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The Great Paleolithic WarHow Science Forged an Understanding of America's Ice Age Past$
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David J. Meltzer

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780226293226

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226293363.001.0001

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The Great Paleolithic War, 1890–1897

The Great Paleolithic War, 1890–1897

Chapter:
(p.124) Chapter Five The Great Paleolithic War, 1890–1897
Source:
The Great Paleolithic War
Author(s):

David J. Meltzer

Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226293363.003.0005

In the fall of 1889, William H. Holmes of the Bureau of Ethnology (BAE) began excavations at the Piney Branch quartzite quarry in Washington, DC. This site of recent age was littered with manufacturing failures that strongly resembled supposedly ancient paleoliths: this suggested artifact form had no inherent chronological meaning. Without geological evidence to confirm its antiquity, the American Paleolithic was adrift in time. Proponents disagreed, insisting the similarity between paleoliths and Piney Branch quarry debris was purely coincidental. Holmes set out to prove otherwise on a scorched-earth march through the sites of the American Paleolithic. Although the dispute resolved itself as a geological issue, geology provided little guidance. It was uncertain whether the paleoliths were in situ and whether the artifact-enclosing formations were Pleistocene in age, which in turn were entangled in the ongoing debate over the number of glacial periods. Debate exploded with the publication of Wright's Man and the glacial period in 1892, and became a wide-ranging battle over theory, method and evidence, the role of amateurs in science, and the perceived heavy-handedness of government scientists, all complicated by institutional rivalries and the economic Panic of 1893. By mid-decade the talk was fiery and positions had hardened beyond compromise.

Keywords:   William Henry Holmes, Bureau of Ethnology (BAE), Piney Branch quarry site, manufacturing failures, Man and the glacial period, panic of 1893

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