I’ve been meaning to write this post for quite some time now. The catalyst came yesterday during my 1.5-hour long discussion of the ways to study the origins of modern humans and the peopling of the Americas with James E. Dixon, the author of Bones, Boats and Bison (2000). (I am also reading Brand Hijack: Marketing Without Marketing by Alex Wipperfurth, which might have contributed to my desire to blog about amateurs.) A professor at the University of Colorado – Boulder who has recently accepted an appointment as Director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque, James Dixon is famous for his unorthodox but thoroughly scientific approach to Pleistocene Amerindian cultures. We discussed the bold Stanford-Bradley proposal of a transoceanic contact between Europe and America, Meltzer’s strongheaded purism, Polynesian-Amerindian contacts, Boas’s back-migration from America into North-East Asia, mtDNA, Cavalli-Sforza, Joe Greenberg, Johanna Nichols, Christy Turner, Tom Dillehay, On-Your-Knees, Topper, Meadowcroft Rockshelter, Monte Verde, Uptar, Ushki and what have you. An overarching theme was a conflict or co-presence of amateurish and professional perspectives on distant human past and the problem of their definition. American archaeology has long been a site of vociferous mutual accusations of dilettantism and arrogant fundamentalism (after Monte Verde’s success “dilettants” seem to be winning the game). Amerindian linguistics experienced a similar clash between lumpers led by Greenberg and splitters led by Lyle Campbell (here the “professionals” were right). We agreed that there exists a vast terrain between the two extremes – between a stubborn insistence on timeless methodological values and irrefutable facts, on the one hand, and childish and irresponsible finagling with the data, on the other. True professionalism and true passion (a quality of amateurs, from Latin amator ‘lover’ and amare ‘to love’) must somehow combine to produce a class of entrepreneurs/anthropreneurs, creative and analytical at the same time, committed to innovation and genuinely curious about history, willing to entertain radical ideas and possessing a refined sense of taste and style.
In the current marketplace amateurs have a strong momentum. Successful brands (Google, Craigslist, Palm, Starbucks, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, etc.) break industry conventions and launch remarkable products or eye-popping advertising stunts to the utter bafflement of Hollywood, Detroit or Madison Avenue. Revolutions often begin out of nothing. Napster started its stellar career in music-sharing business (some 27 million users in 2000) from a software written by a college freshman for personal use. This made me think of my friend Alvah (Pardner) Hicks who, during the 1990s-early 2000s, developed an entirely unique theory of American Indian origins. In a nutshell, he reversed the traditional direction of migration from the Old World into the New World and suggested that available evidence in fact points to the origin of man in the Americas (ultimately from the New World monkeys) with his subsequent expansion into the Old World. The 500-year-old myth is therefore shattered, and an entirely new world of human prehistory opens before the academic and popular eye.
By strict academic standards Pardner is an amateur. He doesn’t have a graduate degree and all his credentials come from being a California backcountry boy with a passion for outdoors and sports and an uncanny ability to win. Self-taught in archaeology and population genetics through independent research, conference attendance, the UC-SB library, TV and the Internet (those who have recently taught in academia know how students’ access to new media has altered power relations in classrooms), Pardner developed a thorough knowledge of the subject that he uses to prove his fantastic theory. “A flashback from the past,” Tom Dillehay (who introduced me to Pardner in 1999) once called him meaning that Pardner represents a unique survival of the ethos of 19th century American archaeology. The establishment of archaeology as a university discipline in the U.S. resulted in the extinction of a wide diversity of opinions regarding the origin of American Indians. We’re dealing here with an analogue of population bottleneck – only a small number of genes survives and those that do tend to approach fixation. Pardner believes that with the bureaucratization of archaeolgy truth was lost. His job as a survivor is to recover the truth and bring Cinderella to the ball.
Seen against the background of the radical changes in the contemporary marketplace, Pardner’s ideas do not seem aberrant. He is a genuine part of our times when change, innovation and the spirit of discovery sweep across the world with the speed of an electric signal. He is a testimony of how closed-minded, slow-moving and straitjacketed certain academic quarters remain. Boasting professionalism and dismissing amateurs, they forget that a successful idea (whether iPod or a new theory of human origins) is born of entrepreneurialism. There is no other way to generate profit, be it truth or cash, but through a risky combination of the vigor of an irreverent amateur and the rigor of a far-sighted professional. Pardner Hicks certainly deserves an Entrepreneur of the Century Award from the American Archaeological Association.
My conversation with Jim ended on a very positive note – academic archaeology is changing towards more flexible models into which all other disciplines (linguistics, genetics, kinship studies, craniology, odontology, etc.) can fit their growing body of data. Whether in academia or in commerce, we are exiting the world in which our own arrogance determined our view of reality and entering a new era in which we will work under an assumption that we don’t know upfront how the world is constructed. We are trying to figure it all out.