February 14, 2010

Lucayans in Extreme Cave Diving

Another episode of NOVA includes Natives:

Extreme Cave DivingPremiere Broadcast on PBS: Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"Extreme Cave Diving" follows a fearless team of scientists as they venture into blue holes—underwater caves that formed during the last ice age, when sea level was nearly 400 feet below what it is today. These caves, little-known treasures of the Bahamas, are one of Earth's least explored and perhaps most dangerous frontiers. The interdisciplinary team of biologists, climatologists, and anthropologists, led by renowned cave explorer Kenny Broad, discover intriguing evidence of the earliest human inhabitants of the islands, find animals seen nowhere else on Earth, and recover a remarkable record of the planet's climate. The stakes are high as the scientists swim hundreds of feet through narrow, dark passages that have trapped and killed divers in the past, but the scientific payoff is considerable.
NOVA--Extreme Cave Diving00:26:12  It's clear that centuries ago, the barren islands of the Bahamas weren't so barren.

00:26:22  So what happened?

00:26:24  STEADMAN: The bones I've picked out so far, every one of them represents a species of bird that isn't on the island anymore.

00:26:30  Based on just this tiny sample, it looks like we're on our way to documenting a pretty drastic change.

00:26:39  NARRATOR: About a thousand years ago, most of these animals mysteriously disappeared.

00:26:45  A fossil trail extending back roughly 12,000 years suddenly goes cold.

00:26:53  What killed these animals off?

00:26:58  Land!

00:27:01  In 1492, when Christopher Columbus first made landfall in this hemisphere, it was in the Bahamas.

00:27:10  He encountered a people called the Lucayans.

00:27:16  The Lucayans descended from people that came from South America around 800 B.C.

00:27:22  and slowly migrated to the Bahamas.

00:27:28  At the time, Columbus wrote almost nothing about their rituals or traditions.

00:27:35  What little we know today suggests that they thought blue holes were sacred.

00:27:47  They believed caves were the birthplace of humankind and that when someone died, they should be put back inside.

00:28:06  In the early 1990s, in a blue hole called Sanctuary, on Andros Island, a diver found human remains that may have been related to the Lucayans' ritual burial.

00:28:20  Following up on that lead, the team will search for more remains, beginning at Sanctuary.

00:28:27  They'll try to determine if there's a link between the Lucayans and the animal die-off that occurred about a thousand years ago.
Comment:  Chalk up another example of PBS's awareness of and attention to Native issues. Unfortunately, the attention in Extreme Cave Diving is largely negative.

The episode includes a recreated scene with the Europeans and Indians inspecting each other. No problem there.

Let's skip over the fact that the divers were desecrating what sounds like a sacred burial site. Perhaps the Lucayans don't have any descendants left, but if they did, were they consulted about this dive?

The scientists don't quite say it, but the theory they're exploring is that the Lucayans killed all the species native to the Bahamas. It's a small-scale version of the megafauna extinction theory. I.e., that Indians weren't the environmental stewards everyone thinks they are. That they ruthlessly killed everything in sight like stereotypical savages.

The results aren't in

And the findings from the dive?00:35:06  NARRATOR: By the end of the dive, the team has recovered pieces of three skulls.

00:35:15  But critical questions remain: Are they connected to the catastrophic die-off of animals here?

00:35:23  And could these skulls belong to the Lucayans, the same people Columbus wrote about?

00:35:32  Pateman identifies a deformity in the skulls that seems to confirm their identity.

00:35:40  PATEMAN: When they were children, the Lucayans bound the foreheads and the backs with boards and then wrapped them, and so that would create this, what you see here, this conical shape.

00:35:51  NARRATOR: It's a characteristic found only in cultures like that of the Lucayans.

00:35:57  And when the skulls are radio carbon-dated, there's an even bigger revelation.

00:36:06  The skulls found in the blue holes date from about 800 years ago.

00:36:11  By then, the Lucayans were already settling in the Bahamas and having an impact.

00:36:20  And the animal die-off that David Steadman identified started about a thousand years ago.

00:36:27  The dates are close enough that it's likely there's a link between the Lucayans and the deaths of the animals here.

00:36:37  We have great fossils from about 12,000 years ago up to about when the first people arrived.

00:36:45  So when people show up, along with non-native mammals that they bring--whether it's rats, cats, dogs, pigs, things like that--these island species are very poorly adapted to these new super predators.

00:37:01  On islands across the world, the most vulnerable species have been wiped out.

00:37:06  They're extinct.
What this tells us

First, an 800-year-old skull doesn't tell us much about a 1,000-year-old die-off. The scientists shouldn't act as if they've proved anything.

Second, they offer an alternative explanation only at the end. Maybe the Indians didn't wantonly kill the native species, they acknowledge. Maybe they inadvertently killed the native species by bringing domesticated animals to the islands. They couldn't have known this would trigger an ecological disaster. Modern scientists have just begun documenting this phenomenon in recent decades.

Third, they don't consider any other alternatives. Here are a couple:

  • The die-off was just a coincidence. An epidemic or something caused a cascade of extinctions in the fragile environment before humans arrived.

  • Climate change independently caused the two events: the species die-off and the Indian migration to the islands. The Indian migration didn't cause the species die-off.

  • All in all, Extreme Cave Diving is a solid episode of NOVA. But it's a little lacking in scientific rigor.

    For more on the subject, see The 2009 TV Season So Far and TV Shows Featuring Indians.

    Below:  "The deep, oxygen-free zone of one of the caves preserved an 800-year-old human skull, shedding light on the Lucayan people who inhabited the Bahamas long before Columbus visited." (Jill Heinerth/National Geographic Television)


    Unknown said...

    That carbon dating is not at all accurate nor is their "observe and report" technique of how old something is. Scientists look for stuff because the money is there which if they don't find something according to their criteria they won't get paid nor will they make their pimps-for-scholars very happy, so all of their money-time-and-effort put into their education was all for nothing .

    I truly do feel bad for archeologists because in past researches they have found artifacts proving their mentors and institutional theories wrong. Because of their mentors being well respected in the scientific community along with old theories, new students of scientific fields are forced to disregard a breakthrough in man's history or (in this case) in observation of old native america, fear of no longer existing in science plays a definite role.

    Not saying all scientists find disturbance in the scientific doctrines but a few do come forward speaking against science.

    All their theories, all their trillions of years, are based on the one and only socially excepted theory which is Darwin's theory of human evolution. Belief and witch-hunts is what western civilization has thrived on for a long time which makes Darwinism not much different.

    This may be off key but vine deloria jr in a chapter of his book Spirit & Reason expressed how westerners have beliefs and how indians have visions.

    The belief system of westerners is more of a trial-and-error scenario while the visions of native peoples lead to a change for the betterment of living. For some reason, the visions concerning ceremonies and plant harvesting have always attributed to a tribes success. Coincidence? Why question?

    The awareness of all lies are rising, of course, slowly but soon there will be a time when doctrine looks itself in the mirror and asks "why?"

    Rob said...

    I haven't heard about any major problems with radiocarbon dating. And I don't think it's the issue here.

    dmarks said...

    "I.e., that Indians weren't the environmental stewards everyone thinks they are. That they ruthlessly killed everything in sight like stereotypical savages."

    I don't see this as a stereotype about Natives at all. I see this as "more like typical human beings".


    Rob, radiocarbon dating is good for some things and not for others. But usually those who have a problem with it are those like 6,000 year old Earth theorists and other pseudo-scientists. They (the pseudo-scientists) focus on trying to "debunk" carbon-dating, because carbon-dating proves their ideas wrong thousands of times over. However, carbon-dating is just one scientific method that cuts right through junk pseudoscience like that.

    Rob said...

    The only problem I see with radiocarbon dating is that it becomes less accurate after 50,000 years or so.

    The following article debunks one creationist myth about it: