What is our professional responsibility when someone publishes a really awful book—aimed at the public—in our field? Not too many archaeologists seem to have felt the need to counter books like Chariots of the Gods by von Daniken, who argues that ancient astronauts came to earth and built many ancient monuments. The argument seems too silly to bother with. What about crude and inaccurate diffusionist models arguing, for example, that ancient Mesoamericans couldn’t figure out how to build pyramids or establish complex societies without being shown how by advanced visitors from Europe, Africa, or China. That argument, made by Afro-centric writers (van Sertima 1976; van Sertima 1998), was refuted by archaeologists and others in scholarly venues (Haslip-Viera, et al. 1997; Ortiz de Montellano, et al. 1997).
I was attacked for refuting the erroneous views of Jane Jacobs that cities preceded agriculture. I got some incensed comments when I wrote about Jacobs’ ideas in this blog, and when I corrected that error in the Wikipedia article on Cities, it was quickly changed by someone back to the old text. I tried it again, and presto it was changed again. But all this is smaller than a tempest in a teapot in comparison with the current AAA scandal over Patrick Tierney’s book, Darkness in El Dorado (Tierney 2002).
The furor over publication of Tierney’s book is described elsewhere (Borofsky 2005). Here I only want to mention the recent accusation of historian Alice Domurat Dreger that although many anthropologists at the AAA thought Tierney’s book was awful, the association went ahead and launched an ethics investigation of Napoleon Chagnon on the basis of Tierney’s accusations. The AAA symposium at which these issues were debated is described in the journal Science (Dec. 11, 2009, "Chagnon Critics Overstepped Bounds, Critic Says), and Dreger’s blog entry (My “Demonic” Debut at the American Anthropological Association) has more information and links. If she is correct (Dreger promises a journal article to come on the affair), this would suggest that the anthropologists in question did NOT feel the professional responsibility to counter an awful book; instead they fanned the flames.
I agree with Gary Feinman (see his post on this blog) that archaeologists should speak up more frequently and more loudly in public fora, whether it is to criticize an awful book or to make our (generally obscure) data and findings known to a larger audience.
By the way, it is well worth your while to root around in Dreger’s blog - she is a very interesting scholar and person, with lots of gems in her blog and professional publishing.
Borofsky, Robert (editor) (2005) Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Might Learn from itF. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Haslip-Viera, Gabriel, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano and Warren Barbour (1997) Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima's Afrocentricity and the Olmecs. Current Anthropology 38:419-441.
Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R., Gabriel Haslip-Viera and Warren Barbour (1997) They Were NOT Here Before Columbus: Afrocentric Hyperdiffusionism in the 1990s. Ethnohistory 44:199-234.
Tierney, Patrick (2002) Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. Norton, New York.
van Sertima, Ivan (1976) They Came Before Columbus. Random House, New York.
van Sertima, Ivan (1998) Early America Revisited. Transaction, New York.