Thursday, April 30, 2009

I Haven’t Given Away my American Antiquity...Yet

I read Mark Warner’s article “Why I Gave away my American Antiquity” in the last SAA Archaeological Record with interwoven recognition and sadness. Warner tells us that he gave away his accumulated run of American Antiquity because it had become irrelevant to his research, scholarship, and teaching…. “as a historical archaeologist, I don’t find American Antiquity all that relevant to me as a professional. Simply put, there are other journals that I use more frequently, that I find more interesting to read, and that are more useful for me to teach from” (2009:6). He also documents the decline of historical archaeology articles in the journal.

I’m not a historical archaeologist, but I nevertheless share his feelings with some dismay. I’m trained as a Mesoamericanist, but I have broad interests which include parts of North America. Unfortunately, I, too, find American Antiquity increasingly irrelevant to my research and teaching, and I’m glad that someone has spoken up about it. My disquiet began in the mid-1990s when Latin American Antiquity started up. At the time, I was sharing an office with a dyed-in-the-wool North Americanist at a CRM firm. We were talking about the new journal. I was delighted by it, and to my surprise so was he, but for a very different reason: “I’m thrilled,” he said, “because American Antiquity won’t be full of all that Latin American stuff.” I don’t think that the original intent of Latin American Antiquity was to make American Antiquity into a regional North American journal, but that seems to have been the result. Volume 73 Number 3 of American Antiquity, from July 2008, is a good example of this trend. Almost all the articles and reports in that issue were on North American topics that seem to me, subjectively, to be of limited broader interest. Unfortunately, as American Antiquity becomes more parochial, it becomes less interesting and less relevant. This is a loss for the archaeological community in general and for the SAA in particular.

I haven’t given away my American Antiquity yet, but mainly because I’m a pack rat. Packratism is, in my experience, a congenital disease among archaeologists. Throwing stuff away is contrary to our nature. Think about what we do for a living: we go to extraordinary lengths to dig up other peoples’ very old garbage, and then we keep it forever in museums and repositories. The very idea of throwing away something new is nary inconceivable. So, my run of AA is safe for the foreseeable future, but I remain concerned about the direction the journal is taking.

Reference cited

Warner, Mark (2009). Why I Gave away my American Antiquity. SAA Archaeological Record Vol. 9, No. 2 (March), pp. 6-7.

A Lesson for Students

I would ask any students (of mine, at least) who read this blog to look at the articles I cited in the last couple of posts. What do they have in common? The research articles (as opposed to the commentaries) are all strongly interdisciplinary, drawing from a variety of sciences, such as physics (entropy) and genetics. Now, almost all archaeology is interdisciplinary. That's one reason why I find it fun. I get bored easily and the far-ranging scope of archaeology helps hold my interest. The lesson for students is this: build a strong general background in science and read eclectically. Many (most?) truly interesting discoveries come from the serendipitous intersection of apparently unconnected ideas. More specifically, note the rise to dominance of archaeological science. Dave Killick and Paul Goldberg (2009) wrote about this trend in a recent edition of the SAA Archaeological Record. If you're thinking about thesis or dissertation topics or trying to choose a graduate program, consider how you will develop expertise in some branch of archaeological science. When you read the job ads, see how many solicit researchers with expertise in some form of archaeological science, from GIS to paleoclimatic analysis, to archaeological chemistry to microscopy. Do you want to be the job applicant whose expertise is limited to digging square holes very slowly?

Reference cited

Killick, David and Paul Goldberg (2009). A Quiet Crisis in American Archaeology. The SAA Archaeological Record Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 11-13.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Even more in Science

As if yesterday's bonanza of articles on archaeological topics were not enough, yet another article appeared in the online advance publication section. I do not have access to the full text of these articles, but it's about the linguistic character of the Indus script. The authors claim to have show that the entropy of the as-yet-undeciphered Indus script is similar to that of other human languages, refuting the hypothesis that it is not a script representing natural human language.

by Rajesh P. N. Rao, Nisha Yadav, Mayank N. Vahia, Hrishikesh Joglekar, R. Adhikari, and Iravatham Mahadevan Science
Published online April 23 2009; 10.1126/science.1170391 (Science Express Brevia).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lots o' Archaeological Stuff in Today's Issue of Science

Before we get to today's issue of Science (Vol. 324, Issue 5926), I want to embed a cute little video from the "Science Friday" radio show web site about ancient domestic agave cactuses in the southwestern U.S.

Now, back to Science. There are articles about the domestication of cattle, horses, and sheep, all based on various kinds of genetic information:

by Arne Ludwig, Melanie Pruvost, Monika Reissmann, Norbert Benecke, Gudrun A. Brockmann, Pedro Castaños, Michael Cieslak, Sebastian Lippold, Laura Llorente, Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas, Montgomery Slatkin, and Michael Hofreiter. Science 24 April 2009: 485.

by The Bovine HapMap Consortium Science 24 April 2009: 528-532.

by Bernardo Chessa, Filipe Pereira, Frederick Arnaud, Antonio Amorim, Félix Goyache, Ingrid Mainland, Rowland R. Kao, Josephine M. Pemberton, Dario Beraldi, Michael J. Stear, Alberto Alberti, Marco Pittau, Leopoldo Iannuzzi, Mohammad H. Banabazi, Rudovick R. Kazwala, Ya-ping Zhang, Juan J. Arranz, Bahy A. Ali, Zhiliang Wang, Metehan Uzun, Michel M. Dione, Ingrid Olsaker, Lars-Erik Holm, Urmas Saarma, Sohail Ahmad, Nurbiy Marzanov, Emma Eythorsdottir, Martin J. Holland, Paolo Ajmone-Marsan, Michael W. Bruford, Juha Kantanen, Thomas E. Spencer, and Massimo Palmarini Science 24 April 2009: 532-536.

In addition, there are two interesting commentaries on archaeological topics, including one on current research into the causes of the Maya Collapse:

A New Look at the Mayas' End by Heather Pringle Science 24 April 2009: 454-456.

"Climate researchers have fingered drought in the collapse of the great Maya civilization, but many archaeologists say it doesn't fit their data. Ultralocal paleoclimate indicators may spark a resolution."

The other one is about the lithic reduction sequences of Homo floresiensis:

Did Humans Learn From Hobbits? by Elizabeth Culotta Science 24 April 2009: 447.

"A detailed new analysis of stone tools unearthed from the cave of the roughly 1-meter-tall ancient human found in Indonesia sheds light on the "hobbit's" technological capabilities and raises a new mystery: Why did the modern humans who arrived later make tools the same way hobbits did?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pantasma "Crater"

In studying the geology and archaeology of Nicaragua, I noticed a prominent landmark north of the city of Jinotega in the central highlands of northern Nicaragua. It is visible as a circular structure in the middle of the Google Earth image below.

In the image below, I have circled the crater in yellow.

If you study the topography, it is clear that this is a well defined circular depression. I found that it is named "Pantasma" after a village located within the crater. Googling it, I found that there are websites that suggest this may be an impact crater. The Wikipedia article on Pantasma describes this theory. I think impact craters are pretty interesting, particularly because I worked in and around the Chicxulub Crater in Yucatán.

Unfortunately, I feel impelled to point out that Weyl's authoritative tome Geology of Central America (1980: Figure 107) maps this as a caldera, one of several responsible for the Mio-Pliocene out-pouring of ignimbrite sheets that blanket the region. The statement that appears in the Wikipedia is not well-supported by the evidence and probably should be removed. The Pantasma area must have been a smoking hell when all these giant pyroclastic flows were emplaced. The Río Estelí runs through this region a bit further west. The name Estelí is said to derive from the Nahua word for obsidian, itzli. I wonder whether there actually is obsidian in the area or whether some of the glassy ignimbrite merely recalls obsidian.

Reference cited

Weyl, Richard (1980). Geology of Central America, Second edition. Berlin: Gebrüder Borntraeger.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sri Lankan Shipwrecks

This topic may seem a bit odd, but it's one to which I feel a special connection. As a kid, I was interested in marine archaeology and read everything I could find about it. At the time, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, underwater archaeology was a new field (SCUBA diving was invented during WWII and only became popular in the 1950s and '60s), and there were as yet few scholarly books on the subject. Most of what was written was by various kinds of avocational archaeologists or even treasure hunters. Among the ones I read were two autobiographical ones by Arthur C. Clarke, the very famous science fiction writer.

If I'm not mistaken, the books I read were Indian Ocean treasure by Arthur C. Clarke and Mike Wilson (Harper & Row [1964]) and The treasure of the Great Reef by Arthur C. Clarke (Ballantine Books [1974]), although it's possible that one was The coast of coral by Arthur C. Clarke (Harper, [1956]). These books recount how Clarke and his friends started diving on the Great Basses and Little Basses reefs off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, where Clarke lived, and found a number of shipwrecks including one with a cargo of silver coins. As Clarke was a world famous novelist, the books were unusually well-written.

Well, the Sri Lankan Navy has just posted a web site describing these wrecks, their history, and a protection plan for them. Not surprisingly, given their fame, the wrecks have been extensively and brazenly looted. I hope the Sri Lankan Navy can protect them. It does seem a little odd for the Sri Lankan military to be working on this problem during their bloody offensive against the Tamil Tigers

Sunday, April 19, 2009

New Web Site

I have set up a new web site on Google Sites to be able to post data and photographs in a static setting rather than in this blog. Among other things, I have posted photos of typical Mayapán ceramic types, copies of some of my papers, and a series of photos of archaeological sites in Nicaragua. I am particularly interested in posting photos of archaeological artifacts because there seem to be few photographs of archaeological ceramics available to students and researchers. The photographs in books are normally printed in black and white because the cost of publishing them in color is prohibitive. The few photographs one finds on the web are usually rare museum pieces that are not representative of what one typically excavates. As a result, one usually has to go to a ceramic repository or museum to see actual archaeological examples of these ceramic types. So, I think there is a real need to have photos like these posted on the web.

I expect to continue to add new material to the web site as I have time. I will soon run out of space, however, and I'm not sure what I'll do then, but undoubtedly there are many options.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cave Paintings in Cueva La Conga, Nicaragua

Some months ago, reports appeared in the media announcing the discovery of cave paintings in the Department of Jinotega, Nicaragua, by Suzanne Baker, who has been working in the country for many years, mainly studying petroglyphs. The discovery of Cueva la Conga was interesting for several reasons. First, most of Nicaragua is volcanic, and so most of the caves are lava tubes, but Cueva la Conga is a limestone solution cavern, located in a small region of karst near the border with Honduras. Second, cave paintings, as opposed to petroglyphs, are rare in Nicaragua. Third, the central and eastern parts of Jinotega are remote, dangerous, and almost completely unexplored. So, any archaeological discovery in the region is interesting news. Here is a link to Suzanne Baker’s website describing the discovery.

I bring this up because of a new report on an effort to radiocarbon date the paintings by Dr. Ruth Ann Armitage at Eastern Michigan University. She is using new techniques that I haven’t heard of, so it will be interesting to find out how they work. Here’s the article.

I would love to visit Jinotega. It’s reputed to be a beautiful, coffee-growing region is the cool, misty highlands. Jinotega is supposed to mean “City of the Mists” (Ciudad de las Brumas). The closest I’ve been to Jinotega is the Finca Selva Negra, north of Matagalpa, which was indeed lovely.

Check out Jinotga on Google Earth. See how the eastern part is all green? This is a large patch of rainforest that has not been explored archaeologically. Much of it falls with the Boswas Biosphere Reserve, a protected conservation area. One reason Jinotega has not been surveyed is that it was heavily mined during the Contra War and it has not been completely demined. Demining efforts were significantly complicated by the effects of Hurricane Mitch, which caused extensive erosion and landslides that moved mines around. A couple of days ago, I watched Carla’s Song, a very powerful movie about the Contra War. It’s worth watching.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rich Moche Burial Uncovered

National Geographic has also posted photos of a very rich Moche burial recently excavated in from Huaca el Pueblo on the northern coast of Peru by Steve Bourget of the University of Texas. Again, very pretty pictures and also a news article.

Huge Bead Cache Found at Santa Catalina de Guale, Georgia

According to a report on the National Geographic web site, a cache of 70,000 seventeenth century trade beads has been found by archaeologists excavating the Franciscan mission site of Santa Catalina de Guale, in Georgia. The excavation is sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. Not surprisingly, National Geographic has beautiful photos.

When Conch Was Queen

Here's an interesting popular article about conch in Caribbean archaeology: Talking Taino: When Conch Was Queen by William Keegan and Betsy Carlson. Dr. Keegan is a distinguished graduate of our M.A. program at Florida Atlantic University.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Early Ceramics in Northern Morocco

An Argentine newspaper, the Diario de Mendoza, reported on April 10th the discovery of quite early ceramics from a site named Hasi Uenzga, located southwest of the town of Nador, in the Rif region. The ceramics may be as old as 9000 B.C., which certainly is early for this part of the world. The discovery was made by archaeologists of the Instituto Nacional Marroquí de Ciencias Arqueológicas y del Patrimonio (INSAP) and the Instituto Alemán de Arqueología.

Here is a link to the article: Hallan cerámica del año 9.000 antes de Cristo. The article is in Spanish.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Collapse of the Earliest Civilization in the Western Hemisphere

This interesting article was mentioned in Nature’s journal club column this week.

Sandweiss, Daniel H., Ruth Shady Solís, Michael E. Moseley, David K. Keefer, and Charles R. Ortloff (2009). Environmental Change and Economic Development in Coastal Peru between 5,800 and 3,600 Years Ago. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 106, no. 5, pp. 1359-1363.

The basic argument seems to be that a “severe cycle of natural disasters—earthquakes, El Niño flooding, beach ridge formation, and sand dune incursion—at ca. 3,800 B.P." led to the collapse of the earliest civilization in the New World, which developed along the north central coast of Peru between 5,000 and 6,000 B.P.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Maize domestication

It’s taken me a couple of weeks to find and read the new articles about the domestication of maize in Mexico that came out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Here are the full references:

Dolores R. Piperno, Irene Holst, Ruth Dickau, and José Irarte (2009). The Cultural and Chronological Context of Early Holocene Maize and Squash Domestication in the Central Balsas River Valley, Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 106, No. 13, pp. 1514-1518.

Piperno, Dolores R., Anthony J. Ranere, Irene Holst, José Irarte, and Ruth Dickau (2009). Starch Grain and Phytolith Evidence for Early Ninth Millennium B.P. Maize from the Central Balsas River Valley, Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 106, No. 13, pp. 1519-1524.

There was also a commentary about this pair of articles published in the same issue:

Hastorf, Christine A. (2009). Rio Balsas Most Likely Region for Maize Domestication. . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 106, No. 13, pp. 4957-4958.

You can read the abstracts on the journal website here.

These are important articles. The Ranere team excavated a number of rock shelters in the region of Iguala, Guerrero, looking for deposits containing evidence of the beginning of plant domestication in the Archaic period. They chose this area because the genetic evidence—that is, analyses of the DNA of maize varieties and teosinte varieties—pointed to this region as the heartland of corn domestication. Interestingly, they are focusing on the moister piedmont between 700-900 m elevation, rather than the arid highlands.

The first article, in which Ranere is the first author, describes the archaeological sequence that they found, mainly at Xihuatoxtla rock shelter. They seem to make a fairly sound argument, based on the stratigraphy, carbon dating, and artifact sequence, that they found a series of Archaic deposits. The second article describes the microbotanical evidence—phytoliths and starch grains—for the presence of maize cultivation and processing.

Here is a Google Earth snapshot of the Xihuatoxtla area where the Rockshelter is located.

These are nice articles, and they report very significant results. We’ve all been waiting to hear these results for some years now. We’ve known that the current earliest dates for maize domestication were much too late, and that the answer probably lay in the Balsas River Valley. These articles provide strong support for domesticated maize exploitation in the early ninth millennium (2-sigma calibrated date: 8990-8610 B.P.).

Nevertheless, I was a little disappointed. Perhaps I’m an intellectual Neanderthal, but I would have liked to seen some macrobotanical evidence in addition to the microbotanicals. I was disappointed that they didn’t find a single cob or kernel. Give me a cupule! In North America, we find carbonized maize remains in hot and humid parts of the southeastern U.S., which is not that different environmentally from the tropics. I’ve excavated maize macroremains in the Yazoo Basin in Mississippi, and I’ve also worked in various parts of southern Mesoamerica, and frankly, the Mississippi Delta feels more tropical. I’ve worked at Copán, Honduras, which is at 600 m elevation, about the same as these sites in Guerrero, and it’s fairly cool and pleasant by comparison. I still find myself a teeny bit skeptical about phytolith and starch grain evidence, if only because they are young fields and so few people do them that I don’t get the sense that there’s a community of experts who have arrived at a consensus on various important issues. The authors of these articles are undoubtedly world experts on precisely these issues—the identification of maize starch and phytoliths—one couldn’t ask for a better group. And they deserve tremendous credit for having developed the approaches painstakingly over many years. But I would be happier if their results could be independently validated. Or, of course, they could keep digging till they find a hearth full of carbonized corn cobs.

I also would have been happier if the most significant of the deposits, at Xihuatoxtla rock shelter, had been deeper with better stratigraphic separation. The deposits there are barely 1 meter deep and the first 50 cm are post-Archaic. In fact, there are sherds down 60 cm in Layer C too. So, it’s really just Layers D and E, only 35 cm thick, that contain the whole Archaic part of the sequence, stretching back to almost 9000 B.P. Are we to believe that those two strata all date to 8990-8610 B.P., the age of the sole radiocarbon date from those strata? Shouldn’t the deposits have built up over time, like the ones above them apparently did? Actually, that carbon sample came from the middle of Stratum D, so some of this material may be even older than that date. But I think there’s no doubt that their conclusions would have been much stronger if they had found a deeper stratigraphic profile associated with more radiocarbon dates. Ideally, one would like deeper strata without any maize exploitation overlain by the earliest maize processing. I expect the Ranere team was disappointed in some respects too. In addition, I think some discussion, however brief (these are articles after all, not monographs), on the geomorphology and taphonomy of the deposits might have alleviated concerns about their shallowness. The map of the excavation in the Supplementary materials suggests that the ground drops away in front of the rock shelter, a common situation which leads to downslope movement of materials over time. So, evidence that the deposits are intact would have solidified their argument.

Overall, the articles report on an impressive achievement. Most of my doubts are based on what they found, which is not under their control. It’s no accident that no one has excavated Archaic sites in the valley of the Río Balsas till now. These guys have spent years doing survey to find sites, performing paleoenvironmental reconstruction, excavating sites and performing artifact analyses. And it’s probably not an easy area to work. I love Mexico. I’d rather be there right now. But Guerrero is not the safest place in the world.