Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Of Stone Giants, Missing Links, and Hobbits

There's a sucker born every minute. -- David Hannum (not P. T. Barnum, as is usually reported)

Homo Floresiensis has been found in Indonesia. This stunning piece of information might bring on a yawn until I mention that this early human is only between three and four feet tall, hence the nickname “the Hobbits.” Short hominids are not unusual, but this one dates to a time when the average human was about the size of, well, an average human of today (maybe a touch shorter, but not so's you'd notice).

There's been a lot of debate about this little sucker. It seems that the Hobbit's brain is way too small, proportionally speaking. It does turn out that there's a medical condition that can cause precisely the effect that was seen in terms of height and brain development, so many scientists and paleo folks were inclined to dismiss the Hobbit as merely a regular human suffering from a disease. There is a precedent for this in the discovery of the Neanderthals. The first one had bowed legs and stooped posture, based on analysis of his skeleton. Later on, it was determined that the bones belonged to a very old individual afflicted with arthritis. Neanderthals weren't stooped at all, although the image of the shuffling cave man has stayed with us to this day (not to mention those ridiculous Geico ads).

Ah, but wait, say the guys in Indonesia, we've found 9 more of these little people. What do you say to that? Well, I say, bring 'em home and let's have a good scientific look at 'em, because we've been fooled before.

For example, there was the Cardiff Giant. A farmer dug up what was ostensibly a 10 foot-tall petrified pre-Noah's-flood man. Some very intelligent (but apparently not very perceptive) people were taken in by this thing. Of course, it was a fraud. It came about as a result of an argument between an atheist and a preacher. The atheist, a man named Hull, decided he would show these bumpkins a thing or two. He managed to secretly create a statue, did some primitive aging of the stone and buried it in a cooperative farmer's field, where it was “discovered.” Even before it was exposed as a fake, P. T. Barnum and a man named David Hannum began to bid for it. Hannum won, but Barnum went ahead and had his own made, which people were just as satisfied to see, prompting Hannum's bitter remark quoted above.

And, then there was Piltdown Man. Found over a period of four years from 1908 to 1912, pieces of a jaw, teeth, and a skull were assembled to show that England had been home to the “missing link”, a creature with a jaw and teeth like an ape, but with a brain case like that of a modern human. This fraud, the perpetrator of which has never been clearly identified, was in the textbooks for years and wasn't exposed until 1953. Ironically, it was easily determined to be a fake; it was just that no one ever looked all that closely.

Piltdown changed the way archaeologists and paleontologists looked at new discoveries. There is now a considerably greater burden of proof on the discoverer to show that the find is what they say it is. I'm not saying that the Hobbit is a fake. On the contrary, it would be fascinating to find out that it's a real little person.

However, I'll believe it when it stands up to some serious scrutiny. And even then, I'll reserve judgment for a few years. Like the Who say, “Won't get fooled again.”

Thursday, October 20, 2005

What Can Make an Archaeologist Blush?

"Always read over the letters you write, or some damn fool is going to think they have found a kindred spirit.”--Confucius

In the magazine Archaeology, November/December 2005, we find the following bit of news in the “World Roundup” section:

Three more of Novgorod's famous birch-bark letters have been discovered during this year's excavation season – two of which contain profanities so rude that the archaeologists are refusing to release them to the public. One of the two twelfth-century artifacts is a fragment of a larger letter, while the other is a note written by a woman to an acquaintance in which she reprimands the man for not repaying a debt to her.

Well, this is a fine how-do-you-do! After waiting 900 years to see the light of day, these poignant missives are being blocked from our view because of some sort of Puritan ethic welling up in a group of archaeologists. Of course, if they're Russian archaeologists, it may be some sort of Orthodox ethic, but you get the idea. Who are they to deprive us of this slice of pre-medieval life?

Of the “fragment of a larger letter”, we can surmise nothing, although intense profanity does suggest a message to the local tax collector. But who cannot be tantalized by the woman who “reprimands the man for not repaying a debt”? Given the sad state of cursing today (as I wrote in earlier piece about the devaluation of the cuss word), our language could stand some imaginative profanity. Imagine curses not heard for 900 years! The excitement of it all leaves me all a-twitter.

Well, that might be a bit strong, but I do think it would be a hoot to read what the woman had to say. I mean, given the kind of thing we hear day in and day out, what sort of profanity could be so “rude” that it would need to be hidden from the eyes of the public?

Hmmm, the British are found of the word “rude”; perhaps we have some uptight stiff-upper-lip Englishmen holding this important missive hostage?

It's not hard to imagine the tone that the woman was using. “Reprimand” is probably way too light a term to describe the literary hissy fit she threw. “Listen, you borscht-bellied son of a cossack. You had better come up with the kopeks you owe me, or I'll have my boy friend Ivan come over there and rip you a new babushka. The don't call him 'the Terrible' for nothing, you slavering slob of a Slav!” I have no trouble picturing this woman searching for just the right bodily functions to use to describe what should happen to this ne'er-do-well debtor.

But the imagination can only go so far; I don't know Russian. Each language has it's own colorful turns of phrase. For example, my late father was multi-lingual, When called upon he could curse in any one of five languages: Hungarian, German, Slovenian, Polish, and English, with a smattering of Russian. When particularly irked, he could use them all at the same time, a veritable United Nations of bad language. Given his mechanical deficiencies, he directed many of these at our lawn mowers, all of which were reduced to junk metal by his tirades – or his mechanical deficiencies.

He use to quote a quaint little Polish phrase to people who annoyed him. He would do this with a smile, so they would think he had said something quite continental. When asked by someone else what he had just said, he replied, “I told him, 'May a fly sh_t in your nose.' ”

I will now pause for a moment while you try to rid your mind of that image.

That, in any event, is a curse of recent vintage, no older than a couple of hundred years. Can you imagine the possibilities of 900 years ago, when people were closer to the earth and muck and farm animals? I mean, think of the possibilities: Yaks could be involved!

Ladies and gentlemen of the archaeological community, I must insist that you not deprive us of such essential knowledge.