In all seriousness. On the mirthful occasion of April 1st, 2013, I thought it appropriate to pause for a moment and reflect on some of the everyday silliness that abounds in our business, without which the Subversive Archaeologist would prolly have little or nothing to say.
Unquestionably the chiefest provider of grist for this mill is the online journal PLOS ONE. Go ahead, search for the journal name in the side-bar. You’ll see.
Next on my list of enablers is the journal Science. Not only is it one of the premier outlets on the planet for momentous discoveries, but it’s also the one that’s susceptible to the most scathing ridicule, given the evident gap between its aura of scientific gravitas and its ability to shoot itself in the foot by publishing erroneous or misguided research. PNAS is tied with Science for this second spot.
The third and last, but not least of my sources of poppycock is the entire region of southern Africa. Where would we be without Blombos Cave, Pinnacle Point, Wonderwerk Cave, the rock shelter at Sibudu, and of course Kathu Pan 1 to have fun with. As you know I’m particularly concerned about the veracity [or more charitably, the accuracy] of the luminescence age estimates of the oldest modern human evidence—upwards of 100 kyr and more. But even if we ignore those claims, we’re still left with some absurd inferences based on interpretations of the sedimentary context. E.g. ~75,000-year-old pesticidal beds, half-million-year-old ‘spear’ points in a spring vent, tons of million-year-old ash in a bat cave attributed to the fire-making abilities of H. erectus/ergaster/heidelbergensis/antecessor [take your pick].
Most troubling for me is what inevitably condenses out of all this scholarly hot air—a condition that I’ve heard described elsewhere as a ‘hardening of the orthodoxies.’ One problematic inference acts to bolster the next big claim. For a good example, consider the claim that bipedal apes at the Sima de los Huesos were ritually disposing of their dead at the bottom of a natural trap. I could be wrong, but it seems most likely that J.-L. Arsuaga and Co. are emboldened to propose such absurdities by the sheer number of unwarranted inferences of purposeful burial among the later inhabitants of Europe—the Neanderthals. The latest claim wouldn’t be possible without the earlier claim’s orthodox status.
And then here come I, apparently pissing into the academic wind. I was called all sorts of names in my brief academic career—naïve, bigoted, too legalistic when it comes to interpreting site formation processes, just plain ignorant, irrelevant. One thing I’ve never been called is a hard-nosed scientist who’d rather excuse himself from the company of wolves and jeer from the figurative sidelines because that’s the only place he can be heard by people in the crowd. After all, the players on the field are intent on fouling each other and running around shouting at the top of their lungs as they try to out-do one another.
That’s it for this first day of April. I hope your day was filled with laughter and life.