ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Emergent novelty and the evolutionary dynamics of organic and cultural life-forms
Location Wills G27
Date and Time 7th April, 2009 at 09:15


Stephanie Koerner (Liverpool University )
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Short Abstract

Growing recognition of the novelty and complexity of life-forms has challenged the foundations of 20th century evolutionary science. This session will consider the implications of this challenge for archaeological and anthropological approaches to the long-term evolutionary dynamics of organic and cultural life.

Long Abstract

For much of the twentieth century, anthropologists and archaeologists debated what it would take for their disciplines to qualify as branches of science. This debate was founded on the presupposition that the task of science is to establish propositions, couched in universal concepts and categories, whose explanatory force is independent of any context of application.

Recent decades, however, have seen growing recognition of the complexity of forms of life and, with this, the emergence of very different ideas about the aims and methods of scientific inquiry. These ideas are grounded in the insights:

- that no problem or solution can be wholly specified in context-independent terms.

- that emergent novelty is normal to the evolutionary dynamics of life-forms.

- that such dichotomies as between 'biology' and 'culture' are inherently problematic, prioritise least tractable issues, and impede reflexive orientations towards social and ethical concerns.

These insights shake the foundations of the 'modern synthesis' of twentieth century evolutionary biology, based as it was on the axioms that:

(a) every organism can be programmatically specified in context-independent terms as its 'genotype';

(b) evolution depends on the selective retention of variation due to mutation (thus attributing all difference to abnormality), and

(c) cultural evolution can be understood by positing a cultural analogue of the genotype.

Coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species, the conference provides an opportune moment to reconsider how anthropologists and archaeologists are tackling questions of long-term evolutionary dynamics. Contributors to this session will compare anthropological and archaeological approaches to emergent novelty and complexity in organic and cultural life-forms.

Chair: Tim Ingold
Discussant: Julian Thomas

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Multi-level structure in human evolution

Author: Dietrich Stout (UCL)


Human evolution proceeds on multiple interacting levels of spatiotemporal organization, from unfolding actions to developing individuals and evolving species. Key questions concern the nature of these relations between levels (e.g. bottom-up, hierarchical, heterarchical) and how these relations produce emergent order. The emergence of meaningful, adaptive behaviour from multi-level perception action cycles is a specific example within this broader field. This paper presents evidence of the increasingly complex hierarchical behaviour organization evident in Palaeolithic (Oldowan, Acheulean) tool making, as indicated by statistical analyses of experimental tool making action sequences. The nature of this emergent behavioural organization and its change through time is then considered in terms of its possible relationships with evolving neural structures and social contexts.

The evolution of complexity in lithic production and use

Author: Natalie Uomini 


This paper will present a model of complexity based on stone tool production and use throughout prehistory. Complexity is often mentioned in archaeology, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology but there is no consensus on its definition. By drawing on definitions from different disciplines, the role of complexity in the evolution of our species will be explored with a special focus on markers of complexity in lithic production and use.

Boats, bottles, masters and memes: exploring technological practice and cultural change

Author: Frances Liardet (Cardiff University)


Some investigations into archaeological artefact typologies and ancient technologies subscribe explicitly to a cultural-evolutionary explanation of change (understood as one which is a 'cultural analogue of the genotype', as the Panel statement puts it.) We can also find some of the key concepts used in this explanation, those of mutation, adaptation, and above all transmission, implicitly at work in many other less overtly evolutionary studies. The problem with this approach is that these concepts inevitably reduce technological traditions to inert and rather inscrutable bundles of knowledge. This tends to short-circuit enquiries into technological practice (as one instance of how culture is 'done') and consequently prevents us from understanding how change actually comes about. This paper will discuss this problem using specific examples from archaeological research in different fields including ancient Mediterranean boat-building and glass working technologies. I will then consider an alternative approach: looking at technological traditions as examples of a specialised social teaching and learning process, one which is intrinsically dynamic - that is to say, which of itself gives rise to change. This approach draws on studies in the sociology of embodiment, on ethnographic accounts of craft boatbuilding practice, and on my current PhD project, funded by the Rakow Foundation in Corning NY, which is an apprenticeship in the making of core-formed glass vessels. I will show how this alternative approach can provide more satisfying points of departure into key innovations such as the transition from shell-built to frame-built ships and the emergence of the technique of blowing glass.

Breaking the sound barrier: complexity and transformation in experimental Neolithic archaeoacoustics

Author: Claire Marshall (York)


When considering recent interpretive developments in the Archaeology of the Neolithic, it is apparent that visual cues in disseminating the archaeological 'record' are dominant over the primary sensory experiences we as human beings rely upon every day. In constructing a view of our prehistory we are confronted with fragments of a culture seemingly alien to our own and are left to erect biographies based upon inference. In considering the importance of radical experimental archaeology as emergent novelty we are able to include the notion of 'approximation' as a valid path to understanding our ancestral prehistory.

This paper will consider research in sound archaeology and its implications for how we view the British Neolithic through the controversial paradigm of emergent novelty. Through the implementation of a pilot project combining Neolithic archaeoacoustics and reconstructive organology (sounding devices from animal remains), we are able to gain an understanding of social dynamics and complexity where transformation plays a central role, thus addressing in new ways our problematic dependency upon traditional culture/nature dichotomies.

The work in this instance considers the relationships of early Neolithic societies in Britain through reconstructing devices used in sound production. The case study relates to how cattle may have played an increasingly important role in the construction of personal and group identity, the social contracts of communities and the display of conspicuous wealth, not only through the physical acts of feasting, exchange and visual dominance but through the transformative powers of instruments, sounding devices and architecture in recognising an inclusive Neolithic cosmology.

Making permanent statements and creating long-term rock-art histories

Author: George Nash (University of Bristol)


Throughout the world and transgressing all the major prehistoric periods painted forms dominate. Their degree of permanency may be similar to that of the carved form - petroglyphs. Both forms have their origins firmly rooted in the Early Upper Palaeolithic (if not earlier) and each occupy different parts of the landscape. The painted form, usually an 'indoor' phenomenon is located in caves and rock-shelters and can be considered a stylistic statement that within the hands of a skilful artist would take only monuments to produce. The carved form, on the other hand, would take much longer, however the design concept and initial planning of the panel for both artistic forms would have been probably similar.

Interestingly, the anthropological evidence shows over-painting, retouching and superimposition to be common within most of the core rock-art areas of the World. In this contemporary world where Western influences are commonplace, artists feel the desire to change and reform the visual narrative and the painted form is the obvious medium to do this. In both the prehistoric and modern Worlds, rock-art sites constitute special places and the imagery that is produced within these places reflect a unique narrative that is both rhetorical and visually striking. Based on the degree of permanency of the painted form within the anthropological record, did prehistoric artists value their art in such a way to consider it permanent; allowing the rules of grammar to extend beyond their lifetime? This paper will explore these and other issues of permanency within rock-art.

A tale of two tropical cities (Brazil): irrational complexity, traffic and virtual reality - an archaeology of sub-human bodies

Author: Michael Heckenberger (University of Florida)


This paper examines emergence and self-organization in human socio-cultural systems in two complex constructed landscapes in Brazil: the southern Amazon (Upper Xingu) and São Paulo. The Amazon example focuses on a variant of pre-Columbian urbanism (or proto-urbanism), "garden cities," with unique properties of self-organization and human-environment relations that contrast with traditional cultural evolutionary models. The novel organization and change experienced in the centuries before and after 1492 are situated within a discussion of current political ecology and the "scramble for the Amazon." The second example, downtown São Paulo, a radically distinctive urban context, further explores how human bodies and "traffic" conform to emergent properties of urban settings, notably subjective and fluid social relations reflected in physical, lived, and virtual realities and unanticipated novelty from original design, urban planning: alternative rationalities. Both cases highlight shortcomings of formulaic theories of cultural and social evolution, rational agents, and normative human bodies and subjectivities in complex adaptive systems (CAS), particularly how certain groups are muted and marginalized, and their histories and agency erased. These highly contrasting examples, linked in terms of geo-politics and knowledge production in the global south, are considered against the historical and socio-political backdrop of the "Anthropocene." It concludes with a consideration of anthropology's place in current issues of global ecology and human rights, as a "meeting place" that seeks common ground for addressing diversity in scale, perspective, and voice, and methodological shifts, from participant observation to observant participation, that characterize contemporary interdisciplinary and multi-cultural research.

The archaeology of personhood: genes, names and identities

Author: Gísli Pálsson (University of Iceland)


This paper discusses the implications of genomic studies for anthropology. Anthropology has often been thoroughly divided on the issue of genomic research, a division largely founded on the theoretical opposition of nature and culture. I argue that with the conflation of these domains in the wake of the new genetics and the recent Human Genome Project, a fresh network of associations has been emerging among both anthropologists studying the human genome and their laboratories and institutions. These developments, I suggest, invite interesting and pressing questions about, in particular, the refashioning of anthropology, the representation of local notions of belonging and the constitution of personhood, the separation of experts and lay persons, and the quest for new frameworks for the collaboration of anthropologists and their subjects. Partly framed within the context of my own research in Nunavut (Canada) and Greenland on human migration and history, my discussion emphasizes the similarities and differences of modern gene talk about the constitution of the individual with the vertical transfer of substance and what I refer to as Inuit epigenetics--local notions of naming, subjectivity, and relatedness.