The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

American Wanderings

I recently had a conversation with a fellow who was convinced that the Celts had made it into North America before Columbus. His evidence? Well, he proudly told me about a megalith structure found in North America (megaliths are the large-stone structures such as Stone Henge and some other types of architecture from Europe). I pointed out to him that I was already aware of the types of structures that he was talking about, they were used as a sort of cellar away from the house, and instructions on how to build them were commercially available during the 19th century. In other words, his "proof of ancient Celts in the Americas" was, in fact, a vegetable cellar built by a farmer in the 1800's.

And, you know, I have had conversations like this with five different people in the last two weeks alone.

But this sort of belief is very common. Many people believe that the Egyptians, Israelites, Celts, black Africans, Japanese, Chinese, and so on and so forth all arrived in the Americas before Columbus. What these claims have in common is that they are all lacking evidence, and that fair examination of the evidence (as opposed to people selectively looking at certain aspects of the evidence to support their particular claim) has, to date and with the two exceptions discussed below, always gone against the claimant.

People hold to beliefs about alleged links between the Americas and Europe, Africa, the Middle East, etc. for various reasons. People will likely believe what they believe, and I am not trying to have at anyone. But, as an archaeologist, I feel that I have a responsibility to represent the record as it is. Also, this gives me a chance to write about archaeology, which is just plain fun. In other words, it's nothing personal, but if you hold beliefs that are in contradiction to the evidence that has been're probably not going to like this entry.

Oh, and this is not simply my own personal opinion of these matters, though certainly I do think that the views represented here are correct. These views are based on the results of almost two centuries of research by many different archaeologists and antiquarians, so if you have a problem with them, at this point, the burden of proof is on you.

Now, with that out of the way, let's look at a few lines of evidence.

1. The American Body

One of the most basic places to look for evidence of human movement is in the biological makeup of the people themselves. In the past, this meant examining both living descendants and the bones of ancestors for evidence of heritable traits (essentially, looking for genetic traits without looking at the genes themselves). These studies have routinely found that the traits found in Native American populations are consistent with a few waves of early migration from Asia, but not with what would be expected had later populations from the Old World (consisting of Asia, Europe, and Africa) arrived in even moderate numbers.

Occasionally you'll hear stories of "Indian tribes with blue eyes" or something of that sort, usually claiming that these traits are proof of commingling with Old Worlders, and you know, they may be evidence of that - but remember, it is known that many Europeans, Asians, and Africans arrived in the Americas AFTER the year 1492, and it is also known that many of them had children with native peoples. So, people noting "blue eyed Indians" in 1850, or even 1750, 1650, or 1550 doesn't mean that anyone from Europe or elsewhere arrived in the Americas earlier than 1492.

Thanks to modern technology, we are now actually able to examine the genes themselves. This is neat stuff, and it is forcing us to refine our views of how the Americas were settled, but to date, all data collected has been consistent with early migrations from Asia. Although many people hold out hope that this new tool will reveal migrations from Europe, the Middle East, and so on, so far they haven't, and I wouldn't place any money on that result coming up - it is decidedly a low probability outcome.

Okay, so the bodies of the Americans don't reveal any evidence of these alleged other migrations. What about their tools, art, jewelry, and so on?

2. Their Stuff

Negative Maverick, the pattern is full.

The only clear similarities between the artifacts of the New World and those of the Old World (be it architecture, tools, weapons, art, jewelry, or anything else) are purely functional, and are pretty clearly due to convergence (meaning that two different, unrelated groups make tools for essentially the same purpose, and therefore create remarkably similar tools because, well, THEY SERVE THE SAME DAMN PURPOSE!). Where there is no functional link, there are no real similarities (that is, there are only so many ways that you can make an arrowhead, so they're all going to look pretty similar, no matter where they come from - but there are all sorts of ways that you can decorate your home, so there is loads of variation between groups of interior decorators from different cultures).

Most of the claims that artefactual evidence indicates links between the Americas and elsewhere are based on misinterpretations of evidence - sometimes honest mistakes, sometimes intentional lies.

A good example of this comes from art. There is a series of large stone heads carved by the Olmecs in Mexico. Now, these heads have what could be stereotypically considered African features. Based on this, a large number of pseudo-scholars have claimed that this proves that Africans arrived in the Americas and are responsible for the great civilizations of Central and South America.

This is, of course, bullshit.

The features that are pointed to on the statues are also evocative of the native populations of the region, who, as discussed above, are pretty clearly descended from early Asian migrants. Also, aside from these statues, there is no artefactual evidence to indicate a link, and if African settlers were responsible for the great civilizations, then there would HAVE to be artefactual evidence, no way that you can make that kind of impact and not leave any signs of it. In fact, there is plenty o' evidence that the locals are responsible for this stuff, and not the Africans.

Taking a different tact, I have had several fans of the "lost tribes of Israel" hypothesis point to artwork found in Central and South America and claim that it shows illustrations from various holy books (although most folks will think this means the Mormons, the truth is that they are only one of the many groups who make claims about Israelites arriving in the Americas, and I have personally met representatives of other groups) .

The problem is that if you look at this artwork in its context, and don't cherry pick it to look for something that could be twisted into supporting a particular claim, it becomes pretty clear that the artwork doesn't show the events it is alleged to show, but shows something else altogether.
These same patterns hold true for other items that are claimed to be evidence of some incursion or another into the Americas - they may sound convincing until you learn more about the archaeology of the region, and then the actual nature and purpose of the item in question becomes clear. Mind you, that doesn't make this stuff any less interesting, in fact, when you know what these items really were and how they came about, they're usually much MORE interesting.

So, that's the story for misinterpretation, but you also have to consider hoaxes. Throughout the 19th century, people would produce items ranging from artifacts to the alleged writings of the ancients (my personal favorite being the alleged "runes" found in North America that have alot of the basic errors that you would expect a hoaxer to make, but not someone who was a native speaker and writer of the language), to stories about Native American groups speaking Hebrew, and so on. In each case, when you begin to examine the stories or items, their origins as hoaxes become clear - but this hasn't stopped many people (including some who really should know better) from believing these stories and passing them on.

There is one other thing that should be discussed here. Usually, you can be safe sticking to the motto "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Usually. But not here, and there is a reason why.

Many of the peoples of the Americas had an economy that was heavily dependent on trade and prestige - and prestige was typically gained by having an item for trade rather than keeping the item. The archaeological record shows a spread of items throughout the Americas that is consistent with this type of economy throughout much of prehistory. Also, bad relations between groups might not even stop exchange - trade appears to have occurred even occur between groups who were enemies (a fact that came into play in my Masters Thesis, in fact), and it was common in many cultures for there to be multiple village-level polities within a larger ehtnolinguistic territory - and just because one village had an enemy didn't mean that the other villages (or bands, in some cases) would view the same group as their enemy. So claiming that the Old Worlders would not have traded because they had bad relations with the locals doesn't hold water.

In prehistoric American economies, the more exotic an item is, the more prestige attached to it as a trade item. So, if you can get access to exotic items, you want to, and then you want to trade them. It is worth noting that artifacts from the Vikings, the only Old World peoples who clearly DID show up in north America before Columbus, were traded far and wide - and there were a relatively small number of Vikings who stayed for a relatively short period of time, not the case for the various other groups that it is claimed visited the Americas.

Yet, there are no artifacts from the Old World (other than a few Viking items). Given the nature of the prehistoric American economy, this is inconceivable. So, though I am loathe to admit it, in this case, absence of evidence really is evidence of absence.

And again, keep the Vikings in mind. They were present for a short period of time in very small numbers and THEY made an impact. How could other, larger and longer-lasting migrations not leave evidence?

There is one other point that I want to get at here. The archaeological record indicates culture change throughout prehistory. However, culture change shows continuity (except in cases of clear invasion, where the origin of the invaders is known), and culture change appears to coincide with specific, traceable events - major shifts in the climate, massive changes in population levels, and so on. The Old-World migrations that people like to claim never seem to coincide with actual episodes of culture change, which they really should if the various activities claimed by the proponents of these views were actually happening.

Again, this is one of the few places were absence of evidence really is evidence of absence...

3. Linguistics

Okay, so the artifacts and the biology show that there were no migrations, but what about reports that various Native American groups spoke, or at least had some words from, Hebrew/Gaelic/Latin/etc.?

Well, these fall into two categories: bullshit, and utter bullshit.

In the bullshit category, you can place the honest mistakes. These are places were certain words or syllables sound kinda' like words or syllables from another language. The problem with this, and ask a linguist (I did) you don't have to take my word for it, is that most languages have false cognates with other, unrelated languages. This is due to the fact that the human mouth and vocal chords are only capable of a certain range of sounds, and as a result, alot of sounds are repeated in many different unrelated languages.

However, these sounds rarely have the same meanings (or even similar or derivative meanings) across the different languages, and therefore aren't evidence of links between the languages.
In some cases, there is an odd similarity here and there, but these are almost invariably in "simple syllables" (a limited number of syllables that are easy to make and appear in almost every language because they are so easy to make), and the sheer number of languages that have been spoken throughout human history means that by cheer chance, a few of these syllables are going to end up meaning similar things in unrelated languages.

Then there is Utter Bullshit. These are the hoaxes, lies, and intentionally misleading stories that are told by people who, for a variety of reasons, feel that it is important that other people believe that the Americas were visited or populated by people from elsewhere. These are untrue and were intentionally made up, 'nuff said.

4. Lore

Some folks will claim that similarities that can be found between Native American lore and various Old World religions is proof of a link. There are three problems with this.

The first is that most of these similarities are thematic (such as death and rebirth) and can be found in religions the world over. Now whether this is evidence of the retention of some ideas from very early human belief, or is evidence of humanity processing certain types of information in certain ways and coming up with similar narratives, I don't know (though I am inclined to think that it is the latter).

The second problem is that many of the traditions where ties are claimed come from documents that were recorded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when most American Indians had been converted to Christianity and were living around Christians. As a result, given the nature of oral traditions, it is only natural that many elements of Christianity would leak into the legends and lore. When one examines earlier documents (such as those written by Spanish priests who were trying to convert people who had never seen a European before), these similarities "mysteriously" vanish.

The third problem is that the elements that are claimed to show links to Old World religions can often be tracked geographically, and show evidence of being "home grown." For example, in Southern California, there was a mythological figure appears among several groups, and is fairly clearly essentially the same figure - but in some groups he is messianic (God made flesh and then vanished), in others he is a culture hero (an important figure who is responsible for many things, but not a god), in others he is the chief god but not at all human, and so on. However, common traits are attributed to him, regardless of his divinity or lack thereof, and these traits rather importantly mark all of these figures as being variations on the same theme. When mapped out, it becomes clear that this being developed out of local legend, and is not evidence of Christian influence, but many people have claimed that he is nonetheless.

It would be necessary to show fairly definite ties in both form and content between religious traditions in order to establish a connection. To date, this evidence has been lacking. The sloppy reasoning that people use to try to connect the Americas with various Old World religions can be just as easily used to prove that Christianity is a bastardized form of Buddhism, which the historical record proves that it is not. So, these lines of alleged evidence tend to go nowhere fast.

The lore of the Native Americans tells use nothing about alleged links to the Old World, but the lore of the Europeans tells use a good deal about where these beliefs come from.

To start with, it must be remembered that many early European explorers believed the Americas to be part of Asia, and many of the claims about links between medieval and later Asia can be directly tied to these early misconceptions.

Also, the claim that the Native Americans were descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel (or other groups from the Middle East) are several centuries old. Claims such as this show up in early Spanish accounts of the Americas, as does the usually fabricated or misunderstood "evidence" for these claims. When various groups began proclaiming this loudly in the 19th century, they weren't saying anything that hadn't been floating around amongst Europeans in the Americas for a couple of hundred years (in fact, this very claim was made by a Spanish priest serving in California in the 1810's in a series of questionnaires sent out to the missions by the Spanish government, and that priest cited as authority an author who had died over 150 years earlier).

In fact, claims that another "race" must have been in the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans was quite common until the late 19th century. The belief came from the rather racist notion that the "American Savages" could not have constructed the many architectural wonders of the Americas, including the great mound structures of North America (which few people seem to be aware of today, but were widely-discussed int he 18th and 19th centuries), and the temples and cities of Central and South America.

When archaeology first began to become its own discipline, beliefs of this sort were common, and so, contrary to what many people who espouse them now claim, these ideas regarding Old World incursions into the Americas were widely entertained and discussed by archaeologists for quite a long time. In the late 19th century, the Smithsonian sponsored a series of studies of the North American mounds, and subsequent studies of the sites in Central and South America were also performed. The results? It was pretty damn obvious that the Native Americans had built them, after all. All claims tot he contrary were based on racist notions of "Native Savagery" or dip-shit ideas about how "human progress won't allow a culture to slip backwards!" (I can only assume these folks hadn't hear about the fall of the Roman Empire - and by the way, a friend of mine once actually tried using this line of reasoning on me to explain why the Native Americans couldn't have been responsible for these civilizations. I was so taken aback at the ludicrous nature of the argument that I had no idea how to respond).

5. Possibility vs. Probability

When someone has seen their claims of evidence for Old World incursions vanish, they will usually fall back on the old claim of "well, it's possible that these people could have made it here!"
Any number of things are possible. It's possible that I'll marry Gillian Anderson, but it's not very likely (being as how I don't even know Gillian Anderson and all).

In all scientific research, there is never certainty, only varying degrees of probability. It is always possible that some piece of evidence will come to light that will make what had previously seemed unthinkable into an obvious reality. However, while these things are possible, you have to look at how likely they are.

In this case, if there had been incusrions by Africans/Celts/Isrealites/Romans, etc., then you would expect changes in the biology of the peoples of the Americas, shifts in their material culture, changes in settlement patterns and procurement strategies that chronologically accompanying these incursions, linguistic changes, and so on. But not a single one of these things has happened! None. Zero. Zilch. Not a sausage.

So, the odds of a piece of information coming to light that causes all of this to be re-evaluated is pretty damn low. I can't even imagine what such a piece of evidence would be, AND IT'S PART OF MY TRAINING AND MY JOB TO IMAGINE THESE THINGS! I know what things would look like if none these things happened, and that is pretty much how things actually look. Moreover, as we accumulate more data, it forces us to re-evaluate many of our assumptions and conclusions, but it has to date not caused us to assume that late-arriving Old Worlders impacted the people of these continents, in fact the evidence has made that look increasingly less and less probable. More, many ealy researchers were convinced that these incursions had happened, but dropped these beliefs only after the evidence overwhelmingly showed otherwise. So, while anything is possible, I'd say that the chances that Celts/Africans/Isrealites/Chinese/etc. showed up and mucked about in the Americas is pretty damn low. This is not just a low probability hypothesis, it is a DAMN low probability hypothesis.

6. Actual Culture Contact

However, there has been real culture contact. As mentioned above, we now know that there was a small Viking settlement ont he East Coast of North America. While they had a low impact owing to both the settlement's small size and short duration, they did have a detectable impact nonetheless.

There is currently some discussion of the possibility that a small group of Polynesians may have made contact with prehistoric Californians. The evidence for this claim is pretty weak, but it is interesting, and it may eventually yield something. However, again, we're talking about a small number of Polynesians during a small duration of time.

Then there are the historical culture contact scenarios. What is interesting in all of them is that even a few hundred European (or in some cases, Asian or African) settlers moving into an area that had been occupied by Native Americans had a huge impact on the lives of the native peoples. Given what it seen during these contacts, it is inconceivable that earlier groups could have come and done great deeds and not left a mark, considering that even short and friendly culture contact had a huge impact.

...and so, that's my spiel, I hope you found it interesting. Now, one final word - it's common for many of the wingnuts who buy these claims to, when evidence to the contrary is presented, claim that the person raining on their parade is simply" parroting the establishment" and that "archaeologists want to hide the truth because they have financial ties to the belief that the 'old paradigm' is true!"


Those archaeologists who have managed to overturn long-held beliefs have routinely found themselves celebrated, and gaining recognition both among their colleagues AND int he popular press. In other words, when you can make a substantiated claim that something that seems outrageous is true, it's VERY GOOD for your career. Only someone who is woefully ignorant of how archaeology functions as a field woul claim otherwise.

Of course, only someone who is woefully ignorant of archaeology as a field would believe claims based on flimsy evidence, so there you go.

Monday, May 19, 2008


A few posts back, I posted a link to a story about a substitute teacher who had performed a magic trick and been fired for wizardry. If you are curious, the link is here:

Well, Surprise, surprise, the story wasn't quite kosher:

Which leads me to an interesting topic - the confirmation bias.

The confirmation bias is the tendency for us to accept information that agrees with what we already believe to be true, while ignoring disconfirming evidence. We all tend to be very good at seeing this when other people are doing it - when someone else thinks that a particular politician is far more honest and honorable than their record indicates, when someone is convinced that a particular group conforms to dubious stereotypes, when someone believes a crackpot hypothesis about how the world works in the face of devastating evidence otherwise (such as that the world is flat or that disease X is a result of a government conspiracy), and so on. It's not so easy to see the confirmation bias when we are the ones being biased.

I know plenty of people who believe that "Intelligent" Design is scientifically valid, that homeopathy (not to be confused - as it often is - with naturopathy or herbalism, which sometimes works) actually works, that homosexuals choose to be that way (and are therefore sinners deserving to be punished, and not simply different people), that any particular political or economic system (communism, capitalism, democracy, oligarchy, anarchy, etc.) will work flawlessly and solve all of our woes, that the only predictor of wealth is hard work and that circumstances beyond the individual's control have nothing to do with it, that Keanu Reeves is a good actor, and so on and so forth. And these are smart people, for the most part, not given to foolishness as a general rule. Yet, they believe these very ridiculous things. Why?

Well, that brings us back to the wizard teacher. It's ridiculous story on its face, and I should have had my suspicions aroused by the very silliness of the entire thing. Why didn't I?

Simple - I look around myself and see people not only espousing beliefs that seem rather odd to me, but trying to force those beliefs on others. Whether it be people trying to force creationism into science classes, raising my insurance premiums by pressuring insurance companies to pay for therapies and procedures that do not work or are less effective than cheaper procedures, trying to amend the constitution to enforce bigotry based on superstition, or trying to pressure bookstores and libraries into not carrying books that they think or "sacrilegious".

So, when I hear about a teacher being fired for "wizardry" after showing students a simple magic trick, that fits in with my view of my fellow humans. So, even though the story is clearly loopy, I fell for it. It confirmed my bias, and I didn't bother to look deeper. But I should have.

And, in the end, this is the only way that we can deal with the confirmation bias - to be aware that it exists, and to admit when we have been had by people peddling a false story that fits our world view.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Hating Work, Time to Join a Conspiracy...

A week and a half ago, my boss informed me that a client of ours informed him that the California Energy Commission needed an Application for Certification for a powerplant by Monday the 19th.

So, what did this mean? Well, as the AFC section for archaeology had not been written yet, I had to spend my weekend and several late nights during both last week and this week writing it (and by late nights, I mean 8 am to midnight work days). Mind you, this came on the heels of having been sent out to the desert for two weeks (which also required me working through a weekend prior to going to the desert in order to finish the projects what needed finishing at that time), and as my boss had family matters to take care of last weekend, that left me to do the work. And the project is still not done. So, I get to spend this weekend in the office with my boss trying to get the damn thing done. In the end, I will have had one weekend completely to myself in the last two months.

I am very tired.

And as if that weren't enough, I discover that a friend of mine has been secretly working with the fish to regain piscatorial dominance across the planet! Check it out:

...and as if THAT weren't enough, scroll down the page you'll notice that one of the people that she is pimping is none other than my homeboy Brian Fagan. That's right, Fagan's helping the fishy conspiracy. How could he?

Wait a minute, anthropology has led me to high stress, no free time, and alot of frustration. Fish, on the other hand, do nothing but swim, eat, spawn, and plot to take over the world. Maybe Brian's on to something.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Wisdom Of the Ages

I stepped into the local bakery while on my lunch break, and stood next to a booth in which a group of people were discussing the current banking/real estate crisis. I should point out that I was standing in line, and the line went by the booth. No, I'm not that creepy guy who walks into eateries and looms over booths uninvited, no matter how much I may look like the picture on the wall at the post office.

But I digress.

I was in line next to a booth which held an elderly couple (the male half of which was wearing a baseball cap with the word "GRANDPA" emblazoned across the front), and a young couple. From what I could gather, the male half of the young couple worked in finance in some capacity or another.

The young fellow was discussing the current banking/real estate problems, and the conversation went like so:

Young Turk: "Japan had a similar problem back in the 90's. The government refused to allow the banks to fail, but they may have done more harm than..."

Old feller: "The Japanese make fine cars. Those Toyotas and Hondas. Fine Cars."

Young Turk: "Umm, yeah...well, anyway, the Japanese government may have set up a precedent by which the banks have become reliant for bail-outs, and this may have changed the practices of the banks. You see..."

Old Feller: "Japan also has a high suicide rate."

At this point, I moved up in line and didn't hear the rest.

But I will say this - when I get to that guy's age, I want to be the odd old codger who stops conversations about finance to talk about cars and suicide rates.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Better Evangelism?

On the forums over at the Friendly Atheist Blog (, this question was asked by user Roar:

… What method was the worst when people tried to share their faith with you? I
know some people hand out pamphlets and other people tell you you’re going to
hell on the street corner, all kinds of ‘fun’ things. As a follow up question,
how has rude/mean/annoying encounters like that caused you to feel about the
Christian faith ? My last question is, what method of sharing faith has made you
at least open to talking to the other person about their faith?

I hope the wording hasn’t offended anyone. I’ve never talked to an atheist before (well I did over this forum for the past few days but not in person) and I would really like to learn more. Thanks for taking time and reading this.

It is, I think, and interesting question – and if the user who posted it had truly never spoken with an atheist before, it shows a good deal of intelligence and insight that he recognized that many of the accepted practices of evangelism do harm without winning many people over. Given that the majority of people in our society claim to believe in some form of a god/gods/goddess/great spirit/cosmic muffin, and that a large number of these folks (though probably still just a sizeable minority) see it as their purpose, need, or right to try to convert everyone (a trend that is stronger in some sects than others), I think that this is also a worthwhile question.

I would answer it by starting with a pet peeve of mine – I dislike the use of the word “faith” when what the speaker/writer means is “religion” or “beliefs.” When someone says “I am part of the Christian Faith” I have to resist the urge to say “No, you’re part of the Christian religion. You have faith that the teachings of your religion are true.” It’s a mild mis-use of the word, but it always irks me, probably because it feels like the folks who use it are trying to euphemize themselves out of being a member of a religion (for whatever reason, being in a “faith” is generally considered good, while being in a “religion” is not, despite the fact that they are used to mean the same damn thing).

Okay, with that off of my chest…

The basic problem that I have encountered with evangelism is that it tends to work from the premise that the person being evangelized needs to be “saved” – and condescension and insult naturally follows from there. Not only is someone never going to convert me by talking down to me, they will irritate and alienate me, preventing me from hearing anything they have to say, whether it has value or not.

What is more frustrating is that most folks who wish to evangelize make assumptions about their target, and then will not listen when their target points out that the assumptions are false. I can not count the number of times I have had someone inform me that I am miserable because I don’t have Jesus in my life (and then refuse to listen when I point out that I became significantly less miserable when I stopped trying to convince myself that I believed in Christianity), or that they have accused me of all manner of immoral evil-doing because I don’t believe in a god (despite the fact that I have done little in my life that anyone would consider immoral or unethical, and I tend to hold myself to very high ethical standards). I understand what drives this attitude – these folks seem to recognize that if their belief system is not necessary for either morality or happiness, then they, perhaps, have been on the wrong track, and this frightens them – but this understanding doesn’t make the attitude any less harmful to those who have to deal with it.

However, even when the evangelizer is acting not out of fear for their own world view, but from an honest desire to do good for others, this patronizing attitude (“I know the way the truth and the light, and I have to teach it to heathens like you!”) is problematic. If the person is right, and they do have the key to salvation, then they are alienating the people who they can save. On the other hand, if they are wrong, then they are annoying, alienating, and hurting other people for no good reason.

So, Hemant, the keeper of the Friendly Atheist Blog, asks “what is the best form of evangelism?”

Well, I don’t think there’s a good form of evangelism – whether religious or for a secular cause. They all start from the premise that the person who does not share your view is wrong and must be saved from being wrong, and in the case of religion, this assumption is made based on faith – by definition an arbitrary assumption. So, the basic concept of evangelism is inherently arrogant and insulting towards the target.

Now, if you wish to persuade someone such as myself that your beliefs are true, and that I should adopt them, you have to take a different tact. Give up evangelism, and try discussion and argument. These take a completely different form – both argument and discussion start from the premise that you have a position that you think is correct, but unlike evangelism they proceed with the realization that you may be wrong and that the other person may have something worthwhile to say. However, this is more difficult for people in general for a very simple reason – when you listen to the other person, you stand a chance of being persuaded to their point of view, just as they stand a chance of being persuaded to yours, and this frightens many people.

Of course, as mentioned, religion isn’t the only thing about which people evangelize. The author Chris Hedges, for example, argues that many of the current spate of pro-atheist books are evangelizing in nature, and while I think he over-states the case (having read many of them, I can say that while their tone may be objectionable, their content is stated in a way that invites the reader to question rather than simply demanding that the reader accept the author’s conclusions), his argument is not entirely without merit. Likewise, I remember my college years, when I would often find myself arguing with devout Marxists who were completely unwilling to hear any argument contrary to their idea of the inevitability of a proletarian Utopia.

And lest you think that I am simply some hippy liberal Satan-worshipping atheist (and yes, I have been accused of being a Satan worshipper due to my lack of belief in a god – on more than one occasion, I might add), there are ecclesiastical folk who agree with me about the problem of evangelism – check it out:

So, there ya’ go, a rambling and probably incoherent blog entry

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Give me pills!

So, I was looking over at another blog, Skepchick (, and saw that they had linked to stories regarding an attempt to organize a day of protest against the birth control pill.

No, really, check it out:

At first I thought this was a joke (and, perhaps this site is a well-concealed joke, though it increasingly looks unlikely), but then I started thinking about the pharmacists who refuse to dispense birth control pills based on the belief that they cause spontaneous abortions (my understanding, while this claim may not be completely unfounded, it is rather spurious, but ask your doctor for more information, really, you should).

An amusing dissection of the matter can also be found here:

But, let's be realistic, the use of contraceptives, including the birth control, realistically create less opportunities for abortion, and therefore, probably results in less abortions, not more. This is not about preventing abortion (if it was, folks such as those who oppose the birth control pill would be in favor of contraceptives and comprehensive sex education, not the abstinence-only travesty that they tend to push). Hell, I'm not even convinced that it's about "controlling women" - the accusation usually levelled at them. It seems much more likely that it is about a knee-jerk fear of sex coupled with scientific illiteracy which is fed by a denial of reality and a fear that maybe they don't know what the "way, truth, and light" is after all.

In other words, these folks are afraid of the world as it is, and so they're trying to force their beliefs down the throats of everyone else.

Oh, and also from Skepchick - how about a teacher who was fired for wizardry:

I can't make things like this up...

Sunday, May 4, 2008

NASA Woes and How to Fix Them

Man, NASA must be having a hard time lately. First, Battlestar Gallactica announces its final season. Second, they have some presidential-appointed staffer lying in official reports to back the party line. Next, WOTC produces a fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons shortly after producing a third, forcing money out of the pockets of NASA's engineers (no doubt forcing many of them to take out second mortgages in order to be able to afford the fully re-vamped Dragonlance Cycle). Then they face the problem of having to recruit folks without any promise of being able to send them into space.

But, things seem to be turning around. I found the attached email during an all-night hacking session. Man, it's amazing the code you can crack when you're hopped up on Mountain Dew and Pixie Sticks.

Anyway, it looks like NASA has some new leadership, at least in their Human Resources department. Perhaps things are looking up.

18:30 - Pacific

From: Herbert Grunion Melville III <>
To: NASA Human Resources - listserv
Re: New Recruits

Y'all be tellin' da' new recruits dat dey have a chance at going up in da' shuttle n'shit. Fools! I oughta' Charles Bronson upside all y'all bitch heads, muthafuckas!

Da' shuttle is gonna' be all put up n'moffballs n'shit come 2010, an' dis new bunch o'astro-NOT's ain't gon' be ready ta' fly till 2011! An' you bitches be all tellin' recruits dat' dey' gon' be flying in da' shuttle what ain't gon' be flyin' when da' training be finished? Workin' wit' yo' fools be HELL! I don' be wearin' glasses cause' I'm near-sighted, I be wearin' dem cause I be near-blinded-wit'-rage-sighted!

Yo' bes' know who ya' be fuckin' wit! I's not from some quiet neighborhood in some sweet little part o' New York, o' Los Angeles, o' Oakland o' some otha' nice place like dat'! I be from the mean streets o' Bedford, Massachewsits! Where I come from, life be cheap, an' da' croquet mallet dispense justice on yo' muthafuckin' head! Bes' yo' keep dat in mind nex' time y'all be tellin' lies to da recruits, n'case I hav' to bust a cap in you foo' ass!

Cause when da' recruits fin' out dey' not gon' be flying on no funky-fly supa'man space shuttle, who dey come whinin' to? H.G. "Mad-Dog" Melville da muthafuckin' third, that who!
If'n yo' gon' be a recruita' for da' GODAMN NASA, yo' bes' check yo'self fo' yo' wreck yo'self! It ain' 'bout da' free flights an' da' chicks all wantin' ta' freak yo' jock when dey hear you work for NASA, an' it ain't 'bout da' fly eats 'dat da' commisary all be cookin' up. Bein' a NASA recruiter be 'bout honor! If'n you can't 'member that, yo' might find yo'self suffocatin' under ma' pocket protecta' o' justice.

Word is life.

Peace out.


Saturday, May 3, 2008

Built on an Indian Burial Ground

This entry is poorly constructed and probably barely legible to anyone other than myself. I'm not proud of those facts, I'm just lazy. You have been warned.

So, I was listening to the pilot episode of a new radio show called Curiosity Aroused, which was a pretty cool show (you can hear it here: In one segment, the host (Rebbecca Watson of discusses media coverage of an alleged ghost sighting at a gas station (what a lousy place to spend eternity). As usual, one of the various folks interviewed by the news crew comments that "this place used to be an Indian burial ground."

Yep. An Indian burial ground. How many times have you heard this one? It's as if the entire continent has seen Poltergeist one too many times. Feel uneasy at your house? Must be built on an Indian burial ground. See something weird at your office? Must be built on an Indian burial ground.

I wonder what kind of burial grounds the British blame their misfortune on.

Incidentally, I once worked in an office building that actually WAS built on an Indian burial ground. What's more, we frequently had human bones in the office. Want to know what happened there? Absolutely nothing - unless you count the soul-crushing boredom of Monday morning staff meetings.

Wait a minute...maybe the human remains in the office from our excavations put a curse on the building, and the burial ground put another curse on the building, and the two curses ate each other! Hmmm...I may yet make a name for myself in parapsychology!

I also once spent a week carting human remains (mostly bone, but also some preserved soft tissue) around in the trunk of my car - at the insistence of the Sheriff Coroner's office I might add - and other than some trouble with my starter and alternator, my car shows no signs of being haunted or cursed (and I'm inclined to chalk the electrical troubles up to the fact that my car is 13 years old and has never had any part of the electrical system replaced - though it is fun to yell obscenities at the spirits when my car won't start on a cold morning). Still, those were remains of white people, and therefore most of my fellow honkies will likely superstitiously not believe that they have the power of 'dem Indian bones.

But I digress. Back to the main point...

...anytime I talk to someone who feels uneasy in their home or thinks that they or someone they know has a haunted house, inevitably the old "built on an Indian Burial Ground" trope gets brought out. If all of the places that were allegedly built on burial grounds were, in fact, built on burial grounds, then I can say with confidence that there are more dead people in North America than there were ever alive people on the continent. For those who doubt the truth of that statement, I'll have you know that I arrived at that conclusion by using my archaeological training to compile and analyze data before pulling a conclusion completely out of my ass.

So there.

I used to work in the Central Coast Archaeological Information Center at UC Santa Barbara*. This facility houses all of the records for all recorded archaeological sites within Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. In other words, this was the perfect place to examine the claim that any of the alleged haunted places in the county were built on Indian burial grounds.

So, I looked at the locations of several places that I had heard were haunted due to being built on burial grounds. One was built on a location that used to hold a flake scatter (where a couple of Chumash fellows had been manufacturing or modifying stone tools - but where there would have been no burials), all others were built on "archaeologically sterile" ground - no sites of any kind, including burials.

I did find a few buildings that were actually built on burial grounds. One was a building where I would eventually work, as described above (and where, when questioned, nobody who worked there had ever experienced anything odd at all). One was a museum that one would think was ripe for ghost stories for a number of reasons, and, yet, it had none at all. And one was a physics/engineering laboratory where several friends worked, and none of them had ever experienced anything that they would consider strange.

Oh, and one was a sewage treatment plant - unpleasant, but decidedly not haunted by anyone's estimation.

So, the places that really did hold burial grounds were all not haunted. The places that were supposedly haunted but definitely did not have burial grounds all had the rumor of a burial ground attached to them. That should tell you something.

And yet, stories of hauntings due to burial grounds continue to proliferate. When the folks behind the Amityville hoax decided to pull their prank, they even concocted an Indian burial ground/insane asylum story as part of the hoax.

My personal favorite rant about the horrors of Indian Burial grounds comes from this lunatic:**, who draws some rather odd conclusions about how people behave around these sites. For example, if people avoid burial grounds, how do we account for the vandalism often seen at these sites? Also, I got a good laugh from the claim that construction workers stop work at burial sites out of fear of the supernatural. If there's not an archaeologist like myself or a Native American monitor present to stop them, construction crews will blow right through burial sites without a second thought.

Don't believe me? Go to Google and type in "Playa Vista Gabrielino Burials". When the construction company has the legal right to plow through, or else the management thinks that they won't be caught, they do just that. The fear of the supernatural does nothing to stop them.

What's curious is that so many of these stories allege specifically Indian burial grounds. While you will occasionally here about a more run-of the mill white-bread cracker cemetery being the source of a haunting, it is usually the Native Americans who get the blame. Why is this?

Well, I don't know for certain, but I suspect that it has to do with three things: 1. Unlike most historic cemeteries, prehistoric Native American cemeteries don't have clear surviving grave markers that are obvious to the layman, and therefore it becomes an untestable hypothesis to most folks (it's essentially a "god of the gaps" argument - in the face of ignorance a questionable conclusion is drawn, and since you can't disprove it, it must be true! The illogic of the position should be pretty obvious). 2. Even prior to the current re-evaluation of North American colonialism, most folks at least agreed that the native peoples of the continent weren't happy with the European who were the ancestors of many of us, and therefore would have a motive for wanting to do all manor of horrible things to them - apparently including annoying them by moving their descendants car keys and knocking picture frames off of walls - hardly a fitting retort to genocidal policies, really. 3. There is a, frankly, racist notion that non-white people are somehow mystically powerful and therefore terrifying and not to be trusted (which has been a recurring theme throughout much of western colonial history - incidentally, the current obsession of young white people with India is typically little more than a current manifestation of this long-running racist belief) and this notion that even the dead non-white people are mystically powerful seems to be little other than a continuation of this tendency.

So, next time someone tells you that a place is haunted due to being built on an Indian burial ground, point at the person and laugh. You'll be glad you did.

* For some reason, the people of Santa Barbara consider themselves the "Central Coast" despite the fact that they are clearly in Southern California - but it gets even goofier when you consider that the Information Center in Fullerton is called the South Central Coast Information Center - there is nothing central about Fullerton! It's in fucking Orange County! San Luis Obispo County could arguably be described as the South Central Coast - but not Orange County.

** This guys has other entries with titles such as, and no I am not making this up, "Gall Bladder Disease and Demons", "Car shopping and Deliverance", "Dolls, toys, and stuffed animals - better burn them too", "Candles - Don't Burn Them; Get Them Out Of Your Home!", "Diabetes - Squid like demons attack ten parts of your body", and oh so many more.

Oh, and my favorite sentence on the site, from the page on doctors, is this "The dental symbol is a triangle in a circle. This same symbol is the highest satanic symbol." Yep. Your dentist is a Satan worshiper.

You can go to yourself to see the true insanity of it all.