Wednesday 7 March 2012

Leading Lam to the Laughter--Her Teachers, Not Me!

From the AAAS web site

There is no way I'm gonna let this go without a response. Mimi Lam, graduate student at one of my alma maters, UBC, has been much in the news of late. She purports to argue that the 'handaxe' was the 'first commodity,' and that its persistence in the archaeological record was due to meaning with which it came to be imbued, including what she calls 'cultural power,' whatever that is. Lam's brand of scholarship is the kind that makes me squirm in my seat when I hear it in person, and makes me scream out loud when I'm reading it in private. It's at least twice removed from the reality of actual Lower and Middle Palaeolithic scholarship, and makes so many perilous leaps of faith as to take one's breath away.
     Although I 'published' this a few minutes ago, it occurred to me as I was walking away that none of this is, strictly speaking, Ms. Lam's fault. In fact, this is about the best 'object lesson' I could think of to illustrate what the Subversive Archaeologist is all about. Ms. Lam bases her entire argument on 'knowledge' that she, no doubt, received from her anthropology instructors--perhaps even her own advisor. That 'knowledge' has led Ms. Lam to construct an elaborate argument that, were any of its assumptions in reality true, she may (maybe) have a cogent argument. I'm talking about the notion that there is a thing called a handaxe that was the desired end-product of a lithic reduction sequence performed by, in the earliest times, by Homo erectus (and variations thereof), and later by Homo neanderthalensis. She would also have been taught, unequivocally, that the 'handaxe' was the product of a mental template in the mind of the maker. That mind may well have been capable of language, and 'culture' and so on.
     So, in what follows, please keep in mind that, but for the occasional grammatical issue (which can easily be forgiven in a conference abstract), the problems that I point out in Ms. Lam's presentation are, on the whole, the fault of her teachers and mentors, and those whose work she has read, and that she is in no way culpable for having constructed this argument on that basis. As such, her paper is an example of just what happens if you let your anthropology babies grow up to be carbon copies of people who peddle conventional wisdom using hackneyed course notes and stenographic repetition of mantra-like presumptions about the hominid past.
     So far the only published version of her oral presentation at the 2012 AAAS Annual Meeting is the abstract that's published on the conference web page. I think it contains quite enough grist for my mill. Enough, at least, to obviate the need to read any longer version that might (improbable though it seems to me) make it into print. Lam's words are shown in white. Mine will be subversive yellow. In her own words: 
I argue that the ability to build
'Build' is not an accurate description of making a stone artifact. It is a subtractive process, and can in no way be considered a 'construction' or something that is 'built.'
This is hardly a useful addition to this sentence, given that portability was not a question for about a million and a half years. For portability to make any sense at all there must be an alternative, and as far as we know, with the possible exception of nests made in trees or refuges that were used repeatedly, there was no alternative to portability.
The durability is likewise of no relevance here--we're talking about 'tools' made of stone, not, presumably, the ability to choose between making a 'handaxe' out of stone vs. malleable or perishable material. 
artefacts may trace the evolution of human cognition.
This almost goes without saying. 
Hominins evolved a complex suite
In the whole history of Hominidae (or Hominini, if you prefer) this may be true. But for the first 2 million years the 'complexity' of stone tool making amounted to smacking one rock against another such that a sharp chip was removed. True 'complexity' came much later, and depending on whom you canvass, might have occurred during the tenure of Neanderthals and their contemporaries, or not until the advent of modern humans. 
of stone tools, which reflected both emerging individual cognition
I am at a loss to know what is meant by 'individual' cognition? I was unaware of any other kind. 
and embodied knowledge.
To say that 'knowledge' was involved in this acitivity is to presume a level of cognitive ability on a par with our own, which is by no means a secure position. 
The manufacture of robust,
again, meaningless against a backdrop of stone, stone, and more stone.
This is where Lam starts to stray into areas she ought not to have strayed into. While it's true that many, many archaeoalogists have historically held to the idea that the handaxe represented a 'standardized' form, there is by no means a consensus on the question, and indeed very good reason to doubt the assertion. Those who've been visiting the Subversive Archaeologist since its inception will remember this, and this, and this, where I attempt to take apart the idea that there is anything standard, or even purposeful, about the shapes of bifacial cores in the archaeological record until the Upper Palaeolithic.
artefacts may have enabled their trade
Creation of whatever is implied by the 'handaxe' 'may' also have enabled their use as door stops, but that would entail the further inference that doors existed in those times--hardly a reasonable assertion. To say that there would or could have been 'trade' at that time depth is speculative, at best, and cannot be considered a serious hypothesis, much less a well-warranted assumption. Also, whether or not the artifacts were robust or standardized they would nonetheless be tradable. So, this statement is either really ambiguous or truly nonsensical. You choose.
and imbued them,
This is purely a pedantic observation. As the sentence is constructed, the 'manufacture imbued the biface with cultural meaning.' I think not.  
over time, with cultural meaning within hominin social groups.
Again, the 'meaning' of an object or of its manufacture is something that you and I are quite able to grasp, because we give meaning to everything in our world. Whether or not previous hominid forms were capable of having this conversation, and thus able to give an arbitrary meaning or meanings to a given object is still a very open question.
Here, the longevity,
The persistence through time and space of the 'handaxe' can be explained by hominid cognition or the absence thereof, and is therefore a non-question. 
The wide distribution of 'handaxes' can only be explained by the ubiquity of the hominids, and not the intrinsic or semiotic attributes of the things themselves. 
The preservation of handaxes cannot be explained by anything other than that they are made of extremely durable material. It's a crying shame that all of the wood handaxes didn't preserve. But that's the archaeological record for you! 
and stability in design
There is nothing stable about the 'design' of a handaxe other than the stability of the paradigm with which archaeologists have viewed them through time and in distinguishing the 'handaxe' from other bifacially flaked pieces that do not conform to the mental template in the mind of those archaeologists. 
of Acheulean handaxes is explained by viewing handaxe construction in three temporal phases, co-evolving with the human niche:
More pedantry, I'm afraid. I fail to see how 'handaxe construction' could 'co-evolve' with the 'human niche.' According to Lam the construction and shape both remained static over immense time and space, and in fact did not 'evolve.' 
first, as iconic
To label the 'handaxe' 'iconic' presumes that their hominid creators had the cognitive ability to 'see' such things as other than lumps of hard stuff. 
The function of the handaxe has always been and continues to be the subject of endless speculation, and it is by no means a certainty that it had any purpose beyond that of a source for sharp chips of stone with which to cut or scrape. 
functional tools,
I believe this is a straightforward redundancy. 
fashioned by ancestral hominins
Finally a well-warranted assumption! 
; second, as standard
Ditto on the whole 'standard' thing. 
indexical commodities
Again, this presumes the hominids that left the 'handaxes' had the ability to conceive of such things, which is by no means a given, especially amongst what Lam goes on to label as 'pre-linguistic' hominids. 
exchanged in social relationships, perhaps as a paleocurrency among pre-linguistic hominins; and third, as symbolic of cultural power, carried and exchanged as gifts by modern humans within socially constructed niches, now filled with shared meanings and language.
I hope that Lam is describing the circumstances that would surround, say, one of my friends getting a hold of a real archaeological 'handaxe,' knowing that I'm a palaeoanthropologist and archaeologist, and giving it to me as a gift, whereupon I would display it on my mantle. Ascribing such behaviour to any 'hominid' other than cognitively modern humans is a huge leap of faith. In fact, the entire abstract, and no doubt the entire paper is no more than a giant leap of faith. In no way does it represent the level of scholarship, even, in the matters about which it claims to have something to say.


  1. Boom-tish

    So glad you found two words to agree with.

  2. Hey, read it again, I added an afterthought or two for a slightly more subversive emphasis!

  3. Thanks, Rob. This is not unimportant, because this paper was given at the AAAS one of the premier science conference. Bad science is not something they can afford to get a reputation for.

    And I should just add a note about the semiotic terms. "Iconic" does not mean the same as it means in vulgar speech (at least in Australia) that a "personality" (i.e. someone who has none) may be iconic. The word that should be used there is "indexical" as in Rush Limbaugh is an iconic radio personality. He is indexical of all that is worst about commercial radio in the UNited States. NO, iconic means "Anything ... is an Icon of anything, in so far as it is like that thing and used as a sign of it." Peirce "Logic as semiotics". So the handaxe as an icon would require there to be a second object that it was like, and I am not sure that will be easy to find.

  4. Thanks, Iain. But I think what you might have said was that we don't want the AAAS thinking that anthropologists do 'bad science,' if they didn't already!

  5. Just one point, it is not clear that this author is any sort of anthropologist as she works, I think, in a Biology department concerned with fisheries. So this may be an even worse scenario of a person who gets to the AAAS because they look as if they are a scientist, then proceeds to give archaeology a bad name because they are actually not an archaeologist. But we may need to check those facts.

  6. I'm gonna go right back out on my favorite limb and suggest that based on a cursory analysis of her discourse, she's at least had some enculturation of an anthropological (most likely post-modern) flavour. But you're right. She could easily have picked up the few empirical-sounding assertions from the dictionary!


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