“Evidence” (Legally)

In prehistory, the presentation of explanations or causal arguments is necessarily limited by the absence of consistent and coherent bodies of evidence.  The writer Cormac McCarthy has commented on this sporadic and arbitrary nature of prehistoric evidence:

“…the great trouble with the world was that which survived was held in hard evidence as to past events.  A false authority clung to what persisted, as if those artifacts of the past which had endured  had done so by some act of their own will.”

The deeper into the past we go the more obscure our evidentiary sources are…  And paleontology and archeology as explanatory disciplines require significant “art”, — imagination or fancy —  to construct explanatory theories…

Progress in our knowledge of causation is made most often when an accumulating body of evidence — inconsistent with existing explanations — requires the formulation of a new, more coherent explanation…  These “paradigm shifts” can be seen very clearly in the work of distinguished intellects at decisive points in Western science — for example Newton and Darwin and Einstein…


In a prehistoric period, forms of human knowledge and understanding are evidenced by both intentional records and by incidental records — among the earliest of these intentional expressions were  petroglyphs and cave paintings.  (Songs, chants, dances and stories were also intentional records — though often culturally sequestered and, because transmitted by performance, left relatively scant evidence — but for artifacts such as  instruments or costumes. In addition, ethnographic observations of “prehistoric people” and relict oral transmissions maintained by indigenous groups may provide suggestive evidence of these forms….)

Incidental records — fossils, fire sites, structures or structural elements, graves, wooden, stone or clay artifacts, shards, remnants or middens — often require significant analysis, extrapolation and inference — as for example in the case of  “debitage” 

The geological context (stratigraphy) or associated datable elements for incidental evidence (such as timbers with tree rings) is often of critical importance in dating the era of origin…  Sometimes biological elements can be of critical use — for example the fossils or bones of now extinct species, botanical remains (as indicative of climate or diet), pollen samples…

In an historic period —  a period characterized by  formal records — by published , intentional records (that is, consciously shared or disseminated) — clay, stone or metal inscriptions, sculpture, drawings, paintings, prints, songs, poems, stories, speeches, laws, newspapers, leaflets, posters, cartoons, histories, philosophic discourses, scientific writings or data  (in print or manuscript) and by incidental records —  notebooks, diaries, sketches, drafts, discards, marginalia (in published works), even as tauntscursesgraffiti (these latter could be either intentional or incidental).  Artifacts also provide significant historic evidence; in more recent historic periods we have a stronger base in related sources of evidence to establish the context in which artifacts were used…

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