ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment

(P41)

Social anthropology and human origins

Location Appleton Tower, Lecture Theatre 5
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 09:00

Convenor

Camilla Power (University of East London) email
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Summary

The recent African origin of modern humans with its short timeframe for the emergence of symbolic culture has not encouraged social anthropologists to engage with human origins research. Why not? What can we learn from debates on these issues over the past half-century?

Long Abstract

In his book 'The Genesis of Symbolic Thought' (2012), Alan Barnard claims that it was not possible to address the origin of symbolism in the mid-century when Lévi-Strauss wrote, or at the turn of the 19th-20th century, when Durkheim attempted it. But today, with developments in evolutionary theory, palaeontology, primatology, population genetics, archaeology and hunter-gatherer anthropology, it is. 'Symbolism is our subject matter,' he declares, '…So too is the anthropology of art, the anthropology of religion…We must, of course, rely on archaeology, on genetics, on neuroscience, on linguistics…to provide data…but it is up to social anthropology to complete the picture' (2012: 4). Despite the relative recency of modern human origins and the archaeological record of symbolism, social anthropologists have been conspicuous by their absence from debates on what made us human. Why is that? How could social anthropology contribute to these questions? Has social anthropology anything to say on early kinship, gender, ritual, cosmology, or the evolution of language? The panel invites papers with historic perspectives on social anthropology's relationship to the problem of our origins, and on how this relationship has been theoretically constituted.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Forty years on: 'biosocial anthropology' revisited

Author: Hilary Callan  email

Summary

40 years after the 1973 ASA Decennial, the resulting volume 'Biosocial Anthropology' will be revisited in the context of the theoretical and rhetorical climate of the time.

Long Abstract

Forty years ago, the ASA's 1973 Decennial Conference was held at Oxford under the general title 'New Directions in Social Anthropology'. Papers from one of the conference sessions were published in 1975 with the title 'Biosocial Anthropology', described by the volume's editor. Robin Fox, as '... intended to be representative of the biosocial approach to some persistent problems of anthropology'. The notions of the 'biosocial' enshrined in this volume share a broadly Darwinian perspective on the interpretation of features of human society. They predate, however, much subsequent knowledge as well as the rise to prominence of debates - such as those on 'human sociobiology' and 'meme theory' which later gained a sensational public profile as well as attracting academic controversy. This paper will take a retrospective approach to 'Biosocial Anthropology' in the context of its time, including the language and imagery of the contents and the influence of some of the more popular writings of the period. In the context of the 2013 Decennial, it will be suggested that contemporary anthropology can gain from a historically located return to writings around some of the subject's 'big issues'.

What does current work on ethnobiological knowledge and its management tell us about the deep history of human cultural cognition?

Author: Roy Ellen (University of Kent)  email

Summary

Attempts to reclaim social anthropology for the study of human origins say little about environmental perception, while work on the origins of cultural cognition ignores the ethnography of everyday practice. How might we reconcile these approaches in relation to ethnobiological knowledge systems?

Long Abstract

This paper begins with the observation that recent projects to reclaim social anthropology for the study of human origins seem strangely to have little to say about the cognition of the natural world, while general work on the cultural origins of human cognition has paid slight attention to ethnographic data on the organization of everyday practices. Yet, how early humans organized their knowledge of plants and animals must have been crucial for certain key adaptations at successive thresholds of evolutionary change. Drawing on attempts to reconcile ethnography and lab-based work (as reflected, for example, in collaborative research of Scott Atran and Douglas Medin), as well as on a large body of empirical work comparing the perception, engagement and management of 'nature' amongst peoples living in a diversity of environmental and social contexts, this paper offers a critical review of studies of ethnobiological knowledge systems that have a bearing on our understanding of human evolution.

Human sexuality and human origins: the occlusion of sex and the exclusion of social anthropology from the human evolution debate

Author: Robert Thornton (University of the Witwatersrand)  email

Summary

We must include a distinctly human sexuality with tool-making, fire, language, etc., in the original human skill set that made the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens possible. The lack of an adequately anthropological theory of sex has excluded social anthropology from debates on human origins.

Long Abstract

The emergence of the 'human' from hominidae, and of 'human nature' from nature, must surely have involved the emergence of a human sexuality from a 'natural' sexuality. Paradigms rooted in Christian theology AND Darwinian evolution have precluded the conceptual separation of human sex/uality from reproduction, and have therefore prevented social anthropologists from engaging usefully with the human origins debate. A distinctly human sexuality, however, can be clearly distinguished from the sex/uality of other mammals by re-envisioning sex as a distinct form of social action/agency, and by recognising that, for humans, sex and reproduction are different forms of (social) action, even as they are often culturally conflated. Many Enlightenment debates revolved around the utility and rationale for 'marriage' as a sort of proxy for human sexuality, even as they necessarily failed to grasp the significance of the sexual. I argue that the emergence of a specifically human sexuality, together with tool-making, fire, language, etc., in the original human skill set, was one of the enabling conditions for the emergence of humanity per se. If the emergence of a distinctly human, culturally-configured sexuality can be seen as part of the original human skill set, then sex (as social action) had already separated itself from reproduction (and therefore natural selection). This perspective allows social anthropology to re-enter the discussion of human origins, and provides new perspectives on the relation between sex, religion, and human evolution.

The elephant in the room: sexual egalitarianism and social anthropology

Author: Morna Finnegan  email

Summary

Knight's theory of the origins of symbolic culture holds that coalitions of early modern human females were able to generate the first symbolic concepts. The model relies on a lunar framework, where power is exerted and relinquished periodically. Is this relevant for contemporary African hunter-gatherers?

Long Abstract

Certain Central African hunter-gatherers maintain a political field based on ritual periodicity. Rooted in the tropes of sex, reproduction, and desire, this system produces energy through a perpetual oscillation of power across the social landscape. Female cooperation is central to the loud corporate voice women have in these societies. As Peacock and others have shown, this is in turn linked to the high levels of communal childcare found within such groups. Why has the relationship between cooperative childcare and political power not been better explored by social anthropologists? And what are the mechanisms by which sexual egalitarianism is actually negotiated? Following Knight's model, this paper will argue that the kind of non-coercive power conducive to the emergence of sexual egalitarianism is inherently dialogical: It functions through a process of continual oscillation through time and space. Holding power in the body, expressing it through ritual motion, and setting as its vocabulary graphic images of female reproductive prowess, have enabled the Mbendjele Yaka and others to achieve one of the most sophisticated pieces of political acrobatics conceivable, where the infusion of the symbolic domain with the biological body opens out into a collective experience of pure power. All this corresponds to a remarkable extent with Knight's story. Why have the implications not been better developed? Are we, as Graeber asserts, "a discipline terrified of its own potential"?

Toward a theory of everything

Authors: Chris Knight (Radical Anthropology Group)  email
Jerome Lewis (University College London)  email

Summary

There can be no solution to the problem of the origins of language considered in isolation. Instead, we need to explain the full range of strategies through which our hunter-gatherer ancestors established a symbolically mediated, ritually structured, egalitarian and cooperative lifestyle.

Long Abstract

Within the past two decades, the evolutionary emergence of language has become a major focus of interdisciplinary research. Despite numerous dedicated workshops, conferences, research programs and publications, however, we remain as far as ever from a satisfying or even tentatively agreed solution. We suspect that language is so intimately dependent on other aspects of distinctively human psychology, social organisation, communication and culture that no language-specific solution is possible, even in principle. Progress in our view depends on adopting a multidisciplinary approach, based on the idea that language evolved not in isolation but as part of a much wider process. With these considerations in mind, this paper compares and contrasts nonhuman primate sociality with the 'reverse dominance' dynamics characteristic of egalitarian hunter-gatherers. For grammar to evolve, it was not enough for social relations to become more co-operative. Before grammaticalization processes could get under way, primate-style dominance/submission dynamics had to be decisively overthrown and replaced by an egalitarian social dynamic based on reverse dominance. Once trusting relationships are stably established within ritually bonded reverse-dominance coalitions, two-way intersubjectivity can fully emerge, making possible the joint attention structures on which linguistic communication is predicated. Only once these conditions are met can grammaticalization begin. We conclude that research into the evolutionary emergence of language must unite biological and social anthropologists in an interdisciplinary quest to explain the full range of strategies through which our hunter-gatherer ancestors established a new, symbolically mediated way of life.

Towards reconstructing a source cosmology for African foragers

Author: Camilla Power (University of East London)  email

Summary

Given the antiquity of African forager genetic lineages tracing to source populations older than the movement of modern humans outside Africa, and given significant cultural continuity and resilience, what are the prospects of reconstructing archaic structures of early modern human cosmology?

Long Abstract

African forager populations (Khoisan, Western and Eastern Pygmies, and Hadza) conserve the most ancient human lineages with the highest phylogenetic diversity. While all populations show admixture, African hunter-gatherers are differentiated between themselves and in comparison to other African populations. This suggests they represent geographically distinct populations isolated over tens of thousands of years. Separation of these populations also has time-depth equal to or greater than movement of modern humans out of Africa. Aspects of material cultural continuity and resilience have been posited for these populations reaching back into the African Middle Stone Age. Each of these African forager populations bears independent and unique heritage tracing back to source populations contemporary with the emergence of modern humans and earliest modern human symbolic behaviour. Social anthropologists have abandoned grand unifying theory in the style of Lévi-Strauss or Luc de Heusch, which aimed to reconstitute 'lost mythic kernels'. Does our new picture of hunter-gatherer deep history in Africa allow us to renew the attempt to reconstruct archaic structures of African (modern human) cosmology?

Human origins as represented in Bushman and Australian Aborigine agents of supernatural potency

Author: Ian Watts  email

Summary

The attributes and structural role of 'Rainbow Serpent-type creatures' in southern Africa and northern Australia are analysed. These constructs of supernatural potency constitute a field of identity rather than difference, best understood in the light of a short chronology for symbolic culture.

Long Abstract

Barnard's (1999) comparison of Bushman and Aborigine hunter-gatherers identified six domains in which Aborigines differed from all other hunter-gatherers. In 'belief', he noted that while Rainbow Serpent-type creatures also feature in African mythology and rock art, they do not carry the symbolic weight of Australian counterparts, and there was no African equivalent to the Dreaming. While accepting this overall judgement, I will draw on the 'Female Cosmetic Coalitions' model of symbolic origins (Knight et al. 1995) to highlight and make sense of the remarkable parallels in the physical attributes, mode of operation, and structural role of agents of supernatural potency in the two contexts. My focus is a comparison of Bleek and Lloyd's /Xam narratives concerning 'New Maidens' and their relationship to !Khwa, the Rain Bull, and Knight's (1983) analysis of the Wawilak Sisters myth from Arnhem Land, and the sisters' relationship to the Rainbow Serpent. The key to both mythological complexes is the set of relationships between women's blood, water, game animals, and cooking fire. Agents of supernatural potency, whether in human or therianthropic form, stand in opposition to marital relations and cooking. Their principal perceptual attributes are redness and brilliance, providing a key to wider aspects of belief and to the investigation of temporal depth.

Bedouin matriliny revisited: from enlightenment conjectural history to modern social anthropology

Author: Suzanne Joseph (American University of Sharjah (AUS))  email

Summary

The aim of this paper is to show how conceptual-empirical insights drawn from Bedouin ethnographic and demographic research allow us to newly apprehend proto-anthropological accounts of matrilineal kinship in early Arabia and more broadly engage with contemporary theories on the origin of kinship.

Long Abstract

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that while tracing descent through males appears to have been the norm in pre-Islamic Arabia, there are indications of matrilineal-type descent and marriage arrangements (Hoyland 2001). In contrast, ethnographic accounts render Bedouin Arabs as firmly agnatic in structure. Anthropologists are often reluctant to take up questions of matriliny, partly owing to the subject's association with Enlightenment stadial theory (the idea that humankind 'progresses' through determinate economic and moral stages, culminating in civilization). Victorian proto-anthropologists, McLennan and Robertson Smith, expounded the view that early human societies, including those found in Arabia, were matrilineal. The Enlightenment provided the underpinning behind and prelude to nineteenth-century anthropology's focus on the evolution of kinship and marriage, as evidenced by Ferguson's attribution of matrilineal descent and matrilocal residence to hunting, 'savage nations' and Kames's proffering of examples of 'primitive' marriage customs and marriage-capture ceremonies from various nations, Wales being among them.

While the influence of a classic evolutionary paradigm in anthropology has since waned, there has been a recent resurgence in scholarship on early human kinship and a questioning of the standard model of human evolution which places the patriarchal nuclear family at the center (Knight 2008). This paper will revisit proto-anthropological accounts of kinship and marriage in early Arabia, not in order to use past conjectural accounts to illuminate the kinship structures of extant Bedouin peoples, but in order to reconsider those early observations in light of new insights to emerge from Bedouin ethnography and demography as well as kinship studies.

New conversations with the evolutionary scientists: reflections of a social anthropologist

Author: Wendy James (University of Oxford)  email

Summary

Evolutionary scientists are questioning the conventional human/animal divide, emphasizing the early emergence of patterned activity (eg. production and exchange) and structured communication (eg. music, art, language). This is a challenge to social anthropology, and one to which we should respond.

Long Abstract

In recent decades the evolutionary sciences have raised new questions about the 'social' side of early human existence: eg. inter-individual and inter-group patterns of negotiated activity, including aspects of material production and exchange; modes of ordering mating, 'kinship' and social reproduction; the emergence of structured forms of communication such as music, art, ritual and language. Social anthropology can now engage afresh with evolutionary colleagues on the question of 'origins' (not only since the global expansion of Homo sapiens from Africa 60,000 years ago, but before this). This paper argues that it is the purposeful, creative organization of relations with others, typically in changing contexts, that distinguishes the essence of human life as it must have emerged from the 'animal' domain. A primary focus on the 'symbolic' aspect of human activity does not quite catch this point; what in language, or music, or even science, is the difference between a 'symbolic' and a 'non-symbolic' idea or act? The concept of 'sociality' is currently enjoying a revival, and in its fullest sense we could argue that it does offer a basis for fresh conversations we in social anthropology could pursue on aspects of early human life. The paper will include my reflections as a card-carrying social anthropologist on some work in early archaeology (Gamble, Gowlett), evolutionary psychology (Dunbar), and music/language (Mithen). It will suggest in particular that the core concerns of social anthropology, including 'kinship and marriage' in early history, could be rejuvenated in further exchange with our evolutionary colleagues.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.