new site: bad archaeology

In the spirit of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science site (who linked to this), Bad Archaeology:

Bad Archaeology is the brainchild of a couple of archaeologists who are fed up with the distorted view of the past that passes for knowledge in popular culture. We are unhappy that books written by people with no understanding of real archaeology dominate the shelves at respectable bookstores. We do not appreciate news programmes that talk about ley lines (for example) as if they are real. 

I look forward to posts debunking such theories as the drowned civilisations of South East Asia.

bob, was it not enough to organise a rock concert?

This makes me cringe:

Bob Geldof and the BBC have unveiled plans for a website and television series that aim to record every human society.

The Dictionary of Man website and an eight-part television series, The Human Planet, will be made with help from BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial arm. Crews will travel the world to try to film the 900 separate groups of people that anthropologists believe exist.

The makers hope the project will produce a definitive record of mankind.

First, it is clearly too much to ask that we cease using “man” and “mankind” as generic terms for all human beings. Humanity. PEOPLE.

Second, and bear in mind I am a big fan of ethnographic databases, why exactly do we need to spend this money in this way? Is it so that when languages die out, and people cannot continue their accustomed lifeways due to things like industrial logging and waterway pollution, then people in the UK can feel okay because they have a glossy set of pictures to look at?

Third: good luck with that.

the two cultures revisited (ad nauseum)

A short while ago I attended one of a series of talks set up to create some dialogue between evolutionary and interpretive approaches in archaeology. I was only able to attend the last of the series, but others who attended earlier talks reported that the presentations themselves (one from each of the two “styles”) were interesting and informative, but that the discussions that took place afterwards, where, ostensibly, the dialogue was to get into full swing, were quite fraught, full of misunderstandings and tense “science versus post-modernism” exchanges.

Which is, as always, a shame. I think to most scientifically-minded archaeologists and anthropologists–indeed anyone in the social sciences who appreciates the scientific method–the lack of useful dialogue, collaboration, and proper communication with our colleagues who have other approaches is felt as a keen deficit. From afar, we can observe the wealth of rich material (dare I say “data”?) collected by social anthropologists (for instance). More importantly, we can observe their ability to contextualise, interpret and suggest new or alternative hypotheses for what we, with the necessity of abstract or simple models, are sometimes missing in our approaches.

However, after attending the last talk, I don’t think that they (“they” being in this case those in the social sciences who probably prefer the term humanities) really feel any keen need for such dialogue in the other direction. I could be (and would be delighted to be) very wrong about this. I got the sense of a lamentable misunderstanding how science as applied to human affairs. Misunderstanding the scientific method is of course a more general malady, from the sub-editors at the Evening Standard right on through to nutritionists with dodgy qualifications.

But at this talk there were some SHOCKERS. Continue reading →

tracking the “bongo-bongo” meme

(Should I put meme in quotes too? I leave that as an exercise for the reader.)

Browsing an old review by Eric Alden Smith (ref below) I came across the following:

I do not advocate the venerable but ultimately sterile anthropological practice of countering every generalization with an exception located somewhere at some time (a practice often termed “bongo-bongoism”).

I’ve heard this term before and have used my own version at times, but I’m curious as to when and where it originated.

The article:
Data and Theory in Sociobiological Explanation: A Critique of van den Berghe and Barash
Eric Alden Smith
American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 81, No. 2. (Jun., 1979), pp. 360-363

is this thing on?

Er, so I’m writing up still. End is in sight! Back to blogging sometime in February! For now I just wanted to post this quote for posterity, although no doubt I will find someplace to jam it in the conclusion.

On comparative linguistics and ethnography

In conducting diachronic research on a language that existed five or six millennia in the past one learns to accept a certain measure of crudity in comparison with what could be accomplished if direct observation were possible. The same caveat applies to the reconstruction of cultures that are associated with such prehistoric languages: for a social anthropologist to demand that a linguistic reconstruction provide details that are descriptively important to anthropological theory may be unreasonable, given the cultural lability of both lingusitic and cultural forms over a period of millennia. It is a remarkable fact that the comparative method allows us to penetrate confidently to a time-depth of perhaps six millenia, and any general feature of social organization that can be inferred from such reconstructed language material is a gift that we are not likely to recieve in any other way. (p. 37)

R. Blust (1980) Austronesian sibling terms and culture history. Bijdragen TLV 149 (11), 22-76.

lucy’s baby

In a rare fit of openaccessmindedness, Nature have left the content about Baby Lucy, the latest hominid (hominin? am bad anthropologist and never keep up with this renaming thing) find from Ethiopia. She’s dated at 3.3 million years, and is a 3 year old Australopithecus afarensis skeleton, mostly skull but with a rare amount of other skeletal material.

What I always love about the reporting of hominin finds–and other major palaeo discoveries–is that you’d think the bones had been pulled out of the ground just a couple of days ago, when in reality the team involved have been studying them for five years.

working, you say?

Some days I would like to re-animate George Peter Murdock and have a beer with him. G.P., I’d say, after shaking his hand vigorously (although not too hard, because, you know, zombie corpse) G.P., you would have really liked the concept of the computer database, and maybe if you’d had one, you mighta got out for a Sunday drive or a game of darts once in a while, because how you did all this proto-spreadsheet stuff without an actual spreadsheet is admirable.

I bet he was the kind of nerd who remembered everything about the ethnographic materials he categorised, too, and would always know the Haha exception to the rule (Ah, but in Haha society they have matrilateral cross-cousin marriage AND make their tents from goatskin).

Anyhow. Endless recoding of variables according to the hypothesis under question is tedious enough. The really hard part is trying not to become swamped by overwhelming self-censure regarding categorisation and classification of complex human group behaviours. I can deal with 90% of social anthropologists disagreeing with the cross-cultural comparison approach, because the hypothesis that cultures are not to be understood except on their own internal terms is to me, simply that: an hypothesis, and one that most anthropologists have put aside testing.

Part of having an evolutionary approach to human behaviour is taking on board the notion that there are some broad patterns in human behaviour, including social life, and that one can discover those with the tools and models from evolutionary biology. Note to new readers: this does NOT mean some sort of old-fashioned sociobiology assuming a genetic/biological/essentialist/stupid nature-nurture dichotomy approach to behaviour. Traits do not have to be genetic to evolve. Boyd & Richerson have written extensively on cultural evolution for an introductory audience if you need to wrap your head around that.

Where was I? Part of the requirement involves operationalising the variables under study, so complex forms of behaviour become things such as “avunculocal postmarital residence“, which obscures a multitude of individual behaviours: those that choose other forms of residence, and those individuals that change within their lifetime. It also obscures the dynamic changes, through time, of the population as a whole.

So part of my work routine involves telling myself that folks like G.P. weren’t simply doing the ethnographic equivalent of stamp-collecting when compiling databases of cross-cultural information like the Ethnographic Atlas and the Outline of World Cultures. Those labels mean something more than they don’t mean something. And they are the best information currently (and probably that we’ll ever have) available for large-scale cross-cultural analysis.

inane, sterile and pernicious!

So, mindful of the rather patchy nature of my grasp on anthropological theory, I have been dutifully skimming plowing through the RAT. Ye supernatural figures and diminutive teleosts, this book is a marvel of convoluted and exclamatory verbiage. Using jargon = teh suck.

I have found a couple of gems of anti-evolutionary sentiment, though. This is the kind of social evolutionism involving grade-scales of savagery-barbarism-civilisation, dreamt up by Morgan and Tylor and co before the Boasian-influenced relativists shook that all apart. The funny thing is that nearly a century later, some social anthropologists would (I'm sure) take the same anti-evolutionist stance towards modern cultural evolutionary theory, although they might not express it in such amusing terms.

I leave Harris's intro sentences as a fine example of his love affair with the the "-ism". 

The most splendid example of this debauchery in the ranks of the higher empiricists is that of Bertholdt Laufer. I quote in extenso, because it represents the nadir of the negativism and antiscientism which was associated with historical particularism. 

"The theory of cultural evolution, to my mind the most inane, sterile and pernicious theory ever conceived in the history of science (a cheap toy for the amusement of big children), is duly disparaged… culture cannot be forced into the straightjacket of any theory whatever it may be, nor can it be reduced to chemical or mathematical formulae. Nature has no laws, so culture has none. It is as vast and free as the ocean, throwing its waves in all directions…" [Laufer 1918] (p. 293)

I think I shouldn't be as amused as I am. Cos Nature has no laws, you know.