Subject:      Re: earliest pottery: thoughts upon a strange controversy
From: (Yuri Kuchinsky)
Date:         1997/06/19
Message-ID:   <5obr7u$cha$>
Newsgroups:   sci.archaeology,sci.archaeology.mesoamerican,

Greetings again,

So it seems that this subject of the earliest pottery in the Americas is
not controversial enough? 

Why the underwhelming response, I wonder? Is no one really interested? Oh,
well, be it as it may...

So here's the conclusion of my "thoughts". To remind, this is a review of
the two articles appearing in current AMERICAN ANTIQUITY.

[Also, I forgot to mention in the previous post that files with the
summary of Roosevelt's 1995 publication were posted by me a few months ago
in some of these ngs, and are also available on my webpage. If someone
cannot access them there for some reason, email me, and I will send the
material to you.]

I was talking before about how difficult it is to maintain reasonable and
objective discussion nowadays when the question of "the Origins" of Native
American cultures is mentioned...

Diffusionism, both hyper- and hypo-, mystical unity, convergence,
evolutionism, you name it, the whole array of obscure theoretical
positions are brought out, and Good Bye common sense. The sleeves
are rolled up and then, all of a sudden, it's an unseemly squabble
instead of a scholarly debate.

In this Kingdom of Shadows named the Ivory Tower, in the Days of the
Present when carbon-dating is still a radical new thing not entirely
documented in Guyana archaeology, Functionalism and Structuralism
Triumphant, although not entirely mutually at peace, now Rule over
Evolutionism, while Diffusionism, the bastard child of something as
sinister-sounding as Kulturkreis is slinking in the shadows and
plotting surprise guerilla attacks... This is as far as I will go in
the theoretical part of this article. The whole thing sounds obscure
and that's how it is...

So, does Alaka phase, the earliest cultural stratum in Guyana, have
pottery? Big question. And, in particular, does Alaka phase have
sand-tempered pottery? It has been generally believed by previous
researchers that sand-tempered pottery is the oldest pottery there.
Williams may be trying to deny this.

Another big question seems to be: were there preceramic occupation
levels in the Amazon at all? Roosevelt said "probably not" in her
1995 publication. She suggested that the earliest human occupations
were already ceramic. She was not really being "radical" in this, as
this was apparently the opinion of most previous researchers in this
field. But Williams clearly says all, or almost all, depending which
part of his article you quote, early human occupation in Guyana was
preceramic! Here's Williams:

      Apart from the Hososoro Creek deposit, none of the 14 shell
      middens excavated so far on the Western Guiana Littoral can by
      any means be described as pottery-age shell middens. All but
      one are preceramic. (p. 348)

So what's the truth here? This would be rather important to find out
for sure.

(To me, there does seem to be an inconsistency in Williams. He
publishes in 1992 and says fairly clearly there's plenty of Alaka-
style pottery. Then he seems to deny this in the present article...)

There's another endemic malady of today's scholarship that one can
discern in the present mess. I mean the parochialism of our academic
mainstream scholar. Everyone has their own little niche. Nobody
seems to like if a scholar from an adjacent discipline "intrudes" to
offer any radically new and unusual ideas. Everyone watches one's
own turf, and woe befall the intruder.

So here we have the problem of coordinating chronologies for the
different areas of Amazon that happen to belong to different
countries in our day and age. Of course 8,000 years ago, when those
ancient folks being studied now were etching out a living in this
swampy Amazon delta, there were no national boundaries or nations
anywhere about. The people moved around a lot then. If only the
archaeologists now did...

The following two quotations indicate both the difficulties, at
present, in coordinating chronologies for earliest pottery in the
Amazon basin as a whole, and the virulence of the present debate. As
noted previously, Roosevelt seems to be accusing Williams of
"revisionism", of going against most of the previous scholarship in
the area:


      ... it may have saved Roosevelt (1995:120) the futility
      inherent in drawing conclusions from the supposed link between
      the Mina and Alaka phases. There simply was never any
      connection between the two. (p. 350)


      In his comment, Williams also writes as if the similarity of
      Alaka-phase pottery to the Mina-phase pottery is an idea that
      originated with me. However, like the idea of the existence of
      Alaka-phase pottery, this idea originated with Evans and
      Meggers. (p. 362)

Of course the problem with the present controversy is that Guyana
and Brazil contain a lot of the sites in question. But the people
who are in charge of excavations are obviously different in each
area, and the researchers involved tend to specialize either in the
one or in the other area. So the excavations, the dating of
artifacts, and the publishing of the results have been going on at
very different rates for these two countries. It seems that the
Guyana area is currently lagging behind significantly in
contributing for us the true picture of what went on in that very
interesting historical period.

The more general, and a very important question here is, of course, How
early the Amazonian pottery really is? Is it ca. 7000-6500 b.p. years old,
as Roosevelt maintains, based on carbon dating? The Brazilian early dates
now seem well-established. So this thing is not in question, or at least
so it seems. The stakes in the present Guyana controversy may be
diminished considerably because of this.

The academic parochialism may have definitely contributed
significantly to the present controversy. Williams has been rather
slow to present evidence. While the general picture in the Amazon is
strongly indicative of the earliest pottery in the Americas, the
relevant data from Guyana was/is missing, and so that part of the
historical jig-saw puzzle is still missing. Now Williams may be
trying to signal that the pottery in the Amazon is not so early as
people are beginning to think. At least this is my interpretation of
what is going on. It seems to me that Williams may be inclined
towards bringing the chronology for the earliest pottery closer to
the present, i.e. towards making it look younger...

Once upon a time, this debate apparently had something to do with
whether or not a boatload of Japanese fisherfolk came to Ecuador to
start the pottery phase in Valdivia. It's hard to say if this is
still involved now. Perhaps it is. Certainly where the earliest
pottery is found matters. But, myself, I see no reason why the
location of the earliest pottery should have any impact at all on
the convoluted grand theories about the Origins of Cultures that
scholars formulate in their spare time. The contact with the Old
World civilizations could have occurred both across the Atlantic and
across the Pacific very early. If the earliest pottery is in the
Amazon, theoreticians wishing to evoke transoceanic contacts can
always theorize that the early contacts were with Africa, instead of
with Asia. In fact such theories have been formulated long ago
already by Donald Lathrap (1977).

So let's hope the facts will emerge soon behind all this smoke.
Let's hope archaeologists will let go of theory and get down to
settling the much simpler matter of those potsherds -- the matter
that _should be simple_, but is not, unfortunately -- so that the
early history of Native American peoples and their cultures may
become a little more clear to all of us.

Best regards,

p.s. Of course I will be very greatful if any errors or inaccuracies in my
two posts are found and pointed out to me. Any new information is
certainly welcome too. Post or email privately please.

Yuri Kuchinsky   | "Where there is the Tree of Knowledge, there
     -=-         | is always Paradise: so say the most ancient
 in Toronto      | and the most modern serpents."  F. Nietzsche
    ----- my webpage is at: [22] -----

Click here to go one level up in the directory.