Archaeologist who emphasized the importance of chronology in understanding Palaeolithic Europe, and laid the framework for the archaeology of modern human origins.
Paul Mellars, who died at the age of 82 on 7 May 2022 after a brief illness in hospital, was a larger-than-life figure who combined a formidable and robust academic persona with an immense capacity to engender affection and loyalty from students and colleagues — he was both ‘Sir Paul’ and ‘Uncle Paul’. One of the foremost Palaeolithic archaeologists of his generation, his work and ideas have transformed our understanding early human and Neanderthal behaviour. This legacy did not come easily, as he was often deeply engaged in controversies, but his resolute — some would say stubborn — defence of his views was aided by an extraordinarily detailed grasp of the evidence.
From a modest background in Yorkshire (his father was a coal miner), Paul went to the local grammar school and then began studying engineering at UCL. However, he abandoned it and, stirred by a passion for archaeology that he had acquired while at school, he wrote to virtually every Cambridge college until he was accepted. Once there, he specialized in Palaeolithic archaeology and then, through his PhD, began his lifelong love of the people, places and archaeology of France. Pamela Jane Smith’s 2010 biography of Paul in The Upper Palaeolithic Revolution in Global Perspective provides a rich picture of his early life.
Fittingly for someone whose work emphasized the importance of good chronology in understanding early prehistory, his ideas and focus developed and changed over time. Paul’s first major contribution — and involvement in controversy — concerned the interpretation of the Mousterian, the long-lasting lithic tradition of the European Neanderthals. The stone tools excavated at sites such as Combe Grenal showed an interdigitated pattern of variation, interpreted at the time by François Bordes as representing parallel lineages of local cultural traditions — even local tribes. Paul’s first major paper, published in Nature, (Mellars, P. A., 626–627; 1965) showed there was a distinct chronological sequence to this pattern. At first ignored and then dismissed by Bordes, Paul had inadvertently stepped into what became known as the ‘Mousterian Debate’, a clash between Bordes and Lewis Binford. Binford challenged Bordes’ cultural model with a functional one (arguing that the record reflected changing patterns of environment and seasonal behaviour), and the two, neither shy of the limelight, battled it out. Once the dust had settled, Mellars’ chronological model proved solid. This Mousterian research climaxed many years later in his major book, The Neanderthal Legacy (Princeton Univ. Press, 1995).
By this time, the 1970s, Paul was a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, where he and his wife Any, whom he met while doing fieldwork in the Dordogne, set up a home in the Derbyshire Peak District, one that became a place for visitors to eat well, drink well and debate prehistory. This was the height of the ‘new archaeology’, when archaeology as a science became established. Paul was a strong supporter, and this influenced him as he turned his attention to his next major topic, the Middle-to-Upper Palaeolithic transition, which saw modern humans succeed Neanderthals.
The contrast between the Mousterian and the succeeding Upper Palaeolithic in western Eurasia had been recognized since the nineteenth century, but the units, the stratigraphy and the chronology were confused. Paul’s research coincided with the expansion of radiocarbon dating into the deeper times of the Palaeolithic. In a seminal paper published in The Explanation of Culture Change (ed. Renfrew, C.; Duckworth, 1973), he set out the framework for the transition that was to be the basis for future work, and lay the foundations for his third major contribution — the archaeology of modern human origins.
The 1980s saw Paul return to Cambridge, where he rose rapidly to professor and was elected to the British Academy in 1990. There he thrived, and built a devoted following of students: not many academics have a Facebook site devoted to them (‘The Professor Paul Mellars Big Love Society’ for ‘those who appreciate the archaeology god/genius that is Professor Mellars’). This move coincided with the emergence of the origins of modern humans as a major topic, and Paul’s work on the Upper Palaeolithic transition put him at the centre of this. He embraced the genetic and fossil-based ‘out of Africa model’, and developed much of the associated archaeological evidence. Characteristically, he threw himself whole-heartedly into another heated controversy between those who saw modern human origins as a recent and relatively sudden development in Africa, and those who saw a more gradual and multiregional transition. His early contributions on the chronology were marked by a strongly European perspective that did not sit well with the ‘Africanness’ of the model, but later papers developed some of the best global narratives. In 1986, he organized, with Chris Stringer, the conference that cemented the origin of modern humans as the central problem in human evolution at that time; the subsequent publication that they co-edited, The Human Revolution (Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1989), is effectively the foundation stone of current integrated approaches.
As Clive Gamble has said, over a long career that tackled controversial issues, Paul was seldom wrong. He fought his corner forthrightly, occasionally too forthrightly, and his determination could lead to unnecessary hostilities, but underlying this was a strong sense of loyalty to his ideas, to the field of archaeology as a science, to his friends and, not least, to his college — Corpus Christi — that epitomized his journey from miner’s son to knight of the realm (he was knighted in the New Year’s Honours list in 2010).
Paul will be remembered as a pioneering thinker on the Palaeolithic and its relationship to human evolution. He was not primarily a fieldworker, but he excavated the Mesolithic middens of Oronsay in the Inner Hebrides in the 1970s. It is a testament to Paul’s enormous sense of duty that his last years were spent writing the final volume of these excavations. As he would say, he did not want ‘He never published Oronsay’ on his tombstone. Paul finished the final volume a few weeks before he died.
Robert Foley is Leverhulme Professor of Human Evolution Emeritus and Fellow of King’s College, at the University of Cambridge; he and Paul were colleagues and friends at Cambridge for more than thirty years.
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Foley, R. Paul Mellars (1939–2022). Nat Ecol Evol 6, 1052–1053 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01804-0