Thursday, April 28, 2011

Stone Age ≠ Caveman!!! Archaeology, science, the media, and some tangential thoughts on the 'gay caveman' story

By now, you've surely heard all the media hoopla about the alleged 'gay caveman' found in the Czech Republic that's been all over the news and internet for the past few weeks. Ugh! Y'know, I just got done reading Ben Goldacre's fantastic book Bad Science in which he bemoans (and entertainingly skewers!) the way medical findings are consistently distorted in the media, where flashy headlines seem to be more important than the actual facts. Well, I'm sure Ben would be (un)happy to know that this kind of media hype also sadly characterizes the way many archaeological findings are presented to the public at large.

This post might turn into something of a rant, cause there's a lot to talk about surrounding all of these issues, so let me start by the beginning, namely the find itself. It's a Corded Ware burial of a skeleton sexed as male found lying on its left side, with the head pointing to the West. That position is usually associated with females in that prehistoric culture, as are the various pots the burial contained. So, archaeologically, that's a neat find. Something unusual that does suggest - if the sexing is correct - that the individual might have had a distinct identity in that cultural context, which to be fair is pretty much all the archaeologists actually said about it. And that's good, because without more info, it's really impossible to say anything more about that person's identity. Yet, all the media reports are talking about "the first known gay caveman" so what gives? Well, truth of the matter is, the find has been misinterpreted, indeed distorted by the media. Shocking, I know. All. Sorts. Of. Wrong. You wanna know how bad the distortion has been? Read this story on LiveScience. Then read the posts on the topic by Rosemary Joyce, Bone GirlJohn Hawks and the very thoughtful post by Eric Michael Johnson which provides a really good discussion of third genders and the range of sexual identities present and accepted in many cultures.

You know, the mess the media have made here of confusing biological sex, gender, identity and sexual orientation is a perfect example of why people need to be exposed to at least some anthropology, even before college. Without going into detail here, let me just state they're not the same thing. They can be related, obviously, but they're not the same, and the distinctions matter, especially when you're using one of these dimensions (in this case biological sex) to infer some of the other ones. It gets even more problematic when bones and archaeological remains (i.e., a biased sample of all the evidence you would need to intelligently discuss these issues) are all you have to go on. Let's be clear: I'd be more than happy if we could get at an archaeology of homosexuality, as there is every reason to believe it was a fact of life in the past just as it is today (see Eric's post mentioned above). It's just that this particular story doesn't get it right, and that rubs me the wrong way, especially given how the media has sensationalized their spin on the discovery

To me, the most aggravating aspect of this media circus is what wasn't actually discussed in any of the breathless "OMG gay caveman" reports. What I mean here is that, had this story actually been true - let's assume for a second that we did have a gay caveman, or whatever - not one of the reports bothered to discuss the broader implications of the find. This is one grave found among many others, so what does it means that this clearly distinct individual was casually buried among many other Corded Ware individuals? Given the bigotry that is all too pervasive in today's society and all the ranting and raving about 'traditional' and 'normal' values that seeps into the political and social spheres, you'd think that finding evidence that people in the 'olden days' did not bother to marginalize gay individuals is even more noteworthy. But apparently, this kind of story just doesn't seem to be as interesting as catchy headlines today. Absurd.

One thing that several bloggers have seized on is the mischaracterization of this burial as somehow representing a caveman. I mean, by all that is unholy, the dude(tte) was buried with pottery, the very anathema of cavepersonhood! I think Rosemary hits the nail on the head here when she points out that the term was likely chosen to elicit the most visceral kind of contrast-based reaction between stereotypical views of cavemen and homosexuals in the public at large. My beef here is how the hell did the slip from pottery-using Neolithic person to 'caveman' happened. Reading the news reports, you see a lot of emphasis on the fact that the Corded Ware culture begins at the tail end of the Neolithic and last into the Copper Age of Central Europe. And I think that this is where we have the 'wormhole' (which, given my penchant for naming things right in Stone Age archaeology, you know I'm going to dive into): Neolithic refers to the "New Stone Age", where ground stone technology becomes ubiquitous, in contrast to the chipped stone tools that dominate the Paleolithic or "Old Stone Age". You see where this is going: do you think a reporter on the trail of of juicy story is going to let the distinction between a 'new' and and 'old' Stone Age get in the way of the fact that this individual can somehow be tied to the Stone Age as a whole? Of course not! So this burial goes from being Neolithic to belonging to the Stone Age, and from there, you're one lowly step away from cavemen... and a great headline! This is another reason why you need qualified people writing about archaeology. This is all the more true in cases where it ties to issues as volatile in their socio-political echoes as sexual identity. So, again, goes to show people need at least some background in anthropology and archaeology, if only so they can make out the general outlines of our species' evolutionary history and how given finds fit therein.

At the SAA meetings, I had a good talk with a friend about how news stories on archaeological research so often get their facts wrong. It echoed a discussion we had in our department earlier this term when Jim Potter came and gave a talk on his recently published work on the Sacred Ridge assemblage of human remains that showed evidence of perimortem processing (Potter and Chuipka 2010). Somehow, a sober archaeological analysis of these patterns got translated into the media as evidence for widespread cannibalism in the prehistoric US Southwest, when nothing of the sort was actually said, either in the paper itself or in interviews by the researchers. In fact, the paper itself argues that cannibalism is not the best explanation for the patterns they identified! How the topic veered so dramatically away from the archaeological reality is anyone's guess, but the need for a good story seems to be rather importantly involved.

This, to me, suggests that it may be time for anthropologists and archaeologists to get some actual formal training in PR or media relations as part of their education. We bemoan that we too often lose control of the narrative of the stories published on our work, yet we're the ones who are most intimately familiar with the studies that get reported on. Are people who are not trained in anthropology really the best ones to 'translate' our results and their significance for the public at large? Hardly. We should be able to express why something's important without having to transit through a middleman who all too often lacks the proper background to really fully digest anthropological research.

My own experience with this has been limited to dealing with my university's PR office, and I have to say that it was pretty good. The reporter I dealt with, David Kelly, was really enthusiastic and did not hesitate to ask questions, and likewise, I didn't hesitate to correct misunderstandings, etc. I think that we developed a good back and forth built on mutual trust, and that the news story was, as a result, quite a bit better than many I've read on similar topics. On talking to other colleagues that have had their work covered by the popular press, I also get the feeling that my experience as a whole was more positive than most. Maybe it has to do with the process being conducted 'in house' where both parties had something to gain from this being done right. I think that this also set the stage for positive interaction with members of the media who later contacted me, since they had a good, reliable base on which to build.

So, how does this all relate to 'gay cavemen'? Basically, we need to be careful about how we phrase things when presenting them to the public in order to steer the public narrative in a way we are comfortable with. This means that we somehow need to become better at (re)taking control over the narrative about our work that gets circulated in the media. To paraphrase an argument made by Goldacre, people aren't stupid, and they can follow fairly complicated argument, if given the chance. Not only that, but there also is a large amount of interest in anthropological research writ large. So, there is no need to dumb it down to the point where the story bears almost no resemblance to the original research, and such distortions are clearly not just the price to pay to have our stories get coverage in the media. We can and must do better.


Potter, J., & Chuipka, J. (2010). Perimortem mutilation of human remains in an early village in the American Southwest: A case for ethnic violence Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 29 (4), 507-523 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2010.08.001


Millán Mozota said...

great post!

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...


Camarchgrad said...

Yes! And see below where shoddy reporting has lead to a potential real world impact on the entire regional archaeological profession.!/entry/3513

Which is why blogging is so damn important. It is real people communicating through a form of media of which can potentially reach every person in the world.

The "gay caveman" story and subsequentnpush back was a perfect example of how archaeologists can start to reclaim their media presence.