Desktop version

Home arrow Geography

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font


<<   CONTENTS   >>

The problem with anthropological analogies

The New Archaeology' had begun to be referred to as ‘Processual Archaeology’ by the end of the 1960s (Flannery' 1967, 119). It was a renaming that acknowledged the aim to identify the processes that had brought about the systems of behavioural and organisational change amongst humans. By treating the patterns of archaeological residues as if they represented the ways these social activities had once been organised, the archaeological challenge was expressed as the need to establish the social processes that had structured those organisations, rather than have explanations that relied upon processes of environmental adaptation. With this in mind, archaeologists turned to theory for guidance. Theory is generalising in its scope, and it was in theory that the processes that were assumed to have structured different forms of social reality could be described. Matthew Johnson has defined archaeological theory as ‘the order we put facts in’ (Johnson 2010, 2 emphasis omitted), implying that theoretical work has the task of establishing the processes that structured the different kinds of social order that are represented ‘factually’ by the patterns of residue.

With the goal of establishing theories that explained the evolution of a type of social system, it is unsurprising that the anthropological works of Service (Primitive Social Organisation, 1962) and Fried (The Evolution of Political Society, 1967) should have become points of archaeological reference (Chapman 2003, 34-38). The attractiveness of both books was not only that they provided definitions for different types of social and political system, but they also offered an evolutionary' path that linked sequences of types that ran from the simpler systems, structured on the basis of familial ties and associated with hunter-gatherers to the more complex, bureaucratically dominated systems of the state (cf Sahlins & Service 1960). The archaeological use of anthropological analogies appeared to be justified simply because archaeological residues represented the types of social organisation that anthropology had also identified. This way of thinking therefore empowered the search for the general processes that might explain the rise and transformation of both the anthropological and the archaeological cases. Anthropological sources therefore appeared to offer archaeological theory the processes by which to explain systemic change. Perhaps it is because of these deeply embedded assumptions that archaeologists have been unable to follow Marvin Harris’s appeal that they should ‘shrive’ themselves ‘of the notion that the units which [they] seek to reconstruct must match the units of social organization which contemporary' ethnographers have attempted to tell [us] exist’ (Harris in Binford & Binford 1968, 359-360). After all, what other ‘units of social organization’ could be productively represented by archaeological data and theorised as the product of anthropologically derived models of process, once archaeology' was locked into this kind of reasoning?

By employing social evolutionary narratives and anthropological analogies, archaeology' has ensured that the social system, perhaps described as a polity', has remained the standard unit of analysis. The evolution of these systems is modelled as resulting from the accretion, over time, of the basic elements of social reproduction (e.g. Fried 1967, 51-107). These sequences inevitably arrive at an end point marked by the formation of state systems and empires as the height of evolutionary' development. It is a view of history that draws heavily upon the European experience (Feuchtwang & Rowlands 2019).

It is important for us to be aware of patterns and regularities observed in the archaeological residues, and assumed to have been the result of historical processes, but which are no longer understandable from the currently adopted perspective. Attempting to explain these patterns is an example of where the aid of anthropological analogies has been sought and where theoretical archaeology' has been developed. Most obviously these patterns include those that were once mapped to describe regions and periods of cultural uniformity and thus regions and periods of shared cultural behaviour (Childe 1929, v—vi; Roberts & Vander Linden 2011a). Change in these cultural sequences was once explained as having resulted from the diffusion of ideas and the migrations of people (see Chapter 8). As we have noted, such explanations have now been rejected, and the patterns of cultural similarity have been treated as if they are of little historical consequence (cf. Renfrew 1977, 94-95).

We can return again to the example of one such pattern, namely the distribution of Neolithic megalithic tombs around the Atlantic and Baltic margins of Europe. Once treated as indicative of migrations and of contacts between regions (Daniel 1963), now these monuments are treated as indicative of local practices concerned with control over limited resources (see page 11; Renfrew 1976; Chapman 1981). Shanks and Tilley (1982) offered an analogy to explain this phenomenon of tomb building that was anthropologically derived. It claimed that the social relations of agricultural production had given rise to a political order in which the authority of community elders, upon whose inherited labour-products the ongoing well-being of social reproduction had depended, was projected into history, and consequently legitimated, by reference to an ancestral line of inheritance (Meillassoux 1972). Claude Meillassoux, who had developed this idea, utilised the reasoning of Marx by arguing that hunter-gatherers who, by extracting the necessities of life directly from the land, had engaged in a form of ‘instantaneous’ production the products of which were shared without further reciprocal obligations, stood in contrast to agriculturalists whose social obligations were structured by a productive reality in which:

[t|he members of one agricultural party are consequently linked not only to one another during the non-productive period of work, but also to the working party that produced the food during the previous cycle. Time and continuity become the essential features of the economic and social organisation. (Meillassoux 1972, 99)

Relations of indebtedness and authority were therefore theorised as being structured differently in the two contrasting cases of social reproduction. Hunter- gatherers might see ‘the forest’ as a divine and ‘giving’ presence and as a parental figure (Godelier 1977a, 5; Bird-David 1990), whilst agriculturalists might recognise their dependency upon, and thus an authority arising from, the labour products that they had inherited from previous generations. It was these lines of obligation whose authority seemed to reside with ‘the dead ancestors’ (Meillassoux 1972, 99). It might well have been possible that ancestral rites structured behaviour in the lives of the agriculturalists of the Neolithic of western and northern Europe, given the existence of monuments that contained human mortuary remains. Indeed, it is an argument that has been further elaborated upon by comparing the form of some of the Neolithic monuments with the mortuary remains housed in the stone monuments of central Madagascar (Bloch 1971). The formal comparison between Malagasy and European use of stone has now been further extended, perhaps to breaking point, by the expedient of claiming that stone used as a building material was likely, by virtue of its ‘hardness’ and ‘permanence’, to represent a structural concern with the timeless ancestral presence in contrast with wooden structures representing the impermanence (decay) of life (Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1998). However, all such arguments express, at most, the possibility of what might have ordered (or structured) human behaviour. It is equally possible that instead of projecting the political debts of the living into an ancestral past during the European Neolithic, the dead had remained as active members of the community, and that their presence was maintained by the circulation of their physical remains, as well as by the inclusion of these remains into monuments built to enhance various places within the landscape (see pages 134-138). The claim that an ancestral presence provided a form of political legitimacy among the communities whose behaviours are recorded archaeologically is therefore sustained, not so much by references to archaeologically derived data, but by the elegance of Meillassoux’s model. Perhaps this elegance is enough for its acceptance, although I am not at all sure. Indeed, I am not sure what exactly this adds to our archaeological understanding of the early agriculturalists of western Europe. The ancestral motif remains highly generalised within the archaeological case (Whittle 2003, 124-128; Crossland 2014, 13-15), and it adds little more than some ‘cultural colour’ to the archaeological material. Unfortunately, referring to human bones as representing ancestors rather than the dead (Barrett 1994, 40—67) might imply that archaeology' can claim to know more than it can actually deliver by reference to its own data (Whitley 2002).

By working with the presumption that types of social system (i.e. polities) can be identified as having existed both in the past as well as in the present-day ethnographic record, archaeological analysis has tended to proceed in one of three ways. First it has drawn upon the idea that the same type of social organisation will share common structural principles, including claims in which hunter-gatherer and early agriculturalist systems are not only distinguished by the social organisation and the technologies involved in production, but also by assumptions concerning the political and spiritual sources of their respective populations’ well-being (Godelier 1977a & 1977b). Second is the assumption that the various social types can also be arranged to describe stages in an evolutionary sequence, for example in the ways that early state systems are assumed to have evolved from a prior form of chieftainship (but see Yoffee 1993). This would seem to imply that social evolution described a process involving the accretion of earlier independent systems into a single form of organisation, thus appearing not only to have involved an increase in both the vertical and horizontal distinction of roles, but also the geographical expansion in the scale of the system (Flannery' & Marcus 2012). Finally, the evolutionary' assumption also supports the belief that types of organisation that are functionally similar will nonetheless display considerable variation in their cultural expression (cf. Laland & O’Brien 2011). What such analogies do not do therefore is to offer us an understanding of the processes that were involved in generating the dispersed pattern of monumental types across the region of Atlantic and Baltic Europe (but see Schulz Paulsson 2019).

Despite claims to the contrary, the anthropological narratives of social dynamics do not explain the patterns that are recognised in the archaeological data. Indeed, we might conclude that the apparent consistency in the patterning of the residues, such as the so-called collective tombs of the Neolithic, is a phenomenon that is neither explained by Renfrew’s earlier model of territorial adaptation (see page 12), nor by the more recent uses of an anthropological analog)'. This use of analog)' has claimed to understand why the social strategies represented by mortuary practices were executed in and around the Neolithic tombs of Atlantic and Baltic Europe (Shanks & Tilley 1982). It is an analogy that has avoided Renfrew’s earlier suggestion that the monuments functioned to map the inheritance of land- rights amongst the earliest agricultural communities, suggesting instead that the monuments were erected to facilitate rituals arising from a politics dependent upon an ancestral authority. However, the suggestion has been made without attempting to explain why these strategies only found expression across the Atlantic margins ofEurope (cf. Hodder 1990, 178ff). This is a theme to which we must return (pages 134-138).

 
<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics