The Human Past The Human Past The Human Past The Human Past
The Human Past The Human Past The Human Past The Human Past
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Chapter 1- Introduction: The Study of the Human Past
Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students will be able to:

    understand 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, like 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.

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 "four-field" 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. Archaeologists use computers to record and analyze data, and draw on physics, chemistry, human and animal anatomy, biology, botany, geography, and geology to analyze materials and understand past technology and environments.

Archaeology 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. Cognitive archaeology studies indirect evidence for the social, economic, symbolic, and religious life of past societies. Carvings and figurines can provide information about rituals, burials may reveal identity and afterlife beliefs. Statuary and art hint at political power. Archaeologists are interested as much in the tombs of kings as the daily life of ordinary people.

Prehistory vs. History
There is an important distinction to be made between historic and prehistoric archaeology. Writing was first invented less than 5500 years ago in Southwest Asia and was later adopted at different times in different places. Archaeology is also important for protohistoric periods, when writing was known, but had limited use and subject matter. Everything before this is prehistoric

In the past, 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 indigenous 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, demography, environmental change. World prehistory allows us to contextualize present and recent times within the long human record and the differences and similarities between ourselves and our ancestors.

World prehistory is a product 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.

Renaissance Beginnings
In medieval Europe scholars were guided by the Bible and ancient philosophers like Aristotle. Experiments were discouraged as an unseemly questioning of creation. Then, 500 years ago, during the Renaissance, the availability of printed books, and hence literacy, rose. This led to discoveries that created the basis for modern Western science. Later, the Church itself encouraged scientific inquiry. At the same time, European explorers encountered previously unknown societies in Africa, India, and the Americas. This led to a new curiosity about human societies, expressed first as an interest in the Europeans' own past.

Advances in the 17th and 18th centuries
European archaeology initially focused on Europe itself: British investigations of prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge and Avebury began in the 17th century, then spread to France and Scandinavia. Systematic excavation began in the late 18th century, when the concept of stratigraphy - the successive deposition of superimposed layers - was first linked to chronology. Chronology, however, was still a limiting factor. Biblical interpretations stated that the world was only 6000 years old. The historical sequence could be traced as far back as the Roman conquests in Europe, but archaeologists were recognizing that some material was far older.

Developments in the 19th century
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 and Neolithic, and Early, Middle and Late Bronze Ages and Iron Ages. These sequences could be checked by the excavation of successive layers, providing a relative chronology, though not an exact age.

In the 1830s, 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 in 1856, with the discovery of Neanderthal fossils, hinting at earlier human forms.

A third key event was the publication of 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" - ongoing natural processes rather than divine creation - with both animals and humans subject to such forces.

Despite fierce conflicts with proponents of divine creation, the theory gradually won general acceptance and was later supported by advances in genetics, from Gregor Mendel's 1860s experiments to the discovery of DNA in the mid-20th century, which can demonstrate Darwinian natural selection at the cellular level.

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. Numerous and well-dated remains of earlier hominin species indicate that steady morphological and behavioral change preceded the first modern humans, who appeared 150,000 years ago, and which continues today.

Darwin's work provided the source of evolutionary ecology, which studies how species adapt to their environments in biological and behavioral ways. Culture can be seen as an adaptive mechanism, thus cultural ecology arose; an insightful, if limited, explanation for human cultural behavior.

During the 19th century, theories were created to account for culture change. Lewis Henry Morgan in North America and Sir Edward Tylor in Britain argued that humans had passed through stages of savagery (hunters and gatherers) and barbarism (herders and cultivators) before progressing to civilization (states), with the invention of writing. This implies that each new stage was better than the preceding one and that progress was driven by "social Darwinism," the idea that earlier societies were less "adapted" than those that came after, making it "natural" that they be supplanted by "better" societies.

These ideas remained influential until the mid-20th century, when archaeologists rejected them as being interwoven with erroneous ideas about the racial superiority of Europeans over the indigenous people whom they had colonialized, who were "stuck" in prehistoric lifeways.

One widely influential new scheme for classifying different kinds of societies was proposed by Elman Service in 1962. He divided human societies into four categories:

    bands, small groups related by family and marriage, typically mobile hunter-gatherers;
    tribes, larger groups of settled farmers or pastoralists who believe they share descent from a common ancestor; these are without central control or a strongly developed social hierarchy;
    chiefdoms, consisting of thousands of individuals organized in lineages ruled by a chief, in an institutionalized hierarchy of rank and status. Economic redistribution operates, where tribute paid by various sectors of society is redistributed by the chief to his followers;
    state societies or civilizations, with much greater size and complexity, controlled through a centralized and institutionalized hierarchy that overrides kinship ties, and in which differences of rank and wealth are fostered and protected.

Although still useful as a general scheme for comparing and comprehending archaeological societies, this system is today used with caution, as we now know that many societies incorporate criteria of two or more "types" or do not fit any category clearly. In addition, Service's categories appear still to support the idea that each "stage" always succeeds the last: "progress" by another name. It also holds the danger that bands, tribes, or chiefdoms of the present or recent past might be considered "fossil" survivors of earlier social forms, rather than people who have changed as much as any others, and who only share a similar economy or technology with prehistoric people.

In the late 1940s, nuclear physicist Willard Libby developed the first absolute dating technique: radiocarbon (carbon-14), revolutionizing archaeology. The first dates obtained using this method were surprisingly early, and when calibration was incorporated, which was necessary due to the changing rate of production of atmospheric radiocarbon in the past, many dates were even older. Radiocarbon can date materials up to 40,000 years old, so is not useful for studying human origins or the Lower and Middle Paleolithic. Other radiometric methods, 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" archaeology (collecting materials from the surface), 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.

Despite new technology, archaeology remains a humanity or social science, as it concerns the development and diversity of humans, as individuals and within societies. This creates a need for the development of theory to help interpret material culture to explain how and why things happened in the past.

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.

Cultural Ecology and Agency Theory
One important archaeological theory, first proposed in the 1940s and 1950s, is known as cultural ecology: this proposes that change in human culture has been the response of those societies to changes in their environments. Julian Steward, its main proponent, believed that social and political structures in large-scale societies, such as irrigation, might be adjustments to new needs, such as increased food supply, created by the growing size of human communities - a classic example of cultural ecology.

Cultural ecology can be a powerful tool for interpreting cultural change and is still popular. However, it puts "external" conditions at the center of causality for nearly all human behavior. Cultural ecologists often considered individuals to be irrelevant or unimportant, merely "reacting" to external change.

More recently others argued that cultural ecology ignores or minimizes culture itself, and the role of people as agents of change: agency theory states that society consists of individuals and groups, with perceptions, aims, and desires. They constitute knowledgeable actors who can effect change and achieve objectives.

Mechanisms and Patterns of Change
These two theoretical perspectives, cultural ecology and agency theory, are only a couple of ways of interpreting the information derived from archaeological work. Often, theories are contrasting but complementary, operating at different scales: some at the level of whole societies over the long-term, some at the level of the community within a few generations. Alongside theoretical frameworks, archaeologists also study specific mechanisms of change.

Innovation, Diffusion, Emulation, and Migration. Archaeologists generally recognize several mechanisms through which change occurs:

    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.

It is hard to demonstrate beyond question that changes in one area are the result of contacts with another, rather than simply the outcome of parallel processes. Similarly, migration and replacement was once a common explanation for archaeological change, such as the appearance of new artifacts, but in recent decades the study of historical and ethnographic records shows that internal change within a group can produce the same outcome.

Linear and Cyclical Patterns. Change in the human past can often appear unilinear when viewed in hindsight. Once, everyone was a hunter-gatherer, then simple farming societies replaced them, and later, states with metal and irrigation technologies replaced those. This is not a given: sometimes, for instance, states crumble and are replaced by horticultural tribes - this may be a result of a technological or economic change, not the failure of a particular type of society. Additionally, many current and past societies understand change not as a linear progression of time but a cyclical pattern of recurrent events. This must be understood in order to assess the impact of change.

Processual and Postprocessual Archaeology
Before 1950, many explanations relied on diffusion and migration, based on both insufficient data and the archaeologist's own culture-bound notion of what was "probable" or "reasonable." But ethnographic data showed that external forces rarely drive change, instead, internal processes were more common and more significant. History also showed that societies are not simply passive recipients of change introduced from outside. Thus, new kinds of archaeological thinking were required.

In this context, Lewis Binford in North America and David Clarke in Britain, among others, developed processual archaeology (or the New Archaeology) in the 1960s, named for its focus on cultural process: not simply recording what had happened in the past, but understanding how and why. Features of this school of thought include:

    archaeologically testable ethnographic parallels, in the hope of understanding prehistoric societies as real, functioning entities.
    a rejection of inductive reasoning that impressionistically suggested causation that was "probable" or "reasonable."
    a "hypothetico-deductive" approach: an archaeologist would generate hypotheses and then test them against the archaeological material.
    the use of computers, then a new type of analytical device, for quantitative analysis.
    the view that culture change was an adaptation to the environment.

Other important ideas include:
    an awareness of processes that affect site formation and post-depositional processes. American Michael Schiffer distinguished between C-transforms (cultural transformation processes) and N-transforms (natural transformation processes).
    creating a body of Middle Range Theory: lower level theories that connect raw data (for example, the number of and type of artifacts at a site) and the broad conclusions (for example, origins of agriculture).
    ethnoarchaeology: living among traditional societies and observing how their activities would be represented in the archaeological record.
    experimental archaeology, in which tasks or objects from the past are replicated and then compared with the archaeological remains.

Processual archaeology had a clear, rigorous methodology, an advance over previous, less rigorous approaches. Many archaeologists today describe themselves as processualists. Since the 1980s, however, a new theoretical tradition, referred to as "postprocessualist," 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, such as the hypothetico-deductive approach. Other themes to have emerged within postprocessual archaeology include gender archaeology, the archaeology of ethnicity and identity, and the concept of multivocality.

Post-processual archaeology has attracted some and is criticized by others, but has led to a wider study of symbolism, belief systems, and individuals in human societies. Most recent studies draw on elements of both traditions.

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.

Humans and the Environment
From at least 800,000 years ago, world climate has experienced dramatic fluctuations between warm and cold conditions. The last 11,500 years (the Holocene period) of mild, stable climate is atypical: modern humans developed in an Ice Age context, limiting some aspects of human social development.
    However, smaller temperature fluctuations occurred rapidly and dramatic changes appear to have taken place within the timescale of a human lifespan. 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.

Demographic Growth
Paleolithic population size is uncertain, but was relatively small due to climate conditions: expansion in warm times was cancelled out 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. Food was more abundant and climate was predictable. Communities developed new ways of living. The result was rapid population increase, which continues today.

The most important adaptation was food production (farming), from simple to complex. 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.

Symbols and Cognition
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.

Humans use material symbols alongside language to help them represent and conceptualize ideas and relationships, to understand and interpret the social and physical world around them. Writing conveys ideas with little ambiguity. Symbols like clothing or ornaments carry messages about identity and belief. Ceremonies and rituals are materialized through the remains of buildings, objects, and substances that archaeologists can explore. Symbolic behavior structures virtually all human activities and throughout the text will be considered alongside biological, climate, and social change.

Key words and terms Chapter 1

What is archaeology?
archaeology as anthropology
history, protohistory, and prehistory
literate and non-literate
time depth, long-term processes
snapshots, short-term events
humanities, social sciences, natural sciences
hypothetico-deductive methods
subjective/interpretive methods

Goals of archaeology
contextualize the present within the past

Topics of study and areas of interest
explanation of change through time
material culture and non-material culture
elites and ordinary people
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
C-transforms (cultural transformation processes)
N-transforms (natural transformation processes).

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
New Archaeology
experimental archaeology
postprocessual archaeology
interpretive archaeology
gender archaeology
archaeological computing/archaeometry

Archaeological theories
Social Darwinism
evolutionary ecology
cultural ecology
agency theory
peer-polity interaction,
ethnographic analogy
hypothesis testing
scientific methods and rigor
Middle Range Theory
ethnicity and archaeology of identity

Important terms in the history of archaeology
scientific knowledge: observation, experimentation
Western scholarly tradition
age of exploration
antiquarian investigation
three-age system
Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages
Old Stone Age - Paleolithic
New Stone Age -Neolithic
Neander Valley
On the Origin of Species, Descent of Man
natural selection
divine creation
universal stages of human societies
"savagery," "barbarism," and "civilization"
band, tribe, chiefdom, state

systematic excavation
survey or off-site archaeology
relative chronology
absolute dating
radiometric, radiocarbon, carbon-14,
aerial photography
side-scanning radar
geomagnetic prospection
faunal analysis
fossil DNA
GPS (Global Positioning Systems)
GIS (Geographic Information Systems)

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