Ancient Teeth–What They Mean and What They Say

Haim Watzman

Scientific papers are not generally thought of as allusive, but, as the article I wrote for Nature this week shows, intentional ambiguity is not foreign to the scientific world.

So are the eight ancient human teeth, some dated as far back as 300,000-400,000 years ago, that Avi Gopher of Tel Aviv University and his colleagues found in Qesem cave really evidence that Homo sapiens evolved here in Israel, as my friend and colleague Matthew Kalman wrote in the Daily Mail? Kalman based his story on Tel Aviv university’s press release, which Gopher vetted and by which he stands. Going out on a shorter limb, other reports in the mainstream press merely said that the discovery proves that modern humans evolved much earlier than the currently accepted 200,000 years before present.

As my article states, bloggers (such as Carl Zimmer and Brian Switek) who follow human evolution news jumped on the disparities between the press reports and the paper that Gopher et al. published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The latter cautiously offers three alternative interpretations of the teeth.

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Finkelstein Contra Aljazeera

Haim Watzman Worth reading: Israel Finkelstein’s rebuttal to Aljazeera’s propaganda film Looting the Holy Land, which accuses Israel of a systematic policy of stealing artifacts from the West Bank. Finkelstein is the Tel Aviv University archaeologist whose “late chronology” theory claims that most of the finds once attributed to the era of Kings David and … Read more

Putting the Micro in Archaeology

Haim Watzman Archaeologists classically discover lost cities and get excited about buried ramparts, palaces, and temples. But today they get excited about the small stuff, too—grains of wheat, mineral grains produced by plants, and tiny crystals of calcite. Take a look at my latest feature in the science journal Nature to read about the fascinating … Read more

Old Lessons from Old Pots

Haim Watzman Two lessons to be learned from the just-published discovery of 18,000-year-old pottery in a Chinese cave, which I report at First, societies differ. Here in the Levant, people first settled down, started farming, and then got the idea of making storage containers out of fired clay. All that happened as part of … Read more

More on “Southern Exposure”

Readers of Gershom’s last post may be interested in an article I published in Nature last year on Elad’s role in running the site of the City of David excavations.

As I reported in the same journal earlier this month, a group of Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists recently unveiled a draft agreement about how archaeological sites and artifacts would be treated under a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

As Gershom notes, every historical or archaeological site can provide the basis for a variety of different stories. True, archaeological artifacts and sites provide hard facts that limit the kinds of stories you can tell. A Palestinian scholar who proclaimed that City of David structures dating from the eighth or ninth century BCE were actually from the early Islamic period would have a hard time getting anyone to take his case seriously because we know from other sites that buildings built in those periods have distinct styles and methods of construction. An Israeli who tried to argue that Arabs never ruled Jerusalem would run up against all those layers of Muslim and Arab remains that excavators have found all around the city.

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