Sunday 10 June 2012

Parsing Pettit's The Palaeolithic Origins of Human Burial

I've been struggling against my strong desire to avoid saying anything about Paul Pettitt's book, The Palaeolithic Origins of Human Burial [it is perhaps more accurately described as a treatise on the evolution of responses to death among humans and their bipedal ancestors]. I'm not avoiding it because of anything he has to say about my critique of Middle Palaeolithic burials. It's because I'm not as eloquent about some fallacious arguments as I am about others. [Believe it or don't.] By the end of this blurt, Pettitt's thesis will be shown for what it is--a sentimental piece of pseudo-science that ignores the similarities between the behaviour of chimpanzees and other mammals, and between mammals and other members of Animalia. So, on with the show.
     Remember me saying that Pettitt is careful to point out, repeatedly, that my work is 'literature-based,' as if that had any relevance whatsoever to the veracity of my arguments. Well, Pettitt's entire thesis is based on written accounts of observations--by others--of chimpanzee behaviour in the presence of death. And there have been many, whether that be death by accident, by disease, by killing, or by neglect. And I'm reluctant to say much about his thesis because in so doing I'll be denigrating his sentimental anthropomorphizing of the chimp behaviour he's read about. Yet, without any warrant whatsoever for his conclusions, he ascribes complex emotional states to our closest relatives. Moreover, he builds, on a foundation of his tenuous inferences, an edifice of insupportable extrapolations from the chimp data. 
     I'll give you an example. Pettitt recognizes that we humans are moved by observations of chimps when they encounter death. He and others of our species impute human emotions to those chimp behaviours where there may well be nothing in their actions that arises from the same meanings that we give death. Still, from his 'feeling' about these present-day observations Pettitt infers that the last common ancestor of chimps and humans must have had the same or a similar response to death as that which he ascribes to the present-day humans and chimps. And so, for example, he presumes to claim that the presence of Neanderthal skeletal remains in a cave is evidence of what he calls Funerary caching, whereby a corpse is placed 
in a chosen place, such as at the back of caves, in natural fissures, etc. Also the use of pits originally created for purposes other than burial... the place is given meaning beyond prosaic concerns such as corpse protection. Concepts such as 'places of the dead' may arise from funerary caching.
And porcines might take to the air in winged flight...
Having already prepared his reader to accept virtually any chimp behaviour with respect to a dead conspecific as  imbued with emotion and meaning [other, that is, than complete disregard] we are powerless to refute his claim that hominid skeletal remains in caves are there for a reason. This makes it mightily difficult for any archaeologist, say, like me, to rule out natural deposition, since, according to Pettitt, by virtue of its location any piece of a hominid must be seen as a purposeful act of caching. 
     And, if one swallows Pettitt's thesis, the work of Sandgathe, Dibble, Golberg and others at Roc de Marsal amounts to a hill o' beans. You'll remember that they determined that the Neanderthal child must have been naturally buried in a naturally occurring solution cavity, which is probably the only reason it was preserved. On Pettitt's account, this must have been a case of funerary caching. Full stop. No need for discussion. On to the next bit of fluff. 
     Hey! Not so fast!
     In the first place, the author is employing a fallacious form of argument known as petitio principii, or begging the question, in which a proposition is made that uses its own premises as proof of the proposition. Viz. Chimpanzees give meaning to death. Hominids must therefore give meaning to death. If we find evidence of death it must have been meaningful to another member of that hominid species. To accept any of Pettitt's constructions of palaeo-reality, you first must accept that anything has 'meaning' for a chimp. As I've said before, the day a chimp can tell me the socially meaningful [to me] difference between filet mignon and hamburger, or between a Geo Metro and a Lamborghini, that'll be the day that I accept Pettitt's premises.
     In truth, Pettitt's presentation evinces yet another example of a logical fallacy, the one known as argument from exclusion, or argument from want of evident alternatives. Here's why. Unfortunately for Pettitt, chimpanzee behaviour with regard to death is not unlike that of elephants, dogs, cats (big and small), and a host of other animals among whose adaptations is a lick of what most would call intelligence--at a minimum the ability to learn behaviours from other members of their species. How solid does Pettitt's theory of mortuary behaviour evolution look when you consider that chimps aren't the only ones to act in a certain way in the presence of death. 
     Fer gawd's sake, the only reason we're able to teach elephants or dogs (and I might add, chimps) to jump through hoops is because they are social animals, and ones instinctively capable of learning. Using Pettitt's criteria for what he calls mortuary behaviour we should regard elephant behaviour in the presence of death to stand as evidence of the elephant's experience of what you and I would recognize as a meaningful occurrence. 
     So, at the end of the day, Pettitt's book is a house of cards, built on sentimentality, and amounts to nothing short of pseudo-scientific quackery.
     Tell me I'm wrong! 

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  1. After reading this article and having no idea who Pettitt is, I am curious about when humans did start giving meaning to death. When did we start memorializing our passing?


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