Human Origins Research as Anthropology

Contrary to popular opinion, anthropology is not a study of human diversity. It’s a study of human complexity. When applied to human origins, complexity means focus on uncovering historical and social mechanisms behind the observed patterns of biological and cultural variation, the thorough interdisciplinary assessment of the data and a reflexive outlook on the interaction between scientific theories and the conditions of production of scientific knowledge. Anthropology is the enemy of reductionism, be it naturalistic explanations of human skin color variation, the ascertainment of human presence via exclusive archaeological arguments or the belief that linguistic classifications are only skin deep. My observation is that mainstream human origins research is naive in its bias towards arguments coming from archaeology and genetics. There is a paucity of specialists who would have an in-depth understanding of the data, methods, historiography and theory of several vastly different fields, all relevant for human origins research. Consequently, scholars in one field make judgments of the ideas derived from another field on the basis of authority, rather than their own grasp of the data behind those ideas. University-based scholars and their followers among prehistory buffs, amateur geneticists and genome bloggers tend to be hyperspecialized, on the one hand, and ignorant of the last 40 years of developments in anthropological reflexivity, on the other. Anthropology as the study of complexity is the art of practicing scientific method with eyes wide open to the emergent nature of science as a social practice.

Anthropologists have always been different from other scientists. In Marshall Sahlins’s assessment of Levi-Strauss’s work, he writes:

“…Since anthropologists are of the same intellectual nature as the peoples they study, they have possibilities of knowing the cultures of others that are in some respects more powerful than the ways natural scientists know physical objects. The more one learns about the composition of rocks, the less they are like anything in human experience. Unlike the way rocks will always appear to us, science shows there are spaces between and within the molecules, and beyond that, at the level of quantum mechanics our knowledge defies all common sense of space and time. But if natural science starts off with the experientially familiar and ends in the humanly remote, anthropology works the other way around. One might begin with something distant or even obnoxious to us, say cannibalism in the Fiji Islands, and yet end by determining it to be ‘logical.'”

My books and this weblog are faithful to anthropological sensibilities. Now that the time of “exotic” cultures has passed, Out-of-America models of human origins – informed by the decades of anthropological observations on erstwhile and present “exotic” human cultures – constitutes a foray into a “wild” and “exotic” theoretical framework. Just like the “exotic” cultures that suddenly opened to European eyes in the early modern times, Out-of-America thinking is not something scholars thought could ever exist. And many people decry the out-of-America theory is strange, preposterous and even obnoxious and barbarous without realizing that, in doing so, they display the same psychological response as the one that Michel de Montaigne ridiculed in his famous essay “Of Cannibals” (1580s): “Everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not according to his usage.” In the same way as the notion of “primitive” cultures and languages has long become a myth, as many cultures and languages that once bore that degrading label turned out to be more sophisticated than the cultures and languages of their detractors, the Out-of-America model of human origins and dispersals is no less logical or factual than the out-of-Africa model. It just prioritizes a different set of facts and observations in building the argument.

One Response

  1. adam arkfeld
    adam arkfeld at · Reply

    Mammoth figurine found in Virginia identical in form to one from Avdeevo Russia.
    VA find likely predates Russian.
    See for photos/details

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