Saturday 10 December 2011

Can We Talk?

I'm pretty sure it was Joan Rivers who made the phrase 'Can we talk?' into a universal code for 'this is going to get personal.'
     In many of my posts I've tried (only half-facetiously) to reassure you that I'm not a bitter man. That's a big, fat lie. How could I not be? In this post I recount only one of the episodes of bullying to which I've been subjected simply because of what I think. It's the sort of occasion that, in aggregate, has crushed my vitality as a scholar and as a human being. I have to believe that I never deserved it. Objective science, my ass!
     Please know that I'm not telling you any of this to gain your sympathy. I want simply to underscore a reality, and hope that by showing you this side of our discipline, you'll make sure you never behave in this manner, and that you might speak out when you see this behaviour in others. I even hold out a frail hope that one day some of the people who've brutalized me realize what they've done. I don't wish them ill; I just want to hear them wish me well. [As if! (added 12/12/2011)]

It's April 1994. I've just finished my Ph.D. and I'm in, of all places, Disneyland. The Society for American Archaeology is holding its annual meeting at the legendary Disneyland Hotel. I'm five years out from publishing Grave Shortcomings: the Evidence for Neandertal Burial. [I spelled it without the 'h' in those days out of respect for Erik Trinkaus, with whom I'd spoken only once, over the 'phone, when I was scouting for an institution where I could do my doctorate.] 
     As usual, I'm feeling like a pimple on a hemorrhoid because I know everybody in the world believes that I have a small penis growing out of my forehead. I'm facing the prospect of giving my paper on the dissertation research. I'm already feeling a bit like Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer. I'll be giving the paper in the 'Contributed Papers, World' session, where all the people who don't get invited to participate in a topical session get lumped together, and as I know in retrospect is somewhere you can expect 'light' attendance [polite code for the sum total of other presenters]. That is to be my lot at the meeting, even though there are several high-profile sessions on the time period and even the methodology that I cover in my thesis. I've seen a paper given by Ralph Solecki, who excavated Shanidar cave in the 1950s, and of whose work I'd been critical in Grave Shortcomings. He actually referred vaguely to questions about the depositional circumstances of the nine so-called burials at the site, but avers that the long-awaited monograph on the excavations would be forthcoming and all detractors would be silenced.  
     I'm a wallflower at the best of times, and these meetings weren't the best of times for me. So I spent considerable time at the bar, alone, or with other marginal members of the association. However, a 'fellow traveller' named Sue Kent [1952-2003] (Old Dominion) asked me to share dinner with her one evening. So, when the last session of that day was over, I joined her at the back of the room, expecting to leave right away. Sue turned to me and said 'I hope you don't mind, Rob. I've asked Ralph and Rose Solecki to join us.' I started to feel the wire brush in my gut that had been a regular companion on this trip. 'I'm sorry, Sue,' I said. [I couldn't have brought myself to do it. It would have been embarrassing enough just to have met the man. But the thought of spending more than thirty seconds in his presence scared the shit out of me.] Sue tried to reassure me by telling me that Ralph was a gentleman and that there'd be no acrimony. I still couldn't do it.  
     At that moment some movement over my should caught the corner of my eye and I turned, thinking that it was approaching Sue and me. I was wrong. The individual had been aiming for a couple standing behind me, and of whom I'd been unaware until that moment. Nevertheless, I recognized his tall form, and as I turned I must have caught his attention. He looked my way, and I reached out my hand to shake his, saying 'We haven't met before.' Before I could get out the 'Rob Gargett' by way of introduction, he simultaneously reached out his hand and glanced at my name badge. I caught his eye right then. He had this look of amazement mixed with disgust and immediately withdrew his hand and turned back to his companions.
     I didn't know how to respond. But my heart did. I turned back to Sue, who'd obviously seen what had transpired between me and the intruder. I started to cry, to sob, actually. And Sue tried to calm me. I burbled something like 'See, I couldn't have dinner with you and the Soleckis.' What I meant was, 'Don't you see how deeply I'm vilified by any number of people? I couldn't endure having dinner with them.' I thanked her and wished her a good evening. I'm sure I went straight to the bar after powdering my nose. And I don't think I left the bar until closing time. [After recalling this episode in detail, I think that's where I'll be heading in real time!]
     You're probably curious who the lout was that 'dissed' me so thoroughly. Unfortunately he was someone whose work has always been prominent in Neanderthal studies, and who has, so far as I know, never once mentioned my work in any of his many well-read volumes. His name is Erik Trinkaus (then at University of New Mexico, now at Washington University in St. Louis).


  1. I grew up in an extremely poor, rough neighbourhood and was greatly relieved when I "escaped". However, it didn't take me long to realise that the most intelligent and well educated of us behave just as poorly as those lacking in those departments, but at least the latter have some sort of excuse. Perhaps it's no surprise that I've chosen to live an isolated rural existence.

    The great irony of the sciences is that while declaring science is a search for truth, so many involved participate in dishonesty by preventing true debate and crushing contrary opinions using methods every bit as brutal and bullying as the tattooed, toothless guy who attacks you because he says you looked at him funny. Ostracism and ridicule are powerful but cowardly tools used by the weak and insecure.

    Not that it's probably any consolation Rob, but many of the greatest discoveries in the various sciences have been made by their most rejected and pilloried members, thereby giving the big finger to those exalted ones too cowardly and dishonest to encourage true debate. Keep doing what you're doing and I hope you eventually get to give the bird to those who deserve it.

  2. Well I've just found your blog and must say I've found it fascinating. It seems rather disappointing that your theories haven't gotten any more attention, especially as far more extreme theories from people far less "qualified" have managed to do so.

    (To be perfectly honest one I know of has a very basic similarity to your own, but ruins it by taking it way too far. And by too far I mean... Well take a look,, A few good ideas there ruined by others that are... not. I however found it interesting for those few ideas within that weren't drifting outside the gravitational confines of the Earth.)

    It's a shame you don't have a higher quality picture for your opinion on the true appearance of Neanderthals, "they" often say a picture is worth a thousand words and I'm inclined to agree with "them" on that point. Give someone a good looking picture and they'll generally accept it without actually examining the science behind it.

    While I'm just someone who is strongly interested in Paleoanthropology I've also noticed certain distinct oddities in how Neanderthals have been portrayed in reconstructions, usually even altered to the degree where they look more "advanced", for lack of better word, then many currently living humans when I know for a fact that they probably wouldn't.(Studying facial structure is sort of a hobby of mine.)

    Usually they're especially "Modern Europeanized" despite there being little evidence for that, as the supposed interbreeding is at the same level for all people outside of Europe. Why no Inuit features if the genetics support that just as well?

    But that's all beside the point, I wish you luck in your efforts and hope you find yourself a qualified artist to take up your cause.

    I would say pictures actually do a better job of convincing most people of theories then actual science does! I almost dismissed this website entirely before even reading because of your rather badly altered picture of what you believed a Neanderthal truly looked like. I'm glad I was able to look past that to read the explanations given.

    Anyhow, keep writing and I'll keep reading.

  3. @Corkscrew.
    Thanks for persevering despite my (admittedly) crude illustration of a Neanderthal face. I have contacted a prominent maker of N. reconstructions, and asked him to consider a different view of the face. However, being a good scientist, he quibbled away my reasoning about the nasal cartilage following the line of the os nasalis, and although intrigued by the possibilities of a significantly larger eyeball, declined to consider the matter further. You're dead right about the power of pictures. Unfortunately the power of the paradigm prefigures the picture, which leaves us right back where we started--with N. face that begs for an anatomically correct facial reconstruction.


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