphology, i.e. resemble the Upper Paleolithic populations of Europe (Ferembach 1985, Brauer and Rimback 1990)

Groves' results, with regards to ‘robusticity’:

Lahr’s (1994) hypothesis, that the Maghrebian samples resemble the Cro-Magnons, is true as far as the males are concerned, but not for the females. Cro-Magnon females are robust, as are Co-magnon males; Taforalt females, however, are not so robust.

As far as morphology is concerned, Groves' approach to discriminant analysis yields:

The discriminant analysis shows that the Nubian scatter is so wide that it is some of the Nubian males, rather than any of the Maghrebian ones, the are Cromagnon males’ nearest neighbors. The nearest neighbour of the Cromagnon females, however, is the sole Afalou female.

The frequency if occurrence of the horizontal-oval form of the mandibular foramen compares more closely to the Cro-Magnons in the Nubian than in the Maghrebian sample. In the Maghreb sample, it occurs in 1/15, ie. 6.7%, but in the Nubians in 4/18, that is 22.2% (in the Sahaba sample by itself, 4/14, or 28.6%).

According to Frayer (1992), in 38 late upper Paleolithic specimens (approximately contemporary with the present samples) this form occurs in 5.3%, although in 9 Early Upper Paleolithic specimens it was seen in 44.4%.

Present author's take: The specimens previously placed under the ‘Mechta-Afalou’ actually don’t represent a “type”, but an assortment of specimens that share affinities in some respects, and not so much so in others. Even “robusticity’, which it seems has been seized by some to justify classification into a “type” or “categorization”, varies.

—2. That Afalou is slightly less robust than Taforalt (Chamla 1978).

Groves’ conclusion:

Afalou and Taforalt males are very close in all analyses, neither being more robust than the other; the (much smaller) female samples are not so close, indeed the Afalou female is more towards the robust end of the diagrams than are those from Taforalt. We conclude that, though they are much alike, the two samples should preferably be taken separately in future analysis.

—3. That the Nubian sample represents aEuropoid” population undergoing “Negroidization” (Thoma 1973). or… that the Nubian samples belong to the Mechta-Afalou type and are not connected with “Negroid” (sub-Saharan) peoples (Anderson 1968).

Groves says:

This hypothesis cannot be supported. In all analyses, Nubia is well separated from Taforalt, with the Afalou somewhat intermediate. The differences are: longer, narrower calvaria; more development of parietal keel; less rugged occipital and basicranial regions; more prognathous; flatter nasal skeleton; less protruding mandibular syphilis; lower frequency of sharp infer lateral orbital margin; narrower biorbital, wider bizygomaxillary breadth; relatively wider intertribal breadth; lower basibregmatic height in males; less sexual dimorphism; males less robust, females more so. These features recall the differences of modern sub-Saharan (Negroid) populations from those of general Caucasoid type.

Groves concludes with (The present author will relay his perspective in between Groves' comments):

Today the North African and Sub-Saharan gene pools are separated by the Sahara arid zone.

Present author's take: The Sahara never formed a barrier between North Africans and Saharo-tropical Africans. Even his own analysis of select upper Paleolithic African specimens and ‘select’ Howells’ collection of “contemporary” African specimens, is testament to this.

Moving along, with Groves, he continues…

a wide sparsely populated region whose people are intermediate morphologically between “Caucasoid” and “Negroid”. While the late and terminal Pleistocene populations of northern Africa were noticeably more robust than their present-day descendants (as were those of Europe), like them they were differentiated into more northerly “Caucasoid” and more southerly “Negroid” morphologies.  **Yet the transition between these two geographic forms was much further north in the terminal Pleistocene than today**; the terminal Pleistocene Nubians and the Asselar skull are as “Negroid” as are the modern Teita of Kenya; the intermediates were the people of Afalou-bou-Rhummel in Algeria.

Present author's take: This is quite telling, the idea that the so-called transition from “Negroid” to “Caucasoid” characteristics in African populations was much “further north” in the late Pleistocene, than is supposedly the case today. Yet, Groves does not indicate where this break in the said characteristics lie in that transitional belt.

Also, it is worth noting Groves’ mention of ‘robusticity’ in association with “descendants”. Here, the implication is that the reduction in robusticity is an evolutionary product, perhaps as a response to social behavior. Interestingly though, Groves’ says this about “Nubian” groups:

“The conclusion that the Caucasoid/Negroid transition zone was farther north at the end of the Pleistocene, and has shifted south since, then , converges on that of Turner and Markowitz (1990), who reached their conclusion on the basis of **dental characters**. Compared to the Sahaba and Tushka people, Meroitic to near-modern Nubians have a much lower frequency of incisor shoveling, enamel extension, 3-rooted lower first molars and 5-cusped lower second molars, and higher frequency of rocker jaw; all these traits approach later Nubians to Europeans, and the early Nubians to present-day sub-Saharans (Turner and Markowitz 1990).

Some of these differences are quite substantial, and the authors argue strongly that only gene-flow from the north could have accomplished it; in situ evolution could not have done so."

Present author's take: It would seem that Groves doesn’t contest the notion of gene flow, using dental morphology as an indicator, yet the more significant changes in morphology between those of the so-called Upper Paleolithic Europeans (Cro-Magnons in particular) and those of later European groups is supposed to be the product of in situ evolution , and the use of the term “descendants” implying continuity. We all know where Keita stood on this issue:

"Recently Irish (Joel D.) and Turner (1990) and Turner and Markowitz (1990) have suggested that the populations of Nubia and Egypt of the agricultural periods were not primarily descendents of the geographical populations of mesolithic/epipaleolithic times. Based on dental morphology, they postulate as almost total replacement of the native /African epipaleolithic and neolithic groups by populations or peoples from further north (Europe or the near east?)

They take issue with the well-known post-pleistocene/hunting dental reduction and simplification hypothesis which postulate in situ microevolution driven by dietary change, with minimal gene flow (admixture).

However, as is well known and accepted, rapid evolution can occur. Also, rapid change in northeast Africa might be specifically anticipated because of the possibilities for punctuated microevolution (secondary to severe micro-selection and drift) in the early Holocene sahara, because of the isolated communities and cyclicial climatic changes there, and their possible subsequent human effects.

The earliest southern predynastic culture, Badari, owes key elements to post-dessication Saharan and also perhaps "Nubian" immigration. Biologically these people were essentially the SAME. It is also possible that the dental traits could have been introduced from an external source, and increased in frequency primarily because of natural selection, either for the trait or for growth pattern requiring less energy.

There is no evidence for sudden or gradual mass migration of Europeans or Near Easterners into the valley, as the term 'replacement' would imply.

There is limb ratio and craniofacial morphological and metric CONTINUITY in Upper-Egypt-Nubia in a broad sense from the late paleolithic through dynastic periods, although change occured." — Keita, Studies and Comments on Ancient Egyptian Biological Relationships.

And as presented earlier, with respect to dental analysis as an isolated tool to draw conclusion:

"As previously mentioned, a review of the photographs and descriptions of Nazlet Khater (30,000 BP), Wadi Kubanniya (20,000 BP), Jebel Sahaba-Wadi Halfa (12,000-6000 BP) and Badari-Nakada-Dynasty I (4400BC-3100 BCE) remains suggest CONTINUITY (Thomas 1984; Stewart 1985; Angel and Kelly 1986; Anderson 1968; Strouhal 1971; Morant 1925). Thomson and MacIver (1905) found continuity throughout the dynastic period. This is not to suggest that no Near Eastern immigration occurred, but it is to caution against the sole use of one kind of data when postulating mass human movements. All kinds of data must be used to choose between competing models of explanation.” — Keita.

Back to Groves:

…These climatic fluctuations surely bear on the genetic question. The climate of Nubia in the Qadan period was less arid than today, corresponding to one of Butzer’s short high-water substages of the Nile, and the fundamentally sub-Saharan affinities of the Sahaba/Tushka people may thus result from the northward extension of Afro-tropical sub-arid vegetation belts. Aridity in the Sahara, however, still held sway; comparatively little gene-flow penetrated it, leaving the contemporary Maghrebian population (Taforalt) fully “Cro-Magnon” in type. The early Holocene climatic amelioration, with its northward spread well north, such that now Maghrebians became of distinctly intermediate type (Afalou), and even as late as 6,000 BP fully “Negroid” people still occupied northern Mali (Asselar). In this scheme, the distribution of “Negroid” peoples, and of the transition zone to their north, fluctuated according to climatic vicissitudes.

And, Keita:

“The supra-Atlas mountains and coastal northern Africans are viewed here as perhaps being more, but not only, related to southern Europeans, primarily by gene flow. Given that Berber languages are not creoles, which, if they were, might indicate massive European contact, it may be well to view the gene flow as having occurred steadily over a long time…”

"Early southern Egyptian/Nubian and Saharan remains are clearly a part of the Saharo-tropical range of variation. Northern modern Berber-speakers are frequently notably "European," in phenotype but even they have tropical African "marker" gene frequencies than those found in southern Europeans. "Blacks" have long lived in northern Africa (see review in Keita 1990)." — Keita.

Brace recently showed how Neolithic and Bronze age Europeans in various European regions less resemble the contemporary counterparts, particularly in the case of northern European regions, and how the so-called Cro-Magnon is quite distinct from contemporary Maghrebian groups [and contemporary European samples for that matter]. I found it interesting that Groves retained the term “Cro-Magnon” [which he seems to associate with "Caucasoids"] in association with Upper Paleolithic/ late Pleistocene north African specimens, instead of replacing it with “Caucasoid”. If anything, Groves own analysis is testament to how problematic his resort to typological terms like “Caucasoid” and “Negroid” are. When taken to perspective, it becomes apparent that the so-called “Mechtoid” groups found in the Upper Nile Valley, are actually remains of folks who had substantial affinity with Saharo-tropical Africans…it doesn’t reflect a type called “Mechta-Afalou”. In fact, the latter isn’t even a type, and we’ve just seen that. Mechta-Afalou, should therefore be dropped, and not forwarded as though it represents a well defined and disparate entity!

To be continued!

Link to part 2: