Okay, that's actually a lie. I can't watch "The Broca Divide". I made it
through a first viewing on SciFi, screaming the entire way, and a second
on the DVD, with judicious use of the scan on the remote. I can put up
with a certain amount of bad science (I willingly went to see "The
Core"...), but I have my limits.
It's ironic, really, that I'm sitting here about to rant on bad
anthropology in a series built on the idea that aliens used the
pyramids for landing bases. And I'm not so not even touching
on how the show takes creative license with mythology and history,
Egyptian or otherwise ("Spirits"? "Demons"? *shudder*), or the language
Ahem. Okay, I'm better now.
I have a particular sensitivity to how the field of anthropology is
mistreated in mainstream media and popular fiction (ask me about my
carbon-dating issues sometime. I dare you). So it says a great
deal about the other strengths of this show, that I can love it so despite
how heinously they mangle the anthropology on occasion.
"The Broca Divide" is the classic example. Not only did they use the
horribly clichéd "early man as ravaging wild animal with uncontrollable
desire to mate" trope, but they couldn't decide on which early man
variety they were talking about. Daniel kept going on about Homo
erectus, but it appeared that all the behavioral assumptions they
were using are those that are attributed (usually incorrectly) to Neandertals.
It's a good thing I found the later seasons first, because if that episode
had been one of my first introductions to the series, I might have never
And then there was the archaeologists opening the sarcophagus in
"Hathor". Ignoring that every time someone in a movie does that they
die, usually that sort of thing is done post-field in a lab under
controlled conditions. Especially because if you do make the find of the
century by discovering an Egyptian sarcophagus in South America, you're
not going to want to give your colleagues any more ammunition to claim
you're a nutbag than necessary by opening it in the field and possibly
contaminating your find and thus destroying any credibility of your
analysis. You're going to box it up, ship it home, x-ray it, and then
open it in front of trusted colleagues, and then study it very carefully
and to everything you can to prove it's not what it looks like (plus,
you're less likely to be killed without warning if it does harbor an
alien. Just good sense in every aspect!).
Ask Dr. Daniel Jackson. He'll be able to tell you about the power of
And speaking of Dr. Jackson (who is the ultimate anthropological Mary
Sue), he and I need to sit down and have a long talk about culture as
artifact. Because every time he bounds up to Jack proclaiming, "These
people are just like 'Culture X' back home!" I really have to restrain
the urge to find the writers and say, "Look, you people have Air Force
advisors, why can't you find an anthropologist to whack you with a clue
There's a whole school of anthropological thought that looks at modern
cultures and tries to use them to directly extrapolate on the behavior of
archaeological peoples (you know, the dead ones). The classic example is
taking the San
Bushmen of Africa and using them to make assumptions about all
archaeological hunter-gatherer populations. Groups like the San were
literally seen as artifacts, people trapped in some sort of temporal warp,
rather than as living, breathing culture that, while sharing some
characteristics assumed about past cultures from archaeological
observations, have changed and evolved to suit their environment (which
includes influence from outside - colonialism, globalism, and so forth).
You can use the behavior of modern cultures to extrapolate on the behavior
of past cultures, but you can't use them as a wholesale template. "This
archaeological culture used digging sticks and spears and hunted animals
and moved around in this pattern, so they must be just like the Bushmen!"
is very bad anthropology.
The same goes for the reverse. Every time Daniel goes on about how
ancient Earth culture A did this, so modern alien culture A that they just
found must do the same thing, I really have to bite my tongue. Hello,
kidnapped and transplanted by aliens?! Spent the last however many
years adapting to another planet?!
On the other hand, I do have to give them some credit. In a lot of shows
like this, they'd simply focus on the romanticized view of archaeology you
often see when talking about classical archaeology or Egyptology . you
know, wandering through ancient tombs with a brush in one hand and an
artifact in the other. But Stargate has actually given some idea that
there are other kinds of anthropology. They do give a superficially
credible view of a standard archaeological dig in "The First Ones".
They also accurately claim that Daniel has a Ph.D. in Anthropology.
Despite the fact that he is introduced as an archaeologist and linguist,
because he was educated in the U.S. (assumed from what we saw in "The
Curse"), his degree would be in anthropology, and he would have
specialized on one of the four subfields (cultural anthropology (also
known as ethnology), archaeology, biological or physical anthropology, or
linguistic anthropology). Higher education institutions in the U.S. don't
give out degrees by subfield. Granted, he could have gotten his degree
in classical archaeology (given his interest in Egypt and classical
cultures), but why complicate matters?
Wow. Why the hell do I watch this show?
Well, because it's not about the science. They made it pretty clear up
front that they were working from an assumption (the whole aliens and
ancient cultures thing) that goes against everything a scientific study of
anthropology assumes. But they were honest about it right from the
beginning. You knew what you were getting, and anyone who accepted that
basis for suspension of belief and then claimed later they felt cheated
about the bad science, well, they have more issues than I do.
It would be nice if they'd make just a little more effort to be accurate
about one or two little things, on the whole, but they've never pretended
to any sort of scientifically accurate pretensions, and I can respect
Even if I occasionally want to throw something at the T.V.