Friday, July 31, 2009

Reconstructing Precolumbian Chronology


The foregoing is not a defensive, but an illustrative statement of what anyone following this site and linked blogs of Michael M. Hobby can anticipate encountering. If conventional or general opinion can be matched to the data, we will agree with our colleagues; to the extent it doesn't, as is often the case for students imprisoned within their classes and forced to absorb and be tested upon often outdated, inaccurate dribble, then alienate ourselves we will from opinion disparate from the facts without explanation or academic defense or gross aberrations of fact and probability.

We have now entered a period in which the remarkable advances of archaeology must be based increasingly on geoarchaeology, and the hard sciences generally, all of which are material to and cognates of archaeology. We cannot permit consensus or compliantly general opinion to retard, inadvertently or by design, a much-needed re-definition of the great vista of Precolumbian history which lies before us in disarray. So much information and so many facts have accumulated on the margins of consensus that a new schematic of history must be sketched, put to paper, and made available.

We must actively discourage the practice of reporters and talk show commentators conducting "wooden" or "air-headed" interviews with “experts,” whose intent is to suppress data which cannot be explained by the theories the expert has taught for decades, often without significant updates.

This applies to hard science experts just as much as it does to pedants in the archaeology classroom. I can still recall taking a course in biochemistry, the notes for which the professor had developed in the heyday of the x-ray machine. A friend and I were so dismayed, we couldn't tolerate further attendance, so we dropped the class. There was nothing we could say; he was professor emeritus and coincidentally, the member of the faculty who passed out our diplomas at graduation years later. A hard science consensus which I generally accept with notable exceptions is Plate Techtonics theory. As geologists, that is our model of earth's geophysical history, with some limitations.

However, I also accept portions of the Expanding Earth hypothesis first advanced by Carey in 1956. (See, for instance: In my opinion, models limited exclusively to different mechanisms fail on two counts:

1) Exclusive mechanisms increase polarization and by their assertion imply that no mechanism of a competing model has relevance.

2) Accepting any model unquestionably tends to divert attention from any underlying material or arguments which might tend to refute the preferred model.

Both have a tendency to retard scientific progress. In defense of Plate Tectonics, it should be stressed that factors or mechanisms not addressed within Tectonic theory are not necessarily exclusive. There is ample room for consideration of other agencies. The exclusiveness is an attitude of adherents, an unnecessary one.

This is a fledgling example of a mammoth-sized problem that is a certainty, the elephant in the room of every academic institution. Troubling, as such institutions are to teach the fundamental importance of critical thinking, not becoming subject to the opinions of the faculty to whom you are exposed by circumstance, often falling prey to errant opinion. The appearance of consensus may arise, but what is needed are global and site-specific data within a geoarchaeological context, apart from the geologic time scale, which we use for prehistoric as well as historic periods. Global evidence of geologic phenomena need to be filtered through more than a single lens. For instance, Angular Chronology, can separate the mass of (largely unpublished) dissertations, site reports, etc. addressing the historic period into Broad categories within which resolution of chronologies with the identical order of magnitude. The tell-tale systemic anomalies and other problems become demarcated and more resolvable.

READ WIDELY is my advice to serious students within any discipline. Why? Because, notwithstanding the manner in which students and the public are informed, there actually is no "consensus." Take, for example just the relationship between the Toltec city of Tula and the Toltec portion of Chichen Itza. Depending upon which professor or which professional archaeologist you speak to, you will NOT get the straightforward answer you seek. Each will generally assert with confidence which came first, it's relationship to Quetzalcoatl and other characters. However, is the particular opinion based upon a long chronology or a short chronology? How many carbon-14 dates are available, and are they well-synchronized with other data? Are the ceramic phases (if any) substantial, even published? To glimpse just how broad and deep archaeological questions can be, see the following Tula/Chichen Itza discussion:

I know some will respond, “Tell that to the geezer heading or sitting on your dissertation committee.” Believe me, I get it! My honor's thesis was blocked at Tulane University even though I had won the New Orleans Geological Society scholarship as the top student in 1981. It wasn't blocked for academic reasons. It was blocked simply because the teacher of one of my fondest classes, micropaleontology, a great professor and learned advisor was offended because I addressed comments pertaining to uniformitarianism made by the authors of one of the textbooks, written by two friends of his at a consorting institution in another state. Hey, if you put it in print, you've entered the public forum. If it's a textbook, you're a candidate for the Inquisition, because students are reading (and in all likelihood believing) what you have written. Don't expect to hide from open arguments against your assertions. That's my opinion.

Interestingly, a few years later, a new geology department chair, who had been the Dean of Science the year of my graduation, contacted me, apologizing for how I had been treated, and asserting that the geology department would now be happy to publish my honors thesis. Why? It wasn't really from a sense of institutional shame or personal embarrassment about having watched my thesis be blocked. It was because important new work being done at Berkeley had put catastrophism in the forefront of geological opinion, markedly due to the discovery not only of tektite falls off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico marking the spot of meteoric impact, but also of a global iridium anomaly(a mineral rare in the earth's crust, but rich in meteorites) which correlates to the Cretaceous extinction, and is potentially typical of the most sudden and horrific extinctions that terminated other geologic ages, such as the Permian extinction. Had my thesis not been blocked, it would have put Tulane geology in good company. Quien sabe?