The Antiquity of Man

   Home   |   About   |   What is Evolution   |   World Archaeology & Palaeoanthropology   |   North African Archaeology   |   Pseudoscience   |   Recommended Readings   |   Reviews   |   Links   |   Search   |   Contact

Introduction

Education is not a consumer product. It is an attitude, a philosophy, a way of life. An institute of learning cannot be merely an information delivery system; learning is not a passive reception of knowledge. Learning is about critical engagement with the materials, and about learning and interacting with your peers and other members of the requisite insitutions. The Antiquity of Man website has been operating since 07 July 1999 and showcases past and current academic thinking, research projects and debates to illustrate how archaeological facts cannot speak for themselves.

The best introductory summary on the nature and value of archaeology was written by a former professor of mine, Andrew B. Smith, in 1996 and is reproduced as follows:

Material remains are marshalled, compared and manipulated by scholars who are active participants operating within their own social contexts to support mutually inclusive and exclusive hypotheses of past behavioural patterns. The archaeological record is malleable, although we can accept that a cattle bone is 25 mm, that a stone tool is made from a particular raw material and that rock art is concentrated in one area but not another. Empirical observations and measurements therefore constrain and frame the viable hypotheses which may be adequately derived from the data sets, although questions must always be asked as to why certain criteria (observations and measurements) were applied in order to prevent a degree of bias as far as possible.

Lack of understanding of 'the other', however, is something much more basic and has a lot to do with how we see ourselves against different cultural groups (usually based on ignorance). 'Others' are usually created through myths which are created when there is a lack of communication and/or when people fail to live up to our cultural expections.

In southern Africa, an excellent example can be seen in the first interface between the Portuguese explorers to visit the Cape in the 15th century and the local people. Bartolomeu Dias, the first European to sail round the southern-most tip of Africa, saw Khoikhoi herdsmen when he made landfall at Mossel Bay in February 1488. The crew of the caravel had been at sea since August the previous year and their water had to have been pretty foul by the time they reached the Cape south coast even though they probably stopped at El Mina in Ghana to replenish their supplies. The Portuguese just helped themselves to water from the spring at Mossel Bay. The fact that they were able to do so easily meant that there was a watering point kept open by the local herdsmen to allow their animals to drink. In African herding societies, the persons who look after the waterholes are seen as the 'owners', and use by other people requires the good manners to ask permission (and usually a gift). The Portuguese did try to offer gifts but these were refused. The consequence was that the Khoikhoi threw stones at the sailors from the bluff overlooking the spring, with Dias retaliating by shooting one of the herdsmen dead with his crossbow. The first contact between Europeans and South Africans was hardly auspicious, and the Portuguese should have learned a lesson.

This was not the case. Francisco d'Almeida stopped at the Cape to get water on his return to Europe in 1510 after serving his term as Viceroy of India. It was an attempt to force the local Khoikhoi to trade their cattle by kidnapping some children that caused the anger of the local people this time. They retaliated by killing d'Almeida and many of the young nobles who were with him. The Khoikhoi thus gained a reputation of being fierce and warlike which caused the Portuguese to avoid the Cape like the plague. It was not until James Lancaster dropped anchor at Table Bay in 1591 that good relations were made between Europeans and the Khoikhoi. Thus, a combination of arrogance and bad manners based on ignorance created the conditions for strife and the beginnings of the myths of the Khoikhoi who ultimately became denigrated as some of the lowest human beings on Earth.

A different perspective of 'the other' can be seen in the use of names among the aboriginal people of the Cape. The Khoikhoi (meaning 'Men of Men' or the 'Real People') used this collective name for themselves. What this implied was that only people like themselves with cattle could be regarded as being real men. The 'other' in this case were the Sonqua (Soaqua=San or Bushmen), stockless people who stole from the Khoikhoi. The Bushmen had no collective name for themselves; the name San was thus a pejorative, a way of diminishing their status in the eyes of the Khoikhoi.

The 'Other' as Savages

It is a common phenomenon that there are usually people on the periphery of the elite groups who are usually culturally different and separate. Because they are of low social status, they are either ignored, or seen as 'other' ('not us') and in consequence are usually looked down upon. The irony is that such people, who are often hunters or iron-workers in Africa, perform important functions for the larger social network. When the Europeans first contacted the Khoikhoi at the Cape they had to negotiate with them as equals for their cattle. Very quickly, however, the inability of the Khoi to withstand the power of merchant capital placed them in an inferior position, to such an extent that they became synonymous with 'savages' in the European mind.

What does all this have to do with Archaeology? Just this: almost all archaeologists working in the field of African Prehistory are Western European/North American trained. This means they, just like the first European travellers, look at people they study in the past from their own cultural perspective. More important, this perspective means that any description of the past tends to be in a European 'scientific' framework, which is only one possible vision of the past. This leads to one of the greatest difficulties in archaeology, to get into the minds of the people we are studying. All of which is compounded by the fact that only a small fraction of the range of cultural experience of past people survives in the archaeological record. If living people have difficulty understanding each other (even when they appear to speak the same language), how much more fraught with problems will be archaeological interpretation.

Different Versions of the Past

Since each of us has different backgrounds, this will 'colour' how we see things in the present and our experience with the past. For example, people with an African rural heritage will probably have different experiences and information than someone with an urban background. A great deal of history is passed down by oral tradition among rural people . Among the Manding of Mali, for example, there are individuals, called griots, who are the repositories of their history. These are a type of wandering minstrel who make up songs about events and people, whose cultural memory goes as far back as Sundiata, the founder of the Mali Empire in the 13th century. This is different from the recording which takes place in diaries, books, newspapers, etc. that organise peoples' memories within the urban setting. What is obvious to anyone working with historical documents, however, is how selective writers are about what they consider important enough to write about. They may go into great detail about one aspect of events happening around them, and totally ignore others. If we are aware, then, that anything we read about of the past has been selectively 'filtered' by the observer, we must ask ourselves how objective can this person have been? Some people are better observers and writers than others, so the quality of the historical document is going to be highly variable.

This is not just a trivial idea: any interpretation of the past is just that - one variant of many, depending on the background, belief system, political persuasion of the interpreter, and, of course, the amount of data available. If each source has a different perspective then we must assume that there are different reasons for writing about the past. Thus, no vision of the past can be neutral. The task of scholars is to try to critically evaluate the data sources to identify and analyse these 'agendas'.

We all project our present onto the past, which should lead to the question: which past? If there is more than one past, who owns these different versions of the past?

Who Owns the Past?

I'm sure most of you never thought about the past as something you could own but the different agendas about asking questions of the past mean that they can be used for a variety of reasons. For example, there is a strong political agenda behind the Israeli interest in archaeology, and many interpretations are geared to the question of legitimacy and land rights. If the Jews can show they have been in the Levant for 5000 years, then they consider themselves to have the greater claim to the land. Another example, from Australia, is the current denial by aboriginal people of exploitation of mineral resources by mining companies. The aborigines claim that the land has spiritual value that is being destroyed by mining. While this may be true, it is also a means whereby the people can empower themselves against a (basically white European) power structure which previously gave them few rights.

In South African history, the myth of the colonisation of the land that was formerly promoted in Apartheid school texts claimed Europeans and black farmers arrived in the Eastern Cape at the same time. If this were the case, it would legitimise white claims to the land. In fact, this has been a distortion of history used to bolster such claims. Archaeology has shown that the summer rainfall area of the Transkei was occupied by Iron Age farmers as far back as AD 640, and this probably extended at least as far west as the Kei and Buffalo Rivers.

We might also target the modern Inkatha Freedom Party political movement in South Africa, which stresses the history of the Zulu 'Nation', as another example. The leader of Inkatha, Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi, uses the historical sovereignty of the Zulu Nation with a king and other cultural icons as the basis of his support. This is a particular reading of the historical record, as the Kwazulu were one of a number of 18th century Nguni chiefdoms. It was only with the formation of the powerful Mthethwa confederacy under Dingiswayo, later taken over by Shaka, that the name 'Zulu' was given any prominence.

Why should one person's past be more important than another's? The answer is because one can manipulate the past and therefore one's claims through precedent. This means that the past has power, just as the symbols of the past can be manipulated to sustain the image of that power.

Reburial

There are moves by Native Americans to have the large collection of Indian skeletons in various museums of the United States returned to their descendents for reburial. Individual groups claim that the skeletons were taken illegally, and without regard to Indian religious beliefs, and have sat in drawers in museums for many years without anything been done with them. Like the Australian example given above, there is a great deal of truth to this, but it is also a political move to demonstrate power over the government authorities where this has long been denied. The reburial issue has other ramifications. The loss of these large collections means that future physical anthropologists interested in pathologies and disease among Native Americans will have difficulty getting good samples for their study. At the same time there is room for negotiation between the different interest groups, and the entire exercise has been valuable. It is now acknowledged that respect must be paid to these collections, and the beliefs which may surround them. If any collections become available, such as with the need to move graveyards due to construction, etc., then the scientists should study the bones quickly, and not let the skeletons lie around for years.

Ancestral graves are very important to African people who make less distinction between the living and the dead than Europeans. The ancestors are a direct link to the gods. and can be asked to intercede on behalf of the living. Thus the graves can become shrines and are important reference points in the landscape. In modern Ghana, so important is the need for respect for the dead, a young man will go into debt for most of his life lo make sure his parents have an appropriate burial. He gains status by the size of the funeral and assures that his spirit will not wander aimlessly when lie dies.

An Interactive Past

How can we reconcile them in the present given different versions of the past? One way is to weigh the evidence and attempt an interaction between past and present. This means clearly identifying the biases of both the resources and data of the past, and those among the observers in the present. Several questions can allow us to do this: what were the people in the past describing and why? How did the archaeological material accumulate (given different conditions of preservation), and how complete is the archaeological record? What are the observers in the present selecting and why? We are trying to see if there is any skewing of the interpretation for political correctedness or academic goals and ambition, personal ego trips, etc.

Not every interpretation is biased through overt or cynical manipulation of the data. The scientific beliefs of any moment will lend to cloud interpretation of the observer. since these are not fixed. and there are always changing views of how the world is organised. This is called a paradigm, and a paradigm shift occurs when new data are framed within changing social conditions.

Examples of this with archaeological connections can be seen in the Social Darwinism of the late 19th century. During this period Darwin's idea of how evolution works by the survival of the fittest organisms was manipulated and used to justify rampant capitalism and the rape of the land by unrestricted exploitation of natural resources and human labour. This meant a colonial mentality in European colonies and America allowed the chopping down of forests, digging huge holes in the ground for minerals, and using humans as cheap labour all in the name of profit for shareholders with little regard for the people doing the work. Much of this was an extension of the class system that held European people in their place and decreed that some individuals were better than others so their innate abilities could be rewarded by using those less capable, in particular 'natives' in the colonies who were regarded as lower forms of humanity.

In the early 20th century, empire building and nationalism meant the different European nations were vying with each other to extend their trade networks. This fierce competition led to isolationism and stereotyping of the worst kind (Frenchmen were called 'Frogs' because they ate frog legs and Germans were called 'Huns' or barbarians). One can say that these were the conditions which led to expansionism of neighbour against neighbour and the First World War. The outcome of this, in. archaeological terms, was a scramble of another kind: to find the oldest Europeans. Germany already had a strong case since Neanderthal skulls had been found there in the previous century. However a portion of skull, of size similar to present-day people, and a broken half of an ape-like jaw were found in association at Piltdown in England in 1911. These were accepted by many members of the scientific commuity as representing the oldest human remains then known (a cross between a large-brained human and a chimpanzee, or the proverbial missing link); England could claim to have the oldest human. This skull became more and more of a problem over time, especially after the discovery of Australopithecus africanus by Raymond Dart at Taung in the northern Cape in 1925 which showed a small brained individual with primitive characteristics. It was not until 1953 that Kenneth Oakley was able to show that the fluorine content of the Piltdown skull and the jaw was different. The fluorine showed the skull was human but not very old and that jaw came from a modem oranutan; a radiocarnon date of 620 years was later given. Both bones had been treated with potassium bichromate to give them an old appearance. The Piltdown hoax fooled many in the scientific community for years because of the scientific paradigm when it was found, so it met preconceived ideas of what an early human should look like.

A later scientific paradigm was to be found before and during the Second World War. It was the belief that came out of 19th century classifications of human types that some people were physically and mentally superior to others. The view was heightened by the so-called 'Aryan myth' that the blond-haired, blue-eyed Teutons (Germanic peoples) were the founders of the great civilisations and was used as an excuse to rid Europe of 'inferior' people, namely gypsies, homosexuals and ,especially, Jews in the Holocaust.

After the war, the world was split into two main camps: communist, which looked for state control over the individual, and democratic, which created the United Nations, and stressed individual rights that could be effected by free-market economies. The latter was the same ideological group that created the atom bomb. Today most of the conflicts do not cross frontiers, but are internal. In consequence there has been reluctance of the world at large to interfere in 'sovereign' nations' affairs, so massive human rights abuses have taken place. These ethnic conflicts underline the ideology of separation which exists and how 'the other' is targetted.

Throughout the last century each stage, or paradigm, had the general belief, or ideology, accepted, and more importantly, not questioned, by most people which could be supported by studies selectively done by the scientific community. Thus science, like history, is not neutral and interpretations depend on the social mindset of the moment.

What is Archaeology?

Since the past is not neutral, this has implications for how archaeology works. There are different ways that one can get information about the past and this usually depends on what the individual wants from it. As a student of the subject, you should ask yourself why you want to do archaeology. For most people, a major in archaeology is not a vocation, but comes purely from interest in the past. and is usually combined with another major which overlaps, and where job prospects are better, e.g. history, geography, geology, etc. What a person chooses as a research area often comes out of the teaching programme, and the need to find a research 'niche' to fill. Thus the questions being asked about the past are created for many different reasons.

Archaeology is what you make of it. It is not necessarily only involved with the past either. Ethnoarchaeology, or the study of living people to help interpret the past, is practised by a lot of archaeologists, particularly where there is information that is being lost by the encroachment of the outside world on traditional societies.

How you situate your project will determine what methods you use. For example,  you might need to look at archival records to understand the history of your target group if you want to know about people during the early colonial period. You might also interview descendents of the historical group to learn about their oral traditions. Information prior to the advent of writing usually has to rely on material culture residues, so you have to find sites that will possibly give you these kind of data. This is not always a simple matter, especially if the people have been marginalised for centuries by a more dominant culture.

Finding sites is a problem all on its own. Some sites can be found easily from surface indications, especially where this has been the result of concentrated and repeated occupation over a long period. A good example are shell middens on the coast. These are easily seen due to erosion on sand dunes, although finding uneroded material may be more difficult. Often a systematic survey is needed to locate the appropriate sites for a project. This can involve walking across farm lands in a way that each section gets covered. Once artefacts are located a rough count can be made of the different materials, and a picture of site density and occupation periods can emerge.

Having found the sites which should offer you information, you need to work out how to best extract it. The traditional method used in archaeology has been to excavate, but this may not be necessary, since the reason you were probably able to identify the site in the first place was from surface indications. This means what is on the surface may have all the information you need, so you can describe the material and map it to see if any pattern of the distribution across space emerges. From this you might be able to identify activity areas where people performed different tasks.

If excavation is necessary, then decisions have to be made about where to dig. If nothing is known about the site a test excavation may be done to work out the depth and stratigraphic sequence. How much excavation is done from then on will depend on the interests of the excavator. At the beginning of the century until the 1960s a culture stratigraphic sequence looking at changes from level to level would have driven the research design. Over the past three decades different questions have been asked, although establishing a culture sequence still may be the baseline study. Now spatial information might be required to see, for example, if gender-specific task areas where men and women did different things on the site can be identified. Alternatively, it might be the economics of the target group that is of interest, so faunal analysis (study of animal bones) might be important to establish what people ate and how they got their food, or the season of occupation of the site. We might also ask where the sources of raw material for artefacts was, or possibly what exchange networks existed to obtain exotic materials.

Any site that has been repeatedly re-occupied is usually going to be an amalgam of different activities done by different age groupings and genders over time. It is rare that an individual can be identified from the residues that survive. Exceptions might be a cache of specific items made by one person that show idiosyncratic traits, or a style of rock painting or pottery making which is different from the other examples in the area.

Logically all the older materials should be at the bottom of a sequence, and the youngest at the top (only under certain conditions does this get reversed). We can establish what is known as a relative sequence. This means that the material from the lower part of the sequence is relatively older than that further up. It allows us to make some estimate of differences that occurred through time. Using the concept of 'fashion', we can say that the types of artifacts used from one level were those which were culturally acceptable or fashionable at that moment in time. These are known as fossiles directeurs (indicator or marker fossils). If you find them on different sites you have good reason to suspect that those levels from the sites were occupied at roughly the same time, i.e. were contemporaneous.

We have to use different methods if we want to put absolute dates onto this sequence . People developed calendars or king-lists with actual dates in years in the historical period in different parts of the world. It is therefore possible to relate material from a specific site to period within the calendar system in years BC (Before Christ, i.e. 2000 years ago). Radiometric techniques, such as radiocarbon dating or potassium-argon dating are more widely used today. The principle behind both of these methods is a decay factor of radioactive isotopes of carbon or potassium.

Let us look in detail at how radiocarbon works. Carbon is the basic building-block of organic material, which includes plants and animals. An organism absorbs the unstable radioactive isotope carbon-14 from the atmosphere while it is alive. It stops taking in carbon-14 after death, when it begins to decay. Of importance to us is the fact that this decay occurs at a regular rate such that only half of the original amount of carbon-14 remains after 5730 years; this is called the half life. As the amount of carbon-14 is proportional to the amount of time which has passed since the organism died, we can calculate how long this was and get a date in radiocarbon years, usually expressed as, for example, 3500 +/- 50 BP (Pta-4529) (3500 years Before Present with a standard deviation of 50 years on either side + the laboratory sample number). One of the more common materials found on archaeological sites is charcoal from fires. This makes good dating material for the level from which the charcoal came. A reasonable assumption is that everything else in the level from which the dated charcoal came is the same age.

You can start to ask questions about political structures, and how resources were used and controlled once you have obtained an adequate amount of data from an adequate sample size.  How were the groups organised? (small groupings or more centrally controlled larger groups?). What were the relationships between people practising different economies in the area at the same time? We might also want to look at aspects of health, so a study of any human skeletons might offer pathologies, population dynamics (such as life expectancy). All this means that we do not just look at things. The material culture is important but it needs to be interpreted in a social sense.

Inevitably, the longer things are in the ground the greater the chance of them being lost either by natural factors, such as erosion or water transport, or by people building or ploughing the ground. The parts that disappear fastest are the smelly bits, such as flesh or skin, as well as plant remains (organic material). When you think about all the artefacts made of leather, plant fibres, wood, etc. you will realise how much is lost from most archaeological sites before the researcher gets there. In some cases, however, the destruction of organic remains is inhibited by desiccation (in very dry countries, such as Egypt food remains still survive in tombs), or by water-logging (in Denmark wholly preserved bodies of people have been found in peat-bogs), or by freezing (in Russia tombs of Scythian horsemen have been found with the people and their horses intact). Occasionally mud slides will cover whole villages (at the Makah Indian village of Ozette in the United States wooden boxes and basketry have been found). Volcanic ash is another preservative (after Mt. Vesuvius blew up in AD 79 it covered the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum smothering the inhabitants and preserving the towns intact). Another area where preservation can be remarkable is underwater. Water-logged wood lasts a long time, as long as there are no wood-boring creatures around. In very cold waters, such as the Great Lakes of North America whole boats have been preserved. In the Engish Channel, the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's flagship, which sank on its maiden voyage in the 16th century, was half buried in silts on the sea bottom. This prevented wood-borers getting to the wood, so half the ship has survived and been brought to the surface.

The scope of archaeology is almost unlimited. Virtually any discipline can be involved, whether it be medicine, physics, chemistry or philosophy and psychology. This is because archaeology is concerned with the entire range of the human experience. Experimental archaeology can require the help of engineering students to work out how materials were moved from place to place, and into position in construction. It is estimated, for example, that three million cubic metres of stone had to be quarried and moved into place in the construction of the Great Pyramid of Cheops (approximately 2.3 million limestone blocks weighing between 2.5 and 15 tonnes, built over a period of 23 years). While the sheer size is impressive, we must ask ourselves about the social conditions of building. How was labour organised, and how could the large number of people needed for such elaborate construction be adequately fed to maintain the necessary strength to move large blocks of stone by manual labour?

It is only over the past 30-something years that archaeology become aware of the potential symbolic importance of artefacts to humans. The tendency in the past was to assume only functional use of items, except in cases where religious or ceremonial activities could be recognised. Today we know that even the most prosaic of items from a site could have different uses and meanings depending on the person who was using them and under differing conditions. A simple example can be seen in the use of porcelain dishes found at the Cape. These were imported as functional items from which to eat or drink during the 18th and 19th centuries . At the same time whole sets could be displayed on special racks in a house as a form of decoration and status. Sometimes individual pieces might be obtained by slaves or servants, particlularly after they were chipped and discarded by the original owner.

Another ceramic example can be seen in the large amounts of pottery found on Khoikhoi herder sites in the Western Cape of South Africa. So many pots were used by these people that up to 700 broken potsherds can be found per cubic metre of excavated earth in some sites. By contrast, in smaller rockshelters occupied by hunting people in the area, only ten potsherds per cubic metre are found, and when the rim sherds are compared we find that each rim piece came from a different pot. It would seem that the hunters were not using whole pots, but collecting broken pieces. We are not sure why this should have been the case, but one suggestion is that the pieces were used as symbolic items or for divining. A clue to this comes from the Bushman stories collected in the 19th century where containers, such as bags or quivers, have power and often come to life. It is possible that the potsherds were symbolic containers which were also believed to have power. The conditions under which an archaeologist finds such items may range from the functional through to the symbolic and have been used by the wealthy as well as the lowest strata in the society.

It should be apparent by now that there are different explanations possible in the interpretation of archaeological materials. Which explanation is chosen will depend on the theoretical position of the archaeologist. No explanation, however, exists in a vacuum. It usually depends on the archaeological paradigm, i.e. the world view of the scientific beliefs, and is built up from preceding ideas and data.Here is where we find the problem of the 'lunatic fringe'. Because anyone can make up his or her own explanation about the past, many people think that they can do it simply based on their own experiences and beliefs. This is how ideas of extra-terrestrial involvement in creating the huge sculptures of Easter Island, or the land pictures of South America are developed. Such beliefs can be not only anti-intellectual, such as the refusal to acknowledge the importance of evolutionary theory in human development, but can be out-and-out racist, as was the firm belief by white colonists of Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) that Great Zimbabwe was built by Phoenicians and not the ancestors of the modem Shona.

What many people do not realize is that it takes four years to become a qualified archaeologist (3 years undergraduate degree + Honours in South Africa) and a minimum of another degree to be hired by museums or universities. The reason for this is that it takes time not only to learn about the wide range of archaeological method and theory of how people in various parts of the world through time lived their lives but also to be able to critically evaluate the data.


back to top of page

COPYRIGHT ALL RIGHTS RESERVED ANTIQUITYOFMAN.COM