Archive | April, 2012

Archaeologists (Still) Don’t Dig Dinosaurs

30 Apr

Several years ago I wrote a brief essay for the Society for American Archaeology’s Archaeology for the Public website asking “Do Archaeologists Dig Dinosaur Bones?”  The short answer is “No” and the reason is that dinosaurs and humans (the subject of anthropology) never coexisted.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw an advertisement for Take Your Child to Work Day.  The ad included a cartoon of a caveman father and son, wearing the usual leopard skin outfits and carrying spears, running away from a gigantic dinosaur.  The child shouts “I should have gone gathering with mom!”  The irony is, of course, if I took my kids to work, they’d probably hear me give my quarterly explanation of geological time and why the dinosaur-chasing-caveman scenario is impossible.

Don’t get me wrong, I love dinosaurs.  Like a 5-year-old kid, I am wowed by their fantastic awesomeness.  But I don’t study them professionally.  I also don’t teach about them in archaeology classes…except to briefly describe why I don’t teach about them.

Long story short, here are some important dates in the history of our Universe:

  • The Big Bang – about 13 billion years ago
  • The formation of the Earth – about 4.5 billion years ago
  • First single-celled organisms on Earth – about 3.5 billion years ago
  • Extinction of the dinosaurs – about 65 million years ago
  • Earliest members of our genus (Homo habilis) – about 2.5 million years ago

In other words, only about 2.5 million years separate 21st Century humans from Homo habilis.  This extinct hominid species is separated from the age of the dinosaurs by about 62.5 million years.  Even if you could build a time machine and go back and shake Homo habilis’ hand, you’d still be more than 60 million years away from the dinosaurs!

The term “prehistoric” covers a vast period of time.  Even though most of us love learning about dinosaurs, archaeologists will continue to focus on the small sliver of time called human prehistory.


Social Control: From Hunter-Gatherer Bands to the United Nations

17 Apr

Social control is a part of our lives at every level, from the family, to the local community, to the nation, to our global civilization.  Anthropologists define social control broadly as any means used to maintain behavioral norms and regulate conflict.  Conflict and the violation of cultural norms are problems faced by all human societies, small and large.  Sanctions are a common solution.  British social anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) described sanctions as:

“…a reaction on the part of a society or of a considerable number of its members to a mode of behaviour which is thereby approved (positive sanctions) or disapproved (negative sanctions)” (1952:205).

Negative sanctions can be very informal, especially in smaller societies.  Author Nicholas Wade summarizes how something as simple as ostracism can be a powerful form of social control:

“People in a small community gossip all the time and maintain elaborate mental dossiers on one another’s behavior.  Any infraction of social norms may be remembered for years.  Guarding one’s reputation would have become critical.  Hunter-gatherer societies don’t run prisons or have a penal code.  You’re either in or you’re out, and if you are ostracized your prospects of surviving alone in the wilderness are unpromising.  Better learn quickly to fit in and conform” (2009:35).

Larger societies require more formal sanctions, codified in laws, because informal sanctions are not adequate to cover all of the potential conflicts of interest.   Laws are particularly important in a highly pluralistic society such as the United States.  Citizens are members of many different belief systems, sub-cultures, and peer groups.  Laws make sure that everyone must agree to the same overall set of rules – or face the consequences.  But what about international laws?

World reaction to North Korea’s firing of a long-range missile last week is a good reminder that, in our interconnected global world, social control extends across national boundaries.  The U.N. Security Council met yesterday and strongly condemned North Korea’s actions.  Their meeting included discussions of appropriate sanctions and continued ostracism of North Korea from the global community.  Apparently, elements of small-scale, informal social control still have a role to play in the world’s largest international organization.



Radcliffe-Brown, A.R.  1952.  Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses.  Free Press, New York.

Wade, N.  2009  The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures.  Penguin Press, New York.


3 Apr

The significance of the controlled use of fire has always been recognized by archaeologists.  Fire is important for a number of reasons:

  • It offers protection from predators.
  •  It greatly expands the range of climates that people can successfully live in.  Humans could not have “gone global” without it.
  •  It makes meat easier to consume and more easily digestible.  If less energy is necessary to digest food, that energy can be applied elsewhere.
  • It extends the day (or active hours) and creates more social time.  The warmth of a fire hearth draws people together to a central location where they can bond, share information, and tell stories.

And many more…   Taming fire is a big deal in the human story!  Richard Wrangham (2009) wrote a book called Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human that elaborates on the wonders of fire.  But when, exactly, fire was first controlled (400,000 years ago?  750,000?) is less clear.  It’s not even clear which hominin species (Homo erectus or Homo sapiens) first achieved this revolutionary cultural adaptation.

An article published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds light (pun intended) on these fundamental issues.  The authors of the study used some very sophisticated laboratory techniques to provide “unambiguous evidence in the form of burned bone and ashed plant remains that burning events took place in Wonderwerk Cave during the early Acheulean occupation, approximately 1.0 Ma” (Berna et al. 2012:1).

So we have a new location associated with the earliest controlled use of fire: Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa.  We have a chronometric date: about 1 million years ago.  And we have a likely hominin species: the date and Acheulean occupation indicate Homo erectus.  Undoubtedly, continued research will reveal an earlier “earliest,” but, “To date, to the best of our knowledge, this is the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archaeological context” (Berna et al. 2012:1).