Dr Anton Mifsud, a Consultant Pediatrician with a longstanding interest in Maltese prehistory, sent us the following report of an archaeological conference that Brass recently attended in Malta. In our view the report sheds an interesting sidelight on the goals, methods, character and questionable scholarship of self-styled “debunkers”.
Mission in Malta unaccomplished
Report by Anton Mifsud
Michael Brass was barely recognizable from his website photograph (below)
when he turned up “incognito” in the audience on 24 September 2003 at the St James Cavalier hall in Malta’s capital city Valletta for the four-day conference organized by the EMPTC (Exploring the Maltese Prehistoric Temple Culture). The conference featured 36 international speakers. These included six Maltese archaeologists, four from Cambridge, three from Catania, and one each from Vienna, Strasbourg and Athens. Participating at the opening were the President of Malta, the Minister of Tourism, the Minister for Youth and the Arts, The Minister for Gozo, the organizer Linda C. Eneix for the OTS Foundation, the Professor of Archaeology and Classics of the University of Malta, the President of the Archaeological Society of Malta, and the President of one of the main non-governmental organisations, Din l-Art Helwa. Malta’s senior archaeologist, David Trump spoke at the opening ceremony on "The Overseas Connections of the Maltese Temples", and he concluded the conference on Day Four with his impressions on the outcome of the convention.
Mark Rose, the chief editor of Archeology ,was also among the audience, but Brass’s constant companion at the conference was Ms. Isabelle Vella Gregory, a recent B.A. graduate turned journalist with the local Times of Malta. Over the past few months she has been utilizing this medium to wage a crusade against one of the local scholars for daring to suggest that a number of carvings on the rock face between two prehistoric temples on the southern coastline of Malta could be petroglyphs. Now this may seem somewhat strange, for dictionaries of archaeology, such as that by Paul Bahn (1992: 429, Harper Collins) define a petroglyph as a "carving made into the rock face." Furthermore David Trump dedicated page 153 of his latest publication "Malta Prehistory and Temples" (2002) to these same petroglyphs, and also included an aerial photograph. Ms Gregory’s actual relationship to Michael Brass – she is his fiancée – eventually surfaced at the conclusion of her presentation at the conference on Day Three. Her talk, entitled "Beyond Goddesses and Fertility: A Gender Archaeological Approach to the Temple Period," was an undisguised assault on the followers of Marija Gimbutas, in line with the direct antagonism of Joan Marler’s presentation the day before.
Brass’s own intervention came about on Day Two, during the Science session, and directly against two of the participants -- myself, Anton Mifsud (my talk was about the identification of a single-gene defect in a Maltese 5000-year-old adult and its implication on ancient population migrations) and the engineer Chris Micallef, who talked about the megalithic alignment of the Maltese Temples. Out of the 36 speakers at the conference Brass limited his offensive to just the two of us. Could this be because both Chris and I enjoyed a high profile in Graham Hancock’s latest bestseller Underworld?
Brass first attacked Chris Micallef during the panel discussion, contesting the validity of his astronomical alignments of the Maltese temples, to which Micallef answered to the satisfaction of the chairperson. Brass then turned his guns on me, and launched a barrage of statement/questions which occasioned the intervention of the chairperson and several members of the audience who urged him to lodge his queries one at a time.
Brass had evidently been misled by the title of my presentation, and accordingly had come armed with the wrong set of questions. He was also ignorant of the fact that I have carried out my research over several years at the Department of Palaentology of the Museum of Natural History in London, in liaison with Christopher Stringer, the Head of Human Origins there, and the chief protagonist of the Out of Africa II hypothesis. Brass’s attempts to embarrass me therefore proved fruitless as he quoted outdated articles dating back to the 1990’s, while I backed up my case with literature from this century, and this millennium. Because his references were out of context and totally unrelated to my main them, Brass also kept going off at tangents. For example he referred repeatedly to Franz Boaz, who worked at the beginning of the twentieth century, and to Alan Templeton’s 1993 article, which contested the 1987 mitochondrial DNA studies. However Brass ignored the subsequent research which debunked Templeton, such as Ayala (1995) in Science 270: 1930-6; Underhill, P.A.et al. (1996) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 93: 196-200; Tishkoff et al (1996) in Science 271: 1380-7; Johanson and Edgar (1996: 42) in From Lucy to Language; Ruvolo (1996) in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 5: 202-219; Underhill, P.A. et al (1997) in Genome Research 7: 996-1005; and Li, J. et al. (1999) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 96: 3796-800. More significantly, Brass quoted Templeton’s 1993 article but ignored the same Templeton’s revised opinion in Nature (2002).
Brass also questioned the validity of two major and significant studies by Professor Howells (Howells, W. W.,1973, “Cranial variation in man: a study by multivariate analysis of patterns of difference among recent human populations, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University 67: 1-259; and Howells, W. W., 1989, “Skull shapes and the map: craniometric analyses in the dispersion of modern Homo”, Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University 79: 1-189), preferring to quote instead from a study carried out in the 1920’s.
But what is truly remarkable for a supposed defender of science against “pseudoscience” is that Brass also ignored the most significant recent contribution, that by Tim D. White, in Nature of 12 June 2003 (African origins: Ethiopian fossils are the earliest Homo sapiens), and that by Christopher Stringer in the same issue. Even Scientific American (August 2003) had got hold of it and published the story, and so has Focus magazine in their latest issue. Has Brass therefore missed Nature, Scientific American and even Focus, or was the desire to debunk more important to him than paying attention to the relevant literature? I can only comment that instead of criticizing my method of investigation or the interpretation of my findings, Brass went off once again at a tangent and quoted what he had read on the Internet from a Metacrawler query during the coffee break. At one point I tried to reason with Brass that his references were over ten years old, whereas mine were the most recent and the most significant, but the point evidently did not sink in. He even claimed to be aware of an “article” I was referring but since the item in question was not in fact an article but a printed book I must conclude that he was bluffing.
Whatever his motives, Brass’s efforts at the conference were unsuccessful and he failed to impress the many archaeologists present who did not offer any support for him during or after his assaults. At the concluding address on Day Four by David Trump, it was evident that Chris Micallef’s presentation had been well received, for Trump declared that "I think that at last, over a long period of time, I have been convinced of the equinoctial alignment of the Mnajdra temple; this has taken some doing". And during the same address Trump selected two contributions out of the 36 presented as indicating what the road ahead should be like. One of these was my own. "DNA has been mentioned by Dr Mifsud in a specific context,” commented Trump, but there is a much wider need here, I feel, for studies on both the present day Maltese population, which would be comparatively easy, and more significantly for us… it ought to be attempted on ancient bone material.”
Despite all this Brass is still able to convince himself that he has made an impression. A few phrases selected from the various e-mails he sent me in a post-conference exchange of correspondence speak for themselves:
"My critique was mild because I was forced to be concise; in paper form I'd have blown it apart even further, the little that was left scattered".
"What I said was being mild compared to how academics can rip into each other's arguments".
"I had one academic ask, afterwards, whether I was a Ph.D student and who was laughing at the way you were dismantled by me not breaking a sweat."
"I'm very well aware from my private discussions what the reaction has been from the majority of the laypeople and all the academics present; even more so as I was aware of you not having talked to the majority of the academics there anyways for if you had been doing so you would have been standing next to me".
"I was afterwards made aware that you are well known for the poor quality research displayed at this international academic conference".
"Notice I didn't make comments on those papers I thought were decent or semi-decent in aspects. I would have made the same comments no matter who presented your paper, but if an archaeologist or an informed layperson had done so then I wager I would have been able to have had an informed and interesting discussion with him/her with mutual respect".
"Oh and I suggest that your ego isn't so easily bruised, or is it that you're just sore after the hammerings received for your pseudoscientific works".
What amuses Brass and what sort of respect does he have for other people? In one his emails he confided: "I was particularly amused, btw, to see you and your mistress turn your backs on me as I walked out of the toilet after washing my hands".
Brass admits that his criticisms deviated from the main theme of my presentation. "If you recall,” he wrote, “I posed no question on your diagnosis of that particular skull. I questioned other aspects of your presentation such as the mythical African Eve and why you even attempted to introduce a possible 43,000 year migration from North Africa into Malta". Yet real scholars disagree with Brass. As Christopher Stringer of the Natural History Museum commented in an email to me on 7 October 2003: "Anton, Thanks for this information, which I think would make an interesting publication … it would not surprise me at all if early Maltese came direct from Africa!"
I’ll close with one final characteristic quote from Brass in his emails to me: "You may reply if you wish; as far as I am concerned I have bigger fish to concentrate on".
All of you “big fish” out there beware. Don Quixote is on the loose once again.
(email Dr Anton Mifsud, firstname.lastname@example.org)