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3.1: Introduction

  • Page ID
    74762
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    Prior to the 1960s, the pendulum of archaeological research had swung from one extreme to the other, at least in the United States. Early work in archaeology had viewed archaeological data through an evolutionary lens and tried to fit the three-age system that worked so well in Europe to data from North America. However, anthropologists such as Franz Boas began to realize that the three-age system and PSET did not fit the cultures of North America in general and Native American archaeology in particular. In response, they developed the classificatory-historical paradigm for archaeological research, which emphasized gathering data and conducting research over applying established theories. This new paradigm worked well and provided archaeologists with vast amounts of comparative data, but it was somewhat limiting as gathering data and analyzing artifacts did not give archaeologists the opportunity to explore broader human behavioral patterns.

    Frustrated by the limits of the classificatory-historical paradigm, archaeologists began to introduce a third paradigm, processual archaeology, in the 1960s. They wanted to examine human behavior more broadly rather than just recover artifacts, so the primary idea underlying processual archaeology is that artifacts and data can be used to explain the past, not just describe it. At the same time, new technologies such as computing and absolute dating techniques were providing researchers with new kinds of data and analytical capabilities that simply did not exist before.

    Lewis Binford, an American archaeologist who is often cited as the father of processual archaeology, advocated for the importance of theory using a new technique, ethnoarchaeology, which applies ethnographic techniques used by cultural anthropologists when comparing living peoples to the archaeological record. This approach relies on ethnographic analogy, or interpreting the archaeological record based on similarities observed in ethnographically described cultures. Binford, for example, accompanied Inuit hunters and studied the debris they left behind at hunting stands. He then used that contemporary data to predict what Inuit hunting stands of the past would have looked like and to interpret hunting artifacts found in Inuit excavations.

    Since the focus of processual archaeology was on theoretical interpretations of data, several theoretical approaches developed over time that made explicit the connection between the specifics of archaeological data and the broad theoretical applications. Middle range theory (MRT), for example, was based on the idea that linking archaeological data to theories is a matter of linking artifacts made by people to the behaviors that created the artifacts. American archaeologist Kent Flannery advocated use of systems theory, which was designed to help researchers see the complex whole as a series of smaller subsystems that could be pulled apart and analyzed independently along with the whole. Ultimately, these theories were deemed to be unnecessarily complicated and unworkable with actual data. Once again, broad theoretical applications were found to be suitable only in some situations and to be too broad to have general scientific value.

    Processual archaeology was not scrapped despite failing to meet many of its lofty goals. Quite the opposite; it is still actively used today. Processual archaeology’s lasting contribution is its use of data and scientific methods to support theoretical applications and analysis, and some of the theoretical approaches proposed, such as predictive human behavioral models, continue to be used in evolutionary ecology to predict and interpret past human behavior. These models, common in economic analyses, use data to identify optimal human behavioral patterns: which food items to include in their diets, patches in which to forage, how far to travel to hunt, etc. The resulting description of optimal behavior does not necessarily reflect what past humans did but does predicts the choices humans would have made if they could rationally optimize their choices. Surprisingly, some of the most interesting results occur when the model predictions do not match the archaeological data. For example, California archaeologists have used this approach to understand why acorns, which were a time-intensive, low-calorie food source, were widely used by many of California’s Native American groups. Those groups were not acting “optimally,” but the sheer abundance of acorns combined with declines in “more optimal” food sources made acorns a practical “best” solution.

    The most common optimal behavior models used in archaeology today are diet breadth (also called prey choice), which predicts what humans should have included in their diets in given areas based on how long it would have taken to find a food item and prepare it for consumption relative to the food’s caloric return; patch choice, which evaluates how productive a given environment would have been and predicts how long a group would have stayed in one area before moving on; and central place foraging, which predicts how much of an animal would have been brought back to the group’s home base given the distance to that base (the longer the distance, the less animal brought back).

    Many archaeologists viewed processual archaeology as having limited value, and beginning in the late 1970s, in the midst of the feminist and postmodern movements in other disciplines, began formulating a new approach called post-processual archaeology. This paradigm stressed the potential for multiple interpretations of the archaeological record and recognized that every interpretation is affected to some degree by researchers’ biases. Its proponents argued that something as complex as human behavior could not be investigated by testing hypotheses. Instead, their goal was to obtain as broad a perspective of the past as possible by interpreting the data from various vantage points and trying to see the artifacts and data from an “insider’s” perspective (emic). The post-processual paradigm also placed a greater emphasis on obtaining information about a culture’s religion, symbolism, world view, and iconography from the archaeological record. Post-processual archaeology brought a stronger focus on the role of women, children, and minorities in the past because it encouraged archaeologists to analyze data that previously would have been ignored.

    Today, both processual and post-processual paradigms are used in archaeology. This is a unique situation since, in the past, new paradigms replaced old ones. These two paradigms are quite different and, typically, college and university archaeology faculties rely on only one of the paradigms. It is rare for a faculty to be composed of researchers who use different paradigms. The same data can be analyzed from each of these vastly different perspectives to bring distinct interpretations to the data.

    Terms You Should Know

    • central place foraging
    • diet breadth
    • ethnoarchaeology
    • evolutionary ecology
    • middle range theory (MRT)
    • patch choice
    • prey choice
    • post-processual archaeology
    • processual archaeology
    • systems theory

    Study Questions

    1. What motivated the development of processual archaeology?
    2. How does ethnoarchaeology incorporate ethnographic research into archaeology?
    3. Why do archaeologists no longer use middle range theory and systems theory?
    4. How can optimal behavior models such as diet breadth be useful in archaeological analysis?
    5. What aspects of processual archaeology led to the development of post-processual archaeology?
    6. Which theory discussed so far appeals most to you and why?

    This page titled 3.1: 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)) .