Emergence of Sedentism: New Ways of Living, New Ways of Symbolizing

By Haaland, Randi | Antiquity, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Emergence of Sedentism: New Ways of Living, New Ways of Symbolizing


Haaland, Randi, Antiquity


What are objects evidence for?

Since the primary material we as archaeologists work with is concrete objects related to past human activities, that 'concreteness' has led to an empiricist focus on ordering the objects into typological classes. Less attention is devoted to relations which link the objects to the past activities from which they derive; these inferences involve difficult methodological problems and require archaeologists to learn from disciplines which actually study artefacts in behavioural contexts. What the objects 'say' about a past way of life, about how people conceptualized and coped with conditions in their natural and social environment, is arrived at indirectly via our interpretative acts. Empiricist archaeologists also make such interpretative acts when they identify a typological construct like 'Bandkeramik' with a social unit or claim that one type of axe evolved into another type. However, axes do not breed axes; it is people who invent new ways of fashioning axes. If changes are small archaeologists conventionally see 'continuity' and explain it as 'evolution'; if they are large they see 'discontinuity' and turn to other processes, e.g. ethnic replacement. These inferences, the archaeologists' construction, are weak as they are usually based on implicit assumptions about the relationship between changes in object forms and changes in socio-cultural features. Instead of these implicit and idiosyncratic interpretations - now the enduring conventions of archaeological reasoning, particularly within processual archaeology - we should use explicitly formulated theoretical frameworks to derive hypotheses about what the objects 'say'.

I am thus arguing for the need to develop theoretical/methodological approaches allowing us to make falsifiable inferences about unobservable past socio-cultural processes from their results preserved in the archaeological objects. The objects thus serve as evidence which may corroborate (not verify), weaken or refute such theoretically derived hypotheses. In this sense the objects can only be indirect evidence for scientifically interesting hypotheses, e.g. about prehistoric human adaptations, ethnic relations or symbolic meanings. As direct evidence the objects only support trite statements, e.g. about their distribution on our artefact types.

I here develop hypotheses about what objects retrieved from excavations in the Atbara region of the Sudan 'say' about socio-economic and cultural processes in the Nile Valley in the 8th-9th millennium b.p. The material is particular, while my main interest is in processes of more general character, i.e. the transition from a mobile to a more sedentary way of life, and its implications for emergence of female-dominated, hearth-centred activities and with this elaboration of symbolism derived from features and functions of the female body.

The Atbara sites and their material inventory

These transitions are generally associated with the emergence of agriculture, a plausible account provided one distinguishes between plant cultivation and plant domestication (Haaland 1987; 1995); cultivating activities necessarily are evolutionary prior to the biological processes of plant domestication. When domesticated varieties are manifest in the archaeological material, we must infer an earlier phase when wild plant varieties - in this case wild sorghum - were subject to cultivating activities. Plant imprints indicate that gathering of wild sorghum was part of the subsistence activity in Atbara by the 9th millennium b.p. (Magid 1995). Since gathering activities by themselves do not favour sedentism, we have to search elsewhere for conditions leading to a sedentary way of life. These conditions emerged with exploitation of a spatially confined food resource - a range of aquatic species - a reliable and stable resource. These sites show sedentism emerging before plant utilization had evolved into 'cultivation'.

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