Wednesday, May 20, 2009

fascinating artifacts, difference in perspective

Reading John McWhorter's TNR post on the significance of the "prehistoric pin-up" reported in Nature I was struck by McWhorter's remark that

It has actually been long established that the earliest evidence of artistically conscious humans has been found in, as we might expect, Africa, given that it's where our species emerged. Specifically, South Africa, in Blombos Cave. There were beads made from shells, and geometric engravings on ochre --- i.e. slam-dunk "modern" tokens, unimaginable of even the smartest dog, parrot, chimp, or even Australopithecine "Lucy." And this stuff dates back to 75,000 to 80,000 years ago. No bosomy figurines, sure --- but if what got dug up in Germany was jewelry and etchings instead, we can sure there would be the same claims that here was the birth of advanced thought.

I knew very little about prehistoric art, so I had to do a little searching before I could compare the Blombos beads and engravings to Nature's new figurine. I was surprised to find that what McWhorter derides in his article as "socially unsavory," the "fetishization of artistic tokens dug up in Europe from a few tens of thousands of years ago," is exemplified by John Noble Wilford referring to "inspiration and symbolism behind the rather sudden flowering" behind the difference between this and this. I don't know about "sudden" (as per my caveat below about archaeological evidence trends being tenuously related to real trends) but referring to that difference with "flowering" or even stronger words seems quite reasonable to me.

To me, the new figurine looks like something that none of the characters in Lord of the Flies would have been able to make, while the Blombos etchings look like something the characters in Lord of the Flies wouldn't have bothered to make. And the Blombos beads are nifty, and significant, but (1) it is not obvious to me how to compare the significance of decoration to the significance of representational art, and (2) I don't know how hard it is to punch holes in shells using primitive tools, but I wouldn't be terribly impressed if a Lord of the Flies character made them in a few afternoons.) Therefore, when McWhorter says "if what got dug up in Germany was jewelry and etchings instead, we can be sure there would be the same claims" I think it seems to say more about the intellectual dishonesty of the accuser than of the accused.

When I look at artifacts like the new figurine, I feel the same puzzlement I feel when I read about ancient China or Rome: it makes me start scratching my head, wondering what developments were missing to keep the next revolution from starting. What kept the erotic figurine makers from going on to an agricultural revolution? What kept China or Rome from going on to an industrial revolution? (I do know some of the stock answers to the second question, but I don't consider the question completely settled, especially for China.) Looking at the Blombos artifacts doesn't give me the same feeling --- the artifacts seem very impressive and significant in the way that firemaking or weaponmaking or clothing are very impressive and important, but they don't seem very much like the work of modern humans marooned in the Stone Age.

(disclaimer: I'm not trying to argue against all of McWhorter's points, just his "fetishization" smear of what I see as an obvious conspicuous difference. In particular, I basically agree with his point about geographical distribution of artifacts not necessarily resembling the underlying historical reality. Accidents and unexpected cross-correlations can skew the distribution of artifact-like evidence very dramatically, and the problem can get worse when researchers start seeing what they expect to see and/or publishing what others want to hear. Such caution is important in lots of observational sciences, not just paleoarchaeology, e.g., trying to understand astronomical trends or climate trends or ecological trends or economic trends from the accidentally biased data that we have.)


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