The phrase slicing the pie refers to a tactical method of systematically clearing an area hidden by an obstacle: you move around the obstacle and take care of one slice at a time. That’s often a better option than just jumping right past the obstacle and exposing oneself to whatever unknown terrible things might lurk around the corner. Slicing the pie is a method of breaking a big problem up into several smaller problems with the added stipulation that the problems must be addressed in a specific sequence in order for the method to be successful.
My 2014 SAA presentation is my attempt to work through the first slice of the pie of Neandertal family life (and take a peek around the corner to see what the next couple of slices might look like). As I discussed a little bit in this post, I'm using an agent-based model to explore how the high adult mortality regimes suggested by the Atapuerca-SH and Krapina assemblages might have affected the behavioral conditions under which hunter-gatherer populations were demographically viable. Agent-based modeling lets you create representations of plausible human systems unlike those we can observe ethnographically. It lets you understand how those systems are structured and work, and it provides a basis for developing expectations that can be compared to archaeological and fossil data. We could, of course, jump right past those kinds of nuts and bolts questions and argue about whether or not the symbolic contractual aspects of Neandertal male-female pair bonds were like those of “modern” humans. That’s a great piece of the pie to argue about, and I like those arguments as much as the next person. But I think that’s pretty far around the corner. Developing a basic understanding of the structure, organization, and behaviors of Neandertal domestic groups is a better piece of pie to start with.
I'm not done with this question, and I don't claim to have "solved" anything. But I’m generally happy with what I’ve managed to do so far: getting the presentation in shape has helped me clarify my thinking a bit, and working part of this into a publication will be on my summer agenda. I’m going to try to make the case (by showing rather than assertion) that a complex systems approach gives you a fighting chance to understand the structure and organization of domestic life during the Paleolithic. Paleolithic domestic life is, of course, a really big pie. Understanding the implications of high adult mortality in terms of population viability and family-level behaviors during the Middle Paleolithic is just the first slice. To cover in depth all the ideas that are in this presentation is potentially a dissertation- or book-level project: there's a lot of room here. I’ve already written my dissertation, so that’s out. We’ll see where the rest of this goes. Please let me know if you’re interested in thinking about ways to address domestic life during the Paleolithic -- there may be a conference symposium and/or an edited volume in the future.