The Hominid Individual in Context; archaeological investigations of lower and middle Palaeolithic landscapes, locales, and artefacts, edited by Clive Gamble and Martin Porr
This volume sets out to challenge the assumption that Palaeolithic archaeology cannot recover ‘individuals’ in the way that later periods can. Of course, at one level individuals have produced every flake, core and tool recovered from Palaeolithic contexts and studies of the technologies and forms produced by these individuals are the bedrock on which Palaeolithic archaeology has been established. However, traditionally Palaeolithic archaeology has tended to focus on bigger time scales – the cultural sequences of culture-historical archaeology, or the processes of the New Archaeology. In this volume a number of archaeologists attempt to arise to the challenge of addressing the individual in the Palaeolithic in a series of 15 papers. The volume encompasses a number of different approaches, and indeed a number of different understandings of what an individual means. Hosfield focuses on ‘generic individuals’, Field on individuals, others on the agent (not a term that is usually considered as equivalent to an individual), while Dobres (p266) suggests that some papers have been successful in recovering ‘real’ individuals. This difference in perspective underlies the employment of different theoretical approaches, with structuration or practice theory, ideas of personhood, cultural evolution and more traditional approaches all being employed.
Despite the onus of the volume to explore the individual and high-resolution sites, there is a pleasing tendency to steer clear of what Hopkinsons and White (p27) call a ‘naïve reconstructionism’. Evoking the apparent immediacy of a past event through high resolution data doesn’t get us very far: Hominins came to a place, made some tools, butchered some animals and left. Only when archaeologists move into broader scales can they say something potentially significant about hominin lives or social change. It is therefore heartening to see that most of these papers do broaden scales, either horizontally (interaction with other individuals, or across the landscape) or vertically (through time). Pope and Roberts’ excellent paper shows the potential for a horizontal broadening of scale. They explore the landscape exposed at Boxgrove in order to interpret patterns of hominin movement around the landscape. They note the presence of single-event locations, as well as places that were repeatedly revisited. These latter appear to have structured discard practices, but these discarded objects themselves encouraged future occupation; so hominins’ landscapes of habits became cultural landscapes. Also at a horizontal level Gamble and Gaudzinski argue for accumulation and consumption as characteristic of hominin social interactions in the landscape of the German Middle Palaeolithic. This chapter ably demonstrates the benefits that a new perspective on the material can bring.
Most papers however, in keeping with Palaeolithic traditions open things out to explore the relationship between the individual and stability or change over time. Despite the differences in approaches outlined above, there are common themes, in particular whether the extreme conservatism of the Palaeolithic record suggests something more fundamental about the relationship between individuals and cultural transmission that is particular to the period. Hopkinson and White argue, for example, that individual innovation and variation had little effect on long-term structures of social replication. The relationship between the individual, variation, repetition and learning is the focus of a number of papers (eg, those by Sinclair and McNabb, Gowlett, Petraglia et al. and Henshilwood and d’Errico) though there are significant differences of opinion in this work, over, for example, whether variation can be equated with individualisation, or in fact is the product of a non-modern form of individual. These investigations of the significance of variation and repetition do seem to be one avenue in particular through which contributors feel a productive link between the individual and broader processes can be made. This forced focus on the individual also raises the issue of the relationship between scales of analysis, and there are some very thoughtful explorations of this by the contributors, amongst which Henshilwood and d’Errico’s paper was the highlight.
An interesting trend of this volume is the emergence of a number of theoretical approaches which appear appropriate to interrogating the specificities of Palaeolithic data. Three can be highlighted here: Shennan’s (2002) cultural transmission theory, which is taken up by Henshilwood and d’Errico, Petraglia et al. and Hosfield; Gamble’s work on social networks, which here he develops with Gaudzinski to discuss carcasses; and finally structuration or agency theory, here discussed by Hopkinson and White and Dobres. It seems important that the former and latter in particular are about reconciling the very short term (individual) and long term scales that are apparent to the Palaeolithic. And it is interesting that the conservatism and emphasis on social reproduction that does lurk behind some formulations of structuration theory in later prehistory may be more appropriate for the Palaeolithic.
Overall this book addresses some interesting issues: scale, the significance of variation (or lack of it) in stone tools; learning and innovation. A subtext to much of this though is the peculiar nature of the Palaeolithic individual, so the book is not just about changing scale and focus, but also interrogating some of the difficulties, assumptions and peculiarities associated with this task. This, as the change in scale necessitated by the topic, has been a difficult, but rewarding business. It is also important to highlight the overall quality of the volume, something unusual for a conference proceedings such as this. Overall, this is an interesting book and the forced focus on small, intimate scales of action has produced some worthwhile results, but Palaeolithic archaeology should not forget its unique perspective and the insights that a focus on longer-scale temporal processes can bring.
This is a book obviously targeted at an academic audience. It will undoubtedly be highly influential for post-graduates and students at an advanced stage in their undergraduate degree. For a more general audience, it will be of interest for those who would like an idea of the way that theoretical approaches are developing in the Palaeolithic period. In addition, as a project initiated to address high-resolution Palaeolithic data, it also provides an exciting review of some of these sites and the thoughtful ways in which they are being analysed and interpreted.
Review Submitted: November 2006
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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