Tuesday 14 January 2014

Buckle up!

Clinch your buttocks. Looks like we're in for a bumpy ride. My muse has forsworn me—not conducive to productivity. I'll be back soon, I hope. Oh. And. Wish me luck!

Thursday 9 January 2014

It's a Zombie Jamboree. La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1 Was Never Buried: Epilogue.

The big news of the moment is the recent claim that new evidence proves that the Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints had indeed been purposefully buried by his Neanderthal buddies. As you've seen over the past week, I believe it to be more poppycock.

I've already referred to this not-really so big news as being like a zombie. You know? Dead, but undying. And it reminded me that, despite the horror movie latter-day fixation with zombies, the arts haven't always treated the idea with foreboding. The zombie has also been the target of mirth, which I witnessed in the early 1970s, during three very happy vacations in Barbados.

Barbados, at 432 square kilometres, is a tiny dot on really big maps., in the Lesser Antilles archipelago, very close to South America. Once part of the British Empire, Barbados is now a sovereign country.

If you've never been, never seen pictures, or heard of Barbados, here's a primer.

Although there were some very posh resorts, for the most part the island was, to my eye, largely unspoiled by rampant development. I'd love to go again some day, but I'm afraid it would be a disappointment. Be that as it may. It'll remain in what's left of my memory for always.

Barbados is beloved for its contribution to the world of liquor. It claims the oldest continuously operating rum distillery on the planet. Mount Gay Rum is sold world-wide, and, in fact, I bought a 750 ml bottle this afternoon at Trader Joe's.

This tiny country is also home to a contemporary pop-culture phenomenon. You'll know her as Rhianna.

Anyway. Back to the zombies. While in Barbados the first time, I stayed in a resort that had live music every night. I was there for a couple of weeks, and I heard the Sandpebbles, at the time an extremely popular Calypso band, twice. In a bit you'll be able to listen to them. But first, I must tell you about Calypso. Besides being the name of Jacques Cousteau's research ship, Calypso is the name of a multi-facetted art form. Calypso is a dance step, a genre of music, and its themes are a sort of zeitgeist that harkens back decades. I don't know how much it influenced Reggae, but I can say that performers, the beat, and [sometimes] the subjects of both genres overlap, kind of like a Venn diagram.

I don't know if I've ever had as much fun as I did on those vacations. But, who cares?

The photo at right features a Mini Moke, a soft-top vehicle that tourists can rent to explore the island. My friends and I rented a MiniMoke one afternoon. After much inhalation of the island and its liquid refreshments, we found ourselves somewhere in the middle of the island, undear the only street lamp that was visible in the moonless and starless pitch blackness, surrounded by sugarcane fields—kind of like a corn maze—with no idea which way to go. We'd been trying to find our way back to a coast—we cared not which coast—which would make it easier to find our way back to the hotel.

Bajans, how they refer to people born there, are mad about cricket, and mad about partying.

I want to commemorate those days, and the recent re-invigoration of the La Chapelle-aux-Saint burial claim, by introducing you to a song that I heard first in Barbados, and never forgot.

So, I want to leave you with a recording of the ever-popular Caribbean classic, "Zombie Jamboree," as recorded by the SandPebbles.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Sunday 5 January 2014

Well, Whaddayaknow? A Discourse on Discourse or Why Can't Anthropologists Get Along?

Tonight's Family Fun Time is a comment I made on an article I found on Inside Higher Ed. In a general way it tries to ask the question, "Why don't some anthropologists get anthropologists from one of the other four-fields. I'm copying it here 'cause no one's gonna read it where I put it. And. I know that you're dying to know what the subversive archaeologist has to say about communication between those who'd call themselves 'humanists' and the ones that would prefer to be called 'scientists.' Have fun!
I applaud your crusade to make anthropological writing more ‘accessible’ to a wider audience within and without the anthropological community. I’m an anthropologist with expertise in biological anthropology and anthropological archaeology. I’m something of an anomaly. I’ve been influenced by died-in-the-wool Cultural Materialists, ecological anthropologists, and strict adaptationists. I’ve also found fertile research avenues in what some have called contextual archaeology—an archaeology that acknowledges people as agents of cultural change, and the symbolic meanings with which we humans imbue what we think, eat, and make [and much, much, more].
Were I to have tried dejargonizing what I’ve just written, imagine how many words I would have needed in addition to those I’ve already put down.
Like I said, I’m all in favour of writing clearly—there’s too little of it as I’ve found in that past couple of years, reading across disciplines, and the four fields. However, I think this article points up a fundamental schism of interpretation and political stance that exists in American [i.e. four-fields anthropology]. Within American anthropology archaeologists and bioanthropolists as a rule have nothing to do with their social/cultural siblings. That’s the best explanation I can make as to the inability for half the anthropologists to misunderstand, or to treat the discourse of the other group as fluff—and for the ‘ascientific’ ones despise the others for their ‘scientism.’ From early on in an anthropologist’s education these days, either you decide you’re not ‘doing’ science, or ‘science’ is all that you’re doing. Because of that profound discord, I believe that neither side learns how to ‘read’ what the others are saying. aware of what the other is trying to say in publications. I think the four-field approach is fine, it’s the people that are the problem!
I think I can shed some light on this schism, and perhaps begin to bridge the theoretical gulf.
Most of my contemporaries will remember Thomas Kuhn’s sociological exposure of disciplinary paradigms. And, no doubt, they will have heard of the two theories of knowledge propounded by Logical Positivists [alternatively, Logical Empiricists] like Carl Hempel and the other Karl, Popper. These are the bright lights who thought that all scientific knowledge needed to be of the sort, “If A, then B.” That views of science has dominated theories of scientific knowledge for time out of mind. It’s only been in the past half century or so that more nuanced theories of knowledge have arisen, and will one day soon displace the strict empiricist account of science’s success.
Scientific Realism, so called, better explains the success of science than did empiricism of any kind. Not because it prescribes a different ‘scientic method,’ more because it de-scribes the success of science without relying on the philosophically hobbled empiricist screed.
Notice that I use the term ‘empiricism.’ You should not confuse that with ‘empirical,’ which is the realm in which science exists and upon which it depends to advance scientific knowledge.
I strongly believe that the “schism” between the two anthropological factions is the result of the hangover of logical positivism. Most archaeologists and biological anthropologists are enculturated to view social and cultural anthropology as un-empirical fluff. In a similar vein, the social and cultural anthropologists view archaeologists and biological anthropologists as scientistic, or worse. What I’m calling the Schism exists because both camps are still leaning on a theory of knowledge that can be dismissed with a simple example. [Forgive me, this is a little simplistic. But it is very useful example, and it stands up very well as an exemplum of the way that Scientific Realism exposes the gaping epistemological holes in empiricism.]
Logical Empiricists like Hempel and Popper believed that you could only make ‘real’ scientific knowledge by ‘observing.’ Since we know, for example, that we can’t [very well] observe the thought process, theories of mind were ruled out in the positivist view of science. [This, I believe, is why it became commonplace in psychology to seek operational definitions of mental processes that could then be observed scientifically. But that’s another discussion.]
Alison Wylie has pointed out the incommensurability inherent in most archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists cleaving to an empiricist theory of knowledge. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot! Those two of the four fields make knowledge that they think is sure and certain, because they’ve addressed their subject matter scientifically [i.e. as good logical positivists]. But, if you’ll remember what I said a moment ago, Empiricism ruled out the possibility of making ‘scientific’ knowledge of such unobservables as ‘the mind.’ So, ask yourself, “What do archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists seek to ‘know’?” They seek, and succeed in, making knowledge of a phenomenon that literally does not exist! The past! That is so far outside of the Logical Positivist’s view of science, it’s not even funny. But it does point up the efficacy of realist theories of science to demonstrate that not all scientific knowledge can be accounted for by empiricism.
More recent philosophy of science does very well, thank you, without the stringent constraints placed on knowledge by the Logical Positivists. And the more ‘science’-y of the four fields should take note.
I know I’ve prattled on way too far. But, please allow me to address the schism from the social and cultural anthropologist’s side.
It seems to me that so-called post-modern anthropology suffers in the minds of archaeologists and biological anthropologists because the only theory of scientific knowledge they’ve ever known is the very same Empiricism that rules out the quest undertaken by the other two, ’scientistic’ fields. As such, it’s understandable that post-modern anthropologists would attack ‘science,’ as such, represented by Logical Positivism. Much social and cultural anthropology in the present day is all about going beyond merely observing and describing cultures, and seek to interpret human actions. And they’ve been damned successful, thank you very much. But, again, this sort of endeavour is ruled out as scientific, on a Logical Positivist account. It’s no wonder the social and cultural anthropologists don’t want to be tarred with the same brush.
However, as Alison Wylie has taught us, social and cultural anthropologists don’t make stuff up! Most social and cultural anthropology takes place in the empirical realm, using empirical evidence gathered largely in ignorance of a view of science that acknowledges their contribution as empirical, and thus, scientific. And radical post-modern anthropologists who say anything goes and shooting themselves in their collective foot by asking everyone else to accept their anthropological theory as the way it is. If anything goes, why should we pay any attention to them at all?

Saturday 4 January 2014

Happy [Gregorian Calendar] New Year! [The Rest of You Will Have to Wait!]

Here at World Headquarters it's a lean time. Not that there aren't dozens of small intellectual brush-fires that need stomping out. I'm talking about the dearth of time off work for the celebration of important people or events. As many of you know, for Christians and those whose cultural background is primarily Christian [like mine, even though I'm a devout atheist], the lead-up to the [Gregorian] year's end is a time of plenty, when it comes to days for which one is paid, but for which one does no actual work for one's employer. After the new year, in America there's one day off in each of January and February, then nothing until May. It's even worse in Canada, where Easter is the first holiday of the year. I've been out of circulation for a bit, so I might be off by a day here or there. But, compared to the last couple of months each year, the post-new year holiday picture sucks.

So, for all of us squeezed into the same or a similar boat, I'll wish you a mitigated Happy New Year! Those on the Julian, the Jewish, and the Chinese calendar are an unknown country to me. Regardless, good luck, prosper, and have as much fun as you can! 

Thursday 2 January 2014

Even Less Proof That Neanderthals Buried Their Dead

Yesterday, The Subversive Archaeologist, your favourite blog, received a comment on the third of three posts relating to Rendu et al.'s recent claim to have uncovered new evidence that the Old Man of La Chapelle had been purposefully buried. It came from reader Morley Eldridge. His is as disinterested a response as one could possibly hope for. Morley is steeped in the late-pre-European invasion archaeology of North America's Northwest Coast—about as far from Late Pleistocene France as you could imagine. Or maybe not. As he points out the 'soil' chemistry of shell middens and calcareous caves are very alike. His comment raises many issues that I'm pretty sure some readers will have shared. I immediately crafted an appropriate response, but was hamstrung by the character limit on Blogger/Google Comments.

So, I emailed Morley the piece, and asked if I might put up his comment and my response. He gave the green light. His comment is reproduced verbatim, as are my responses. I'm adding visual aids of what Morley's referring to. [And in the captions some after-the-fact facts that you should keep in mind.]

The Subversive Archaeologist (SA)received this comment December 31, 2013, from Morley Eldridge (ME), President of Millennia Research Limited of Victoria, BC.

ME: OK. Had to read all three posts a couple of times to get it straight.

SA: I’m sorry if I didn’t present it coherently. I do try.

ME: I do believe you are basically right Rob, and that Rendu et al were mistaken in the belief that the originally published profiles and plan had to be essentially accurate.The notch is damning if the differences in pit location and morphology are supposed to be due to 'damage'.

SA: But only basically? Just checking.

The Notch appears on the right-hand site plan. The original outline of the "grave" and position of the deceased are in red. The Rendu et al. excavation revealed that the "grave's" location was about a metre away from the original presentation. Long-time friend of the SA, Marco Langbroek, advises me that the notch was very likely created during excavation, when the skull and associated bits were removed en bloc. If true, it's proof that the excavators, Bouysonnie, Bouysonnie, and Bardon (B, B, & B), did a piss-poor job of drawing their plan. The claim that they fudged their published observations is further supported by the excellent duo of photographs that Rendu et al. published, showing the newly excavated 1908 pit compared with the recent exposure.  
There can be no doubt that B, B, & B fudged their site plan and profiles. In these two views, taken from precisely the same vantage point, the size and location of the pit appears identical. Moreover, the Notch created for removal of the skull en bloc appears to have been made almost directly below the shield of rock/travertine that can be seen in both photos of the site post excavation, and in the mid-excavation photo below. 
The pit during excavation. The excavator in red is perched precariously on a half-metre sized island of backfill, hard up against the shield rock formation. Judging by the concave profile visible beneath excavator in red, the notch had to have been almost underneath the shield of rock. It's difficult to imagine how B, B, & B could have been so far off the mark in their plan drawing. Moreover, the skull's location almost beneath the shielding rock can easily explain why the skull was excavated virtually pristine. In such locations, preservation is bound to be better than any portions of the carcass that were further away (in this case, all of the post-cranial skeleton). 
ME: Whats left is essentially an amorphous depression that contained a remarkably intact skeleton,

SA: I’ve done the math. About 50% of the skeleton is represented.

The 50% estimate is a charitable one. The true number is close to, but does not reach, 50%. If I may be allowed a bit of after-the-fact analysis, you'll notice that the backbone is well represented. I've previously argued that the Kebara Cave Neanderthal's backbone would have been preserved best of all, because lying on its back means that the vertebrae and associated soft tissue would have been first to be covered by accumulating sediments. If I'm right, and LCS1 was naturally buried, it stands to reason that his backbone would survive better than the rest of the skeleton. 
ME: and which was excavated by the standards current to the early 20th century.

SA: I have no doubt that the excavation techniques were less fine-grained than some being done today. But if Rendu et al. found very little skeletal material that B, B, & B missed. But it’s not the digging technique that fell down on the job. Neither is it the stratification observed or the stratigraphic interpretation. It was fudging the record of observations that seems to have led most of us astray for more than a century. There’s no recovering from fudged records.

ME: Has there been a concerted effort to search for the century-old field notes, or letters written to colleagues while in the field?

SA: An excellent question. But not one, I’m afraid, that I’d be enabled to undertake.

This is the only fine-grained depiction of the LCS1 Neanderthal. There are no photographs taken at the time. We have only the two views of its skull, which was removed en bloc. This representation is a museum diorama, and it clearly includes discrepancies from the original position of the remains. As I observed previously, the mandible is not in the same place as it was in the bloc that included the cranium. As for the rest, all we have to go on is the one, tiny, plan drawing of the remains that was published in 1908. And even there, one can see obvious differences between the remains as drawn by B, B, & B, and those depicted in the diorama.
ME: The position of the body looks very much like what we see in purposeful flexed pit interments in shell middens here.

SA: Which is why B, B, & B argued that LCS1 was emplaced in what looked to them like a sleeping posture. My response: death during sleep would produce the same result.

ME: The skeleton is much more intact than what we normally see, though, and I'm not bothered at all by the missing elements.

SA: We’ll have to agree to disagree on that point.

ME: Shell middens have similar chemistry to limestone and marl that preserves bone well but causes inexplicable bone loss on the micro-scale.

SA: I agree that chemistry is very important. But, in what is to all intents and purposes an impermeable basin, it’s hard even to imagine that the groundwater makeup could vary so much on a metre scale. It’s expecially difficult for me to accept that chemical variability is at fault, given the author’s description of the excellent preservation of those bits that were recovered.

ME: Plus we get all kinds of turbation and other taphonomic processes.

SA: That’s true. None were ever proposed or observed. And, as I point out, they weren’t being transported downward in the column because the depression is impermeable.

ME: I suppose some unwell Neanderthal may have crawled to the lowest point of a rockshelter, curled up into a fetal position, then expired and was somehow rapidly covered with a cultural matrix containing tools etc. naturally, and before the scavengers had time to do much gnawing.

SA: This is where you and I disagree the most. If LCS1 had expired in winter, and had frozen to death, in the north-facing bouffia it might have been June before it thawed. Scavengers are far less interested in a carcass after it has been frozen, and microbes, too, do far less microbing once a carcass has been frozen—so you don’t see the effects of bloating that you do in a carcass that wasn’t frozen.

ME: If the skeletal position was more higgelty-piggelty I'd offer up the suggestion, that I haven't heard postulated before (what say you, Rob, is the following behaviour known to palaeoanthropologists?), that perhaps a bear (U. arctos) could have buried him and covered him with dirt and debris, as grizzlies here are fond of doing with moose and caribou, and the occasionally human (some of whom have recovered enough to crawl out and away and live to tell the tale).

SA: That’s good to know. But of course, thanks to the fudged record, we have no good idea what arrangement the skeletal elements were in at the time they were excavated.

ME: One of my most scary times in the bush was realizing that the stink of rotting flesh was correlated with the pits and excavated hollows in a ridge-top aeolian (?) sand deposit and with the numerous grizzly bear tracks we'd been looking at - the bears usually hang around to guard such delicacies as they ripen. I don't see why bears wouldn't also do this in a convenient cave with soft-ish marl and midden, and it would be extremely hard to distinguish this from a purposeful burial.

SA: Thanks, Morley! Another arrow in my quiver!

ME: Obviously for one reason or another occasionally the bear doesn't return to his cache. But the regular flexed body position would suggest this wouldn't be an explanation here- unless the skeletal depiction was also 'cleaned-up' by the illustrator.

SA: Which, sadly, we’ll never know. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Morley. I’m hoping you have a prosperous new year.