Life as a construct

It is important to reiterate some of the principles that I have sought to establish up to this point. First, I regard the growth and development of individuals, and of their populations, to have resulted from the development of individual human interpretants driven by the desire to be recognised by others. This was achieved by utilising the available biocultural resources and it resulted in the development of socialised communities. The individual being, and the population to which those individuals belonged, therefore described, in the case of humanity, a form of humanness. This can be regarded as a biocultural form of becoming, and this can be investigated archaeologically by considering the material values that were its intentional focus (Chapter 8). Second, we can distinguish between individuals, populations of individuals, and ecologies. The latter are held together by flows of energy, materials, and information and they contain different populations, architectures, and technologies. We need not assume that all humans have always perceived themselves as comprising individual entities, but we should assume that life emerges as an interpretive process of construction. It is the histories of‘life as it was constructed’ that are the object of archaeological investigation.

Constructing populations

Kristian Kristiansen (2014) suggests that the recover)' of ancient DNA (aDNA) from human skeletal and soft-tissue material (Reich 2018) heralds the beginning of a third scientific revolution in archaeology. He compares the impact of this recent analytical development with the impacts on archaeology that resulted from two previous developments in science. The first of these, he argues, occurred in the late nineteenth century and claimed the antiquity of, and the non-deistic origins for, humanity. The second occurred with the scientific procedures of analysis that arose after 1950, including radiocarbon dating, and that established the methodological and intellectual basis for the New Archaeology. Kristiansen’s third scientific revolution is the one marked by the recovery of aDNA data. This has included the mapping of haplogroup distributions across Eurasia. Haplogroups are sections of DNA (alleles) that function and are inherited together, and are therefore indicative of a line of biological descent. This does not deny that the full range of biocultural inherited material is employed in ways that sustain the plasticity of an interpreted response in the reproduction of a particular population (Chapter 6).

Kristiansen has argued that aDNA analysis has enabled archaeology to define ‘population changes and bottlenecks which can then be compared to other forms of archaeological and historical evidence’ (Kristiansen 2014, 13). It is important to note that Kristiansen is referring here to the ideal of a biological population. The excitement generated by the newly available genetic data cannot be doubted. The recover)' of these data, along with the new funding opportunities available to some individuals and institutions, the computational ability to handle large data sets, and the theoretical developments that have accompanied these changes, lead Kristiansen to herald the beginnings of a new kind of archaeology (cf Kintigh et al. 2014). He suggests, for example, that a new European prehistory can now be written, allowing ‘for much more [human, plant and animal] mobility than ever imagined just ten years ago’ (Kristiansen 2014, 14 insertion mine).

Any attempt to explain the history of a human population as if it were consequential upon the selective reproduction of a single biological entity alone is clearly beset with difficulties. As I have argued, a population is reproduced by individuals whose development shares access to a wider set of biocultural resources than are mapped by aDNA alone. These include language, place, biological and material inheritance, as well as the traditions of energy extraction that are necessary to sustain life, and the plasticity of responses to changing conditions. An ecology' contains portions of a number of populations that interact, and ecologies have the overall function of degrading an energy gradient. Treating the definition of a population in purely biological terms would seem to enable the identification of biologically migrant groups within an ecology, although this is clearly fraught with ethical and moral implications (Frieman & Hofmann 2019). Indeed, the definition of a population, on the basis of its inheritance of a particular set of biological traits, is often a strategy that is politically driven by the desire to identify those that appear to derive from ‘outsiders’. These ‘outsiders’ are those who supposedly also lack the necessary biological roots that define an indigenous population, and where biological inheritance is falsely equated with cultural inheritance. However, if we treat a human population not as a thing with a history, but as a process that makes its own history, then we should accept that human identities and systems of value were routinely remade amongst the members of a biocultural population. A single ecology therefore contains a number of such populations, including forms of humanness, and it is within these various populations that there will be those who reach maturity and who reproduce (Mayr 1976, 26-29 & 53—63). If we focus upon the processes of identity formation to characterise the ways that human populations were made over time, then we will see that these populations cannot be reduced to a simple lineage of biological inheritance. If what matters is the ways that various forms of biocultural inheritances were employed in the processes of a population’s development, then the distribution of haplogroups recovered from ancient human bodies cannot by themselves map the distribution of a population. In the pre-state conditions of European prehistory, it is hardly surprising that populations emerged that had resulted from the complex mix of human movement, cultural influences, and biological interbreeding.

One further point now needs to be made against the recent tendency to treat living things (treated here as interpretants) and non-living things as if they had the same ontological status (Olsen & Witmore 2015, 189). The ontological difference between the two states of existence is one that defines the ways that each emerges via a different process of becoming. Living things emerge by building and developing an order that is sustained by their recognition of the conditions that enable their intake of energy' (Schrodinger 1944, 71, characterised this as the process of ‘negative entropy’), whilst non-living things emerge by migrating to the lowest possible level of energy, and thus towards a state of disorder (entropy). My argument is therefore that the biocultural being emerges as an interpretant whose motivation is its own development through seeking to increase and to sustain the order in its body. It achieves this by identifying sources of free energy within certain given material conditions. This is very different from the non-living interpretant (if such a thing might be taken to exist) that seeks a path towards its lowest possible state of order. This is why rivers flow downhill and not uphill.

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