When, I wonder, will archaeologists take to heart the old dictum that absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence, and learn the lessons that their own profession has repeatedly taught—namely that the next turn of the excavator’s spade can change everything? So little of the surface area of our planet has been subjected to any kind of archaeological investigation at all that it would be more logical to regard every major conclusion reached by this discipline as provisional—particularly when we are dealing with a period as remote, as tumultuous, and as little understood as the Ice Age. (p. 153, boldface in original)
In another place, Hancock offers praise for genetics by denigrating archaeology: “In other words, genetics, unlike archaeology, is a hard science where the pronouncements of experts are based on facts, measurements, and replicable experimentation rather than inferences or preconceived opinions,” he writes (p. 113). Later, he complains that standard archaeological methods of analysis, including seriation and the use of stylistic differences to identify cultural changes are invalid since we moderns use so many different styles, so why should we not expect ancient people to have made objects according to their fancy?
With characteristic spleen, Hancock has made a foundational error between the methodology of archaeology, where indeed conclusions are provisional, and the kinds of declarative stories that appear in introductory textbooks, before students have learned about the sources and methods used to create narratives. Throughout the book, Hancock devotes an unwieldy amount of space to complaining about what he sees as dogma and a hidebound resistance to change in archaeology. Since he is continuing to argue for claims he made nearly 25 years ago in Fingerprints of the Gods, there are layers of irony here.
The main subject of his outrage is the Clovis-First hypothesis, proposed in the middle twentieth century, when Hancock was young. The hypothesis dominated only for about 35 years, until 1997, when Monte Verde became the first site in the Western hemisphere widely accepted as predating Clovis. (There are still some Clovis-First believers, though the consensus has moved on.) But because those 35 years were the heart of Hancock’s adolescence and adulthood, they cast the shadow of eternity over his view of science and seem to him an unchanging, unshakeable dogma. For me, growing up many decades later, it was something that people used to believe but which has never been a dominant force in my intellectual life, like Freudian psychology, Man the Hunter, and the other furniture of midcentury minds.
I haven’t conducted a quantitative analysis, but it seems to me that Hancock’s passages expressing outrage at archaeologists and the profession of archaeology have grown longer with each passing book. In this volume, it really becomes quite overwhelming at points, easily outpacing discussion of the supposed lost civilization, at least in the two-thirds of the book I’ve read so far.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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