Friday, 12 December 2014

Assholes Damage Precious Line in the Nazca Region

I find it hard to believe that anybody would consciously wreck a famous and important archaeological site, but it seems that my incredulity is at odds with reality. We've had property developers in Peru knocking down pyramids at El Paraiso, Belizean road workers chopping away at pre-Classic Mayan ruins for construction materials, and now Greenpeace activists doodling an eye-searingly yellow message into the Sechura desert - right next to one of more famous Nazca lines. (Strictly speaking, the line itself wasn't damaged - but the footprints and other activities of the Greenpeace folk have created new marks next to it. It's not quite equivalent to the El Paraiso vandalism, but...)

This Greenpeace Stunt May Have Irreparably Damaged Peru's Nazca Site
Apart from the desecration of one of the most memorable and remarkable survivals from Peru's ancient past, there's also an environmental issue here. The Nazca desert sees almost no rainfall (although that is changing, for precisely the reasons Greenpeace ought to be highlighting). As I said in my post on the Nazca culture, the Nazca region is squeezed between two rain shadows - strong winds off the Pacific coast and the Andes mountain range. Any mark you make in the ground there can last about, I dunno, 2000 fucking years.

This is why we can't have nice things, Greenpeace.

io9 (the io9 article claims the lines had astronomical significance, but there's no reason to believe this and it's not the consensus)

The Guardian

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Racism in 'Exodus' Casting

The new Ridley Scott movie, Exodus, is attracting criticism because of the racial background of its stars. Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver are white people playing ancient Egyptians (and/or Hebrews) in the film, which is an interpretation of the second book of the Bible, and a lot of people are upset about this. They say that ancient Egyptians weren't white, which is true.

The first point to be made is that ancient Egypt seems to have been reasonably diverse in ancient times, as you might expect of a river valley, a delta, and several large oases situated in the middle of an inhospitable desert. Lots of groups would have made their mark on the population. I'm not too interested in debating the genetics of ancient Egypt; it is sufficient to note that, in their own depictions, some ancient Egyptian people have fair-ish complexions and some have dark complexions (although there are good reasons not to trust such depictions implicitly, based as they were on longstanding artistic convention as much as reality).

Christian Bale would probably have looked out of place in the time of Ramesses II, and so, probably, would Chiwetel Ejiofor (although perhaps less out of place than Bale). We shouldn't impose modern American racial dichotomies on the radically different situation of Bronze Age Egypt. There's a pop-breakdown of academics' views on race in ancient Egypt on Slate, if you're interested (it's actually a less interesting topic than it seems).

The second point is that Exodus (the book of the Bible) is a work of fiction. The film may be set in ancient Egypt, and that's enough justification to question the casting of northern Europeans in the central roles, but there's little reason to believe that anything in Exodus actually happened. Moses isn't attested outside of the Bible and there's no archaeological evidence of any great Hebrew march through the desert. As there's no independent evidence of Moses's existence, the idea that Christian Bale doesn't match the 'reality' of Moses seems odd. This whole fuss is about a Ridley Scott interpretation of an ancient work of fiction and fantasy, and it appears ridiculous on the surface that there are complaints about its historical veracity.

And it would indeed be ridiculous, if race and racial discrimination weren't prominent aspects of American culture and society. Whitening Egyptians to make them match modern Europeans and Euro-Americans is an established tradition, presumably based on the notion that dark-skinned people couldn't possibly have produced innovations ancestral to our fundamental technologies (like writing). It's good that there's been a response to this whitewashing and to the attempts at defending it, and it's unfortunate - shameful? - that the studios don't trust the cinema-going public enough to let a dark-complexioned actor carry an epic film like Exodus.

Hopefully, the backlash we're seeing is a sign of the times.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

'Remarkable Plants' by Bynum & Bynum, 'The History of Central Asia' by Baumer

It was my birthday last week, so I've got some new books to read, including volume two of Christoph Baumer's The History of Central Asia (I B Tauris), dealing with the first millennium CE, and a book about important and useful plants by the medical historians Helen and William Bynum, Remarkable Plants that Shape our World (Thames & Hudson). They're both lovely to look at - Baumer's photographs are excellent, and the illustrations used in the Bynum & Bynum book, drawn from eighteenth and nineteenth century publications in the Kew Gardens collection, function perfectly as enhancers of the text.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Salon: "Why we’re obsessed with glamorizing archaeologists"

There's an interesting article on Salon right now on archaeologists and their profession, tied in with a new book, Lives in Ruins, by Marilyn Johnson, about the same subject. The gist is that archaeologists are funded poorly but they bring some semblance of meaning and fascination to the world through their efforts, which is why the public glamourises them.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Ethnological Method

Applying the comparative method in historical linguistics is relatively straightforward and academics habitually apply it to any language they come across at some point or other. But the comparative ethnology attached to linguistic constructions isn't so straightforward or quite so reflexively applied, presumably because 'ethnology' is a word reminiscent of the nineteenth century and because there is no academic department devoted solely or even primarily to such things.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Bruno Latour: Imperialist?

    I recently saw a blogpost that took Bruno Latour and his disciples/fellow travellers to task for being colonialist ('An Indigenous Feminist’s take on the Ontological Turn: ‘ontology’ is just another word for colonialism'). Latour is celebrated in modern social/cultural anthropology for his absurd views on the nature of the world and the place of people in it. He has been mocked outside of the social sciences for decades by sceptics, philosophers, scientists, and rationalists because of his philosophy, if you can call it that, which amounts to little more than the denial of the existence of a single world outside of our heads and the ridiculous repercussions of this. Latour has spelled out his views in plenty of books and articles, and presumably because of the force of novelty and the Abilene paradox he continues to be listened to and lauded. Anthropologists seem to like the idea that anything goes.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Nazca Culture

    The south coast of Peru is home to one of the more famous ancient South American archaeological cultures, the Nazca/Nasca. The reason it's such a celebrated tradition has little to do with its inherent importance in South American cultural history and more to do with the Nazca lines, a set of enormous lines and cartoons found in the desert in the Nazca region, visible from the air and preserved since the ancient period. The lines are truly enigmatic, and their purpose has yet to be firmly established (there are clues in the ethnographic and ethnohistoric record, though). This means, as you might expect, that the lines have been interpreted in frankly pseudoscientific ways. They are a favourite of von Daeniken, Tsoukalos, & co, and have even been featured in an Indiana Jones movie. That's the pop-prehistory super-leagues (in terms of public awareness - it's obviously not a good thing overall). There's much more to the Nazca culture than these dirt scratches, though.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Invest your emotion elsewhere

People tend to call me a rationalist, and that's not really something I have a problem with. I don't think philosophical ideas should be a matter of identity ('being' a rationalist, as opposed to merely espousing rationalism), so in that sense I object to the label. But aside from that, I do think it is good to be rational. It is better to think, and to attempt to come to terms with what is true, rather than merely to feel and accept whatever is intuitive or emotionally-appealling.

Monday, 13 October 2014

An Anthropology of X

One of the things most guaranteed to raise my considerable ire is the bizarre and frequently incomprehensible jargon of modern social/cultural/socio-cultural anthropology. I'm not a fan of the modern subject of the discipline anyway, so I already feel a little out of whack with prevailing currents in it, as I've said in other posts.* But there are egregious academic crimes regularly committed by anthropologists that make me perplexed and then a little sad/angry, and most involve language.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

BBC: "Cave paintings change ideas about the origin of art"

Indonesian archaeology briefly made the news this week with a story about rock art from Sulawesi. The art, which includes the oldest known figurative drawing in the world and some extremely old hand stencils, dates back a little under 40,000 years. Rock art is notoriously hard to date, but there's no reason not to trust the dates provided by the researchers at this point, and that makes these artworks incredible, and precious.

Monday, 16 June 2014

What I'm writing these days

I haven't posted anything in a while, primarily because I've been busy. I've been planning and researching a book on ancient Indonesia, writing out detailed chapter plans and filling half a dozen of those mega-useful Ryman's project books with notes on Indonesian metal age rock art and agriculture in pre-Austronesian New Guinea. I don't know if it'll be published any time soon, but there's a gap in the market for an up-to-date, hopefully well-written popular book on Indonesia. The idea is that it'll look a bit like Michael Coe's Mexico or The Maya - a useful introductory work for undergraduates and the interested public - and there's a definite gap in the market for such a thing.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Britain is a 'Christian Country', apparently

David Cameron has recently claimed that the UK is a 'Christian country' and has said that he will act as a 'giant Dyno-Rod' for Christian organisations here (implicitly equating secularists with sewage). This has attracted considerable criticism, for obvious reasons.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Why I'm also quite glad I studied social anthropology

I said earlier that I regret studying social anthropology, and this is still true. It wasn't the best choice. But it wasn't a total waste of time either, and there's a lot to be gained from reading ethnographies and becoming familiar with different groups of people around the world - which was, to be clear, a large part of my motivation for studying it in the first place.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Albuquerque and Drake in Indo-Malaysia - Bows and Arrows

It probably isn't surprising that historical references to bows and arrows in Indo-Malaysia from the age of exploration are relatively few.  The bow wasn't a particularly important weapon by the time Europeans arrived in the Indies, and in many cases European travellers and pirates were dealing with wealthy and established Rajadoms and Sultanates with the money to purchase European and Chinese firearms.  Sulawesi and Borneo were dominated by blowguns and muskets, and the bow in Java and Sumatera seems to have been influenced far more by Indian archery tradition than anything native to the islands (for instance, Javanese arrows tended to have flights, unlike eastern Indonesian, Taiwanese, and Philippine examples).  The reliefs on Javanese Hindu-Buddhist monuments probably don't represent much in the way of native Indonesian tradition.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

'Gene driven change is much more the norm'

A tweet was directed my way by ziel (@yourlyingeyes).  I had tweeted in response to some new HBD silliness that
in most cases a genetic explanation is worth less than a socio-cultural one, as cultures change w/o genes.
  ziel then replied, saying
It happens but very rare. Gene driven change is much more the norm
'It' referring, of course, to cultural change in the absence of genetic change, where technological and cultural developments drive humans to do different things.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Where do we get our technologies from? (Answer: everybody else)

How much of your success comes from your ability to read?  Would you be able to feed and clothe yourself without the help of others?  Would you have Gore-Tex or Teflon or even woven cotton cloth without millions of other people inventing and continuing to produce such things?

If you were not literate, you would almost certainly not have a job, and much of your knowledge would be absent from your head - even basic things, like general information about foreign countries, or cooking instructions, or warnings on electrical sockets.  If you didn't have all the foodstuffs and technologies you depend on, you would be incapable of doing what you want to do with your life.  You wouldn't be able to use Google, even; not because of stupidity, but because nobody taught you how to do the things necessary to make sense of it.  You probably wouldn't survive for very long, really.  And the really important thing about the techologies you use and take for granted, including writing, is that they all came from different groups of people living at different times and interacting with one another in different ways.  We are all mutually reliant, even if we think we aren't.

If you restrict yourself to the important plants of the world today, then you will find that most of them were domesticated in disparate parts of the globe: apples and marijuana in Kazakhstan; peanuts and manioc in southwest Amazonia; wheat and barley in southern Anatolia/Syria; rice and millet between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers; cloves and nutmeg in eastern Indonesia; sugarcane and bananas in New Guinea; maize, squash, and tomatoes in Mexico and Guatemala; potatoes, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and some chile peppers in the foothills of the Andes; cotton, sorghum, African yam, and African rice between Niger and Ethiopia; carrots in Iran/Afghanistan; wine grapes in the Caucasus.

If you look at military and navigational technologies, you'll see the same thing: gunpowder, guns, and the compass in China; the sail in the Red Sea; outriggers in the South China Sea; the principles of navigation by the stars in the Arabian Peninsula; clinker construction in northern Europe; carvel construction in Iberia; the crossbow either in Sinitic-speaking or Austroasiatic-speaking societies in southern China; the bow probably in sub-Saharan Africa; the composite bow in the steppe east of the Caspian Sea (probably in the Andronovo culture); the wheel and wagon in the Caucasus; the chariot in southern Russia; iron in Anatolia (and possibly north-central Africa, too); horse-riding on the Pontic steppe; dromedary camel-riding in Somalia; chainmail in western Europe; the armoured knight in Sasanid Persia.

If you look at diseases, they show the same pattern: smallpox in north Africa and India; Yersinia pestis (the 'Black Death') somewhere in central Asia; syphillis in the Americas; ebola in the Congo; influenza from somewhere in Eurasia (it is not known where); measles again from somewhere in Eurasia; malaria throughout Afro-Eurasia.

The same pattern holds true, of course, in writing systems (the script this is written in ultimately comes from Egypt by way of countless intermediaries, and the same is true of the Mongol, Brahmi, and Arabic scripts, among so many others); literature (Persian Vis and Ramin inspired European Tristan and Yseult); mathematics (South Asian numerals being introduced to Europe by Arab merchants) and consequently economics; cuisine (Persia also turns out to be the source of ice cream); philosophy (Christopher Beckwith has provided persuasive evidence for the claim that standard forms of argument in medieval Europe, from which Renaissance philosophy and scientific inquiry developed, had their origins in central Asia); and in fact every sphere of human activity.

Human history depends on all of these developments.  Imagine a Spanish conquest of the Americas that involved nothing from outside Iberia; not only would there be no domesticated horses or cotton clothes, there wouldn't have been any wheat, any writing, any carvel-hulled ships (without the clinker as inspiration), any sails, any guns, any crossbows.  They also wouldn't have had any smallpox, and while they may have been grateful for that, being only somewhat more immune to it than the indigenous Americans, they wouldn't have been able to complete their conquest of the Aztecs - which would, of course, have floundered in the absence of their technological advantages.
The entrance into Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.  Consider the horseman: without developments on the Pontic-Caspian Steppe in the Eneolithic, he wouldn't have a horse; without the invention of the stirrup in India and central Asia, he would not have such control over the animal; without the spread of the pre-Islamic Persian court culture of the armoured knight, he would have none of his armour or training.  Consider the wider context: without writing or agriculture, neither of which developed indigenously in Europe, he would have few organisational advantages over the Mexica; without carvel-hulled ships, he would not have been able to even get to Mexico in the first place; without sails, he would have had to row across the Atlantic (assuming he even knew how to row); without Arabian and Chinese navigational techologies, he'd have no idea where to go.

Without the conquests in the Americas, not only would Mexico not speak Spanish today nor the Connecticut English, but the Spanish economy probably would not have crashed in the sixteenth century, Europe would have continued to wallow in its status as a relative backwater, English would never have ended up as a world language, and the last five hundred years of global history would never have happened.

Human history is primarily the story of thousands upon thousands of years of interactions of all sorts between all sorts of populations, and depends far more on accidents of geography and cultural history than anything else.  It is not primarily explained by biological evolution, even though that does play a role - albeit a role which can be circumvented by technology, as we may see in the development of vaccination.  It is also not explained by the idea of a single gifted population, like the Indo-Europeans or Ashkenazi Jew or western Europeans or Chinese, who singlehandedly invent everything through their genius.

Trite axioms like 'evolution explains history', propagated by seemingly wilfully ignorant acolytes of HBD dogma, cannot account for the processes that have actually create(d) our world, and they only serve to demonstrate the carelessness and dogmatism of such Tory approaches.

It's not 'evolution explains history'.  It's: we all stand on the shoulders of giants all of the time, even when tying our shoelaces.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014


There is a small but rather vocal group of people variously associated with the human sciences who declare that almost everything humans do is related to and primarily determined by their genes.  These people call themselves 'HBD-ers', where 'HBD' stands for 'human biological diversity', and I suppose the source text for much of what they claim is Cochran and Harpending's The 10,000 Year Explosion, a popular book that outlines the genetic differences between human populations and the historical events and circumstances that have resulted from such differences.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Cows are Worth More than Rituals

According to Cristina Odone in the Torygraph, Britain 'is set to become a country that prizes a cow more than a Jew, an ox more than a Muslim'.  This is because, apparently, ritual slaughter will probably be banned in the UK in the near future, meaning that neither Kosher nor Halal meat will continue to be produced here.  Jews and Muslims will have to get their meat from elsewhere, and this is evidence, according to Odone, that cows are more important than Jews in modern Britain.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Pre-Columbian Marajo, an Island at the Mouth of the Amazon

I've been dipping in and out of John Hemming's Tree of Rivers, a book about the history and culture of the Amazon.  Hemming is an explorer, and his book is truly excellent when it comes to the privations, threats, and charms of Amazonian travel, things he knows well.  He writes in a strong, punchy style, and much of the book is genuinely exhilarating - I've found it hard to put down at times.

Thursday, 27 February 2014


Christopher Ehret, a linguist and specialist in African prehistory, believes that the Afroasiatic language family - the earliest attested family in the world, besides Sumerian - dates back to pre-agricultural times in northeastern Africa.  He claims that the expansion of the family began between 16,000 and 11,000 BCE, making Afroasiatic not only the earliest attested family on the planet, but also the oldest reconstructable one.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Tupian and Tupi-Guarani

    The Tupían language family is one of the widest spread in South America, and its largest branch, Tupí-Guaraní, was one of the first indigenous American language families to be encountered by Europeans. Some Tupinamba people - Tupí speakers from the Brazilian coast - were likely some of the first indigenous Americans to visit Europe, arriving in Rouen to dance in the streets for the gawking townsfolk in 1550.  Tupían-speaking people were probably encountered on Francisco de Orellana's tragic, extraordinarily violent, somewhat-accidental exploration of the Amazon in 1541/2.  Gaspar de Carvajal's chronicle of the trip seems to have preserved a couple of Tupian words, likely of Omagua origin, spoken in a large kingdom that Carvajal named 'Aparia'.  Guaraní, a reasonably close relative of Tupí, is one of the national languages of Paraguay, and may be the only indigenous American language to be spoken by a large number of non-indigenous people.

    All of which makes me want to write about it.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

European Exceptionalism

I saw this comment directed to me on West Hunter, a blog written by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending (famous for their book, The 10,000 Year Explosion).  The comment was left by Ricardo Duchesne, author of a book on the supposed uniquenes of Europe.  The idea is that Indo-European heritage is the main secret of European achievement and the main reason for 'European uniqueness', a dubious nineteenth century concept.  Have a look:

A Hunting Prayer from Flores, Indonesia

Here's another translation, this time from German.  It's a short prayer for success in hunting, and it comes from the Silesian missionary-ethnographer Paul Arndt's 1951 work, Religion auf Ostflores, Adonare und Solor (Vienna: Missionsdruckerei St Gabriel).  Arndt says that the prayer comes from a village called Lama Ojang (I assume the modern spelling is Oyang), and according to the map of the Solor region at the back of the book, it's in far northeastern Flores, Indonesia, where the island hooks back into the Flores Sea.  He says that this prayer is said in the burial ground in the presence of the dead.  Arndt includes the original language (I assume it's some kind of Lamaholot), but as I don't know Lamaholot, I'm translating from the German:

Thursday, 13 February 2014

'The Polynesian Bow' - Edward Tregear (1892)

Having uploaded a couple of short excerpts from Petrus Drabbe's Tanembar, I'm going to say a bit about an even earlier text that touches on bows and arrows in Southeast Asia - Edward Tregear's 1892 article on bows in Oceania in the Journal of the Polynesian Society.  Tregear, born in Southampton, England, but a long-time resident of Auckland, was an interesting chap, and very much the nineteenth century ethnologist; he believed that the Maori were 'Aryan', and publicised this view in several books and articles, fortunately not including his piece on bows and arrows.  He was also a founder of the Polynesian Society and its journal.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Bows and Arrows from Tanimbar - A Translation of Drabbe (1940)

I'm posting here a rough translation of a section on Tanimbarese bows and arrows from pages 93-94 of Dutch missionary-ethnographer Petrus Drabbe's Tanembar: Het Leven van de Tanembarees (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1940).  The Tanimbar archipelago is a small group of islands east of Timor and southwest of Aru and New Guinea inhabited entirely by speakers of Austronesian (Kei-Tanimbar) languages.  The main island is Yamdena, and others are Fordata, Larat, and Selaru.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

PhD Offer - Bows and Arrows in Eastern Indonesia

Just a quick post to say that I've been given an offer to study for a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of the University of London, in the History of Art and Archaeology (HAA) Department.  I currently have no funding, but I hope to find some this year, and if I don't, I'll find it for next year or start part-time on my own funds.  Either way, I have a place and I have a topic, and I've already started researching it in depth.  My subject is archery equipment in eastern Indonesia, a topic that is much more interesting than it sounds at first hearing.

I'll post the proposal on here in the next few days, along with some explanatory notes (and possibly a plea for money!), but I'll also be posting more about bows, arrows, archery, and prehistory in eastern Indonesia and New Guinea.  I'm going to put up a few snippets of texts that are useful for my research, including a couple that I have translated from Dutch.  There aren't so many relevant texts, but those that are available are surprisingly useful and give good starting points for research without directly answering the questions that have inspired my proposal and my research.

Good news, in any case.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Wednesday, 29 January 2014


The humanities and the social sciences are unusually accepting of obscurantism - that is to say, texts that are deliberately obscure and difficult to read.  Outsiders typically label this stuff 'postmodern' or 'postmodernist', but that term isn't accepted by most obscurantists, as it is really only one obscurantist movement among many, including post-structuralism and, I would say, structuralism as well.  But since the texts are deliberately difficult to read and contain few genuine chains of argument, they're all much of a muchness, differing primarily in style and purported subject instead of approach.  So they can be treated similarly, I think.

Obscure texts are the bane of students' lives in the humanities and social sciences.  Students complain (usually in the pub) about having to read the works of, among others, Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva, and Gilles Deleuze, because the writing is dense and the meaning is difficult to see through the wordfog.  Academics tend to love this stuff, though, and a number of disciplines and departments are largely taken up with teaching and writing about obscure texts and the ideas supposedly drawn from then, including social anthropology, women's studies, and some history and sociology departments.  Classics is perhaps most immune to this stuff, due to the fairly elite, conservative background of a lot of classicists (meaning that they're not exactly prone to obscurantist non-arguments in favour of Maoism).

The success of obscurantist texts and authors in academia is something of a mystery.  It's so obvious an example of the Emperor's New Clothes, a story we're surely all familiar with, that I find it incredible that anyone falls for it.  How could academics, people with doctorates who have spent the bulk of their lives studying and bettering themselves intellectually, endorse texts that they don't understand?

One theory, the 'idea effort justification' theory, is that the very difficulty of the texts makes any knowledge gleaned from them inherently valuable.  This theory has been written of in Skeptic magazine and can be found online - in fact, it was in this week's eSkeptic, and you should probably read about it there.

The theory is this: the time spent in deciphering a difficult text has to be justified somehow, meaning that an especially impenetrable text will seem especially wise.  As long as the sentences are more or less grammatical and contain words that are individually meaningful, it is easy for the earnest knowledge-seeker to believe that they've found great truth in the text, and, given the obscurity of it and the apparent lack of any real meaning, this truth will probably correspond quite well to what the knowledge-seeker already believes.  Since we like reading things we already agree with, it is easy for this fundamentally irrational process to override any prior scepticism towards the texts and authors.  A similar process probably underlies religious texts and their use.

Since the people introducing students to these texts are often authority figures and gatekeepers, it's not hard to see how they seduce the unaware.  And once the students have used those texts to acquire qualifications and academic positions, there is a yet stronger need for effort justification, as all the hours spent studying those obscure texts have to be rationalised.

When a prepared mind starts reading an impenetrable book by Deleuze, the person is undergoing something akin to a religious experience.  Where a more reasonable approach to the text would show that there is nothing even approaching sense or meaning in any of the sentences, it is hard to dissuade the true believers, just as it is hard to reason religious people away from their beliefs.  This is why Sokal and Bricmont's Intellectual Impostures, a modest and sensible book about obscurantist abuse of scientific ideas and terminology, was well received by neither the obscurantists themselves nor their true-believing followers, even though its arguments were clearly correct, and even though it definitively showed that a lot of the supposed erudition and nous of French leftist obscurantists was an illusion.

The latest fad in the social sciences is 'ontology', a word that means something completely different to its obscurantist use.  The abusers of the word 'ontology' have stretched it so far as to mean almost nothing, even though its original meaning is very clear.  They use their abused word to cover a variety of obscure positions that are nigh-impossible to make sense of and which have either trivial or absurd interpretations (nothing original or compelling on its own terms is likely to be found in an obscurantist text, of course).   This 'ontology' is just a fad and nothing more - just another trend for students to have to learn despite its uselessness.

The academic job market is highly competitive, and obscurantism is a convenient way of getting ahead without needing to be original or knowledgeable.  It makes sense to me that a student wanting a life in academia would indulge in this stuff even though it makes no real sense to them and even though they can only explain their 'theory', as they so often call it, in the vaguest and most jargon-ridden terms.  But it also makes sense to me to promote facts and knowledge above superficial erudition and literary trickery, and to attempt to find out what is true instead of devising ways to disguise a lack of originality.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Pama-Nyungan Expansion - Bellwood's Account

Peter Bellwood's First Migrants (Wiley-Blackwell 2013), a book on prehistoric migration, has plenty of sections devoted to proposed early- and mid-Holocene language family dispersals, including, of course, Indo-European, Afroasiatic, Austroasiatic, and Austronesian.  But Bellwood also talks about Pama-Nyungan, an indigenous Australian family that I discussed in an earlier post on this site.  Pama-Nyungan is a good example of a language family that spread over a wide area without the help of plant or animal domestication, and so it runs counter to Bellwood's earlier view of language families spreading primarily due to the adoption of agriculture by the protolanguage-speaking population (known as the 'farming/language dispersal hypothesis').  Bellwood gives a good account of the Pama-Nyungan expansion, clear evidence of his disavowal of strong forms of the farming/language dispersal hypothesis since the publication of his First Farmers nearly ten years ago.

File:Macro-Pama-Nyungan languages.png
Distribution of the Pama-Nyungan languages (yellow).  Non-Pama-Nyungan in other colours.  As I say below, it matches the distribution of backed unifacial stone blades.  h/t Wiki.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

I regret studying social anthropology.

I regret studying social anthropology.  It was, on reflection, a waste of my time, money, and abilities.  I learned some very interesting things, but those came almost entirely from books I would have read anyway, and from my tutor, whose apparently unfashionable views about kinship and society - views that are entirely sensible and defensible - did not make it as far as the anthropology exam papers.  I made some good and interesting friends while studying, and doubtless learned something good from them.  But I don't think that quite justifies the time and expense of the thing.

If you're considering studying socio-cultural anthropology, make sure you know what it's about.  Most of my reading before attending Oxford had been about culture history, prehistoric cultural inheritance, kinship, non-state social structure, magic, religion - the stuff anthropology concerned itself with almost in its entirety until about thirty years ago, before such topics were denounced as romantic and conservative.  I thought that the continental garbage side of things was in a minority in anthropology departments, and that the kind of comparative Austronesian ethnology and formal kinship-based social structural analysis that I wanted to do would find a comfy home in the department at Oxford.  This turned out to be the inverse of reality.  No substantive arguments were presented as to why this was the case, or why studying marriage alliance is inherently conservative and backward.  Regardless, such things never came up in exams and were clearly regarded as peripheral to what anthropology now is - hangers on from a former age.

I don't think it had anything to do with Oxford specifically, and more to do with socio-cultural anthropology as a whole.  I regret studying it, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who dislikes obscurantism and sanctimonious anti-scientific pseudo-epistemology.  If I could go back and do it again, I would definitely have taken linguistics instead, where continental philosophy is not dominant, where real problems are solved, where a set of real and powerful methods are taught and employed, and where no one really cares whether or not you call it 'a science'.

I want to emphasise that I am not in any way a political conservative and I don't oppose the social and political aims that have become entrenched parts of anthropology departments.  But I don't think those aims are what anthropology is about, I don't think obscurantist pseudo-philosophy is a good way to achieve them, and I don't think writing obscure academic texts about how humans are now trans-human feminist cyborgs empowers minority groups or the working class, or achieves any worthwhile aim in any sphere of human activity.

UPDATE:  This post has aroused a small amount of attention on reddit, so I thought I'd answer a few of the points raised there.

First, I want to affirm that I am not on the right politically.  Not that that has anything to do with anything.

carlyb24 wrote:
I am quite familiar with a number of cultural anthropologists in the US that are absolutely engaged in trying to solve "real problems" (what ever that is supposed to mean).
I know quite a few anthropologists who are interested in solving interesting problems and as far as I'm aware, they do so quite competently.  But my point is that solving problems is not taught on anthropology courses.  No formal skills are taught on anthropology courses at all; there is no standard method that tells you how to solve particular problems.  I understand that this is because anthropologists think their problems are peculiar and unresolvable, but students are given no real skills at all when they study anthropology, which means that they have few skills to transfer to, say, a job.  Linguists, on the other hand, are given some seriously powerful tools for making sense of language, even while recognising that the phenomena they are studying are enormously complicated and difficult to solve.

It is no wonder anthropology graduates are the least employable of all degree holders given that they learn no real skills in anthropology departments.  And it's not that there are no skills to learn: why not try teaching or studying the methods of historical linguistics, population genetics, and archaeological interpretation?

masungura wrote:
Disciplines change, you can't keep doing the same thing for years and years.
I think you can: physicists are still engaged in solving fundamentally the same problems as Newton, biologists are still engaged in the same pursuit as Darwin and Wallace, and mathematicians are still making sense of the same problems as Euclid.  These disciplines have moved on by making empirical advances (assuming mathematics is empirical, anyway) rather than by turning the discipline away from what it originally did.  I keep hearing that anthropology has moved on, but I have yet to hear a cogent justification for the direction in which it has moved.  All I hear is the genetic fallacy over and over again.  The discipline has changed, it's moved on, it's no longer a tool of the imperialist pigdogs, etc.
To me this article comes off as "I wanted to be a stick in the mud and thought of all the places to do that Oxford would be it but even they won't let me, WOE".
 I thought that Oxford would be a good home for what I wanted to do because I researched the department first.  I saw that there were at least two researchers interested in the same things as me.  I simply didn't realise that they a) were about to retire and b) had no clout within the department, and that my degree would be based on things entirely different to what I wanted to study.  I was accepted on the basis of a personal statement that talked entirely about historical linguistics, prehistory, non-state social structure, cognitive psychology, and other features that I had reason to believe are part of anthropology departments - and which in many cases actually are - but which did not feature in exams and barely featured in course content, except the personalised content provided by my (excellent) tutor.  It's not that I thought Oxford was a backward department, and I was aware that continental philosophy had become the norm in many departments.  It was more that I thought the balance was tipped less in favour of continental thought than it actually proved to be.

I should point out that I had a brilliant tutor.  It's just that my brilliant tutor was of retirement age and was being pushed out of the department by the sanctimonious march of continental thought.

Urizen wrote:

Admittedly, old school anthropology concerned with tribal relations and tribal rituals is boring. Modern cultural anthropology is amazing.
I think this view is based on a kind of chauvinism that treats people in non-state societies as less than people in states and post-industrial societies.  It's not racist, but when you're saying that the lives, rituals, and 'relations' of people in 'tribal' societies are 'boring', you might want to think about why you find their lives dull and yours so interesting and exciting.  But I'm glad someone came out and said it: they prefer anthropology today because it's not concerned with those boring tribals anymore.

Problems in the sociology of non-industrial, non-state societies (e.g., societies with segmentary systems, bridewealth, asymmetric marriage alliance, etc) are very interesting problems, as are the intricacies of human history and prehistory that generated 'tribal rituals' and 'tribal relations', and there is no reason whatsoever to ignore them.  If you find them boring, then a couple of decades ago it would have been feasible to suggest studying something other than anthropology.  Now, even anthropologists don't study them, so people (like me) interested in doing so have nowhere to go.

The fact that anthropologists no longer teach students to understand societies like that has two important consequences.  First, anthropology departments no longer do what anthropology departments once did, which is to make sense of human societies not directly connected to one's own and to understand humans in a wide range of socio-cultural milieux.  Second, if anthropologists aren't studying or teaching these issues anymore, then nobody is studying or teaching these issues anymore.  What that means is that entire areas of human life are no longer considered the purview of the academy, and that happens to include - I don't think it's accidental - people who don't live like us, who don't have any of the same fundamental values as us, who aren't or weren't wholly integrated into neo-liberal systems or the world economy.

And changing culture is how you change the world.
That may be so.  But how did 'changing the world' become the objective of anthropology?  It certainly wasn't even a couple of decades ago.  This is a recent development.  The only thing this 'anthropology' has in common with anthropology before the 1980s is the name.  And I see no reason to completely do away with the basic premise of anthropology before the prescriptive/continental turn, which was a) to understand human societies cross-culturally, including language, thought, prehistory, etc, and b) to make sense of non-state and non-industrial human societies, with sociology's role being to make sense of state, industrial, and post-industrial ones.  Sociology is where you learn to use all kinds of research methods - useful tools that help you to find a good job or solve difficult empirical problems - to make sense of the dominant modes of life on earth today.  Anthropology is the smaller, less culturally-important discipline devoted to those societies that aren't this way.

hammey wrote:
I'm studying medical anthro right now and what I've learned so far seems 100% applicable to the real world

That may be so.  But that isn't what I meant by 'real problems'.  I think mathematicians study real problems - real things in the world that need to be solved because solving them is interesting.  They have tools that they can apply to their problems, and those tools are useful and powerful in a range of different applications, but mostly those tools are useful for solving mathematical problems.

Applying things in the real world isn't always the point.  Anthropologists used to study real problems in making sense of non-state and non-industrial human societies.  They used to apply some good, sensible tools to the analysis of societies unlike our own, as you'll know if you've ever been to a part of the world where, say, patrilineal descent groups are still important features of the social landscape.  This wasn't especially useful, and it has become even less useful in the modern world as these kinds of societies have disappeared.  But being 'useful' was never the point.  Understanding humans in all of their variety and environments was the point. 

archaeofieldtech wrote:
 I think our terminology may be a bit different so someone correct me if I'm wrong. It seems to me that continental philosophy is equivalent to what we in archaeology call Post-Processualism.

Continental philosophy is in fact not the same as post-processualism, although doubtless there was some continental influence on the movement.  'Continental philosophy' is the conventional name for a set of movements in Western philosophy that tend to reject formal logic, scientific epistemology, and the idea that objective knowledge is at all possible.  The alternative is called analytic philosophy, and is commonly associated with Anglo-American philosophers (hence the name 'Continental' to refer to the more French-influenced variety).  In reality, analytic philosophy developed largely due to the efforts of German and Austrian philosophers and mathematicians, and was never an exclusively Anglo-American phenomenon, but those are the terms we use.

Analytic philosophy depends on formal studies and is, in a certain sense, scientific: it depends on making everything explicit and explaining things rationally, using empirical examples and scientific content.  Philosophy in this sense is continuous with science.

Continental philosophers, by contrast, often claim that science is just another 'way of knowing', that it is bound by Western ideas and cultural hegemony, etc.  Continental thought is often vague and obscure; terms are rarely explicitly explained; logical chains of argument are often ignored; logical fallacies are the norm; texts are often deliberately difficult to read; human cultures and societies are often claimed to be 'texts' in some way; and continental thought is continuous with some schools of literary theory and psychoanalysis, as opposed to science.

Analytic philosophy is dominant in philosophy departments throughout most of the world, and continental claims are often made by people in anthropology, literature, and art theory departments.

Post-processualism is a different beast, and while it is clearly influenced by continental thought, it isn't the same as it.  Of course, there needs to be some moderation in archaeological interpretation, and there needs to be some accounting for biases in interpretation introduced by the interpreters' backgrounds, but I don't think modern British Wiccans can help at all when it comes to making sense of Catalhoyuk.  Hodder's use of such people was a ridiculous move, one only a lunatic would conceive of and only a person of unwarranted authority could possibly get away with.

I don't think it's racist to be a post-processualist archaeologist.  I just think it's a bit dumb.

Finally, I want to say that I'm not disillusioned with the academy in general.  I just think that anthropology departments are kind of useless, and I certainly wouldn't recommend studying anthropology to anyone interested in rigour, reason, analytic philosophy, science, or prehistory.  I should also point that I've been given a PhD offer in an excellent art history and archaeology department to do exactly what I want to do, and that I don't bear a grudge against any department or individual, as my life really isn't so bad.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Ancient Egypt - Cultural Continuity

'Ancient Egypt' is a term everyone is familiar with, but no one is really familiar with what it actually means.  In the popular imagination, it includes mummies, pyramids, Cleopatra, and Tutankhamun, with a characteristically colourful style of iconography and painting, often found on walls consisting of enormous blocks of light sandstone.  The writing was in hieroglyphs - exotic but crude.  They thought cats were sacred.  If you image search 'ancient Egypt', Google even provides the images divided up into category - mummies, pyramids, maps, hieroglyphics, pharaohs.

But 'ancient Egypt' is a term that serves to cover three millennia of time.  Here's a startling reminder of the extreme longevity of this civilization, if that's what you can call it: you are closer in time to Cleopatra (died 30 BCE) than Cleopatra was to the builders of the Pyramid of Khufu (completed 2560 BCE).  Tutankhamun was about midway between the two, living as he did in the fourteenth century BCE.  You are closer in time to the Visigothic kings of Spain than Tutankhamun was to Khufu.  (John Green makes a similar point in his fun, and actually rather good, 'Crash Course: World History' episode on Ancient Egypt.)

Egypt is impossibly ancient, the kind of age that puts other human societies into stunning perspective.  It wasn't a period, or a sort of civilized prelude to Greeks and Romans, but possibly the longest-lived literate civilization on earth, ever.  The competition comes from Mesopotamia, but there are fewer examples of such extreme sameness over such long durations.  Egypt wasn't politically unified for the entire time - see, for instance, this map of political divisions in the Third Intermediate Period - but the reason ancient Egypt seems like one place, in which Cleopatra shared a two-dimensional walking dance with Khufu, is because some things stayed nearly the same over three thousand years.

File:NarmerPalette ROM-gamma.jpg
The Narmer Palette.  This is from 5100 years ago.  5100.  h/t Wiki.

Of course, there were changes in ancient Egypt.  Khufu's pyramid was built with huge blocks of stone transported over rivers and up ramps by teams of workers, and it is true that this style continued in use for some time.  Monumental architecture is characteristic of public sites in early Egypt.  But by the time of Akhenaten, around 1350 BCE, workers used much smaller blocks, ones that could be carried by a single man.  These are conventionally referred to as talatat, after the Egyptian Arabic word for 'three', referring to the three-handspan length of each block (about a cubit, or 45 centimetres).  Akhenaten also imposed changes in iconography related to his belief in the Aten, but these were not long-lived.  Akhenaten's Egypt would doubtless have seemed strange and foreign to Khufu, had he seen it.
File:Small aten temple.jpg
The Small Aten Temple at Akhetaten, aka Amarna.  Built using talatat.  h/t Wiki, User: Markh.

But hieroglyphs were in use for a very long time, well into the (Greek) Ptolemaic period (began 332 BCE) and beyond.  Hieroglyphs are very flexible and use a large number of signs of different kinds.  Some represent sounds, whether single phonemes (like /f/, represented by a horned viper, I9) or standard combinations of two sounds (like 'mt', for which read /met/, represented by a stylised phallus, D52).  Some are what are now called 'determinatives' - little pictures added on to the phonetic hieroglyphs to give a clue as to the meaning, as vowels were not written in hieroglyphic scripts.

Due to their flexibility, hieroglyphs were used to write several variants of the Egyptian language, including Archaic (in the earliest inscriptions), Old (roughly the time of the Old Kingdom), and Middle (the 'classical' language of Egypt until the Roman conquest, in which most of the great Egyptian literary works were composed).  The language changed, as spoken languages always do, but the hieroglyphs remained basically the same.  In addition to hieroglyphs were the hieratic script, which dates from approximately the same time as hieroglyphs and uses stylised versions of hieroglyphic characters; and the Demotic script, used to write a later form of Egyptian from c.650 BCE.  At which point, I hasten to add, Egypt had been using hieroglyphs, largely unchanged, for about two-and-a-half thousand years - nearly the time from the beginning of Demotic up to now.  The Greek and Roman alphabets are only just beginning to approach that age.
File:Prisse papyrus.svg
Hieratic script.  Image in the public domain, but see Wiki.
It is rare for histories of human societies to produce dates that rival geological or cosmological time in their ability to make you reconsider your place, and the place of everyone else, in the universe.  And Egypt's longevity may not make you think the kind of thoughts that the age of the universe makes you think.  But it certainly makes it hard to indulge in the belief that one's own society is primordial and ancient when that society pales in age next to the traditions established by the people of the Old Kingdom.

Egypt is perhaps the only literate place on the planet where there is such obvious cultural continuity, where even the written record attests to the incomparable age of the lifestyles found there.  But it's relatively easy to find continuities of a sort in prehistory.  At Cuddie Springs, an archaeological site in New South Wales, Australia, archaeologists have discovered remains of Pleistocene megafauna in human-associated contexts for a period of over seven thousand years beginning about forty thousand years ago.  These now-extinct megafauna included Genyornis and Diprotodon, a gigantic flightless bird and a three-metre-long giant wombat respectively.  For seven thousand years, humans lived alongside these creatures in that part of Australia.  They woke up every day for seven thousand years with the prospect of seeing, and perhaps killing, an enormous wombat.
File:Genyornis BW.jpg
Genyornis - a companion and prey of Australian communities for a period longer than the presence of farming in western Europe.  h/t Wiki, User: Nobu Tamura

All of which is just to remind you that the universe is vast, ancient, and inscrutable, and that everything you take for granted and think of as normal and essential to life is dust in the wind.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Some Hittite Legal Cases

In the thirteenth century BCE, the town of Emar, in what is now Syria, was governed by the Hittite empire via the king of the city of Carchemish.  The empire was centred on Hattusa, a fortified city in central Anatolia, modern day Turkey, and was ruled by a king with the help of a large administration and codified laws.  The Hittites spoke an Indo-European language, but they were strongly influenced by the local non-Indo-European-speaking Hattians in almost every respect; the name 'Hittite' is an Anglicised version of the Hebrew word for Hatti, the word the Hittites used for their kingdom, which came from the Hattians.  They were people of diverse origins and they governed in the same way: a key principle of Hittite governance was the use, wherever possible, of established local law and convention, such that the Syrian cities' laws were not overturned by the imposition of law from Hattusa.
File:Map Hittite rule en.svg
The Hittite empire, Hatti, at its greatest extent.  Emar is the city on the Euphrates southeast of Aleppo.  h/t Wiki, User: Ikonact.