TAG 2014 Session

At the 2014 Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference in Manchester (15-17 December) we convened the Decolonising Human Origins Session. The session was held on Tuesday 16 December and below you will the full session description and a link to our speaker list and abstracts. Our sincere thanks to the presenters and everyone who came along for making this a fascinating session!

Session Description

Archaeology has experienced in recent decades some significant challenges regarding its inherent colonialist legacies in theory and method. Approaches to global human evolution and the Palaeolithic have so far not received similar critical attention. This is an interesting phenomenon that most likely is related to the presentation of human evolution as a natural process that can be described and explained in biological, ‘scientific’ and objective terms. However, against this assessment stands some significant research that demonstrates the social and cultural construction of 'biological’ or ‘genetic’ facts. The same applies to the narratives that are constructed to explain the course of deep human evolution and the causalities that were involved. These critical approaches suggest that biological and cognitive human evolution is largely constructed within a Western framework, which rests on an essentialist view of human characteristics, ‘human nature’ or ‘cognitive capacities’. These ideas have highly problematic links to colonialist concepts of innate human abilities, which underwrote racist ideas in the 19th century. As a result, this orientation also silences Indigenous perspectives and voices in the discourse about so-called modern human origins and the deep past of humanity. This session is aimed at critically analysing current approaches to human evolution and human origins and search for new approaches that enable a renegotiation of what it means to be and become human.

Speaker List


  1. Martin Porr and Jacqueline Matthews (University of Western Australia) - Between the universal and the local. Pathways towards the decolonisation of human evolution
  2. Tim Lewens (University of Cambridge) and Jonathan Birch (London School of Economics) - Tribes and tribal instincts: A critique
  3. Robin Dennell (University of Sheffield) - The Far East and the Far West
  4. John Piprani (University of Manchester) - De-colonising the past. Implications for a Middle to Upper Palaeolithic ‘Transitional Industry’ from Britain.
  5. Jacqueline Matthews (University of Western Australia) - Decolonising visions of Aboriginal stone artefacts: An antipodal perspective
  6. Martin Porr (University of Western Australia) - Decolonising the origins of art

Abstract List

Paper 1: Martin Porr and Jacqueline Matthews (University of Western Australia)


Between the universal and the local. Pathways towards the decolonisation of human evolution
This paper is a broader introduction to the aims and themes of the Decolonising Human Origins session. It will provide a foundation for why human origins research is in need of decolonising. Possibly one of the most important observations in this context is that in contrast to almost all other areas of archaeology so-called human origins research appears largely untouched by broader critiques that have challenged inherent colonialist legacies in archaeological theory and method.
We will examine here the engrained assumptions and underlying legacies of Western thinking about the deep human past that serve to keep human origins research in the realm of biological and evolutionary explanation as a natural, universal and inevitable process. These elements have significant impacts on a range of aspects within current constructions of human origin narratives, such as the notion of ‘origins’, biological and cultural capacity, dispersal and transmission/heredity mechanisms, temporality and so on. We will further highlight the impact on the integration of Indigenous perspectives and voices as well as more dynamic and social understandings of what it means to be and become human.
By drawing attention to the flaws and contradictions that plague current narratives of origins and modernity, we will start to suggest some pathways forward to a decolonised practice. If human origins research is aimed at understanding and telling the story of ‘us’ it can no longer be told in a manner that privileges only Western values. There is a great need for approaches that coalesce the universal and local contexts in a way that does not assume general or universal cognitive categories and algorithms that supposedly guide human behaviour.
Paper 2: Tim Lewens (University of Cambridge) and Jonathan Birch (London School of Economics)


Tribes and tribal instincts: A critique
In this paper, we criticize the ‘tribal instincts’ hypothesis defended by cultural evolution theorists such as Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd. Central to this hypothesis are the ideas that early human populations were objectively structured into ‘ethnolinguistic tribes’, and that these tribes competed in a process of ‘cultural group selection’. We suggest that both ideas may point to a hidden legacy of unchallenged colonialist assumptions.
We illustrate these points with a discussion of the case of the ‘Nuer conquest’ of the Dinka in 19th Century South Sudan, Richerson and Boyd’s flagship example of 'cultural group selection’ acting in modern populations. We argue that the notion of the Nuer ‘outcompeting’ the Dinka by virtue of their greater aptitude for war may well have been (in various respects) an artefact of colonial observation. Moreover, the very idea that the Nuer and the Dinka constituted discrete ‘groups’ of the sort that could participate in a process of group selection can be doubted for similar reasons.
We proceed to consider what a theory of cultural evolution stripped of such assumptions might look like. We argue that, in fact, competition between ‘tribes' is a dispensable feature of the cultural-evolutionary project. The basic cultural evolutionist methodology involves constructing mathematical models, inspired by those of classical population genetics, to understand the changing genetic and cultural composition of populations over time. We can retain this basic methodology without invoking dubious assumptions about population structure.
Paper 3: Robin Dennell (University of Sheffield)


The Far East and the Far West
One important consequence of 19th century western imperialism, particularly by the British and French, was the way they remoulded much of the world that they dominated in their own terms. This was particularly true of geography and history. Geographically, the terms “Near East”, Middle East” and “Far East” indicated distance from Europe. These terms also has historical implications, with those closer to Europe geographically sharing more of the values and traditions of those further east. The “Near East”, for example, was the birthplace of Christianity and home to much of the world depicted in the Old Testament. In contrast, the Far East” was depicted as ancient but also stagnant, backward, insular, and isolated; its apparent exoticism served only to emphasise its alien nature and cultural separateness from European tradition. This intellectual framework is implicit in Movius’s 1948 synthesis of the Early Palaeolithic, in which the Far East was seen as backward and primitive by comparison with the “dynamism” of the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa, and as contributing nothing of significance to the early development of humanity. Such prejudices have no useful role in modern investigations of the Early Palaeolithic, and should be disregarded.
Paper 4: John Piprani (University of Manchester)


De-colonising the past. Implications for a Middle to Upper Palaeolithic ‘Transitional Industry’ from Britain.
The Lincombian is a Middle to Upper Palaeolithic ‘Transitional Industry’, the British component of the pan-European Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician (LRJ). This presentation will deal with the Lincombian in relation to three areas: historical legacies; implications for theory and method; and an indigenous perspective. To understand the impact of historical legacies it is necessary to highlight the value placed upon the scientific analysis of human fossil evidence, associated dateable materials, and relative stratigraphies when attempting to understand the modern human colonisation of Europe and concomitant disappearance of the indigenous Neanderthal population. The Lincombian has no unequivocal associated human fossil evidence and an early Type Fossil approach to collection means there is little in the way of associated dateable materials or relative stratigraphy. The material does not fit easily into the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic temporal architecture but at the same time seems to add little to current understandings of the period.
With this in mind the second section will posit an alternative theoretical approach and suggest that these same materials may be usefully employed in answering a different set of questions, questions aimed at structuring understanding from an indigenous perspective. To develop this argument alternative methodological approaches are applied to two areas: in contrast to an early focus upon homogeneity the type fossil materials are interrogated in an attempt to understand within corpus heterogeneity; secondly in a shift away from dating and stratigraphy sites are discussed in relation to more fundamental landscape features. In the third and final section I will discuss how through this process an indigenous perspective does seem to emerge and patterning within the materials and landscape seems to stand in contradiction to the linear modelling of time generally used by archaeologists to understand this period.
Paper 5: Jacqueline Matthews (University of Western Australia)


Decolonising visions of Aboriginal stone artefacts: An antipodal perspective
In this paper I consider how the narrative of an origins of modern humans has played out in the context of Australian Indigenous archaeology. Encounters with Aboriginal people and their history from the colonial period onwards have challenged Western conceptions of what it means to ‘be human’ and more recently to ‘be modern’, which has problematic implications for traditional archaeological understandings of so-called behavioural modernity. However, I argue that the Australian record should not be problematic to understandings of humanity and modernity. The landmass of Sahul has only ever been occupied by anatomically and behaviourally modern humans but an understanding of humanity and modernity based on the Western conceptions of capacity and development, which are measured by markers of material complexity is inappropriate in this context. Exploring why this is the case challenges traditional notions of humankind and its development, and this is key if we are to advance a productive decolonising agenda in the realm of human origins research.
I focus specifically on understandings of stone artefacts and explore the disconnection between archaeological and Indigenous perspectives on these things. By not seriously engaging with Indigenous perspectives, archaeologists effectively (but often unconsciously) remake the makers of stone artefacts into the imagined frameworks and sensibilities of Western practitioners. I will argue that the antipodal case holds insights for our understanding of human origins more broadly, particularly because it challenges the construction of grand narratives of global human development and universal measures of humanity or modernity. If traditional Western orientations and approaches struggle to deal with the relatively recent Aboriginal past then we need to question just how well they are suited to the deeper, more remote past. I will suggest that a decolonisation of our visions of the past will require fundamental ontological shifts and a movement towards relational understandings of the world.
Paper 6: Martin Porr (University of Western Australia)


Decolonising the origins of art
Figurative representations are traditionally regarded as the ultimate litmus test for the presence of fully modern humans – people like us – in the deep past. The research history of Palaeolithic art shows that the interpretation of its place in the narrative of global human evolution is guided by assumptions about humans and humanity that are ultimately European, modernist, essentialist and, consequently, colonialist. In this paper I will briefly examine the treatment of Palaeolithic art and Australian Indigenous rock art in relation to the following deeply entrenched assumptions: 1. ‘Art’ is a specific and delineated ability and capacity that is shared by all modern humans. 2. The ability to produce ‘art’ actually has to have one origin. 3. ‘Art’ can be divided into higher or lower forms, where it is assumed that the former can be assessed in relation to its realism, elegance, and gracefulness etc. 4. The normal course of development of art is from lower (less realistic) to higher (more realistic) forms of expression. 5. The highest and most sophisticated art forms are realistic paintings or realistic sculpture, which reflect biologically and culturally sophisticated individuals.
The juxtaposition of the general narrative of the origins of art and modern humanity with the interpretation Australian Indigenous rock art within a colonial context will allow rethinking the historically developed practice of giving one part of the world (traditionally Europe) primacy in assessing the complexity of human existence. Until today, the archaeological record of Europe is used – explicitly or implicitly – as a measure of human modernity. This orientation leads to the idea that large parts of the globe are impoverished and underdeveloped corners of the world that are outside of the normal course of human history. Questioning this view has not only implications for archaeology but also for engaging globally with Indigenous heritage.

No comments:

Post a comment