Spring 2008 - Volume 11 Number 2
|Reviews||Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007
A seemingly permanent debate within the study of evolution concerns the elementary dynamics of transformation. Gradualists tend to see stately, linear and usually progressive processions from “that” to “this”; catastrophists point instead to cataclysmic changes that alter fundamentally the nature of that which “evolved.” Perhaps because it was once locked in a struggle with biblical literalists who clung to a seven-day timetable for creation, a series of singular miraculous interventions such as the Noahic Flood and an absurdly short history of the universe (which sixteenth-century Bishop James Ussher calculated to have been formed from the void on 23 October, 4004 BC), scientists long preferred to take a gradualistic approach in defence of naturalistic rather than divine explanations of change. In any case, despite purported instances of massive explosions of speciation such as the sudden appearance of new, complex animals at the beginning of the Cambrian era over 500 million years ago, scientists have generally preferred descriptions and explanations that rejected singularities.
So it is that Clive Gamble’s book which debunks the calculation of precise human origins and sharp transformational changes in cultural evolution seems to fit nicely into the traditionally favoured template. It may be, as Thomas S. Kuhn so convincingly argued in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that although nature seems to many to carry on in a methodical fashion and reorganize itself without much dramatic and immediately visible modification, relying for example upon the sluggish work of plate tectonics to account for the current locations of the continents, science itself proceeds in fits and starts, obeying Niles Eldridge’s and Stephen Jay Gould’s rule of “punctuated equilibrium.”
Gamble argues, for instance, that we are asking the wrong questions if we try to isolate a particular date at which our australopithicene ancestors became homo; or, if we try to attribute abrupt life-altering qualities to supposed events such as the emergence of language or the agricultural revolution.
Providing definitions of what makes humans “human” may be comforting, especially for those who like to believe that we are qualitatively different from other animals, but it is not easy to make strong empirical claims for categorical distinctions between human and non-human. Are we essentially tool users, language producers, conceptual thinkers? Are we, as Aristotle suggested “political” animals? Did we become human when we decided to bury our dead or paint on the walls of cave? If so, what were we before? After all, anatomically modern humans were roaming the biosphere well before many of our so-called essential traits had evolved.
If Gamble is taking up the case for cultural gradualism, however, he is doing so in remarkably fresh and innovative ways. He is also a very clever stylist and occasionally very funny.
Gamble’s thesis is principally that cultural revolutions and unique points of origin exist only in the minds of archaeologists. The appearance of symbolic culture art, music, language and religion in the Upper Paleolithic era, and the socio-economic transformation of human life in the Neolithic age are false “tipping points.” He speaks instead to an ongoing relationship between human identity and material culture which he engagingly describes as a series of “instruments” and “containers” that are extensions of our limbs or extensions of our trunks. Examples of instruments include all blades and points, ploughs and drills, writing instruments and wheels. Their purpose is to extend our reach into the external world, primarily for the purpose of manipulating it. Containers, in the alternative, include anything that encloses or controls items of value such as bowls, clothing, caves and tombs. As one observer put it: “Instruments generally inscribe; containers are more often inscribed upon.”
Gamble insists that human beings did not wake up one day and decide to cook their meat, plant crops or learn to dance. Such notions are probably absurd, and certainly permit no empirical answers in the absence of some form of transcendent teleology. In his terms, we did not hastily become sedentary and domesticated. Such remarkable changes, Gamble says, are not so neatly identified. They are the cumulative product of what may be taken as a dialectical relationship between ourselves as bodies and the material culture that mediates our encounters with our environment. His grasp of continuity is such that he makes both evolutionary and anthropological connections between modern human and chimpanzee cultures that present technological solutions to environmental problems of the sort that Marvin Harris described in this excellent theoretical work, Cultural Materialism, a generation ago. He also goes further. His holistic approach intertwines psychology, sociology and economics. Never reducing his argument to crude technological determinism, he nonetheless links standard archaeological topics such as the importance of iconic inventions such as fire, pottery and cutting tools to variations in human identity, and he also connects these to the reflective capacities of hominins (us and our fossil ancestors, but without the great apes).
Already touted as an incipient classic in the field, Clive Gamble has not only provocatively reconfigured the concept of change in human evolutionary studies, but has also set out some theoretical alternatives to what Kuhn would call the “normal science” of archaeology and anthropology and, in so doing, has helped to revitalize this uniquely intriguing exploration into the question of what, if anything, is a human being.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com
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