I don't know how many of you are still around, but I'm posting to let you know that I'm opening a new front on YouTube this Wednesday (February 2, 2021). Jim Vieira and I are teaming up to try an online program that we'll livestream on this channel. Here is my announcement of our first episode, which will focus on the Dragon Man skull and some other apparently "large" human remains from our evolutionary past:
Here is the conversation where Jim and I discussed the basic ideas behind this endeavor:
I don't have the skills or the software to stream anything other than a basic conversation at this point, but if people watch and/or we're having fun hopefully that will change. The program(s) will be available as videos after the livestreams.
I've had two new papers published this fall. The first, a critique of the evidence for Early Holocene caribou hunting on the submerged Alpena-Amberly Ridge in Lake Huron, came out in PaleoAmerica in October. Here is the abstract:
A series of papers has developed the claim that stone features on the submerged Alpena-Amberley Ridge (AAR) in Lake Huron provides unique insight into the Paleoindian caribou-hunting economies of the Great Lakes. The documented human occupation of the AAR dates to the late Early Holocene (about 9000 calendar years ago): however, a time when glacial ice was far to the north and the region was occupied by hunting-gathering societies with ties to the western Great Plains and the deciduous forests of the Eastern Woodlands. Key elements of the caribou-hunting scenario as presented are poorly explained, contradictory, and/or ecologically unsound. Ethnographic and archaeological data demonstrate the use of structures for hunting other kinds of large game, presenting possibilities for alternative explanations. Constructing a satisfying explanation of the AAR features will require expanding the scope of investigation to develop and test multiple hypotheses that engage with the terrestrial archaeological record.
The short version of the paper is that the case as it has been presented so far is not very strong. I see significant gaps in logic, data, and interpretation and remain unconvinced despite assertions that the skepticism about their interpretations is "long resolved" (that's a quote from the reply to my paper). Anyway, until the criticisms are substantively addressed I'm from Missouri on this one.
Unfortunately, I was not able to publish the paper open access so it will be behind a paywall for most people who read this. The first 50 people that read this can click this link and get access to the paper. If you're too late and you'd like a copy feel free to email me at email@example.com and I can send you a pdf.
This morning I woke up to the news that there was a video on YouTube discussing Swordgate, Hutton Pulitzer's colorful past, and his current involvement in various efforts to question the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election (the content was originally produced in March, but posted to YouTube just recently). I haven't followed Pulitzer's exploits closely since Swordgate faded (other than him contacting the University of South Carolina to lie about me), and he has removed most of his online baloney. So listening to this podcast -- an interview with Mike Gorman of Frank Magazine about his experiences with Pulitzer - was an enjoyable stroll down memory lane. I learned a few things I didn't know. I think some of the chronology was a bit garbled, but I also may just not be remembering the order of events clearly. Anyway, it made me laugh out loud several times. I kind of miss the Swordgate days. But I guess we can't expect people to sell fake swords to gullible windbags in Nova Scotia every day.
Here is the video. It's well worth a listen if you've got an hour to kill.
A large chunk of the information that the public gets about archaeology comes via non-professional media. Even as a professional, I often hear about new "discoveries" first through news articles passed around on social media. These articles, usually written by non-professionals, vary widely in quality and intent. Some are pretty good. Some are intentionally sensationalistic. Many are misleading to one degree or another.
The bad ones irk me. If we're concerned about what the public knows about archaeology (we should be) then we should care when popular articles get things wrong. The large majority of the audience for these pieces is never going to go and read the original paper that an article is based on: in many cases they won't be able to because the peer-reviewed publication is behind a paywall. What's in the article is what they can take away.
Over the last few days, this University of Michigan press release about an Early Paleoindian site in southern Michigan has been emailed to me and has popped up in regional Facebook groups of which I'm a member. It describes recent work at the Belson site. The site and the work there are interesting. But the article is not good.
The headline waves the first red flag:
"Farm field find rewrites archaeological history in Michigan"
Here's a tip for aspiring writers of archaeological content for popular consumption: stop saying things like that. It's like using ALL BOLD CAPS to announce that the time of Wednesday's school board meeting has been changed from 5:30 to 6:00. Reserve "rewriting history" for something really big. Also: stop saying scientists are "baffled" or "left speechless" by things we "can't explain." Trust me -- we're never speechless. Even when we can't explain something we'll still talk about it. Probably even more than when we can explain it.
And then this is the lead:
"Thirteen thousand years ago, most of Michigan was covered in a wall of ice up to a mile high."
That is incorrect. The glacial ice may have been that thick at the height of the last glaciation (perhaps 26,000-20,000 years ago), but by 13,000 years ago the ice front was retreating from Michigan's upper peninsula. Most of the lower peninsula was probably ice free by about 15,500 years ago. The ice sheet position data I used to make the illustration below come from a 2020 paper by April Dalton and colleagues.
This is the second sentence:
"Archaeologists believed this kept some of the continent’s earliest people, a group called Clovis after their distinctive spear points, from settling in the region."
No, archaeologist don't and didn't believe that a wall of ice kept Clovis peoples out of Michigan. This isn't Game of Thrones.
The lack of a classic Clovis presence in the region is attributed, rather, to the notion that the environments of the area were still maturing following the retreat of the glacial ice. The idea is that it would have taken some time for the stable ecosystems that are attractive to hunter-gatherers to develop after the ice was gone. We have plenty of evidence in lower Michigan of Early Paleoindian peoples using fluted points that we call "Gainey." These points are very similar to Clovis, but with some key manufacturing differences that many of us (myself included) think are probably related to time. The presence of these "slightly later than Clovis" points and the absence of true Clovis points suggested that the first movements of human populations into Michigan may have been post-Clovis in age (but not by much).
The two maps below are from a 2017 presentation that I gave (co-authored with David Anderson) about demographic shifts in Paleoindian populations. They illustrate our understanding of the northern limits of Clovis and the idea that Gainey represents a demographic push of people into the central part of lower Michigan.
The discovery of classic Clovis material in Michigan is important, then, because it would possibly establish a slightly earlier time frame for intensive human occupation of the region, presuming that Gainey actually does post-date Clovis. But keep in mind we're talking about a site in far southern Michigan, on the border with Indiana, not something deep in the northern part of the state. If Belson is Clovis, it shifts the dotted green line in the "Model Time 1" graphic one county north, perhaps 30 miles.
And then we get to the third and fourth sentences:
"But an independent researcher along with University of Michigan researchers have identified a 13,000-year-old Clovis camp site, now thought to be the earliest archaeological site in Michigan. The site predates previously identified human settlements in the Michigan basin and potentially rewrites the history of the peopling—or settling—of the Great Lakes region."
Early? Yes. Earliest? Probably not. There is some evidence already for human use of the area during Clovis and pre-Clovis times in the form of mastodon remains that Dan Fisher (also of the University of Michigan) argues were butchered by humans. This evidence is discussed in the professional paper published in PaleoAmerica, as is another possible Clovis site (the Palmer site) documented in southeast Michigan. The published paper is behind a paywall, unfortunately, but there is a copy on Brendan Nash's Academia.edu page. The author of the press release surely would have had access to a copy of the paper.
The story improves from there, likely because it largely depends on quotes from the researchers. One odd thing is Nash's statement about "early humans" having a "wolf model of subsistence" and "running other ice age predators such as saber-toothed tigers and short-faced bears off their prey." I'm honestly not sure if this is supposed to refer to Early Paleoindians or some other people at some other time in some other place. It's possible the quote was garbled. I do know that there really is no consensus about Early Paleoindian subsistence practices - what they ate and how they got it has been the subject of lively debate for decades. I don't recall ever hearing of the "wolf model of subsistence."
The popular article about work at the Belson site has gotten a lot of attention. The site is interesting, and the professional publication clearly shows that is has the potential to add to and alter our conceptions of the earliest peoples in Michigan. It's too bad the opening of the popular piece wouldn't pass muster at a fifth grade science fair. I'm a little surprised that the University of Michigan would put its stamp on something that frames the work of its researchers in this way. We need these kinds of articles to communicate our work to the public. But we also need them to be accurate. I hope that we can do better.
This is my biannual post to assure you that (1) I'm still alive and (2) I'm positive I'll get back to producing regular content any day now. At least one of those statements is true.
We've been in Illinois for over a year now. It's been a busy time, with various family/health/professional issues bumping around like billiard balls. Overall we're in pretty good shape, especially given the background of the pandemic. Right now I'm not missing teaching at all and I'm not sorry to not be navigating the screwed up political/cultural situation in South Carolina.
I have thought very little about pseudo-archaeology lately, but there may be some stuff to talk about in the near future. Joe Taylor, whose work on "giants" I have criticized (e.g., here and here), offered to send me a copy of revised book. The offer languished in my email for a while but I have finally got back to him and I believe the book is on the way. I honestly got a little bored with giants a few years ago but it's still a hot topic. The silly video I did on the red-haired cannibal giants of Lovelock Cave to give my students an example of what they were going to do for a class assignment has gotten 21,000 views and still draws angry comments every week. So I guess people still want to fight about giants.
Hutton Pulitzer is doing whatever it is he was doing with his election fraud stuff. He took off his Commander suspenders and started wearing nutty professor glasses and positioned himself as an expert on detecting fake ballots and hacking into voting machines. The "stop the steal" people were all in, of course, and apparently didn't bother to look into his background. He was roundly ridiculed by multiple news outlets (congratulations - you're on TV again!) and trashed by various government agencies that actually understand elections. I don't know what he's up to now, as his YouTube channel has vanished. Maybe he's back to fake swords again. Or maybe crystals. Who cares.
In other news, we've now got a cat (adopted from my parents) and I have been accumulating all the things I need to start recording original music again. The jewel of this effort is my new drum set: a five piece beginner-level Pearl kit that will allow me record my own drums for demos. I decided to go that direction rather than getting a drum machine because it would let me learn a new skill and would give my kids an opportunity to bang on the drums if they wanted to. And the thought of doing more programming rather than just hitting stuff with sticks was a non-starter. The best thing about playing the drums is that it requires (for me, anyway) a high level of concentration. That means I can't think about anything else while I'm doing it, and that means my stress goes down. I played just a bit in high school, but never really practiced or learned anything in a formal way. So I've been teaching myself rock drumming 101 by learning AC/DC songs, following the recommendation of our lord and savior Dave Grohl.
I saw the Foo Fighters in Milwaukee at the end of July. It was the second time I've seen them and the first concert I've been to since this whole mess started. It was the second stop on their tour and the first show in that amphitheater since covid-19. It was an amazing experience - the crowd was so ready for it, the band was so ready for it, and it was 2.5 hours of singing, dancing, and yelling. It was probably the best concert I was ever a part of. I only recorded the opening song on my phone, knowing that people with better seats that me would capture the rest. My daughter and I wore masks but few others did. The timing was fortunate as the Delta cases were just starting to climb.
Back to reality . . . I also bought a new microphone (I incorporated the old one I've had since I was in high school into this sculpture) and a new set of headphones. I repaired the Fostex X-30 4-track cassette recorder that I've had since college, but it is noisy and not reliable so I've ordered a Tascam 8-track digital recorder that should arrive this week. The only thing I'll be missing then is a bass guitar.
I've dabbled in sculpture a bit, and I've gone through periods where I was doing a lot of drawing. Those are good activities when I want to let my mind wander. The nice thing about music, and I think what makes it appealing right now, is that there is a time element to performance. The clock is literally ticking, so I can't put down the guitar in the middle of a song to indulge some other thought that wanders in or check something on my phone. It also requires coordination of sight, sound, hearing, and motor mechanics. That provides an escape that seems authentic and fulfilling. And that's feels good right now.
I've been working to restructure my social media. I have created a new ZeroPointMechanic YouTube channel for my art content, removing all the art videos from my Andy White Anthropology channel and putting them on the new channel. I did this after realizing that I was feeling like the multiple personalities were diffusing my enthusiasm for creating new content. If you like my art, please subscribe to the new channel. If you don't like my art and mostly like to be outraged at my take on pseudoarchaeological nonsense, please do nothing except leaving me thumbs downs.
I've got plans for both of these channels. I'd like to do more frequent videos, and I'd like to get in the habit of live-streaming on both. I'm envisioning a weekly or perhaps bi-monthly "show" called The Mystery Hour where I will discuss pseudoarchaeology, perhaps responding to some of the comments that get left on my videos and some of the dumb emails I get. Maybe if I get in a good rhythm I'll have some guests. I'll let you know what's going on with that.
I'd like to do some live art stuff, perhaps including doing impromptu art with audience participation. That would mean having an audience, though, so . . . As of this writing that channel only has seven subscribers. I will need to build up the audience a bit. Maybe I should pledge that I'll weld in a bunny costume if I can reach 100 subscribers by Easter.
That could work.
I'll have some other art announcements soon I hope. Stay tuned!
This is a quick post to confirm that I am, indeed, still alive. I last wrote in June of 2020 as we were moving from South Carolina to Illinois. A lot has happened since then, and I have for the most part been quite happy to not comment publicly on any of it. I would like to get back to writing more, however. So let's start with this quick update.
I'm now employed as a Research Archaeologist at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS). My position involves no teaching, which I'm finding to be a relief. Like the rest of the University of Illinois, we're operating under COVID constraints, which means I have yet to meet many of my colleagues face-to-face. I've been busy writing grant proposals, working on transportation-related archaeology projects, and pushing forward with some of my own research. I recently gave a talk on some of what I'm interested in pursuing now that I've moved back to the Midwest. You can watch it here:
Pseudoarchaeology is perhaps the part of my old life that I have the least time for right now. Most of what comes across my radar is pretty boring, honestly, and it's difficult to justify spending a whole lot of time and energy having the same arguments over and over again. I don't even read many of the comments I get on old blog posts or my YouTube videos.
The most interesting thing I've seen lately is the inter-connectivity of pseudoarchaeological nonsense and the conspiracy theory baloney about the "stolen election" that led to a bunch of idiots storming the U.S. Capitol. None of it surprised me, and none of it should have surprised anybody who's been paying attention. The mainstream media still doesn't understand the connections between these layers of conspiracy theory, anti-intellectual sentiment, and white supremacist fantasies about the past, though, and perhaps it never will. If you're looking for evidence of crossover, you need look no further than the fact that "100% confirmed Roman sword" advocate J. Hutton Pulitzer traded in his treasure hunter costume for a suit and became a star witness for Team Trump arguing for voter fraud in Georgia. I heard an interesting interview with the lawyers for Dominion (the voting machines that were under attack) where they were asked "how can you demonstrate malice if someone really thought what they were saying was true?" They answered that one avenue was to demonstrate that someone repeatedly relied on sources they knew to be not credible. Rim shot.
I would really like to promise that I'll write more often. But I'm better off just trying to do it instead of saying it. And I'll leave it at that.
I have been very bad at making regular blog posts this spring. It's been pretty busy: on top of dealing with trying to somehow teach field school online due to the COVID-19 shutdown, we've been attempting to educate our kids at home, keep my wife's business afloat, and find time for me to finish up the excavations at 38FA608 by myself. And then we decided to move. So now we're doing that, too.
I have accepted a position as a Research Archaeologist at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey starting in September. I'll write more about that after we get settled in Champaign-Urbana.
Deciding to leave South Carolina was neither simple nor easy. We've been here since the summer of 2015 and my wife and I have made significant personal and professional connections that we will miss. We love the kids' school, and it is a tough call to uproot them from everything that's familiar.
There are a lot of things about this place that I enjoy and will miss. I have several good colleagues at SCIAA and have really enjoyed working with students in the classroom and at field school. The archaeology here is fantastic and has been very good to me, as have those that have helped me with that archaeology along the way. The winter weather is great. The diversity of bird, insect, and reptile life is beautiful, as are the various cultural and natural landscapes of the state. I will miss being able to take day trips to the beach. I will miss the Columbia art scene which helped me turn a pastime into an emotionally satisfying and economically rewarding pursuit. I will miss all the good people that I've met, talked with, and worked with here: there are a lot.
But there are also a lot of things that I won't be sad to leave behind. First among them is the ridiculous political culture of this state: often corrupt, often mean, and in my opinion a great disservice to many of the citizens of South Carolina. The legacy of white supremacy upon which this state was founded continues to weigh the state down: look up state rankings for education, domestic violence, violence against women, etc. South Carolina's position is directly related to its history and culture, and many of its citizens in positions of power don't seem to be in any big hurry to work toward improvement. It appears to me, in fact, that the opposite is true. The conservative elements here would like to further roll back protections for those in our society that are already vulnerable: people of color, the poor, the LGBTQ community, etc.. That's a shame, and it's a real turn off to those of us that value diversity, equity, and inclusion.
I won't go into a long explanation of the various personal and professional factors that weighed into our decision. I will just say that this move includes opportunities that were never available to us here and will result in a situation that is better for our family in the long run. Packing up and moving sucks, but it's for the best. I look forward to writing about archaeology and other issues from my new location and with the perspective I have gained from living in the south for five years.
I'm happy to announce that a selection of the flat art I've been producing (drawings on paper with ink, pen, pencil, and/or watercolor) is now for sale in the Zero Point Mechanic section of the Luna Lola website. I've put a few small sculptures there also.
I've been producing many more drawings than sculptures this year. I had a mild case of sculpture burnout after the push to finish the Dirt Dance Floor show last fall, and drawing was something I could do sitting around in the house in the morning or evening or whenever I had some spare time. It's a good activity to fill in the cracks, especially at the moment when escapism is all the more precious.
I rarely find myself short of ideas. When I do I just start dragging the pencil across the paper and inevitably something begins to emerge. Is it always something I end up liking? No. But the time and energy investment is so minimal that it's easier to be comfortable experimenting.
The pictures above are images of some of work with India ink. I tend to draw stuff I like, which includes bizarre houses, animals, strange mechanical contraptions, people, and combinations of all of the above. If you're into this stuff, please check out my work on the website. There will be more added as I finish new things and keep going through my stacks of stuff from this winter and fall.
As the nation's response to COVID-19 began to unfold in earnest a month ago, I anticipated that we'd go through a "shut down" period of some kind in an effort to get the spread of the virus under control. I thought maybe I'd be able to use the extra time at home to get caught up blogging, do some writing, and produce some of the student videos from my Forbidden Archaeology class last fall. Surely, I thought, the experts in our government will be able to formulate and operationalize a response to this situation that will allow us as a country to navigate it fairly well and get through it quickly.
Boy was I wrong about that.
As a scientist, it has been amazing (and not in a good way) to watch the various levels of government field the patchwork of responses that has gotten us to where we are today. Watching what was unfolding in Italy was like having a crystal ball, and yet those at the top levels of our government chose to . . . what? Fill in the blank yourself.
Things could have been much different. If we had used our headstart and data from other countries to get a legitimate testing program up and running . . . If we had used that time to ramp up production of the PPE and medical equipment that it was obvious we would need . . . If we had figured out how to use technology to track the spread . . . If we had done those things and had the leadership and the guts to go on complete lockdown early, we could have shut this down and gotten the situation under control before there were hundreds of thousands of cases and tens of thousands of deaths. We would have been out of the woods much sooner, with much less economic pain. But instead, we are where we are. It's not that no-one saw this train coming. It's that we didn't have the leadership and collective intelligence to figure out how to step out of the way.
You know when you yell at the idiot in the horror movie not to open the door to the basement? That's every scientist in this country a month ago.
I am thankful that I still have my job and that my family is in relatively good shape. No-one is sick, we're not going to go hungry, and we can pay our bills. My wife and I are doing the best we can to keep our two kids in some kind of routine that involves school work and exercise. I'm getting done what I need to as far as my job. We're all working to help keep my wife's business afloat in the face of all the government bungling of the "rescue" plan that's supposed to help her pay her bills while she's forced to close. No-one is sleeping well and the house is wreck. It could be much worse, but it's no picnic.
With the sudden stoppage of the field school, getting the work there to some kind of conclusion has fallen completely on me. Field archaeology is usually a team sport. So far, I've spent three days at the site on my own working on Unit 14. Next I'll tackle finishing the levels in the block. And then I'll be left to backfill. I'm not sure when I'll be able to pull all the equipment out (that's the least of my concerns right now). I've been making videos of my solo work at 38FA608 both as public outreach and to use as tools as I continue to try to teach my students something about field archaeology without actually being together with them in the field. You can find all of the 2020 videos here. Here is the latest, where I go through the steps of excavating a probable feature:
I feel bad that my students' field experience has been so abruptly abbreviated. I know that this situation has shaken some of them, as they have had to adjust to the online learning model just as rapidly as their professors have. I've tried to create assignments for them that will teach them something about how and why we do things the way we do them, but there really is no substitute for actually doing fieldwork in the field. It's a real bummer. I hope that those that wish to will be allowed to take the course over again next spring. That's presuming, of course, that our government can find its footing and get this situation under control by then.
During our spring break, I worked with Stacey Young and other SCIAA personnel to excavate several units in the "basement" portion of 38FA608. That work was funded by an internal grant program. The goal was to explore the deeply-buried deposits at the site, hoping to positively identify an Early Archaic component. We got the fieldwork wrapped up just as things started to hit the fan. I'll make a video of the work and write more about it when I get the chance.
As an "essential employee," I do have access to my lab on campus. That means I can come and go as required to get materials that I need to do my job at home. I've gotten my computer modeling stuff going on my laptop, and have been chipping away at some demographic modelling work that I was originally going to do for the physical anthropology meeting that was cancelled. I have several papers in progress that I can work on if/when I have the time. I have taken to washing artifacts in my backyard as my kids play in the inflatable pool. I take walks in the morning to try and get some exercise before most of the rest of the world is up.
At the beginning of all this, I thought I'd be able to settle into a moderately productive routine at some point and be able to start getting ahead rather than just treading water. I'm an optimist, and I think that maybe that's still possible. It certainly hasn't happened yet, however. If I can get to the end of the day with the family and the house somewhat functional and feeling like I haven't fallen so far behind that I'll never be able to catch up, that's a win. A little bit of bad TV and/or drawing a picture at the end of the day are what passes for recreation.
I'll keep you posted as I finish up work at 38FA608. I'm hoping to find a way to provide a live feed on backfill day, which should be epic. I could really use some company out there, even if it's to jeer while I sweat my ass off. Stay tuned!
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