Saturday 17 December 2011

Questioning Sibudu Cave's Palaeo-Bedding and Qesem Cave's Dual-Species Extirpation. Part One: The Epistemic Background

One of the reasons I write this stuff is to encourage other archaeologists to exercise their critical 'franchise' by examining the premises of archaeological arguments. You can do it, too! And all you need is a little help from The Subversive Archaeologist. But first you need remember the SA 'mantra'.
     I received my 'archaeological mantra' from Knut Fladmark (Professor Emeritus, Simon Fraser University). It is this: 
When you encounter novel or unusual archaeological deposits (even if they resemble circumstances with which you may be familiar), you must make every effort to rule out natural processes before (tentatively) claiming that your observations are the result of human or hominid agency. 
I received the corollary of my 'archaeological mantra' from Diane Gifford-Gonzalez (Professor, University of California at Santa Cruz). It is this:
When attempting to rule out natural causes for novel or unusual archaeological deposits, you must make every effort to include as broad a range of well-understood processes as possible before (tentatively) claiming to have identified the process or processes that can explain your observations. 
Sounds easy. Evidently it's not.

[Aside: I often use the phrase 'knowledge claim(s).' It's just a convenient way of encapsulating a very broad range of statements that one can make about just about anything, from the mundane to the divine. 'It's nine o'clock in the morning' is a knowledge claim. With very few exceptions, every knowledge claim is an argument, based on observations of some kind that are interpreted using inductive reasoning. As a result claims such as 'This is a bifacial thinning flake' or 'this is palaeo-people-poop' are not  statements of immutable fact, but rather they are statements that are either closer to or further away from an accurate rendering of reality. As Diane Gifford-Gonzalez underscores in a recent Touchstone Thursday article, no matter how authoritative you sound or how strenuously you make your claim you can't get it right if your premises are unwarranted or just wrong. And that is the foundational principle of The Subversive Archaeologist.]

Being a subversive archaeologist begins with the ability to identify fallacious arguments. For example, it's just not good enough to say that such-and-such a circumstance seems (or is) unlikely. Statements about the likelihood of this or that occurring must be accompanied by a well-warranted justification, or you leave yourself open to accusations of charlatanism (i.e. being a 'snake-oil merchant'), because swindlers often use similar assertions to persuade their victims. In informal logic terms, this is a species of fallacious statement known as 'argument from want of evident alternatives'. I don't wish to accuse archaeologists of being charlatans or engaging in a con game. In fact, I believe strongly that very often archaeologists 'con' themselves into accepting their own arguments from want of evident alternatives, either because they really want their claims to be true, or because they truly see no evident alternatives. Neither is sufficient to support an argument for which there are alternative explanations. [Pointing out when archaeologists are making this mistake has, it turns out, been the main contribution of my career.]
     What does it take to become a specialist in picking up on unwarranted or erroneous premises of archaeological knowledge claims? The short answer is that it depends on having a lot of background knowledge drawn from numerous independent domains of enquiry, be they anthropological, ethnoarchaeological, geological, zoological, botanical, cosmic or other. The more, the merrier, in fact. As you will see in what follows, a very little useful knowledge from outside the excavation square can either support or dismantle any interpretation based solely on what's encountered in the spits.

In this series of three posts I want to use two recently published archaeological reports--both widely acclaimed in the media--to illustrate how easy it is for archaeologists to deceive themselves and how readily the media gobble it up like manna. One of my examples comes from Sibudu Cave, in southern Africa, and regards a claim for the earliest bedding in the archaeological record [They're serious!]. Moreover they claim to have evidence for the earliest insecticidal [!] bedding material in human history. [Afterthought posted at 17:39 PST, December 17, 2011. Geez, if they could figger out how to make insecticidal bedding 77 kyr ago, you'd think we'd have whipped the bed-bug problem by now. More reason for skepticism about their claim!] 
     The other example is another problematic claim from the excavations at Qesem Cave in Israel [I'm not singling them out for abuse. I can't help it if they keep making ampliative* inferences that just won't stand up to scrutiny, and the media keep running with it!]. This time the Qesem excavators claim to know the reason for the simultaneous extirpation of elephants and Homo erectus in southwestern Asia between about 200 and 400 kya. It seems that H. erectus depended on elephant fat for its survival, and when the elephants went away, so did H. erectus.
     Please understand that I'm not quibbling with the idea of bedding, or even the first bedding, or even the first insecticidal bedding. I've seen the traces of bedding in southern central British Columbia's archaeological housepits. I know that such traces can be preserved intact. It's entirely possible that the archaeological record contains traces of the earliest bedding. However, one must be careful in making such claims, and the Sibudu Cave archaeologists haven't done their homework. Likewise, something must have occurred to spell the doom of elephants and Homo erectus in southwestern Asia (if indeed it was simultaneous--it's never an easy claim to support). But the Qesem Cave archaeologists haven't adequately justified their assertions. And I feel it necessary to point out where they have it wrong.
     More to come.

* A term you now recognize because like good little neophyte subversive archaeologists you've by now either re-read or read for the first time the Gifford-Gonzalez article that I extolled in the latest Touchstone Thursday post.


  1. I agree, but I suppose that is no big wonder since Fladmark was my grad advisor, my grad research was on taphonomy, and I was influenced by the writings of Gifford-Gonzalez. Nevertheless, I agree with all what you say. Blog on! You have made my teaching job easier. Now I can refer my students to your blog.

  2. @ Bob
    Excellent! If I can make your life easier, I'm all for it!


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