Tag Archives: archaeology

The Untermassfeld Controversy

Ancient European humans and their near relatives such as late Homo erectus, “archaic” Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans all come from an African stock. While some of the variation we see in these late members of the genus Homo certainly arose in Eurasia, these groups all represent either African populations or stems coming off an African trunk.

There are two chronologies proposed for the early occupation of Europe, for the time before these branches are clearly visible. The “long chronology” has human relatives in Europe perhaps as far back as two million years, and the “short chronology” has these human relatives at around a half million years ago or later.

The truth is probably this: Continue reading The Untermassfeld Controversy

About that 130,000 y.o. Human Occupation in California

A claim is being made, in a recent issue of Nature Magazine, that humans were active in the vicinity of San Diego well over 100,000 years before archaeologists think humans were even in the New World. Most commentary on this claim dismisses it out of hand, but out of hand rejections are no better than foundationless assertions. Let’s take a closer look at the Cerutti Mastodon Site. But first, some important context.

The Near Consensus on North American Prehistory

The Clovis Culture is a Native American phenomenon that occurred between about 12 and 10 thousand years ago (most likely between 11,500 and 11,000 uncalibrated radiocarbon years before present). Clovis_Point

The key feature of Clovis is the rather extraordinary “Clovis Point.” There is another, similar looking, point that goes with the Folsom Culture, which is about as old as the Clovis culture, but a bit younger, and there are a couple of other less common named forms. We refer to them all as “fluted points.”

Unlike some other so-called “projectile points” (many of which are knives or spearheads, many perhaps not even mounted in use) fluted points are rarely found in large numbers anywhere, but are represented over a very large region; They are found across the United Sates and Canada, and as far south as Venezuela.

There is almost no evidence suggesting that any humans existed in North America prior to Clovis times, and this has been known for years. Therefore, “Clovis culture” or more broadly, “Paleoindian” culture has long been thought to represent the first humans to come to North America. Since Native Americans physically resemble East Asians (an observation supported and refined by genetic analysis) it has always been assumed that Native Americans came from Asia as Paleoindians, or developed the Paleoindian culture right after arriving in North America. The dates of Clovis sites cluster into such a tight time frame that it makes sense to assume that these folks arrived on an unoccupied continent, spread quickly over a large area, and subsequently differentiated into diverse groups.

The idea of earlier, pre-Clovis, occupation has long been considered by the occasional daring archaeologist, and even the famous African archaeologist, Louis Leakey, suggested that certain finds in the vicinity of modern day San Diego represented much older human occupation. However, North American archaeologists remained firm on the idea that there is no pre-Clovis, and argued strongly and vociferously against the idea. Indeed, any archaeologist who wished to argue for pre-Clovis risked something close to professional censure, others were so sure about Clovis first.

For a very long time it has been at first quietly, and later less quietly, recognized that there are some problems with the Clovis-First hypotheses. First, even though one might expect the early dates for Clovis, if it represented a sudden and rapid colonization of a world with no humans, to be difficult to interpret, it became apparent that the earliest Clovis is in the far East of the continent, with later clovis being farther west. Recent interpretations of the data have suggested that this may not be true, but those interpretations are tenuous. Oddly, pretty solid dating evidence showing east coast Clovis to be earlier was always rejected as unimportant, while a much less clear argument that Clovis out west is early has been quickly and not very critically accepted, presumably because it fits the underlying assumptions of a sudden colonization from Asia.

Fluted points are way more common in the East, east of the Mississippi, in various Mississippi drainage valleys, and along the East Coast. They are relatively sparse in the west, say, on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, and they are very rare in Alaska. So, the distribution of fluted points is exactly the opposite of what one might expect with a simple model of Asians arriving in North America, suddenly becoming Clovis, then spreading from there.

Of the fluted points found in North America, the oldest style, Clovis, is mainly an Eastern phenomenon, with later styles, such as Folsom, are more in the West. If the so-called spatio-temporal boundaries of these styles is correct, and Clovis is older than Folsem, then it is very hard to argue that Clovis is a primary phenomenon that came out of Asia as the first thing people did in North America.

These observations together with the absence of Paleoindian culture in Asia strongly suggests that the actual history of people in North America prior to about 10,000 years ago was a little more complex than the usual textbook version. Indeed, Clovis would make a lot more sense if there was a pre-Clovis culture that did some or much of the initial spreading, followed quickly by the rise of a Clovis Culture among those people, perhaps in the east, which then spread across the continents very quickly. That would have simply been an early example of a phenomenon we see again and again in New World prehistory, where a material phenomenon of some kind, a type of projectile point, or a symbolic image, or something, spreads in what seems like an instant across a vast area.

Beginning mainly in the 1980s, a number of archaeological sites were discovered and presented as pre-Clovis. These are dated using various means. They occur across the US in Pennsylvania, Souoth Carolina, Oregon, Florida, Alaska, and elsewhere. They are also found in South America in Brazil, Chile, and Columbia. Most, perhaps all, of these sites — there are about 16 of them — are very strongly and forcefully argued to be real, and have varying degrees of evidence on them.

Most of the sites date to either just a thousand or two years, or sometime, just centuries, before Clovis and would easily fit into a pre-Clovis model as suggested above. This would go with the idea that somehow, humans arrived in North America, spread out, then popped out Clovis Culture soon after. Some of the sites are much earlier, but as far as I know, all the earliest sites have very questionable artifacts or dating that is not very secure.

I am not certain, but I think most of the North American archaeologists who so forcefully argued against pre-Clovis of any form have either moved off that position, stopped talking, or died off. Now, I believe, most North American archaeologists accept that there is a distinct possibility that there is what I would call a “near-Pre-Clovis.” But, since there are just over one dozen sites across two continents, one must be reserved in assuming this. Such a small number of sites could represent a small number of aberrant if well meaning interpretations of sites that have something wrong with them. I personally have excavated many, many archaeological sites, and I have seen things that can’t be explained. Personally, I think some of the late pre-Clovis sites are good. But, I would not be surprised if an all knowing alien with a time machine landed nearby and proved that I was wrong.

The CM Mastodon Site: Humans in the New World at 130,000 years?

The Cerutti Mastodon site is in San Diego County, California. The site was excavating in the early 1990s by a team from the San Diego Museum of Natural History. If you ever get a chance to visit that museum, do so. It is one of the many museums of Balboa Park, which also includes the famous San Diego Zoo.

3F9FD05F00000578-4447720-image-a-2_1493212011779The finds at this site include a juvenile Mastodon, Mammut Americanum, as well as dire wolf, horse, ground sloth, camel, and mammoth.

The site is dated using Uranium-thorium dating on the mastodon bone, to 130,000 +/- 9,400 years b.p.

A recent analysis of the site, just published in the journal Nature, claims that the bones show evidence of human modification, and that some stones also found on the site show evidence of having been used to modify the bones.

The modification suggested is the smashing of bone to extract marrow, and possibly, to make some flakes or otherwise modify the bone to make tools.

The authors of the paper suggest that there are, as commonly agreed by North American archaeologists, four criteria that a site must meet to be considered a candidate for early pre-Clovis human evidence:

1) archaeological evidence is found in a clearly defined and undisturbed geologic context;

2) age is determined by reliable radiometric dating;

3) multiple lines of evidence from interdisciplinary studies provide consistent results; and

4) unquestionable artefacts are found in primary context

They argue that all of these are met. From the abstract:

The CM site contains spiral-fractured bone and molar fragments, indicating that breakage occured while fresh. Several of these fragments also preserve evidence of percussion. The occurrence and distribution of bone, molar and stone refits suggest that breakage occurred at the site of burial. Five large cobbles (hammerstones and anvils) in the CM bone bed display use-wear and impact marks, and are hydraulically anomalous relative to the low-energy context of the enclosing sandy silt stratum. 230Th/U radiometric analysis of multiple bone specimens using diffusion–adsorption–decay dating models indicates a burial date of 130.7?±?9.4 thousand years ago. These findings confirm the presence of an unidentified species of Homo at the CM site during the last interglacial period (MIS 5e; early late Pleistocene), indicating that humans with manual dexterity and the experiential knowledge to use hammerstones and anvils processed mastodon limb bones for marrow extraction and/or raw material for tool production. Systematic proboscidean bone reduction, evident at the CM site, fits within a broader pattern of Palaeolithic bone percussion technology in Africa, Eurasia, and North America. The CM site is, to our knowledge, the oldest in situ, well-documented archaeological site in North America and, as such, substantially revises the timing of arrival of Homo into the Americas.

That the site is in a good geological context is apparently beyond question, as far as I know. The “refitting” referred to is where bits and pieces of one thing that was broken apart can be glued back together, showing that since the breaking event not much has moved around, which helps to argue that the site is not too messed up by geological processes. The dating seems good. Everything seems good.

Yay, an early site showing humans in North America way before we ever thought!

But wait, not so fast …

Why this site could be real, and other comments on the early Americas

Archaeologists have a conceptual problem with discontinuity. They don’t believe in it.

Say you are working in a previously unstudied part of the world (there are none, but pretend). You find a site with some pottery on it, and date the site to 1,000 years ago. In the same area, you find several sites, of various dates, from 1,000 years ago to 4,000 years ago, but they are all sites with chipped stone tools on them and no pottery. But then, you finally find another pottery bearing site. The pottery looks different, and the site was fairly deep down, so when you get your dates back from the lab and they are about 4,000 years old, you are not surprised.

And, now, you know that pottery using people lived here from 4,000 years ago to 1,000 years ago, right?

Wrong. It is possible that people showed up here with pottery, and left, leaving behind non-pottery using people, then came back later. Or, people moved here with pottery, or invented or were introduced to pottery, 4,000 years ago, then stopped using it for some reason, then pottery made a return, somehow, more recently. The problem is, most archaeologists will not accept that once something happens, it can unhappen, even though we actually do know of places in the world where pottery was brought there with the first people, then forgotten about or rejected for some reason, later.

So, here’s the idea. During warm periods, like the interglacial of roughly the age of the CM site, and the present, hominins tend to spread. Even the ones that like warmer regions, maybe not even humans, spread around during warm periods, and spread north. So, naturally, some of them get to the New World somehow, and these are them. They don’t even have to be chipped stone tool using humans. They could be bone breakers. They could be bigfoot! They could be anything.

Now, this may seem like a crazy idea, and it almost certainly is. But, the rejection of occupation as early as 130,000 years ago because we have no evidence of anything half that old requires that the new world can be occupied in only one way: something or someone shows up, then they never leave. This is in direct conflict with the known migrations of large mammals, many of which migrated either to the New World from the Old World, or the other way round, several times over that last 5 or more million years, and most of which do not exist in the place they migrated to now.

Why the Old World makes the CM site highly unlikely

I know an archaeologist who once said this. She said, teaching her class, that the discovery of a house structure at about 5,000 years ago (by the way, it might have been the house structure I discovered, which for a time was the oldest one in North America) tells us that by 5,000 years ago, Native Americans had a concept of building a house, like a wigwam, and the technology to do so. I once read an archaeological monograph that suggested that the presence in some 3,000 year old pottery of impressions of woven material show that by that time Native Americans could weave cloth. One textbook refers to the earliest fire in North America (several thousands of years back) indicating that we now knew that by that time, at least, Native Americans had fire and thus could possibly cook their food.

I’ve read and heard North American archaeologists say things like this over and over again. These statements assume that the first proto-Native American people to come to the new world, say as just-pre-Clovis people, must have arrived naked and technology free!

People in the Old World had chipped stone technology, whereby stones were used to break stones in a very systematic (and not too easy to learn) way to produce, ultimately, tools. Our ancestors had this technology before the genus Homo existed. In fact, it may be the case that our ancestors were stone tool chipping bipedal apes for as long before the rise of the genus Homo as after (this remains to be pinned down). Modern humans have existed on this planet for only a fraction of the time that hominins were making chipped stone tools. Until the abrupt and dramatic near perfect elimination of chipped stone technology in recent centuries, chipped stone tool technology was as much a part of human behavior and culture as walking on two legs was.

We know this because of all that Old World archaeology that has been done. Despite the limited understanding of world prehistory by many North American archaeologists, the truth is that a human (even a non-fully modern human) presence in the New World would have chipped stone tools with it.

If a creature was at the CM site with a culture that lacked chipped stone tools, but that used hammer and anvil stones to break up bone, it was an ape, not a hominin. It was Gigantopithecus, or something. Bigfoot! CM is potentially believable as a site if it occurred in a larger time horizon with definitive human evidence. In other words, a bunch of chomped up elephant bones down the way from clear unambiguous human occupation on a landscape with many sites of that date might be acceptable as a human site, but not this. Not just pounded bones with no other cultural manifestations.

Now, I want to add new rules to the ones listed above.

5) The artifacts have to include evidence of proper chipped stone tool technology, as this is a ubiquitous trait of Homo and proto-Homo

6) Among the chipped stone, there must be both flakes and pieces that are flaked, because many natural processes will produce one or the other (usually flaked pieces) without human engagement.

7) The flakes must exhibit many cases of clear striking platforms, the part where the flake is hit to make it fly off the parent rock, and those striking platforms must be mostly below 90 degrees angle, because that is the experimentally established difference between “natural” flakes (including those made by cars running over rocks and rocks falling off cliffs, etc.) and human made proper flakes.

8) If flaked bone is invoked as an artifact type, the flakes must be numerous and have the same low angle of percussion, and there must as noted above, also be stone flakes.

This is the underlying fact that must be understood by people considering the CM site as human. Humans bust up bones, but busted up bones in the absence of any other evidence of human activity does not constitute unquestionable artifactual nature. Ever.

Just to make sure that I was still up to date on bone breakage taphonomy, the study of how to interpret bone breakage, I asked Professor Martha Tappen of the University of Minnesota, a bone taphonomist, for her opinion about the site. She told me, “I would say that the breaks appear to be consistent with human breakage, but quite possibly other causes, too, such as backhoes and perhaps other scenarios involving trampling. Other evidence is needed to support the idea that people reached the new world at this early time.”

What really happened at CM

I spent a certain amount of time living among the elephants of the African Rain Forest. Well, OK, I wan’t actually “living among them” but I was living there doing archaeology and other things, and they were there too. In fact, I studied elephant movement and trial making, and in so doing, observed a lot of places where elephants tromp around.

Some of the elephants we observed in the Ituri (along with the afore mentioned Professor Tappen) which had been killed over the years by Efe hunters (they are the traditional elephant hunters of the region), died on or near regular elephant trails. Once an elephant is all butchered up or scavenged, I assume the living elephants walk around the remains, though in some areas they have been known to play around with the bones of the dead. But eventually, the bones get incorporated with the undergrowth and the sediment, and get trampled by the elephants. The elephants also trample rocks. I saw locations where the elephants walked a lot, including trails and one location where they had dug a cave to obtain sediment that they would eat, where there was so much elephant trampling of stone that most of the stone looked human modified.

CM site has several animals, including some large ones. Something about this site attracted animals that then died, but at one point were alive. This is a very common phenomenon in paleontology, and is not fully understood. It is very likely that the broken up bones and the seemingly modified stones look the way they do because huge multi-ton animals stepped on them repeatedly.

But what if …

I don’t want to rule out CM out of hand. I don’t want to do this because Archaeology is full of stuff that was ruled out by orthodoxy then later found out to be important or real, but data was lost because of the narrow mindedness of the narrow minded. I believe it is appropriate and necessary to reserve a part of our dogma for possibilities, evidence for things that we are pretty sure are not real but that have just enough credibility, just enough of a question, to allow for a later surprise. I would love to see more large mammal sites of the late Pleistocene excavated carefully to see what they look like. A program of exploration for and investigation of sites during and near the Last Glacial Maximum in the Western US is a good idea, and should yield some very interesting paleontological results. If there was some kind of a hominin running around then — which is very unlikely and indeed almost impossible to imagine — but if there was one, it would eventually be bumped into. Meanwhile, think of all the cool extinct animal stuff we would get to learn no matter what the human prehistoric story turns out to be!

End of Nature, First Americans

Book note:

There are two books you may want to check out because, for the moment (Tuesday, March 7th is the moment), they are deeply discounted at Amazon:

Kindle version for two bucks: The End of Nature

Kindle version for three bucks: The First Americans

I also want to note that Shawn Otto’s book, “The War on Science,” is now available as an audio book: The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It.

The archaeology of some Polish vampires

Apotropaic magic is designed to ward off or control evil. In vampire fiction, as well as in real life in cultures that include a belief in vampires, apotropaic objects might be crucifixes, cloves of garlic, etc. Apotropaic methods are known to have been used in burials. In the photograph above, a sickle blade has been placed across a person’s neck at burial time, probably to keep them from reanimating and becoming all vampiry (Individual 49/2012 (30–39 year old female) with a sickle placed across the neck, from the paper cited below.) Some people have believed that a regularly occurring disease can be transmitted from those who died of that disease, after death, even after burial. In these cases, apotrapaic methods would be used to ensure that the corpse remains inactive. One might speculate that the idea of a corpse reanimating comes from the infrequent occurrence of a person not really being dead when everyone is sure they are. Such events are like huge snow storms. That happens once, nobody can stop talking about it.

How the dead are treated is the bread and butter for a lot of archaeology. Death is important, and (usually) it is an unambiguous event. Explaining death is often found to be an important, often formalized or ritualized feature of a culture. For example, among the Efe Pygmies and Lese Villagers I worked with for many years, it was generally thought that a death caused by anything other than an obvious act of violence or accident (and thus, the vast majority of deaths) was caused by some sort of intentional bad magic. In other words, all “natural” deaths are homicides. The response to a death in that culture is typically to determine guilt. Ideally, the perpetrator is identified as a hypothetical individual who carried out magic from a very far away and uncertain location, or at least, that is what I observed and that is how people seemed to regard the process. That way everyone can walk away from the death without having to start a feud with a known neighbor.

Abigail Tucker, writing in the Smithsonian, talks about “The Great New England Vampire Panic” in Connecticut, a mainly 19th century phenomenon which involved special treatment of individuals we think may have died of tuberculosis. Tucker talks about the Brown Family, which had suffered a number of deaths.

As Lena was on her deathbed, her brother was, after a brief remission, taking a turn for the worse. Edwin had returned to Exeter from the Colorado resorts “in a dying condition,” according to one account. “If the good wishes and prayers of his many friends could be realized, friend Eddie would speedily be restored to perfect health,” another newspaper wrote.

But some neighbors, likely fearful for their own health, weren’t content with prayers. Several approached George Brown, the children’s father, and offered an alternative take on the recent tragedies: Perhaps an unseen diabolical force was preying on his family. It could be that one of the three Brown women wasn’t dead after all, instead secretly feasting “on the living tissue and blood of Edwin,” as the Providence Journal later summarized. If the offending corpse—the Journal uses the term “vampire” in some stories but the locals seemed not to—was discovered and destroyed, then Edwin would recover. The neighbors asked to exhume the bodies, in order to check for fresh blood in their hearts.

…On the morning of March 17, 1892, a party of men dug up the bodies, as the family doctor and a Journal correspondent looked on. …

After nearly a decade, Lena’s sister and mother were barely more than bones. Lena, though, had been dead only a few months, and it was wintertime. “The body was in a fairly well-preserved state,” the correspondent later wrote. “The heart and liver were removed, and in cutting open the heart, clotted and decomposed blood was found.” During this impromptu autopsy, the doctor again emphasized that Lena’s lungs “showed diffuse tuberculous germs.”

Undeterred, the villagers burned her heart and liver on a nearby rock, feeding Edwin the ashes. He died less than two months later.

That was in 1892.

As a general rule, a rule that is broken enough to make it interesting, a given people at a given time have a way they normally treat their dead. The ingredients of the typical mortuary practice for a culture might include whether or not the corpse is buried, burned, left out to become a skeleton, “entombed” above ground or in a crypt, put in a coffin or not, buried with a shroud or not, if buried, buried in a particular position, buried in a particular orientation, buried with specific objects, etc. When you see a pattern of mortuary practice in a graveyard, and one or a few of the burials are different, there may be something interesting going on. I had the pleasure of supervising a PhD thesis by my friend and colleague Emily Weglian looking at burial traditions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Supervising a thesis is a great way to learn numerous esoteric details. One of the issues that came up for Emily was how to interpret burials that were backwards in an oriented cemetery. In parts of Europe it was the practice to bury the dead with the head facing west so when the individual later reanimated and stood, they would be facing Jerusalem, or in the direction one might walk if one was going to walk to Jerusalem (there are a lot of versions of this, I oversimplify here). Individuals who had a life (or a death) that marked them as different, which might mean unholy, criminal, etc., might be posthumously dissed by burring them in the opposite direction, which would not necessarily stop their zombified form from walking (or tunneling underground) to Jerusalem, but it would certainly annoy them when they found out they were going in the wrong direction. But, another possibility was raised for certain corpses buried at 180 degrees; they may have been the pastor of the flock, who would obviously face his own people and presumably know enough to turn around before heading to the Holy Land when the time came for everyone to do that.

VampiresDontExistButSo, what about Polish Vampires? I’m going to keep this simple because a) the research is available in an open access journal so you can read it yourself and b) there is an excellent blog post on the research by Katy Meyers (see links below). From the Abstract of the paper:

Apotropaic observances-traditional practices intended to prevent evil-were not uncommon in post-medieval Poland, and included specific treatment of the dead for those considered at risk for becoming vampires. Excavations at the Drawsko 1 cemetery (17th–18th c. AD) have revealed multiple examples (n = 6) of such deviant burials amidst hundreds of normative interments. While historic records describe the many potential reasons why some were more susceptible to vampirism than others, no study has attempted to discern differences in social identity between individuals within standard and deviant burials using biogeochemical analyses of human skeletal remains. The hypothesis that the individuals selected for apotropaic burial rites were non-local immigrants whose geographic origins differed from the local community was tested using radiogenic strontium isotope ratios from archaeological dental enamel. 87Sr/86Sr ratios ( = 0.7112±0.0006, 1?) from the permanent molars of 60 individuals reflect a predominantly local population, with all individuals interred as potential vampires exhibiting local strontium isotope ratios. These data indicate that those targeted for apotropaic practices were not migrants to the region, but instead, represented local individuals whose social identity or manner of death marked them with suspicion in some other way. Cholera epidemics that swept across much of Eastern Europe during the 17th century may provide one alternate explanation as to the reason behind these apotropaic mortuary customs, as the first person to die from an infectious disease outbreak was presumed more likely to return from the dead as a vampire.

Katy’s post summarizes the results, but also critiques the media attention to this project, which as usual includes some abysmal reporting. She summarizes:

  1. Death by cholera is just an alternative hypothesis, not necessarily the truth. The authors mention that it is an alternative many times, they never say (unlike popular news) that cholera is definitely the cause.
  2. If cholera was the reason, you would be performing the apotropaic rites on the first couple individuals who died from the disease, so this doesn’t mean ALL died from cholera, but perhaps some did.
  3. They were not real life vampires, they were only vulnerable to being turned into vampires by evil spirits. REAL VAMPIRES DON’T EXIST. These were people who died under unfortunate conditions and were thought to be vulnerable to evil spirits in the afterlife.

Just so you know, non-normative treatment of the dead is pretty common. If a body is buried at a funny angle or has some other minor variation, it may not mean much. But if a body is nailed to the ground with several spikes like a burial known in Celakovice, you’ve got to figure something is going on. Unusual treatments like this are not found in the thousands or (probably) even the hundreds, but they are found widely. Also, it isn’t all about vampires. Vampire concern is only one problem. It seems that some individuals are being punished after death by receiving a non-normative mortuary treatment (perhaps they committed suicide or carried out some other act viewed as worthy of eternal damnation). That’s a very different situation than treatment arising from fear of reanimation or posthumous shenanigans.

And, as subtly indicated above, these beliefs are not confined to far away ancient cultures. There are people alive today that are the first generation offspring of those who lived in Griswold, Connecticut, the town with the TB vampirism. Griswald itself is and always has been very small, but the surrounding area is the birthplace of John McCain,Eugen O’Neil, Nathan Hale, Watergate Lawyer L. Patrick Gray, and as far as I know most of these individuals and other notables from the region are not vampires.

Here is your followup reading:

Gregoricka LA, Betsinger TK, Scott AB, Polcyn M (2014) Apotropaic Practices and the Undead: A Biogeochemical Assessment of Deviant Burials in Post-Medieval Poland. PLoS ONE 9(11): e113564. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0113564

Where do vampires come from? by Katy Meyers.

Climate Science Deniers Are Annoying Because

It is very hard for me to view the world without my Anthropological glasses, since I’ve been one kind of Anthropologist or another since I was 13 years old. Thinking about climate science deniers, I realized what makes them annoying to me. Let me tell you what I mean.

The ongoing conversation at an archaeological site.
The ongoing conversation at an archaeological site.
When Archaeologists (a kind of Anthropologist, in the tradition I was trained in) dig a site, they are constantly learning about what is under ground at that location, and throughout the process develop a model of what it all means. As an aside I should mention that increasing understanding is not the inevitable outcome. Sometimes more questions are raised than answered. Point is, as more and more earth is moved and more of the structure of the site and its artifactual contents are revealed, the conception among the diggers of what they are working on grows more detailed and often more complex. The archaeologists talk while they work. There will be experts and learners, novices and those with great experience, and as they dig the site speaks to them (a common metaphor in archaeology) and the diggers listen, knowing that what the famous Dr. House always says must not be forgotten: Everybody, including archaeological sites, lies. So at no point do good archaeologists come to a comfortable understanding of what they are uncovering. It is always uncomfortable, shifting, nagging, bothersome, challenging. And most importantly, this process is what archaeology is. The late James Deetz once told me that fieldwork was the most important thing to him and I asked him why. He said, “That’s where I think. I think standing in a hole.” And that is generally true of Archaeology. Archaeologists think standing in a hole, usually in groups, and they talk and between the ongoing results of the digging, the thinking, and the talking, stuff happens in their minds that advances our overall understanding (or complexity of questions about) something in the past. It also feels good. If you are doing that – digging holes in all sorts of weather, spending more time on your knees than a Catholic choir boy, always being dirty but not in a good way, sun burned, tick bitten, knuckle scraped, being mocked by the patch of earth you are busy destroying – and it does not feel good than you should do something else.

So that is what it is like to engage in the process of doing archaeology. Then a car pulls up.

The guy gets out of his car and comes over and asks, “Whatcha doing?” and somebody tells him.

“We’re digging an archaeological site, we’re archaeologists!” an enthusiastic less experienced member of the crew pipes up, walking over to the fence to engage with this member of the public, as we are supposed to do. “It’s an historic site from the early 19th century. There used to be a farm here. We’re tracing out the foundation of the house, and over there, we think we’ve uncovered the place where the farmers butchered their …”

One of the larger round rocks.
One of the larger round rocks.
“I found an artifact,” the interrupting visitor says, interrupting.

“What?”

“It’s in my trunk, let me get it.”

The archaeologist is left standing at the fence. Sniggers can be heard by some of the more experienced crew members, and glances are passed around like some neat, newly uncovered object might be. There is a reason the least experienced person on the crew was the only one to jaunt over to the fence when the guy showed up.

Returning from his car, holding a huge very smooth ovate river cobble, nearly perfect in symmetry, probably quartzite, “This thing,” hefting it over the fence into the waiting arms of the young archaeologist. “I brought it to the museum but they told me it was just a rock. Obviously they don’t know their rocks! I’ve been running back hoe on construction for years. I know this is not just a rock.”

For some reason, smooth rocks and people who know things have an affinity.

The conversation goes on for a half hour. We learn this guy has been carrying around his rock for over two years, showing it to people now and then. He has a number of theories about what it is, but his preference is to link the rock to Celtic mariners who crossed the Atlantic in olden times and wandered across the continent teaching the hapless Indians how to build stone chambers in which to conduct ceremonies. Despite the fact that this rock is clearly very important, representing a trans-Atlantic connection that only enlightened people accept as true reality, he leaves the rock with the young field worker who promises to bring it to the museum and put in a proper storage drawer where it can be studied by future Archaeologists.

So that was one hour the entire crew can never get back, one hour of failed and eventually forsaken attempts to dissuade the guy of his silly misconceptions, one hour of not thinking about the archaeological site, and also, for reasons of security, one hour during which one or two of the diggers found something interesting but kept quiet about it lest the discovery be drawn into the useless and distracting conversation, or worse, prompt Mr. Backhoe to return over the weekend with his big yellow machine to see what he might find.

That’s what climate science denialists do.

At the moment, and this is probably almost always true, there are some very interesting things going on in climate science. Some of the current issues have to do with the effects of anthropogenic global warming on severe weather. Here’s a brief overview of what is going on.

  • We know warming increases evaporation and thus potentially causes drought.
  • We know warming increases water vapor in the air, which further increases warming (but how much is a matter of debate) and increases the potential for severe rainfall.
  • We know sea surface temperatures are elevated, so when major tropical storms form, they have the potential to be bigger.
  • We know sea levels have gone up and continue to do so, which means that storm surges from various kinds of storms are greater than they otherwise might be.

These effects have something to do with the Drought in California, some major flooding and rainfall events of recent years, and the severity of a handful of major tropical storms including Katrina, Haiyan/Yolanda, and Sandy.

  • For some time science has predicted changes in atmospheric circulation caused by warming that would likely alter major weather patterns. In recent years, this seems to have been observed. So-called “Weather Whiplash” is a phenomenon where the weather in a region goes extreme for a bit longer than it should, then shifts to a different extreme. Drought and flood, heat and cold, that sort of thing. We don’t know but strongly suspect “Weather Whiplash” is caused by global warming’s effects on major air circulation patterns. This is a hot area of research right now, and it is fascinating.

  • We argue about the likely effects of global warming on specific kinds of storms, from temperate tornadoes to tropical hurricanes. Numerous analyses of data and models of climate change have suggested that there may be more of these storms in the future, other studies ‘conclude’ that we can’t be sure, and very few studies show that storms will decrease. The most methodologically questionable studies are the ones that predict decreases in storm overall, though there are a few good studies that suggest that certain tropical regions will experience fewer major cyclones.

That is a rough outline running from greater to lesser certainty. Down there in the lower certainty range there is some interesting science going on. One thing that makes the science especially interesting is the unhappy tension between what climate scientists ideally would like to do and the urgency of understanding what will happen with severe weather in the future. On one hand, climate scientists would like to get a couple of decades of excellent data to supplement older, not as excellent data, to see how climate systems responding to warming reshape our weather patterns. On the other hand, we would ideally like to know now not only if we have to worry about increasingly severe weather, but we’d like to know what kinds of severe weather will occur, when, and where.

That’s interesting. Going back to the analogy of digging an archaeological site, this is like digging a site that is of a familiar type, finding mostly what you expect, but knowing you are adding important data to the overall growing body of information about Early Bronze Age Peloponnesian urban settlement, or New England 19th century farmsteads. But while you are excavating the site you find a stain deep in one corner of a test pit you thought you were about to be done with, and there’s an unexpected artifact in the stain. So you open up a larger area and find a homestead that is not on the map and is not supposed to be there, and as you excavate more and more of it you discover it is loaded with exotic unexpected artifacts and represents human activity that was not known to have occurred at this place and at this time. This would be the most fun you can have with your pants on, kneeling, in the field of archaeology.

And then some guy comes along with his stupid rock and takes you away from it all for an inordinate amount of time. But in climate studies, it is not some guy. It is dozens of denialists, who do appear to be at lest somewhat organized, showing up and doing everything they can think of to interfere with your work. When the scientists get together to discuss the very interesting and important uncertainties, to evaluate very recent work, to share thoughts about the interpretation of newly run models or newly analyzed data sets or newly observed phenomena, they have to spend a certain amount of that time dealing with the denialists. They may even have to spend a certain amount of time talking with lawyers. When they talk to the public or to policy makers they have to spend a certain amount of time, sometimes quite a bit of time, debunking denialist myths and explaining the basic science that should have been accepted as premise a long time ago.

Now imagine once again that you are an archeologist and you and your team have finished work on a major project. You’ve put together a symposium to be part of a major international meeting, at which 9 different papers will be read and discussed addressing various aspects of your findings. You go to the conference. But 2 out of 10 of the people in the room are this guy’s friends. They will insist on asking questions about the Celts and the Giants that once roamed the Earth, and Aliens that mated with earthlings in antiquity to form a race of Lizard People. And they are not polite. Only 2 of 10 in the room come to the conference with these ideas, but they are highly disruptive and control much of the conversation at the symposium, at the bar afterwards, at the airport waiting lounges where people going to and from the conference accidentally run into each other, on the twitter stream spewing from the conference venue.

This is why climate science denialists are so annoying. They are sucking a measurable amount of energy and resources from the process of doing the science and understanding the climate system. Another analogy would be this: Every department of natural resources spending 10% of its budget mitigating against negative effects on Bigfoot, and every news report of anything having to do with parks, hunting, bird conservation, etc. having a Bigfoot spokesperson to address bigfoot issues. When you take climate denialist fueled false balance and re-describe it in any other area of public policy or scientific endeavor, that’s what you get. Bigfoot or something like Bigfoot. Cold Fusion experts always included in any discussion of the Large Hadron Collider, Alien Hunters having equal time after every episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos 2014, and so on.

There is plenty of uncertainty at the cutting edge of climate science. There is very little uncertainty at the core. This is because it is centuries old science and the scientists pretty much know what they are doing. Engaging in the false debate is a waste of time and effort, and that, I personally suspect, is the main objective of the denialists. They want to slow down progress, though they may have various different reasons to do so. None of those reasons are valid. They are not Galileo, though they want everyone to think they are. One wonders if they believe that of themselves.

That would be extra annoying.


Photograph of Eliot Park Neighborhood Archaeology Project by Jen Barnett.

Photograph of round rock: zphaze via Compfight cc

When Are Nomads Not Really Nomads? (Efe Pygmy Ethnoarchaeology)

“First, we’re going to collect our data,” Jack, the archaeologist, was telling me as we slogged down the narrow overgrown path. He seemed annoyed. “Then, we’ll leave. Until we leave, they won’t leave. They think it would be rude. After they leave, we’ll go back and map in the abandoned camp.”

I had just arrived at the research camp in the Ituri Forest, then Zaire and now the Congo, after a rather long and harrowing journey that took me from Boston to New York to London to Lagos to Kinshasa to Kisingani to Isiro, all by plane, then over 250 kilometers of increasingly less road-like road, to the world’s most “remote” research site to be found among human settlements anywhere on the planet. Jack’s research involved looking at what happened to Efe Pygmy “camps” after they were abandoned. The Efe hunter-gatherers were known to move camp an average of once every two weeks or so. An archaeologist would want to know what happens to a camp once it is abandoned because many of the ancient sites we excavate are exactly that, abandoned settlements. Jack had been tracking Efe movement and camp abandonment patterns for one year, and the expectation was that I would continue his data collection for another year, as he and his wife returned to Montana to write up their results.

A typical Efe forest camp.
A typical Efe forest camp.
The Efe, being very hospitable, were reluctant to leave a camp with visitors present, even if the visitors promised to leave with them, and certainly would never leave a camp if the visitors stayed behind. It just wasn’t done. Jack never told me how long it took for him and Helen to figure out that every time they visited a camp they were told would be abandoned that day, the Efe never actually moved, but eventually they came upon the method of arriving about the time of expected abandonment, collecting some preliminary data, and then leaving only to return hours, or perhaps a day, later.

“Oh, excuse, me have you moved yet? No? OK, see you tomorrow.”

When we arrived at the camp, which was located very near the Lese villages … the Lese are the farming people who with an overlapping culture and economy with the Efe … there were a lot of people there. This was a camp with several adult couples and a number of kids of all ages from baby up to nearly teenage. Since this was Jack and Helen’s last visit, they brought gifts to give to the people who had helped them out for the previous year. Project regulations and ethics required that any gifts be irrelevant to diet or economics, not usable as tools of poaching, not likely to change people’s status, and be likely to be used up or worn out quickly. So, everybody got plastic green sunglasses, the really cheap kind you buy by the dozen at a party store to use as favors.

A typical Lese village.
A typical Lese village.
The data collection involved listing all the people who were present, using coded references so no one could ever trace a real individual to any of our reports or publications. Years ago there was a revolution here in the Ituri during which lists of plantation workers or other employees, people who might be sympathetic to the Belgian colonials, were used to find and sometimes kill sympathizers. In case something like that ever happened again, we did not want our records to be used to identify people who were friendly to outsiders who might be seen as oppressors. That we tried very hard to not be oppressors was hardly the point; violent revolutions often get such things wrong. We would also offer everyone in the camp the opportunity to display their tools and other durable items so that we could inventory and photograph them. This was done voluntarily, but in this particular culture there was no proscription against it as long as we were looking only at regular household items or hunting weapons. Any sacred ritual items would be kept hidden, most likely, and we would not ask about them.

It was a party, a good time, lots of conversation, some weeping over the fact that the much beloved Jack and Helen would be moving back to the States, lots of fun with the green sunglasses, lots of data collected. Then, we left, and the next day we returned to map in the locations of the small dome shaped leaf-covered huts and other structures, fire hearths, stick chairs, drying racks, midden piles, trampled central-use areas, and so on and so forth. This is what the abandoned camp of a people known in the literature, and generally to outsiders, as “nomads” looked like. There was lots of stuff there, but all of it was made from materials available on the spot, transformed from wild growing plants to architecture and kitchen furniture, but eventually thrown out or left behind. Everything else was carried by the Efe, in one trip, to the next camp they would build from natural materials. Or almost everything.

Saying goodbye to Jack and Helen.
Saying goodbye to Jack and Helen.
To understand the movement of the Efe across the landscape, one had to first understand the seasonal cycles of the villages and the forest. While the Efe were hunter gatherers, living off the land in the African rain forest, they also associated with the Lese Villagers, farmers who grew crops in swidden (slash and burn) gardens. Sometimes the Efe men helped the Lese to develop the gardens, especially new gardens, by cutting and burning trees, in exchange for some goods, often tobacco and marijuana (which were always consumed together). But much more regularly, the women worked in the gardens planting, tending, harvesting, and processing rice, peanuts, cassava, plantains, and other crops. These gardens had a seasonal cycle. Being almost on the equator, there were two growing seasons, a wet season for “dry” country rice and a less wet season for growing peanuts. The other crops were grown year round. So, there was a harvesting and planting season around June, and another harvesting and planting season around November.

Collecting data from an abandoned camp.
Collecting data from an abandoned camp.
In return for their work in the fields, Efe could take food from the gardens. In the end, about half of the food the Efe ate consisted of agricultural produce procured in exchange for this work and the other half of their food came from the forest, mostly hunted meat but also gathered fruits and roots and other things.

And the forest had it’s seasonal cycle as well. During the dry season, which lasted several weeks around November and December, certain animals were easier to hunt because the streams they hid in, or that would impair hunter’s movement through the forest, were very low. Staring in late June and running into August, the famous African Killer Honey Bees (the wild version of our own domesticated honey bee) produced copious honey in nests about 100 feet up in the forest canopy. The Efe men were very dedicated to harvesting this honey.

If you think about that information for a bit you’ll notice possible conflict. For example, the Efe are drawn to the deep forest for Honey Season, but this overlaps with the mid-year harvest and planting. The November harvest and planting overlapped and conflicted with the dry season hunting. You might guess that men and women would have different opinions about where to reside during these periods of conflicts. The women would never stay overnight in a farm village during harvest; they moved each day by foot from the Efe camp to the gardens and back. But as it became more desirable to camp farther and farther into the forest, that commute became longer and longer. We say (usually tongue in cheek) that Western couples fight over certain things, like money or how to raise the kids or what channel to watch on TV. Efe couples argue over where to put the camp in relation to the horticultural villages vs. the deep forest.

I ended up never continuing Jack and Helen’s data collection project. That I would spend a year doing Part II of another graduate student’s thesis was an idea cooked up by our shared advisor, but neither Jack nor I saw the benefit in doing that. He had enough data, I had other things to do. So, instead, I studied the larger scale structure of Efe nomadism, of their movements across the landscape and their use of forest resources.

I discovered that each Efe group possessed (and that is a carefully chosen word) rights to a trail, usually one single trail but sometimes something a bit more complicated, that ran from the villages out into the forest. Along this trail, at intervals of almost exactly 1.5 kilometers, was a potential camp site. Of these camp sites, a handful were used again and again as the Efe moved through their seasonal cycle. Some of the other camps were used only occasionally. This was interesting, because it meant that even though the efe might move over 20 times a year, the part of their movement in the deep forest had them return to the same exact four or five camps again and again for years. They would also repeatedly use the same camps near the villages, but since village farmers often moved their swidden gardens, wiping out grown-over sections of the forest in one area and abandoning a garden elsewhere, the Efe “village camps” … the camps used during planting and harvest seasons … were often destroyed or otherwise became inconvenient.

Efe hunter.  As a general rule, if you don't know at least approximately where something is in the forest before you go looking for it, you're not likely to find it.
Efe hunter. As a general rule, if you don’t know at least approximately where something is in the forest before you go looking for it, you’re not likely to find it.
I also discovered that the Efe named each of their camps. This should not be surprising. Humans everywhere use place names to navigate and situate themselves in space. As with place names generally, the names of camps often had a meaningful history. One camp was named “Near the rotten orange tree.” That was a camp located near a garden where there once stood a citrus tree, long gone. That was revealing because there were no villages anywhere near the old orang tree today, the original village having been left decades ago. The best camp name I encountered was “Place the women refuse to pass.” This meant that this was the location along that particular group’s trail that the women refused to move camp beyond during the seasons they commuted to work in the gardens. As it was, this camp was about two hours walk from the villages. No wonder they refused to live beyond that point while working in the farms!

And now we come to the interesting anthropological lesson that emerges when we look at other cultures, in this case, the Efe and Lese. In books and articles about the Pygmies of the Central African rain forest, the Pygmies (including the Efe as well as other groups with different names) are often called “nomads.” Nomads, we all know, are people who move a lot. The term also invokes, for many, a certain amount of randomness, or at least, uncertainty in where one might be moving next. There is indeed uncertainty, of a sort, among the Efe as to when they are going to move and where to. But this is simply because one does not need to decide when or where until it is time to do so. There is a constant negotiation happening between members of a particular group as to when to move, and which camp to move to. If there is a big enough difference between different families in a camp, they can easily move to two different locations for a while, or one group can stay and others leave. But these differences never lead to the men going one place while the women go elsewhere, even though the biggest conflict is usually between men and women. The point is, their movement is not random, but well considered and systematic, yet in at the scale of days or weeks in advance, not very predictable at any level of detail.

Yet, at the same time, the Efe are the opposite of nomadic. Consider their Lese village farmer neighbors. They live in permanent villages. But, over time, the Lese use up garden space and firewood in the vicinity of their village. Also, a mini-epidemic of disease in a given village will cause people to not want to live there any more. So, over the course of a person’s life, say a person who lives to 70 years old, one might move seven or eight times from one village to another just in service to the agricultural cycle.

But wait, there’s more. Among the villagers, men and women, when they are married, move to one parent’s village or another for a while, then try to start their own village, and that sometimes does not work out, so they move again. So, around the age of marriage, a person may move three or four times in two or three years. A young man might spend two or three years working at a plantation far from their village, or spend some time in the army. A woman and her children might move to near a chief’s village if her husband is caught doing something wrong and forced into indentured service for a few months. Every now and then the government comes along and moves any village that is too far out in the forest closer to the road so it is easier to tax them. Then later, the government disappears (remember, this is a remote area) and everyone moves back. If grandma gets really sick part of the family might move far away to a mission hospital, because the family is required to supply food and labor to support grandma’s stay in what amounts to a hospice. And so on and so forth.

Betweeen all of these factors, Lese farmers might move 20 times in their life.

Let’s view “nomadism” among the Efe hunter gatherers and the Lese villagers from a slightly different perspective. Let’s ask the question: How many different places have you slept a total of 100 nights or more? That eliminates short forays, fishing trips, very short marriages, etc. Or, putting it a slightly different way, let’s look at the list of places one lives ranked by how many nights one has slept there in a lifetime. Nomads, given our usual conception of them, should have a very long list with a small number of nights at each place, while settled people should have a list with a short number of localities each associated with hundreds or thousands of nights, even if there is a tail of several places with a small number of nights each down hear the bottom of the list.

If we look at the “nomadic” hunter gatherers of the Ituri Forest, the Efe, their list will have five or six places that account for 80% or more of their nights, if we adjust for the frequently destroyed camps in or near the gardens. The Lese farmers, on the other hand, will have over a dozen localities with a several hundred nights in each. By that reckoning, the Lese are more nomadic over a lifetime, even if the Efe are constantly moving.

Minnesotans who go away for college and whose families have a cabin (maybe a series of cabins over time) up north and who spend part of their lives moving opportunistically from apartment to apartment in South Minneapolis are pretty nomadic too. I myself moved once before the age of 16, then about every six months for the next 15 years, chasing relationships, jobs, schools, and doing field work.

Finally, let’s look at nomadism in one more way. If you move every several years, occasionally more often such as around the time of marriage, then at any given time the landscape you know is the landscape you live in, and the memories of details of the landscape of your childhood or other times gone by both fades and becomes obsolete. But if you move constantly, but over the same exact landscape all the time like the Efe do, then your knowledge of every bit of the landscape is detailed an intense and constantly updated and renewed. The Efe know every root that ever tripped them and every rocky pile that ever harbored a small forest animal procurable for dinner and every mature fruit tree and every patch of tasty forest yams in the place they live. The other part of my research, looking at Efe diet, came to this conclusion: There is a fair amount of food in the rain forest, but the only way to find any of it is to know in advance where it is located. Otherwise, the costs in time and energy to discover it excede its caloric value.

The Efe are not nomadic. They are, rather, constant inspectors of their rather large home, centered on their traditionally used trail, consisting of a half dozen venues to sleep and live.


More stuff about the Congo

A while back I wrote a Novella, as a fundraising effort for the Secular Student Alliance, set in the eastern Congo. A cleaned up version of it is available here: Sungudogo

You can read the harrowing real life story of a season of field research in the same region, in a series of blog posts, by clicking HERE (then click through to the next blog post, and the next, and the next, until you’ve read them all!).

And, THIS LINK will get you to a selection of other stories set in the region.

Jack’s research was written up here:

Ethnoarchaeology Among the Efe Pygmies, Zaire: Spatial Organization of Campsites, by J. W. Fisher, Jr. and H. C. Strickland. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 78:473–484.

Across Atlantic Ice: Clovis Origins

I want to talk about the book Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture. It was written by Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley, both highly respected archaeologists. The point they make in the book is very simple: An important archaeological culture known as the “Clovis” is actually a European culture that traveled east to west from Europe to North America, arriving first along the New England coast and then fairly quickly spreading across the US to the Rockies, and subsequently kinda petering out though there are bits and pieces of Clovis looking stuff farther west.

From the book’s publisher:

Who were the first humans to inhabit North America? According to the now familiar story, mammal hunters entered the continent some 12,000 years ago via a land bridge that spanned the Bering Sea. The presence of these early New World people was established by distinctive stone tools belonging to the Clovis culture. But are the Clovis tools Asian in origin?

Drawing from original archaeological analysis, paleoclimatic research, and genetic studies, noted archaeologists Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley challenge the old narrative and, in the process, counter traditional–and often subjective–approaches to archaeological testing for historical relatedness.

The authors apply rigorous scholarship to a hypothesis that places the technological antecedents of Clovis in Europe and posits that the first Americans crossed the Atlantic by boat and arrived earlier than previously thought. Supplying archaeological and oceanographic evidence to support this assertion, the book dismantles the old paradigm while persuasively linking Clovis technology with the culture of the Solutrean people who occupied France and Spain more than 20,000 years ago.

This flies in the face of everything everybody thinks, except for those of us who have been thinking that something like this may have happened all along. I’ve always thought this was possible, if not probable, for two reasons: 1) Clovis looks more like Europe than it looks like anything else, even though I don’t see any immediate comparison (contra Stanford and Bradley who do). I also don’t need an immediate comparison. I don’t need an archaeological culture that looks just like Clovis to be in Europe, since the time period during which such a culture would have existed was during lowest sea level stands. An entire sub-continent worth of land is now inundated by the sea, and if Clovis is truly coastal it would be truly invisible in Europe. Why did Clovis go from coastal to inland in the North Atlantic in the New World and not the old world? Stupid question. People do stuff like that all the time.

If you live many months of the year on the ice at the edge of the sea, Europe and North America are one place.

The second reason is even more compelling and is the first thing I noticed. Despite intransigent denialim by North American archaeologist, Clovis appears in the east first, then moves west, and does not really cross the Rockies. No amount of pretending it is found first in the west (where it hardly exists) and moved east (against the tide of C14 dates) will change those facts.

One might suggest that this causes a problem because Native Americans are from Asia and Clovis can’t therefore be from Europe. It might help to know that in most places in North America, where Clovis occurs, it is followed by nothingness or at best notmuchingness. There is very little continuity from Clovis to later cultures, not enough to require that the same people stuck around everywhere. I regard Clovis as one intrusion in to a mostly empty continetn, not the first, not the last, probably preceded by relative but not complete emptiness in most places in North America, and followed, probably, but periods of population decline probably owing to climate change. But that’s just me; I don’t accept that the past is simple no matter how complex the present is. Rather, I think the complexity of human land use and migration is probably one of those general rules that applies across time and space at archaeological scales.

Urban Archaeology

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[D]ennis removed the top of the hamburger bun, flipped the meat out of the way, laid down catchup on both sides and reassembled the Cheeseburger Special Agnes had just laid before him as deftly as he always did. And, as expected, the new guy shyly and quietly took note of this culinary quirk, and I knew that starting soon, if he remembered having seen this today, he’d be putting the catchup on both sides of his burger too, as we all did once we saw Dennis do it. It’s just better that way. It’s not like it’s more catchup. The same amount of catchup distributed on both sides of the hamburger works better for three or four reasons, all of which anyone who tries it a few times will learn. Now that you know to do it, I think you’ll start doing it too. If you remember.

For or five of us sat squeezed into the booth at Shuluski’s Diner, internalizing a much deserved lunch following a long morning of digging trenches all over town. Waterford, New York had never had a proper modern sewer system. The entire town’s sewage, and at the time this was the most populous “village” in the state, entered an ancient pipe and vault sewer system that barely served as a septic tank as the sewage made its way fairly quickly to an outlet just below the waterline in the Mohawk River, down on Front Street. None of us will forget the day we discovered the outlet, which had never properly been mapped.

We were sitting there on the edge of the river eating our lunch, when a change of hidden currents in the murky, notoriously polluted river below our dangling feet caused several minutes of fresh effluence to rise to the surface before dispersing downstream. I guessed that it depended on the temperature of the water and the flow of currents around the nearby Erie Canal locks. Fresh human shit, wadges of recently used toilet paper, and a condom came floating by in the first batch. Being some ten feet or so below us, it didn’t smell any more than the background olfactory heaviness that followed this river for much of its course. But it did strengthen our resolve to continue with our trenching, which would ultimately lead to the installation of the most modern, cleanest, and most efficient waste water treatment system Superfund money could buy for this quaint and sleepy town on the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers.

Across the restaurant at a table were Henry and his two boys. Henry was little and tough, the boys very large and in his employ. Henry wore a wife-beater tee and a perpetual two-day-old shadow, and when he worked the levers of his backhoe, his tongue protruded from the side of his mouth to keep an eye on things. He was precise, professional, and fearless. He could pick up a shard of historic pottery from the shadowed bottom of a 15-foot trench. Most of the time, I was the crew leader and had the job of telling him where to dig, how deep, and most importantly, when to stop and when to switch from trenching to centimeter by centimeter careful archaeological excavation. This old historic village was build on amazing prehistoric and contact period sites, and a sewer pipe was going to be laid down every single street. So by the time we got half way done with the backhoe survey, looking for sites, assessing the lay of the underground historically modified landscape, tracing out areas of disturbance vs. “high potential” for sites, Henry and I had become twins connected at the bucket. My subtle hand signals guided him, but he needed little guidance. I rode the bucket into and out of the deepest trenches, and the occasional shared knowing sidelong glance would have us agreeing tacitly but firmly that a particular trench was too deep. Then, as we would watch the trench collapse with no one in it, we’d exchange another sidelong glance knowing we were right to not go in that one.

And as I said, fearless. We had a trench that would ideally be dug perpendicular to the edge of the bluff overlooking the rapids below the damn and waterfall. Henry dug the trench perfectly, backing his machine up to the point that only two of his four wheels were on the ground, the giant back left wheel dangling off the cliff with nothing but air for a hundred feet below, the smaller front right wheel hanging forward in the air like the flailing arm of some moron going down on the ice for the last time. He balanced the damn backhoe with his tongue, sticking out, watching him straighten the edge of the trench and just as the last bit of solid ground started to crack beneath him, using the bucket to drive the backhoe off to the side and to safety. Even his sons, almost pathologically emotionless as they watched their father daily work his backhoe magic, breathed a sigh of relief. And somehow I was not surprised when Henry sauntered over to me and pulled up his shirt, pointing to two bullet holes in his chest.

“I had to do almost the same exact thing in Korea once, but under fire. Today was easy!”

So as we sat munching our cheeseburger specials, Arnold sat at his habitual, perpetual, butt-worn stool at Shuluski counter, overlooking the window through which we could see Albert S. cooking up the orders transmitted to him by his wife Agnes. Arnold was a young man in an older adult’s body. A very young man, if you know what I mean. And his main job seemed to be to say, “Hello,” to every person who came into the diner and, “Goodbye,” to everybody who left the diner and, “That looks good,” to every blue-plate special Albert shoved up on the back counter for eventual delivery by Agnes to an expectant, hungry customer. And if he knew your name, he’d append that to his goodbye or his hello. So, when he said, “Goodbye, Mr. Wilson,” it was not a surprise to see Old Man Wilson, a crumpled mess of bills and change left on the table next to his empty soup bowl…oh, the soup at Shuluski’s was the best for miles around, and this was soup country…hobble, all old and shit, towards the front door of the diner. Mr. Wilson’s left arm rose in a backhand, friendly goodbye for Arnold’s benefit, but he mainly focused on keeping his balance as he maneuvered his oldness around some tables, bones creaking and joints stiff.

Munching on my double-catchup’ed cheeseburger special, about halfway done now, I watched as Old Man Wilson stopped on the sidewalk in front of the diner and cleaned his glasses, waiting for a car or two to pass on the only busy road in town. Which was not. Busy, that is.

And I thought about our afternoon. We’d go with Henry down to Front Street to continue trenching the low ground in the oldest historical part of town. In my mind, I was imagining how long it would take for us to dig each trench, how much time we had before shutting down for the afternoon. If we could get in four trenches, we’d be done with the zone and could move on to the next area. Not likely to get that many trenches in one day. The engineers were hoping we could finish here and move on because they needed clearance on on the northwest side of town for some geotechincal work they’d be doing. Yes, yes, I was thinking, we’d push to get all the trenches done this afternoon and that would make Mohan, the head engineer, happy, and my job was to respect the archaeology, abide by the regulatory law, and keep the engineers happy, all at once. With luck, this would be an easy week to do that, in case nothing went wrong….

…and as these thoughts developed and started to settle down from analysis to conclusion, I noted that Old Man Wilson had made it across Main Street and was just closing himself into his giant wood-side suburban wagon. I started going over the trenching pattern in my head again, trying to think whether there was a certain order we could do the trenches in so we could possibly rule out digging the last one…if we found evidence of disturbance, or evidence of amazing archeology. Either way, digging the fourth trench would be unnecessary.

Old Man Wilson was starting his car as I thought of the irony…if three trenches showed nothing, we could go home knowing the fourth would be of no use. Mohan would be happy, we’d move to the new area on Monday morning. If three trenches showed great amounts of early archaeological material, we would not need the fourth trench to know that much more archaeology would need to be done here. Either way, we could likely finish this afternoon if…if nothing went wrong.

And it was just at that moment that Old Man Wilson slammed his car into gear and took off in a sudden lurch. Then, as quickly as his giant wood-side suburban station wagon had lurched its first 15 feet backwards and onto the curb, in the wrong direction, Old Man Wilson stopped the big-ass car on a dime.

Unfortunately, the dime was sitting right next to a recently painted red and yellow fireplug.

The fireplug sheered off cleanly at the base. This fireplug was the second or third lowest fireplug in elevation in the whole town, I was thinking. I knew this because it was my job to know things like that. This meant that this fireplug would have a very high pressure unless there was a fire or something bleeding off the water. Which naturally there was not. The water that came out of that fireplug was enough to keep one or two tires of Old Man Wilson’s wood-side suburban wagon off the ground as the vehicle rocked back and forth and side to side and up and down, rubbing on a nearby power pole, which kind of kept the vehicle in place as it bounced up and down on the unnatural cold water geyser.

Old Man Wilson found his own personal athleticism just at that moment. He was out of that car and standing, staring back at it from the middle of the street, in a matter of seconds. And as he stared, head-scratching, and I finished off the last of my hamburger and was about to start on the french fries, the images of a dozen cartoons in which I had seen this exact event or something like it flashed before my eyes. And probably his as well.

The new guy said, “Wow, what do we do?” to no one in particular, and following this cue, we all looked over to small, tough Henry and his giant sons, who were now squarely on their feet, watching Mr. Wilson’s wood-side suburban wagon dancing on the water column across the street.

“Well,” Henry said, “we’ve got to inform the head of the public works department, call the fire chief, and have the city’s fix-it contractor get out there, turn off the water, and fix the fireplug.”

The new guy stared at Henry. Henry’s sons started to laugh. I said, “Well, I guess that means we all are going home for the day, because if I recall correctly, those three people would be you, Henry.”

Dennis, who had progressed to about the same point as I had with his french fries, all the cheeseburger specials at the table ancient history, glanced at Albert, who was standing in the cook’s window holding his patty-flipper to the ready. And he looked at Agnes who’s eyebrows were riding high over her lightly watering eyes, visibly working out something kind to say to Mr. Wilson (Agnes was nothing if not kind). Old Man Wilson himself was by this time heading back to the diner to fetch help. And as he glanced around the diner, Dennis groked the situation. And he said what we had all been thinking.

“Finally, for once we have time to get a bowl of that soup!”

And we did.

Mohan would understand, and one more day of sewage after 300 years of wanton effluence by the good people of Waterford, New York would make very little difference. That day’s soup was Minestrone.

Seven Thousand Year Old African Dairy

ResearchBlogging.org

Pastoralism is the practice of keeping and herding animals such as cattle, goats and sheep, and using the products they produce, including meat, hide, bone, horn and of course, dairy. In the old days, armchair archaeologists thought that pastoralism would have been a phase of cultural adaptation following hunting and gathering and preceding horticulture (the growing of plant crops). Why did they think that? No really good reason, just a guess. However, over time evidence came along and ideas where altered and minds were changed and now it is generally thought that in Europe and West Asia horticulture cam along about 12,000 years ago and less (depending on where you are) and much later than that, pastoralism started to be practiced.

However, in Africa, things were different in two major ways. First, more so than Europe (though it happened there as well) we find mixed strategies going on side by side in Africa. This is true even today. Not only might we find foragers living near pastoral people living near tourist hotels, but people may move between these culturally and economically distinct lifestyles. N!xau, the actor who played the lead in “The Gods Must Be Crazy” was at the time the first movie was filmed living a forager living among one of the groups studied by anthropologists in the 1960s. I’ve heard that his father worked for pastoral farmers and a hotel, and the actor himself became a farmer after Gods II.

Historically we now think that pastoralism arose in many areas of Africa before horticulture. It is probably more complicated than that. The total number of relevant archaeological sties excavated in the entire region of the Sahara and Sub Saharan Africa (so, let’s not count the upper Nile and the Mediterranean coast because of the intensity of European based work there) is probably far less than the number of sites excavated in Israel, Lebanon Syria, the Sinai, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, yet these countries combined represent a tiny fraction of the land area of Africa. So, don’t be surprised if an agricultural hearth or two turn up in Africa predating the earliest pastoral manifestations. But at the moment, pastoralism is early in Africa and predated Horticulture.

But what about dairy specifically? There is a new study that shows that the use of milk in the Sahara emerges as early as 5,200 BC, which is quite early.

This work uses the occurrence of organic material found in pottery that can be extracted and characterized using gas chromatography-mass spectrommetry (C-MS) and chromotography-combustion-isotope ratio mass spec (CG-C-IRMS). Lipids, which are preserved for very long periods of time, can be characterized using these methods in ways that allow inference about their origins and the way they are processed.

Bottom line: Lipids are found in many pottery sample (a larger proportion than one usually finds) excavated from the Takarkori rock shelter located in the southwest Fezzan, Libyan Sahara. Early pottery has a range of lipids including non-domestic animals. However, lipids indicating the production of dairy products from cattle show up in the samples dated to the “Middle Pastoral” (5200-3800 bc).

From the paper:

Of the 29 animal fat residues selected for GC–C–IRMS analyses, 22 originate from Middle Pastoral levels, 3 from the Late Acacus, 2 from the Early Pastoral and the remaining 2 from the Late Pastoral period … The comparison of the ?13C values of the modern reference animal fats with those of the archaeological pottery residues from the Middle Pastoral period (approximately 5200–3800 BC) show that 50% of these plot within, or on the edge of, the isotopic ranges for dairy fats, with a further 33% falling within the range for ruminant adipose fats and the remainder corresponding to non-ruminant carcass fats … Notably, the residues originating from earlier periods do not contain dairy fats, and plot in the non-ruminant fat range, probably deriving from wild fauna found locally. The unambiguous conclusion is that the appearance of dairy fats in pottery correlates with the more abundant presence of cattle bones in the cave deposits, suggesting a full pastoral economy as the cattle were intensively exploited for their secondary products.

Our findings provide unequivocal evidence for extensive processing of dairy products in pottery vessels in the Libyan Sahara during the Middle Pastoral period (approximately 5200–3800 BC), confirming that milk played an important part in the diet of these prehistoric pastoral people.


Dunne, Julie, Evershed, Richard, Salque, Melanie, Cramp, Lucy, Bruni, Silvia, Ryan, Kathleen, Biagettti, Stefano, & di Lernia, Savino (2012). First dairying in green Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium bc Nature, 486, 390-394

Photo of cattle by angies

The Personal Benefits of Doing Archaeology: Subversive subsurfaces.

In discussing the relevance of archeology to anything, there is an easy answer provided by my friend Peter Wells, a specialist in Culture Contact and the Central European Iron Age. Peter tells his students on the first day of class that “Archaeology is the study of everything that happened anywhere, any time, with any human beings that ever existed or exist now.” And if you think that he is exaggerating, you don’t know much about Archaeology.

Recently, my friend Elizabeth Reetz has asked a more narrowly defined question: “What are the benefits of environmental education through archaeology?” Elizabeth goes on to ask of her archaeological colleagues their “… thoughts on doing archaeology and how it has provided a greater connection to the outdoors, the environment, natural spaces, and special places … how has it increased your knowledge about a place, its ecology/environment, academics in general, or how has it increased your knowledge about yourself or your cultural history.”

And my response was something like “well, Duh” so she was like “Well, OK then…” and now I seem to be committed to writing a few blog posts on this…

Continue reading The Personal Benefits of Doing Archaeology: Subversive subsurfaces.