Friday, 22 October 2010

Uncharted Territory: where do we learn these things?

How does one become an academic?  How does one learn how to become one?

I don't imagine I am that alone, but I feel a bit like I'm bumbling along blindly in incipient academia- trying to write, network, and research my way into my choice career (albeit with a break to make money along the way).  I work in higher education, read the Times Higher religiously, and have a good grip on how universities function in some respects, so I feel like I should know more about the steps I need to take to succeed in one myself as a researcher and lecturer.  But I have no idea even how to apply for PhD funding, where to look, when or how to fill out university applications, and what order to do it all in.  And all as an overseas student, which throws the problems of Visas and funding eligibility into the mix.  Then there is the great beyond- do I apply for postdoctorates after I finish my course?  How long should I expect before I can get a post lecturing at a university?  Am I likely to have lecturing opportunities while I do my PhD?

It all resembles the mysticism surrounding the process when I started my MSc- it seemed I didn't know what I was doing until I was doing it.  Somehow it all fell together- finding the right course, personal statements, Visas, letters of recommendation, renting a flat, navigating London, attending/auditing courses and tackling the reading, and figuring out what a dissertation actually was while writing it at the same time.  It was as daunting as it was rewarding, and I expected it to be like that, but all the while I remember wishing I knew more about the next step, so I could be more prepared and set my ambitions high, but realistic.

The questions I have are, for instance: what steps are involved in a paper being published?  I've read around on a few journal sites, but still feel confused.  How much original research is needed for it to be a useful contribution to the discipline?

Should I publish my thesis?  If so, what do I need to do to modify it so it is ready for publishing?  I have this answer partly answered, and was making the appropriate changes, but with a full time job I am finding it hard to make time...

What else is there that I can do to strengthen my academic CV at this stage of my (not yet born) career?

What is my affiliation now to my university?  I work there administratively but I don't research there.  If I submit a paper, do I say I am from UCL?

These are the questions I have that I want to ask- but there are so many more I would want to ask, if I knew more about what it is I want to know!  The biggest problem I see is that it is all just unknown, and therefore, I don't even know what it is I don't know.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Are we being a bit unfair to Neanderthals?

This is another post dedicated to my ongoing efforts to battle Neanderthal racism... I believe Neanderthal technology and its reputation for its uninovativeness is partially due to being compared to a benchmark of quite recent human cultural complexity.

At a recent conference, I was lucky to hear a talk from Wil Roebrooks (Professor of Archaeology, Leiden University).  The conference was on the evolution of language, and researchers with an in depth knowledge of the Palaeolithic did not number many in the crowd, so it was a bit lighter in content than his talk at the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain conference a week earlier (which I was also lucky to have seen!).

During this talk though, Roebrooks did something that has been done many times before: Neanderthal and ancient human culture were compared side by side, tallying up cultural achievements.

This talk made me think about how we as researchers can be quite unfair to Neanderthals, who died out in Europe around 30,000 years ago.  We have a common ancestor, and had a very similar contemporary cultural repertoire throughout most of that time.  The complex cultural achievements people often associate with modern humans have mostly happened since the Neanderthals have disappeared.

Pockets of innovation in Middle Stone Age Africa showed that some human cultures developed new innovative tool technologies well before the upper Palaeolithic; harpoons (such as those at Katanda), blades (such as those at Kapthurian formation 500,000 years ago), and decorative items like shell and ostrich beads (Qafzeh and Blombos Cave) appear before modern humans entered Europe.   Things such as cave paintings, clear forms of social hierarchy, specialisation and wealth appeared much later.

We also see Neanderthals with their own shell ornaments, covered in red ochre at 50,000 years ago in Spain, evidence of exploiting marine resources, and the use of deep caves such as at Bruniquel (Hayden 2003).  These examples suggest a cognitive ability not unlike that of their closest living relatives of the time.  Though the Middle Stone Age of Africa no doubt shows humans at this time to have a higher number of sites that show pockets of innovation, these sites are not typical of humans cross culturally during the MSA.
It makes sense to compare Neanderthals and humans, how they were utilising and experiencing their environment, and exploring their differences and commonalities, being two similar species evolving on separate continents.  But I want to point out what I believe is a strong bias that makes the material cultural differences between the two seem much larger than might be the case, leading to the conclusion by many that they were much different as a species, cognitively and culturally.
Roebrooks’ talk looked at Neanderthal material culture, but when it came time to compare this with what humans achieve culturally, time fast forwarded to Gravettian Europe for modern human examples.  Was this a fair comparison?  If culture has sort of a feedback loop, if it first needs to build on itself in order to achieve a more complex stage, then what needs to happen for that complexity, other than a pressure for that complexity to come about, is the passage of time.

To compare Neanderthal complexity at 70,000 years ago with modern humans at 20,000 years ago, where Neanderthals' cultural development was cut off due to their extinction, is a bit unfair to what they could have develloped if given a few more millenia for cultural complexity to intensify.  After all, modern humans at 70,000 years ago really had not accumulated much of their extreme material culture differences that we see showing up later on.  Again, culturally, their material culture was very similar to their European cousins.

Right before Neanderthals disappeared, they developed a culture called the Chatelperronean.  There exists much debate about whether or not this culture is due to contact with humans (for, how could they develop cultural complexity on their own?)

Often humans are cited as the reason for Neanderthal extinction.  While not saying this is not the case, I do have a problem with this is explained as being because modern humans were somehow ‘doing a better job at soemthing’ than Neanderthals (making tools, hunting, speaking, thinking).  Even if modern humans showed up on the scene with higher cognitive capacities and a complex language that they lacked, what in this would force Neanderthals to die out?   If this were the case, surely there would be a massive Europe wide extinction as each species with lower cognitive capabilities to humans started to die out in response to a ‘smarter’ species on the scene?

My main point is that to compare what Neanderthals did on average throughout their 400,000 year stint in Europe, with modern human Gravettian culture at 20,000 years ago, which even in human terms is pretty impressive, is no less than an unfair comparison and puts Neanderthals in a very uninovative light.  It would hardly be fair to compare 21st century art, technology and cultural achievements of Japan, to say, the gravettian cultures of France at 20,000 years ago.

Perhaps if Neanderthals did not die out roughly 30,000 years ago, if left to their own devices they may have fallen into a cultural feedback loop of increasing complexity that could rival that of our own ever increasing speed of invention.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

What was the first syntactic category?

I've been thinking lately about the origin of syntactic categories in language, and when things such as nouns and verbs could be said to exist.  In the literature, I've seen it implied more than a few times that nouns are the most fundamental syntactic category and likely arose first (see Luuk 2009 for a recent example).

Upon pondering what exactly a 'syntactic category' means, and what makes a noun a noun and a verb a verb etc, I came to the conclusion that it is only in relation to another word that you can say what syntactic category a word has.  We remember in school learning how a noun is a 'person, place or thing', while a verb is 'an action', but this is a simplification- relying on the semantics of a word is very unreliable in determining the category of a word in a sentence.

For example, the word 'hammer' is only a noun if it is used as a noun in a sentence: ex. "I have a hammer."  In isolation, it does not have a syntactic category- in English, it could quite possibly be a verb as well: ex. "Hammer the nail into the wall."  There are other languages, such as those in the Wakashan family, where most word roots can act as a noun, verb, or adjective in a sentence- fore example, 'wolf' can be a noun just as easily as a verb or ajective (I heard this discussed by Maggie Tallerman at the last Evolang conference in Utrecht, but I haven't seen it published).

My conclusion from this is that the first syntactic category must have arisen in contrast to another; and therefore, a minimum of two would have had to arise at the same time in order for there to have been any distinction between words and their roles in an utterance.

The only discussion of this idea I've seen occurs in Heine and Kuteva, A Genesis of Grammar (2007), where they cite Tallerman as well as Jim Hurford (as personal communication).

I've been trying to put my thoughts down about this into a coherent sort of paper, but it lies untouched in my folder not getting much attention.  I need a nudge!

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Neanderthal innovation or acculturation: did aliens build the pyramids?

I have a (bad?) habit of making flaky analogies, and they occasionally crop up in my writing as well- generally near the end, and they generally read like a poor attempt at introducing stylistic flair in order to bring an essay to conclusion and leave my reader stroking their chin!

One analogy I used that I'm particularly fond of compared speciation and rainbows.  In another, I compared attitudes towards the debate over the origin of late Neanderthal tool industries to19th century anthropologists' incredulity to New World earthworks and Central and South American pyramids- the Hopewell and Mississippian mounds, for example, were attributed by some anthropologists as having built by an advanced race that was destroyed by the Native American tribes.

This incredulity at the cognitive capacities of the indigenous population associated with the complex material culture is echoed in both instances.  Neanderthals are found essentially with a Chatelperronean backed blade in one hand, and a perforated wolf's tooth in another, and the suggestion immediately arises that Neanderthals attained these skills by acculturating themselves with modern humans, generally because Neanderthals are viewed as having inferior cognitive capabilities.  Why IS that (other than humans are egotistical beings!)? 

It's true this is a possibility, that Neanderthals gained Chatelperronean tool technology from contact with modern humans.  But there is also the possibility that Neanderthals simply developed these tools themselves.  After all, we see examples of Neanderthal symbolism before evidence of modern human arrival such as with the ochre covered shells in Spain 50,000 years ago, uses of black manganese, burial, deep cave use, and complex tools like throwing spears and hafted points, well before Neanderthal use of a 'typically Upper Palaeolithic' toolkit.

As a sister species that branched apart only 4-500,000 years ago, we can expect there to be some cognitive differences between modern humans and neanderthals, but I expect there were also large similarities.  Both species seemed to use technology to adapt to their environments to a large degree, and I do not believe things such as symbolic thought, language, and complex tool manufacture to be out of the realm of the Neanderthal mind.

To me, jumping to a conclusion that if Neanderthals did have complex tool sets resembling what was once thought unique to modern humans then it must have been a borrowed or copied technology, is reminiscent of 19th century anthropologists incredulity that indigenous populations built great momuments and fine architecture.
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