The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, January 3, 2011

Books I Love: Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries

In the early days of this blog, I wrote a post about a book that I love - Dr. Milton Love's Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast. I wanted to belated continue that and write about another book that I love: Kenneth Feder's Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudo-Science in Archaeology.

Although Brian Fagan is probably the best known popular archaeology writer alive today, Kenneth Feder has written some of my personal favorite books. A Village of Outcasts is one of the best non-technical narrative descriptions of archaeological research that I have read, but Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries is a perennial favorite.

This book serves three basic purposes: 1) it is a good primer on the sorts of nonsense that gets propagated as "the REAL TRUTH about the human past" in pop culture; 2) it provides a good introduction in the basic methods used by archaeologists and historians to sort out information and evaluate claims; 3) it provides an entertaining primer in basic critical thinking, dealing more with the sorts of claims that crackpots make as well as the tendency for people to be fooled especially when dealing with claims outside of their area of expertise, rather than focus on the formal names of logical fallacies. The book is entertaining in equal parts because of Feder's enjoyable writing style and because he chooses case studies that are themselves entertaining.

The case studies within this book run the gamut from the Piltdown Man and the Cardiff Giant to "scientific" creationism to people who believe that human civilization is the reasult of intervention by aliens from other worlds. In each case, Feder gives a fair description of the claim, points towards it's main (or in some cases, original) proponents, and then proceeds to explain what the archaeological record actually shows.

Throughout the book, he never takes the attitude of "the professional archaeologists know the truth and everyone else is fools!" He starts the book by pointing out that he once believed some pretty strange things about physics, biology, and other fields outside of archaeology, indicating that one can be intelligent and still be taken in by some of these claims, and he dedicates page space to explaining how archaeological views have changed over time, showing that archaeologists are open to correction. In fact, it's this last point that he holds (and I agree) really separates science from pseudoscience - if you dismiss disconfirming evidence because you don't like the implication rather than because of the nature of the evidence, then you are practicing pseudoscience. And the book finishes up by discussing actual archaeological mysteries - subjects on which the professionals are well and truly stumped, showing that the archaeologists neither know it all nor claim to, but they simply are willing to put out the time and effort to reach strong conclusions rather than simply promote their pet hypotheses.

I once owned two copies of this book, and would loan one out to friends and family members who came to me with bizarre claims about human history. Unfortunately (for me) one of the borrowers never returned it, so now I am down to one...which might be a good excuse to get the new edition.


Taylor Wray said...

Sounds like a good read. It's funny how hoaxes and pseudo-scientific theories are usually more entertaining than the archaeological "truth" of the matter.

Also, you and Feder are dead on about true scientists having to follow the evidence, no matter where it leads. Sometimes the most exciting discoveries are those that totally undermine conventional archaelogical wisdom.

For instance, researchers in Crete (40 miles from mainland Europe) just discovered hand tools from at least 170,000 years ago, undermining assumptions that mankind waited much longer before braving the open ocean.

Do you think prehistoric sea travel could explain the occurrence of pyramids and other similarities in civilizations on different continents and in different eras?

Anthroslug said...

It really depends on what similarities you're looking at. To take your example, pyramids, there is little similarity between pyramids in the Americas and those of Egypt than their rough shape. They were constructed at very different times with very little other similarities in material culture, which wouldn't be expected if it were a case of diffusion. However, when you start looking at cultures that are engaged in monumental architecture, they will tend to use the pyramid/ziggurat shape because it is easy to construct a large object in this way - it can be done in stages, and gravity naturally pulls objects into such a shape, making them very stable.

Language is often a safer way to look for contact between cultures, but even it has it's problems. One thing that linguists have found is that, due to the physical limits of the human mouth, there are only so many sounds that we can make, and so if one does a statistical analysis, it is expected that, in comparing two languages, there will be a given number of words that sound similar and may even mean similar or related things. The likelihood of this happening depends on the number of different phonemes (basic units of sound) contained within the language. As a result, languages such as Polynesian dialects have false cognates with most other languages, while languages such as the !Kung San dialect have considerably less.

So, diffusion does occur, but it is not as common as it sometimes seems.