Academic journal article Rock Art Research

The First Mariners

Academic journal article Rock Art Research

The First Mariners

Article excerpt

The first mariners, by ROBERT G. BEDNARIK. 2014. Research India Press, New Delhi, 335 pages, 190 illustrations, mostly colour; index, hardcover, large format, US$150, ISBN 978-93-5171-007-3. Academic edition 2015, Bentham Books, 334 pages, monochrome plates, extensive bibliography, index, hardcover, ISBN 978-1-60805-020-8, e-book version eISBN 978-1-60805-019-2.

1. The first mariners: content and context

The first mariners is a scientific book that provides a clearer epistemic pathway to Pleistocene archaeology, a discipline whose forensic paths to the past often go cold quickly, but whose research methods adhere to uniformitarianism - the assumption that past and present phenomena are the result of forces operating uniformly throughout time. This has led to theoretical deductions and taxonomic classifications that are based on an unfounded assumption; namely, that available archaeological evidence is a representative selection of variables defining a particular culture. Due to the anthropomorphic tendency that characterises it, uniformitarianism also suffers from a circularity that cannot be cured by such means as, for example, a distinction between the emic and the etic. For these and other reasons, Bednarik thinks, current practices in Pleistocene archaeology often fall short of the rigorous scientific method of putting claims based on theoretical taxonomies to the test of the null-hypothesis.

To dispel the impact of uniformitarianism and to accomplish his goal of restoring to Pleistocene archaeology its status of 'high science', Bednarik uses taphonomy, a law that posits that that which has survived is not a true reflection of what was once created. That is, there exists a gap between the reality of past events and their record as perceived by modern researchers. This taphonomic lag is further compounded by the ways data are collected, stored, disseminated and interpreted, to say nothing of dogmatic bias, financial influences, institutional allegiances and personal career concerns.

One of the implications of this paradigmatic shift in Pleistocene archaeology is that once taphonomic lags are accounted for, it becomes evident that cultural complexity and technological efficiency during the Pleistocene were far greater than current interpretations estimate.

That Palaeolithic cultures can be highly complex and sophisticated is clearly attested to in recorded history. For example, when the toolkit in Lewis and Clark's expedition to the west of the United States in 1804-1806 proved inadequate for making canoes, the Nez Perce showed them how to use fire to hollow out Ponderosa logs and make then into twenty- to twenty-five foot long dugouts.

The merit of the taphonomic approach, however, is that it extends scientific inquiry and its principle of verifiability deep into the human past, where no direct evidence is available. Hence the elaborate replicative experiments of sea crossing undertaken in The First Mariners Project.

2. The First Mariners Project: a replicative experiment

The First Mariners Project is an extraordinary scientific experiment designed to answer some crucial questions relating to humanity's past, and to bring a much needed correction to the debate surrounding our cognitive evolution. Specifically, it attempts to determine the level of communicative, technological and artistic development of Early and Middle Palaeolithic hominins.

Up until now, people have theorised about the cultural development of Palaeolithic hominins based mostly on cranial measurements from a scant fossil record and arbitrary lithic taxonomies, which inevitably lead to erroneous conclusions. This, for example, is the case in the replacement or Out-of-Africa theory, which assumes the cognitive inferiority of ancestral hominins, and asserts that cultural sophistication (referred to as 'modernity'), including technological capabilities, language and art, is the exclusive attribute of modern humans. …

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