Friday 28 February 2014

Those Awesome Neanderthals

How many ways can I express these thoughts without you, Dear Reader, getting totally tired of hearing them? 

I have no choice, since the message doesn’t seem to be sinking in for a great many Very Important Palaeoanthropologists. If you’re one of those readers, read on and be joyful.

I've had an epiphany. I’ve come to realize that the oft-maligned Neanderthals were really truly brilliant bipedal apes. Let me count the ways.


had bigger brains than us;

made stone tools using a technique that most contemporary human flint-knappers find difficult, if not impossible, to emulate, and which was so awesome that they and their predecessors did it the same way for upwards of 250,000 years, and produced more stone tool types than the Midas Muffler Man has Craftsman wrenches;  

knew how to dry-distill birch bark to produce a very sticky substance that they used to glue an incredibly-difficult-to-produce pointed piece of stone to a piece of wood with which to thrust into or hurl at prey animals, large and small. In a pinch [one presumes] they used asphalt for the same purpose;

made pointed sticks that are like javelins;

buried their dead;

made and used fire, with which to cook food and, as foreshadowed above, to dry-distill birch bark to make birch tar;

were able to copy the artifacts of us skinny bipedal apes;

knew about the medicinal qualities of various plants in their environment;

were smart enough to rule the world and all its creatures for more than 50,000 years;

made dugout canoes, but strangely, not birch-bark canoes;

lived in the Holy Land, but without all the wars and shit;

buried their dead;

made useful items out of animal skin, such as clothing and ditty bags;

turned naturally occurring objects into works of art;

talked like you and I;

built amazing structures inside caves and rock shelters, and even more amazing ones out in the open that they made out of mammoth bones;

had dentists and social security;

charmed the skinny newcomers to Europe, and made babies galore, from which you and I are descended.

were so attractive that they bred so often with us as to water down their genome such that no modern people have big faces, retro-molar gaps, huge noses and eyes, big fat cortical bone in their legs, and so many other traits that distinguished them from us for their entire existence up ’til about 40,000 years ago;

and they buried their dead;

collected dark-coloured feathers, probably to make capes for the important Neanderthals;

dismembered birds of prey to acquire their talons, prob’ly to use as symbols of power, or to guard against evil spirits or, Bush-like, Evil-doers;

liked shiny, colourful things, like seashells and red ochre;

sometimes ate each other, like the Donner Party, when there was nary an edible anything in their environment;

wouldn’t have looked out of place on a New York subway train;

were really, really strong. So strong that they’d have kicked ass as wrestlers, boxers, or football players (whichever way your culture construes the term football);

Oh, yeah, they buried their dead, often in invisible graves, and sometimes used natural depressions to save time and energy for more important stuff, like . . .  everything else;

I can prob’ly stop there. As I said, there’s no longer any doubt in my mind that the Neanderthals and their contemporaries were excellent at everything we are, and better than us in so many ways that it’s almost embarrassing at the species level.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

What To Say? What? To? Say? Whac-A-Mole?

I hope that, in this shiny, New Year, you're pursuing novel intellectual pursuits, enjoying success, and feeling fulfilled. If not, I wonder what you say to your friends when asked? I remember as a PhD student at Cal [in the early 90s—could it possibly be that long ago!] I attended a workshop on finding an academic job. Part of the introduction included some advice for finishing the dissertation. One outcome, as they say in pedagogical circles: I discovered that every one of us had the same aversion to being on campus. It seemed almost axiomatic. The further away one was from finishing, the stronger was the aversion!

One piece of advice given out that day has stuck with me: when asked how the dissertation is going, one should always answer, "As well as can be expected under the circumstances." Since my PhD was conferred, in 1994(!), I've had hundreds of questions—from different corners of life, on a hundred different matters—to which my response was to use that trainer's advice.

For the record, even taking into account previous rather lengthy hiātūs [oddly enough, the Latin plural of hiātus] since October 2011, in the past month and a half I've spent less time at The SA's helm than in any other similar slice of time. BUT, before you start asking the questions, I'll tell you: I'm doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances.

Behind that glib retort lie myriad contributions to my present affect: none having to do with my unquenchable zeal for verbally beating the ever-loving crap out of bad archaeological inferences and, yes, sometimes the intellectual capacities of their progenitors. Whatever the circumstances, I can't help but think that, unless you're an old friend, or someone with too much time on their hands, or morbidly curious [say, for example, like an ambulance chaser], you'll have long since clicked away to a blog or game . . . anything as long as it's less . . . foreboding . . . If so, I'm speaking—well, writing electronically—in a (metaphorical) vacuum.

It's said that Woody Allen, in a characteristically brilliant understatement, once famously quipped that "80 percent of life is showing up." Apparently he never said that. Instead, he said "80 percent of success was showing up," which I find much less satisfying than the original—at least where my own life is concerned.

I apologize in advance for what follows—even very loyal readers shouldn't have to hear a friend's explanation for not, as it were, "showing up for life," whatever the duration.

[Part of my 'not showing up' is due to my new, part-time, temporary, but often busy position as a Technical Editor. Still, that doesn't go far enough to explain the sound of crickets chirping when friends drop by.]

If I didn't know better I'd think that I was suffering from SAD—an appropriate initialism for Seasonal Affective Disorder—thought to be the natural outcome of enduring months on end of winter cloud and rain, which is the lot in life of anyone living on the Northwet [sic] Coast of North America. I may  well be mad, but I'm not SAD!

However, given present circumstances, you'd think I should be looking through [albeit overcast] rose-coloured glasses, instead of acting like a near recluse. Family matters do grind one down. But even that's not enough to 'splain the doldrums in which The SA has been drifting, rudderless, powerless.

It's not ennui, either, as was the fictional Sherlock Holmes excuse to temporarily—and for unpredictable chunks of time—check out of his life and turn to cocaine. Nope. Not ennui. Not coke, either!

It's apathy, which I now know to be far worse.

It's funny. In the late 60s, 'apathy' had the connotation of not engaging in the anti-war and student democracy movements out of choice—e.g., "I didn't march in the Earth Day parade because it's a waste of time. It'll never change the present nuclear stand-off. It'll never end the Cold War." "I don't vote! It just encourages them."

"You're so apathetic, Rob!"

Lately Apathy, in its true meaning, has taken up residence here at World Headquarters. Here's what Wikipedia has to say [slightly edited]:
Apathy (also called lethargy or perfunctoriness*) is most commonly described as a lack of feeling, emotion, interest, or concern. It's a state of indifference, or the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation, and sometimes passion. An apathetic individual displays an absence of interest in or concern about emotional, social, spiritual, philosophical, or even physical life and the world.
The apathetic may lack a sense of purpose or meaning in their life. An apathetic person may also exhibit insensibility or sluggishness. In positive psychology, apathy is described as a result of the individual feeling they do not possess the level of skill required to confront a challenge . . . . It may also be a result of perceiving no challenge at all (e.g. the challenge is irrelevant to them, or conversely, they have learned helplessness). Apathy is something that all people face in some capacity. It is a natural response to disappointment, dejection, and stress. As a response, apathy is a way to forget about these negative feelings. This type of common apathy is usually only felt in the short-term, and when it becomes a long-term, or even a lifelong state, deeper social and psychological issues are most likely present.
Deeper social and psychological issues! Don't get me started!

In my case, short-term apathy is part of the equation. Unfortunately I'm someone who craves constant reassurance and praise. By your very presence here, now and in the past, you and the other SA readers provide that reassurance and praise for my efforts. And I thank you and all the others for that much. Be assured, you're not the reason for any short-term apathy I might be encountering. That's probably due more to the intractability of the issue I've chosen to address in my Sisyphusian efforts as The SA—the muddle in the Middle Palaeolithic of Europe and elsewhere. Like that ancient king of Corinth, the gods of palaeoanthropology have, de facto, condemned me to this fate through their collective, intellectual, house of cards. No sooner do I reach the summit with the rock, it plummets back to the base, takes on a new guise, and up we go. On the other hand, it might be more like "Whac-a-Mole," in which all one can do is pound as many up-popping mechanical moles as possible in the time given. There's no victory. Only frustration. Frustration, yes, but it only explains short-term apathy.

As for long-lasting apathy, the kind that comes from deep within, I'm doing very badly "under the circumstances." My unconscious has done nothing but cast unexplainable shadows on my conscious life. At times darker; at times not so. "Deeper social and psychological issues" are, indeed, "present." I don't say this as a "call for help," or to "gain sympathy" . . . Rather, like the good scientist, I seek explanations, not excuses. Knowledge, not numbing succour.

To use an ancient and rather rank comparison, I just can't "get it up" for my life right now. Blame childhood. Blame Society. Blame insufficiently protective and unwitting parents who at times put me in "harm's way," and at other times squelched a self that wanted, more than anything, to be acknowledged for its real self. Blame good fortune for keeping the 'shadow' from overtaking me for much of my adult life. Blame my own lack of wit for not seeing it sooner. Blame the 'deep' "issues"  for everything that I am today—bad or good—not lazy, just profoundly apathetic.

In my life . . . right now . . . the bad has settled in for a long siege. And, to extend that metaphor just a touch, my castle keep is running low on water.

I'm doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances.

I'm truly sorry that this has been such a mordant blurt. I thought you should know, instead of wandering the world-wide web, wondering what happened to good ol' Rob.

I don't see my life changing any time soon. Not never, I hope. There's always Hope, someone once told me—but not, as they also say, in the "foreseeable future."

So, in the expectation of better days, please do me a favour: save up the archaeological howlers that you come across, and feed them to me when I'm back. I'll be back. I just don't know when. It might be sooner than I, or you, expect. So much the better.
* Of all the things I've been accused of during this ever-lengthening life of mine, perfunctoriness hasn't been one of them. Me? Perfunctory? Who'd've guessed?