Changing Perspectives on Hunter-Gatherers in Continental and in Anglo-American Archaeology

Article excerpt

How different are the intellectual traditions of Continental and of Anglo-American archaeology, and how is each changing? Counting papers in the standard journals which address aspects of hunter-gatherer archaeology may show.


Until very recently Continental archaeology has always been considered mainly an empiricist enterprise, in which theoretical issues are rarely discussed. Rather than losing themselves in sterile philosophical and social-scientific discussions, most Continental archaeologists, it has been assumed, confine themselves to 'real archaeology': meticulous excavations, detailed and analytical studies of archaeological material and scrupulous publications of excavation reports. This was the way most Continental researchers considered themselves (and implicitly still do). It was also the dominant conception in the Anglo-American world (and implicitly still is): empirical research as the main occupation of Continental archaeologists, theoretical reflection primarily a product of the English-speaking countries. This division of labour in reality reflected a mutual lack of interest in what each tradition considered as primary important.

In recent years, this has changed considerably. Regional traditions on the Continent (such as the Dutch and the Scandinavian) have shown an increasing interest in the Anglo-American debate. It is not a coincidence that precisely these countries are characterized by a good knowledge of English. The publication in English of theoretical periodicals (Norwegian Archaeological Review for Norway and Archaeological Dialogues for the Netherlands), both organized by the Anglo-American peer review system, is in this respect significant. In Germany, an interest in Anglo-American debates, existing already in the seventies (Eggert 1976; 1978), has had an increased attention (Harke 1989; 1991). But mainstream German archaeology remains atheoretical in the sense that there is no need to state explicitly one's theoretical position (Sommer 1991; Klejn 1993). This can also be said about France (Cleuziou et al. 1991; Olivier & Coudart in press; see for example Courbin 1982), despite the work of authors such as Gardin (1979) and Gallay (1989) whose theoretical reflections developed independently from Anglo-American discussions.

On the other hand, the publication of Ian Hodder's edited volume on Archaeological theory in Europe (Hodder 1991) and the 1992 EuroTAG in Southampton show a recent Anglo-American interest in Continental archaeology and its theoretical positions.

Before investigating the origins of this recent mutual and valuable interest between Anglo-American and Continental archaeology, we need to look at the nature of certain specific research traditions. The study of hunter-gatherers provides an interesting domain in which the regional differences between Continental and Anglo-American approaches can be seen. In this article I compare English and North American approaches on the one hand, with the Continental school of the so-called traditional countries (Germany and France) on the other. The terms 'Anglo-American' and 'Continental' are used only with reference to these specific countries.


If science is a discourse, then texts are its vital and tangible products. A study of some of these texts such as articles in scientific periodicals can offer insights into this discourse.

For each country, an important periodical was chosen: Current Anthropology for the USA, Antiquity for the UK, Gallia Prehistoire for France, Prahistorische Zeitschrift and Quartar for Germany. The specifics of each periodical may not always reflect the general characteristics of their countries. Gallia Prehistoire, originally set up to publish excavation results, might have a profile different from, for example Bulletin de la Societe Prehistorique Francaise. Nevertheless, in France Gallia Prehistoire is recognized as a leading periodical for hunter-gatherer studies and was therefore selected.


DATA: limited to the publication of empirical data. Limited generalization, no interpretation.

DATA/INTERPRETATION: stress is still on data, but small-scale interpretation is presented, based on a small data-set.

INTERPRETATION/DATA: stress is on large-scale interpretation which goes beyond the mere data. Interpretation is based on a large data-set.

THEORY: reflections on epistemological, ontological, analytical and synthetic methodology.

SOCIOHISTORICAL: historical, ethical aspects of archaeology, link with the public, etc.


INNOVATIVE: new methods are being used for survey, data-collection, data-processing, interpretation or presentation.

NOT INNOVATIVE: all methods used are at least three years old.

THEORY (FORM) EXPLICIT: explicit formulation of theoretical problem and/or reference to theoretical literature.

IMPLICIT: no explicit reference to theory.

THEORY (POSITION) TRADITIONAL: material culture as 'constantly recurring assemblages of artefacts', stress on lithic typology, chronology, migration, diffusion etc.

PROCESSUAL: material culture as 'man's extrasomatic means of adaptation', stress on technology, economy, hypothesis testing, law-building, cross-cultural comparisons, etc.

POST-PROCESSUAL: material culture as 'meaningfully constituted', stress on symbolic meaning, long-term history, non-positivist viewpoint etc.

TABLE 1. Classification scheme.

From these five periodicals the volumes published between 1960 and 1990 are analysed. Each article with relevance to the archaeology of hunter-gatherers was classified with regard to its content, its method and its theory. The classification of many, enormously varied articles involves a degree of subjective judgement; but I am confident it is not arbitrary and that the patterns reflect a reality. As the three theoretical positions are only used as broad analytical categories, rather than as descriptive categories of specific historical developments, the Anglo-American terms 'traditional', 'processual' and 'post-processual' can be used also to classify Continental articles. In cases in which the article showed no theoretical position, the category was left open.

This classification resulted in a data-base of 1047 articles:

Gallia Prehistoire: 116 or 11.1% Prahistorische Zeitschrift: 27 or 2.6 % Quartar: 160 or 15.3% Antiquity: 313 or 29.9 % Current Anthropology: 431 or 41.2 %

Regional differences

What are the general differences between these periodicals? What do they tell us about the regional differences between the distinct traditions? FIGURE 1 is the graphical output of a multivariate correspondence analysis (using SAS-software). It measures the degree of correspondence between nominal variables: the periodical, the content, the method, the theoretical position, and the year of publication. The figure should be read by rotating a straight line around the zero point. The degree of correspondence between two dots depends on the relative distance to this straight line: the closer the dots are to it, the larger the correspondence. The relative distance between dots and zero point does not have any impact on the evaluation of the correspondence.

The three Continental periodicals form a very compact sector which contrasts remarkably with the Anglo-American periodicals. With regard to content, the Continental journals are strongly associated with the empirical categories: data and data/interpretation. The methods are generally not renewing and the traditional archaeology appears to be the dominant theoretical position. Interestingly, this Continental approach is most strongly correlated with the first 15 years of the period under study, 1960 until 1975. The Anglo-American group clearly divides into two sectors. The first sector represents the values for Antiquity, which are marked by the dominance of theoretical and socio-historical articles -- in fact a direct reflection of Glyn Daniel's editorial policy. Since this orientation was constant during the whole 30 years (and in fact was even reinforced by the current editor during the late 1980s), a direct correlation with a certain time-interval is absent. Surprisingly, there is no dominant theoretical position; this must be explained by the journal's aim to be a forum for a diversity of approaches. The sector of Current Anthropology is much less dense than Antiquity's. Whereas a stress on processual theory can be noted in the second half of the 1970s and the first half of the '80s, a very small number of mainly implicitly post-processual contributions were published in the second half of the '80s. Their attention to ideational aspects is in the case of Current Anthropology often more influenced by the tradition of social and cultural anthropology than by recent archaeological theory. Explicitly post-processual archaeology, largely brought out by the study of later European prehistory, did not have a great impact on American hunter-gatherer studies. Processual theory is associated with more interpretative articles (interpretation/data) and the development of new methods, while the few post-processual articles remained exclusively theoretical.

The results of this analysis fit quite well with common-sense ideas of regional diversity: Continental archaeology is empirical, traditional and methodologically not renewing, whereas the Anglo-American approach is more interpretative and marked by theoretical and methodological innovations. When we look in more detail, subtle patterns can be elicited from this general picture.

The Anglo-American approach has, it is true, numerically most of the innovative articles (102 articles versus 63 from the Continent) but proportionally the average amount of these articles is higher on the Continent: 18.7 % versus 12.8 % in the Anglo-American world! So, new methods certainly are applied in the Continental tradition. Despite the unchanging theoretical framework, methodological renewal is still possible. While it is true that a new theoretical approach can favour the development of new methods, it is also true that new methods can be introduced into an existing paradigm. Methods invented, for example, within an Anglo-American processual context could easily be incorporated into traditional Continental archaeology.

There is another distinction between Continental and Anglo-American methodology. Whereas on the Continent, new methods are nearly always introduced in an applied form, Anglo-American literature has a huge amount of methodological proposals on the theoretical level. This could indicate that the Anglo-American archaeology is a genuine methodological think-tank. Or, it might reflect a different publication ethics: the need for publishing polemical and (methodologically) innovative articles in order to manifest oneself ('publish or perish') is mainly an American phenomenon less visible on the Continent where the career structure is much more institutional than individual.

Regional evolutions

Within the general picture of regional diversity, individual journals have their own evolutions. With regard to the number of articles, a large divergence can be observed. The Anglo-American region is marked by a steady growth, from about 80 articles between 1960 and 1964 to 200 in the period 1985-1990. The number of articles in the Continental tradition, on the other hand, decreased considerably since 1965, from about 70 in the period 1965-1970 to 40 in the period 1985-1990. The reason for these patterns can be sought in external factors: the role of economic recession on the practice of archaeology, the origin of CRM in the Anglo-American world, the new editorial boards in the English-speaking journals, and so on.

Internal elements are also responsible. We can compare the decrease of articles in the Continental world with its internal, theoretical evolutions. Although the traditional archaeology remains the dominant approach in all Continental research, its popularity decreases from 84% in 1960 to 39% in 1990. The main competitor in this Continental evolution is the growing processual theory. Post-processual influence in Continental hunter-gatherer research is not visible.

This evolution in French and German archaeology can be seen as one of the major internal factors responsible for the decreasing number of articles during the last 30 years. As the traditional paradigm became less popular, it lost its publishing advocates. It is not a coincidence that the few traditional articles published in the 1980s were mostly written by older archaeologists. Younger Continental pre-historians are more inclined to a form of non-traditional archaeology and do not (or cannot) publish any longer in the traditional journals. In France for example, theoretical debate occurs now more often at conferences and their subsequent publications. It is remarkable that these evolutions mainly occurred in hunter-gatherer studies. Recent volumes of Gallia Prehistoire, Prahistorische Zeitschrift and Quarter-remain as substantial as before, but most of the articles deal with periods other than Palaeo- or Mesolithic and are generally traditional.

In Anglo-American archaeology, on the other hand, the traditional kind of theory was already taken over by processual approaches in the second half of the 1970s. Processual theory became the leading paradigm after 1975, and during the late 1980s the first post-processual ideas emerged. These changing theoretical perspectives of the last three decades raised an intense debate in the Anglo-American world. Periodicals such as Antiquity and Current Anthropology, which are mainly oriented towards discussion, offered a forum to these theoretical debates. Unlike Gallia Prehistoire, Prahistorische Zeitschrift and Quartar where discussion is completely absent, the Anglo-American journals were open to debate these shifting paradigms in archaeology. This happened not only on the strictly theoretical level, but also by questioning methodology and challenging accepted interpretations. When the implicit assumptions of the traditional, culture-historical archaeology were fundamentally questioned, the periodicals of both regions reacted in a different way. The Anglo-American journals opened themselves for fundamental debates and an increasing number of archaeologists participated in them (Embree 1989); the Continental periodicals did not aim to offer a theoretical forum, although new methods could be accepted, while their surrounding debates were ignored. Now, more than three decades after the first explicit theoretical critiques, the results can be seen: flourishing periodicals in the English-speaking world, waning journals on the Continent.

By this, I am not claiming that continental archaeologies made a failure by 'missing the processual train'. Recent historiography (cf. Slofstra 1994) has been investigating why processual archaeology did not become influential on the Continent, implicitly assuming that this was a process which should have happened. But was it? Processualism and post-processualism are products of recent Anglo-American archaeology, both with their strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, one should not transplant these theories onto often very different Continental research traditions. Yet, the Anglo-American willingness to question and discuss fundamentals of archaeology was certainly very valuable -- no matter which answer was given. This aspect of archaeological theory should be made complementary to existing Continental traditions. The question is not whether Continental archaeology should become processual or post-processual, but whether it should introduce more critical reflection into its empirical work.

Acknowledgements. I am very much indebted to Pierre M. Vermeersch and Philip Van Peer for stimulating this research, which was originally conducted at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium) as an MA dissertation. I also would like to thank Marc De Bie, Lester Embree, Ian Hodder, Laurent Olivier, Nathan Schlanger, Paul Treherne, Philip Van Peer and an anonymous French referee for providing important comments upon an earlier version of this article.


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