Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


Our review of the year (overleaf) shows a healthy spread of research from the Lower Palaeolithic to the twentieth century, and placing them in our arbitrary time periods shows--once again--the surprising number of surprising things going on the world over at the same time. It is not too much to say that archaeologists are rewriting the human story every year. Unlike most long-running serials, ours adds most of its new pages at the beginning. Neanderthals are getting more 'modern,' designing stone tools and visualising landscape-yield by season, inviting us, in Terry Hopkinson's words, to review 'the boundaries we erect to police the uniqueness of humanity.' At Soucy in the Paris basin they seem to be planning their settlement--or at least its location and activities--between 365 and 345 000 years ago. Definitive skills do seem to pop up earlier and earlier: they were experimenting with bread in Italy 25 000 years ago, and with geometric art in central Europe. And who can resist the image of one of the earliest arrivals in New Guinea, then still joined to Australia, their torso adorned with a dangling shark's tooth pendant.

New discoveries and analyses continue to whittle away at the evolutionary view of art: realistic horses begin in the French Palaeolithic, while the primitive rock art figures found in Burma were made by quarrymen of the sixteenth century AD. Themes as well as style connect to social context rather than chronology: viz. the feminine (though not exactly feminist) images in shaped flints and Jomon pottery.

All this adds fuel to the argument for the archaeology of recent periods, or of periods where there are plenty of texts. There are always other tales to tell--from the crockery of the kitchens of an Australian colonial estate or the folk art of the English country churchyard. It is not just that history never walked that way: history wasn't thrilled by what it saw, but archaeology was. Archaeology writes the history of local politics--or rather the history of those that lost the vote: the dissident underworld, in every sense. In one respect there has been a human world system from the Neolithic; but a great many peoples up to the present day did not take part in it and these are archaeology's people too.

The diversity of human experience, and the failure of progress to correlate with advancing time, raises venerable but vital questions about innovation v. conservatism--those innovating and conserving societies memorably identified by Stuart Piggott. (1) This topic recently brought together a group of scholars at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Altenberg, Austria which included anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, geneticists and evolutionary biologists. Mike O'Brien (University of Missouri) and Stephen Shennan (UCL) report:

"It would be difficult to find another topic in anthropology that has played as an important a role as innovation in arguments about why and how human behaviour changes. Archaeologists have looked to diffusion and trade as a source of innovation, adopting without comment the models of their anthropological colleagues as to how and why the innovations arose in the first place.

The workshop began with reviews of the uses and abuses of evolutionary theory and then moved to debates over the similarities and differences between biological and cultural evolution and the epistemological status of analogies. These discussions set the stage for detailed case studies of cultural innovation in animals and in prehistoric and modern human populations. The workshop finished with case studies of technological transitions, from Paleoindian-period projectile points in the United States to the origin of the wheel, the history of bicycles, the spread of modern tractors, and the proliferation of academic jargon.

Writing in the 1920s, Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter made the distinction between invention--the creation and establishment of something new--and innovation--an invention that becomes economically successful and earns a profit. …

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