Sunday, April 16, 2006

Bone Fragments and Archaeology

Afarensis had a great post yesterday on the value of fossil bone fragments for what they can tell us, not only about species, but behavior as well. I've been meaning to comment on this site: it is one of the better resources for anthropology on the internet. He has most of the major archaeology journals bookmarked (some with free content) and as a professional archaeologist I use Afarensis frequently to aid in my research. He even has links to papers written by undergraduate advisor while at UC Davis: Henry McHenry (which also lists my first "professional" publication - a Current Anthropology comment Henry and I wrote in 1986).

The post nails a number of points regarding the science of "reconstructing" the anatomy of individuals from small bone fragments, especially the manner in which creationists frequently dismiss fossils as telling us anything important. As Afarensis suggests, such a view has less to do with fragmentary fossils telling a valid story than with the gross misunderstanding creationists have of skeletal anatomy. Afarensis discusses the value of small fragments for interpretation in human paleontology, but the same goes for zooarchaeology - the study of animal bone in archaeological sites. With the right expertise, even small fragments can yield a large amount of information. Information, by the way, that is testable against other observations and data.

This got me thinking about something else small (and large) fragments of animal bone can tell us; something that runs counter to the goals of Intelligent Design in particular: the nature of the Designer. The photo at left depicts a scatter of bones and bone fragments (they all happen to be from a zebra) around an obvious pile of ashes. Bone fragments include a skull fragment, ribs, and few vertebra, plus a collection of smaller fragments that all come from those same skeletal elements. This collection of bones and ash was "designed" in the sense that a Designer of higher intelligence was responsible for the patterning (in this case, the "Designers" happen to be Hadza hunters in Tanzania) and not "natural" agents such as lions, water transport or wind. Marks on many of the bones clearly come from the cutting action of knives and the pounding action of stones or other hard objects. Even small fragments of bone can identify the species and anatomical part from which they derive. Small fragments can also retain the evidence of "intelligent" involvement, such as cutmarks or unique fracture patterns.


This collection is also designed (again by the same Hadza agents). Unlike the collection above, this shows different parts of the skeleton: lots of leg bones (femora, tibia, metapodials, carpals and tarsals, phalanges). Many of these also have the same tell-tale signs of human-induced damage from knives, rocks and other blunt instruments. Both assemblages differ markedly from "natural" bone assemblages that can be found on the African landscape (or any other continental landscape, for that matter). They are not like the bone assmblages left after lion kills, the scavenging of hyenas, or like collections from porcupines. They were not wind-blown, water transported or eroded into place. I also know
that this assemblage is different from the one above and suggestive of different behaviors on
the part of its human "designers". The study of both assemblages (and the data collected on each) is also a result of archaeological research (a particular kind of archaeological research called "ethnoarchaeology") and exemplifies the primary goal of archaeology.

Intelligent Design advocates frequently invoke archaeology as an analogy to the search for intelligent design in biological systems. But the archaeological study of bone assemblages, like other aspects of archaeology, shows clearly why it is far more advanced than intelligent design and why the latter fails as a science. Archaeology constantly generates and tests hypotheses about its observations; more to the point, these hypotheses specifically seek distinctions between the human designer and non-human counterparts. I can test observations about what makes hyena bone distributions different from human ones; I can test the physical attributes of cutmarks produced by cutting implements; I can test the distinction between carnivore damage and tool damage; I can test the bone pattern differences between kill sites and base camps; I can even test how water affects bone distribution. And in every case, the difficulty lies with empirically demonstrating that the designed assemblages are actually different from the "natural" assemblages...not the other way around. Historically, the assumption has generally been that this or that assemblage must have been designed by humans, simply because the discoverers could not conceive of anything in nature producing the same pattern. Of course, time and again, in the history of archaeology, it was shown that nature could easily come up with the same pattern. Designed complexity was not self-evident. Years of hard work, replicative studies and hypothesis testing were required to confidently tease human agents from non-human ones. Intelligent Design hasn't even attempted this kind of research.

Finally, as I've stated before, the explicit goal of archaeology is to understand the Designer. Patterning in the archaeological record, even apparently obvious patterns such as Easter Island stone heads or an obsidian arrowhead are only important in as much as they tell us something about their designers. The bone assemblages above tell me a lot about the circumstances under which they were produced. They even tell me something about the intentions and capabilities of the humans who produced them. Intelligent Design is not concerned about who the designer is...another reason why ID is not even closely related to archaeology.

Nor does ID generate applicable knowledge. Look at this final photograph from a fossil bone assemblage in East Africa. Because of research done on the bone assemblages above, archaeologists know that it contains both cut-marks and carnivore damage; it has been affected by water, but was deposited largely by human (designed) action; it's patterning is similar to that depicted in the second photo above, suggesting it was the result of a particular set of behaviors on the part of its designer. More importantly, it tells us that its designer was not quite human and did not behave the same way as the modern humans who produced the two bone assemblages above did. It also tells us the designer was constrained by behavior, mental capacity, technology and access to resources.

Intelligent Design is not analogous to archaeology. It doesn't even come close.

69 comments:

afarensis, FCD said...

Excellent - I have been toying with a post along those lines, but now I'll just link to yours. It goes without saying that without hypothesis generation and replicative testing we would still be teaching the "Osteodontokeratic" culture as a valid concept. Yet as Brain showed, it was just hyenas and porcipines. The fact that Dart built a whole culture out of it shows the danger of any arguement from design when dealing with nature...

Christopher O'Brien said...

Absolutely right! And again, great post yesterday...thanks for spawning some more discussion!

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I fail to see why both theories have to be so usy disproving when another, when the greatest and easiest explanation will most likely point to the accuracy of both theories. There are many people who believe in intelligent design outside of the religious context. Even Genesis of the bible may have been so misunderstood to the point to where any accuracies within it may be taken more literal than what it was meant to describe. (Maybe days were longer and maybe the dirt Adam came from was actually the evolution of man from a fungus.)

I don't claim to know any answers. I will tell you from my own work in evo-psych and ethnobotany, that to try to assume an answer or disprove one is serious business that is just about impossible in any archaeological context. I find people much more credible when they discuss such concepts and include words like; "may,"; "I feel,"; and "in my opinion," because it means they really have considered all aspects before truly making a claim or judgment and acknowledge the possibility that they too may be human, errors and all.

I personally fully 100% believe in evolution But I also fully believe 100% in the 'possibility' that a lifeform or force may have had an effect on that process at some point, or that our own planet may have been seeded with the first unicellular lifeforms with the intention to have them colonize and evolve a certain way into what we know as mankind. That would still fall neatly under the concept of intelligent design would it not?

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Medyumlar said...

Excellent - I have been toying with a post along those lines, but now I'll just link to yours. It goes without saying that without hypothesis generation and replicative testing we would still be teaching the "Osteodontokeratic" culture as a valid concept. Yet as Brain showed, it was just hyenas and porcipines. The fact that Dart built a whole culture out of it shows the danger of any arguement from design when dealing with nature...

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