Thursday, February 20, 2003

The evolution and migration of ideas

Archaeologists and physical anthropologists hold that Homo sapiens evolved in the Central African Rift Valley about 100,000 years ago and began spreading throughout the world, eventually replacing all other hominid species. According to this argument, it took people quite some time to spread out: Australia is believed to have been settled about 40,000 - 50,000 years ago and the Americas around 15,000 - 20,000 years ago.

Every so often, new evidence suggests that these migrations took place 10,000 - 20,000 years earlier. These claims get the archaeology community all twisted up; if the peopling of Australia and the Americas took place earlier than we believe, it would affect all sorts of other assumptions we have about evolution and migration patterns. So, the first thing scrutinised is the technique used to date the archaeological materials (these methods are not as accurate or precise as one might believe). If the dating method is considered to be reliable, then there is always the possibility that data were contaminated or incorrectly collected by researchers.

Australian archaeologists have argued for decades about the skeletal remains of the "First Australian" (known as Mungo Man). Archaeologists originally suggested the remains were about 30,000 years old, and later claimed that the man was buried 62,000 years ago. This later evidence conflicted with known global migration data, and the materials were sent to four independent labs for dating. These tests have now dated Mungo Man's burial to around 40,000 years ago - fully consistent with established knowledge.

Every time I read stories like that, I think of the woman who taught me how to be a scholar - Dr. Ruth Gruhn. Now retired from teaching, she is a brilliant anthropologist who spent her career arguing for an early migration to the Americas based on a coastal entry route, and against the established argument of migration by foot over the Bering land bridge. There was (and probably continues to be) resistance to her work, but she taught me how valuable that can be.

Anthropology is historically bound up with authority and colonialism, and despite advocating a critical reflexivity and advancing scientific method on several fronts, there persists an imperial consciousness in how some anthropologists conduct fieldwork overseas. When I was a practising archaeologist, I never forgot the Peruvian archaeologists telling me that they were more often treated like informants than like colleagues. And then there are the disagreements between European and North American archaeologists working in the Americas. Who conducts the dig, who analyses the data and where it is analysed make all the difference when it comes to explaining the peopling of the Americas. The last time I checked, a group of American scholars had a monopoly on the truth.

But Ruth taught me that truth is relative, and that what we believe today may not be what we believe tomorrow. She taught me that a great scholar has a strong and flexible mind, approaches her studies with passion, but never shuts out other possibilities. She taught me that a great scholar does not choose art or science, but always weaves them together. And it was Ruth who taught me not to be afraid when scholars - and others - disagree with me. Not a day goes by that I'm not grateful for that one.

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