Predictably, the third section of my recent post on the Nature of Things’ Ice Bridge documentary, which dealt with the political and ethical aspects of the controversy, generated the most discussion, whether on social media, by email, or in person. Here are few more thoughts and clarifications that emerge from those exchanges.
Yes, archaeology is political. No, politics should not drive archaeology and archaeologists. Archaeology is not about the past. It is about the present. It is done in the present, for reasons that are in the present, using evidence that exists in the present, and its conclusions affect the present. Any conclusion reached and published by an archaeologist, whether well supported by the evidence or not, can and probably will be used for political purposes. Archaeologists normally know what are the hypersensitive questions in their region, and there are usually at least a few. In certain areas of Northern Finland, for example, when a local farmer casually asks you whether you’re looking for Indo-European or Fenno-Ugric sites, you better choose your words carefully.
People don’t kill each other because of the conclusions published by archaeologists, but they are often happy to use such conclusions to justify killing each other. They are even more likely to use archaeological and anthropological models to justify dispossessing and oppressing each other.
We can go where the evidence takes us, and speak out about abuse of our work
As archaeologists, we have to go where the evidence takes us, subject to our imperfections and unconscious biases. We have to communicate our conclusions and show as best we can how they are supported by evidence. As history repeatedly shows, those conclusions will be taken up and used by politicians and special interest groups for their own purposes, regardless of what we say or do.
As a discipline, we should not let political concerns determine what research we do, and we should certainly not let political convictions determine what conclusions we reach or communicate. The evidence should do that for us. We should not police each other’s research on political grounds. We should engage each other’s work on the basis of the evidence.
Individually, however, we have every right, and in many cases, we have a responsibility, to speak out about how others use our work. We have an individual responsibility to manage, on ethical grounds, which questions we choose to pursue, and how, when, and in what context we communicate our results.
What if convincing evidence of Solutrean entry was discovered today?
Let’s consider the Solutrean hypothesis. It is entirely possible that convincing evidence may be found for a Northeastern entry into the Americas, either at 20 000 years ago, or at some other early date. The evidence may turn out to be a well-dated, carefully excavated site full of tools made of stone that came all the way from France, or perhaps some ornaments made of Mediterranean shell. Or it may be that human remains are found that can isotopically be linked to Western Europe. Less likely but still possible, is that the evidence will be primarily genetic.
Should I be the one to discover such evidence (not likely, but not entirely impossible), I would of course publish it, along with a discussion of its implications for our understanding of North America’s cultural and population history.
The work would no doubt be put to uses with which I disagree. It might, for example, be used in a court case on indigenous land claims, to argue that since indigenous groups are not the descendants of the first occupants of the north east, their claims to the land and its resources are not valid. I would point out that this does not change the fact that they were violently dispossessed by Europeans within the past 500 years.
It might be used by White Nationalists to argue that Whites are the rightful owners of the Americas, and that what little culture indigenous populations have, was originally brought over by Europeans, and then degraded by today’s indigenous groups. I would point out that these results show no such thing, that the history of the Americas is dynamic, full of innovation and creativity, just like the rest of human history the world over.
None of that would prevent me from reaching my conclusion and publishing it. But I would feel an obligation, as I have in other cases, to voice my opinion about how others use it. An interesting lesson here is that the first two parts of my post on Ice Bridge, which evaluated some of the evidence claimed in support of the Solutrean Hypothesis, did not create much discussion. This shows that discussion of the evidence itself is not controversial. The evidence is the evidence.
The third part, which deals with the real-world application of the hypothesis if true, did generate discussion. That is why I must participate.