Chapter Summary and Key Concepts

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students will be able to:

  • comprehend the nature of archaeology and how it can aid in understanding the human past.
  • trace the origins and development of archaeology from the European Renaissance, through the 18th and 19th centuries, to today
  • discuss how the combination of fossil hominins, human tools associated with extinct animals, and Darwin’s theory of natural selection revealed the age and complexity of the human past
  • describe why early models of “social Darwinism” developed in order to explain how society had “progressed” from “savagery” to “barbarism” to “civilization”
  • understand how radiometric dating, developed in the mid-20th century, revolutionized our view of the past
  • discuss how increased understanding of the complexity of indigenous people in the past and present led to the discarding of “social Darwinism,” and its replacement by new ways of characterizing human ways of life
  • describe several historic and modern theoretical perspectives, and how theory is a vital part of interpreting what happened in the past
  • examine the methods used by current archaeologists to conduct their research and interpret their finds
  • trace how long-term overarching external factors, such as climatic and environmental changes, and demographic increase, have had an impact on our physical and cultural development
  • understand the meaning of symbolic behavior, how it can be “seen” archaeologically, and what it means for interpreting the diversity and distinctiveness of cultures that have arisen under the same large-scale external conditions.

Chapter Summary

Archaeology is the only field dedicated to studying the full diversity of human culture and society, in every part of the world, through time. Archaeologists have successfully informed the world about human prehistory, as well as protohistoric and historic times.


Archaeology is often considered a sub-field within the discipline of anthropology, the study of humans, which also includes cultural or social anthropology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. Archaeology is interdisciplinary, combining social and natural sciences, while also being essentially a humanity. It can be defined as the study of the human past from material remains, or “material culture,” such as tools, clothing, and shelter. In addition, archaeologists study non-material aspects, such as belief, myth, and ritual.


In the past, the study of history tended to be biased toward literate states and empires, at the expense of areas without documentary records. Archaeology has helped redress the balance by rediscovering the rich prehistories of non-literate peoples, discrediting older, biased ideas about the superiority of any particular culture over another. World prehistory also provides a long-term perspective on human adaptation to changing circumstances, many of which are still key to our existence: food production, population growth, environmental change.


World prehistory is in origin a subject of Western scholarship, often rooted in colonial contexts, sometimes creating conflicts with the traditions of native peoples concerning their own pasts. Archaeologists now try to be sensitive and show respect for host communities, working with their consent and cooperation.

Archaeology arose first in the Renaissance. By the early 19th century, European archaeologists began sorting materials by technology and devised the three-age system of Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, which were soon further divided into Paleolithic (“Old Stone”) and Neolithic (“New Stone”), and Early, Middle and Late Bronze Ages and Iron Ages. Stone tools were found together with extinct species such as mammoth and woolly rhinoceros, indicating great age and a dramatically different climate. Another breakthrough came with the discovery of Neanderthal fossils, hinting at earlier human forms.

A third key event was the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, followed by the Descent of Man in 1871. Darwin observed the diversity and interrelationships of living species and extinct forms, leading to his theory that species changed over time through “natural selection.”

Despite fierce conflicts with proponents of divine creation, the theory gradually won general acceptance and was later supported by advances in genetics. Many continue to believe that the world and its species were created in their current forms by divine action, but these deeply held views are incompatible with the fossil record of evolution.


During the 19th century, theories were created to account for culture change. Models were proposed that human social evolution “progressed” from the “savagery” of hunter-gatherers through the “barbarism” of early farmers and herders to the “civilization” of literate urban societies.


In the late 1940s, the first absolute dating technique: radiocarbon (carbon-14 or C14) dating, revolutionizing archaeology allowed more reliable dating. Other radiometric methods (based on the rate of radioactive decay), such as potassium-argon dating, date much older volcanic material.

Archaeologists now find, map, and record sites using lasers, aerial photography, and side-scanning radar, and incorporate geomagnetic or resistivity surveys to identify below-ground features. In laboratories, they analyze phytoliths, pollen, and seeds, use-wear on stone and metal artifacts, organic residues on pottery vessels, and the fossil DNA of humans, animals and plants. Excavations are combined with “survey” or “off-site” archaeology (collecting materials from the surface sometimes across a wide area), which reveals broader patterns on a regional scale, often using GPS (Global Positioning Systems) to map them and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to analyze their interrelationships.


The earliest stages in the development of human societies involve the evolution of the human species itself. The study of human origins has focused on fossil remains from Africa, where the very earliest hominins (a group which includes humans) emerged. Descendants of these earliest species later expanded out of Africa. Evolutionary anthropologists use a variety of techniques to attempt to work out how these fossil species were related to each other. Molecular genetics now help to provide a more detailed picture of the more recent stages of human evolution. Studies can draw on both modern DNA and ancient DNA (aDNA) extracted from ancient human remains.

Archaeologists also want to be able to put developments into a secure time frame, and have borrowed three basic principles from geology:

  • The Principle of Superposition;
  • The Principle of Association;
  • The Principle of Strata Identified by Fossils/Artifacts.


Archaeology is the study of how human societies and their material culture have altered and evolved over two and a half million years. Understanding short- and long-term change lies at the heart of the archaeological endeavor.

Alongside such theoretical frameworks, archaeologists also study specific mechanisms and patterns of change:

  • Innovation: something new is developed: a production technique, a tool, an ideology, either totally new or derived from existing forms.
  • Diffusion: innovations from one area can spread into adjacent regions through contact. The direction of diffusion is easy to misunderstand or confuse, so this explanation must be used with care.
  • Emulation: societies adopt features from their neighbors in a context of rivalry or competition, for example in secondary state formation or peer-polity interaction. New states develop near existing states, adopting ideas from them, yet maintaining an indigenous form.

Processual and Postprocessual Archaeology

Before 1950, many explanations relied on theories of diffusion and migration, but ethnographic and historical examples showed that, internal processes were often more common and more significant than external forces in driving change. History also showed that societies are not simply passive recipients of change introduced from outside. Thus, new kinds of archaeological thinking were required.

Processual archaeology (or the New Archaeology) focuses on cultural process: not simply recording what had happened in the past, but understanding how and why.

“Postprocessualism” has challenged the assumptions of processual archaeology. Postprocessualists reject the idea that we can ever attain objective knowledge of the past, and question the reliance on specific rigid methodologies. Other themes to have emerged within postprocessual archaeology include gender archaeology, the archaeology of ethnicity and identity, and the concept of multivocality.


Some sites provide snapshots into the past, while others stretch back over millions of years and provide enormous time-depth. This unique perspective allows us to compare the long- and short-term, to gain insights into environmental change, demographic growth, and human cognitive and symbolic development.

From at least 800,000 years ago, world climate has experienced dramatic fluctuations between warm and cold conditions. The capacity to adapt to rapidly changing conditions with new tools, control of fire, and other innovations, has permitted human survival and success everywhere but Antarctica.

Paleolithic population size is uncertain, but was relatively small due to climate conditions: expansion in warm times was reversed when harsher conditions returned. Population would have risen as technology improved, but the pace would have remained slow. This changed as the Holocene climate became established. Communities developed new ways of living. The result was rapid population increase, which continues today.

The most important adaptation was food production (farming). Another feature is the tendency of people to cluster together in large settlements, leading to the growth of cities. These trends developed independently in different parts of the world, suggesting that certain social and environmental circumstances produce similar human responses.

Humans have a greater capacity than any other species for symbolic behavior. Intelligence and capability have evolved biologically and culturally over millions of years, but only during the past 100,000 years has symbolic behavior developed, visible in the form of burials, personal ornaments, and art.

Key Concepts

What is archaeology?

  • archaeology as part of anthropology
  • prehistory, protohistory, and history
  • literate and non-literate societies
  • time depth, long-term processes
  • snapshots, short-term events
  • interdisciplinary
  • humanities, social sciences, natural sciences
  • hypothetico-deductive methods
  • subjective/interpretive methods

Goals of archaeology

  • enlightenment
  • education
  • empowerment
  • contextualize the present within the past

Topics of study and areas of interest

  • explanation of change through time
  • material culture and non-material culture
  • wide variety of past human experience
  • human origins
  • human cognitive and symbolic behavior
  • early modern humans
  • origins of agriculture
  • development of complex societies, urbanization, states
  • adaptation to environmental change
  • adaptation to social change
  • mechanisms of change
  • demographic growth
  • cultural contact
  • parallel processes of change
  • innovation, diffusion, emulation, and migration
  • site formation processes
  • environmental data

Important People

  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Charles Darwin
  • Gregor Mendel
  • Lewis Henry Morgan
  • Edward Tylor
  • Willard Libby
  • Julian Steward
  • Leslie White
  • Elman Service
  • Lewis Binford
  • David Clarke
  • Michael Schiffer

Theoretical schools of archaeology

  • cognitive archaeology
  • processual archaeology
  • ethnoarchaeology
  • experimental archaeology
  • postprocessual archaeology
  • interpretive archaeology
  • gender archaeology
  • indigenous archaeology

Archaeological theories

  • social Darwinism
  • evolutionary ecology
  • cultural ecology
  • agency theory
  • peer-polity interaction,
  • ethnographic analogy
  • hypothesis testing
  • scientific methods and rigor
  • ethnicity and archaeology of identity
  • multivocality

Important terms in the history of archaeology

  • Renaissance
  • observation, experimentation
  • Western scholarly tradition
  • age of exploration
  • colonialism
  • antiquarian investigation
  • three-age system
  • Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages
  • Old Stone Age (Paleolithic)
  • New Stone Age (Neolithic)
  • aDNA (ancient DNA)
  • hominin
  • natural selection
  • divine creation
  • universal stages of human societies
  • “progress”
  • “savagery,” “barbarism,” and “civilization”
  • band, tribe, chiefdom, state

Archaeological methods

  • fieldwork
  • systematic excavation
  • stratigraphy
  • chronology
  • relative chronology
  • absolute dating
  • radiometric dating
  • radiocarbon, carbon-14 dating
  • potassium-argon dating
  • calibration
  • aerial photography
  • experimental archaeology
  • pollen
  • phytoliths
  • use-wear
  • faunal analysis
  • ancient DNA
  • GPS (Global Positioning Systems)
  • GIS (Geographic Information Systems)
  • LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging)
  • geomagnetic prospection
  • survey archaeology