Searching for answers

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Native American scholar E.B. Eiselein is pictured Monday, April 2, in Kalispell. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

A?nthropologist E.B. Eiselein has spent years studying two basic elements of the human experience.

“We know that all human societies have language, all human societies have religion, so that makes it universal,” explained Eiselein. About a decade ago, he started considering how language and religion are linked.

This interest grew out of discussions with a religion scholar, David Scott. The two were considering topics for a seminar in Flathead Valley Community College’s Honors program.

“Finally we narrowed it down to origins of language and religion,” Eiselein remembered. As the small, discussion style classes began, “the more we realized that our choice of language and religion was fortuitous...both language and religion are symbol systems. We’re saying those two things are very, very, closely correlated.”

Eiselein came well-prepared to spot these correlations. He’s made a career analyzing and engaging the public about disparate fields.

After studying Romance languages at the University of Montana, he completed a Ph.D in anthropology at the University of Arizona, writing his dissertation on the politics of water resource development.

While he never took the traditional path into academia, Eiselein’s found plenty to do as an “independent researcher.” Over the past five decades, his projects have ranged from consulting tribally-owned radio stations to assisting with archaeological digs.

“Much of my public work,” he reflected, “has been really to popularize anthropology.” Academic reports tend to be jargon-heavy. “How do I synthesize that and explain what that means to a layperson? What does all this stuff mean? How do I bring it together?”

He added that, as academic disciplines have become increasingly specialized, “I prefer to make the connections” between topics.

He brought this approach to the seminar that he and Scott co-taught on language and religion. Connecting these two fields required looking beyond the printed page, to humanity’s oldest implements.

Early humans, Eiselein explained, gained the brainpower needed for language around the time they started refining and standardizing their stone tools.

“I think where we really see evidence of language in stone tools comes with a tool we call acheulean,” crafted by homo erectus, an ancestor of modern humans, from 1.6 million to 250,000 years ago. The makers of these blades, Eiselein said, “had a mental template, and they began to make what we called a hand-axe. Sharpened on both sides, uniform size.”

In his view, this is “saying that the brain is seeing patterns, [and] the brain is being able to replicate those patterns.” It also reflected growth in a part of the brain that controls both verbal communication and fine motor skills.

Further down the archaeological record, things got more interesting. “All of a sudden, we start getting these big hand axes, [with] no wear patterns” from use. “We’re beginning to see those as symbolic tools, symbolism for something. Is that the beginning of religion?”

“Maybe.”

Other hypotheses exist for these unworn hand axes’ use. But little is clear when gazing so far into the past, said Eiselein’s co-teacher, David Scott.

“We were asking them to pursue research in an area that there were no solid answers,” he said of his students. “Much of it was as new to me as it was to some of the students. That’s one of the reasons it was so exciting to teach.”

“I had very little background in anthropology, and so I basically had to go back to school under E.B.’s tutelage,” Scott added. “E.B.’s an amazing, resourceful researcher and teacher.”

They still discuss the roots of language and religion regularly, and E.B. plans to explore the topic further in a book.

“I’m still heavily involved in the research,” he said. “Most of it’s library research, which involves pulling together several fields: archaeology, and then back to paleoanthropology, human biology...and then going back to early Earth’s history, and then art history.”

As an independent scholar, he reflected, “I have that joy of going off wherever my curiosity takes me.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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