Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Archaeology Writing Competition

This just arrived via the SAA Public Archaeology Interest listserv.

Archaeology for the People:

The Joukowsky Institute Competition

As archaeologists, we write for each other in journal articles, book chapters, monographs, and other forums, using language that makes sense to fellow members of the profession. Yet the results of archaeological discovery and analysis are important and deserve the widest possible audience: archaeology has momentous findings to report, and for the periods before written history stands as the only source of evidence we have for the human condition.

We believe that archaeology is worthy of a better level of writing, one that is accessible and exciting to non-specialists, but at the same time avoids excessive simplification, speculation, mystification, or romanticization. Some of the most effective writing in this vein has appeared not in professional venues, but in publications with a far wider readership. As just one example, we would cite Elif Batuman’s article in The New Yorker Magazine (December 19, 2011) on the Göbekli Tepe site in Turkey, and the many fundamental questions it raises about religion, technology, and human social evolution.

We therefore propose a competition for new archaeological writing, which anyone may enter. We invite the submission of accessible and engaging articles, accompanied by a single illustration and with no scholarly apparatus, that showcase any aspect of archaeology of potential interest to a wide readership. As an incentive, we offer a prize of $5,000 to the winner. The prize-winning article, together with those by eight to ten other meritorious entries, will be published in Spring 2015 in a volume of the Joukowsky Institute Publication series (published and distributed by Oxbow Books).

For more information about this competition, and to view the rules, please go to:

Questions concerning the competition should be directed to Prof. John Cherry ( and Prof. Felipe Rojas (


This sounds like a great idea.  Archaeologists are notoriously officious, stodgy writers who delight in a convoluted obscurantism. (Think of Binford!) Of course, there are outstanding exceptions, such as, most famously, Kent Flannery, who is not merely funny, but also a gifted and powerful essayist.

I often wonder how it is that archaeologists, who are blessed with the most fascinating work, manage, by dint of nearly superhuman labor, to make the field so unbearably boring. I mean, really, just think about what we so often do. You struggle through the jungle or desert, find a lost city, maybe the capital of an ancient kingdom, and then what do you do? Very slowly dig an obsessively square hole, spend a thousand hours measuring little chips of rock, and then publish an unreadable article full of arcane statistics about the distribution or geometry of the chips. At least, that 's what I do. There's got to be something wrong with this!

 Kudos to the Joukowsky Institute for trying to do something about it.

As an aside, I love Batuman's writing, but I didn't think the Göbekli Tepe article was her best.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Friday, January 3, 2014

Quadrantid meteor shower

Yet again I was irresistibly drawn to try to view another meteor shower. I've been trying diligently to view the main meteor showers for a couple of years now, but with very little luck. The last several times, it's been cloudy or raining. This time it was cool, clear, and crisp, with only a few clouds and no mosquitoes. So, a little after midnight, I got into the car and drove for about 45 minutes, north and west till I was in the agricultural zone between West Palm Beach and Lake Okeechobee. It's fairly dark out there, though there is still some light pollution in the east, where the large urban zone lies. I found the alleged radiant point, a little below and west of Ursa Major. I lay on the hood of the car in the dark, listening to a constant cacophony of distant dog barks, human screams, and horse whinnies, underlain by soft gurgles and plops from the nearby canal that I imagined were probably from alligators watching me.

In an hour, I saw one meteor.

I got home after 3: 00 a.m.

Hunter-gatherers forage using Lévy walks!

Finally! Some anthropologists strapped GPS units to hunter-gatherers and then downloaded the data to analyze the geometry of their hunting and foraging movements (Raichlen et al. 2013).

The test subjects were from the Hadza of Tanzania.

I've been wondering when someone would do this ever since my colleagues and I proposed that human foragers used Lévy flights to forage (Brown et al. 2007)

There are many interesting tidbits in the article, but the main result was that a large plurality--nearly half--of their hunting or foraging trips were, mathematically, Lévy walks (related to Lévy flights). Lévy walks are patterns of movements in which the step lengths are power-law distributed. For each data set (that is, the GPS trace of a trip), the authors fit the data to six models: a power law, a truncated power law, a single exponential, and three composite exponential functions. The large plurality of Lévy walks were those that best fit power laws or truncated power laws. The fitting was done using the ever popular maximum likelihood estimation procedures proposed by Clauset, Shalizi, and Newman (2009). The explanation of how they collected and processed the GPS data was eminently clear, which I appreciate because I have quite a bit of GPS data that I would like to analyze in a similar fashion.

The results are interesting because Lévy walks (or flights) are the most efficient random search patterns for scare targets. Whether this behavior evolved over thousands or millions of years, or whether it has developed as a heuristic, or whether it is a fully conscious methodical strategy is an open question, but it shows that human foragers forage as many other animals do.The Lévy walk movement certainly has implications for optimal foraging models. It may also offer an explanation for fractal patterns of archaeological sites because the turning points of a Lévy walk form a fractal.

Finally, I found it interesting that women, who mostly collect, walked much more Lévy-ly than their men, who hunted much more.

References cited

Brown, Clifford T., Larry S. Liebovitch, and Rachel Glendon (2007). Lévy Flights in Dobe Ju/’hoansi Foraging Patterns. Human Ecology Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 129-138.

Clauset, A., R. C. Shalizi, and M. E. J. Newman. 2009. Power-law distributions in empirical data. SIAM Review 51(4):661-703.

Raichlen, David A., Brian M. Wood, Adam D. Gordon, Audax Z. P. Mabulla, Frank W. Marlowe,
and Herman Pontzer (2013). Evidence of Lévy walk foraging patterns in human hunter–gatherers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Early Edition.