Category Archives: Archaeology

I think I picked the wrong specialty

I should have chosen this one. Now that’s what I call experimental archeology!

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Mammoth carving

According to this press release, a carving of a mammoth was incised on a bone fragment discovered at an archaeological site in Florida. This is an exciting discovery, and the first such image found on a bone in the Americas. However it is a little extreme to claim, as the press release does, that this is the only known image of a proboscidean (aka animals with trunks – elephant relatives) found in the Americans. There are at least three petroglyphs in Utah that appear to depict mammoths or mastodons, one of which I blogged about a while back.

Still, Pleistocene-era art in the Americas is extremely rare, and this is a remarkable find.

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I sure it won’t be a shock to regular readers of this blog that I am fascinated by the development of technology. One of the ways humanity is different from every other species on Earth is that tools and their use profoundly shape nearly every aspect of our lives. And not just in recent times: the very first anatomically modern humans already possessed a sophisticated tool kit that helped them acquire and process food, manufacture clothing and adornment, build shelters, and perform all the various tasks of daily life. We are the species that interacts with our environment through technology.

That’s one of the reasons that I find the archaeology of the American West so fascinating. It was a time of very rapid change, in technology as well as in many other aspects of culture. The technology of mining and milling advanced rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century, with many of the new techniques being invented in Nevada and California. During that same period, developments in transportation and mechanization transformed a society largely made up of independent farmers into one of widespread wage labor.

At the same time, indigenous cultures were also undergoing profound technological changes. American Indians adopted many Euro-American technologies, but did not necessarily employ them in the same ways that white Americans did. At times, old and new technologies were blended as, for example, in the use of glass telegraph insulators as a material for making projectile points.

Both Indians and white Americans at times adopted new technologies without fully understanding their ramifications – both positive and negative. Both Indians and white Americans sometimes made technological choices that were, in hindsight, unwise. And during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, new technologies helped produce profound changes in both Indian and white American cultures.

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Searching through old garbage

The Anchorage Daily News has a surprisingly good story about archaeologists working at an important site in Alaska’s Brooks Range. The video, in particular, I think, helps explain why archaeologists put up with all the hardships: bugs, dirt, awful weather, dangerous animals, and everything else that sometimes makes like less than pleasant. In the words of physicist Richard Feynman, it’s for the pleasure of finding things out.

One very interesting finding mentioned in this story is that the one example of a fluted projectile point found at this site came from a level younger than similar points found elsewhere in North America. This suggests that fluted points were invented in more southern regions and then spread north. This agrees with the suggesting made in American Antiquity last year by Charlotte Beck and George T Jones that fluted points originated in either the Southeast or the southern plains at a time when the inhabitants of the Intermountain West were using a completely different style of point.

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Obscure technologies, part 3

A small Roman transport from the second century AD carrying an onboard fish tank. At least that’s the interpretation of a team of marine archaeologists from the University of Venice. The tank would have used a hand driven piston pump to keep the water oxygenated.



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Did a solar flare cause the Pleistocene megafauna extinction?

That’s the theory advanced by physicist named Paul A. LaViolette. I was quite intrigued when I first saw the news story about LaViolette’s proposal. Happily, the story included a download link to a preprint of the paper (which was published in Radiocarbon). My evaluation, therefore, can be based on the paper itself and not just the summation given in the story.

I’ll admit I had some reservations right from the beginning, when I saw mention in the story that LaViolette had written a book in 1997 arguing that certain themes found in mythologies worldwide are references to intense solar activity at the end of the Pleistocene. I’m not an expert in solar physics, but I do know something about oral traditions. If the book is what the story claims, then LaViolette makes the same mistake that Von Daniken and Velikovsky made: treating myth as a distortion of history, which it is not. Mythology is not bad history, or mistaken history, because it’s not history at all, but something very different. This is a peripheral issue, however, as there is no mention of any oral traditions in this particular paper.

Although, as I said, I am not an expert in solar physics, I do have enough of a physics and chemistry background to follow LaViolette’s argument. Basically, he uses evidence from isotope analysis of seafloor layers called varves from the Cariaco Basin (off the coast of Venezuela) to argue for a massive solar flare between 12,957 and 12,760 years ago. This would be near the beginning of a period of rapid global cooling called the Younger Dryas. In addition to the Cariaco varves, LaViolette also uses data from Greenland ice cores to bolster his argument.

LaViolette goes on to argue that the magnitude of this flare – he estimates it as about 125 times more powerful than a similar type of flare observed in 1956 – would have overpowered the Earth’s magnetic field and allowed animals at ground level to receive at least 3 sieverts of radiation, in the form of high energy protons, which would be close to a lethal dose. He bases this on the presumption that the flare would have lasted about 50 hours, similar in length to the 1859 Carrington Event, and he takes into account the shielding effect of the atmosphere. He also suggests that the partial collapse of the magnetic field due to the flare would have allowed some of the interplanetary dust  that surrounds the planet to fall to earth, and argues that this explains the extraterrestrial dust markers that have been found in some sediment cores.

I’m not qualified to evaluate whether or not a solar flare is the best explanation for LaViolette’s isotope data; he may very well be right about that. I was surprised to notice, however, that his estimate of the radiation dosage assumes that the animals on the ground were exposed for the entire 50 hours, even though the sun would have been on the opposite side of the planet for roughly half of this period. Also, the amount of atmosphere through which the protons would have to pass would logically depend upon the angle of the sun in the sky, which obviously varies throughout the day.

A second problem is that LaViolette nowhere addresses the geographically uneven nature of the terminal Pleistocene extinctions. While a large majority of North American species larger than 100 kg went extinct, very few African or South Asian species did. Extinction rates on the other continents lie between those two extremes. It is certainly conceivable that some mechanism might exist that could cause a solar flare to produce this effect. However it is not immediately obvious what that mechanism might be. Some discussion of this problem, I believe, ought to have been included.

Of course, the question of whether the Pleistocene extinctions occurred very rapidly or over a period of several thousand years is far from settled. However, this is not necessarily a problem for LaViolette’s hypothesis. It is easily conceivable that a short burst of intense radiation could eliminate or severely reduce the populations of a few keystone species and thereby have a long term destabilizing effect on an entire ecosystem. If this were the case, identifying those keystone species and showing that they were, in fact, the first to become extinct, would be a primary step in building a chain of supporting evidence.

Although, as I said at the beginning, this is an intriguing idea, as presented it has some significant problems. Until those are addressed, I believe a skeptical approach to LaViolette’s model is warranted.

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Old buried mikvah uncovered

In Baltimore a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, dating from 1845 has been found by archaeologists. This is the oldest known mikvah in the United States.

From an archaeological standpoint, the trash that was thrown in the mikvah when it was filled in in 1860 might well prove to be more important than the bath itself. Trash reveals a great deal about the ways in which people live. And in this case, it has the advantage of all having been deposited in a very short period of time and at a known date.

One more interesting detail is that after the building was used as a synagogue, it became a Catholic church for a while, and then was turned back into a synagogue again. That’s a very American pattern of religious building use, and not at all what you would be likely to find in many other parts of the world.

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Oldest mine in the Americas

It looks like the article is not available online yet, so all I have to go on is this press release. Basically, iron oxide was being mined as a pigment in Chile as far back as 12,000 years ago. It doesn’t say if that date is calibrated or uncalibrated, but either way it’s a pretty impressive date for early mining, especially so far south.

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Reading old ethnographies

For fun recently, I’ve been reading Isabel Kelly’s 1932 Ethnography of the Surprise Valley Paiute (yes, I’m aware that I have strange tastes in reading). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both amateur and professional anthropologists raced to document the cultures of what were considered to be “vanishing races.” Most of those peoples, obviously, did not vanish. Instead, they adapted to new circumstances, just as people have been doing throughout human history. The anthropological work of that era, however, has nevertheless proved in many cases to be invaluable, in that it gathered and preserved cultural information at a time when many indigenous peoples were under tremendous pressure to abandon their traditions and assimilate completely into American society.

Most of this work was not the “participant observation” that we tend to think of as stereotypical anthropology; where the scientist goes to live among an unfamiliar group of people, observing and taking notes on their day-to-day activities. Rather, anthropologists like Alfred Kroeber, John Peabody Harrington, and Isabel Kelly conducted extensive interviews with people old enough to remember the ways in which people had lived half a century or more earlier.

Apart from simply being fascinating to read, much of this material, if carefully used, is also invaluable to an archaeologist. One of the biggest caveats, or course, is time. In most cases, the interviews were conducted late enough that the informants would have had no personal memory of any time before contact with Europeans; they were born into societies that had already undergone profound changes. And, of course, these were human beings and not computers. They did not have perfect recall of events they had experienced decades earlier. It should also be considered that some informants may not have been completely forthcoming with information they considered private, and that some of what they reported might have been misunderstood by the anthropologist. But even after these and other limitations have been taken into account, these early ethnographies are often very helpful in interpreting what remains in the archaeological record, particularly from period shortly after European contact.

But mainly, I read old ethnographies because I enjoy it. They provide a fascinating glimpse into the past as it was actually experienced by some of the people who lived it.

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The first Americans

A recent article in the Daily Mail reports that genetic testing has indicated that the first group to reach North American may have numbered around seventy people. I’m always happy to see the press reporting on archaeological matters, but I have to admit I’ve got some reservations about this story.

My first question is why the Mail is publishing this as “stunning new” research when the study they refer to, by Dr. Jody Hey of Rutgers University, was published in 2005. There’s a download link for the paper, titled On the Number of New World Founders: A Population Genetic Portrait of the Peopling of the Americas, on Dr. Hey’s web site. I don’t have the background in genetics to critique the work, but I will note, as Dr. Hey himself does, that the date he came up with for the initial entry into North America is somewhat younger than is suggested by archaeological evidence.

I admit I am a little puzzled by Hey’s choice to sample people who spoke Amerind languages. The Amerind family, proposed more than twenty years ago by Joseph Greenberg, has never been widely accepted by linguists specializing in North American languages. In other words, there are no linguistic grounds for thinking that the people Hey studied are all descendents of the same group of early migrants, although that possibility certainly not ruled out.

Beyond all this, the Daily Mail then goes on to claim that, “the accepted wisdom among archaeologists is that the first people to colonise America were called the Clovis.” This, of course, has not been true for some time now. I’m not sure where this error originated, but it didn’t come from Dr. Hey, who mentions the pre-Clovis Monte Verde site in his paper. New evidence since 2005, including the incredible find of human coprolites at Paisley Cave, have placed the pre-Clovis occupation on even firmer ground. It appears that the reporter at the Mail neglected to do even the most basic homework. Like checking Wikipedia. Or even reading Dr. Hey’s paper before writing a story about it.

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