Thursday, June 8, 2017

Rethinking Human Prehistory

About two years ago, I went to an American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) meeting.  I attended a session on the evolution of human cognition.  One of the presenters talked about his work on exploring how stone tool making was formative in the development of human cognition.

Several months earlier, I had been speaking with Mary First Rider, a Niitsitapi Elder in Alberta, Canada.  Mary is a primary source for the Blackfoot Dictionary of Roots, Stems and Affixes.  She is also one of a small number of speakers who speak High Blackfoot, the archaic polite form of the Blackfoot Language.  While speaking with her, she confided that her mother taught her how to make bone needles from a specific part of the Buffalo.  I was startled to realize that the practice of making bone needles was still in the immediate living experience of the Blackfoot.  Blackfoot traditional clothing is exquisitely adorned with beads and other decoration to express the history of the wearer and their family.  It is the Blackfoot women who make these clothes from the hides they manufacture, with the tools they make.  It is they that pass down the patterns and their family histories through the generations.

The Blackfoot have never bought into what archaeologists and linguists have told them about their history.  They have their own history.  Their language and knowledge system is intimately tied to the land on which they live.  Blackfoot today will tell you plainly that they were on their land before the last Ice Age.  For a long time, they were told by scientists that this could not be the case because their land was entirely covered by glaciers during the last Ice Age.  That now appears not be the case and certainly, the southern portion of their traditional territory, bounded on the south by the Yellowstone River, was cold and steppe like but habitable, during the Ice Age.  (For those interested in the Anzick-1 burial site and DNA sample, this site is within the traditional Blackfoot territory as described in Article 3 of the 1855 Lame Bull Treaty.  The Blackfoot agreed in this treaty to allow signatories of the Treaty to hunt on Blackfoot territory in the area of "Twenty Five Yard Creek", now the Shields River, under a 99 year lease.  The Anzick-1 burial site overlooks the Shields River and is north of the Yellowstone River, so it is definitely within the traditional territory of the Blackfoot.)

So at the AAPA a few years ago, I was thinking about Mary, and the making of bone needles passed from Blackfoot mothers to daughters for millennia, while listening to this person at the AAPA talk about tool making and cognition.  Afterward, I talked to him, and inquired if he had ever thought about tools other than stone tools.  If tool making was broader than just the stone tools that survive degradation, how would that impact our view of the formation of cognition?  If cognition is related to tool making, what about bone tools?  Doesn't focusing only on stone tools distort thinking about the relationship of tool making to cognition?  I also attempted to talk to this AAPA presenter about the process of clothing manufacture, and how that might have influenced cognition.  At this point, the presenter told me that clothing manufacture was very recent, and therefore likely had no influence on human cognition.  I wondered how he was so sure that clothing manufacture was recent.  I also thought about Mary First Rider, and what knowledge has been lost due to our presumptuous notions about the recentness of human clothing.

And speaking about the impact of presumptuous notions regarding human origins, the Recent Out of Africa "Eve" Hypothesis (ROoA) has had its own damaging impacts.  One impact of the ROoA, among many, is that it has left the Clovis First Hypothesis and the Beringia Standstill Model virtually unchallenged for the last hundred years.

The hypothesized distance covered by humans from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco 300,000 years ago to Florisbad, South Africa 260,000 years ago was 12,000 kilometers.  That's further than the distance from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco to South Korea (only 11,000 kilometers).  How probable is it that the archaic modern humans in Jebel Irhoud 300,000 years ago managed to cross 12,000 kilometers across the African continent in 50,000 years, yet were still confined to Africa until 80,000 years ago?  And again, given that Beringia was easily passable from 200,000 to 130,000 years ago, and again from 65,000 years ago to 20,000 years ago, how is it that scientists still cling to the Clovis First Model and the Beringia Standstill Model to explain the origin of Native Americans?

I'm happy to finally see some scientific papers begin to refute the ROoA model.  Many people suspect that human origins were more complex.  It has been suffocating and career destroying for some archaeologists, geneticists and anthropologists who have tried to argue for more complex origins.  Don't think so?  Here's a short and very incomplete list:

Louis Leakey in the last years of his life was heavily criticized, even by his own wife Mary Leakey, for being open minded about the Calico Early Man site in California (Link)

Canadian archaeologist Thomas E. Lee had his funding cut when he suggested that the Sheguiandah Site on Manitoulin Island was at least 30,000 years old.  Opposition brought Lee's work to a premature end, and he found his papers rejected by leading journals for being "too controversial."

Canadian Jacques Cinq-Mars was excommunicated from archaeology and had difficulty getting his papers published for suggesting that artifacts at Bluefish Cave in the Yukon were approximately 30,000 years old.

The disastrous case of Hueyatlaco destroyed the career of Cynthia Irwin-Williams.

And then there are all the people that decided not to study archaeology or anthropology when they realized that these fields are operating under suffocating, unquestionable ideologies and assumptions.  I know that many Native Americans have great difficulty studying archaeology or anthropology for these reasons . . . And they are not the only ones!

We have a whole industry of professional people, institutions and organizations that go on plugging the Recent Simple Out of Africa Theory, the Clovis First Theory and the Beringia Standstill Theory.  Asian Archaeologists are dismissed as being "nationalistic" and wrong for suggesting that there is evidence of some continuity in the Asian Archaeological record older than 80,000 years ago.  Again and again, the public is told that modern humans left Africa at the earliest 80,000 years ago and that archaic admixture in modern humans outside Africa and Australia is no higher than "4%".  The archaeologists, geneticists and anthropologists who uphold these statements all know each other, attend conferences together multiple times a year, and mutually benefit from a network of very friendly journalists who are always on hand to accommodate and promote their work without question.  These professionals review each other papers.  Any aspiring young person interested in these fields has to spend years at low pay climbing up the ladder, keeping careful to not offend any of their more senior overlords, and must never touch any of the archaeological third rails.

I am bored, and sad, with this state of affairs.  I think of what we never learned and can't understand because our models, assumptions and systems of knowledge acquisition for the understanding of human origins are so broken.

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