The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Grains, Archaeology, and Scientific American

One of the podcasts that I frequently listen to is Scientific American's 60-Second Science. Most days, the podcast features a short clip of audio detailing some a discovery, novel approach to problem solving, or some similar type of science-based issue. A recent episode described the find of a granary in a hunter/gatherer site in Jordan. The find is deemed important because it provides information on the antiquity of the storage of edible seeds in the Middle East. This, in turn, is important because the storage of seeds likely was a necessary step in the eventual development of agriculture as we know it today - simply put, the storage of seeds led to the ability to have seeds on hand for planting, and therefore the development of intentional crops*.

This is, without a doubt, interesting stuff. One of my own personal research interests is the lives of Late Period (ca 1000 AD to 1750 AD) hunter/gatherers in California, and the question of the possible development of proto-agriculture is an active topic of discussion in this field.

What bothered me, however, is that, as it was presented by Scientific American, a generally reliable source for science information, it sounds as if the discovery of a granary at a hunter-gatherer site is a completely new thing, and fills in some missing link between hunter-gatherers and farmers that otherwise might never have been known.

Well, that's not the case at all. I am not an expert in Middle Eastern archaeology, but I do know that in the Americas, Australia, and Africa, granaries are not uncommon features in hunter/gatherer sites. So, the notion that this discovery was new, revolutionary, and mind-blowing is false. It is, in fact, exactly the sort of thing that one would expect to find based on the archaeological records of every other location where hunter gatherers began farming or came close to farming.

At the same time, from a public relations standpoint, perhaps this is a good approach. Many people will be excited if they hear about something like this as if it is cutting-edge research rather than more of the same thing that archaeologists have been finding. In this way, perhaps not correcting Scientific American would have a beneficial effect on public interst in archaeology.

I don't know. It's another one of those places where the public perception and the reality of archaeology are not in agreement. However, unlike some of the other such instances, here, at least, the sensationalism leads people directly into the real archaeology rather than away from it. I have to wonder whether my immediate response of "hey! That's not right, they've ignored all of these other important matters" might actually be wrong-headed. I simply don't know.

*There are other things that likely influenced the development of agriculture which were likely as important, if not more important than the storage of seeds. These include the management of natural plants, sometimes to the point that it is open to debate whether they are natural or domesticated.

1 comment:

Dave Haaz-Baroque said...

I had similar feelings when they discovered the ancient 'lemur' fossil in Germany a couple of months back. The news kept saying "we found a missing link! Finally we have evidence that humans really did evolve from smaller primates."

Wait - finally? Like scientists doubted it before this fossil came along? As though the 'lemur' is the only evidence after a century of just guessing?

And I think we share a disdain for the whole idea of 'missing links'.

But you're right... sometimes we have to jazz things up to keep Joe Public interested, I suppose.