Jan. 3rd, 2016

heron61: (Hat)
One of the many related fields I studied at length in my 13 year undergraduate and graduate career was the history of science. During the 1980s, one of the cornerstones of that entire discipline was Thomas Kuhn’s work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The basic idea is that scientists are not inclined to change their minds about basic aspects of their discipline, and that it often takes the death of the scientists holding the old beliefs for new radical ideas to take hold, even if they seem to be true.

While still read, Kuhn's book is no longer regarded quite so highly, in part because there are a whole lot of scientific advances to which it doesn’t apply – modern day science still doesn’t undergo radical changes rapidly and easily, but it does so far faster and easier than Kuhn predicts, but I recently found a rather impressive exception.

I recently read and very much enjoyed 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a fascinating and well-done book on the Americas before European contact, and shortly after that watched a recent PBS special about the geology of North America, and was struck at the differences between their discussions of the settlement of the Americas.

As anyone with even the most rudimentary exposure to the topic knows, of the theory that the Clovis culture were the first native Americas and arrived in North America from Eurasia between roughly 12 & 14 thousand years ago. This “Clovis first” theory held sway in archeology pretty much from WWII until the early 21st century. Also, even now the PBS special I watched admitted that the Clovis people were not the first humans in North America, but claimed that humans settled this continent between 15 & 16 thousand years ago.

However, as the author of 1491 points out, there has been evidence of pre-Clovis settlement of the Americas for quite a while, and much of it is considerably older than 15 or 16 thousand years ago.

I remember discussions of the Monte Verde site in Chile in archeology classes I took in the early 1980s, it’s almost 15,000 years old, and if humans reached almost the southern tip of South America back then, they were presumably in North America well before that. I also remember a bit of discussion of the Pedra_Furada_sites , dated at more than 30,000 years ago.
Then there’s the Topper South Carolina site, with dates between 16 and 20 thousand years ago, and the Meadowcroft Rockshelter site, with its dates of 16-19 thousand years ago. Also, some of the various pre-Clovis sites also have older and less accepted dates, ranging as far back as 60,000 years ago.

I have no idea how long humans have been in the Americas (although at least 20,000 years seems pretty likely), but what I do know is that I see something that looks exactly like Kuhn’s ideas about scientists who hold the old paradigm rejecting “anomalies”, and continuing to do so in the face of mounting evidence.

It then occurred to me why this process didn’t seem to be present in fields of modern sicence as diverse as astronomy and biology, but is present in archeology, and particularly archeology dealing with particularly old sites. Unlike the Copernican revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries and the other “revolutions” Kuhn discussed, most modern science not only has a wealth of data at its disposal, but can acquire new data with relative ease. If questions ranging from dark energy to neurogenesis arise, the matter can be settled relatively swiftly by a combination of re-examining older data and collecting new data.

For the past few decades, opposition to new ideas seems to usually collapse under the weight of this data. However, this isn’t true with archeology, especially in the case of the first sites of human habitation in the Americas – the only way to find new sites is effectively random chance, many of them are likely under the Pacific Ocean, because if (as current theory suggests) some of the people settling the Americas took boats down the Pacific coast, that coastline was covered with several dozen meters of water when the last ice age ended. So, in the absence of either side being able to bury the other under masses of data, you have a process that looks much like pre-modern sciences, where (like in many sub-fields of archeology) discoveries were rare and data hard to come by.

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