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What we really know about the past

Monthly Archives: March 2012

Lumpers, Splitters, and Being Stuck Between

Welcome back!

In keeping with my current trend of taking a popular news article and writing about something only tangentially related to it, I submit to you: The Red Deer Cave People. Perhaps you’ve seen some news articles floating around about this possible new branch of human evolution found in China. Apparently, these people are “unlike any known species”. It’s definitely making the rounds and, if history is any proof, people will talk about it for a couple of weeks, then forget about it— until someone releases some new news or another study. We’ve seen this pattern before: remember Homo floresiensis, the infamous ‘hobbit’ people, or the Denisovans? No? Think harder. You probably remember the first one, because you’re smart and that research was followed by a media blitz.

Well, these Red Deer Cave people are from China, not Alberta— as some of my fellow Canadians may have thought. I say ‘people’ because that’s what the news articles say. It’s not what the actual journal article says— the closest they come to that weighty language is ‘population’. Now, I’m not going to go into too much detail about whether or not the remains are indeed the huge discovery that the current media attention would suggest, as I’ve only read the one scholarly article published about them, and I do not consider myself skilled enough in this kind of physical anthropology to come down on either side of the debate. If you don’t feel like slogging through the actual journal article the National Geographic article on it is the best one I saw— go read it! However this new archaeology water cooler talk does give me a great opportunity to talk about a general theme in archaeology and anthropology: “lumpers” versus ”splitters” or, because I feel like they’re used as formal names: Lumpers and Splitters.

My sister thinks that Lumpers Vs. Splitters sound like a great roller derby match

 

Like most things, the idea of taxonomic classification is one we archaeologist stole from another discipline: biology. We use it in all of our most basic analysis. A good example of how we do this classification is with stone tools, because there is nothing more quintessential than a good tool kit. So we start with a couple of different over-arching categories: Formal and Informal tools. Now not all archaeologists do this, and we get in to a great deal of arguments about this (because we are giant nerds)— but I won’t get into that right now. Formal tools are basically the end product of tool construction. If you sit down with a large piece of rock—say, a nice piece of chert—and smash it with a variety of different rocks and antlers, you end up with a tool, let’s say an arrow head. This is very hard to do, so please understand I used the word ‘smash’ more for its comedic imagery than as a technical descriptor. Anyway: Smash! Smash! Arrowhead!

yeah, it's not that easy....

 

That arrowhead is what we call a formal tool. Same thing if you end up with a knife, or a scraper, or whatever. The idea is that you meant to make that tool when you sat down and started smashing. But, in the process of your wonderful day of smashing two rocks together, you are left with a whole pile of other bits of rock, some of which are flakes. The flakes tend to have these nice sharp edges to them. Pick one up, straighten the edge a bit, and now you can use if to open that nut you’ve got in your pocket, or shave some fur off your rabbit skin, or do pretty much anything that requires a sharp edge. That right there is an informal tool; meaning you didn’t sit down with intention of making it, but you used it when you got it.

At this point I will mention that I am simplifying this quite a bit- and the idea that we know what someone intended to do when they sat down to smash a rock 5000 years ago is a little bit presumptuous— but to get in to it would be to talk about Emic vs. Etic, and that’s a whole other post in itself.

Now we archaeologists shrink these tools down into smaller categories, because we like to. There are all sorts of really important reasons we do this, but let’s just say that it makes our life easier. We end up with various types of bifaces, unifaces, and ground stone tools. Ground stone tools are tools that were made by grinding— not out of stone found on the ground (that one confused me in my first year of university and I’m still slightly embarrassed about how long it took me to figure it out). Within these categories we have stuff like projectile points, knives, scrappers, burins, etc. Sub-dividing these even further we can look at side-notched points, lanceolates, end-scrapers, thumbnail scrapers, etc. This doesn’t even get into the various different types and styles that change over time. When we do that, things get even more complicated.

Pictured: Complicated

 

But that’s not important right now as the point isn’t to teach you about the umpteen thousand different categories we have for stone tools; rather, it’s to demonstrate that we tend to create complicated categories for all manner of things. If one was to group all the different stone tool categories together it would look kind of like the taxonomic tree we all saw in our high school text books. Scientists love classifying things— categories are integral to science. So, given this, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: we hardly ever agree on how many categories we need, how big or small they should be, or even what should be in them.

Now most archaeologists agree on the bigger categories. Projectile points, scrapers, drills, knives, etc., but we tend to argue about specific artifacts belonging with one or another. The difference between a knife and a point can actually be hard to tell sometimes. Just because something has a sharp point doesn’t mean it was necessarily used to kill dinner. It could have been used to cut up some plants, or sharpen a stick. So we argue about it— usually over beer— because we think arguing over the symmetry of a stone tool is fun. And, as I have mentioned before: we are giant nerds.

This right here... this is an archaeological love note

 

But what does this tool talk have to do with a gang of possible humans from a deer-covered cave in China? Well, this ‘new group’ is a fantastic example of the constant and all-encompassing argument in anthropology: that of Lumpers and Splitters.

These are not complicated terms, a Lumper is a researcher who classifies things based on broad categories: they tend to cast wide nets when it comes to determining groups of things. A Splitter does the opposite: These guys make up categories for everything. These easiest illustrative examples for the extremes of each group come from their critics. Critics of Splitters claim that they create a new category for anything they can see a difference between. As in: “Hey, this frog is red, and this one is reddish-orange. NEW SPECIES!

This tends to piss off Lumpers, partially because they see it as an unnecessary over-complication of things, and partially because “HEY LOOK – NEW SPECIES!” get more media coverage than “HEY LOOK — a slightly different version of the same species we’ve known about for years.”

Critics of Lumpers, on the other hand, tend to think they over-simplify categories and ignore crucial differences: “If it’s not a bear, and it’s not a dog, it’s got to be a cat”. This tends to piss of Splitters, as they see the study of complexity as integral to our understanding of the word. It also may be because Lumpers are always the last guy interviewed in newspaper articles, often included as the ‘somber second opinion’, making Splitters seem like over-excited media hogs, being put in their place by the stoic, reserved researcher.

The National Geographic article on the Red Deer Cave remains is a perfect illustration of the lumper versus splitter debate. On one side you have some researchers arguing that this group represents a previously unseen example of the complexity of human evolution in Asia. Some are suggesting that they represent an earlier example of humans, one that looks a lot more like our recent archaic ancestors than us modern humans. Someone even suggests that they’re possibly the result of interbreeding between humans and Denisovans. Which is a bit of a stretch, as we have no DNA from the Red Deer Cave people, and we only have DNA from Denisovans (all we know about Denisovans is the result of DNA analysis on a toe bone— we don’t even have a skull to compare). But whatever, it’s a possibility and we should try and figure out if it’s true or not.

At the end of the article comes that sober second thought— the Lumpers. Here, we get the opinion that the differences seen in these bones are probably just the result of some more robust (a fancy term for big and thick) members of our own species. These researchers just don’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s pretty clear they are unconvinced about the headline of the article. They’re probably not too pleased about the picture at the start of the article either.

Why did they draw him with male pattern baldness?

 

I’m guessing the Lumpers would argue that the artist rendition is misleading— as is placing a beard, receding hairlines, no clothes, and hairy body to make the subject look more ‘ancient’— as in actuality we have no idea if they needed to shave their shoulders. All we really know is that they have a big face and not a lot of chin. I know a couple people like that already. Right now it’s hard to say whether or not to lump or spit, and when that’s the case, Lumpers are going to lump, and Splitters are going to split.

Most researchers exist on some part of the spectrum between these two extremes and, in fact, can oscillate between different ends. We may be a Lumper when it comes to tool types, but a Splitter when it comes to culture groups. I tend towards the Lumper side of the spectrum, but am not an extremist about it. One of the first things I ask another archaeologist when we’re drawing a profile, or analyzing artifacts, or doing pretty much anything that involves categories is: “are you a Lumper or a Splitter”. I don’t really care which one they are, but it makes it easier to know where they’re coming from. I don’t shy away from one group, as some very fun conversations can happen between Lumpers and Splitters (again: WE ARE GIANT NERDS).

So, in essence, what we have here is not a new debate; it’s just another example of a classic argument between Lumpers and Splitters. One that will probably not be resolved any time soon. This is great, because understanding grows from these debates. We shouldn’t get pissed off when scientist can’t agree on something, we should encourage it. New ideas and innovations are forged from debates, and are stronger because of them.