Monday, 28 March 2011

The Final Fall of the Pre-Clovis Barrier?

New 15,500 tools found in Texas
Back when I was an undegrad and I was learning about New World archaeology, I became fascinated with the topic of the peopleing of Americas.  I loved how it involved not only archaeological data, but linguistic and genetic as well.  SFU's own Knut Fladmark had popularised a theory which I found more plausible than the common idea of the first peoples entering North America through Beringia and down through an 'ice-free corridor' down near the British Columbia-Alberta border into the States, between the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets.  Fladmark proposed that first peoples could have came through a coastal migration along the coast, island hopping and living in refugia - areas not covered by mountains of ice, such as Haida Gwaii.

Haida Gwaii (previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) have a unique ecology because they have a few thousand years less time spent under the ice than the rest of Canada.  Apparently I've been there when I was very yound, to Sandspit, but I have no memory and would love to visit what I imagine to be Vancouver Island but a bit more rugged and desolate.

Perhaps I like the coastal migration theory a bit because as a west coast Canadian girl, it puts my homeland right in the way of the first migrations, but it also sounds more plausable for a number of other reasons.  One is that the ice free corridor might not have been open at the time - and if it was, the harsh environment between the glaciers would offer a puzzling mystery of why people ventured down between into a stormy place with no fish in the rivers and high mountains of ice on either side.  Where did they think they were heading?

Another reason I find the ice free corridor idea imnplausable is the archaeological and linguistic evidence do not support it.  The oldest accepted site (until now) in the New World has been Monte Verde, a 12,500 year old site at the bottom tip of South America - nothing near that old has been found on Beringia or Alaska.

An old undergraduate essay I wrote, back when I was even worse at academic essays, wrote about this coastal migration hypothesis and the evidence supporting it.  The linguistic evidence was one of the most interesting supporting factors.  The longer people have been in one place, the more languages and language isolates you usually find.  If one follows the ice-free corridor hypothesis, you would expect to find the most linguistic diversity in the central area of America, but you find it along the west coast of North America.

If a coastal people entered America with watercraft, it wouldn't be too suprising if their migration south was a bit quicker than overland - making the Monte Verde site less of a mystery.  But now, a 15,500 year old site, quite a bit older than even Monte Verde, has been found in Texas.  The reason this is so special, is that if people entered North America at this time, there was probably no open ice free corridor at the time.  There has been a well known resistance to sites with suggested dates that put them at a pre-Clovis date, such as Meadowcroft and Pedra Furada.  If this new site is accepted by the archaeological community though, perhaps the coastal migration hypothesis will be lent new support.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Dreams of Neanderthal Paintings at Chauvet

An article in the guardian ( discusses a new documentary on the Upper Palaeolithic paintings at Chauvet cave in France, called Cave of Forgotten Dreams and directed by Werner Herzog.

I looked forward to reading about this documentary, but my excitement was soon overshadowed by a glaring error by the reviewer, Peter Bradshaw.  To be fair, he is a film critic, not an archaeologist, but I'm suprised after having viewed the documentary he's still left fuzzy about who the artists of Chauvet's paintings were:

"...the extraordinary Chauvet cave in the south of France, named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, the explorer who in 1994 made a Tutankhamun-level discovery: hundreds of pictures of animals drawn with flair, sophistication and detail by Neanderthal man around 32,000 years ago."

I don't think I'm being a pedant by being offended by this error...!  At 32,000 years ago, in current understanding, Neanderthals were limited to the Iberian peninsula - and have never been associated with cave paintings of any kind.  Until recently, no form of art was attributed to Neanderthals with any consensus at all - so the attribution of this equvalent of the painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a bit suprising to anyone who has had a passing interest in human prehistory.

I think this is a good example of the public perception of human prehistory, our own ancestry - we see titles in newspapers about Neanderthals wearing makeup and how Neanderthals never died out because they live on in our genes, and these are the sort of ideas we carry around in our heads about our past.  Cave men - were they Neanderthals or humans?  Did humans evolve from Neanderthals?  What was the difference?  I suspect most peoples answers deviate quite far from current (or even past) research.  Readers have picked up on the error in the comment section, but further misunderstandings about Neanderthals are quickly raised. 

Solutions?  Do we need one?  This makes me wonder how prehistory is covered in school...

Thursday, 10 March 2011

3 Upcoming conferences for language evolution

Apologies everyone for the hiatus... 

Excitingly, there are three conferences over the next year (and across the world) where language evolution feature:

1. HBES 2011
Date: 29 June - 03 July 2011
Call deadine: 1 May 2011
Location: Montpellier, France

2. Protolang 2
Date: 19-21 September, 2011
Call deadline: 30 May 2011
Location: Torun, Poland

3. Evolang 9
Date: 13-16 March 2012
Call Deadline: 15 August 2011
Location: Kyoto, Japan

Will I be seeing anyone there?
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