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3.1: Evolution of Archaeology

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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 since 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. In other words, they wanted to further understand the changes by looking at the how and why the changes took place. 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.

    processual archaeology

    An approach to archaeology that uses deductive research and the scientific method to analyze the conditions of cultural change. The emphasis is on applying both descriptive and explanatory models using ecological and materialist views of culture (Ashmore & Sharer, 2014; Fagan, 2006). Sometimes called the cultural process approach.

    Middle Range Theory

    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 the 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.

    Middle-range theory

    An approach to integrating theory and empirical research that attempts to apply theories to the archaeological record by linking material remains to the human behavior that created them.

    systems theory

    The notion that any organism or organization can be studied by breaking it down into many interacting systems or parts (Fagan, 2006).


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Ceramic Ethnoarchaeology.

    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. On the other hand, it may also bring to light some challenges for the archaeologist as in the case of the piece of broken ceramic below (see Figure 3.2.1). Archaeologists can learn a lot about a ceramic pot and how it was used in past cultures by examining the residues left inside. However, if the pot or part of the pot is used for a different purpose than its intended use the residue contents can be misleading. This is the case for the broken pottery seen in a Senegal village. The broken pot is being used as a watering bowl for chickens. This is a very simple example of how studying living societies can inform the process of interpreting past cultures, even if it is to reveal that residue analysis could be skewed by the "re-purposing" of an artifact.


    An approach to archaeological study that uses ethnographic analogy to understand and interpret the archaeological record through observing contemporary peoples.

    ethnographic analogy

    Interpreting past cultures based on similarities observed in ethnographically described living cultures and societies.

    Experimental Archaeology

    Experimental archaeology is an attempt to understand the archaeological record through recreating or reconstructing tools, structures, or events found in the past. This is a primary way of gaining information about the archaeological record that would be impossible just by examining an artifact such as the wear on a stone tool used to carve a dugout canoe. Experimental archaeology is one approach that helps archaeologists bridge the gap between the past and the present.

    experimental archaeology

    Carefully controlled modern experiments to replicate past conditions and/or events to provide data that can be used to aid in the interpretation of the archaeological record.


    AncientCraftUK - Dr. James Dilley. (2021, January 13). 5 Things Experimental Archaeology Taught Us About Prehistory (E2). [YouTube]. Retrieved from


    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 predict 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 a limited value. In the late 1970s and in the midst of the feminist and postmodern movements in other disciplines, archaeologists 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.

    Post-processual archaeology

    An approach to interpreting the archaeological record with a focus on reconstructing the point of view of past peoples and an emphasis on the social factors in their society (Ashmore & Sharer, 2014; Fagan, 2006).


    Ashmore, W., & Sharer, R. J. (2014). Discovering our past: A brief introduction to archaeology. New York, N.Y: McGraw-Hill.

    Fagan, B. M. (2006). Archaeology: A brief introduction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.


    Figure 3.1.1 Ceramic ethnoarchaeology in West Africa -- another view. (1982). By John Atherton under CC BY-SA via Flickr.

    A derivative work from

    "Digging into Archaeology:A Brief OER Introduction to Archaeology with Activities" by Amanda Wolcott Paskey and AnnMarie Beasley Cisneros, Faculty (Anthropology) at Cosumnes River College & American River College, ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI), 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    This page titled 3.1: Evolution of Archaeology is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amanda Wolcott Paskey and AnnMarie Beasley Cisneros (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .