Many of you are archaeologists of the Terminal Pleistocene and Holocene indigenous peoples of North America, Africa, Asia, Australia and elsewhere. No doubt you’ve noticed that the preponderance of commentary on The Subversive Archaeologist has been from earlier times, most often from the Middle and Late Pleistocene (e.g. the Neanderthal face is of great interest to me). But I never meant SA to be primarily a blog about human evolution, nor about any period or place in particular. If I haven’t found fodder for criticism emanating from your favorite research area or time, stick around. I’ll surely get there eventually.
I’ll get there eventually because I’ve always intended The Subversive Archaeologist to be about shining a critical light on archaeological myths, whether the long-standing variety or those being made in the present. It just so happens that the Middle Palaeolithic and fossil hominid studies sprout the lion’s share of the biggest myths! I’ll come back to this point a little later. As far as the more-recent times are concerned, there’s no shortage of myth-making. But it’s harder to recognize, unpack and expose the archaeological story-telling of more recent times, mostly because they’re invisible against the backdrop of a dominant ideology, itself a complex mythology that masks or otherwise obscures the reality.
|The Manis mastodon rib and embedded bone splinter, which is only about 20 mm long (from Waters et al. 2011)|
If I had to sum up the métier of The Subversive Archaeologist, I’d say that my criticisms of archaeological inference almost always turn on the depositional circumstances of whatever claim’s being touted. In other words, I concentrate on how a given trace of past behaviour came to rest where it did. My aim is to first rule out natural processes. If they can’t be ruled out, the claim cannot logically stand on its own, equivocal, two feet. Whether it’s the bone toothpick that supposedly brought down a mastodon at the Manis site, or the presumptive–presumably Neanderthal–mammoth hunters who used that animal’s stinky skeletal remains to build an enclosure, and no matter if it’s the Palaeo-Indian period of North America or the Middle Palaeolithic on the Ukranian steppe, it’s usually the dirt that belies the erroneous interpretation.
|Moldova I (Ukraine). The site plan illustrates mammoth remains that in all likelihood accumulated when the animals became mired in the predominantly clay site sediments, and were then butchered by the Middle Palaeolithic inhabitants of the region. From Demay, Péan and Patou-Mathis (2011).|
The SA dictum should come as no surprise to anyone who’s familiar with my contribution to the archaeology of modern human origins: for each and every one of the putative Middle Palaeolithic burials I’ve publicly criticized, I was unable to rule out natural processes. All were recovered in depositional circumstances that guaranteed their preservation, naturally, and thus critically weakened claims for human or hominid behaviour to explain the phenomenon.
Sadly, critiques like mine are vanishingly rare [which I’ll try to explain in a future post], even though they’re fully in line with accepted archaeological practice [whether or not that practice is widely appreciated, which, as you know, it isn’t]. After all, I stand on the shoulders of some very tall people! It was Binford who first suggested that the claims of fire use at Zhoukoudian cave were bogus. Remember, too, Brain’s careful dismantling of the ‘osteodontokeratic culture’ of South Africa’s Australopithecinae that Dart had proposed. Brain posited alternative, natural explanations based on the depositional circumstances he observed in the archaeological sites that Dart had used for evidence. In spite of such august precursors I’ve had to resort to blogging as the platform for my criticisms, which more than anything serves to underscore the inherent resistance to this kind of scholarship in the discipline of archaeology. The phrase ‘nobody likes a critic’ is alive and well.
[This means that you no longer have to hide your copy of The Subversive Archaeologist inside the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science so no one will know what that you’re reading my work, sort of like you used to do with Plaything or PentUp!]
As for the bear’s share of archaeological myths emerging from the Middle Palaeolithic and earlier times? I’d have to say that from about 40 to 50 kya to way back in the Pliocene, the whole of the archaeological record is so bereft of modern analogues that it’s truly open season on reality, and no claim seems too bizarre to erect. [77 kyr-old, insecticidal mattresses, anyone?] And that goes for all of the behavioral traces, including stone artifacts, about which, as you know, I’ve said a thing or two on SA. And even though I’m not a flint-knapper [!], I can recognize a tenuous comparison or a far-fetched explanation from [my own human, cultural experience] ‘a mile away.’
These are depictions of Levallois cores from Douara Cave (Syria). I’ve outlined in red what Levallois mythology tells us is, in each case, the result of a lengthy series of removals in preparation for the final removal of a flake of a predetermined, desired shape. Click here for the answer to the question “Choices?” (Credit Akazawa in Suzuki and Takai 1974).
I can promise you that, for as long as The Subversive Archaeologist takes breath, it will be home to reasonable criticism of any and all questionable, problematic, or laughable knowledge claims, irrespective of time or place.
So, sit back and muse on the SA Dictum. Then check back again and again, like a small, furry creature in a Skinner box! And for my part, I’ll continue trying to keep the [entire] discipline honest!