Science is not fun

Opinions personals de membres del CEHIC i alumnes de postgrau

nov. 11 2008

Paleoanthropology and the construction of national identities

Posted in General |

At first glance these book titles seem odd, somehow old-fashioned. In 2006 Chris Stringer, an eminent British paleoanthropologist, published Homo britannicus. In 2008, Emiliano Aguirre, the doyen of Spanish paleoanthropology published Homo hispanico. They both cover the settlement of “their countries” from the first traces of hominid activities: Up to 700.000 years in the “British” case, and well over one million years in the “Spanish” case.
Yes, we will need a lot of quotation marks here. What was “British” or “Hispanic” about the Boxgrove tibia or the Atapuerca mandible, two of the oldest and most famous fossils? The area of what is today Great Britain was mostly uninhabited in the last 500.000 years. Ice Ages drove people out repeatedly, the continuous population of the island only began about 11.500 years.
Stringer is very clear about this – so is “British” just an innocent geographical reference? From the marketing of the book it is quite obvious that it is more than just that. “Here is the incredible truth about our ancestor’s journey over millennia …” it says in the blurb on the back of the book. And it would be my guess that Stringer’s book, unlike some of his other popular science books, will not be translated into another language. His book as well as Aguirre’s are specifically aimed at British and Spanish readers.
To be sure, scholars such as Chris Stringer or Emiliano Aguirre have little in common with the British, French and German researchers from the first half of the 20th century. There is nothing chauvinistic in these books, no ideas of superiority or “races”. Yet strangely Stringer and Aguirre never question their own talk of “the first Britons” or “the first Hispanics”. One would at least expect some irony. Last year, in article on the centenary of the find the famous Mauer mandible Homo heidelbergensis the German weekly Die Zeit quibbled about “the oldest German”.
For Georgia Homo georgicus, several well preserved skulls from Dmanisi, dated 1,7 Mio. years, is instrumental in claiming membership of Europe, asserting that they have found “the oldest European”. Geographically Georgia is part of Asia but culturally Georgians see themselves as Europeans. These spectacular hominid fossils were found in the 1990s, the decade of the dissolution of the USSR and the beginning of Georgia’s independence.
Hominid fossils are prone to be integrated in “national” histories. They serve in different ways, sometimes more and sometimes less explicit to construct national identities that extend far beyond Medieval or Roman times. One might be less surprised of the nationalist undertones of the discourse on Homo georgicus or the “Chinese” pekingman (Homo erectus) the alleged forefather of all present day Chinese. But what about modern western European societies at the beginning of the 21st century? My guess is that this seemingly anachronistic nationalizing is first of all owed to the predicaments of marketing popular science for “one’s own” audience. This flies into the face of the image of science as an international enterprise that is blind to any national biases or perspectives. An interesting contradiction that deserves further exploration.


This entry was posted on dimarts, 11 novembre, 2008 at 22:14 and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Deixa un comentari

Si us plau, demostra que no ets un robot * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.