Monday, February 23, 2015

How do we look for answers?


“The same site also contained deposits that are more than twice as old as the skull, including 46,000-year-old ostrich eggshells that were used to make beads. The new finds could reveal insights about the shifts in human culture that took place starting when the ancestors of present-day humans left Africa, around 50,000 years ago. [See Images of Our Closest Human Ancestor]”     [article referencing: “Late Pleistocene age and archaeological context for the hominin calvaria”, from GvJm-22 (Lukenya Hill, Kenya]  (Tryon et al. 2015, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)


The above passage appeared in a news report about new discoveries in hominid diversity at the Lukenya Hill site in Kenya.  While most mainstream reporting of science-related news tends to reduce serious research to inexact sound bites (in this case: “Stone Age Skull Reveals Astonishing Human Diversity”), I was struck by the reappearance of that old “out of Africa” chestnut that Lucy mentioned last week. This notion that  the ancestors of present-day humans left Africa, suggests that Africa is now depopulated of present-day humans.   Hopefully someone remembered to turn out the lights.

However, even within more theoretical circles, migration is associated with progress in a linear way.    As Stahl points out, the narrative of change within “the Project of World Prehistory” is typically one that ends, or at least arrives, in the Northern Hemisphere [Stahl, 5, 7].  Africa is a place that we have left behind and perceive of in a disassociated way:  it’s what we once were, but now only vaguely recognize.  There is a tendency to apply a standardized model to what can be observed-- or imagined:  looking for material culture that will fit a particular template so that we might determine what is actually culture. 

Hodder (at least in this essay) ties post-processualist Archaeology to a European framework, arguing for an expansion beyond data collection and more inclusive or multi-faceted discourses [Hodder, 6-7].   He begins by contrasting the nationalist underpinnings of earlier Archaeology, which tended to assign primacy of innovation to one group or another (frequently, and not coincidentally, a region or ethnicity associated with the archaeologist, himself).  By opening up culture-theory to encompass a range of broad human traits and social constructions, Hodder would refresh the dialogue concerning origins and their reverberations still present in the culture.

But with that dominant focus on Europe and its social “innovations” or landmarks, it strikes me that Africa is still filtered through a European or Western perspective. The search of comparable cultural landmarks in prehistory continues to place Africa in a European framework.   Stahl cites the search for the origins of innovation, at least as defined in a Euro-centric way  (metallurgy and trade, for example), as a sign that there remain limited models at work when evaluating culture [Stahl, 12-13).  To be fair, Hodder’s assessment is nearly 25 years old (if not more).  While more generous and dynamic than what preceded it, I’m not sure it provides an unencumbered system with which to look at Africa and prehistory.

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