Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Andrew Sullivan proves he's no anthropologist

When stupidity attacks, we do the only thing we can, which is to try to combat it with truth, fact, and raw information. I say this because of Andrew Sullivan's absolutely juvenile and erroneous commentary on the astounding Venus figurine found in Hohle Fels Cave recently. Check out the links above for more in-depth info about Venus figurines and the cave, but here's the substance of the issue:

From the Wikipedia entry:
Venus figurines is an umbrella term for a number of prehistoric statuettes of women sharing common attributes (many depicted as apparently obese or pregnant) from the Upper Palaeolithic, mostly found in Europe, but with finds as far east as Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia, extending their distribution to much of Eurasia, from the Pyrenees to Lake Baikal. Most of them date to the Gravettian period, but there are a number of early examples from the Aurignacian, including the Venus of Hohle Fels, discovered in 2008, carbon dated to at least 35,000 years ago, and late examples of the Magdalenian, such as the Venus of Monruz, aged about 11,000 years.

From the Science Daily article:
The 2008 excavations at Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany recovered a female figurine carved from mammoth ivory from the basal Aurignacian deposit. This figurine, which is the earliest depiction of a human, and one of the oldest known examples of figurative art worldwide, was made at least 35,000 years ago. This discovery radically changes our views of the context and meaning of the earliest Paleolithic art.

Sullivan dismisses the figurine by titling his post "The Power of Big Boobs" and limiting his comment to this:
Why does one find the resilience of male horniness, and near-comic sexual objectification of the female form oddly comforting? This may be the first work of sculpture made by modern humans still extant. It was worn as a pendant. And it quite obviously turned someone on.

Sullivan should keep to what he knows, because I (and I'm sure I speak for all anthropologists here) don't appreciate him passing on his interpretation of early human behavior as if he was speaking with some kind of authority. As it is we have far too many Americans who don't know how to tell good science from charlatanism. Sullivan, I'm sure, didn't bother to research the various competing theories of what these figurines are.

Theories about the function of Venus figurines vary widely, and include emblems of a goddess religion, educational materials for children, sex toys for men, and physiological depictions of pregnant women. Intriguingly, one view suggests that they are self-portraits of women, arguing that the body parts are exaggerated because they are seen from a distorted perspective.

If the real scientists are this conflicted, Sullivan, I'd say there's nothing "obvious" about this find at all. Even if you're just being facetious, keep in mind that some readers will see this and dismiss it with no further thought while implicitly accepting your interpretation. No honest and responsible journalist should ever misrepresent science or set the cause of scientific education back by writing so spuriously about something that is deeply meaningful to human knowledge.


Xanthippas said...

Thank you! I was astounded by the ridiculous commentary I saw on both liberal and conservative blogs about the figurine. Here's at tip: if the first time you've ever written about anthropology or archaeology on your blog is to crack wise about the power of boobs, then you probably should just stop.

Xanthippas said...

Oh but in fairness I should note that probably much of that was prompted by the ridiculous headline for that appeared for the Memeorandum link to the article that Sullivan linked to: "Ancient man sculpts grotesque vision of female form." Of course in that article one scientist is quoted as saying:
Professor Nicholas Conard, from the department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology, at Tübingen University, said is was understandable that many would also view the new discovery in a pornographic light, but he cautioned against jumping too quickly to a particular interpretation.

"We project our ideas of today on to this image from 40,000 years ago," he told the BBC.

"I think there are good reasons to emphasise sexual interpretations, but we really don't know whether it is coming from a more male or a more female perspective. We don't know very much about how the artefact was used."
A warning that Sullivan and others obviously failed to heed.

Scribalist said...

Here's a quote from Paul Bahn that I think is appropriate:

"There currently is a tendency among those having little knowledge of Paleolithic art to want or assume it to be useful in simple terms, to see it as primarily functional.... [but] we are faced here with at least two-thirds of art history, spanning 25 millennia and a vast area of the world. Indeed, when one takes into account such very early specimens as the Berekhat Ram figurine, Pleistocene art comprises about 99% of art history. ... It is obviously futile to try and encompass all this within one theory."

Source here:

Kris Hirst