In August of this year a team of (mostly) American archaeologists published a report on their excavations at Roc de Marsal (Dordogne, France). As far as I’m aware the media have shown no interest. Odd, considering it’s the first peer-reviewed description of the first investigation of its kind in the history of archaeology and palaeoanthropology.
Recall that since the early twentieth century the received wisdom in our discipline has been that the Neanderthals buried their dead and took part in other kinds of mortuary ritual. Such behaviour, understandably, would make anyone perk up and say, “Hey, they’re just like us!” So, when a team of respected archaeologists raises their hands and says, “Hey, the Neanderthal kid they dug up at Roc de Marsal probably wasn’t purposefully buried,” you might expect at least a “News and Views” in Nature, or a New York Times science column opining on the matter. It’s not as if they’re hiding their talent under a bushel, either—they published in the Journal of Human Evolution, the highest impact journal in the field!
You have to understand that I’m more than a little bemused by these circumstances because in 1989, fresh out of university with an Archaeology BA in hand, I had the temerity to publish my original research and argued that there were perfectly good, natural explanations for all of the putative Neanderthal burials. At the time the response to “Grave Shortcomings: The Evidence for Neandertal Burial” made me feel a bit as if I was being handed my head on a platter. This quote pretty much sums it up.
We have difficulty finding any scientific merit in this paper. …why should anyone take seriously this paper written from the armchair?
—David W. Frayer and Anta Montet-White
And the hits just kept on coming. Most were arguments ad hominem. None that I’m aware of took on my arguments—most simply rejected them out of hand.
Time passed. My UC Berkeley PhD in Anthropology came in 1994, and a position at a research university in Australia was mine two years later. It was there, in 1999, after two rounds of peer review, that the Journal of Human Evolution reluctantly published what might be termed the dropping of the other shoe: “Middle Palaeolithic Burial is Not a Dead Issue.” In that paper I laid it on the line: what we could expect to happen to a hominin carcass in a cave or a rockshelter, what we should expect to observe when we excavate the remains, the startling concordance between relatively rapid deposition and relative completeness of hominin skeletons, and some case studies that illustrated my argument.
More crickets. And more frustration that my ‘theories’ weren’t being engaged in any serious way. As far as I’m aware my ‘contributions’ have been in a kind of scholarly limbo—officially dead, but awaiting some final arbiter of archaeological truth to point the thumb up or down when “all the data are in.”
I’ve been in a kind of limbo myself since leaving Australia in 1999. So I missed the harbingers of the Roc de Marsal work, such as the 2010 episode of “The Human Spark” in which Alan Alda visits the excavations and has the issue explained to him, which verified the prediction I’d made in 1989—that the skeleton had most likely been naturally buried in a karstic solution cavity. Believe me, it was surreal to hear those archaeologists uttering words that would have been unthinkable 22 years earlier.
Through it all, there wasn’t an anthropology department in the world that didn’t have at least one member of the academic staff who thought I was nuts! Safe to say I didn’t think I’d have a snowball’s chance to investigate the sites where the putative burials were recovered. I didn’t even bother to ask. Perhaps I should’ve been thick-skinned and persevered. Friends will tell you that I’m just not that kind of guy.
So, you can probably guess why I’m both pleased and disappointed to find, 22 years after publishing “Grave Shortcomings,” that someone else has done it at Roc de Marsal. And not just any someone else—the author list includes Paul Goldberg, who was on the équipe that claims the Kebara Cave 2 partial skeleton was purposefully buried. Jammy! And, while Sandgathe et al. cited my work, to read their paper gives a reader the impression that they were employing orthodox methods and constructs—those methods and constructs for which I was pilloried and for which my career suffered and suffers still.
I’ve always said that my scholarly fate was sealed by the very nature of my argument—if others had simply accepted my work the discussion of Neanderthal burial would’ve vanished from view, along with any mention of me; if they chose not to accept my work, regardless of the reason, I remain invisible. I can’t decide if that describes a double-edged sword or a bittersweet irony.
My thanks to Iain Davidson for suggesting that I start this blog. I’m hoping that he’ll agree to make his mark on The Subversive Archaeologist. I’m also hoping that there’ll be one or two others who might wish to contribute from time to time.
I couldn’t leave this inaugural post without admitting that I’ve been inspired by some truly brilliant and influential bloggers who are out there telling truth to power in other realms: Jane Hamsher (progessive politics against the status quo), Marcie Wheeler (politics and the law, and the lawbreakers who go unpunished), Paul Krugman (Reality-based, Nobel Prize-winning economist whom no one in the Obama administration, it seems, sees fit to hear), Ian Welsh (Wall Street explained and exposed), and many others. All, in their way, work in our interests against the Corporatist oligarchies that are the real governments in our nations. I can only hope to be as eloquent and as impassioned about this far less momentous (and almost altogether intellectual) battleground—how we construct knowledge of the past—and what happens when we disagree about it. It remains to be seen if, at the end of the day, my efforts will achieve even so much as comparability with those I emulate.