Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Four Stone Hearth is up!

Visit Nomadic Thoughts and get five for five! The fifth installment of 4SH has five great posts (well, four and mine). I'm surprised at the low number of submissions, but it is the holidays and between semesters for a lot of folks, so I'm sure its a busy time (it is for me anyway). But the good news is that these are all quality bloggers and well worth reading. Be sure to leave each a comment letting them know you were there and what you thought of their post, even if its to just say you liked it or learned something new.

Have a happy holiday season!


Monday, December 18, 2006

Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism?

Note: this is a repost of one of the very first posts I made on this blog. Since Theo over a Humbug Online has mentioned that the next Skeptic's Circle (#50) is going to be a tribute to Carl Sagan, whom I've always held in high regard, I thought I'd dig this one out again. While he may not have agreed with them, Dr. Sagan was always very fair to religion and sensitive to the beliefs of others. His idea was that it would be far easier to appeal to believers (in religion, UFOs, ESP, etc) and educate them if they were respected and treated fairly than if not. This is why it came to a surprise to me to see that there were those "believers" that attacked Sagan in spite of his sensitivity and found him to be such a threat. Perhaps it was the very nature of his appeal and popularity that some found threatening.

The topic of "scientism" keeps coming up in conversations with both those who criticize the rigorous demands of the scientific method as well as through a short monograph on the internet (Menton 1991) with the title, Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism.

Interestingly enough, the term scientism exists among scholarly references and refers to the notion that science and the scientific method can be used to explain all that can be observed or experienced in the universe. This is consistent with logical positivism, which holds that there is an objectively knowable universe.

However, a different use of scientism has been co-opted, which implies that there are those within science that are to be derided as extremists or, at the very least, alarmists who reject critical thought and reason by denying "both the special revelation of truth and the existence of a sovereign, supernatural and external being (Menton 1991)." The assumption here is that science generally accepts the supernatural and spiritual "revelations" as valid methods of obtaining truths.

More often than not, the sources of these implications and assumptions originate with theistic proponents of creation mythology. Some, however, tactically avoid the direct association with creation and supernaturalism as if to provide plausible deniability if directly called on either to produce evidence or supporting references. It is, after all, difficult to logically prove that which cannot be tested, and the intellectual and educated theist wisely avoids this. The tactic, instead, appears to be to assert that there is a subculture called scientism, which is a moral and extremist faction of real science.

The overall thesis of this assertion seems to suggest that scientism as an extremist faction of science is somehow a danger to society, perhaps with its rampant atheism and certainly with its naturalistic and materialistic views of the universe.

Menton's paper on the subject made Carl Sagan the focus of the anti-scientism movement (as it were). Menton accused Sagan of being a "prophet" of scientism, which impliesd very clearly that the author believed this to be a new form of religion or was at least willing to argue the notion. Menton's opening paragraph made the unsupported claim that Sagan's work consisted of "only a tissue of empirical science covering a great bulk of improvable speculation liberally laced with Sagan's own philosophical and religious views of life." Menton then stated, very plainly, "Sagan's religion […] is 'scientism.'"

Menton's article is short and falls even more short in delivering any support for either his claim that Sagan was a representative of a religion or that this religion of "scientism" actually exists. Menton's derision of Sagan's work goes little beyond merely stating that it is speculative and supported only be a "tissue of empiricism." He does, however, criticize Sagan's position (Cosmos 1996) that evolution is a fact and that it really happened. Menton is unconcerned with the enormous body of evidence that exists to support Sagan's assertion and seems only interested in attempting to negatively affect Sagan's credibility in the matters of science. In doing so, Menton invokes the words of Harlow Shapely, an apparent one-time professor of Sagan, who is alleged to have said, "some piously record, 'In the beginning, God,' but I say in the beginning hydrogen." Menton then vastly oversimplifies Shapely's contention by concluding that Shapely is suggesting hydrogen + time = H. sapiens as if the complex processes and mechanisms between hydrogen and civilization came about in a few days. I'm not sure what specific creationist beliefs Menton has, but it is interesting to note that he rejects the hypothesis that hydrogen, many billions of years, and untold energy can result in the universe as we know it. The irony is that he probably has little difficulty accepting that a mysterious, supernatural entity can speak the world into existence –complete with people in just a few days!

Menton mines several quotes from Sagan's Cosmos (1996), which he takes from their original contexts and juxtaposes with new a new context –the one of an atheistic scientist attempting to convert the masses to become godless heathens. Menton's deception isn't very subtle. He quotes Sagan from a 1980 newspaper article as saying, "I feel in order to survive we someday must be able to give up our allegiance to our nation, our religion, our race and economic group and think of ourselves more as just a temporary form of life under the creation of a power beyond our comprehension." Menton cites the St. Louis Globe-Democrat as the source but immediately follows the quote with "Sagan concludes that if man is to worship anything greater than man himself, it should be something which amounts to the pagan worship of nature," to which Menton follows with another Sagan quote mined from Cosmos (p 243): "Our ancestors worshiped the Sun, and they were far from foolish. And yet the Sun is an ordinary, even mediocre star. If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars?"

Perhaps Menton truly believes that Sagan's position was that the sun should be worshipped and that a pagan religion was necessary. But a look at page 242 of Cosmos and reading on through 243 reveals the context of Sagan's words. The chapter these pages reside in is titled The Lives of Stars and Sagan is describing the power of a star on the community of planets from which one is lucky enough to be able to support life. He was noting that the power of the sun did not go unnoticed to man and the footnote that was attached to the quote was this:

"The early Sumerian pictograph for god was an asterisk, the symbol of the stars. The Aztec word for god was Teotl, and its glyph was a representation of the Sun. The heavens were called the Teoatl, the godsea, the cosmic ocean."

The very next paragraph that follows the quote abbegins with, "The Galaxy is an unexplored continent filled with exotic beings of stellar dimensions."

Even Menton couldn't have missed the literary devices of metaphor and hyperbole which Sagan effectively utilized to convey the enormity and power that a star has, even a "mediocre" one such as our Sun.

Menton was again disingenuous with Sagan's words when he quoted UFO's: A Scientific Debate (Sagan & Page 1972, p.xiv): "[s]cience has itself become a kind of religion." Menton inserts the period that follows "religion" as if that is the end of the thought, leaving the reader with the impression that the "prophet of scientism" has spoke and the movement begun. But to add context and truth to the eight words quote-mined by Menton, it is important to note that "religion" is punctuated with a trailing comma and the sentence completes with, "and many pronouncements cloaked in scientific attire are blandly accepted by much of the public." Clearly Sagan and Paige (the co-editor Menton so conveniently omits to credit) are providing an introduction to the thesis of the collection of articles to which they are the editors of in UFO's, which is that science must contain skepticism and critical thought in order to balance the pop-culture appeal that it has attained.

What then is the purpose of criticizing notable figures of science with charges of "scientism" and of starting a "religion?"

For the theistic apologetics of creationism and it's guise under the form of "intelligent" design, this question's answer lies in an agenda to justify beliefs and promote doubt among believers, obfuscating the truth with appeals to their religious sensibilities. Indeed, the much talked about "wedge strategy" dictates, among it's goals, to seed doubt among lay persons regarding the validity of the science behind evolutionary processes in order to further the creationist agenda. Interestingly enough, the scientism accusation finds its way into arguments with proponents of other forms of psuedoscience that range from ESP to "alternative medicine."


Menton, D. N. (1991). Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism (Get the Facts). Retrieved 13106, from Missouri Association for Creation, Inc.:
Sagan, C. (1986). Broca's Brain. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C. (1996). Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C., & Druyan, A. (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C., & Page, T. (1972). Introduction. In C. Sagan & T. Page (Eds.), Ufo's: A Scientific Debate (p. xiv). New York: W W Norton & Co Inc.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Stolen & Looted: Grave Robbers in China

In China, looters are robbing graves at a rate that far out-paces the ability for Chinese authorities and archaeologists to keep up.

Still, public officials of the Gansu province report having arrested 1,283 people and seizing 1,959 artifacts and cultural items between 1998 and 2005. Gansu is where some of the earliest known sites of Chinese civilization are evident. And it was in this province that grave robbers recently discovered two important sites:

[O]ne dat[ed] back to the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) and the other to ancestors of China's first emperor Qinshihuang. [...] The Warring States grave in Zhangjiachuan county was discovered last August when local police caught grave robbers who had unearthed an ancient tomb, that had remained hidden for more than 2,000 years. By mid December, archaeologists had excavated from the grave more than 500 pieces of items of gold, silver, bronze, iron, bone and porcelain
as well as more than 800 other decorated relic pieces.

Read more at Grave robbery keeps Chinese archaeologists bustling around.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Using GPS in Archaeological Field Work

Obtaining 3D data for excavation units and for artifacts and features within the excavation units is traditionally conducted by use of theodolite or total station to establish a datum point and an intersecting baseline. Locations of in situ artifacts and features are established in relationship to the datum point. During excavations, artifacts and features must be continuously measured from the baseline to establish 3D position and carefully documented prior to removal or destruction -archaeology is, by nature, a destructive process.

In recent years, several studies have been conducted to explore the use of GPS technology in the field of archaeology, which provide both innovation as well as efficiency in data collection.

GPS was used successfully in establishing site location or for creating a baseline for excavation units in several of the studies. Establishing site locations on dry land, however, comprised most of the recent archaeological work that took advantage of GPS technology. Chapman and Van de Noort (2001) used GPS experimentally to determine if the use of differential GPS (DGPS) was a viable method of surveying points in archaeological prospection of wetlands on the British Isles. By noting differential desiccation, that is, the different rates at which the ground dries, in wetland environments, manmade features can be discerned that cannot be observed by normal aerial reconnaissance. Chapman and Van de Noort demonstrated that DGPS allowed for a much quicker and efficient collection of 3D data than with traditional optical methods. Moreover, the DGPS system they used required only a single person rather than two and the data collected were more easily imported into GIS software from which excavation trenches were planned. Once the locations of the trenches were planned, they were positioned using, again, the DGPS equipment. Their conclusion was that GPS used with GIS is now a proven technique in archaeology.

In South West Turkey, Martens (2005) discussed the use of GPS in establishing an excavation grid of a Roman site in which a surface survey, an observation and evaluation of artifacts and ecofacts, was conducted. For the grid, GPS was used to establish the top row's corners and the remaining units were laid out using triangulation based on the Pythagorean Theorem. Once GPS was used to establish the corners, a compass and tape were all that was required to lay in the remaining grid squares.

In North Kohala, Hawaii, an archaeological team used two Trimble Pathfinder GPS 8-channel Pro XR receivers to create plan maps of at least two sites. Their method was to collect the data and post-process it with correction data downloaded from the National Park Service base station though they did experiment with using one of their receivers as a base and the other as a rover. In doing so, they discovered that the base would need differential correction before the data could be considered accurate enough for their purposes. The team used the GPS to collect data points as they walked around major features such as walls, pits and terraces, creating a map that could be printed out and modified by sketching in additional information. The final result was production of plan maps of a residential structure and a religious temple called a heiau, both of which were completed four times as efficiently as would have been done with traditional methods which include tape and compass or with plane table and alidade. Ladefoged and his team also discussed the problems they encountered in their use of GPS. Among these was the failure of the equipment to obtain a signal if the sky overhead was obstructed by trees with branches more than 12 centimeters in diameter. When a signal was obtained under heavy vegetation, it wasn't used because of the degradation due to multipath errors.

Multipath errors arise in GPS when the signal from the satellite is bounced off of a building or ground before reaching the receiver. A large tree would interfere with the most direct signal, leaving ones that bounce from the ground or other objects first. The result is a signal that is degraded slightly, skewing results.

Altai Mountains of Western Siberia
GPS has also been used successfully with satellite imagery in mapping and planning archaeological sites. In an experimental study conducted in the Altai Mountains of Western Siberia, Goossens et al (2006) tested three different GPS systems, comparing their implementation and results. The first system tested was a duel-frequency DGPS made by NavCom Technologies which used a real-time correction network transmitted to the receiver by satellite. This allowed correction of both ionospheric and tropospheric delays, giving horizontal accuracy of about a half a meter with accurate elevations to just under a meter. The other two systems Goossens et al tested were off the shelf handhelds, the 12 channel Garmin GPS 12XL and the 8 channel Motorola Oncore, which they post-processed with computer software and correction data obtained from nearby reference stations. The handheld models provided accuracy at 1-2 meters after correction, making the DGPS the most reliable and efficient of the three since corrections were real-time.

Neogene period clays
GPS has also found its way into archaeological research through necessity. Hein et al (2004) discuss the research of Neogene period clays in order to understand the geochemical makeup of these clay deposits in Crete, where Greeks of antiquity obtained their raw materials to produce ceramics. Knowing the geochemical makeup of these clays can aid in determining the provenance of ceramic artifacts. Determining which deposits pottery originated from can allow inferences to be made with regard to trade patterns in antiquity. Hein and his team obtained 61 samples from 28 different Neogene clay deposits in Crete, using a Magellan GPS-3000 XL, which offered uncertainty up to 100 meters. However, the authors chose the GPS to provide reproducibility of their results, and precise location may not have been an important consideration for sampling a clay deposit since the individual deposits were kilometers apart.

The advantages of GPS over traditional methods as variously indicated to various extents by the authors of the studies cited above include that traditional optical methods (theodolite or total station) require two people and must maintain line of sight between the instrument and the prism. With a GPS, a single operator can collect data points very quickly and the data can be transferred relatively easily to GIS software or a database for later analysis and processing. However, GPS has limitations that must be taken into consideration. For instance, a clear view of the sky is needed to conduct a quality survey and dense forest, tall buildings, or even occasional large trees can affect results. In such cases, combinations of GPS and optical methods may still yield efficient results. A datum point can be established in a location of the site where accurate GPS data can be collected and then optical methods or tape and compass used to lay out the baseline and remaining excavation grid.

The future of GPS in archaeological applications will certainly include data collection, particularly as equipment becomes readily available to excavation teams. The ease of use, increased rate of data collection, the quality of data, and the ability for a single surveyor to collect data will be appealing to archaeologists seeking to maximize their time. In addition, the ability to transfer data from the GPS to a laptop in the field for processing and rendering to a map further simplify the survey process and, perhaps, eliminate errors in calculation that can occur with optical methods.


Chapman, H., & Van de Noort. (2001, April). High-resolution wetland prospection, using GPS and GIS: Landscape Studies at Sutton Common (South Yorkshire), and Meare Village East (Somerset). Journal of Archaeological Science, 28(4), 365-375.

Goossens, R., De Wulf. (2006, June). Satellite imagery and archaeology: The example of CORONA in the Altai Mountains. Journal of Archaeological Science, 33(6), 745-755.

Hein, A., Day. (2004, August). The geochemical diversity of Neogene clay deposits in Crete and its implications for provenance studies of Minoan pottery. Archaeometry, 46(3), 357-384.

Ladefoged, T. L., Graves, M. W., O'Connor, B. V., & and Chapin, R. (1998). Integration of Global Positioning Systems into Archaeological Field Research: A Case Study from North Kohala, Hawai'i Island. Society for American Archaeology, 16(1).

Martens, F. (2005, August). The archaeological urban survey of Sagalassos (South-West Turkey): The possibilities and limitations of surveying a 'non-typical' classical site. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 24(3), 229-254.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival

Be sure to visit the Four Stone Hearth, a blog carnival for anthropology bloggers. This is the fourth edition and is hosted this time at Yann Klimentidis' Weblog.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Yet Another Kevin Trudeau Con

Kevin Trudeau is in the news for shenanigans other than the 'alternative medicine' scams he's associated with. The Philippine Daily Inquirer ran an article on October 27, 2006 that exposes his involvement in organizing the International Pool Tour, which included a $3 million World 8-Ball Open in Reno, NV. Unfortunately, for the players, not all is on the up-and-up:

Six weeks after the IPT Open in Reno, Trudeau has yet to pay the winners. He has apologized for the delay, saying he fully understood and acknowledged the players’ frustration and concern.

“Critics quickly alerted players and industry reps about Trudeau’s controversial past,” Panozzo recalled. (Trudeau had spent 24 months in federal prison for credit card fraud and larceny.--MRI)

Of course, Trudeau responded with the same easy rhetoric that he offers critics of his pseudoscience claims in infomercials and books:

“When you create something new, like the IPT, the first reaction isn’t ‘Great!’ It’s ‘Witch! Charlatan!’ That’s what happens,” Trudeau said.

He pointed out that the opening quote in his best-selling book, “Natural Cures They Don’t Want You To Know About,” is by Albert Einstein who said, “Great spirits always get violent opposition from mediocre minds.” His book, which has so far sold more than three million copies, espouses cures and remedies that don’t require drugs and surgery. A pioneer of infomercial, Trudeau is now worth more than $2 billion.

$2 billion!? If you flip open the front cover of his Natural Cures book, you see the announcement that he makes no money from his work, but donates it all to furthering the cause of alternative medicine and 'natural' cures. $2 Billion?! I wonder what funds he's given to whom for the good of alternative medicine?


Friday, November 24, 2006

Stolen and Looted: Who Does the Past Belong To?

It would seem that The J. Paul Getty Museum disagrees with the nation of Italy with regard to ownership of antiquities in their possession:

Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said that an offer by the J. Paul Getty Museum to hand over 26 disputed antiquities doesn't go far enough and that the museum needs to return all of the artifacts Italy has requested.

Italy is asking for 21 others, including ``Statue of a Victorious Youth,'' known as the Getty Bronze. The Los Angeles- based J. Paul Getty Museum, the world's richest private art institution, said on Nov. 21 that it would return only some of the contested objects.

In a statement issued after the press conference, Getty Museum Director Michael Brand said the museum was ``deeply saddened'' by Italy's response, and offered to continue talks. Brand invited Rutelli, who plans to be in the U.S. next week, to the Getty Villa, a museum of Roman, Etruscan and Greek art, ``so he can see for himself the impact the magnificent works of art displayed there have on the American public.''

The quote above is found at:
Italy Says Getty Needs to Surrender All Disputed Artifacts []
But it raises the question: "who does the past belong to?" I don't know the provenance of the antiquities in question or read as yet whether or not there is any documented evidence of their existence before the 1970 UNESCO conference (though it would seem there isn't given the Italian government's interest in them), but should museums be required to give back antiquities that draw thousands of visitors and inspire many to take an interest in history and archaeology? I say yes. Particularly if the artifacts are post-1970 and have no provenance. Clearly, with these antiquities, museum curators should have known something was not on the up-and-up if a dealer was unwilling or unable to provide provenance. Museums stand to loose millions of dollars in handing back stolen and looted property, but such is the risk they took by accepting questionable goods to begin with.

In other looted news:

"Relics looted from the Middle East being sold on the Internet and at markets in Britain may be helping to fund international terrorism," which can be read at: Artifacts sold in Britain could be funding terrorism []

Poverty makes Bulgarians Rob Archaeological Heritage - National Geographic []
The trade in artifacts is more profitable than drug trade in poverty-striken Bulgaria, where the middle-class is now "flat broke" and looking for subsistence. Their strategy is to loot their cultural heritage of Thracian gold. The risk associated with such activity was once considered great, but desperate times may call for desperate measures. It continues the question of "who does the past belong to" in a different perspective: do the Bulgarian people have the right to sell their own cultural heritage on the black market in order to sustain themselves? The archaeologist in me balks at the idea. The father in me understands the need to feed and clothe the ones you love beyond all else.

Holocaust heirs still being sought []
The Czech Republic is wants to answer "who does the past belong to?" and has even set up a website to do it. During World War II, the Nazi regime and the Gestapo confiscated thousands of art and cultural items from Jewish citizens as part of the Holocaust. Earlier this month, the Czech Republic voted to abandon a deadline for the families of Holocaust victims to reclaim their property, which includes: "[o]
rnate metal goblets for the Seder table. Porcelain figurines and marble sculptures. Oil paintings dating to the 17th century. Hundreds of copies of the Torah and other Holy Scriptures."

They've also established a website (set up by Sotheby's, ironically enough) called Restitution-Art [] to help locate individual pieces of art and cultural items.

In the past four years, some 20,000 pieces — textiles, liturgical objects, furniture, paintings and sculptures — have been identified as Holocaust spoils, said Kraus. About 3,400 pieces have been entered into a searchable online database: The rest will be gradually added, but until then a complete list is kept at the Culture Ministry.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

The North Carolina Science Blogging Conference

Corturnix at A Blog Around The Clock asked some time ago if I would post about the upcoming North Carolina Science Blogging Conference. I meant to post this one (I really did!), but the email he sent me ended up at the bottom of my saved list over time. Luckily I discovered it while going through my saved mail and before the conference scheduled for January 20.

This is a conference I'd love to attend myself, but, sadly, time and funds won't permit right now. Billed as "a conference to explore new ways in communicating the scientific exploration happening in our state," by the conference's website, BlogTogether, a science blogger (or even potential blogger) can attend with free registration and free wifi for the laptop!

Where: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
When: Saturday, January 20, 2007 (9:00 am - 4:00 pm)

Get more info at BlogTogether for the conference.
Get more info at Science Blogging - What It Can Be on the nature and possibility of Science Blogging by one of the best and most prolific.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Review: Kevin Trudeau's Natural Cures, Part 2

Previous entries about Trudeau:
Review: Kevin Trudeau's Natural Cures, Part 1
The Pseudoscience of an "Infomercial" Conman

In Part 1 of my review of Trudeau's Natural Cures (linked above), I spent a bit of time examining his claim that he "should be dead" and that his mitral valve prolapse was cured by a "dermatron." I also commented on his claims that cellular injection therapy are legitimate. The post continues to draw quite a few hits and there are several comments made by some significance-junkies and Trudeau followers that are offended that someone would dare choose science over quackery.

I'll continue the series with a bit more brevity.

In chapter 2 of his book, "what's wrong with health care in America?," Trudeau continues with logical fallacy after logical fallacy and with his refusal to cite any sources of verifiable information. He states that the medical establishment is "absolutely, 100%, failed in curing and prevention of illness, sickness, and disease." Not a single source for his information. Not a single statistic cited. Nada.

Obviously this is completely and utterly false. One need only think of diseases such as polio and small pox and realize that it is medical science that eradicated these from most of the world. A casual look at a biology book or text on sociology that examines global trends and it becomes clear that where western medicine is prevalent in the world, infant mortality declines and longevity increases. Such data is so easy to come by, I'll not even bother to link or cite it. Of course, the significance-junkies and conspiracy-nutters that see Trudeau as a hero turn blind eye to any facts that don't already fit their conclusions.

Trudeau continues his chain of logical fallacies by stating in this chapter that more people get "X" than ever before. For "X," simply insert whatever disease or condition you prefer: MS, cancer, diabetes, lupus, asthma, acne, dandruff, etc.

This is actually true. More people today *are* afflicted with these diseases than, say, 100 years ago. Of course, the population in the United States has more than tripled since 1900! So it shouldn't even be surprising that more people are also being treated medically than "ever before."

The gist of Trudeau's 2nd chapter is that medical science has failed "absolutely, 100%." Yet he fails the reader by at least this same measure since he utterly refuses to show how he arrived at that conclusion, an insult to the intelligence of the reader as it seems that such a failure assumes them incapable of understanding the reasoning. Or, more likely, because the data exist only in Trudeau's head, invented and concocted for the sole purpose of appealing to popularity in making himself appear as though he's a voice for the people, fighting against the "establishment" bent on keeping us all sick and in need of medicine.

I'll not pretend that there are no problems with the the health care industry. There are. Trudeau may even be right about some of them. However, one cannot solve real problems by lumping the entirety of medical science in with those that engage in price-gouging, monopolistic control of specific drugs, pressuring physicians to back specific drugs, convincing the public they need unnecessary drugs for vague symptoms advertised on television, etc, etc

Trudeau's exploits the natural frustrations that people have with health care to make a dollar. He's a criminal.


Stolen and Looted: Cultural History Lost and Destroyed for a Buck

Museums and private collectors are the motivations behind thieves that loot archaeological sites around the world, some of them never even known by archaeologists much less studied. Sites the world over are suffering major damage and destruction at the hands of a few that engage in illicit excavations to provide antiquities to the free market that isn't exclusive to just private collectors but also includes major museums.

Sites in Peru, Iraq, South East Asia, and even South West United States have been plundered to the point that they look like the cratered surface of the moon.

The first of these two photos is a site in Iraq (courtesy of World Monuments Fund), the second is of a site in Cambodia (courtesy of Heritage Watch). They're half a world apart but strikingly similar in the destruction wrought by looters bent on removing grave goods for sale on the black market.

In a recent article of the New York Sun, titled Collecting vs. Cultural Heritage, two perspectives were presented in the debate over antiquities trade and acquisition by museums. The article's author reported on the talk given to the Chelsea Art Museum by Peter Watson, the author of The Medici Conspiracy: the Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities. Watson's presentation was mostly regarding his book, an account of the investigation and subsequent arrest and prosecution by Italian authorities of antiquities "dealer" Giacomo Medici, Robert Hecht and Marion True (the former curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum). Watson's implications were that museums were still culpable when it comes to illicit antiquities trade, and accused them of "dragging their feet" on the issue.

Museums like the Met, the Getty, and Boston's MFA still have vast stores of unprovenanced antiquities - artifacts that have no documentation that places them in a private collection prior to 1970, when UNESCO established its convention prohibiting and preventing the trade of illicit antiquities.

The Sun's author also reported on a presentation given by the Met's director, Philippe de Montebello, who defended the collecting of antiquities by museums. His argument was that museums such as the Met, the Louvre, and the British Museum wouldn't exist were it not for antiquities trade and acquisition. His statement was true enough, but one that may be irresponsible in today's age. Colin Renfrew commented in Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology that should museums and collectors continue to collect unprovenanced antiquities, the looters and thieves will continue to have a market to sell them to. Their tactics are such that the artifacts are removed from their contexts without scientific discovery or documentation and, thus, anything that can be said about the culture being robbed is forever lost.

While de Montebello isn't defending the illicit trade of antiquities directly, and he justifies his position by claiming that the acquisition of pieces by museums is such that it barely influences the illegal looting of sites (I suspect Renfrew would disagree), there are those that do defend looting as a legitimate pastime and occupation.

The Arizona Republic ran a series of articles by Dennis Wagner last week that discussed the looting and plundering of cultural sites in America's Southwest and, in one, Wagner interviewed Rodney Tidwell who says, "[t]he word is not looting, it's digging. We excavate." Tidwell was convicted on 20 felony counts of stealing and selling Native American cultural goods and went to jail for 33 months for his "digging."

Wagner's primary article, Stolen Artifacts Shatter Ancient Culture, begins with this:

In the dead of night, looters are destroying the history of America, desecrating sacred Indian ruins. An estimated 80 percent of the nation's ancient archaeological sites have been plundered or robbed by shovel-toting looters. Though some of the pillaging is done by amateurs who don't know any better, more serious damage is wrought by professionals who dig deep, sometimes even using backhoes. The motive is money.

Wagner goes on to point out the plight of authorities to deal with looters bent on stealing and destroying cultural heritage in their greed to make a buck. The Bureau of Land Management has 261 million acres of responsibility and much of the land is not yet surveyed. Wagner writes that a federal report from 2002 estimates 32 percent of the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona has been looted but archaeologists will generally lean towards 8 of every 10 sites have been looted.

Land management and lack of manpower isn't the only problem authorities face, however. If a looter is caught, it must be demonstrated that the artifacts originated from public lands. Short of catching them in the act, this becomes a near impossibility and it is completely legal for looters to plunder, desecrate and destroy sites on private land in the United States. Indeed, many land owners lease their land for 'digs' and some looters have been known to buy land, plunder the artifacts (ignoring the scientific processes for recording and understanding context), then resell the land.

And with buyers, the problem is even more difficult since authorities must prove that the buyer knew the artifacts to be looted.

So what can you do?

  • Treat historic sites with care. If you happen upon an artifact notify your local land management office or park officials.
  • If you observe someone looting or vandalizing a site, contact a land management office, park police, or law enforcement officials ASAP, but don't confront the looters.
  • Volunteer with your local historical or archaeological society and participate in legitimate cultural resource management projects!
  • Don't buy or sell artifacts for personal gain.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Two Great Carnivals!

The second edition of Four Stone Hearth is up at afarensis, which includes posts from PZ Myers (Pharyngula), Chris O'Brien (Northstate Science), and Duane at Abnormal Interests. Great stuff so far, but I've only had time to read a couple posts. I look forward to reading the rest tonight after work!

As a reminder, Four Stone Hearth is the new anthropology blog carnival, so if you're a blogger with an interest in topics of anthropology (archaeology, ethnography/cultural, linguistics, or physical/medical/biological), give it a look and submit a post. Some of the articles above are by bloggers who are not anthropologists, but have information useful to the field of anthropology.

The 47th Skeptics' Circle is also up at Polite Company, which I had a sneak-peek at! (Sorry... was checking my hits the day prior) I won't give it away, but this one might even give Karl's podcast version a run for its money in creativity. I'm impressed! Good work! Click this link for the Hero Edition!


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Forbidden Archaeology? The Exaggeration of the Antiquity of Man -part 3-

In two other parts in this series, I posted about the exaggerated antiquity of man in which proponents suggest that modern humans (Homo sapiens), have existed in present form for millions of years. Some of these proponents even suggest that, because of this, advanced civilizations once existed in the Earth's past. This exaggerated antiquity of man lends itself well to fantasies about Atlantis, Mu, and Lemuria as well as others.

In the second part of the Forbidden Archaeology? series, I mentioned Michael Cremo's article in Atlantis Rising about his recent visit to the Sterkfontein archaeological site. Cremo is also the co-author of a book called Forbidden Archaeology in which he presents much of his speculation about the antiquity of man and in this he has a section on the Laetoli footprints, which I found excerpted on the Internet. I'll try not to spend much time on this since others have done a far better job than I could ever do in picking Cremo and Thompson apart on their book. The reason I'm mentioning it at all is because Cremo is still suggesting in his Atlantis Rising column that modern humans lived millions of years ago.

Forbidden Archaeology? The Exaggerated Antiquity of Man - Part One-
Forbidden Archaeology? The Exaggerated Antiquity of Man - Part Two-

The Laetoli Footprints According to Cremo

One of the things that first caught my attention in reading the excerpt of Forbidden Archaeology's chapter on the Laetoli footprints was this:

Readers who have accompanied us this far in our intellectual journey will have little difficulty in recognizing the Laetoli foot prints as potential evidence for the presence of anatomically modern human beings over 3.6 million years ago in Africa. [...] What amazed us most was that scientists of worldwide reputation, the best in their profession, could look at these footprints, describe their humanlike features, and remain completely oblivious to the possibility that the creatures that made them might have been as humanlike as ourselves.

As tempting as it is to offer a witticism about or deride the "intellectual journey" part, I'll abstain. My criticism instead will focus on the credulous nature of Cremo and Thompson as well as their inability to separate "humanlike" from "human." What we know from australopithecine post cranial remains is that they were erect and had a bipedal locomotion that may or may not have resembled that of modern humans (Marchal 2003). As far as I'm aware, the only remains found that date to the period of the prints is that of Australopithicus afarensis. Cremo and Thompson seem to have an affinity with quoting R.H. Tuttle who stated, and I'm paraphrasing, that had the ash been dated to a younger age, most scientists would have little problem assigning them "to Homo." What's important to note here the point which Cremo and Thompson are a bit deceptive about: Tuttle is referring to the genus Homo not the species Homo sapiens.

Cremo and Thompson also discuss Tim White's experimental analysis of a reconstructed A. afarensis foot which fit one of the Laetoli prints better than either human or chimpanzee. They're critical of White's reconstruction method, in which he used Homo habilis parts to fill in for the missing afarensis ones, since a complete afarensis foot isn't known. However, it occurs to me that if a habilis/afarensis hybrid works better than either a human or chimpanzee foot at the same scale, perhaps it wasn't an out-of-place human. And it blows a hole in Cremo's speculation to recognize the fact that 'anatomically modern humans' are very recent in the fossil record, perhaps up to 150,000 years ago, while australopithecines do exist at around 5-2 million years ago, followed by habilis at around 2.4 million years ago.

For those that have followed Cremo's "work," they understand that his speculations of exaggerated antiquity of man are based upon his particular brand of creationism. Cremo adheres to the Vedic mythology rather than the Judeo-Christian one that permeates the creation arguments of most in the United States.

Footprints in Mexico: 40,000 Years Old?

In the March/April 2006 issue of Atlantis Rising, Cremo wrote a brief article about the footprints found in volcanic ash near Valsequillo, Mexico in the bed of an ancient lake. One report places the strata that the alleged prints are in at over 40,000 years old (Gonzalez 2006) and another 1.3 million years old (Renne 2005)!

It's possible, albeit not probable for hominids to have left foot prints 40,000 years ago in Central America. What's more probable is that the dating methods are flawed or that the prints weren't hominid at all since there is no other evidence to suggest that humans were able to reach this hemisphere by that time. After all, this was about the time humans were just starting to reach Australia and replace or assimilate Neanderthals in Europe. Moreover, 40,000 years ago was in one of the coldest phases of the Wisconsin glaciation which began at about 70,000 years ago and ended around 10,000 years ago.

Gonzalez's speculation is that an early boat faring culture made their way to the Americas more than 40,000 years ago. This might have been how early humans made the relatively short jaunt to Australia from South East Asia and the Malaysian Islands, but there's a lot of open sea between South America and Asia. The notion is romantic, but it'll take more than some anomalous marks in volcanic strata for this to rise above anything but speculation.

Cremo says in his column that he believes the tracks to be 1.3 million years old and human, but one must give him credit since he does acknowledge other possibilities.

The other main possibilities are (1) they are 1.3 million years old and are tracks of Homo erectus, (2) they are 41,500 years old and are human, (3) they are not real tracks.

These prints have been interpreted as "human" (Gonzalez 2006) and a short description can be found at The Royal Society website. But the 40,000 year date is challenged by Paul Renne (2005) who performed both argon-argon dating and paleomagnetic analysis, which both yielded dates of 1.3 million years ago. To be fair, Cremo mentions this in his column, but the significance to him has the opposite effect. For the reasoned mind, this implies that the prints probably aren't hominid after all if the date is correct. To the significance-junkie, however, this implies that hominids were populating Central America 1.3 million years ago.

Interestingly enough, there's been a recent find of fossil footprints at Cuatro Cienegas, Mexico that are dated to more than 10,000 years old -a date that fits better with evidence already collected about human presence in the Americas. And these footprints look like footprints. Even the prints in Laetoli, at over 3.6 million years of age still look like human footprints. Over 200 prints were found near Valsequillo, of which 60% are alleged to be hominid (Gonzalez 2006), only a handful appears to resemble hominid prints. Each of the Cuatro Cienegas prints is about 25.4 cm long, just a bit larger than the average print found at Valsequillo. The Laetoli prints average about 19 cm. The feet of H. habilis and H. erectus, the hominids that lived at about 1.3 million years ago, are a bit longer than afarensis of Laetoli, but significantly smaller than that of modern humans. If the prints were hominid and could be dated to 1.3 million years ago, wouldn't we expect them to be significantly smaller in length than that of modern humans?

This question is what leads Cremo to conclude that modern humans thrived millions of years ago, rather than settle for the more parsimonious explanations that the dating is either flawed or the marks aren't hominid prints.


Gonzalez, Silvia; Huddart, D.; Bennett, M.R.; Gonzalez-Huesca, A. (2006). Human footprints in Central Mexico older than 40,000 years. Quaternary Science Reviews, 25, 201-222.

Marchal, F. (2003) Size and Shape of the Australopithecine Pelvic Bone. Human Evolution, 18(3-4), 161-176.

Renne, P.R.; Feinberg, J.M.; Waters, M.R.; et al (2005). Age of Mexican ash with alleged footprints. Nature, 438, E7-E8


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Paleoanthropology: Multiregional versus Replacement

The multiregional evolution hypothesis asserts that modern humans are the present manifestation of older species of hominids including Homo neanderthalensis and H. erectus. The replacement hypothesis, however, states that modern humans are a new species and that the older species mentioned above were replaced.

In the latter hypothesis, transition of archaic H. sapiens to modern doesn't occur anywhere in the world except Africa at around 200,000 years ago. Anatomically modern humans then dispersed outward to other regions, replacing other hominid species by out-competing them for resources or by displacing them from environments optimal for their continued survival.

There is, however, a very persistent group of paleoanthropologists who adhere to the multiregional evolution argument, which doesn't, by the way, imply that there was parallel evolution or multiple origins of modern humans. This theory suggest that genetic exchange explains how differentiation, geographic variation, and evolutionary change within humans occurred.

The arguments have gone back and forth between the two camps for many years, but new research is supporting the multiregional evolution hypothesis. In a recent article by National Geographic , "Neandertals, Modern Humans Interbred, Bone Study Suggests", Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. comments on a fossil remains found at Petera Muierii ("Cave of the Old Woman") in Romania, which date to about 30,000 years ago.

While the remains are largely typical of modern humans, they also show some distinctly Neandertal traits, says Trinkaus. [...] These telltale skeletal features include the shape of the lower jaw and the back of the skull.

Unfortunately, the National Geographic article doesn't go into a great amount of detail regarding the cranial and post-cranial morphology of the remains found in Romania, but classic Neanderthal features include a distinct brow ridge, lack of a chin, and occipital bun and their cranial capacities were significantly larger than that of modern humans. Trinkaus does say in the article:

"The only way I can explain the anatomy of these fossils and the fossils from a number of other sites across Europe is that there was a fair amount of interbreeding."

According to National Geographic, the research is reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , though, I've not been able to locate a citation yet to the research article itself. I'm sure this won't settle the Multiregional vs. Replacement debate, but it certainly is thought provoking.

Hat tips go to Abnormal Interests who set me to looking for the PNAS article and clicking on the National Geographic article with a post of his own on the subject and another to a friend that emailed the PNAS article to me this morning: thanks!


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Stolen and Looted: Meth Addict Funds Habit with Artifacts

The Oregonian reported yesterday that a Eugene, Oregon judge is finishing the sentencing of a band of looters that stole artifacts and remains from Native American sites in Central Oregon, some to fund their methamphetamine habits. In what might be the largest antiquities bust in United States history, authorities have seized over 100,000 artifacts from a ring of thieves that looted over 100 historical sites causing over $1 million in archaeological damage.

They dug by sunlight and flashlight, making away with a kneecap and a skeleton -- as well as baskets, bowls, spear points, skinners and stone knives -- before federal agents caught up with them as part of a massive investigation dubbed "Operation Bring 'Em Back." [...] Ten people have been convicted of looting artifacts or human remains in the case, three more face criminal indictments, and nearly 20 others remain subjects in the ongoing investigation, according to federal court records.

Whenever thieves steal artifacts before archaeologists have had a chance to properly excavate a site, any hope of understanding their context is lost. This is why un-provenanced artifacts in auction houses like Christie's or Sotheby's or even Ebay or on exhibit in museums like the J. Paul Getty Museum are clearly illicit gains. Particularly when there's no documentation prior to the UNESCO agreement of 1970. These buyers and middle men of illicit and illegal antiquities are equally complicit in the theft of the artifacts since, if there wasn't a market, the looters wouldn't bother.

This is why it is interesting, according to the article, to see that the authorities involved in the Operation Bring 'Em Back are about to move into the second phase, which is to target the buyers:

"The initial search warrants were focused upon diggers -- unlawful diggers and unlawful traders," said Kent, who handled the case until his retirement in January.

"The next phase," he said, "would focus on those individuals who essentially serve as buyers to increase their own collections or people who buy to trade with others (on) the ever-escalating marketplace."

Federal agents searched the homes of three major artifacts collectors in the case. None of them -- Phillip Fields, 63,of Bly; Harold Elliot, 64, of La Pine; and Miles Simpson, 44, of Bend -- has been charged with a crime, and all three maintain their artifacts were collected legally.

"Neither Miles nor I have done anything that would warrant this kind of investigation," Elliot said.. Elliot and Simpson said they have never knowingly bought any illegal artifact.

I wonder if Elliot and Simpson have clear documentation that shows ownership of all of their artifacts prior to 1970? If not, then they clearly are looters, whether they got their hands in the dirt or not.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

Pseudoarchaeology: ABC's Nightline Demonstrates Journalistic Gullibility

On Friday night's broadcast of Nightline (October 27, 2006), ABC once again demonstrated it's lack of journalistic intelligence in its reporting of the Bosnian "pyramid" nonsense. In spite of many genuine archaeologists publicly denouncing Semir Osmanagic as a fraud who is putting genuine archaeological resources at risk.

The Nightline segment, reported by Nick Watt, called Osmanagic a "a businessman and part-time archaeologist" and romances him as a "raider of the lost ark." Osmanagic was also recorded as saying, "If you've found stone blocks built by man, then it will be obvious for everyone that this is a huge man-made structure in the shape of the pyramid."

Osmanagic's main contention seems to be that the hill is pyramid shaped and the orthogonal jointing present in the bedrock are both evidence of man-made. There are a lot of reasons why it should be obvious to major media outlets like ABC's Nightline that Osmanagic is decidedly not an archaeologist and not a scientist. Of them, failing to recognize orthogonal jointing in bedrock is one. This is a process that is fairly well understood in geology and can form a "ladder-like" feature in sedimentary strata with systematic joints that occurs at 90 degree angles and form during uplift and erosion. The very systematic, "ladder-like" pattern that I've seen depicted in some of the Osmanagic photos may be evidence of 90 degree rotation of tectonic stresses. The primary joints are created first by tectonic force, then the tectonic stresses over time are applied in a new vector creating a new set of joints at 90 degrees from the original. Imagine the force necessary to break a cracker in half, then half again in the other direction. For a more detailed explanation of the process, see Bai et al (2002).

The other main contention of Osmanagic as evidence of "man-made" is the pyramid shape of the hills. Honestly, the guy has to get out more. I've seen many pyramid-shaped hills in my life, some were even named "Pyramid Hill." Moreover, the hill isn't really all that pyramid-shaped when actually looked at. On Nightline, Osmanagic said,
"the first thing I noticed was the peculiar shape of that hill. It had the perfect shape, the perfect geometry of the pyramid." But when you look at the map overlay that Osmanagic's own website provides for Google Map, you notice anything but a perfect pyramid shape.

In this image, the "perfection" of the pyramid is not readily apparent. Indeed, the corners don't line up with the cardinal directions (see the Google Map compass in the lower left corner). From Visoko, the mountain does look like a pyramid. I know this not because I've been to Visoko, but the images shown to date are mostly taken from the town. Looking at the map above, the most pyramid-like side does face the town, and it would be easy to see how visitors could be lulled into the fairy tale told by Osmanagic. Perhaps Osmanagic even believes it himself. His credulity doesn't, however, excuse his destruction of legitimate archaeological sites from Roman or other periods.

Finally, there are mountains that look far more like pyramids than the one in Visoko. The image below is example of such a mountain. Now, if we could only convince Osmanagic to move here and dig for ancient civilizations, all our worries would be solved. This mountain, you see, is on Mars.


Bai, Taixu; Maerten, L.; Gross, M.R.; Aydin, A. (2002). Orthogonal cross joints: do they imply a regional stress rotation ? Journal of Structural Geology, 24, 77-88.

Watt, Nick (2006). Ancient Pyramids of Bosnia? Many are Believers . Nightline, 10/27/06

See also: Afarensis: It's Baaack! It figures afarensis would scoop me. I shouldn't have spent so much time writing... <grin>


Stolen and Looted: The Getty and the Museum of Fine Arts Return Artifacts

Recently, some museums like the J. Paul Getty Museum and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts have tightened their policies on acquisition of artifacts and have even returned artifacts to their country of origin.

The Getty repatriated a 4th century BC inscribed tombstone and a 5th century BC marble relief (which I posted about here) to Greece. They also returned to Italy artifacts stolen from the Greek ruins of Selinunte.

Newsweek: the relics return

NPR: Getty Museum to return Greek Artifacts

Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) also repatriated a set of illicitly gained artifacts to Italy after signing an agreement with the Italian Ministry of Culture. The artifacts included an amphora that depicts the murder of Atreus and dates to the 4th century BCE and a 5th century BCE lekythos. Rome to display ancient treasures returned by Boston museum

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: MFA 13 Antiquities to Italy

The agreement between the MFA and the Italian Ministry of Culture makes allowances for the loan of other significant works and the acquisitions, information, conservation and archaeological investigation. The Getty's announcement that it has tightened acquisitions policies, however, doesn't appear to have overly impressed upon the Italian government. The Getty hasn't made the policy retroactive, which would require that they "relinquish scores of ancient items from its galleries and storerooms." But another reason for Italy's reluctance to sign an agreement with the Getty is there is a current legal case in Italian Court that involves former Getty curator Marion True, accused of being knowingly complicit in the acquisition of looted artifacts and Italian authorities are demanding the return of some 52 items in the Getty's possession.

New York Times: Getty Adopts New Antiquities Standard

LA Getty toughens up its rules for acquisition

The Globe and Agreement with Getty still unacceptable, Italy says

There is still some apparent ground to cover with regard to antiquities acquisitions past, present and future, but these do appear to be steps in the right direction.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Anthropology Blog Carnival!

The first ever issue of The Four Stone Hearth hosted by Kambiz at

The Four Stone Hearth is a new Anthropology Blog Carnival that is named for the four disciplines of anthropology: archaeology, ethnography, physical/biological anthropology, and linguistics. This issue has articles by Afarensis, Salto sobrius,, and myself among others. My entry is the book review below this post. I won't duplicate 4SH here by listing all the articles, you'll have to click the link above and read Kambiz's descriptions of each entry.

Four an anthropologist blogger, this is exciting news. Until now, the only carnival I could think of that would be relevant for archaeology was the History Carnival. It goes without saying that Alun's Vidi will continue to be one of the best net round-ups for archaeology, but Four Stone Hearth is a true anthro carni. Kudos Kambiz!

The next 4SH will be at Afarensis on November 8, 2006. Fire up your keyboards, anthro bloggers, and get something ready! I'll be hosting here in February.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Book Review: Dancing Skeletons, an ethnography

Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa
Author: Katherine A. Dettwyler
Waveland Press, Long Grove, IL
Year: 1994

On average, about 17 children out of 1000 under the age of 7 dies in the world each year (El-Ghannam 2003) because of malnutrition, homicide, wars, drowning, car accidents, what have you -a sobering statistic for any loving parent. In West Africa, however, that number becomes 172 children out of 1000! For a parent, this figure isn't just sobering, it's staggering to consider and it's the highest child mortality rate in the world.

In the West African nation of Mali alone, the risks to children include not only the same risks as the rest of the world: accidents, cancers, homicides, etc., but also malaria, schistosomiasis, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, and other infections diseases and conditions unique to the tropical and largely rural regions of the world.

Malaria occurs most among the youngest children (Dicko et al 2005) and is responsible for over 33% of all fever sympotoms during the rainy season in Bamako, Mali. Also in Bamako, in 1998, nearly half of all children were infected with schstosomiasis (Clerq et al) and in rural Mali, the rate was as over half of the children between 7-14 years of age in some areas (Traore et al 1998). Schistosomiasis is a tropical parasite, abundant in Africa, and transmitted to humans after being hosted in larval form by freshwater snails (Morgan et al 2001). The parasite leaves the snail and enters a human host wading in the water by burrowing into the skin of feet and legs. Schistosomes affect about 200 million people worldwide and the eggs produced by the worms that grow in the blood vessels of the host are passed to the bladder and intestines and can cause blood in urine and stool (CDC 2004).

In her book, Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa (1994), Katherine A. Dettwyler is faced with each of these health problems and more as she narrates her experiences in observing their cause and effect. Most of these experiences are from the perspective of an outside observer; some are of one who has an empathic interest in the people she considers friends; but at least one brings home a parent's worst fear: the fear of losing a child.

As an ethnography, Dancing Skeletons was not what I expected. Dettwyler's literary style was refreshing in light of other ethnographies I've had the pleasure or even misfortune to read. Her use of both humor and tragedy had the effect of motivating me to finish the book or certainly move on to the next page in order to discover what happened next. Occasionally, however, the expectation wasn't fulfilled.

Especially engaging was Dettwyler's use of dialog beginning on the very first page and continuing throughout the work. This had the effect of personalizing Dettwyler's experiences and providing the reader with brief bubbles of real-time activity that placed the reader in Mali as a non-participant observer. Dettwyler's narratives between dialogs gave necessary information for the reader to understand the contexts of the dialog sections and to get the data she was trying to pass on, but the dialogs themselves brought Dettwyler's personal experiences to life with emotions of joy, amusement, tragedy, and frustration.

Dettwyler's very first dialog section involved her evaluation of a severely malnourished child and it set the stage for what appeared to be a major theme of the book: that understanding cultural paradigms in Africa is essential when attempting to address its problems. This malnourished child and the mother's inability to properly care for him posed the question: why is there a disparity in the diets and care of children versus adults. As a parent I found it easy to empathize with Dettwyler's perspective in many of her contacts and interactions with children and her concerns for her own child, who accompanied her to Mali.

That Dettwyler chose to bring her daughter, Miranda, to Africa with her struck me initially as somewhat negligent, given the conditions Dettwyler described and the inherent risks that both would face with potential health problems alone. However, it was soon apparent that much of Dettwyler's perspective depended upon her own parenthood and, perhaps, the proximity of Miranda as she conducted her research. And it was Miranda's brush with death having contracted malaria (pp. 149-161) that punctuated the statement that Dettwyler was able to make with regard to both the tragedy and the joy that are simultaneously present in Western Africa.

The very title of the book refers to the children that Dettwyler watched dance in celebration for their village, which met the goals of a CARE project management team (pp. 141-142). The children were physical "skeletons" of malnourishment, dancing for the successes of their village in applying good health and hygiene practices, apparently oblivious to the problems they still faced with proper nutrition (pp. 143-144). This is where she drives home one of her themes by pointing out that it isn't enough to simply address the medical and hygienic concerns of rural West Africa without actively working to resolve the problem of malnourishment among children. The latter endeavor could provide growing and developing children with the ability to avoid mortality from health problems like malaria and measles if their bodies were healthy and strong enough to fight the infections.

The tragedy and seriousness of nutrition and health in rural West Africa is made very clear in Dettwyler's narrative and gives the reader insight into the true nature of the problems faced by the people there. Too often, statistics and headlines dominate Western knowledge of the plights of the developing world, but Dettwyler is able to objectify the problems and present them with a perspective that allows her readers to understand some of the associated cultural problems. For instance, Dettwyler offers an anecdote of a lunch she shares with a Malian coworker who criticizes her insistence that Miranda eat some chicken rather than less nutritious millet as the other Dogo children ate:

"In Dogo," he explained, "people believe that good food is wasted on children. They don't appreciate its good taste or the way it makes you feel. Also, they haven't worked hard to produce the food. They have their whole lives to work for good food for themselves, when they get older. Old people deserve the best food, because they're going to die soon."

"Well, I applaud your respect and honor for the elderly, but health-wise, that's completely wrong. How do you expect children to grow up to be functioning adults if they only get millet or rice to eat?" Of course, many children don't grow up at all, on this diet. They die from malnutrition, or from diseases such as measles that wouldn't kill a well-nourished child (pp. 94-95).

This argument largely appeared to fall on the deaf ears of her Malian hosts, but the reader is able to begin understanding a new perspective to the problem of malnutrition when this anecdote is compared with an earlier one in which Dettwyler tries to convince a Malian woman who has a child with kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency, to provide a appropriate food for her daughter to improve her health. The woman's response is to ask for medicine in spite of Dettwyler's insistence that food is the cure (p. 73).

Dettwyler rightly compares and contrasts Western nutritional expectations to that of developing West Africa, and notes that what is considered to be understood in Western cultures like America, that children need balanced meals, is something that we take for granted and something that needs to be taught in developing nations.

What I also found very appealing about Dancing Skeletons, was Dettwyler's use of humor throughout the book. On several occasions, she noted that the Malians enjoyed laughter and Dettwyler's ability to speak Bambara gave her opportunity to make jokes, sometimes at her own expense, in order to lighten the moment or just make others laugh. Each of her accounts of trips in the back of a bache, the pickup trucks that serve as public transportation, caused me to laugh aloud as she described the delight and surprise of the Malians that discovered her ability to speak the language, usually some time after they had been speaking about her (pp. 38-40). Dettwyler's exchange of insults with a Malian colleague on their first meeting was another source of great amusement, and her observance of this cultural tradition, which included accusations of laziness and flatulent habits, gives the reader insight in her ability to seek that which is common to her and the people she came in contact with (p. 60).

Finally, I also noted that there were times in which Dettwyler described an event or situation in which I held an expectation that later in the book a connection would be made, as if part of a plot device in a novel. One such situation was the account Dettwyler gave of meeting the "noble hunter," Bilo Bissan and the mystery that surrounded him (pp. 104-105). Her description of him as well his behavior gave me the distinct impression that the encounter would be significant at some later point. Not finding this later point, I initially felt a little let down –an expectation was unfulfilled. Perhaps it was simply that her characterization of him stirred my curiosity, but I realize that the expectation of more is probably an unfair one. Dancing Skeletons is, after all, a work of non-fiction and, as entertaining as it was and as pleasurable as it was to read, it was about real life –and death, and, therefore, did not have a plotline that could be fulfilled where all loose ends could be neatly tied at the end. As Dettwyler implies in her final paragraph of the book, Malian adults and their children continue to face life and death in a manner completely alien to me.


CDC (2004). Schistosomiasis Fact Sheet, Parasitic Disease Information. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Infectious Diseases Division of Parasitic Diseases . Found at: [last accessed on 11/21/05].

Dettwyler, Katherine A. (1994). Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press

Dicko, A.; Mantel, C.; Kouriba, B.; Issaka S.; Thera., M.A.; Doumbia, S.; Diallo, M.; Poudiougou, B.; Diakite, M.; Doumbo, O.K. (2005). Season, fever prevalence and pyrogenic threshold for malaria disease definition in an endemic area of Mali. Tropical Medicine & International Health, 10 ( 6), 550-556.

El-Ghannam, Ashraf Ragab. (2003). The Global Problems of Child Malnutrition and Mortality in Different World Regions. Journal of Health & Social Policy, 16 (4), 1-26

Traoré, M.; Maude, G.H.; Bradley, D.J. (1998). Schistosomiasis haematobia in Mali: prevalence rate in school-age children as index of endemicity in the community. Tropical Medicine & International Health, 3 (3).


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Who You Gonna Call? Skeptic's Circle!

The 45th Skeptic's Circle is up at The Inoculated Mind and Karl has the first ever Podcast version [.mp3] of Skeptic's Circle. I recommend opening the .mp3 and clicking the individual links as the podcast plays, bookmarking the sites you want to go back and read more carefully.

Well done Karl!

... and don't miss the out-take at the end!


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Forbidden Archaeology? The Exaggeration of the Antiquity of Man -part 2-

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the Nabta Playa monuments that date back to the Neolithic and the attempts of certain significance-junkies to use this as a stepping stone for positing a greatly exaggerated antiquity of man. In that post, I reviewed an article that ran in a mystery-mongering magazine called Atlantis Rising as it made a good example of the sort of spurious connections significance-junkies make in their attempts to put forth the notion that modern humans (that is, Homo sapiens) have been on this planet for millions of years and that there existed civilizations, such as Atlantis and Lemuria, that had "high technologies".

In the previous post, I also mentioned another article in the same issue of the same rag-azine (did I type that out loud?), which discusses the alleged footprints in Valsequello, Mexico. I'll still not get to these footprints today, though we're working up to them! First, I think it's important to look deeper into the claims and inner workings of the significance-junkie and the mystery-monger, using Michael Cremo, author of the book Forbidden Archaeology, to illustrate their methods.

Cremo has an article in the current issue of Atlantis Rising (2006) in which he offers his opinion about the Sterkfontein archaeological site and the museum that resides there. Cremo was finishing a tour of South African universities, "lecturing" on "forbidden archaeology," when he took the opportunity to visit the Sterkfontein caves and heritage museum.

The Sterkfontein Archaeological Site

One of the most striking things about the article is Cremo's pejorative rhetoric with regard to the scientific establishment and evolution in particular, which was very reminiscent of the rhetoric used by Young Earth Creationists and ID proponents. He refers to a quote by Richard Dawkins as an "infamous" one and derides the lack of answers that evolutionary science provides for the development of complex life from mere "chemicals." Cremo also oversimplifies the process of evolution with credulous ambivalence and nearly even says "irreducible" when he comments on the "complexity" of life, and he blames the museum for not providing a concise yet complete account of evolution:

[I]n the museum you look in vain for any account of what those genetic changes were. In fact, no scientist in the world can tell us what these genetic changes where. But we have to accept that it happened.

It's difficult to tell if Cremo meant that last line as an acknowledgement or an admonishment, but the genetic changes he's referring to are the ones that led to "changes in physical structure" that resulted in the diverse taxa of life today which began with a common ancestor. Cremo's rhetoric, however, isn't geared to promote a young-earth belief, but a very old one. Like YEC proponents, his contention is that science has it wrong with their explanations for the age of man, except Cremo believes that humans have been on the planet for millions of years rather than thousands: modern humans alongside australopithecines.

In the Caves

Midway through the article, Cremo describes his descent into the caves at Sterkfontein, deriding the exhibits and evolution itself:

Evolution is like the new religion. Not only does it have its priests (evolutionary biologists) and scriptures (The Origin of Species) and saints (Darwin). It also has its churches (museums) and sacred places (like Sterkfontein) and relics (fossils of our "ancestors") and its inquisition that condemns heretics (like me). All very religious.

Cremo goes on to liken the experience of entering the cave to a "pilgrimage" to the alleged site of the birth of Jesus and it's here that he seems affronted that the exhibit is missing the fossils of humans as erroneously described in his book.

The Poor Ape

I was suddenly overwhelmed with a strong sense of the utter falsity of this supposition. It was clear what happened. Three million years ago, some poor ape with some few (sic) humanlike features in its bones fell down into the cave and died. The bones were incorporated into the rock. And then later some human scientists found the bones and called them our "ancestor," although that is not true at all! Three million years ago, and further back than that, there were humans, apes, and apemen, all coexisting.

Little Foot and Laetoli

Ron Clark recovered an australopithecine at Sterkfontein that was nearly a complete skeleton, including a very complete skull. Cremo's big question (which he claims to have fielded to Ron Clark after a conference in South Africa) is: why don't the footprints at Laetoli match the foot bones found at Sterkfontain?

Clark insisted that a creature like his Little Foot did in fact make the Laetoli prints. But, according to him, the creature must have been walking with his long first toe pressed tightly against the others. And also he must have been walking with his other four long toes curled under. And that's why the footprints looked human! Otherwise, one would have to say, as I do, that humans like us were walking around in Africa over three million years ago.

Cremo finishes the article stating that the assumption that there existed "apemen" with feet "exactly like human feet, avoids the conclusion that these are human prints."Possible," Cremo says, but "no one has ever discovered from that time period the bones of any apemen with feet must like human feet. At the present moment, the only creature known to science that has a foot like a modern human is a modern human."

One of the most serious problems with Cremo's assertion, lack of any evidence aside, is that it isn't parsimonious. It raises more concerns than provides any explanation since hominid evolution is tossed out like so much bath water. The physical evidence of hominid remains points to an overall gradual change in morphology over a span of 4 million years to the last 150,000 or so. Examples of individual species is chronometrically consistent in the fossil record: not a single example of human remains has been found in strata associated with Australopithecus afarensis or vice-versa. So the claim that humans existed alongside "apemen" (sic) 3.5 million years ago will need a bit more than the rants of a single mystery-monger.

There is a mystery, however. The mystery includes the advent of bipedalism and what, precisely, caused it among early hominids. Could it be that increased use of tools or gathering necessitated the use of hands to carry, hold, and use? Could it be that walking in the tall grasses of the savannah, early hominids needed to look over the tops of the grass to keep lookout for predators? Could it be that early hominids resided near rivers, lakes or the sea and wading in these was easier for those able to stand up?

And there is some debate about which species created the footprints at Laetoli. There is evidence of A. afarensis remains at Laetoli at around the same period the prints were dated to 3.6 million years ago, but recent suggestions have been made that the prints may have been made by A. anamensis or even an as yet unknown species of hominid. In my next post on this subject, I'll review some of the literature involving the Laetoli prints, foot morphology of a couple
australopithecines and then on to the claim that footprints found in volcanic ash in Mexico are evidence of the great antiquity of man.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

ArtiFACTS: Recent News in Archaeology 10/5/06

Aztec Ruins
In Mexico, archaeologists have uncovered a 15th century monolithic altar with a frieze of the raingod Tlaloc and an agricultural deity. This altar is an exciting find to Mesoamerican archaeologists and it wasn't found in some remote jungle but in the very heart of Mexico City! Mexico City Major Alejandro Encinas said:

"It is a very important discovery, the biggest we have made in 28 years. It will allow us to find out much more."

It's believed that this may be the entrance to an underground chamber and efforts are undoubtedly underway to determine this.

Syrian Building from 8,800 BCE
On the banks of the Euphrates in Syria, near Ja'de, a French archaeological team discovered a building that dates back to 8,800 BCE and contains "
multi-colored geometrical paintings," which may be the oldest of their kind in the Middle East. Tools for hunting and domestic living, mostly of flint and some obsidian, were found at the site's level and the archaeologist working the site, Eric Coqueugniot, remarks that the building is larger than expected for residences:

"had a collective use, probably for all of the village or a group. A part of this community building takes the shape of the head of a bull and retains painted decorations, the oldest known in the Middle East."

Taliban Terrorize Archaeologists
Okay... maybe not directly. Teams working to salvage the giant Buddhas that were destroyed by the Taliban regime in
Afghanistan work carefully as munitions experts on site help them clear unexploded munitions that are still present in the debris. The Taliban destroyed the 1,500 year old monuments in March 2001. As work to recover this nearly lost cultural heritage continues, they are periodically interrupted ("every half hour or so") to look for unexploded ordinance. The pressure is on the International Council for Monuments and Sites to reconstruct the Buddha's but as Omar Sultan, deputy culture minister, said:

"[A]s an archaeologist, I can't imagine we could go reconstruct a Buddha from concrete or something. Those artists who did it 1,500 years ago had another feeling for it."

And reconstruction of a single Buddha could cost $30 million in a nation that desparately needs additional funds to rebuild infrastructure.

Not archaeology, but Just Because It's Cool:
Scientists in Copenhagen have teleported a chunk of matter nearly 18 inches! To do so, they used light, magnatism and "entanglement." Professor Eugene Polzik said of the project:

"Creating entanglement is a very important step, but there are two more steps at least to perform teleportation. We have succeeded in making all three steps -- that is entanglement, quantum measurement and quantum feedback."


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

[Book Review] The Science of Noah's Flood (part 2 of 2)

The first part of this 2 part review can be found here. In this part, I conclude my review of Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History (Ryan and Pittman, 1998), and offer a list of references for those that seek further reading. This review is primarily about the book by Ryan and Pittman, but I review other literature on the topic as well. I hope someone finds the information useful or interesting and that it inspires others to read Noah's Flood, a book that I found quite engaging and worth the read.


In further attempt to test the catastrophic infill hypothesis, Mark Siddell of the Southampton Oceanography Centre, UK, developed a computer model that would test breaches of the Bosporus sill at various modeled depths of the Black sea, from 50 to 150 m. Siddell, Pratt, Helfrich, and Giosan's conclusions (2004) were that their model was consistent with the previously mysterious sharp left-turn of a submerged channel. The model's turbidity currents also provided a probable explanation for the large, 2000 m deep sea floor hills. Even Aksu conceded (Schiermeier, 2004) that Siddell's work was "solid oceanography."

Another of Ryan and Pittman's hypotheses is that the flood displaced one or more cultures, becoming the progenitor for stories of catastrophic floods such as the Gilgamesh epic and the account of global flood as told in the book of Genesis in the Bible (1998:165-201). Because writing appears to have first developed at around 3200 BCE (Postgate, 1994:52,66), it seems counterintuitive that an oral tradition could have sustained the integrity of the story for more than a few generations, much less for an excess of 2000 years. Stories become conflated with other stories and historical data is lost, biases of the storytellers emerge, and names and places change (Vansina, 1985:121). Indeed, even by following the names of the pious man whom the gods favor in the many flood motifs (Pritchard, 1955:42-44, 90-93, 104-106; Genesis 8:6-12), this can be demonstrated as he is called Ziusudra, Atrahasis, Utnapishtum, and Noah, among others. From Gilgamesh to Genesis, which are written accounts rather than oral ones, "seven days of rain" becomes "forty" and a dove, swallow, raven sequence becomes a raven, dove, dove sequence when the protagonist is releasing birds to find land.

In support of the displaced peoples hypothesis, the journal Science reported (Kerr, 2000) that Robert Ballard and Fredrik Hiebert found an underwater settlement at a depth of 91 m within the Black Sea that included "wattle and daub" building material, stone tools in the form of chisels or hammers, and pottery fragments. The find was only photographed, however, and artifacts for testing, such as wood for carbon dating, were not retrieved, drawing more criticism, albeit constructive, to the hypothesis (Kerr, 2000:2022).

However, the idea that the displaced peoples were farmers and took their farming skills with them to other lands may be the farthest reaching hypothesis. Ryan and Pittman suggest that a "Diaspora" occurred (1998:Ch. 17) with the catastrophic infill of the Black Sea, forcing migration from the Black Sea by the Linearbandkeramic (LBK) north of the Carpathians and the Alps and onward to eastern France (190-191); the Vinčas up the Danube and into the Hungarian Basin (191); and the Proto Indo-Europeans up the Dnieper and north of the Caspian Sea to the Urals (211-213). They suggest that each of these cultures took with them farming techniques obtained along the Black Sea. Mudi et al (Marine Geology, 2002) find that the pollen evidence of the region demonstrates that the area was wooded and that farming was not likely for the Black Sea basin at the time of the flood. They contend that the people of a "Diaspora" would not have had the skills needed to spread farming to Europe, Asia and the Near East.

That a catastrophic or sudden infill of the Black Sea occurred, changing it from a freshwater lake to a saltwater body seems clear. The physical evidence and computer modeling seems weighted in favor of this hypothesis. That this flood is the progenitor for the regional mythologies that include flood motifs seems less likely than the idea that cultures dependent upon a proximity to water for survival might develop many stories that involved flooding irrespective of the Black Sea deluge, which occurred over 2000 years and many generations prior to the earliest writing and would have been sustained by oral tradition alone. That the Black Sea's flood sparked a "Diaspora" or mass evacuation of the region that resulted in the spread of farming seems too simplistic to be a single explanation, and far too difficult to test in order to accept as a viable explanation for a development in human prehistory so significant as the spread of agriculture. It ignores Binford's argument (1968:312-341) that food production strategies arise from demographic selective pressures created by increased populations that begin to encroach on each other's territories. Instead, Ryan and Pittman rely on Childe's "oasis theory" (165-170), which Binford is somewhat critical of, to explain the rise of agriculture and use this theory to justify mass migration from the Black Sea following the deluge.

Dwight Coleman included in personal correspondence (2004) after conceding that the subject sparks much controversy, that a new book is pending that will summarize proceedings from several conferences on the geology and anthropology of the Black Sea. Even critics of Ryan and Pittman agree (Kerr, 2000; Aksu, 2002; Schiermeier, 2004) that the controversy and debate is healthy for the subject, drawing interest and money as well as innovations in good science. That book is about to be released and is titled,
The Black Sea Flood Question: Changes in Coastline, Climate and Human Settlement, by Valentina Yanko-Hombach, Allan S. Gilbert, Nicolae Panin, and Pavel M. Dolukhanov. It can be pre-ordered from the Amazon link provided for a mere $259.00 USD. I think I'll wait and borrow it via my Inter-Library Loan!


Aksu, E. A., Hiscott, R. N., Yasar, D., Isler, F. I., & Marsh, D. (2002, 15/10). Seismic stratigraphy of Late Quaternary deposits from the southwestern Black Sea shelf: Evidence for non-catastrophic variations in sea-level during the last ~10000 yr. Marine Geology, 190(1-2), 61-94.

Ballard, R., Coleman, D., Rosenberg, G. (2000). Further evidence of abrupt Holocene drowning of the Black Sea shelf. Marine Geology. 170, 253-261.

Binford, Lewis (1968). "Post-Pleistocene Adaptations." New Perspectives in Archeology, L. Binford and S. Binford, editors, Aldine Publishing, pp. 312-341.

Burkhard, M. (1998, 24 April). Letters. Science, 280(5363), 499.

Coleman, D. ( (2004, 29/11). Email (Ancient Shoreline of the Black Sea).

Cognitive Science Laboratory (2005). Search Results for "sapropel" in WordNet 2.0, found in 2005 at:

Deuser, W. G. (1974). Evolution of anoxic conditions in Black Sea during Holocene. In: The Black Sea-geology, chemistry, and biology, E. T. Degens and R. A. Ross, editors, American Association of Petroleum Geologists Memoir Vol. 20, Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S.A., pp. 133-136.

Jones, G. A. (1994). Radiocarbon chronology of Black Sea sediments. Deep-Sea Research, 42(3), 531-557.

Kerr, R. A. (1998, 20 Feb). Black Sea Deluge May Have Helped Spread Farming. Science, 279(5354), 1132.

Kerr, R. A. (2000, 22 Sep). A Victim of the Black Sea Flood Found. Science, 289(5487), 2021-2022.

Mudie, P. J., Rochon, A., & Aksu, A. E. (2002, 15/10). Pollen stratigraphy of Late Quaternary cores from Marmara Sea: Land-sea correlation and paleoclimatic history. Marine Geology, 190(1-2), 233-260.

Popescu, I., et al (2004). The Danube submarine canyon (Black Sea): morphology and sedimentary processes. Marine Geology. 206, 249-265.

Postgate, J. N. (1994). Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: Routledge.

Pritchard, J. B. (1955). Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Ryan, W. B. F., & Pittman, W. C. (1998, 24 April). Letters Response. Science, 280(5363), 499.

Ryan, W., Pittman, W. I., Major, C., Shimkus, K., Moskalenko, V., Jones, G., et al. (1997). An abrubt drowning of the Black Sea shelf. Marine Geology, 138, 119-126.

Ryan, W., & Pittman, W. (1998). Noah's Flood: News Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Schiermeier, Q. (2004, 12 Aug). Noah's Flood. Nature, 430, 718-719.

Siddall, M., Pratt, L. J., Helfrich, K., & Giosan, L. (2004). Testing the physical oceanographic implications of the suggested sudden Black Sea infill 8400 years ago. Paleoceanography, 19(PA), 1024.

Vansina, J. (1985). Oral Tradition as History. University of Wisconsin Press.


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