Why I Am Not Writing About the New Dates for Bluefish Caves

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A drop, then a trickle, then a raging storm. That’s how I’d describe the way the news of new dates from Bluefish Caves broke on my social media feeds. First, a single post on facebook by one archaeologist asking another what they thought of the new dates. Less than a week later and my twitter feed was all “new dates!!! #bluefish #archaeology”. So if there is already so much said and being said about the dates, why would I possibly add my voice? I’m no dating expert, no specialist on the peopling of the Americas. Well, as those on facebook say “It’s complicated”. I hesitated to write this post for several reasons but I realized that those reasons are why I should write this post. So here it goes.

I am not going to actually comment on the site nor the new dates (Ed.: I’m seeing an early trend here KB in how you structure your posts…). I’d drafted a whole post on problems with dating techniques in my head but luckily did not waste time putting fingers to keyboard. Instead what I’d like to comment on is the problem with focusing on dating sites, particularly on dating sites associated with the extremely problematic and political question of the peopling of the Americas.

We must stop focusing on the question of when the first people arrived in the Americas. I get the initial appeal. If all of our current data tells us that modern humans (Homo sapiens) had a single evolutionary origin in Africa, then figuring out when and how they expanded to other parts of the world is a logical line of questioning to pursue. But problems begin with focusing on the when – the quest for the earliest possible date obtained through a valid, objective, tested, absolute technique on a contextually secure sample. This is so hard to do; it is very difficult to get “good dates” never mind interpret them as such. I’m not saying getting absolute dates for sites is not useful nor valid, nor am I saying that we should not be critical of dates. What I am challenging is why are we so focused on those dates?

This is the first point I’m trying to make: We focus so much on the dates that we fail to think about what they mean.

Here is the second point I’m going to trying to make and to connect with my first point: By focusing on the earliest dates for the peopling of the Americas we are constructing and reinforcing settler colonial narratives.

Very simply, perhaps unfairly so, archaeologists need dates because they help us interpret the site. The problems lie in the questions that drive the research and the implications of those interpretations.  There are actual social, cultural, political, and economic consequences for living human beings when we (archaeologists with privilege of degrees, of scientific authority etc.) make statements about the past. We make these statements that are supported by the best science and scientific brains have to offer. Our culture privileges science (I LOVE SCIENCE BTW!) but often does so at the cost of other forms of knowledge, other ways of knowing. This is not a revolutionary idea; anthropologists have been talking about this for a while now and will continue to do so especially as some of us attempt to decolonize anthropology.

When we start arguing about when the first people arrived in the Americas, when we focus on giving an exact date for when that occurred, we silence any other voices including those which say “but our people already know this, we’ve always been here”.

Why isn’t “we’ve always been here” good enough?

First because our colonial heritage tells us that “always” is not an acceptable unit of time. It is not an “actual” date. The colonial roots of our discipline argues that absolute dates are always preferable to relative dates. Yet we then turn around and debate about good versus bad dates.

Second because our colonial legal system recognizes the dates generated by scientists when looking at land claims. These dates are often used by both parties in the claim – by our indigenous peoples who can now give an “actual” date for the earliest use of land they’ve “always” called their own, and on the other side by those who state that a few hundred, a few thousand years is not enough time to count as “always used this land”.

Third because I feel like we are a society and a discipline focused on creating history. We may recognize and love myth but we no longer accept myth or other forms of folklore as “fact”, which a) is ironic considering the popularity of such shows firmly and explicitly grounded in folklore like Grimm or True Blood, and b) is problematic because facts, like hobbitses, are tricksy.

Increasingly I find myself turning to my fandom when thinking about dating and peopling, which was itself heavily influenced by myth. The stories I tell about my sites are simply that – stories – and they took place “a long, long time ago”.

And that’s the clever quip where this post should end but it doesn’t #sorrynotsorry.

I get to be sarcastic and, frankly, ridiculous on this site and, sometimes, in my classroom. I get to be casual about the narratives I create. I’m the one with privilege. I’m the archaeologist; I have a PhD and an academic position at a respected institution ffs. I know that if I am challenged on my stories I can back them up with the dates and the data (the facts!!!) that my society (or at least my colleagues) will accept even if they don’t like my particular interpretations.

Our indigenous people don’t have that privilege. Their facts, their stories, are discarded. Stories ARE fact! This means that the real damage that is being done by the focus on dating the peopling of the Americas is the denial of story as fact.”You’ve always been here? Prove it!”. This also denies that the processes and structures of colonialism have erased and eradicated these stories, these facts, and then requires indigenous people to look to another colonial structure (archaeology) to “reclaim their past”.

This means we need to rethink archaeology.

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Why I Am Not Writing About the New Dates for Bluefish Caves

  1. Bess Doyle

    Well said, Katie. (Though I’m pretty excited about that paper — and haven’t sat down to read it properly yet.)

    I happen to be putting together a lecture on this phase of human history for next week, so pardon me if I burble a bit about my two cents.

    I’m always a bit uncomfortable when I have to address tensions between things that are empirically factual (i.e. there was a time when the American land mass didn’t have humans on it; there was a time when more than one type of human existed in this world) and stories that are deeply meaningful and give people security in their collective identity. So I normally take the spineless middle road and refuse to disavow either one. I point out that the way humans have *always* encoded information in story and metaphor. That is how we manage to pass on everything from “This is who you are” to “This is how you avoid dying in winter”. Once it is thus encoded, that knowledge becomes much more a part of our reality than some measurement. There is no such thing as “just a metaphor” when it comes to human histories and identities. (Which can of course have a dark flip side, as we see wherever people pick up some bit of science to affirm whatever corrosive myth about “us” and “them” happens to be in vogue.)

    Regarding the timing of the peopling of this land: to my mind, “time immemorial” should be a pretty satisfactory criterion when it comes to the topic of land claims where the opposing party has its own libraries stuffed to the gills with self-aggrandizing historical documents showing that, yes, the First Peoples of this land were here, well, FIRST. Their knowledge and their stories illustrate that “first” extends back a hell of a lot further than most of us roving settler folks can claim within our own families, but how far back doesn’t seem particularly salient to the legal question. To quibble about exactly how far back “first” has to be in order to have legal weight seems more than a bit disingenuous.

    Thanks for putting up your post. It came along just at the right time to catalyze my thoughts on how I’m going to present this issue to my class. 🙂

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    1. Biittner, the Archaeology One

      Thanks for linking to our blog – both this article and Sarah’s about racist language. Please note that this Bluefish Caves post was written by Katie Biittner not Sarah Shulist.

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  4. Tyler Murchie

    Do you approach young earth creationists (of whatever religious affiliation) with the same mindset? Or flat earthers, or intelligent design proponents? I know the historical context for how these groups have been treated are vastly different (specifically the genocide of Native Americas vs. predominantly white members of Abramaic religions), but if we’re after an accurate understanding of humanities’ past (or the most accurate model we can ever get at), is saying “oh well, you believe you’ve always been here, good enough” a useful mindset? Over ten thousand years is comparatively identical to ‘forever’ when contrasted with an average human existence. But why should people be offended (or why should we be concerned that they’re offended) if we, as archaeological scientists, want to be specific with the actual spatial-temporal dimensions of that ‘forever’ claim? If we are highly skeptical of surviving written records for their inherent, one-sided biases, shouldn’t we also be skeptical of surviving oral-narratives to the same degree? I lost interest in classical archaeology because of the continued reliance and acceptance of classical texts as ‘facts’ (more or less) and archaeology only as a subsidiary method to confirm or challenge those texts. I’ve switched over to Palaeoamerican research for the very reason that there are no written records to lean on, and that oral-histories are unlikely to be of any use for understanding the lifeways of humans who lived over ten thousand years ago.

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    1. Biittner, the Archaeology One

      The comparison between young earth creationists/flat earthers/intelligent design proponents and Indigenous oral narratives is problematic. In some regards I do treat young/flat earth/creationist positions the same as Indigenous oral histories because as an anthropologist I apply cultural relativism – this means I attempt to understand the perspective of people who have a different worldview than my own and acknowledge it as coherent and meaningful to them. However, as hundreds of years of research and inquiry has demonstrated that there is no validity nor accuracy to young/flat earth positions, I do not accept (nor teach) them even though they are certainly taught elsewhere. And that’s one of the key differences, that Indigenous perspectives on the past, of THEIR past (!) have been silenced, ignored, and made invisible in the Americas while creationist/young earth/flat earth voices are still heard in classrooms and in courts of law. I don’t think I’m arguing about offense here nor is my post meant to be a call to political correctness nor am I asking us to not be critical of oral narratives (we most certainly must be as we are for any source of information we use in our research) rather it was meant to be a consideration of the broader constructs and institutions that influence the types of questions archaeologists ask and the types of data we privilege over others. This is part of a larger challenge in archaeology and anthropology to decolonize our practice, theory, and methods; I’d highly recommend reading the work of Zoe Todd (who also blogs) for some important insights into the colonial legacy in anthropology. I’d also highly recommend delving into some of the ethnoarchaeological literature from a global perspective, as it will illustrate that oral narratives are of much use in providing insight into lifeways of humans who lived much more than just ten thousand years ago – I state this as someone with a PhD in modern human origins in Africa who examined archaeological assemblages dating to between sixteen and two hundred thousand years ago.

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