Antiquity and Early Humanity. (Special Section)

By Pettitt, P. B. | Antiquity, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Antiquity and Early Humanity. (Special Section)

Pettitt, P. B., Antiquity


In this paper, I use the first 36 volumes of ANTIQUITY--from 1927 to 1962--to explore the unfolding of palaeoanthropological studies and knowledge of the process of human evolution. I chose to stop at 1962 as I contend that it is by this time that the general intellectual framework within which we still understand human evolution was in place. Some of the defining characteristics of this framework of relevance here I take to be

a the recognition of a deep time over which human evolution has occurred,

b the arrival of absolute dating methods facilitating for the first time a quantification of this period, and

c the recognition of Africa as the probable cradle of humanity.

In this year, the same that saw the publication of Lewis Binford's `Archaeology as Anthropology' in ANTIQUITY's American counterpart--and which may therefore also be taken-as the instigation of `processual' techniques--ANTIQUITY (volume 36) carried two major papers on the implications of the Olduvai Gorge discoveries which were representative of the new zeitgeist. These, and a number of publications carried by the journal in the decades before, are major contributions to the study of early humans.

This takes me to within only four years of Daniel's editorship. Certain gross observations contrast the pre-1960s Crawford `epoch' with Daniel's and the others succeeding his. The relative paucity of articles on earlier prehistory is the most obvious of such contrasts. Crawford's rare references to papers on human evolution in his editorials markedly contrast with Daniel's, who quite often begins his editorial with them. Papers tend to be of a general, synthetic nature, and material-based studies are few and far between. (1) Given the importance of lithics to earlier human prehistory these make surprisingly few appearances. The reason for this is, perhaps, clear: Crawford notes early on (volume 4: 140) that `we have no intention of wearying our readers, in the continental style, with "flints"'!

There is, of course, no absolute Rubicon crossed as Daniel took up the editorial, and the changing intellectual world of palaeoanthropology from the early 1960s is reflected in the journal just as much as the change to Daniel's clearly stronger editorial interest in earlier prehistory. Here, of course, I do not attempt an exhaustive representation of the development of palaeoanthropology in the first half of the 20th century. I have deliberately restricted my reading to the journal itself, and if I mark out specific papers as being landmarks I do not seek to denigrate the importance of others I have not discussed or that appeared elsewhere. I have chosen to structure my discussion, perhaps unsurprisingly, around three central issues in the field; the geographical pattern of human evolution, the establishment of chronometric dating methods and the quantification of human evolutionary time, and the development of evolutionary phylogenies for the australopithecines and Homo. Within these fields important issues were debated, new discoveries, developments and innovations were reported quickly, (2) and major statements were made of human evolution.

Rhodesia, England, Java: the geographical context of human evolution

By 1927 discoveries over the previous three decades allowed Hooton to note in volume 1 that fossil humans were `distributed from Rhodesia in the south, England in the north and Java in the east' (volume 1: 147), and the stage was clearly set for a discussion as to the geographical origin of humans. England's own claim for an important role in human evolution was in doubt in 1931 when Elliot Smith expressed severe doubts as to the authenticity of the Piltdown skull (volume 5) (3) and would have to wait for the Swanscombe discoveries of 1935 and 1936 (reported in volume 11, 1937: 483) to reprise its role. Despite Dubois' discoveries in the 1890s turning attention to the east, and the recognition of human artefacts in association with extinct Pleistocene mammals in Mexico as reported in volume 11, Eurocentrism is apparent from the inception of the journal and pervades for at least two decades, falling only in the 1950s. …

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