Monday 18 August 2014

"Intelligent Design" "Science" in Paleolithic Archaeology? I'm Shocked.

It'll come as no surprise to you that I just can't let the "Handaxe as Art" and "Levallois Technique as Science" crowd get too complacent.

Wait! I misspoke. I meant that I can't let them continue in their complacency without now and again reminding them that they're on very shaky empirical ground.

Today, I'm going to try a new tack. So different, in fact, that I think it's positively brilliant. [I might as well—it's unlikely they'll think so!]

Okay. Here it comes. To say that the shape of a so-called hand axe is predetermined is tantamount to claiming that the God of Abraham created every living thing on earth.

Here's why I can say so with confidence. I'll start with an rock.

"Why a rock?" you ask. You have to ask? I should have thought it'd be obvious. Look at how smooth it is. How perfectly rounded it is. How beautifully elliptical it is. Surely this must be the work of some minor deity! Or, perhaps, even, a major one. This rock came out of the ground all rough and angular, and by [name your favorite deity]'s grace, today it is a work of uncommon beauty and symmetry. Observe. And be amazed.

Okay. I'm being a bit sarcastic. Do you blame me? This rock, with its no-doubt angular but roughly oblong beginnings, has undergone a gradual process of evolution at the 'hands' of—not a god—but of flowing water. Simple as that. By a random process of attrition—the removal of as little as a molecule at a time of its original mass, by friction and percussion against other similar clasts—this rock has attained an almost perfectly symmetrical ellipsoidal shape in three dimensions, and a very nearly burnished surface. However did it get this way?

Well, I've already let the cat out of the bag. It wasn't a deity—an intelligent creator. Just good ol' Nature—what a geoarchaeologist would term a natural process. You know! The sort of natural process that a good archaeologist is supposed to rule out before claiming that an extraordinary bipedal ape was the creator.

"But wait!" you say. "Nobody's suggesting that this lump of [What is it? Quartzite?] is an act of God. I know where you're going with this. And I think you're setting up a straw man argument!"

Hey! Settle down. It would be a straw man if it weren't that paleoanthropologists have always looked at the shape of hand axes as desired end products of a purposeful set of flake removals. I don't have to go into detail to remind you of the innumerable times you've read drivel like this in the literature . . .
Production of large flakes as blanks for bifaces–handaxes are notably rare in the Qesem Cave assemblages (e.g., Fig. 3, and a roughout on a large flake, Fig. 4). Raw material used for handaxes was non-homogeneous, relatively low quality flint that differed from the materials used for any of the other production trajectories. It appears that the hand axes were made on large flakes, but apart from the single preform made on a large flake there are no traces of their production in the form of detached flakes or very large cores. The production of large flakes in the Lower Paleolithic is considered a conspicuous and characteristic cultural phenomenon . . . . The use of large flakes for shaping handaxes at Qesem marks the end of this tradition. (“Qesem Cave: An Amudian Site in Central Israel,” Gopher, A., R. Barkai, R. Shimelmitz, M. Khalaily,  C. Lemorini, I. Heshkovitz, and M. Stiner. Journal of The Israel Prehistoric Society 35, 69-92,  2005.)

Look at Figure 4. If you threw this presumed "roughout" into the sandy gravels on a modern-day beach in North America's Pacific Northwest, what shape do you think it would eventually take?

Right-y-oh! A nicely rounded teardrop in plan; in all likelihood a somewhat flattened ovoid when viewed from the distal end. I'll leave it up to you to imaginate what it would look like from the side.

The bipedal ape and the energetic sand and gravel beach have one fundamental similarity. Neither the ape nor the ocean NEEDS to have the least concern for the ultimate shape of this lump of rock for it to turn out either as something Gopher et al. would want to call a hand axe, or that I'd want to call—simply—a biface. As Gopher et al. so kindly point out, this "roughout" began as a big flake. If the ape removed flakes repeatedly, following a random pattern that affected all of the flakable edges equally, the result would be an angular version of the nicely rounded alternative that was subjected to the whims of ocean waves.

There is no difference between the arguments of Creationists, Intelligent Design mavens, and these paleoanthropologists and thousands of others who claim that the so-called hand axe is a purposeful creation.

I rest my case. And, in that case, I'm going to get some rest.

Nighty, night!

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