Accepted Paper:

New conversations with the evolutionary scientists: reflections of a social anthropologist  


Wendy James (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

Evolutionary scientists are questioning the conventional human/animal divide, emphasizing the early emergence of patterned activity (eg. production and exchange) and structured communication (eg. music, art, language). This is a challenge to social anthropology, and one to which we should respond.

Paper long abstract:

In recent decades the evolutionary sciences have raised new questions about the 'social' side of early human existence: eg. inter-individual and inter-group patterns of negotiated activity, including aspects of material production and exchange; modes of ordering mating, 'kinship' and social reproduction; the emergence of structured forms of communication such as music, art, ritual and language. Social anthropology can now engage afresh with evolutionary colleagues on the question of 'origins' (not only since the global expansion of Homo sapiens from Africa 60,000 years ago, but before this). This paper argues that it is the purposeful, creative organization of relations with others, typically in changing contexts, that distinguishes the essence of human life as it must have emerged from the 'animal' domain. A primary focus on the 'symbolic' aspect of human activity does not quite catch this point; what in language, or music, or even science, is the difference between a 'symbolic' and a 'non-symbolic' idea or act? The concept of 'sociality' is currently enjoying a revival, and in its fullest sense we could argue that it does offer a basis for fresh conversations we in social anthropology could pursue on aspects of early human life. The paper will include my reflections as a card-carrying social anthropologist on some work in early archaeology (Gamble, Gowlett), evolutionary psychology (Dunbar), and music/language (Mithen). It will suggest in particular that the core concerns of social anthropology, including 'kinship and marriage' in early history, could be rejuvenated in further exchange with our evolutionary colleagues.

Panel P41
Social anthropology and human origins