Since the publication of the discovery in Nature back in late April, the Cerutti Mastodon site has continued to be in the news. Predictably, it appears in popular science websites and continues to be a darling of fringe theorists. While the initial coverage in the media and popular web sites highlighted some of the very substantial critiques of the work, recent coverage is almost completely uncritical, despite the archaeological community’s reaction (see Haynes and Braje et al, for example. See also my critiques here and here).

This uncritical acceptance of the claims by the news media and popular websites is encouraged by the host institution, the San Diego Natural History Museum, which has completely ignored the very substantial debate about the find. The section of its website dedicated to the find is in fact full of certainty:

“Since its initial discovery, this site has been the subject of research by top scientists to accurately date the fossils and evaluate microscopic damage on bones and rocks that authors now consider indicative of human activity. In 2014, state-of-the-art radiometric dating methods were used to determine that the mastodon bones—which were still fresh when they were broken by strategically-placed blows from hammerstones—were approximately 130,000 years old.”

It concludes that “All of the researchers were now convinced—the Cerutti Mastodon site was, unquestionably, an archaeological site.” The fact that this is combined with an appeal for funds if you are “inspired by the discovery” doesn’t help. The Museum’s timeline of the discovery makes no mention at all of the reaction to the article, positive or negative.

The only indirect concession to critical thinking on theNAT website is the attached FAQ. To someone who is familiar with the debate about whether the site is archaeological, it reads like a point by point defense against the critiques leveled at the work. But it is actually framed as a stand-alone affirmation of the site’s archaeological nature, with no overt reference at all to the critiques. To a non-specialist it gives absolutely no clue that there is a debate about any aspect of the claims.

If the role of museums is to foster critical thinking and scholarly inquiry as much as it is to convey information and expose the public to specimens, theNAT fails in its presentation of the Cerutti Mastodon site.

Worse, the Museum contributes to the spread of a myth-in-the-making by putting its legitimacy behind an uncritical version of the Cerutti Mastodon story instead of using it as a tool to teach about how science works, how we know what we know, and how we don’t know what we don’t know.

This is a sadly wasted opportunity, and I encourage the Museum to remedy it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s