The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe by Clive Gamble.
Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 1999. pp 505; 124 text figures; 108 tables. ISBN 0 521 65105 0.

         C. S. Gamble’s “The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe” (1999) is interesting for many reasons, not the least of which is that it stands in contrast to his earlier work “The Palaeolithic Settlement of Europe” (1986). Gamble himself consciously examines the contrasts between his earlier work and this new book, criticising the former for its ecological focus and group-based approach to the study of hominid groups. Gamble’s new book implements “social archaeology”- focussing on the importance of social relations and on the individual as an active social agent. As such, Gamble’s new book is in step with postmodern trends in Western intellectual thought and may be symptomatic of a paradigm shift in Palaeolithic research.

         Throughout this book Gamble underlines the importance of moving from archaeological explanations that emphasise ecological relations to interpretations grounded in social relations (though not to the exclusion of ecological relations); from group-based definitions of human society to consideration of the individual's role in creating society. Gamble's vision of social archaeology attempts to unify social and ecological relations, and he shares with authors like Ingold (2000) a view of human/environment interactions that stresses “the active engagement and mutual involvement of the individual in the construction and negotiation of his/her environment.” (Gamble 1999:6). The work of Leroi-Gourhan (1964) has been influential towards developing the concept of agency in archaeological research and Gamble pays particular attention to the “chaîne operatoire” (operational sequence) and its role in bringing about the unification of technological and social processes.

         Gamble presents a wealth of information and synthesises it well. The chapters are organised in a fairly straightforward format. The first three chapters establish the theoretical structure Gamble uses to interpret the Palaeolithic record of Europe. In the following chapters (Chapter 4 onwards) Gamble treats, in chronological order: the first hominids in Europe and arguments for the short versus long chronology; early Neanderthal societies; late Neanderthals and the Mousterian; the transition from Middle to Upper Palaeolithic societies and finally, the Upper Palaeolithic societies of Europe. Each chapter presents the chronological and environmental framework first, followed bythe archaeological data and a detailed description of key sites (locales) on a regional basis, and finally, interpretation of the data in terms of social archaeology.

         In the opening chapters, the concept of "rhythm" is seen as particularly important as rhythms provide "the conceptual link between the dynamics of past action and the inert residues of those actions" (Gamble 1999:65). Rhythms are closely linked concepts, consisting of: "operational sequences, movements along well trodden paths and attention paid to others” (Gamble 1999:65). In Gamble’s opinion, a regional approach (e.g., the analysis of settlement patterns) is still a valid undertaking in Palaeolithic archaeology – he is not throwing the baby out with the bath water - but it takes an altered and expanded form with rhythms bridging the gap between spatial patterning and social relations. In practical terms, the emphasis on regional settlement in Gamble’s earlier work is replaced by an emphasis on space as it “reflects the contexts of interaction and the construction of social networks by individuals.” (Gamble 1999:65).

         In Chapter 2, "The individual, society and networks", Gamble's primary goal is to develop network analysis as a methodology for linking social theory to the archaeological record. This approach seems to be quite promising, and has already been explored in one shape or another by researchers like Steele (1994), for example. As the concept of network analysis, applied to the study of human society, is key to operationalising Gamble's social archaeology it bears summarising here (with apologies to the author). Networks of social relations result from the actions of creative and mobile individuals as they form ties of variable quality and duration. To maintain a network, an individual requires emotional, symbolic and material resources. Networks, therefore, are ruled by limitations on the individual (e.g., temporal and cognitive) and society is “built up from limitations on the individual as they negotiate their own networks” (p.63). Analytically, a network can be quantified in terms of its density and connectivity (providing a basis for comparing networks). Gamble claims, with some justification, that this approach presents archaeologists with a more flexible tool with which to study cultural transmission and the formation of society than more traditional anthropological approaches.

         Gamble’s development of a new vocabulary in Chapter 3 is defended on the grounds that it is a declaration of a new agenda being explored (Gamble 1999:96). Arguably, it also presents an unnecessary linguistic barrier, particularly for undergraduates, and one wonders if it is perhaps a little too convoluted. For example, gatherings (“enduring locales”, i.e., archaeological sites) are distinct from social occasions (that is, contexts for performance established by objects [architecture, non-portable objects]) and places – (contexts for performance established at named locales invested with meaning). Since the spatial organisation of social occasions and places both structure behaviour the necessity for drawing a distinction between them is unclear. The example provided by Gamble (1999:75) of caves (the "classic Palaeolithic site type") as places, and of the limestone cliffs at Les Eyzies as social occasions is frankly confusing.

         In "The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe" Gamble develops arguments for a new approach to Palaeolithic archaeology – a social archaeology that is not limited to the investigation of ecological relations, does not work out of a system of oppositions between one cultural system and another, and therefore is not limited to the investigation of periods of change (including human origins). This book demonstrates that Gamble’s approach lends itself well to an interpretation of the relatively long periods of apparent stasis that make up most of the Palaeolithic record. With respects to the evolution of modern human culture, Gamble advances the hypothesis that what changed during the Palaeolithic "was the character and extent of the regional scale” (Gamble 1999:91). That is, humans developed the ability to extend their social networks beyond intimate and effective levels, and to maintain relations at a distance (the evolutionarily significant “release from proximity”). Since the development of extended and global networks can only be investigated in the archaeological record, Gamble is demonstrating the relevance of Palaeolithic research as a basis for developing social theory.

         “Palaeolithic Societies” is probably unsuitable for use in undergraduate courses due to its dense writing style and use of specialised vocabulary, but it provides a challenging read and an excellent basis for wide-ranging discussions in graduate seminars.

         As with Ingold’s recent publication (2000), I am left stimulated and excited by the apparently rich prospects of this new way of thinking about what we do as archaeologists – and, I confess, still struggling to develop a clear sense of how it will affect what we do. As has been pointed out elsewhere (Dobres & Robb 2000), theoretical perspectives that fail to change the way we do archaeology are ultimately doomed to failure. However, in the "Palaeolithic Societies of Europe" Gamble is clearly working in the right direction – attempting to build a methodological bridge between theory and practise. It is an enterprise worthy of attention.

Ariane Burke
Department of Anthropology,
University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, Canada.

Review Submitted: February 2003

References Cited:
Gamble, C.S. 1986 "The Palaeolithic Settlement of Europe" Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dobres, M.-A., Robb, J. (2000). Agency in archaeology: paradigm or platitude? In “Agency in Archaeology.” (M.-A. Dobres, Robb, J., Ed.), pp. 3-17. Routledge, London.
Ingold, T. 2000. The Perception of the Environment. London: Routledge.
Leroi Gourhan, A. 1993 "Gesture and Speech" Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press. (English Translation of the 1964 French publication "Le Geste et la Parole").
Steele, T. 1994 "Communication networks and dispersal patterns in human evolution: a simple simulation model." World Archaeology 26:126-143.

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page