Thursday, December 6, 2012

Can You Publish Poetry In The Journal Science?

In the late 1800's this doggerel:

And Holmes cries "rejected,
They're nothing but Indian chips."
He glanced at the ground,
Truth, fancied he found,
And homeward to Washington skips...

So dear W.J.,
There is no more to say,
Because you'll never agree
That anything's truth,
But what issues, forsooth,
From Holmes or the brain of McGee.

This I found in 1491: New Revelations of The Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann and the context is the contempt with which federal scientists looked upon amateurs who hunted for ancient American Indian artifacts and skeletons. Charles Abbot a physician from New Jersey was one such amateur and in 1872 he found arrowheads, scrapers and other implements on his farm in the Delaware Valley. Consulting a geologist he found out that the gravels containing the implements were ten thousand years old, implying a very old presence of Indians going back maybe to the ice ages in north America. Off course in those days there was no absolute dating methods available to ascertain the age of rocks. Geologists used context, in this case for example the gravels were older than historical layers. Then using educated guesses on rates of processes like sedimentation rates a likely age was proposed.

This went against the prevailing wisdom which regarded Indians as a more recent entry in to the continent sometime during historical times, perhaps a few hundred years before colonial times to the first millennium B.C. at most. The Bureau of American Ethology's scientist William Henry Holmes and the United States Geological Survey's W.J. McGee assigned to investigate Abbot's claim stuck to the official position and rubbished the find.

Hence Abbot vented his frustration in verse in the journal Science (I guess publishing in Science was easier in those days!).

Its not that Holmes and McGee were incompetent. But they clearly did not like amateurs messing around their domain, ever so often announcing sensational finds and spinning stories not backed up by any evidence.

Another concern was that amateurs often disturbed an archaeological site and made later documenting artifacts and skeletons in their proper stratigraphic context and exact location very difficult.

The issue of a Pleistocene presence of Indians in north America was settled in 1927 when a team led by Jesse D. Figgins of the Colorado Museum of Natural History found at Folsom New Mexico a spear point stuck inside a bison skeleton. Earlier, federal scientists fed up by Figgins's claims of a half a million year antiquity to human presence in North America had insisted that Figgins unearth any new discoveries only in the presence of independent experts. The site was excavated in the presence of three well considered scientists who agreed that the find was real and could have only one explanation which was that people were present in north America in the Pleistocene.

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