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2.1: Introduction

  • Page ID
    74760
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    It seems that people have always been curious about cultures of the past, but not all of those efforts were purely scientific. Evidence of the evolution of techniques for studying the past goes back at least as far as New Kingdom Egypt when officials preserved monuments from the Old Kingdom. King Nabonidus of Babylon dug into the temples of his predecessors in search of objects belonging to earlier time periods, which we call antiquities. What today would be called pothunting or looting—digging up items for their value rather than as part of a scientific endeavor—was a widespread and accepted practice used for thousands of years to acquire antiques and relics for personal collections.

    These excavations began to take on some elements of scientific study as people who were specifically interested in the past began to excavate sites to learn more about past cultures and peoples, but the scientific method was not employed. Such early projects included excavations in 1709 at the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, where artifacts were collected but not analyzed. Generally, historians excavating sites at the time found it difficult to conceive of times and peoples such as the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. Some of what we consider to be great historical sites, such as Stonehenge, were attributed to the work of elves, trolls, and witches.

    Why did those early excavators attribute their finds to mythological creatures and not to humans? Largely because of their limited frames of reference and perspectives, their paradigms, which guided their research. During this early period of archaeology, researchers and the general public in Western Europe and the United States believed that the Bible was a literal, historical document. Consequently, they understood that humans did not exist before Biblical times (in which Adam and Eve were the first humans), restricting human history to approximately 4,000 years. Anything discovered that appeared to be incongruent with this strict interpretation of the Bible, such as “primitive-looking” stone tools and structures, was attributed to non-human sources.

    Scientists, however, began to challenge those beliefs with research and data. Geologists, biologists, and botanists discovered evidence that showed that humans had existed far longer than had been interpreted from the Bible. Scientists were also challenging other literal Biblical translations and were drawing new conclusions. Their evidence accumulated, culminating in Charles Darwin’s work on evolution via natural selection, which described how species had changed over time. This became established as part of the realm of science and general public knowledge. Darwin’s work fundamentally changed the study of biology and human history. Researchers tried applying his premises to other fields, including the study of human civilizations. Herbert Spencer, E.B. Tylor, and William Henry Morgan independently applied Darwin’s principles to the study of civilizations across the globe, developing approaches that collectively became known as Progressive Social Evolutionary Theory (PSET), in which human civilizations were seen as points on a continuum and as having progressed in a linear fashion along this continuum from savagery to barbarism and, ultimately, to enlightened, civilized society. It was assumed that all cultures had originally been primitive and were in the process of becoming more civilized—more evolved. These theorists placed cultures along the continuum using particular diagnostic characteristics that included adoption of agriculture, development of a writing system, tool technologies that relied on metallurgy, and belief systems focused on a single god. Proceeding along the continuum (toward civilization) indicated how “developed” a culture was.

    Perhaps it is not surprising that the traits of civilized society essentially described the Western European culture of the theorists and developments made possible by the environmental conditions in those areas. Metallurgy, for example, was possible because Western Europe was endowed with many natural ores. However, the data they collected did not always fit the model. They labeled many early cultures such as the Maya, Aztecs, Incas, and North American tribes as having “devolved”—moved backward on the continuum—because they found evidence that those cultures had possessed “civilized” traits at one time but no longer did.

    These and other challenges to the PSET framework were initially ignored, particularly because a large body of research, such as work by Danish archaeologists Christian Thomsen and J.J.A. Worsaae, seemed to support it. Independently, Thomsen and Worsaae had noted that artifacts found in layers in bogs, burials, and village trash collections called middens were deposited in a sequence: stone artifacts at the bottom oldest level, followed by bronze artifacts in the middle level, and iron artifacts in the top youngest level. This ordering of cultural developments became known as the three-age system, and it worked well in places in which early peoples used all three materials over time to make various tools. However, in other parts of the world, such as Africa and North America, people did not use those tool technologies in the same sequence, and some didn’t use one or more of the technologies at all. Many of the historians and researchers at the time chose simply to ignore this problem and even forced the data to fit the theory.

    The problems associated with the three-age system and PSET were not addressed by North American theorists and researchers until Franz Boas, now known as the father of American anthropology, rejected theorizing from incomplete data sets and developed what is known as the classificatory-historical paradigm (sometimes called Historical Particularism). Boas demanded that anthropology be conducted in a scientific manner. Therefore, theories could be developed only after precisely collecting, classifying, and analyzing artifacts. He argued that too little was known about the diversity of human cultures—past and present—and that PSET had been formulated too early and was based on too little actual evidence. Boas and others established collection of data as the fundamental task of anthropology (rather than applying a particular explanatory theory), marking the point at which archaeology became a fully scientific endeavor. This new paradigm recognized that observation must be the first step to inform the scientific method since it allows one to formulate relevant questions to pursue in subsequent steps. Theory does not start the process of scientific inquiry but rather comes out of extensive study of the natural world. Boas and his successors realized that the anthropological technique of ethnography, which involved careful observation of living peoples and their cultures, could be applied to cultures of the past via archaeology.

    Boas also realized that little time was left to study traditional Native American cultures before colonization, genocide, and realization of America’s ideals of Manifest Destiny destroyed many of them. The effects of these processes were already under way. Native American populations were rapidly declining in number, being forcibly moved from their ancestral lands, and experiencing massive cultural upheaval. This motivated Boas and others to focus on Native American cultures and to collect every conceivable type of anthropological data and artifact—a true holistic study.

    Their extensive research and data collection identified broad adaptive patterns shared by various cultures in regions such as the Plains, Southwest, California, and Northeast. The cultural traits of the groups in these regions were not identical but they were broadly similar. In California, for example, pottery was common, and most groups hunted and gathered their food rather than cultivating agriculture. In some cases, the regions were further subdivided when broad patterns warranted it. The Great Basin in the Southwest, for example, was subdivided into three cultural groups—the Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute. Though culture areas sometimes involve overlaps and do not describe the various cultures perfectly, they are still used today to help archaeologists better understand and compare Native American cultures and ways of life.

    Within the classificatory-historical paradigm, archaeologists worked with data from these cultural areas to develop chronologies and spatial orderings of artifacts, a culture history, specific to each region. For example, W.C. McKern developed the Midwestern Taxonomic System, an artifact sequence for cultural sites in the Midwest. These chronological works were important since, at the time, there were few methods for dating artifacts and, consequently, the archaeological sites from which they came.

    The ability to date artifacts and archaeological sites expanded beginning in the 1920s with studies of tree rings, dendrochronology, and was greatly enhanced in the late 1940s with development of radiocarbon dating techniques, changing the focus of archaeology. Collecting data was still critically important, but archaeologists were no longer limited to identifying an artifact’s period based solely on the layer in which it was deposited. These new dating techniques allowed archaeologists to obtain relatively exact dates from items such as wooden artifacts and could use those dates to establish the sequence of their development.

    Terms You Should Know

    • antiquities
    • classificatory-historical paradigm
    • culture areas
    • culture history
    • dendrochronology
    • Historical Particularism
    • looting
    • midden
    • Midwestern Taxonomic System
    • paradigm
    • pothunting
    • Progressive Social Evolutionary Theory (PSET)
    • three-age system

    Study Questions

    1. Why are the earliest excavations, such as those conducted in Babylonia under King Nabonidus, not considered scientific?
    2. How did Progressive Social Evolutionary Theorists explain the evolution of cultures?
    3. What data did Progressive Social Evolutionary Theorists find difficult to explain and why?
    4. What is the primary focus of the classificatory-historical paradigm?
    5. What contributions of the classificatory-historical paradigm are still used by archaeologists today?

    This page titled 2.1: Introduction is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amanda Wolcott Paskey and AnnMarie Beasley Cisneros (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .