Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Jaw Bone of an Ass

Briefly, years ago, I entertained the idea of becoming an archaeologist.  Several things deterred me, such as the inevitable conclusion that while a degree in history might lead to a career involving a deep fat fryer and a lot of potatoes, this was still preferable to living in a VW camper permanently parked in a desert (that being the usual result of a degree in anthropology/archaeology).

Eventually I decided to get both degrees, and sure enough, I do seem to be parked permanently in a desert.  While I was a grad student, I tried to visit as many active archaeology sites as I could.  Eventually, this led to me meeting Dr. Robbie Unleashed.  At least that is what I am going to call the distinguished scholar (it doesn’t seem fair to use his real name since he can’t fight back).  I have no doubt that most archaeologists will figure out who I am talking about, and probably a few of them will want to challenge me to a duel with Marshalltown trowels--the preferred weapon of the true archaeologist.

Don’t get me wrong--I am an admirer of Dr. Unleashed, who had a long and distinguished career, winning awards from the Sherman Wayback Museum, writing several brilliant books, and conducting famous digs in Turkey, China, and New Mexico.   Robbie Unleashed was always controversial, more than a little irascible, and constantly outspoken.  He died in Central America at the age of 82 while visiting Mayan sites.  I want to die like Robbie--peacefully in my sleep--not screaming my head off like the passenger in his car.

When I heard that a famous archaeologist had a project underway about two hours from my home, I immediately began maneuvering for permission to visit the site.  Eventually, one of my professors arranged for me to drive over on a weekend and visit the dig, where I was to get a personal tour by Dr. Unleashed.  I gassed up my 4-wheel drive truck, drove to the motel, and picked up the distinguished scholar.  It was a long drive through the desert to the remote site that Dr. Unleashed was working on, and along the way he explained his theory about some of his controversial discoveries.

Most anthropologists believed that humans migrated to the New World from Siberia about 12-15,000 years ago during the Wisconsin Glacier Age, when so much water was bound up in ice that the level of the world’s seas had dropped dramatically.  This meant that a 1200-mile-wide “bridge” linked the two continents.  A band of hunter-gatherers following game crossed the bridge and inadvertently settled both North and South America.

“Wrong!” said Robbie Unleashed.  “I have proof that man lived in southern New Mexico at least 60,000 years ago.”  Perhaps now would be a good time to mention that Robbie could find a 25,000 year old Coke bottle while attending a backyard barbecue party.  Still, he claimed to have proof at the site, and he was going to show it to me.

After a long drive across the desert, we came to the cliff where Robbie was conducting a dig inside a rock cave he called Pinche Cuevo.  This is Spanish for “Home of the Nice Guy”.  (Or something like that.)  We climbed the ladders to the cave and carefully ducked under the low opening.  While the cave was not very large, the contents were astounding.  I vividly remember looking at straw sandals and the remains of a cooking hearth.  Carbon dating had determined that most of the material from the top layer of stratigraphy dated back between 300 to 500 years, meaning that most likely this cave had been used by the Apache right about the time Columbus was getting lost.

Lower strata contained artifacts dating much earlier--indicating that this cave had been used for at least centuries, and (according to Robbie) millennia upon millennia.  The question was just how old those lower strata were for it was at one of these lower levels that Robbie had discovered his prize.

“Look!” he commanded and pointed toward a fossilized bone.  It was a strange looking fossil, and certainly not one from a deer or any animal that I had ever hunted.  While it was obviously a knuckle bone, it was not from any animal I knew about.

“That is from a camelop.”  Robbie explained.  “And carbon dating says that this camel died over 50,000 years ago—yet we discovered the bone inside this cave.   This is obvious proof of human habitation reaching far earlier than previously proposed.”

For the Education and English majors among you, I should point out that the camelop did indeed live in North America, becoming extinct about 10,000 years ago from the effects of climate change and probable over-hunting by the descendants of those hunter-gatherers who got lost up in the Arctic.  (My wife, The Doc, says the length of that last sentence is proof that a German is perched somewhere in my family tree.)  The camelop was bigger than today’s camels and would indeed have been hunted in southern New Mexico.  You may have heard them called by a more common—and unfortunate—name: the “Wal-Mart Camel” after the fossilized remains of one was found while digging the foundation of a new superstore in Phoenix a few years ago.

Looking back at this incident, I would really like to think that I disagreed with Robbie because I had been taught to always challenge and question my teachers.  (This is something I am still trying to teach my students—just last week I taught my students about the giant wooden rabbit used at the battle of Troy.) An alternate theory is that I challenged Dr. Unleashed because I subconsciously realized that extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof.  Unfortunately, I probably argued with the famed archaeologist because there was more than one irascible pinche man in that cave.

“Yes…that could be.”  I heard myself say.  “Or maybe 500 years ago, an Apache saw a weird bone out in the desert and brought it home with him.”
Boy, it was quiet in that cave for a few seconds.  Then Robbie blew up like a slow moving frog on the interstate. 

“GET OUT OF MY CAVE!” he screamed.  “How dare you?!  Get out!  Get out!  Go away!”

No matter how hard I tried to apologize, Robbie just kept screaming for me to leave.  He was furious, and looking back on it, I was being rude to a man who had gone out of his way to do me the huge favor of guiding me through his site.  I left as fast as I could, and the last I saw of Dr. Unleashed, he was sitting inside that cave.

I wonder how long it took him to remember that I was his ride back to the motel.

1 comment:

  1. "Jawbone of An Ass" is probably the perfect title for this story. God knows there's a lot of them out there - jawbones wagging from asses I mean.

    Seems that this story serves as an example of a dynamic common to many today: certain prejudices and conclusions are so clearly valued, even beyond logic and probability, that the mere hint of disagreement can produced an unwarranted and unreasonable outrage. We may think, in our prideful intelligence, that we don't worship any sacred cows, but I keep wondering if maybe we do. Or, whether I do, to be specific.

    I imagine I do and we'll all be fine just as long as you don't point it out to me. : )