The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, October 29, 2012

What's in a Name? Or, Why You Should be Cautious in Comparing Languages...

While driving out the the field the other day, one of the archaeologists with whom I am working asked what the linguistic connection was between Cachuma - a place name from Santa Barbara County - and Kuuchamaa - a similar-sounding place name from San Diego County.

I didn't know the origin of Kuuchamaa, but it is the native name for Tecate Peak, an important sacred mountain that is the spiritual center for the Kumeyaay peoples of southern California and northern Mexico.  Having read up on it, I still haven't a clue as to what the word means, but it is the name of both the place, and of a culture hero - a wise and powerful shaman - said to have once lived in that place*.  The translation of the word appears to be hard to come by, so I am at a bit of a loss.

Cachuma, however, is a bit easier.  Cachuma is the English bastardization of the Spanish bastardization of the Inezeno Chumash word Aqitsumu, meaning "constant signal", which was the name of a village located in the Santa Ynez Valley, near the current location of Lake Cachuma.

So, while Cachuma and Kuuchamaa seem similar at first glance, one appears to be the actual Kumeyaay word, while the other is a rather tortured telephone game version of an Inezeno word.  Now, there could still be some linguistic connection between them, but that seems somewhat unlikely, as Aqitsumu fits in perfectly well with the Chumash language family**, and Kuuchamaa, as far as I have been able to tell (though I am a bit shaky on this) seems to fit in well with the Kumeyaay language, a dialect of Diegeno, part of the Yuman language family.  So, there is no reason to assume a connection, despite superficial similarities.

The words, though similar, refer to different types of things (a sacred mountain/person's name and a village), and there is no reason to assume that they would have similar meanings.  What's more, the version of Aqitsumu that bears the most resemblance to the Kumeyaay word, Cachuma, is also the version that is most divorced from native pronunciation.  Further, the names come from two unconnected languages.

There is, in short, no reason to think that these words are in any way connected, and some reason to think that they are not.

What is interesting about this is that there is no reason to assume a linguistic connection between two groups of people who were separated by only a few hundred miles of space for centuries.   Pseudoscientific language comparisons are often employed by people who wish to show a connection between two completely unrelated groups of people.  It is a favorite approach of those who see the ancient Isrealites landing int he Americas, the Celts taking over parts of the midwest, Medieval Japanese explorers settling Mexico, or Egyptians colonizing South America (yes, there are people who believe every one of these things).

The method is as follows:

Step 1: Find a few words (or sometimes even one) from two languages that have even a superficial similarity

Step 2: Claim that the link between these two populations is proven

Step 3: Ignore everyone who actually knows what they are talking about when they point out that you are a fool.

But, as illustrated, even in a case where two words are both used as placenames, sound extremely similar, and are from groups separated by only a few hundred miles, there is still reason to doubt a connection.  Keep this in mind whenever your wacky neighbor claims that some vague language similarities prove that the native people of New Jersey were actually descended from a clan of Bavarian sausage-makers.

*Kuuchamaa appears to be a manifestation of a messianic religious concept that appeared throughout southern California either shortly before or around the time that the Spanish arrived.  Whether the Kuuchamaa version of the story is the origin for the others, represents a merger of the messianic story with another older religious tradition, or else a spontaneous manifestation of a similar story, I do not know...nor does anyone else as far as I have been able to tell.  It's neat that even after well over a century of research, we still have some mysteries like this to explore in California.

**Chumashan languages were, until recently, thought to be part of the Hokan language family, but that view has now been largely discredited.  As a result, Chumash is an oddity in that it has no known related languages (similar in this respect to the Basque language of Spain) and exists as a linguistic island alone on the California coast.  While this is speculative, some researchers have posited that Chumash may be the last version of the original Native Californian language family, as the other languages in California appear to have come in from elsewhere.  While intriguing, this idea remains speculation until such time as physical or paleolinguistic evidence can be found to back it up.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Ghost Town of Calico

Just east of Barstow, in the Calico Hills, is a rebuilt old mining town, named Calico.  It is currently operated as a regional park by the County of San Bernardino, but was once a busy silver mining town.

Welcome...TO HISTORY!
The Silver Rush of the late 19th century is less well-known than the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century.  However, the Silver Rush was important in the histories of both Nevada and California (especially southern California).  The town of Calico was founded in 1881 by a group of miners who headed into the local mountains looking for silver.  Within two years, the town had grown to house around 1,200 residents, had 500 mines, and the usual accompaniments of a successful old west town (justice of the peace, post office, hotels, restaurants, numerous brothels, etc.).

Calico...never will you see a more wretched hive of scum and villainy
Before long, Colemanite borate (an ore of Boron that can be purified, and can itself be used for the manufacture of glasses, medicines, cosmetics, as well as for numerous industrial processes).  The town swelled to 3,500 people, with settlers from both Europe and Asia joining the American settlers.

The structures constructed during this time ranged from standard wooden construction, typical of 19th century houses and businesses, to stone structures that integrated the slopes and cliffs into their structure.

And, of course, there was no shortage of mining structures and equipment, including machinery such as a stamp mill.

Remember - it's not an exploitative Hell hole that OSHA would shut down anymore, it's historic!
However, as is so often the story with mining towns, the fall came almost as quickly as the rise.  The Silver Purchase Act of 1890 had the effect of reducing the price of silver.  As the decade wore on, Calico's silver mines became less economically viable, and the town began to depopulate.  By 1898, the post office shut down, followed by the school, and the town was pretty much abandoned by 1900.

In 1915, an attempt was made to recover unclaimed silver from the old mines, using cyanidation (a metallurgical process for the extraction ore using the chemical properties for cyanide).  While this did result in the brief resurgence of silver mining, it did not cause Calico to boom again.

In 1951, Walter Knott, of Knott's Berry Farm, bought Calico and began restoring many of the buildings.  While the purchase of historic buildings by the wealthy is hardly unusual, this was a unique turn in two ways: 1) Walter Knott had, as a young man, been a local homesteader and helped to build the cyanidation facilities, and 2) he turned it into a historic park with restored buildings, repaired or re-built based on old plans and photographs, and donated it to the County of San Bernardino in 1966.  

See, tacky Halloween decorations

While the buildings may have been restored to a close resemblance of their historic grandeur, the town is more tourist attraction than ghost town.  While it does serve to teach a visitor a bit about local history, it also has numerous souvenir shops and chachki stands that don't exactly stand up to historical scrutiny.  Oh, and if you happen to visit in October, as I did, you will witness numerous tacky "spooky" plastic skeletons and ghosts arranged about the place, further removing the historicity of the place.

Nonetheless, if you poke around outside of the central town portion and walk on some of the other paths, you will find the remains of buildings that have not been rebuilt, as well as some that have been rebuilt faithfully in ways that don't romanticize the old west.

The solution to California's high housing costs!

Oh, and if you visit, be sure to check out the cemetery.  It is fascinating both in terms of the tombstones, and of the construction of the graves themselves.  Observe:

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Calico Hills, California

So, the new father routine has been keeping me busy and occupying much of the time that I used to use to keep this blog.  However, for now I am away from home and working on projects in the Mojave Desert, based out of Barstow rather than Lancaster, this time.

Contrary to popular opinion, Barstow isn't too bad a place - it's not high on my list of vacation spots, but it is a decent enough place out of which to be based.  It beats the hell out of Taft, at any rate.

We finish our work day a few hours before dark, and so I have been using my late afternoons/early evenings out exploring the area.  Yesterday, I headed out to the Calico Hills, an area of interest to me for a few reasons.

There are claims that the Calico Hills was host to a Ghost Dance movement.  The Ghost Dances were religious movements that had begun amongst the Paiute in Nevada and moved out among Native American groups during the 19th century (the best known being the one that sparked the massacre at Wounded Knee).  They varied considerably from place to place, and were often known by names other than Ghost Dance.  The ritual consisted of an extensive dance, coupled with lifestyle changes towards clean living, which would summon the ancestors (or, in some versions, the spirits worshiped by the ancestors) who would wipe the Europeans and their descendants from the Americas.

Needless to say, as often happens with apocalyptic religious  movements, the members of the Ghost Dance cults were tragically wrong.

I have been unable to confirm whether or not there was a Ghost Dance cult involved in the Calico Hills.  It may very well have, there were groups in the general vicinity who had been influenced by the Ghost Dance, but much of what is readily available about the Calico Hills cult comes from half-wit new age "spiritual investigators" and therefore isn't worth the air that the Wi-Fi on which I read about it penetrates.

The area was heavily mined for silver during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The town (now ghost town and tourist attraction) of Calico Hills - about which more will be written in a following post - is partially in ruins and has been partially rebuilt.  However, the tunnels for the silver mines are still present, if falling apart, and make for some interesting viewing.

Another interesting aspect of the Calico Hills is the alleged "early man site" - a site that allegedly has artifacts that date to up to 200,000 years old depending on what dates you accept.  Now, I have not handled these alleged artifacts directly, but having seen photos, I am unconvinced.  They do look like they might be artifacts...or they might be geofacts (naturally occurring rocks broken in ways that make them look like artifacts).Given the dearth of any other evidence of humans or pre-human hominids in the Americas prior to 20,000 years ago (the most reliably dated old deposits date to around 12,000 years ago, though that may be beginning to change), and the ambiguous nature of the Calico Hills items, it seems safe to say that they are likely just geofacts.

Many of the supporters of the early man hypothesis like to point out that the legendary Louis Leakey believed these to be genuine artifacts and not geofacts.  However, becoming familiar with the actual work of Louis Leakey (as distinct from the work of his wife Mary or his son, Richard, both of whom have well-earned good reputations among archaeologists and paleoanthropologists) tends to lead one with becoming impressed with his business/fund-raising acumen, and somewhat less impressed with his skills in archaeology.  In fact, Mary Leakey cited his involvement with Calico Hills as being one of the primary causes of her losing respect for him as a researcher, and a contributing factor to the couple separating.

Regardless, the Calico hills have a weird, almost alien, beauty.  And they made for an excellent place to relax and watch the sunset over the playa below and behind the mountains across the valley.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Why I Hate Election Years

Okay, I know, I haven't been writing much lately, and much of my writing hasn't been about archaeology...and this post will continue that.

It's getting nearer the election, and I am sicker and sicker not of the campaigns, but of my fellow voters.  It is a rare person that I see who is not either buying into the notion that their side (be it Republican or Democrat) has presented a messianic figure who wills ave us all...or, alternatively, that the "other side's" candidate is so reprehensibly evil that it will destroy the nation if they win the election.

If you believe either of these, then you have bought into delusion.  The truly insidious problems in our government at the moment - financial corruption, lack of transparency, a willingness to pander for votes with nonsensical policy - are not only endemic to both major political parties, but are well on display in the campaigns and records of both candidates.  That most people think that it is only the "other side" that is really, truly, unforgivably guilty is an indication of the fact that most people have insulated themselves from harsh reality - if you get much of your news from the Huffington Post, the Tea Party News, Mother Jones, Fox News, or any other such ideologically/partisan-driven outlet, then you no doubt consider yourself well-informed, but you are actually woefully and poisonously misinformed.

Both candidates are fairly standard politicians.  Romney shows signs of being a better manager (he has demonstrated extensive administrative skills), Obama of being a better leader (he is capable of inspiring and getting people to join a cause) - both are skills that a president needs in equal measure (indeed, in many governments they are split between two separate offices), and the fact that each seems to hold more of one than the other only commends that person in the eyes of those who value one more, and that is an arbitrary judgement given the degree to which both shows skills and shortcomings.  Each candidate has their deficits - Obama is willing to compromise on things where he should stand and fight, and stands and fights on things where he should compromise.  Romney's own record contrasted with his current rhetoric indicates a candidate willing to say or do whatever is needed to win the election, leaving it difficult to know what he would do in office.  Both are perfectly willing to exaggerate, lie, and obfuscate...but this is standard in current politics and shouldn't surprise us*, though it should disgust us.

There are real differences between the candidates, to be certain.  For example: Obama is more likely to support civil rights legislation to help gay people, Romney is more likely to support the privatization of many government functions.  Whether you consider these good or bad, they do show actual differences, but the differences are not as stark as most people want to think that they are.

But for most of us, in our day-to-day lives, which one is in office is unlikely to be the huge difference that we think.  Contrary to what his supporters seem to think. Romney is unlikely to actually try to repeal the recent health care law (indeed, once he seized the nomination, he began back-pedaling on many of his previous statements).  Obama is not going to take measures to shoot tax rates through the roof (indeed, even if he wanted to - and he doesn't - he'd have to get through congress).  In fact, for most of us, our lives changed little when Obama took over from Bush, and that was a much larger change in personalities and records than Obama-to-Romney would be.

And yet, most people are convinced that the election (or re-election) of one or the other of these two men would be apocalyptic.

It won't be.  The issues of corruption and government secrecy would continue no matter which of them is in office (they are both parts of parties that support the status quo, contrary to their rhetoric, and even the president would, again, have to go through congress to make any real changes...and I don't see that happening regardless of who wins).

One of the more irritating aspects to this, however, is that everyone that I know who demonizes the other side or glorifies their own also tends to talk about how sick they are of the "polarization of politics" and how "the extremists seem to have the power!"

The problem is that, to the degree that there is truth to this, it's in large part due to the fact that so many people are willing to delude themselves into seeing these huge, world-shaking differences that aren't really there...and then pass those claims on to others.  Part of this comes from media fragmentation - yeah, if you are using the sites/channels/publications listed above as significant news sources, you are not only deluding yourself, you are also feeding the monster of partisanship and polarization - and part of it comes from the fact that we have been treating our politics like sports for some time - consider that you are angry with a referee when he makes a fair call against your team and think him wise when he makes a bad call in favor of your team...we do the same thing with politics, ignoring the fair criticisms of our favored candidates, and accepting as true even the most deranged criticism of "the other guy."

Every day, on Facebook, in conversations, in the comments on news stories, and so on, I see people uncritically accepting bizarre claims about one of these two, sometimes based on mis-quotes/selective quotes from speeches, and other time just plain made-up shit: No, Obama is not trying to prevent overseas soldiers from voting; no, Romney does not think that corporations should have all of the rights of an individual; no, Obama does not think that business owners are lazy people who didn't achieve anything; no, Romney is not going to seek criminalization of homosexuality; no, Obama didn't apologize to terrorists; no Romney is not seeking to destroy the Middle class; and so on and so forth.

When you accept these claims and forward them on, you are feeding the polarization.  It's like an arsonist bitching about all of the fires in his neighborhood.  If you do this, I don't want to hear you complain about it.

You know what would help?  How about accepting that both candidates are human - both have their flaws, both have their strengths, neither is evil incarnate, neither is out to destroy the nation or world.  If you still choose to support or oppose one or the other, that's fine, but do so for reasons based in reality, not rhetoric.  If you find that both of them turn you off, vote for a third party - I know, I know, "it's a wasted vote" but it really isn't - when third party candidates get a significant number of votes - even if they don't win the office - it causes the major parties to pay attention and see what they might want to change in reaction.  Moreover, the reason that third=party candidates don't win is, quite simply, because so many people are convinced that they "have to" vote for one of the two major parties - but you don't have to.  If you vote for a third party and convince other people to follow suit, you can help to make some changes.

Regardless, at the very least, accept that the candidates are neither evil nor angelic, and stop with the bullshit.

*One of the more irritating things I keep seeing - people from each side sharing claims about the "lies of the other side", all the while ignoring that their side can be fairly accused of exactly the same sort of thing, and many of the things cited as lies in these claims are debatable.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Loose Theory

Archaeologists are notorius for, to paraphrase a T-shirt, stalking other disciplines down dark alleys, whacking them across the head, and then rifling through their pockets for loose theory. 

There is, it should be said, some benefit to archaeology from this behavior.  There are ideas from fields as diverse as physics and literary criticism that have found good employment in the field of archaeology. 

However, there are also many times when this results in bizarre concoctions of intellectual puree that make little sense, but are championed by certain practitioners as if they were the height of human intellectual achievement. 

Back in 1971, the archaeologists Kent Flannery wrote a perceptive and hilarious article titles Archaeology With a Capital "S"  in which he was extremely critical of the tendency of many of the archaeological theorists active at that time to uncritically adopt concepts from physics, mathematics, and biology without thoroughly considering the applicability of these concepts to the archaeological record.  Unfortunately, I can not find an on-line copy to which I could direct you - it is really worth a read.

Flannery's complaint was that the archaeology of the 60s and 70s was filled with sciencey-sounding buzzwords and claims, though he was writing 10 years too early to see how many of the post-modern views of humanity would filter into archaeology and displace many of the sciencey-sounding buzzwords with philosophy-sounding buzzwords.  In both cases, there was good that came from it - the theoretical changes of the 50s through the 70s provided us with a fairly robust model for developing and testing hypotheses, as well as for checking our ideas against the real world, while the post-modern ideas that began filtering in during the 70s and really came to the fore in the 80s provided ways of looking into behavior that wasn't easily quantifiable, as well as providing reminders of our own biases and the subjective nature of our conclusions when dealing with something as convoluted and open to interpretation as human behavior.  There was also a whole lot of pseudo-intellectual posturing that came from it, and more than a few examples of archaeologists mis-applying concepts because they simply did not comprehend them.

For example: one approach to studying changes in material culture is to attempt to find similarities between the way that artifacts types change over time and the ways in which biological entities change over time.  While there are some definite issues to be dealt with (people design tools and can do so relatively quickly, while evolution works through a process of random mutation and decidedly non-random selection over many generations), there is some benefit to employing the concept to try to understand how the physical or social environment might result in the selection of certain tool forms over others by the tool's makers and users.

However, this can become problematic when the archaeologist doesn't understand either evolution, or the difference between biological evolution and choices on the part of toolmakers.  This was thrown into stark relief for me one day, when I was in a theory seminar, and we were discussing this approach.  I commented that one way that the concepts of biological evolution could be applied would be to see which changes survived and became more common amongst tool types, and which only appear on a single or small number of known specimens.  The common tools would indicate either a tool well adapted to a variety of uses or tools adapted to a narrow range of common uses (such as an arrowhead - it only serves one purpose, but that purpose is quite common in the life of a hunter/gatherer, so there's a butt-load of the things lying around archaeological sites); the less common tools would either indicate tools that ultimately didn't work or didn't work as well as others, or else were specialized tools for particular niche tasks that were relatively uncommon.

As soon as I said this, one of the other students stated "well, you're forgetting what any biologist could tell you.  Evolution happens at the level of the individual!"

No.  Any biologist could tell you (and many have told me) that mutation occurs at the level of the individual.  Mutations only feed evolution if they spread throughout the population, meaning that evolution is a generational/population-level phenomenon.  This is relevant to the application of the idea to archaeology in that it provides a loose framework for trying to make sense of the relative frequencies of both different types of tools and different traits of similar tools.  When you assume that evolution=individual change, then you get it backwards and can easily doom yourself into attributing more importance to each individual variation than is warranted.

You see this sort of thing occur with all manner of ideas taken from other fields, however: resistance (from literature and history), identity theory (from history and sociology), carrying capacity models (from biology), etc.  Each of these ideas is useful, to an extent, but tends to be at least somewhat misunderstood by many of its adherents in archaeology, and as a result, tends to get somewhat abused and misused.

This is, it should be said, a bit of a shame, as all of these ideas are good ideas, and can be applied to archaeology, but the mis-use by many of the more fervent supporters results in these concepts being misunderstood by other archaeologists, and therefore good ideas get scoffed at due the the enthusiasm of some of the more enthusiastic and misguided.