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One Archaeologist's Perspective on the Monte Verde Controversy "Monte Verde Under Fire"
October 18, 1999
by David Hurst Thomas

Science is under siege from many quarters. Consider the very first sentence in Red Earth, White Lies by Vine Deloria, Jr., one of archaeology's most articulate critics: "Like almost everyone else in America, I grew up believing the myth of the objective scientist." But the more he read, the more Deloria was convince that scientific arguments were based mostly on authority rather than fact, on manipulation rather than objective reading of the data (Deloria 1995: 9).

Deloria's scientists are "incredibly timid people," crippled by an excessive reverence for authority and orthodoxy. Many subjects, no matter how interesting, are simply prohibited because they call into question long-standing beliefs." Prestigious people are permitted to dominate entire fields of inquiry, which are "populated by little people trying to protect their status [and] some areas of 'science' have not progressed in decades." He singles out Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison and the Smithsonian's Ales Hrdlicka as heavy-handed zealots who dominated conventional academic inquiry in their day, defending the intellectual status quo at all costs and quashing research proposals designed to explore alternative possibilities. Deloria concludes that "like any other group of priests and politicians...scientists lie and fudge their conclusions as much as the most distrusted professions in our society--lawyers and car dealers." (Deloria 1995: 41-42).

What does this have to do with Stuart Fiedel's criticism of Tom Dillehay's work at Monte Verde? Everything.

Most of us probably have the same visceral reactions to Deloria's remarks, but such criticisms can no longer be brushed aside. As the recent inroads of creationism in Kansas and elsewhere illustrate, science is today in trouble. A recent Gallup poll shows that nearly half of American adults endorse a biblical interpretation of creation--and only one in ten believes in a purely scientific explanation of evolution. Look no further than the recent Kennewick flap to see how a public mistrust of science can untrack professional archaeology in America.

With this in mind, I have mixed feelings about Stuart Fiedel's critique of the Monte Verde research. Without doubt, his critical reading of the Monte Verde evidence will serve archaeology very well. We must all retain a certain skepticism about blue-ribbon panels and other arguments from authority. No matter how many luminaries pass judgment on a particular site or research issue, we will always need skeptics like Fiedel--if only to validate archaeology's claim to scientific respectability.

Fiedel raises the critical question of whether confusions in record keeping and reporting have disrupted the chain of evidence necessary to establish a pre-Clovis human presence at Monte Verde. We cannot now answer that question and the onus shifts to Dillehay and his colleagues to prepare a measured and understandable response, including, we hope, new evidence to support their position: details clarifying the horizontal stratigraphy, specifics of artifact proveniences and association, perhaps accompanied by new AMS radiocarbon dates on short-lived organics such as seeds and eggshells (to eliminate old wood problems, if any).

Fiedel raises serious issues of quality control (or lack of it) in conventional archaeological description and discourse. Any archaeologist who has ever tackled a complex, multi-year excavation--can only sympathize with Dillehay and his associates.

Provenience errors can and do happen; they always will. So will editorial errors and analytical mistakes. Did the Smithsonian Institution Press rigorously review the draft manuscript before publication? How could some of the best known scholars in the field have praised an allegedly flawed manuscript as "analytical overkill" and claim that it "sets a new standard for all archaeologists"? How could the Society for American Archaeology award the Monte Verde site report its distinguished book award--if, as Fiedel argues, it is rife with errors, inconsistencies, and mis-statements?

Beyond any factual and typographical shortcomings in the monographs, Fiedel's critique also raises issues of peer review and and editorial process in archaeology. How many "peers" can be expected to grapple with this level of detail? Those selected for "peer reviews" are traditionally archaeologists with the heftiest reputations (and, just as commonly, those with the least time to conduct a substantive review). The danger is that key manuscripts--whether grant proposals, technical articles, or book manuscripts--are simply rubber-stamped down the line, with judgments conditioned as much by interpersonal relations as the dispassionate objectivity on which science has long prided itself.

The solution? Today, with the advent of near-instantaneous electronic communication, its a simple matter to ask colleagues to look over in-progress manuscripts. Further, I believe that these advanced technologies place a new onus on researchers to instigate their own aggressive self-reviews. Only through a rigorous self-policing of manuscripts can we overcome the obvious shortcomings of the hallowed peer review system. This, then, is the up side of the Monte Verde critique.

But I'm irked at the carping tone of Fiedel's commentary, and the ferreting out of meaningless conflict in interpretation over two decades of reporting on Monte Verde. Fiedel cops an attitude which, in my opinion, is entirely inappropriate.

For my money, the Monte Verde research team should be celebrated, rather than henpecked, for their willingness to publish their findings in great detail and to share their misgivings about their own data. I don't see multiple artifact numbers as much of a problem--having done this myself many times--but maybe a concordance on critical pieces would have been helpful. And I think its a cheap shot to dredge up preliminary assessments and press reports to attack the Monte Verde project. I still think its a good thing to change your mind (so long as you're honest about it).

I question Fiedel's decision to rush his manuscript into print without first passing it by Dillehay and his colleagues for comment. Picking up on my earlier theme of self-criticism, its clear that the mishmash of Fiedel's shotgun criticism could have been winnowed down through frank person-to-person communication with the Monte Verde principals. Once this interchange had occurred, we could have been presented with a concise summary of the real issues, unclouded by the chaff and attitude.

Perhaps the most perceptive observation of the controversy has come from Frederick West of the Peabody Essex Museum who believes that the site's problems were compounded by its being treated as news rather than as science (West 1999). Ambushing the Monte Verde team in this way inevitably raises questions over Fiedel's motivations. Was the critique primarily concerned with clarifying the pre-Clovis possibilities at Monte Verde? Or was this just another carefully timed headline-grabber? Handled the way it was, who knows?

For me, the bottom line involves communication in science: Are we content to abide by verdicts from blue-ribbon juries? Can we afford to relegate quality control in archaeology to the conventional peer review system? Aren't there more effective ways to raise questions and fine tune our disagreements?

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America