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Friday, October 28, 2005


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Did you read the Harper's magazine article on pre-Clovis scholars a while back? It pretty must slammed the pre-Clovis arguments as shoddy and unconvincing, not to mention fodder for white dudes who want to tell Native Americans, "No, WE were here first."

Don't know if the article was fair or not, but it was interesting.


I have not read that article ($$ online), but i read several critiques of it over the past couple of days and spoke with a few people from the conference who had read it.

Rather than respond to an article i haven't read, let me talk about Jack Hitt, who has one of the world's great names. Jack is the son of former Charleston P&C editor Red Hitt, and I made his acquaintance when Dawn Langley Simmons died. Simmons was the English novelist who arrived in Charleston as a young man, worked his way into Charleston society and became part of the gay scene in what was then the Ansonborough slum (grand old homes from the pre-1840s gone to seed, home to working-class blacks, a few dowagers, numerous white gay men and some hard cases, including the Hitt family). A few years later he returned from a trip to Baltimore dress as a woman, and told everybody he had undergone a special surgery. Simmons was written up in national magazines as the first sex-change operation. Simmons was finally tossed from Charleston society for marrying a black man, which was covered by the national mags and ignored by the local papers, which published their short "marriage announcement" on the obit page.

anyway, it was such a great story that i wanted to get it on 1A, but there was a great deal of in-house resistance to that, so i took it on myself and pushed. it never would have made the front page if i hadn't reached Hitt by phone, and he was a real gentleman, gave me lots of details from his childhood. Plus he is just... a fun conversationalist.

Jack is a political liberal, and he approached the pre-Clovis topic via the Kennewick Man controversy. For liberals, Kennewick tends to be an open-and-shut case of cultural abuse, which can be linked to a long history of cultural abuse of native peoples by white, Euro-centric anthropologists. All of which happened.

I don't like to talk about Kennewick because ... well, Kennewick is a proxy issue for all that. You can't talk about the primary issue (here's this complete skeleton that is one of the oldest we've ever found in North America -- should we study it?) without having to account for all these valid, old complaints.

the thrust of "the pre-Clovis is racist" thing seems to be that white archaeologists want to say their European ancestors got here first and had all the best toys. and maybe there's some of that out there among the lay people, the arrowhead hunters.

But having talked to some of the top pre-Clovis people over the past year, I just don't see it in their work, in the interviews, in the theories. For example, Dennis Stanford has said to me that if Al Goodyear's 2004 dates for the deep layer at Topper are correct, then one of the options that has to be considered is Africa. Pre-Clovis theories include an Austrailian crossing to Terra del Fuego... AND, absolutely none of the theories actually says that people didn't come to the Americas from Asia.

To me, the essence of pre-Clovis thinking is that our ancestors were far more capable and adaptable than we gave them credit for being in the 20th century. On Thursday morning, Michael Collins described that "our ancestors were dumb-brutes" attitude as "primal racism," (or, perhaps, "chrono-racism" ... I can't tell from the tape, but either would be correct).

The problem with pre-Clovis is that there's just so little material to look at, and what we've got doesn't look like what we're used to seeing. The Clovis layer produces really obvious stuff, but the pre-Clovis stuff is ambiguous. As Stuart Fiedel says, we can pull up 2 million year old stuff from africa and everyone will agree that it's a tool. Why is it that stuff from 16,000 years ago doesn't leave a more obvious human signature?

And the answer, according to Al Goodyear, is that it's a different culture -- a maritime adapted culture that used organic tools. For such a culture, the stone tools would be small things hafted to wood or bone and used to make larger tools.

The problem is, if such a culture lived on the ice and the coast, all its stuff is on the ocean bottom. South Carolina's ice-age coast is 50 miles offshore from Charleston. So you can't find that stuff... if it even exists.

Pre-Clovis is a mental attempt to explain anomalies that simply don't go away. As much as I admired Fiedel, it makes sense to me that we should be entertaining and investigating pre-Clovis claims. There is enough anomalous, early stuff in the Americas that it's worth looking for more data, spending more time trying to validate/invalidate the existing sites and imagining possible answers.

Where we are right now is the position of a future archaeologist who finds a hood ornament from a Mercedes-Benz and has to imagine not only the car, but the civilization that built it. It's an impossible task, but the alternative is just not an option.

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