Credulity of Credulities! All is Credulity!

The Paleoanthropological Canon: King James Version.


Chapter 1

THE words of the Subversive Archaeologist, the son of Roy, king of the castle.
2 Credulity of credulities, saith the Subversive, credulity of credulities; all is credulity.
3 What profit hath John Hawks of all his labour which he taketh under the sun to laud the words of Blasco, Finlayson, Rosell, Marco, Finlayson, Finlayson, Negro, Pacheco, and Vidal’s “The earliest pigeon fanciers,” Scientific Reports 4:5971, 2014.
4 One unwarranted argument passeth away, and another cometh: but the overarching myth abideth for ever. So sayeth John of this work, “[this] work documents that hunting and eating these medium-sized birds was a recurrent part of Neandertal (and later modern human) diets. Once it was common to see “small mammal and bird hunting” in lists of behavioral traits limited to modern humans. Now we know that Neandertals regularly took large birds for feathers and medium to large birds for food. This isn’t a single occurrence, it is a sampling of the behavior of people over tens of thousands of years. Plus, who knew? Rock doves are the wild progenitor species of common pigeons, and they are indistinguishable from fragmentary bone remains.”
5 The media also ariseth, and the media taketh down the Kool-Aid of Finlayson’s feathered Neanderthal clothing, and hasteth to the place that maketh the bile arise in the Subversive’s throat.
6 The public opinion goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and returneth again according to its circuits, none the wiser. It knoweth not what to believe; believing only that to believe is to know. So said the empiricists of old, and the scientistic dinosaurs of these days.
7 All the untenable conclusions run into the Theoretical Sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again, and again, and again, multiplying and ramifying. Neandertals consumethed small birds, which they cuttethed apart with sharp rocks made with great thought afor, which shall be called Levallois. For, sooth, even unto domestication took the Neanderthals the pigeons, according to the final words of John; else why would he utter that pigeons of today and rock doves of the past are specifically indistinguishable from fragmentary remains? Innuendo passeth for inference. Inference for knowledge. Amen say the paleoanthropologists. Not so the Subversive Archaeologist.
8 All such claims as those of Blasco et alia are full of labour; some that may be so accurate, adding a line on the Holy vita, yet they be obvious, or goeth the conclusions without saying: the paleoanthropologist’s eye is not satisfied with seeing what is not there, nor the ear filled with hearing that which makes no sound, it must make mountains out of rocks, even, and pebbles.
9 The thing that Blasco et alia inferred, it is that which shall now live evermore in science; and though that be done badly it is that which shall become the standard story: and there is no new thing under the sun—just the same inchoate prestations to the senior scholars whose sites and data are sacrosanct, and whose invocations of complex behaviour and mentation among Neanderthals and their ilk must be bowed to.
10 Is there any thing whereof John Hawks mayhaps can say, “Jeebuz, this is crap-o-la”? Middle Paleolithic pigeon fancying hath been already akin to other credulities of old time, which was before us, in such as purposeful burials, and blade industries, and birch tar, dental picks, care of the sick, and jawbones of red deer.
11 There is no remembrance of mitigated objectivity; neither shall there be any remembrance of any old thing they shall say but that those outrageous claims shall come after, always in the end, as it was in the beginning.

SUBVERSIVE SHIRTS—The online store. Exclusively at the Subversive Archaeologist and street fairs around the Pacific Northwest Order Online

Chicane Or Chicanery? A Breath of Fresh Air on the Hybridization Front.

Neanderthal (silver) and modern human DNA (gold).

This comment from Nature News is satisfyingly subversive, but troubling, nonetheless. In its infancy The Subversive Archaeologist opined here, here, and again here that the then-recent conclusions of population geneticist Svante Pääbo and his team–beginning with publication of these data–was a load of hogwash. Based on the newly sequenced Neanderthal genome, his [their] claim was that the presence of identical genes in the ‘nomes–of the archaic and the modern human–demonstrated that the modern genome must have been the result of the two interbreeding. Breathtaking. No? Well, actually, no.   

Svante Pääbo

Despite the fancy mathematics and the tone of finality in the numerous papers on the matter [including, somewhat later, the Denisovan cohort] there’s nothing to be taken from their primary observations other than that we and the Neanderthals share a common ancestor. Full stop. And who took any notice of the Subversive Archaeologist? I think you can guess. Only you, dear Reader, and your fellow visitors to this blog.
     And so, Ewen Callaway’s very sensible note in the August 13 Nature News comes as a complete, and refreshing, surprise. Apparently others have raised similar doubts and similar arguments in response to the genetic work, which has been trumpeted near and far by John Hawks and numberless media outlets. Callaway’s summary of the debate, and her advertisement of the literature critical of the interbreeding hypothesis, represents for me a vindication that is both too little and too late. 
     Still, I’m encouraged by the Callaway article. My mother didn’t raise me to be a mathematician–least of all a population geneticist–which is why I, like most of my colleagues in palaeoanthropology, are mostly at the mercy of the twists and turns of argument and data that the gene-totallers publish. [Hence this blurt’s title.] Whether the interbreeding claim is just another chicane in the collective climb toward a more reality-based story of the past, or the inadvertent [even, perhaps, self-deluding] chicanery of gene teams like the 1000 Genome Project’s, most of us are forced back on our fundamental understanding of allele-frequency change through the generations, and, as well, our instincts. Neither is a comprehensively critical approach to the genetics, but it’s really all I’ve got in my defensive arsenal. 
     As for my absence from the published debate, blame it on my mother!
     I must to work. Catch you later.

Post scriptum: I’m humbled by the skill sets that I, an applied scientist who does archaeology, lack. There’s really nothing more productive of dismay than impotence in the face of others who’re au fait in areas that one isn’t. As I’ve previously whinged, archaeologists, moreso palaeoanthropologists, are hamstrung by gaps in their knowledge of the total breadth of disciplines that can be used in making inferences about the human past. For this reason alone, it’s imperative that we all approach new knowledge claims with a thoroughly critical eye. And if, as in my case, one lacks the knowledge to be critical of one approach or another, there is always the possibility of employing simple, informal logic when assessing newly minted knowledge. Such was the case in my approach to the latter-day claims that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred–I side-stepped the math and population biology models simply applied the fundamental principle of homology in confronting the matters that are covered in the Nature News piece.