The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 106

Issue 106

May / June 2009



Breton hoard of stone axeheads is first for UK

Flint finds point to Scotland's first people

Antiquities Scheme unearths second Roman pan

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


Beneath the Sea Special: Part 1
Discovery and work on HMS Victory

Beneath the Sea Special: Part 2
Underwater landscapes and the Swash Channel wreck

THE BIG DIG: Wallingford
Community research project in this historic Oxfordshire town, said to have been founded by King Alfred

The Nighthawing Report
While most metal detectorists give positive contributions to the archaological world, nobody is perfect. Pete Wilson considers tackling the rogues


Proud of all humanity – and Homophobic (Latin or Greek?)

on the web

Recommended websites
Discovering historic landscapes, and a major Gallo-Belgic pottery resource


your views and responses

CBA Correspondent

Gill Chitty introduces some recent examples from the CBA's advocacy files


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Proud of all humanity – and Homophobic

In the episode of Friends in which Ross presents a lecture on early humans (yes, that's it, The One in Barbados Part II), Joey, sitting in the audience with Charlie and Rachel, is taken aback at Ross's mention of Homo erectus. "He said erectus!", he laughs in wonderment to Charlie. "You're kidding, right?" says Charlie, who has not been paying attention. "No, he really said it!" says Joey, and Rachel laughs. "Erectus?" says Joey. "Homo!" says Rachel.

I was reminded of this scene when I heard that Chris Stringer's excellent book on Britain's early humans, Homo Britannicus, had received yet another accolade, at the hands of a University of Manchester librarian. Chantal Conneller found the book shelved in the gender and sexuality section amongst titles such as Gay Men, Gay Selves and The Construction of Homosexual Identity. "I never knew professor Stringer", she says, "was such a noted queer theorist".

Classically-educated archaeologists, of course, will recognise here the confusion between two different roots for our "homo", ancient Greek and Latin respectively meaning similar to, and man or person. But it draws attention to the curious world of the naming of early human species and individuals. Something needs to be done.

Back in 1960, a few weeks after Jane Goodall first started watching chimpanzees in the wild in what is now Tanzania, she began to recognise individuals. As she did so, she gave them names – Mr McGregor, Flo and Fifi amongst them. Though now common practice in great ape behavioural studies, this type of naming was then regarded as unscientific, something that anthropomorphised animals who by definition could not have personalities or feelings.

Goodall's research, and much since, has shown that chimps do indeed have strong personal identities (see My archaeology, May/Jun 2005). There seem to be significant traits that distinguish the behaviour of the two main species from each other, but within those there is great variation, the australopithecines, habilis, ergaster, heidelbergensis – yes, erectus, too, and all the rest – had personalities.

Now I'm not going to suggest that we should be digging up a soap opera ("My fossil had a great sense of humour." "Humour? But could it entertain the females, like mine?"). But we don't have to identify personality to accept its existence. And the way we name fossils seems, mostly, to deny that we do.

Though still popular in the media, the old way of calling fossils after where they were found is not liked by academics. In theory, at least, Piltdown Man or Java Man were representatives of humanity, and not necessarily male – though this principle could be confused, as when the 1920s press pictured Nebraska Man with his wife. The engendered language can be doubly awkward: Peking Man was a female skull – and why do we still talk "Neanderthal type bankers", a male model who was "either a terrible typist or borderline Neanderthal" and "the Neanderthals at Exxon" (these all in the Guardian); Melvyn Bragg called James Bond "a man of his age: Neanderthal" in the Mail, and everywhere, it seems, was "Bush's Neanderthal speech" (at least that one's gone for good). In the face of such assault, how can we have an intelligent debate about real neanderthal personality, even as archaeology and genetics demolish the gross behavioural differences between them and us?

Donald Johansson got it right. In 1974 (by when Jane Goodall had christened a whole community of chimps) we fell in love with his Kenyan fossil. Tiny brained compared to any neanderthal: but who ever insulted a footballer by calling him Lucy?

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