Historical explanations: from maladaptation to socially driven change

Modelling of archaeological data to represent earlier cultural and environmental systems was designed to enable archaeology to explain cultural change in terms of historical generalisations. The processes resulting in change seemed to arise from the relationship between the system of human behaviours and that of the environment, implying that change was generally prompted by a drift of the former towards its maladaptation to the latter. To illustrate the limited scope of this kind of analysis we will take two early examples designed to explain the origins of agricultural domestication in the Americas and in Eurasia.

Whilst the idea of a Neolithic or an agricultural ‘revolution’ that marked a break between hunting and gathering subsistence regimes and those of agricultural production - a ‘revolution that transformed human economy’ by providing ‘control over . . . food supply’ (Childe 1965, 66) - might now be regarded as an over-drawn distinction (Gamble 2007; Pascoe 2014), and whilst the ‘bandwagon’ of research into agricultural origins (Flannery 1973, 271) has slowed since the 1960s, the emergence in the late Pleistocene of genetically distinct populations of crops and animals that were maintained by systems of human management continues to be a significant focus of archaeological research (Barker 2006). In 1968 Kent Flannery and Lewis Binford both published studies that attempted to offer systemic explanations for the beginnings of plant domestication, in Mesoamerica by Flannery and in south-west Asia by Binford (Flannery 1968; Binford 1968). Both authors stressed that hunter-gatherer and foraging systems of procurement were not, as some had claimed, governed by regular crises in food availability, that hunter-gatherer population sizes were not therefore regulated by food restrictions, and that these populations were not teleologically directed towards the ‘invention’ of agriculture as a way of resolving an ever-present food crisis (cf. Cohen 1977). In short, hunter-gatherer populations were stably adapted to their various environments, as systems modelling would imply (cf. Lee & deVore 1968). The implication was that the processes resulting in stable adjustment must, under certain circumstances, have generated a trajectory towards the domestication of plants and animals. From the perspective of systems analysis, the challenge was therefore to establish the regional conditions under which the negative feedback mechanisms that routinely secured homeostasis within hunter-gatherer systems, might have tipped over into a cycle of positive feedback that amplified systemic change towards agriculture.

Early human settlement in the Southern Uplands of Mexico was treated by Flannery ‘as a single complex system, composed of many sub-systems which mutually influenced each other over a period of over seven millennia’ (Flannery 1968, 68).

The seasonality of resources across diverse environments, matched by cycles in the congregation and dispersal of human populations, and the scheduling strategies by which alternative resources were chosen for exploitation, were among the negative feedback mechanisms that Flannery proposed as being responsible for maintaining the stability of hunter-gatherer systems of procurement. These had ensured that ‘populations never grew to the point where they could effectively over-reach their wild food resources’ (Flannery 1968, 75). Positive feedback was however eventually triggered, in Flannery’s view, by the cumulative outcome of unforeseen genetic changes in one or two species of plants. Whilst the exploitation of these plants ‘had been a relatively minor procurement system, . . . positive feedback following these initial genetic changes caused one minor system to grow out of proportion to the others, and eventually to change the whole ecosystem of the Southern Mexican Highlands’ (Flannery 1968, 79). These cumulative genetic changes resulted, according to Flannery, in making ‘maize cultivation the most profitable single subsistence activity in Mesoamerica’. ‘The mere combining of maize and beans in the diet of the southern highlands, .... was a significant nutritional breakthrough’ resulting in a cycle of growth where ‘the greater the yield, the higher the population, and hence the more intensive the cultivation’ (Flannery 1968, 80).

Binford also proposed that, amongst hunter-gatherers, ‘an equilibrium system can be established so that populations are stably regulated below the carrying capacity of the local food supply’ (Binford 1968, 327). Binford’s model allowed for two demographic systems to exist amongst hunter-gatherers, both of which satisfied the requirement for systemic equilibrium. These were: closed systems within which some redistribution of an increasing population occurred between groups but where cultural mechanisms operated to restrict population growth overall, and open systems where population increases were ‘budded off into daughter groups ‘in areas which are not filled to the point at which density dependent factors are brought into play’ (Binford 1968, 329). Thus, whilst Binford claimed that he sought to resist explanations for the domestication of plants and animals based upon environmental determinism, and whilst he also rejected claims that agricultural practices arose as the consequence of a food crisis amongst hunter- gatherers, he nonetheless set in place a model by which the differently structured population systems eventually encroached one upon the other. This resulted in the hypothesised expansion of populations into ‘frontier environments’ where ‘in the context of such situations of stress in environments with plant and animal forms amenable to manipulation . . . we would expect to find conditions favouring the development of plant and animal domestication’ (Binford 1968, 332). Fifteen years later Binford revised this model by emphasising the importance of hunter-gatherer territories for containing the information necessary to ensure adequate resource options. In developing his revised view, he asked ‘[wjhat would force a group of people to shift from a system based on an information bank (hunting and gathering) to one based on a labor bank (agriculture)?’ (Binford 1983, 208 emphasis omitted). The answer, he suggested, was that the global rise in human population densities during the late Pleistocene had resulted in the ‘packing’ of the territorial ranges across which particular hunter-gatherer populations could operate, and with this packing came the loss of resource options available to those populations. As a result, an increased reliance on plant foods in place of large game might have been one option which, in some key regions, amounted to a move towards sedentism, along with the labour-intensive management of plant resources that resulted in the development of agriculture.

Neither Flannery’s nor Binford’s accounts provided us with an explanation for the development of agricultural practices in the regions that they discuss, if by ‘explanation’ we were expecting to be offered a causal, and thus deterministic, statement as to why agriculture had occurred. What Flannery and Binford did offer were passages towards conditions that might have encouraged the adoption of cultivation. These accounts might satisfy the expectation that an archaeological explanation should simply establish the statistical probability for the origins of systemic change (Salmon 1982; Mellor 1982), but the mechanisms that brought about that change remain undefined. The transition to an agricultural system could only have been achieved by the long-term re-organisation of human labour with all of its attendant conflicts and emergent solidarities. The transformation will therefore have redefined some of the ways that the distinctions of gender, age, and rank were recognised, and the attendant obligations of status would have impacted upon the controls and exchanges that were exercised by some, and contested by others. These will have involved the resources of people, animals, plants, and land. It was through the renegotiation of these profoundly important human relationships, rather than through an adaptation to a newly emergent environmental potential, that the trajectories towards agricultural systems will have been followed. But if the nature of archaeological data is to represent only those things that can be analysed (if the data themselves impose a limitation on what an archaeological analysis is able to ‘see’), then we appear to be caught in the trap of knowing that the historical conditions that interest us, and were active in the processes of culture change, find no obvious representation in today’s archaeological materials. Flow might we ever ‘see’ the complex processes of intercommunal relationships between people and things that must have been involved in the remaking of the roles of gender, age, and rank by which the transformation of hunter-gatherer communities into those of agriculturalists was brought about?

Archaeology clearly faces a significant challenge that was not adequately addressed by the New Archaeology. The ways that human relationships are structured, and described in terms of social relations, have always been entwined within the existing network of things (Latour 2005). The New Archaeology modelled the surviving material residues as if they represented different behavioural categories, but these things were part of the behavioural processes that we hope to understand. Treating them as the representation of those processes seems to be a less than adequate response to the analysis of the complexities that have been operating. Indeed, if we reject the claim that past categories of human existence, such as those that might be employed in anthropological accounts of contemporary societies, are represented by certain material residues, then there would seem to be little point in attempting to use archaeological data to mimic anthropological data.

We should perhaps remember that human behaviour has always been in a state of ‘becoming’ by means of the processes of construction, in which humans have grown, learnt, and embodied the mastery of becoming a certain kind of human. These procedures of ‘becoming’ have always been played out in a context that comprises other living and developing things, material things, and other humans. Some of these conditions have survived as the eroded residues that are recovered and studied archaeologically. Therefore, rather than assuming that categories of human behaviour are represented by particular material residues, with all the limitations that this introduces, we might instead develop an understanding of how the differences in the making of humans and their attendant material conditions could have changed, based upon the data that we have. This means that instead of considering past behavioural systems as machine-like organisations which, when prompted by problems of adaptation, could somehow reorganise themselves, we should consider the ways that complex systems of life and of things reproduced themselves over a period of time. It was the reproduction and the ongoing transformation of such systems that renders them archaeologically visible by means of the surviving residue of the conditions that they had inhabited. The current archaeological paradigm presumes to model this debris as if it represented the processes of systemic reproduction; however, the question of biological growth, development, and reproduction exposes the limitation of the representational paradigm. We should perhaps begin by enquiring: what would it have taken for the reproduction of these complex systems to have been achieved? The simple answer is that the reproduction of each system must have been achieved, amongst other things, by the biological reproduction, growth, and maintenance of the humans who learnt, and became capable of fulfilling, the roles that were required of them. This necessitated inter alia learning, employing, developing, or indeed failing to develop, the styles of behaviour that the New Archaeology' had decided were expressive of cultural rules which not only lay beyond archaeological analysis, but were irrelevant to historical enquiry'.


For all the fuss that accompanied its original formation (e.g. Hawkes 1968), the New Archaeology was nothing more than a new archaeological methodology'. It accepted the ontological reality' being studied by archaeology, which it neither attempted to question nor to change. That ontology was the sequence of material residues that had resulted front the histories of an earlier human presence. What the New Archaeology did do was to remodel that reality as a sy'stem of material outputs that represented the functional adaptation of different systems of human behaviour, with the intention that these ancient systems could be studied archaeologically, and their transformations explained. The New Archaeology demanded that archaeological methodologies should operate objectively and scientifically by: rejecting the subjective assessment of specific cultural influences to explain material change; demanding that the material sequences be described quantitively; treating the material as humanly produced to satisfy certain systemic and functional requirements; and distinguishing human material cultural systems from the environmental contexts within which, and upon which, those human systems had operated. All these procedures assumed that human histories were determined by the operation of certain common and identifiable processes, an assumption that attracted a certain level of criticism (see Chapter 5; cf. Johnson 2010). However, if the point was to establish archaeology as the comparative study of how commonly organised systems of human behaviour had adapted to various natural environments, then the New Archaeology' did design a methodology which achieved this end. The question is whether this is an adequate characterisation of the human condition.

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