The Study of Prehistory Archaeology as Anthropology and History
a. Archaeology as Anthropology and History
In contrast to classicists and historians, prehistoric archaeologists deal with an enormous time scale of human biological and cultural evolution that extends back at least 2.5 million years. Prehistoric archaeology is the primary source of information on 99 percent of human history. Prehistoric archaeologists investigate how early human societies all over the world came into being, how they differed from one another, and, in particular, how they changed through time.
No one could possibly become an expert in all periods of human prehistory. Some specialists deal with the earliest human beings, working closely with geologists and anthropologists concerned with human biological evolution. Others are experts on stone toolmaking, the early peopling of the New and Old Worlds, or on many other topics, such as the origins of agriculture in the Near East. All of this specialist expertise means that archaeologists, whatever time period they are working on, draw on scientists from many other disciplines—botanists, geologists, physicists, zoologists.
Prehistoric archaeologists consider themselves a special type of anthropologist. Anthropologists study humanity in the widest possible sense, and archaeological anthropologists study human societies of the past that are no longer in existence. Their ultimate research objectives are the same as those of anthropologists studying living societies. Instead of using informants, however, they use the material remains of long-vanished societies to reach the same general goals. Prehistorians also share many objectives with historians, but work with artifacts and food remains rather than documents. In some parts of the world, such as tropical Africa, for example, prehistoric archaeology is the primary way of writing history, since oral traditions extend back only a few centuries, and in many places written records appear no earlier than the 19th century C.E.
b. Culture and Context
Anthropology, and archaeology as part of it, is unified by one common thread, the concept of culture. Everyone lives within a cultural context—middle-class Americans, Romans, and Kwakiutl Indians of northwestern North America. Each culture has its own recognizable cultural style, which shapes the behavior of its members, their political and judicial institutions, and their morals.
Human culture is unique because much of its content is transmitted from generation to generation by sophisticated communication systems. Formal education, religious beliefs, and daily social intercourse all transmit culture and allow societies to develop complex and continuing adaptations to aid their survival. Culture is a potential guide to human behavior created through generations of human experience. Human beings are the only animals that use culture as their primary means of adapting to the environment. While biological evolution has protected animals like the arctic fox from bitterly cold winters, only human beings make thick clothes in cold latitudes and construct light thatched shelters in the Tropics.
Culture is an adaptive system, an interface between ourselves, the environment, and other human societies. Throughout the long millennia of prehistory, human culture became more elaborate, for it is our only means of adaptation and we are always adjusting to environmental, technological, and societal change.
The great Victorian anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor described culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Prehistoric archaeologists prefer to define culture as the primary nonbiological means by which people adapt to their environment. They consider it as representing the cumulative intellectual resources of human societies, passed down by the spoken word and by example.
Human cultures are made up of many different parts, such as language, technology, religious beliefs, ways of obtaining food, and so on. These elements interact with one another to form complex and ever-changing cultural systems, systems that adjust to long and short-term environmental change.
Archaeologists work with the tangible remains of ancient cultural systems, typically such durable artifacts as stone tools or clay pot fragments. Such finds are a patterned reflection of the culture that created them. Archaeologists spend much time studying the linkages between past cultures and their archaeological remains. They do so within precise contexts of time and space.
c. Time and Space
Archaeologists date the past and study the ever-changing distributions of ancient cultures across the world by studying the context of archaeological finds, whether sites, food remains, or artifacts, in time and space. This is the study of cultural history, the description of human cultures as they extend back thousands of years.
Human prehistory has a time scale of more than 2.5 million years and a vast landscape of archaeological sites that were occupied for long and short periods of time. Some, like the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, in the Valley of Mexico, were occupied for a few centuries.
Others, like Olduvai Gorge in East Africa, were visited repeatedly over hundreds of thousands of years. The chronology of prehistory is made up from thousands of careful excavations and many types of dating tests. These have created hundreds of local sequences of prehistoric cultures and archaeological sites throughout the world.
Historical records provide a chronology for about 5,000 years of human history in Egypt and Mesopotamia, less time in other regions. For earlier times, archaeologists rely on both relative and absolute dating methods to develop chronological sequences.
Relative dating is based on a fundamental principle of stratigraphic geology, the Law of Superposition, which states that underlying levels are earlier than those that cover them. Thus any object found in a lower level is from an earlier time than any from upper layers.
Manufactured artifacts are the fundamental data that archaeologists use to study human behavior. These artifacts have changed in radical ways with passing time. One has only to look at the simple stone choppers and flakes made by the first humans and compare them with the latest luxury automobile to get the point. By combining the study of changes in artifact forms with observations of their contexts in stratified layers in archaeological sites, the prehistorian can develop relative chronologies for artifacts, sites, and cultures in any part of the world.
The story of prehistory has unfolded against a backdrop of massive world climatic change. during the Great Ice Age (See Prehistory and the Great Ice Age). Sometimes, when human artifacts come to light in geological strata dating to the Ice Age, one can place them in a much broader geological context. But in such cases, as with relative chronologies from other archaeological sites, determining the actual date of these sites and artifacts in years is a matter of guesswork, or of applying absolute dating methods.
Absolute chronology is the process of dating in calendar years. A whole battery of chronological methods have been developed to date human prehistory, some of them frankly experimental, others well established and widely used. The following are the best-known ones.
Historical Records and Objects of Known Age
Historical documents can sometimes be used to date events, such as the death of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh or the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519–21 C.E. Clay tablet records in Mesopotamia and ancient Egyptian papyri provide dates going back to about 3000 B.C.E. The early Near Eastern civilizations traded many of their wares, such as pottery or coins with precise dates, over long distances. These objects can be used to date sites in, say, temperate Europe, far from literate civilization at the time.