Evolutionary Archaeology: Theory and Application

Article excerpt

Evolutionary Archaeology: Theory and Application. Edited by MICHAEL J. O'BRIEN, Foreword by ROBERT C. DUNNELL. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. 1997. 300 pp., preface, acknowledgments, figures, tables, list of contributors, index. $55.00 (cloth), $25.00 (paper, ISBN 0-87480-514-7).

Archaeology, among other things, records directional change in material variation. What forces or mechanisms are responsible for this change? Is it the movement of people with their distinctive material repertoires? Is it cultural transformation, motivated by charismatic individuals, by clashes between class or gender groups, or by populations approaching carrying capacity? Or, does the archaeological record inform on the differential selection of individual material variants? These are fundamental questions that in 1998 continue to challenge archaeologists.

The foundation for the latter argument is laid in this volume, which brings together the early, classic writings on evolutionary archaeology. In the Foreword, Robert Dunnell recounts his intellectual journey in formulating what we call today evolutionary archaeology. Michael O'Brien's orienting essay is followed by 14 papers (13 of them previously published), organized according to three themes, each introduced by O'Brien. Part I covers paradigmatic and theoretical issues; Part II, methodological issues; and Part III, applications.

Critical archaeological ideas discussed in this volume include: the nature and practice of an archaeological science, given the historical nature of archaeology; the relationship between cultural evolution and Darwinian evolution (i.e., none); the role of Darwinian and Lamarckian components in evolution; artifacts as part of the extended phenotype; the logical inadequacy of essential entities, such as political structures and their transformation, for explaining change through time; and the poverty of scientific explanations of material change in terms of human rational thought and decision making.

Reading through these chapters, one sees several major gaps which evolutionary archaeologists will need to address. For example, systems and systemic reconstruction are denounced; yet, to understand the evolutionary history of a material culture lineage, an understanding of the selective environment is critical. In fact, most recent treatments by evolutionary archaeologists rely on such systemic reconstructions. Another problem is the equation of reconstruction with ethnographic analogy, with all of its many problems. Alison Wylie (1996, "The Constitution of Archaeological Evidence: Gender Politics and Science," In: The Disunity of Science, edited by Peter Galison and David J. Stump, pp. 311-343, Stanford University Press, Stanford) has outlined another inferential strategy-that based on ampliative evidence using multiple, differentially secure bodies of reference knowledge-which allows for reconstruction without ethnographic analogy.

The utility of the evolutionary archaeology program remains to be seen and efforts are already afoot to establish its superiority as a scientific discipline. …