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

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

New 'lion man' fragments from Hohlenstein-Stadel

Neat Aurignacian art objects keep popping up in Germany! A few years ago, the Hohle Fels 'Venus' was recovered in deposits dating to more than 30kya (Conard 2009), and now we learn that renewed excavations in the Aurignacian levels of the nearby site of Hohlenstein-Stadel have yielded new fragments of what is perhaps the most iconic piece of Aurignacian portable art, the so-called Löwenmensch, or lion-man.
"Over the past two years, German archaeologists have carefully excavated more of the sediment near the spot where the Lion-Man showed up. Thousands of bone fragments and some ivory pieces were found. Some of them matched the Lion-Man perfectly, a delighted Kind reported. Some of the figure's missing right side and parts of the back have already been restored as a result. "It needs a huge amount of patience," said Kind. "It's like doing a jigsaw puzzle in 3D." The work is continuing with the help of computer tomograph images of the pieces and simulation software. By next year, the Lion-Man may be complete. 
The restorers have also concluded that Lion-Man was somewhat taller than the 30 centimetres of him that currently exist. He was carved from one tusk, with the artist forming the legs from two sides of tusk's hollow root."

And here's shot of some of these fragments being refitted to the statuette originally found in 1939.

It's a bit unclear from the linked story whether the refitting pieces were found in the backdirt of the original excavators or in situ in deposits left untouched by the original excavators. Regardless, a very neat find, and another clear example of why it matters to reexcavate key sites excavated in the 'golden age' of Paleolithic archaeology. Also makes you wonder what finds lie hidden in sites untouched to date...


Conard, N. (2009). A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany Nature, 459 (7244), 248-252 DOI: 10.1038/nature07995

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When it rains, it pours!

Get ready for a veritable feast of anthropologically interesting talks in the greater Denver area on this coming Thursday, April 21:

  • On the Auraria campus, where UC Denver is located, Dr. Biruté Galdikas (Orangutan Foundation) is giving a talk on her research on orangs at St. Cajetans (5:30-7:00PM). The event is free, but you need to register.If you can't make that talk, she'll also be lecturing at the DMNS on Saturday, April 23.
    • Dr. Biruté Galdikas is a primatologist, conservationist, ethologist, and author of several books relating to the endangered orangutan, particularly the Bornean orangutan. Well known in the field of modern primatology, Galdikas is recognized as a leading authority on orangutans. 
  • On the DU campus, Noam Chomsky is giving a talk on "Dilemmas in US Foreign Policy", at 7:00PM. Again, free but you need to register. 
  • Finally, the Colorado Scientific Society is sponsoring a talk by Tom Strasser on "Crete before the Cretans: Paleolithic Mariners in the Mediterranean", at 8:00PM.
    • A survey in 2008 and 2009 on the southwestern coast of Crete in the region of Plakias documented 28 preceramic lithic sites. Sites were identified with artifacts of Mesolithic type similar to assemblages from the Greek mainland and islands, and some had evidence of Lower Palaeolithic occupation dated by geological context to at least 130,000 years ago. The long period of separation (more than 5,000,000 years) of Crete from any landmass implies that the early inhabitants of Crete reached the island using seacraft capable of open-sea navigation and multiple journeys—a finding that pushes the history of seafaring in the Mediterranean back by more than 100,000 years and has important implications for the dispersal of early humans.
All in all, it's going to be a busy Thursday evening! Now, though I'm a highly mobile kinda guy, there's only so much traveling I can do, so I'll be at the Strasser talk, especially considering the various posts I've put up on this humble blog about that research. I'll be very interested to learn more about the survey and the artifacts Strasser's group found. If any readers in the Denver area are in attendance, feel free to introduce yourself!

Monday, April 04, 2011

Back from the SAAs

Pretty exhausted, thought I'm actually in better shape than I am after most meetings. Don't know how I feel about Sacramento, but the meetings themselves were pretty good. Blogistically, I was really bummed out not to be able to attend the Blogging Archaeology session which ran (of course) exactly at the same time as the session I was in. On the other hand, I did get to have a nice lunch with John Hawks, engage in a roast pig-side chat at the Cotsen reception with Mike Smith, and get the chance to meet Colleen Morgan, three of my favorite bloggers, along with a long-time commenter on this very blog, so that was all very nice. If you want a flavor of what went down at the meetings, you can track down some Twitter feeds of the whole thing by going here.

I'm feeling revved up after these meetings, so let's see how productive I can be until I jet out to the Paleos in Minneapolis a week from now...