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Chapter Summary

  • A difficult but important task of archaeology is to answer the question "why" and indeed much of archaeology has focused on the investigation of why things change. Before the 1960s changes in material and social culture were explained by migration and cultural diffusion.
  • The processual approach of New Archaeology, which began to take hold in the 1960s, attempted to isolate the different processes at work within a society. Rather than placing an emphasis on movements of people as the primary cause of change and development, early processual archaeologists looked more to humanity’s relationship with its environment, on subsistence and economy, and the other processes at work within a society to explain why a society was how it was.
  • Processual archaeology often addresses big questions such as the rise of agriculture and the origins of the state. In general, multivariate (several factor) explanations are better than monocausal (single factor) ones.
  • Marxist archaeology, focusing on the effects of class struggle within a society, does not contradict the ideas of processual archaeology, and nor does evolutionary archaeology, which is centered on the idea that the processes responsible for biological evolution also drive culture change.
  • As a reaction to the "functionalist" approach of early processual archaeology, so-called postprocessual approaches developed in the 1980s and 1990s, emphasizing the subjectivity of archaeological interpretations and drawing on structuralist thinking and neo-Marxist analysis.
  • New cognitive-processual approaches in the 1990s sought to overcome some of the limitations of early processual archaeology. A greater emphasis is placed on the concepts and beliefs of past societies, and the difficulty of testing hypotheses concerning culture change is recognized.
  • One aim of contemporary archaeology is to keep track of the individual in explaining change. Agency, defined as the short-term intentionality of an individual, may indeed have long-term and unforeseen consequences that lead to cultural change. Another aim is to recognize the active role of material culture in the way humans engage with the world.

Key Concepts

Migrationist and Diffusionist Explanations

Diffusion, pp.478–79

The Processual Approach

Processual (New) archaeology, pp.481, 483


Functional-processual approach, p.485
Cognitive-processual approach, p.485

Marxist Archaeology

Marxist archaeology, p.486

Evolutionary Archaeology

Human behavioral ecology, p.487
Richard Dawkins, p.487

The Form of Explanation: General or Particular

Idealism, p.489
Natural laws, p.489
Deductive-nomothetic explanation, p.490
Historiographic, p.490
Scientistic, p.490
Hypothetico-deductive explanation, p.490

The Individual

Identity, p.490

Monocausal Explanations:

Monocausal explanation, p.491
Hydraulic hypothesis, p.491
Environmental circumscription, pp.492, 494

Multivariate Explanations

Multivariate explanation, p.494
Systems approach, p.494
Negative feedback, p.494
Homeostasis, p.494


Simulation, p.495

Postprocessual or Interpretive Explanation

Structuralist approaches, p.499
Critical Theory, p.499
Relativism, p.501
Neo-Marxism, p.501

Cognitive Archaeology

Cognitive-processual archaeology, pp.501–03

Agency and Material Engagement

Agency, p.503
Material engagement, p.504