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Scientist Tries To Connect Migration Dots Of Ancient Southwest

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Author Topic: Scientist Tries To Connect Migration Dots Of Ancient Southwest  (Read 657 times)
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« on: June 29, 2009, 08:28:57 pm »

Stephen Lekson

There is plenty of evidence that ancient Americans were keenly aware of the cardinal directions. Watch the night sky long enough and it becomes clear that there is one star that does not move while the others circle around it: the north star or Polaris. Motivated perhaps by this knowledge, some ceremonial structures at Chaco are aligned on north-south axes, and the earthen walls at Paquimé zig and zag as though, Dr. Lekson says, they were “laid out on giant graph paper or with the old children’s toy Etch A Sketch.” Throughout the Southwest, modern pueblo religions typically include four sacred mountains, one for each direction, and pueblo people tell stories of ancestors moving south because of bad things that happened in the north.

If these people had been “meridian compulsive,” as Dr. Lekson puts it, they had the astronomical knowledge to plot and follow a long straight line. “Lining things up is not an issue,” he says. “The question is why.”

“Chaco Meridian” came with a warning: “This book is not for the faint of heart, or for neophytes. If you are a practicing Southwestern archaeologist with hypertension problems, stop. Read something safe.” Few of Dr. Lekson’s colleagues heeded the advice.

“Steve is possibly the best writer in Southwest archaeology,” said David Phillips, curator of archaeology at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. “Our academic writing has this inherent gift of taking something interesting and making it dull and boring. And Steve doesn’t have that problem. He thinks outside the box, and the rest of us comb through his ideas.”

“Having said all that,” Dr. Phillips added, “I personally think that the Chaco meridian is a crock.”

In a vivisection of the theory, available online, Dr. Phillips laid out his objections. To begin with, the meridian is not exactly a straight line: if you zoom in, there are deviations of a few miles. Dr. Phillips also noted overlaps in the chronology of the rise and fall of the settlements. For example, Aztec, depicted in Dr. Lekson’s book as the last outpost before the southward migration, was still occupied when Paquimé began.

In a good-natured rejoinder, Dr. Lekson answered these and other points. It is no surprise, he said, that the meridian “wobbles.” Driven by the north-south compulsion, the leaders “did the best they could, lacking chronometers and GPS.” He also disagreed that the overlapping timeline was a problem: “If I were the High Panjandrum, I’d surely send a gang ahead to build a comfortable palace before I dragged my Royal Self over hill and dale to the new Pleasure Dome in Xanadu.”

Debates like this can go on forever. Where the two archaeologists fundamentally disagree is over how a theory should be constructed. To Dr. Phillips, Dr. Lekson is arguing more like a lawyer than a scientist — marshaling corroborating evidence for what he already has decided is true.

“Anyone can take any position and find evidence,” Dr. Phillips said. “Done properly, science means that you stop yourself and figure out what the opposite is — the null hypothesis — and you prove the null hypothesis couldn’t possibly be true. By process of elimination, your desired outcome becomes more plausible. This gets back to Karl Popper. You can only falsify.”

But Dr. Lekson insists that archaeology can advance only by pushing beyond the Popperian ideal, trying to make sense of all the data with plausible accounts of what was happening historically in the ancient Southwest.

“We were trained to treat ancient Pueblo societies like cultures in laboratory petri dishes,” he recently wrote. “Sprinkle the right amount of rainfall on the proper soil and up popped pueblos.” What has been neglected, he says, is an appreciation for the unquantifiable.

“Unless you understand the broad outlines of the story — the history,” he says, — the questions you are asking could be pointless. “You may be answering them very, very nicely and staying close to the data and doing good conservative science, but you could be asking the wrong questions and wasting a lot of money and time doing it.”

With its grand sweep, the new book, “History of the Ancient Southwest,” is vintage Lekson, and there is no reason to think the book will be any less controversial than the meridian theory, which forms but one thread of the saga.

“Lots of people could do what I’m doing, but they are choosing not to,” Dr. Lekson said late one afternoon at Paquimé. “It’s professionally dangerous to some extent.” As he cracked open a Tecate, he described his frustrations at the slow pace of the field.

“The Southwest is one of the most heavily studied archaeological regions in the world, bar none except maybe downtown Athens,” he said. “Per square mile, probably more money and time and energy and thought have been invested than anywhere else. If we can’t take a stab now and try to put everything together, we should probably just hang up our trowels and say, ‘Let’s quit. We’re not learning anything. We’re just spinning our wheels.’ ”
« Last Edit: June 29, 2009, 08:31:30 pm by Bianca » Report Spam   Logged

Your mind understands what you have been taught; your heart what is true.
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