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January 3rd, 2016


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12:22 am - Thomas Kuhn and Debate Over The Settlement of the Americas
One of the many related fields I studied at length in my 13 year undergraduate and graduate career was the history of science. During the 1980s, one of the cornerstones of that entire discipline was Thomas Kuhn’s work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The basic idea is that scientists are not inclined to change their minds about basic aspects of their discipline, and that it often takes the death of the scientists holding the old beliefs for new radical ideas to take hold, even if they seem to be true.

While still read, Kuhn's book is no longer regarded quite so highly, in part because there are a whole lot of scientific advances to which it doesn’t apply – modern day science still doesn’t undergo radical changes rapidly and easily, but it does so far faster and easier than Kuhn predicts, but I recently found a rather impressive exception.

I recently read and very much enjoyed 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a fascinating and well-done book on the Americas before European contact, and shortly after that watched a recent PBS special about the geology of North America, and was struck at the differences between their discussions of the settlement of the Americas.

As anyone with even the most rudimentary exposure to the topic knows, of the theory that the Clovis culture were the first native Americas and arrived in North America from Eurasia between roughly 12 & 14 thousand years ago. This “Clovis first” theory held sway in archeology pretty much from WWII until the early 21st century. Also, even now the PBS special I watched admitted that the Clovis people were not the first humans in North America, but claimed that humans settled this continent between 15 & 16 thousand years ago.

However, as the author of 1491 points out, there has been evidence of pre-Clovis settlement of the Americas for quite a while, and much of it is considerably older than 15 or 16 thousand years ago.

I remember discussions of the Monte Verde site in Chile in archeology classes I took in the early 1980s, it’s almost 15,000 years old, and if humans reached almost the southern tip of South America back then, they were presumably in North America well before that. I also remember a bit of discussion of the Pedra_Furada_sites , dated at more than 30,000 years ago.
Then there’s the Topper South Carolina site, with dates between 16 and 20 thousand years ago, and the Meadowcroft Rockshelter site, with its dates of 16-19 thousand years ago. Also, some of the various pre-Clovis sites also have older and less accepted dates, ranging as far back as 60,000 years ago.

I have no idea how long humans have been in the Americas (although at least 20,000 years seems pretty likely), but what I do know is that I see something that looks exactly like Kuhn’s ideas about scientists who hold the old paradigm rejecting “anomalies”, and continuing to do so in the face of mounting evidence.

It then occurred to me why this process didn’t seem to be present in fields of modern sicence as diverse as astronomy and biology, but is present in archeology, and particularly archeology dealing with particularly old sites. Unlike the Copernican revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries and the other “revolutions” Kuhn discussed, most modern science not only has a wealth of data at its disposal, but can acquire new data with relative ease. If questions ranging from dark energy to neurogenesis arise, the matter can be settled relatively swiftly by a combination of re-examining older data and collecting new data.

For the past few decades, opposition to new ideas seems to usually collapse under the weight of this data. However, this isn’t true with archeology, especially in the case of the first sites of human habitation in the Americas – the only way to find new sites is effectively random chance, many of them are likely under the Pacific Ocean, because if (as current theory suggests) some of the people settling the Americas took boats down the Pacific coast, that coastline was covered with several dozen meters of water when the last ice age ended. So, in the absence of either side being able to bury the other under masses of data, you have a process that looks much like pre-modern sciences, where (like in many sub-fields of archeology) discoveries were rare and data hard to come by.

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[User Picture]
From:Scott Forschler
Date:January 3rd, 2016 04:59 pm (UTC)

coastal exploration theory

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I've heard of this theory before, but have never quite understood it. If the idea is just what you said--that the first American inhabitants colonized it by taking boats down the Pacific coast, it sounds extremely implausible. Sure, this would work down the many island-protected waterways from Alaska to Puget Sound, but south of that a long straight coast faces an open ocean. There are occasional calm days, but much of the time big waves crash into the shore, which you need big boats to handle, of the later European or Polynesian variety.

But if, instead, the theory is that colonists south of Puget Sound largely *walked* down the coast, occasionally using small boats to cross river mouths, that sounds eminently sensible. They might likely go faster than competing groups stumbling through the rough and relatively resource-poor interior mountains, albeit with smaller streams to cross.

I've always been struck by the fact that ships crossing or otherwise utilizing the open oceans really only started in two places: Greece (-> Mediterranean -> Europe) and SE Asia ( -> Indonesia/Taiwan -> Polynesia and Indian Ocean Monsoon traders). Which makes sense, because they started where there were islands near shore, then others a little further out, and so forth, so that in a range of semi-protected waters ship technology could gradually evolve, each improvement incentivized by access to more and more locations. There was no comparable technology in Africa or the Americas (except possibly around the Carribean, which, proving the rule, was apparently colonized from South rather than North America; note there are islands closer to the latter than the former). Probably not because they were any less inventive, but there was no easy way to develop the technology needed to suddenly go from small river craft to open-ocean ships; the paucity of off-shore islands and protected bays or barrier-island channels stymied such evolution. Such is my theory, anyway.

(This questions only a single tangential comment in a post I otherwise entirely agree with, BTW.)
[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:January 4th, 2016 05:55 am (UTC)

Re: coastal exploration theory

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Phoenicians more than Greece. Minoan Crete earlier than Greece. Of course Crete is an island.
[User Picture]
From:Scott Forschler
Date:January 4th, 2016 01:00 pm (UTC)

Re: coastal exploration theory

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Yes; by "Greece" I meant not only the mainland, but Crete as well, whose civilization predated the Phoenecians. Greece/Crete was one of the main early trading partners of the latter, and must have developed boat technology which could then spread to their neighbors, so that still fits into my idea.

John: The American West Coast land drops off pretty steeply both above and below the current waterline, so the coastline during the Ice Age probably looked roughly like it does now, just a few miles further out. I wasn't as familiar with the NW people's sea canoes, I'll have to look into that. Of course, as noted, they were only used in that area, not between California & Chile, which still seems to be a forbidding sea route compared to just walking along the beach. All trivial compared to your general point, which I found insightful. Actually, to the extent that my questions on this small point are legitimate, it further supports your main one about the paucity of evidence in the science of prehistory.

Edited at 2016-01-04 08:37 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:January 4th, 2016 11:42 am (UTC)

Re: coastal exploration theory

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I have no idea what the geography of the Pacific Coast was during the last ice age, but I don't really see any problem with boats heading down the coast, staying within a few hours of land, and landing at night. The Northwest Coast peoples had ocean-going canoes that they used off the coast of Washington State, and while that was much later, and with modern interglacial coastal geography, I don't see a problem with people doing the same thing earlier.

Given that the PBS special I watched mentioned a 13,000 year old burial found on an island off California that was also an island during the last ice age, at least some of the early peoples who settled the Americas clearly had boats.
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From:ashnistrike
Date:January 4th, 2016 04:43 am (UTC)
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I've been waiting since 1491 came out for more popular presentations of the presumed exciting follow-up research. This helps explain why I've been disappointed. (Except for some very cool hands-on experimentation that seems to have replicated the creation of terra preta, at least at small scale.)

If you haven't read it, by the way, 1493 is excellent, though not quite as mind-blowing as 1491.
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From:heron61
Date:January 4th, 2016 11:34 am (UTC)
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Thanks for the recommendation, I'll pick up a copy.
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From:nightspore
Date:January 5th, 2016 11:12 pm (UTC)
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This Bayesian alternative to Kuhn, while often a little smug, is really interesting.

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