Anthropology, archaeology and human origins: returning to 'big questions'
Camilla Power (University of East London)
Hilary Callan
Hilary Callan
Wills 3.31
Start time:
7 April, 2009 at 14:30
Session slots:

Short abstract:

Can social anthropologists usefully address the big questions about the origins of language, ritual and symbolic culture while respecting tried and tested principles of Darwinism? This panel asks how archaeologists might deploy theory and data from both wings of anthropology.

Long abstract:

Social anthropology has until recently been surprisingly silent in debates on human origins at a time when interdisciplinary collaboration has made great strides. Conferences on the emergence of modern humans normally involve Darwinian psychologists and primatologists, alongside archaeologists and linguists. But where are the social anthropologists? For almost a century, social anthropology has defined itself by repudiating evolutionary perspectives. But does social anthropology have a distinctive contribution? Some social anthropologists have proposed alternative biological anthropologies. In one such view - intolerant toward standard Darwinian premises prevailing in current research into animal social systems -'evolutionary biology' is 'the trouble' (Ingold 2007). This panel adopts a more even-handed approach. While behavioural ecologists readily expound on reproductive strategies or bipedal locomotion, can they apply their methods to account in detail for underworlds, forest spirits, tricksters and rainbow snakes? Rather than dictate to biologists how to do their jobs, we challenge human behavioural ecologists and Darwinian anthropologists to 'take the marvellous seriously' as Luc de Heusch puts it. Social anthropology has amassed a treasure house of observations about 'the marvellous', which Darwinians have often ignored. To solve the puzzles of human origins, and explain the transition from animal strategies to human symbolic life, those palaeolithic and neolithic archaeologists who have the evidence in their hands will need both wings of anthropology. Can we produce accounts consonant with standard Darwinian theory which illuminate archaeological landscapes and the complexities of the ethnographic record? Ingold, T. 2007 The trouble with 'evolutionary biology'. Anthropology Today 23:13-17.