Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Ontology: Reductionism

Ontology is the philosophical discipline concerned with questions of existence: What actually exists?  How does it exist?*

One of the most important distinctions in ontology is the distinction between reductionism and holism.  These are both relatively recently-coined terms, but the distinction has been there since the beginning of Eurasian philosophy, and it's pretty important to get it right.  (It's much more complicated than the way I'm presenting it here, but this is a simple summary.)

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Review: 'A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times', by Michael and Maitrii Aung-Thwin

Although I am relatively new to Burmese history and historiography, I like to think I know a fair amount about southeast Asia as a whole.  As such, I feel confident enough to take a break from epistemology to review the book I've just been reading, A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times, by historians Michael Aung-Thwin and Maitrii Aung-Thwin (2012, London: Reaktion Books).  The book deals with the history of Myanmar from 40,000 BCE to the present in a little under three hundred pages, but I am only concerned with the first 140 pages or so - from the arrival of H. erectus to the declines of Ava (Inwa) and Pegu in the early sixteenth century (while I find the recent history of Myanmar interesting, my purpose in reading the book was to gain an understanding of prehistoric and ancient times).

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Epistemology I

Epistemology is a much abused word.  In philosophy, it refers to the sub-discipline concerned with the justification of beliefs.  Epistemology is about a) the formal problem of how beliefs are justified in general and b) how justified you might be in holding a specific belief.  This is quite a straightforward procedure: it involves defining what we might accept to constitute 'evidence' and how evidence relates to beliefs, and applying that to specific situations.  For instance, we might ask whether hearsay constitutes valid evidence, or whether experiment is the criterion of justification, and then we could say whether or not I am justified in believing that water is potable or that I speak English.  Pretty simple.  Of course, we then have to justify why it is that we have adopted these criteria for establishing what is and what is not evidence, and so the criteria for that have to established as well - resulting in a fairly complex argument about the nature of justification (and a fair number of '-isms', confusing for the neophyte).  Epistemology in this sense takes it for granted that you can know things, and it concerns itself primarily with how people know things and how justified they are in knowing them under certain conditions.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Book Review: "Early Thailand" by Higham and Thosarat

Charles Higham is one of the foremost archaeologists of mainland southeast Asia, having worked at Angkor, Noen U-Loke, and other important locations, over the course of several decades.  Alongside local collaborators, Higham has helped work out sequences of human society going back to the Paleolithic and reaching all the way up to the migrations of Tai-Kadai speakers into what is now Thailand and Laos in the late twelfth century.  His popular book on Angkor, The Civilization of Angkor, published in 2001, is in my opinion the best introduction to its history and archaeology (notwithstanding Michael Coe's Angkor, which is also very good).  It was thus a great pleasure to read Higham's latest book, Early Thailand: From Prehistory to Sukhothai (2012, Bangkok: River Books), written together with his long-term collaborator Rachanie Thosarat, which documents the archaeology of Thailand from the arrival of H. erectus up to the thirteenth century CE.

Sunday, 4 November 2012


 This is just a little post about the Austroasiatic language family, sometimes known as Mon-Khmer.  I have been reading quite a bit about it, and I thought I'd use this to summarise the topic, both for my benefit and, possibly, for yours.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

'Ancient Aliens Debunked'

A three-hour documentary has been released by film-maker and former Ancient Aliens believer Chris White about the failures of Erich von Daeniken's ancient astronaut theories.  It goes into every piece of evidence methodically and carefully, in marked contrast to the sensationalism of Ancient Aliens.  Pumapunku, one of the archaeological sites most egregiously misrepresented by von Daeniken and the History Channel, is addressed first, probably due to its importance in ancient astronaut mythologyWhite does a good job of explaining why ancient astronauts are superfluous in understanding the site, and why almost every alien-related claim made about it is just, well, wrong.  I personally would have liked a bit more detail about who built Pumapunku and what sort of traditions it was representative of, but that's just because I'm interested in such things (and I was pleased to note the mention of the Yaya-mama iconography in the film).  Some of the claims White makes are themselves flawed, and the most recent issue of eSkeptic, the email newsletter of Skeptic magazine, discusses some of these, including especially the idea that flood myths are universal.  (They aren't, by the way.)  But either way, Ancient Aliens Debunked is a good, sensible breakdown of the claims made on Ancient Aliens and, as it can be watched in parts, it's a particularly good resource.  There is also a website on which White has provided citations for the claims he makes (quite unlike Ancient Aliens, I'd like to add!).  So if you find the time, do give it a look.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Austronesian Origins

Where did the Austronesian languages come from?  People have been talking about that for a few hundred years now - Austronesian linguistics is not an entirely new phenomenon - but the debate has now developed to a high degree of sophistication and nuance.  Early European explorers noticed the similarities between Austronesian languages, especially those in Polynesia, at about the same time as British scholars in India were noticing the similarities between the Indo-European languages.  While Indo-European is, of course, the more celebrated of the two and by far the best-studied language family on the planet, Austronesian linguistics has been part of the academy for some time, even if only as a minor specialism.  It is now one of the most securely identified language families and Urheimats that we know of.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


My reading must seem erratic.  I've blogged about South America, southern Africa, human sacrifice, the Indo-European expansion, classic ethnographies of highland southeast Asia, and Alfred Russel Wallace.  I'm not an expert on any of these things, but I do read a lot, and I read a very diverse range of books.  I just want to know more about the history of humankind, and ideally, I'd like to spread awareness of the brilliant craziness of so much of it whether I'm an expert or not.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Great Zimbabwe

Tropical Africa presents many of the same problems as lowland South America to the investigator of the past.*  The environment precludes easy excavation in many areas (especially in the West African rainforests, which are famously dense), and even in areas where it doesn't, many of the materials used in indigenous African cities were organic and thus inherently less lasting than hard rock. Some African capitals were moved frequently, as was the case in Buganda, one of the best-documented kingdoms in Africa.  The capital was described by Europeans and Americans (including Henry Morton Stanley), many of whom were in awe of its massive wooden buildings and well-designed layout, but the city moved - dismantled and reassembled elsewhere - fairly often, and the building materials were all biodegradeable.  If you're wondering why the numerous kingdoms of tropical Africa have failed to leave tangible, beautiful remains and extensive UNESCO World Heritage sites, it isn't because the people of Africa were not industrious or didn't build anything.  It's just that they seldom built in stone, they liked to move about, and they often lived in environments that degraded or concealed the organic materials they used.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Lady Metallurgist in Bronze Age Austria

A new archaeological find from Austria suggests that women may have worked metal in the Bronze Age.  There seems to be a single Associated Press report going around all the papers with very minor variations.  The Daily Mail provided a sexist headline, and was the only paper to urge caution about the significance of the find.  Caution is probably a good thing, but I find it hard to believe that the Daily Mail was inspired by a desire for scientific accuracy.  Especially after having seen some of the readers' comments.

Thursday, 4 October 2012


Complex societies and 'civilisations' seem to develop in areas where scarcity, opportunity, population density, and diversity can be found simultaneously.  By that I mean, 'civilisations'* like Sumer and Egypt develop in places where there are obstacles to healthy living and natural geographical boundaries to human development, like deserts; opportunities for growth within the bounded region, like the presence of fertile alluvial floodplains or marine resources; a rising population, possibly as a result of improved agriculture or some other cause; and a diversity of environments (floodplain and steppe, for instance) and people (different language families).  I don't want this to be simplistic, of course, because the development of complex civilisation is an incredibly complicated topic - but most of the complex civilisations of which I am aware developed in such environments.  It seems as if the development of civilisation is inevitable in areas where population density creates pressure on scarce resources, but where different resources can be exploited by a division of labour allowed for by the stratification of society, all of it enriched by ideas and technologies provided by diverse populations living in diverse environments.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Wallace Online

The entirety of Alfred Russel Wallace's works can now be found online for free, including papers, newspaper articles, and manuscripts.  While I like my paper copy of The Malay Archipelago, it's always gratifying to know that old and often-expensive works can be read without charge - and of course, I'm glad to see that Wallace is getting the attention he deserves.

Wallace was co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection.  Wallace sent a letter to Darwin from Ternate, in what was then the Dutch East Indies, outlining his views on natural selection.  The letter spurred Darwin to action, resulting in a paper authored by both Darwin and Wallace and the publication of On the Origins of Species [...] in 1859.  It is clear from Darwin's works that he had thought more about evolution and its mechanisms than Wallace had, and Wallace didn't publish very much on the topic, so credit should rest primarily with Darwin.  But Wallace was a clever chap and a great naturalist.  Later in his life, Wallace became a spiritualist and attended seances - a fashionable thing to do at the time (Arthur Conan-Doyle and the explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett, among many others, became spiritualists as well).  This supernaturalist tendency conflicted with his scientific sensibilities, and it is notable that Wallace refused to accept the possibility of human evolution.  He believed, as do many creationists, that humans are too intricate and special to have come from an ape-like ancestor.  He has subsequently been proven incorrect, of course, and Darwin's position on the subject of human origins has been vindicated (even down to the continent, Africa, on which the bulk of the process of human evolution occurred).

The Malay Archipelago is worth reading if you have any interest whatsoever in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, etc, or if you love animals (the parts about orangutans may shock you a bit, however).  The original illustrations are great as well.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Human Sacrifice

At Kerma, Nubia, on the present-day border between Sudan and Egypt, there are ruins of an ancient African civilisation that flourished c.1600 BCE. The Kingdom of Kerma, located between the First and Fourth Cataracts of the Nile, was probably the earliest 'black' African complex civilisation, and likely rose in order to control trade along the river from tropical Africa up to the Nile Delta. From the Amarna letters, a collection of diplomatic correspondences found at Akhenaten's capital Akhetaten (now known as Amarna), we know that tropical African products were traded in the Near East, especially ebony, indicating that the trade was extensive by the middle of the second millennium BCE. G. A. Reisner, who excavated the capital city of Kerma in 1913, found 322 human sacrifices in Tumulus X, one of several massive burial mounds at the site. He estimated that there had been over 400 sacrificees in Tumulus X before tomb robbers disturbed the place. This is the greatest concentration of human sacrifices revealed by archaeologists from any tomb in the world.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Literary and Cultural Evidence of Indo-European Pastoralism

One of the things that annoys me about the non-steppe origin hypotheses for Indo-European is that they fail to explain some of the most basic data of all.  The Anatolian hypothesis fails to explain the eastern Indo-European languages - Indo-Iranian and Tocharian - and it focuses unduly on Europe, as if the only expansion of IE occurred in Europe.  The out-of-India hypothesis fails to explain any of the data, except the presence of IE languages in India (a steppe origin explains this equally well, of course).  But perhaps the most obvious failing is that Indo-European cultural traditions are fairly constant, and the non-steppe hypotheses make no sense of them.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Leach, Pareto, Machiavelli, Carbo

If you've ever studied marriage alliance or southeast Asia, you've almost certainly come across Edmund Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma.  Here I'm going to look a little - only a little - at Leach's central theory about Kachin social structure, tying it to earlier (much earlier) precedents.  There's actually considerably more in the book than the disequilibrium theory, but that is what I am interested in here.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Theory in Anthropology

Studying anthropology at university, you learn a lot of fairly useless stuff.  If what you want to do is a fairly old-fashioned study of village life and marriage alliance in eastern Indonesia, or a dig at the site of a pre-Columbian Ecuadorian kingdom, you've got to learn about - and pass exams on - 'social theory', or the thinking of continental philosophers about human society.  This is usually called, simply, 'theory'.*  It can be important to know about the philosophical aspects of investigating societies, but for most of the work anthropologists do, this 'theory' stuff is basically useless.  Maybe even worse than useless.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Lost Cities of Amazonia, The Black Soil, and Google Earth

I have recently begun reading David Grann's The Lost City of Z, a popular and critically-acclaimed book about the English explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett, who went missing in the Mato Grosso*, Brazil, in 1925.  Fawcett was on an expedition to locate 'Z', an alleged pre-Columbian city in the jungle.  The expedition was famous, Fawcett became a celebrity, and his disappearance spurred a number of people to go looking for him, all of whom disappeared, died, or otherwise failed.  The number dead as a result of Fawcett's disappearance may be as high as a hundred.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Why the Anatolian hypothesis is wrong

There is a breakdown on John Hawks' blog of a recent paper in Science about the Indo-European expansion.  Using a method derived from epidemiology, the authors reached the conclusion that Proto-Indo-European was spoken in Anatolia.  This is the Anatolian hypothesis, that Indo-European languages spread after agriculture was introduced to what is now Turkey, with the expansion dating to some point in the last 10,000 years, perhaps around 6000 BCE.  The method used in the paper is based on a statistical analysis of cognate terms in Indo-European languages, which is not a usual method in historical linguistics.  Linguists have experimented with statistical methods in the past, and they have rejected most of them in favour of rigorous analysis of languages.  Unless the sample is chosen judiciously, statistical methods are useless.  And it's important to remember that historical linguists and archaeologists have other methods, methods with a proven utility.

Sunday, 2 September 2012


Terms like 'Iron Age', 'Bronze Age', and 'Neolithic' are common in popular accounts of the history of humankind.  The idea of different 'ages' of humankind is a very old one; Hesiod, the 8th century BCE Boeotian poet, used it in Theogony, and the idea of a 'Golden Age' is actually a direct inheritance from him.  It's also an idea found in Popol Wuj*, the K'iche' Maya creation myth, in which the gods created different generations of humans from mud and wood before settling on the final form.  But in archaeology, the ages we're all familiar with go back to the first rigorous formulation of the discipline in early nineteenth century Denmark, when items found in graves were placed in a rough chronology based on the dominant materials used in their creation.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Zarathushtra Spitaama: His Life and Works

Around this time last year, I purchased a copy of M. L. West's translations of The Hymns of Zoroaster (2010, London: I. B. Tauris).  West (no relation) is an emeritus classicist at All Souls College, and he wrote one of my favourite books on the Indo-Europeans (Indo-European Poetry and Myth, 2007, OUP), as well as some of the standard texts on the Iliad, amongst many others on classic topics.  He wrote a book on the influence of Near Eastern literature and thought on the Hellenic world, The East Face of the Helicon, and you can find his translations of Hesiod in most major bookshops.  As a result of his Indo-European work, for which he learnt several languages including Iranian ones, West developed an interest in Zoroastrianism and Zoroaster himself.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

South America: A Post

Travelling on the bus/train to and from work, I tend to spend my time reading.  This is probably the most productive portion of my reading day; I have forty minutes or so each way in which to make progress on whatever book I happen to be reading, and I tend to read about fifty or sixty pages each trip depending on the book.  I want to read at other times, sat on the sofa or maybe even in the garden, but I don't maximise usage of time as well as when I'm on the way to work.  Paradoxically, this means that I read more when I'm working than when I'm not.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Nature of Language and Historical Linguistics, redux

 Historical linguistics often seems to rely on the assumption that languages are not very creative, and that words are confined to particular meanings.  This isn't necessarily so, but it is nonetheless generally the case that languages are not very creative.  Here I'll try to explain a few of my thoughts on how one can reconcile the fact that words change in meaning and form with the way in which we can find out more about the past using reconstructed languages.  I discussed the same things in my post the other day, but I believe this is a better explanation of the position.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Thoughts on Language

 I apologise for not having updated with anything recently.  I have been extraordinarily busy.  I have also been unable to follow the comments on blogs I read, and so I've unfortunately left some hit-and-run comments on some of them in the spare time I've had.  Anyway, here is a post on some thoughts I've been having about meaning and language.*

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A book by Marvin Minsky

Marvin Minsky's book The Society of Mind is a classic in the field of artificial intelligence.  It's beautifully structured, but it isn't organised into a single coherent narrative.  Instead, Minsky has divided the book into thirty chapters and an appendix, and subdivided those chapters into single-page essays.  The chapters tend to focus on a single theme, but they don't necessarily follow immediately on from one another.  They do build on one another over the long term, however; a chapter on memory is followed by one on thinking about and classifying arches, only to be picked up a few chapters later by a chapter on memory that links into the chapters on arches and everything else in between.  It feels like it was created organically.  It's very easy to read, and can be digested in bite-sized pieces, and there's no reason not to read it, even if you take your time over it.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Proto-Sticky-Icky: Ancient Cannabis

    I mentioned in my last post that Indo-European speakers might have become rich through selling horses, and recruitment to Indo-European-speaking groups might have seemed like a good prospect for members of other groups.  But it's possible that proto-Indo-European speakers became rich and powerful through selling other products, including, perhaps, intoxicants.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

An Overview of Theories of Austronesian Migration

There are several theories as to how the Austronesian language family ended up so widely scattered.  One is a fairly simple migration model: that Austronesian-speaking people and their direct descendents (by and large) moved south from Taiwan through the Philippines and Indonesia before crossing the Indian and Pacific Oceans to Madagascar and Hawaii.  That's a bit of a strawman, but it's close enough to the basic idea of the dominant Austronesian migration model.  There's been considerable work on this model, and it's really nuanced and evidence-based - it's not speculative or unreasonable.  Nevertheless, there are other positions out there.  Migration is complicated, and anthropologists supporting the migration view don't rule out other mechanisms.  The difference between models is more in emphasis.

Monday, 16 July 2012

A short post on Cognitivism

One of the reasons anthropologists rarely present a united front and often direct their ire at good academics - like, say, Steven Pinker - is their inability to agree about the most basic facts concerning Homo sapiens.  They discuss long-term debates like 'structure' versus 'agency', many of which become highly politicised, and work from philosophers (often very bad ones) and concepts (often very vague ones) instead of first principles.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Ancient Alien Chronology I: Pumapunku

One of the things that leaps out at you when consulting alient astronaut materials - if you have a good sense of the chronology of human history, anyway - is that there doesn't seem to be a plausible time scale by which this is all happening.  These aliens seem to have hopped about all over the place at completely different points in time.  A short visit to twelfth century BCE Veracruz to get the Olmecs up and going, a saunter into tenth century CE Java to get Borobudur built, a few cocktail parties in sixth century CE Bolivia to establish the Tiwanaku civilisation.  It all seems a little far-fetched.  Why didn't the aliens go everywhere at the same time?  Why did these extra-terrestrial voyagers, used to super-long-distance travel, find it so hard to cross the Atlantic Ocean?

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Ancient Aliens: Part I

I've been a follower - but not a fan - of the hypothesis that aliens gave the secrets of civilization to humans (otherwise known as "ancient alien theory") for some time.  It's deeply silly.  Like many pseudoscientific theories about the incredibly complex spread of writing, agriculture, and urbanisation, it engages with none of the real evidence, except in a superficial and deliberately exoticising way.  Anything prima facie mysterious is used as evidence that aliens landed and created/inspired whatever it is under discussion, relying on the ignorance of the audience for the claim to work.  This is how pseudoscience works, of course, but it's especially blatant in the ancient alien world.  We're not really dealing with complex scientific principles, after all.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

A Short Rant

The posts I've written so far have addressed things usually unaddressed in anthropology departments.  Indo-European studies, Afrocentrism, and Indian history have their place in anthropology departments, but it seems to me the wrong one.  Instead of studying the subjects themselves (say, the linguistic situation of ancient Egypt), anthropologists study the non-academics who take an interest in them.  Instead of trying to find out as much as possible about pre-Christian Celtic religion, for instance, anthropologists today will research Celtic revivalism in Texas.  There are some excellent academics who take an interest in both - Ronald Hutton is one of those, and he has published on both Druidic religion and neo-pagans today who believe they are following the original.  Hutton takes a suitably sceptical approach to both things.

A Meme Clarification

I want to clarify something about memes, as I have referred to them in two posts in a row.  Much of the criticism of the idea stems from the fact that they aren't "real": Language changes, technologies change, and each time someone uses a word or builds a prison or pours whisky into a tumbler, it is subtly different (in some way) to every previous time.  So "memes" aren't stable things you can point to, and therefore it is unreasonable to speak of an Indo-European expansion if only "memes" expanded.  "Memes" aren't real.

Some thoughts about the Indo-Europeans

I recently acquired The Horse, The Wheel, and Language by the anthropologist David Anthony.  The subject of this large book is the Indo-European expansion, which is a contentious and tricky subject.  Nineteenth century ruminations on the topic produced the Aryan concept, and introduced it into the German academic world at a nationalistic time as the German state coalesced out of the principalities left by the destruction of the Holy Roman Empire, providing one of the roots from which Nazism grew.  Even today many non-academics interested in the subject are white racists searching for their "Aryan" roots.  Connections with fascism may be found among many of the twentieth century scholars of Indo-European religion and society, including, possibly, Georges Dumezil, a French scholar whose claims about Indo-European society gave impetus to structuralism in anthropology - a strange, quasi-cognitivist movement defined by a not particularly scientific method for uncovering universals in social organisation and myth (and more) based on "structures" in the brain.  This was very influential, and it is one of the many schools of thought whose history forms much of useless dreck that one studies on a course in social anthropology.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Memes and Memetics

Meme theory is probably the most well-known of the anthropological theories bouncing around the academy today, but it didn't develop in anthropology departments and is consequently not very well-known by anthropologists themselves.  Since few anthropologists care about the problems meme theory purports to explain, they're also not very interested in approaching it.  This is not entirely true; there are some anthropologists who have looked at meme theory, including especially Maurice Bloch, a Franco-British anthropologist at the London School of Economics.  Dan Sperber, a brilliant anthropologist who has branched out into linguistics (introducing the influential theory of relevance into pragmatics) and much else, has also written extensively about the notion of memes.*  But it is certainly the case that you won't learn anything at all about the idea behind memes - even a debunking of it - on an anthropology course.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Why Anthropology Is Hard

Anthropology with a big-A is the study of human beings.  I'd say that this Anthropology includes studies of everything humans do and every aspect of how they do it, ranging from what we call political science to cognitive psychology to criminology to economics to paleoanthropology to Assyriology.  Fundamentally, all those sub-disciplines are about the same thing, even if they disagree about it.  Despite studying basically the same thing, there are nevertheless a lot of sub-disciplines in existence just for studying people.  That should make it easier and lighten the workload for scholars working in these fields, but to focus on even only one of these sub-disciplines of Anthropology requires an Atlantean burden.

The So-called "Afro-Asiatic Dominion"

This is a good example of the kind of pseudoscience I'm after.  The claim is that at some point, seemingly in the second millennium BCE, there was a vast "Kushite" empire extending from what is now Ghana and Morocco to India and the Caspian Sea, traceable through allusions in the Classical literature and genetics.  There is no support for such an empire, which would be completely unprecedented in world history, and, while I haven't done the calculation, would probably be the largest land empire in the history of the planet.  The evidence in favour of it is very poor.  The author is deeply confused about language families, the history of the Near East, and many other topics about which she pontificates, and she is putting out information that is flat out wrong.  I'm going to try to untangle some of these issues, but not all of them - I want to write a blogpost, not clean out the Augean stables.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Idea Behind the Blog

Part of my aim in writing this blog is to provide a sceptical angle on some aspects of anthropology, philosophy, and world history that some people out there might benefit from.  I'm fascinated - and more than a little disturbed - by "ancient alien" theory, the nonsensical, pseudo-scientific, pseudo-historical view that human life or human civilization (or at the very least, aspects of those things) resulted from intervention by extra-terrestrial beings.  I find it fascinating because it's somewhat popular (several History Channel seasons and innumerable drecky books attest to this), and disturbing not only because it is egregiously incorrect about everything it asserts (which it is) but also because the assumptions behind major aspects of it are deeply unscientific and even racist.  So I shall be writing a few things on ancient alien theory.

I'm equally disturbed by any ethno-nationalism, and I intend to tackle some of the pseudo-history produced by Afrocentrists, Aryan-myth-believing racists, and any and all other nutters.  I have no political axe to grind on this front (although I do endorse a species of cosmopolitanism), but I hate the idea of people walking around with such incorrect views about the world.  That's enough justification for me to leap on these topics, which is something I already do.

Another area of anti-scientific prejudice and pseudo-academic idiocy is to be found closer to home for me.  I took a master's degree in anthropology, and I am scrambling together funds to start a PhD next year.  My interests are in fairly down-to-earth things (things mundane, but with greater importance than at first appears), and my PhD proposal is about researching marriage alliance in eastern Indonesia.  This is something that is worthwhile and interesting in its own right, and very much at the core of anthropology - just not the anthropology departments of today.  The name "anthropology" is becoming more and more a label for a brand of "critical theory"-based social not-really-science predicated on either radical bullshit philosophy or left-wing political activism.  I'm interested in understanding human beings and their products naturalistically, not in changing all of society to fit a utopian dream, and it's surprising and ultimately frightening to me that social anthropology, once a technical discipline concerned with sociological problems not dealt with by other disciplines (like marriage alliance in Indonesia, which is hardly covered by, say, political science), has become a redoubt of kooky bad philosophy that other departments would and do reject as unbecoming of academia.  That doesn't mean I want to keep the subject in stasis, or that I want to revert to a previous incarnation of anthropology.  I'd rather that social anthropology were a productive part of the human sciences: connected to and contributing to psychology, history, linguistics, primatology, &c, and with a focus of its own, on pre-industrial societies, to complement sociology's focus on industrial and post-industrial societies (for the purposes of division of labour more than anything).

In any case, "critical theory" and continental philosophy is mostly bullshit, so I shall be covering these as well as other more traditional sceptical topics.

I intend to leaven this gritty bread with some more nourishing material, however.  I don't want to simply debunk or destroy the precious myths of "critical theorists", white racists, and other nutballs.  I'd much rather write engaging posts about truly fascinating things.  I'm interested in a heck of a lot of things, and I have some measure of expertise in a few of them, and it is on these things that I will concentrate.  Human kinship, Austronesian-speaking society, ancient Indonesia, early long-distance voyaging, Presocratic philosophy, epigraphy - yep, I have more than enough to say about these things to warrant writing a blog on them.  I may also write a few things about the arguments against the existence of deities.  This is hardly an uncommon topic in the blogosphere, but there are still some fresh angles left to cover, or at least make more prominent, and it's interesting to me regardless.

If there's any particularly strange claim made by a woo-woo merchant out there that you'd particularly like to see addressed, don't hesitate to let me know about it in the comments. :)

Monday, 2 July 2012

Video Games and World History

I have a strong interest in writing systems, and I rather like a website called Ancient Scripts.  It's a fantastic site (even though many of the pundits in the comments are madder than a bag of cut snakes), and I have supplemented my understanding of writing systems by using it as a reference.  I think it would be fair to say that I have quite a good grasp of writing systems.

In any case, I'm not a gamer, but I had the time and opportunity to play Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, a game of the Indiana-Jones-esque adventuring tradition involving gunfights, a pseudohistorical plot, and lots of lovely exotic locales.  The plot takes the player to Yemen by way of France and Syria in a search for the "lost city" (classic!) of Iram, supposedly sought after by Francis Drake and T. E. Lawrence (but which was likely nothing more than an Arab literary trope).  The game places the city of Iram in Yemen, and I was surprised to find a series of puzzles involving the Sabaean script, a script from pre-Islamic south Arabia and used in the Sabaean and Minaean kingdoms.  An example of the script may be found on Ancient Scripts; it's quite chunky and blocky, and as an abjad (a consonantal alphabet where vowels are usually unrepresented), it has a small number of characters (29, in fact).  This makes it a good choice for use in a game like Uncharted, where the player uses a journal (I think it was T. E. Lawrence's) to solve puzzles by manipulating blocks or stepping on the right succession of plates ("In Latin Jehovah begins with an 'I'!").

The Sabaean kingdom is claimed to be the Biblical Sheba, where, yep, the Queen of Sheba reigned.  The game's plot reveals that a curse was placed on Iram, presumably a part of Sabaea, by none other than King Solomon himself, the Biblical Hebrew warlord, hence the city's disappearance from history.  That's all absolute nonsense, of course, but what impressed me was the fact that the game repeatedly referred to correct representations of the Sabaean script and got its provenance and associations correct.  Yes, it's a silly story, but I'm hopeful that some players of the game (which has been slated as, ahem, a little bit xenophobic) would see these puzzles as an impetus for learning a bit about the history of south Arabia and maybe even its place in Indian Ocean trade.  That's probably far too hopeful, but in any case, it's nice to see epigraphic esoteria in unlikely places.

The game was quite fun to play, as well.

A First Post: Indian History

This is the inaugural post for my blog, West's Meditations.  This is a blog about history, philosophy, and anthropology - and really anything else I find interesting.  My main interests are in ethnology, especially with regard to Indonesia and the Pacific, and world history, although I have many more deep-seated interests besides these.  The subject I have chosen to discuss is early Indian history, something about which I was, until fairly recently, ignorant.  A number of things generated my interest in it, but the two most important factors were reading about early history in western Indonesia (including the Kutai inscriptions) and about the Indo-European expansion (specifically M. L. West's book, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, which naturally cites the Vedas at every turn).  I was surprised by much of what I learned about India, and just how little is known about the early history of it compared to other parts of earth.