THE EVOLUTION OF ECOSYSTEMS
My aim is to break from the current archaeological consensus. This consensus accepts that archaeological materials result from processes associated with the behaviours of an earlier humanity, and as such they should inform us about those behaviours. The processes that structured the organisation of these behaviours are treated as if they ranged from the need for humans to adapt to changing environmental and social conditions, to the desire to express a cognised order among the things that those humans used and produced. The ultimate aim of the current consensus is to explain why the patterns of the recovered material remains, and thus the organisations of past human behaviour, changed historically and geographically. Various traditions of archaeological theory and methodology have been developed to enable this kind of investigation.
It is a consensus that treats human behaviour as the variable requiring investigation, rather than investigating the possibility that humanity is itself the historical variable. Humanity is therefore treated as a constant, but one that has operated historically by means of different behavioural traditions. Archaeology has thus sought to explain the variation in behaviour as if it had been prompted by various stimuli acting upon a single kind of humanity, and history becomes the history of different kinds of behaviour and their various stimuli. But what if the history' of humanity is written to trace the paths followed by radically different forms of humanness? The contrast is between humanity as a constant, and humanity as fractured into different forms of humanness; that is, the contrast is between a humanity that has responded to different kinds of stimuli, and the forms of humanness that created themselves by interpreting the different worlds in which they developed (Graeber 2015).
If a Middle Palaeolithic flint knapper did indeed sacrifice a mouse as Childe envisaged (Childe 1956, 171; see page 33), before working on a flint nodule, then that sacrifice would have had the function of securing, for that knapper, the success of their flint working, and the mouse would have been a very different kind of rodent than the one that is known to us today. If we claim, as did Childe, that we now know that such a sacrifice was an unnecessary precursor to the successful working of the nodule, then that would be to claim that the world ‘out there’ is the same world for us as it was for that knapper who had operated upon that same world, but who had done so through a kind of cultural distortion, and that our knowledge of that world therefore supersedes hers. Mice, from this perspective, have always been ‘just mice’ as we now define them, even if we also happen to be less than proficient at flint knapping. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has described another world which is inhabited by many different persons that are embodied in a variety of different physical forms, each of which sees the world from their own perspective (1998 & 2017), and he recognises that:
it is unlikely that any nonmodern cosmology can be adequately described either by means of such conceptual polarities [as the modem polarities that distinguish between nature and culture] or as a simple negation of them (as if the only point of a nonmodern cosmology were to stand in opposition to our oppositions). (Viveiros de Castro 2004, 464 insertion mine)
Those others did not exist for our amusement, but we might, in all humility, learn something of ourselves from the kinds of persons that they were, and the worlds in which they had lived.
Childe’s mouse-sacrificing flint knapper would certainly have experienced some of the same forces that we also experience - the ways that flint fractures as the result of percussion, for example — but the effectiveness of the flint-knapping process will have been experienced in ways quite different from own experiences today. Doubts concerning the claim that the one real world is overlain by various cultural representations (the distinction between the timeless constancy of things and the variability of human thoughts about those things) have recently been reviewed by Harris and Cipolla (2017). Their questioning of this view seems to result in adopting one of two alternative analytical procedures. The first abandons the idea that we are investigating the ways that humans like us once interpreted, or acted upon, the same material conditions that we also confront but in ways that differ from our own interpretations of that same world. Instead it accepts that multiple worlds must have existed to enable different kinds of humanness to develop. Whilst not agreeing with this position as it has been employed in some anthropological studies, Ingold has characterised it as one in which the:
[w]ays of knowing the world ... are inseparable from ways of being in it, and what these ways bring forth are worlds in themselves that can be neither reduced to elementary constituents common to all nor sublimated into superordinate structures of thought. (Ingold 2016, 302)
The second procedure is to claim that archaeology is simply the study of the surviving assemblages of things that actually exist for us. While these things once included various forms of humans amongst their number, and while we might use these things to write history, there is no inherent need for their existence to be legitimated by a correlation with that prior human existence (Olsen 2013). The two alternatives therefore range between multiple realities (multiple ontologies: Alberti 2016) and a ‘flat’ ontology in which, while things certainly vary in terms of their forms and their qualities, those assemblages that matter archaeologically do so without any priority granted to them by the human presence, or indeed without privileging any particular substance over any other (Harman 2018, 54; Olsen et al. 2012; Jervis 2019).
While others have reviewed these various ontological moves (Ribeiro 2018a), my concern in this book is to argue that the realities open to archaeological investigation were once known as the means of bringing other forms of humanness into existence. This extends well beyond the conventional assumption in which surviving material residues are understood as the representations of the actions of the same kinds of humans as ourselves. It also extends well beyond the study of things devoid of a human presence. My aim is therefore to establish how different forms of life once brought themselves into existence by performing their own interpretations of the conditions amongst which they grew and developed (cf. Graeber 2015). The resulting diversities of life developed as the products of a biocultural perception.
In an attempt to think about this issue, I will claim that archaeology has not adequately investigated how humanity has brought itself into being, a ‘becoming’ that comprises various forms of humanness. This emergence of humanity did not happen once, as the result of biological evolution several thousands of years ago, but has been, and remains, an ongoing historical process. The making (or the becoming) of the human is the result of what I will term biocultural mechanisms, and it is these mechanisms that have given rise to the considerable diversity that has characterised the practices of the various forms of humanness. It is the histories of the ways that humanness has created itself that, I argue, should be the object of archaeological investigation.