Carver, Martin, Antiquity
Auspiciously around 4 July The Times announced the discovery of 'the footsteps that add 30000 years to the history of America'. Discovered at Puebla, Mexico, the 269 prints included early species of camelid, cow and deer, together with several adult homo sapiens and their children. The prints were preserved in volcanic ash, subsequently buried by more ash and lake sediments. Materials in the sequence above and below the prints included shells and animal bones (dated by radiocarbon) and mammoth teeth (dated by ESR). OSL was applied to the sediments of the prints themselves. The Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition, which opened in early July, cautiously proclaimed 'The oldest American?'. Attributed quotes from academics are given on the BBC website (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4650307.stm): "Our evidence of humans in America 40 000 years ago is irrefutable" said Matthew Bennett, Bournemouth University, who also conceded: "It is quite controversial. They are not very happy in North America. They are very wedded to the idea of colonisation 11 500 years ago". Silvia Gonzalez of Liverpool John Moores University, whose team discovered the prints in an abandoned quarry and is leading the research (see http://www.mexicanfootprints.co.uk), was also apprehensive: "It's going to be an archaeological bomb and we're up for a fight". Caution was expressed by Dr Michael Faught, senior archaeologist with Panamerican Consultants, Inc. "It would be significant if it were demonstrated, but usually those (early) sites don't hold up well". He is reserving judgement until the evidence is published. We hope to bring readers such evidence shortly.
Note the use of the word 'attributed' to protect the innocent academic who falls so often into the toils of the media, to protest later: "Well of course it isn't exactly what I said". But even if it was (really), it's quite understandable and we've all been there. We think our research is exciting, but the media never seem to find it exciting enough. Witness the 'temples' that prompted David Keys' headline 'Found: Europe's oldest civilisation' on the front page of The Independent (11 June 2005). These are Neolithic kreisgrabenanlagen of the Lengyel culture (c. 5000 BC), which have been known for half a century or more but have popped up all over central Europe recently as a result of aerial photography. (Professor Andrew Sherratt, whom we thank for this, sees them as imitation tells; his thesis is to appear shortly in Alastair Whittle's forthcoming Unsettling the Neolithic.)
Our correspondent Steve Houston, reporting 'the latest barrage of PR-ism in which much attention is being focused on yet another Maya tomb', proposes that three main types of expectation fuel archaeology-media relations: the first is what the public thinks archaeologists look for, the second is what archaeologists think the public should be interested in and the third is what the media think the public wants. Other factors apply. Some professionals feel the need to woo their own sponsors, while others draw a veil over the gleam of treasure in order to discourage looting. Faced with such contradictory messages, the media resort to the old favourites: the oldest, newest, weirdest discovery, leaving experts baffled, amazed, staggered and stunned (even if it is actually the successful outcome of a life's work, carefully predicted and managed along Research Council guidelines). Steve is not sure we should be too ready to excuse ourselves: archaeologists need to serve as the adults in these exchanges and, as authentic experts, need to consider carefully how they tell their tales. 'I am impressed by the care and caution of most medical reporting,' he writes. 'Lives are at stake, of course, but our work matters too. It may be that the time has come for archaeological announcements to pass first through a peer filter, a reputable journal or other vetted forum'. If only! While the press vibrates with tales you wouldn't tell your own mother, Antiquity has often waited long and patiently for the real thing. …