I listened to an interview with Dr. Lee Bray, lead archaeologist for Dartmoor National Park, and he turned out to be remarkably quotable.
"Looking into the prehistoric past is like looking into a well. It's dark and indistinct and sometimes all we can see is our own reflection." If one reads popular accounts of archaeological finds, this is recognisable. When something is found, the journalist - and sometimes the science writers and even the researchers spin a tale of what they think was happening and what the people must have been like. Somehow, they always seem to be like us, and the speculations of a century ago are noticeably different than what we guess today. It is rather like looking at episodes of The Flintstones or The Jetsons now, when the 1960s cultural assumptions are glaringly obviously projected onto both the past and the future. Not that we do that anymore...
"It's not true that they were just like us in many ways. The farther back you go the weirder they get."
"Artist's renditions of prehistoric people all look like attendees at a 1970s Glastonbury festival." He also wonders why we insist that their clothing must have been brown, given that we know they had vegetable dyes, cosmetics, piercings, and tattoos. They loved decoration. We even apply this dullness to recent historical eras when we have a wealth of data contradicting it. James had a recent post that classical statues were not actually white and unpainted.
"The sharp breaks in eras and cultural changes are almost surely wrong, even in the case of one population completely displacing another. It's not as if someone looked up one day and said 'Right, it's the neolithic now, we'll have to start farming.' We make categories in order to break them."
That last sentiment applies to a great many fields. Biology, where our definitions of species are increasingly discarded; medicine, where diagnoses are sometimes neither fish nor fowl; all social sciences, and all types of history, where eras are created in retrospect in order to clarify some aspects, yet necessarily obscure others. I don't recall ever being taught this, not only in introductory courses, but neither in more advanced courses. We were required to learn categories. That isn't a terrible approach in any field, for without something of that nature there can be no organising of the material into schema nor discussion about it. But I think warning the student that the boundaries are mere conventions and soft at best should be inserted into learning.
It might even make journalists and other dilettantes wary of thinking they know everything.