Origins Research at the Turn of the Millennium: Paradigm Change and Continuity



Stephanie Koerner (University of Pittsburgh, USA)

and Jennie Hawcroft (Sheffield University, UK)

Since ancient times, questions about the origins of human behavior, social institutions, agriculture, inequality and the state have figured centrally in the ways scholars have thought about human history. During the 19th century, these questions became the foci of anthropological archaeology’s various areas of ‘origins’ research. Throughout anthropology’s history, major changes in methods and theory have been accompanied by efforts to rethink and remodel the discipline’s diverse areas of origins research. Numerous examples might be mentioned to illustrate the continuing significance of origins research to archaeology’s disciplinary definition, conceptual foundations and goals. One is the “world archaeological chronology” presented by Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn in their influential textbook, Archaeology. Theories, Methods and Practice (1994). In their account of human history, “the story begins in East Africa, with the emergence there of the earliest hominids of the genus Australopithecus around 4 or 5 million years ago…By around 1.6 million years ago, the next stage in human evolution, Homo erectus had emerged in East Africa…By the time Homo erectus became extinct (400,000-200,000 years ago), the species had colonized the rest of Africa, southern, eastern and western Asia, and central and western Europe. The Middle Paleolithic period – from about 200,000 to 40,000 years ago – saw the emergence of Homo sapiens…[There is] evidence for fully modern people – our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens – in Africa by at least 100,000 years ago…By 10,000 BC, most of the land areas of the world…were populated…Nearly all the societies so far mentioned may be regarded as hunter-gatherer societies…[T]he transition from hunting and gathering to food production seems to have occurred independently in several areas…after ca. 10,000 years ago…[T]he first farmers…may be described as segmentary societies…without any centralized organization…[F]ollowing the development of farming, there is much diversity. In many cases, the farming economy underwent intensification, and became less egalitarian, displaying [the] differences in personal status sometimes summarized…by the term ranked societies [or] chiefdoms. The urban revolution, the next major transformation,…is not simply a change in settlement type: it reflects profound social changes. Foremost among these is the development of state societies” (Renfrew and Bahn 1994:142-148).

Another example is the way in which Robert Wenke structured his book, Patterns in Prehistory. Humankind’s First Three Million Years (1984). The “Table of Contents” reads as follows:

Chapter 1 Prehistory, History and Archaeology

Chapter 2 Fundamentals of Archaeology

Chapter 3 The Origins of Culture

Chapter 4 The Emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens

Chapter 5 The First Americans

Chapter 6 The Origins of Domestication, Agriculture, and Sedentary Society

Chapter 7 The Origins of Complex Societies

Chapter 8 The Evolution of Complex Societies in Southwest Asia

Chapter 8 The Origins of Cultural Complexity in Egypt

Chapter 10 The Rise of Civilization in the Indus Valley

Chapter 11 From Tribe to Empire in North China

Chapter 12 Secondary States and Empires of the Old World

Chapter 13 The Origins of Complex Cultures in Mesoamerica

Chapter 14 Aboriginal States and Empires of Andean South America

Chapter 15 Patterns of Cultural Change in Prehistoric North America

Chapter 16 Prehistory in Perspective (Wenke 1984:xi-xii).

These matters were taken up in the second of a two-part session we organized for the Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) held at Bournemouth University (Bournemouth, UK) in September 1999. The first part took place in the Annual Meeting of the EAA held at the University of Götenborg, Sweden, in September 1999. The session had two main objectives. One was to explore patterns of paradigm change and continuity in the history of particular areas of origins research. The second was to consider various general implications of these patterns (methodological, theoretical, philosophical, ecological, social, ethical, pedagogical). It is hoped that the papers and discussions in the session will contribute to the growing historical and philosophical understanding of change and continuity in archaeological theory and methods, as well as interest in going beyond the problems dualist paradigms pose for understanding the diversity of the human past. The importance of archaeology’s contribution to change in relations between human sciences, philosophy, and everyday human affairs were also discussed. The session had the honour of being sponsored by Archaeopress, publishers of British Archaeological Reports (BAR), and the organizers look forward to editing a BAR volume consisting of papers presented in the two parts of the session.

To expand on our theme, he 20th century has seen major change in the methods used to investigate questions about diverse ‘origins events’. Today each is the focus of one or even several specialized fields of multi-disciplinary inquiry, each with its own combination of techniques, analytic procedures, and interpretive principles. However, the importance of origins research to the ways anthropology defines its aims and structures its fields of inquiry is not the only manifestation of paradigmatic continuity. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the most polemical debates have turned on several issues that have engaged scholarship on human history since antiquity, namely, issues of characterizing (a) human nature, (b) the factors most responsible for socio-cultural change and diversity; and (c) the epistemological status of human sciences. These themes are commonplaces of debate in diverse areas of origins research today. They were commonplaces of 19th century debate over the cultural evolutionary schemes of the founding figures of ‘classical’ anthropology. And before that, they engaged some of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment and Romantic movements.

The basic concepts which divide apparently antithetical theoretical paradigms have not changed in fundamental respects either. Throughout anthropology’s history, the nature-culture dichotomy has provided opposing theoretical programs with analytic tools; and the discipline as a whole with an identity marker. The persistence of the nature-culture antithesis is rather remarkable in light of how centrally it figures among the Western dualist categories, which anthropologists have so successfully criticized, such as those of mind versus body, and individual versus society. The antithesis has also been challenged by advances in major areas of origins research, which would not have been possible without the co-operation of human and physical scientists. In addition, the recent emphasis on the active role of material culture in creating and transforming social relations would seem conducive to awareness of the paradoxes that an artificial nature-culture antithesis can be expected to create. Yet to this day, the most controversial debates turn on opposing theories about human nature, history, and the epistemological status of archaeological knowledge, articulated in relation to the nature-culture interface.

In the 1970s, persisting debate over the relative merits of materialist and culturalist types of determinisms led Marshall Sahlins (1976:55) to describe anthropological theory as a “prisoner pacing between the farthest walls of his cell.” Dualist paradigms focus on contrasting sides of the nature-culture opposition – nature shaping culture versus culture imposing meaning on nature. But they have several significant features in common, including: (a) notions that nature and culture constitute ontologically antithetical domains; (b) universalistic conceptions of nature; and (c) beliefs about cultural diversity and change, which are historically rooted in ideal views of the Scientific Revolution, the Birth of Modernity, and modern Western culture’s supposed triumph over nature (Crumley 1993, Descola and Pálssen 1996).

Fortunately, the last decades have seen major change in the situation. Studies of the historical background and philosophical foundations of dualist paradigms for humanity’s history are putting us in a position to understand a number of the methodological, theoretical, and ethical consequences of paradigms structured around a nature-culture antithesis. Several important examples of such problems are explored by Johannes Fabian, in Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (1983, cf. Wolf 1975). In this book, Fabian shows how dualist paradigms confuse cultural differences with evolutionary typological temporal distances, and why this confusion results in a “denial of the coevalness” of the histories of the so-called West and “all the Rest.” Fabian notes that the term “coevalness” is intended to serve as a translation of the German terms gleichzeitig and Gleichzeitigkeit. The unusual coeval, and especially the noun coevalness, express the need to steer between such closely-related notions as synchronic, simultaneous and contemporary. I take synchronic to refer to events occurring at the same physical time; contemporary asserts co-occurrence in what I called typological time. Coeval, according to my pocket Oxford dictionary, covers both (Fabian 1983:31).

Another factor which has contributed to change in the abovementioned situation is that researchers are developing more sophisticated methods for studying the diversity of the human past. Dualist paradigms that precluded satisfactory ecological analyses are being replaced by multi-dimensional approaches that emphasize the advantages of an explicit focus on the role of human perception, cognition, and symbolic creation in the human-environmental dialectic (Hornborg 1996). Aspects of human experience and social life that were ignored by studies underwritten (explicitly or implicitly) by beliefs that all of human history was somehow reducible to a unilinear sequence of origins events, are being explored from the perspectives offered by new data bases and interpretive tools (Conkey and Gero 1991, Wylie 1994). These developments have led to remarkable growth in available information on the previously-unimagined diversity of past human ecologies, and motivate many interesting projects to develop alternatives to dualist paradigms for humanity’s history (Croll and Parkin 1992, Descola and Palssen 1996). There is considerable variability among these projects. However, they share several features share in common. One is concern to go beyond the various methodological, theoretical and ethical problems associated with dualist paradigms for the emergence of human behavior and patterns in humanity history (Foley 1991, 1995, Descola 1994, Ingold 1994, 1998). Another is an awareness of the challenges facing attempts to go beyond the constraints of received dualist models of human history and related objectivist and relativist philosophies of science. For example, in the introduction to the collection of studies, Nature and Society. Anthropological Perspectives (Descola and Pálssen 1996), Philippe Descola and Gí_li Pálssen write the following.

“Deconstructing the dualist paradigm may appear as just one more example of the healthy self-criticism which now permeates anthropological theory…If such analytic categories as economics, totemism, kinship, politics, individualism, or even society, have been characterized as ethnocentric constructs, why should it be any different with the disjunction between nature and society? The answer is that this dichotomy is not just another analytic category belonging to the intellectual tool kit of the social sciences: it is the key foundation of the modernist epistemology. Going beyond dualism opens up an entirely different landscape, one in which states and substances are replaced by processes and relations; the main question is not any more how to objectify closed systems, but how to account for the diversity of the processes of objectification” (Descola and Pálssen 1996:12).

Our two-part EAA session built upon these developments. We have backgrounds in the history and philosophy of anthropology, archaeology and paleoanthropology. We met at the Annual Meeting of the Theoretical Archaeology Group held in Bournemouth in December 1997 in a session organized by Patrick S. Quinney entitled, “The Rise of the Modern Behavioral and Biological Perspectives on the Evolution of Humanness.” During the meeting, we began an on-going discussion concerning the roles of the nature-culture antithesis in anthropological archaeology’s major areas of origins research.

The presently-described session brought together researchers normally more likely to have attended and presented papers in quite separate sessions. Even at meetings attended by very innovative researchers, many problematic divisions are perpetuated. The sharpest divisions are those historically rooted in the roles played by the nature-culture antitheses in the ways 19th and early 20th century scholars conceptualized contrasts between: (a) the physical and human sciences; (b) opposing theoretical paradigms for human history; and (c) strongly objectivist and relativist philosophical positions on the epistemological status of archaeological knowledge. Some of these divisions have widened during the second half of the 20th century. Specialization has only been one of the factors involved. Another factor has been the widening of epistemological gaps structured around dualist categories to a level of incommensurability. Fortunately it is becoming possible to discern a general pattern, one which might be roughly characterized as a movement from emphases on dichotomies during the Renaissance, to emphasis on antitheses (such as in the works of Kant, Hegel and Marx), to the recent emphases on the incommensurability of opposing paradigms for human history and the conditions of knowledge concerning the human past. The present session served as a context for discussing the consequences, not just of increasingly specialized data bases and analytic procedures, but of manifestations of such patterns of incommensurability. There may be similarities between such manifestations of incommensurability in fields as diverse in their subject matter as those concerning the emergence of human behavior, and those concerning the development of states. As session organizers, we also provided a context for discussion between (a) researchers who are developing the data bases and analytic procedures needed to go beyond dualist paradigms for human history, and (b) researchers who are investigating the historical background and philosophical foundations of these paradigms.

The session had three main sections. All three included papers concerning patterns of paradigm change and continuity within particular areas of ‘origins’ research, as well papers that examined general implications of these patterns. Despite their diversity, it is possible to group the papers in relation to three themes, namely, views beyond dualist perspectives on: (a) the emergence of human ways of life; (b) the factors most responsible for socio-cultural change and diversity; and (c) the conditions of archaeological knowledge. The abstracts of the papers were in the programme for the EAA98-Bournemouth meeting. The website is: Three spaces in the session were reserved for discussions. These explored such questions as: “Have the last several decades (years) seen major critical and constructive paradigm change in anthropological archaeology? If so, in which contexts, and how might these changes be characterized? If not, why not?” We were very happy to have Professor John Bintliff as the session’s main commentator. Bintliff has made important critical and constructive contributions to a number of the changes in archaeological methods, theory and philosophical orientations which made the session possible (Bintliff 1998, 1991, 1984, Bintliff and Gaffney 1986, Bintliff, et al. 1988).


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