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

Anthropology, archaeology and human origins: returning to 'big questions'
Location Wills 3.31
Date and Time 7th April, 2009 at 14:30


Camilla Power (University of East London)
Hilary Callan
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Short Abstract

Can social anthropologists usefully address the big questions about the origins of language, ritual and symbolic culture while respecting tried and tested principles of Darwinism? This panel asks how archaeologists might deploy theory and data from both wings of anthropology.

Long Abstract

Social anthropology has until recently been surprisingly silent in debates on human origins at a time when interdisciplinary collaboration has made great strides. Conferences on the emergence of modern humans normally involve Darwinian psychologists and primatologists, alongside archaeologists and linguists. But where are the social anthropologists? For almost a century, social anthropology has defined itself by repudiating evolutionary perspectives. But does social anthropology have a distinctive contribution?

Some social anthropologists have proposed alternative biological anthropologies. In one such view - intolerant toward standard Darwinian premises prevailing in current research into animal social systems -'evolutionary biology' is 'the trouble' (Ingold 2007).

This panel adopts a more even-handed approach. While behavioural ecologists readily expound on reproductive strategies or bipedal locomotion, can they apply their methods to account in detail for underworlds, forest spirits, tricksters and rainbow snakes? Rather than dictate to biologists how to do their jobs, we challenge human behavioural ecologists and Darwinian anthropologists to 'take the marvellous seriously' as Luc de Heusch puts it. Social anthropology has amassed a treasure house of observations about 'the marvellous', which Darwinians have often ignored.

To solve the puzzles of human origins, and explain the transition from animal strategies to human symbolic life, those palaeolithic and neolithic archaeologists who have the evidence in their hands will need both wings of anthropology. Can we produce accounts consonant with standard Darwinian theory which illuminate archaeological landscapes and the complexities of the ethnographic record?

Ingold, T. 2007 The trouble with 'evolutionary biology'. Anthropology Today 23:13-17.

Discussant: Hilary Callan

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Homo erectus social structure: how did females provision their offspring?

Author: Kit Opie (Oxford University)


Homo erectus was the first undisputed member of our genus. They evolved in Africa 1.9 million years ago with increased brain-size, and a body shape and size similar to modern humans. It is clear that Homo erectus were a hugely successful species: lasting more than I million years, developing a new and sophisticated stone-tool technology and colonising much of the old world. What is remarkable is that we know so little about the way these hominids, that ultimately evolved into modern humans, organised themselves.

Continued support for the 1960s 'Man the hunter' ideas comes from current research proposing that Homo erectus males hunted savannah herbivores providing meat to females and their offspring in return for paternity certainly and monogamy. Others argue that older females, as their fertility declined, provided for their daughters' offspring by digging tubers, leading to matrilineal groups. Both positions are based on data from modern hunter-gatherer populations.

I have evaluated these theories by modelling the energetic requirements of Homo erectus females and their offspring using data from chimpanzees and modern hunter-gatherers. The results question the possibility of either males or 'grandmothers' being able to support reproductive females on their own and suggest that both would have been necessary. This would have amounted to a revolution in social system and has major implications for the origin of modern human kinship.

The myth of patriarchy

Author: Chris Knight (University College London)


Twentieth century anthropology and human origins research was predicated on a myth: patriarchy in the form of patrilocal bands, paternity certainty and patrilineal descent. Modern 'selfish gene' Darwinism works on the assumption that females and males have conflicting genetic interests, with the implication that female strategies must be independently analysed and reconstructed. Human origins research conducted in this spirit systematically reverses the assumptions of the myth of patriarchy, yielding correspondingly reversed predictions testable in the light of the archaeological record.

Bridging the divide? Questions from social anthropology on current ideas in human evolution

Author: Wendy James (University of Oxford)


Explanatory concepts from evolutionary biology of a kind once ridiculed by social anthropologists are now applied in a sober way to human behaviour. The advance of the biological/genetic sciences has required that their claims be taken seriously by social anthropology.

One important idea focuses on the link between increasing brain size and increasing population group sizes, the one providing selective advantage for the other (see for example Robin Dunbar's The Human Story, 2004). Intentionality, language, and all that went with such emergent properties of 'the human brain' were an advantage to group survival in that individuals could liaise, communicate, second-guess and even try control each other in the face of external challenges from the material environment or from rivals.

From the point of view of social anthropology, this approach risks of course a certain circularity. However, it does allow 'space' for the growth of a shared cultural domain, including the skilled social production of artifacts, in a way that earlier evolutionary approaches rarely did. It is paving the way for new conversations between the biological and socio-cultural side of both anthropology and archaeology. This paper pursues these questions with particular reference to the British Academy's ongoing Centenary Project, 'From Lucy to Language: the Archaeology of the Social Brain'.

To what extent and with what qualifications can we make analogies that compare modern hunter-gatherers with our hunter-gathering ancestors to better understand human evolution?

Author: Jerome Lewis (University College London)


By examining some of the premises underpinning popular archaeological models of hunter-gatherer societies this paper will critique the dominance of Optimal Foraging Strategy and related explanations of hunter-gatherer motivations and behaviour with evidence from recent ethnography and anthropological theory. In particular the significance and usefulness to archaeologists of recognising distinctions based on power rather than on presumed economic motivations will be elaborated in an effort to suggest what are likely to be more accurate and theoretically productive historical analogies for understanding human evolution during our hunting and gathering past.

A 'bloody brilliant' species

Author: Ian Watts


We evolved in Africa approximately 200,000 yeas ago. There was no significant migration beyond Africa until 60-80 thousand years ago, by which time we were indisputably a symbolic species. This should be manner from heaven for social anthropology - concerned with the fundamental unity of humankind.

The only redundant evidence for a species-unique behavioural trait prior to migration out of Africa is the regular use of red ochre, with preferential use of the reddest and most eye-catching materials. The build-up of this behaviour in Africa immediately before 200,000 strongly suggests it was causally implicated in both our speciation and the emergence of symbolic culture. Why? And how might this inform our understanding of 'the marvellous'? Frazer, Durkheim, and Testart all posited various forms of 'blood' symbolism at the origin of symbolic culture. The 'female cosmetic coalitions' model - premised in behavioural ecology - is the first such model to be explicitly Darwinian. It predicts both the main features of the archaeological record of early pigment use and an underlying syntax to the mobilization of ritual power testable against the ethnographic record. I explore some of these predictions against the records of Middle Stone Age archaeology and hunter-gatherer ethnography. I also consider alternative accounts of the same phenomena: individual display, functional uses of ochre, and cognitivism - in the form of the 'basic colour term' hypothesis. I conclude that archaeologists addressing early forms of symbolism desperately need a social anthropology engaged with 'big questions', and that both need to understand the premises and methods of human behavioural ecology.

Menstruation: nature or culture?

Author: Camilla Power (University of East London)


Darwinian sexual selection theory in general, and specific theory on primate sex signals, such as the 'graded signal' hypothesis (Nunn 1999), lead us to expect that menstruation matters in human mating systems. Social anthropologists and ethnographers have collected a mountain of material relating menstruation to cosmological cycles and phenomena on every continent (e.g. Turner, Warner, Hugh-Jones, Gow, Lévi-Strauss, Knight). In African hunter-gatherer cosmologies, such as those of the /Xam, Mbendjele and Hadza, menstrual and reproductive bleeding have significant social, economic and ritual effects. To date, only one cosmology has been explored systematically both at the level of behavioural ecology and that of ritual and myth: the Dogon (Strassmann 1996, Calame-Griaule 1986). In this case, a selfish-gene Darwinian has ventured on interpretation of menstrual and religious practices (Strassmann 1992). Behavioural ecology offers predictive models which address variability of outcome in differing socioeconomic contexts. Such models can have a bearing on archaeologists' interpretation of Palaeolithic rock art, mobiliary art and ritual sites.

Calame-Griaule, G. 1986. Words and the Dogon World. trans. D. LaPin, Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.

Nunn, C. L. 1999. The evolution of exaggerated sexual swellings in primates and the graded-signal hypothesis. Animal Behaviour, 58, 229-246.

Strassmann, B. I. 1992. The function of menstrual taboos among the Dogon. Defence against cuckoldry. Human Nature 3: 89-131.

Strassmann, B. I. 1996. Menstrual hut visits by Dogon women: A hormonal test distinguishes deceit from honest signaling. Behavioral Ecology 7: 304-15.

Entering, and returning from, the underworld: ethnographically reconstituting Silbury Hill by combining a quantified landscape phenomenology with archaeoastronomy

Author: Lionel Sims (University of East London)


Landscape phenomenology limits the number of possible narratives for interpreting prehistoric monuments through the embodied experience of walking their remains in their landscape. While this method may improve upon an archaeology that narrows interpretation to single site excavations isolated in euclidian space, it has been criticized for deploying unsubstantiated metaphors as an interpretive resource. Contemporary archaeoastronomy's dominant methodology submits regional groups of prehistoric monuments to rigorous statistical methods for testing whether perceived alignments were in fact intended by their builders. However, it is presently unable to saturate alignment findings with meaning, and reaches its limits when monuments are found to align on local landscape features rather than 'astronomical' bodies. Through a detailed examination of Silbury Hill in its landscape and late Neolithic/EBA monument context this article shows that problems in both methods can be transcended by studying the emergent properties generated by their combination. These emergent properties are consistent with the predictions of a recent anthropological model of lunar-solar conflation.