Prehistory can be investigated in a
variety of settings ranging from remote sites to specially constructed field research
Excavation is only one of the tools
archaeologists use to examine the material record of past behaviors -- often significant
data from the remote past are exposed on the ground surface.
In order to make reliable
interpretations about events that happened long ago, we need to examine a wide range of
data sources, such as the study of animal bones or investigation of paleobiology.
Especially when dealing with more
remote time periods, we have to reconstruct what the environments in which people lived
and responded to were like -- many past environments represent unique combinations of
plants, animals, and climates that do not exist anywhere in today's world.
For over 99% of the time that humans
and our ancestors have been on earth, we've subsisted as hunter-gatherers. There is a
common misconception that such peoples are in some way "backward" or
"primitive." However, hunter-gatherers and other indigenous peoples have much to
say of relevance to today's condition.
Although there is tremendous diversity
in the specifics of human adaptations in different times and places, as the Diamond
textbook argues, there are also some common patterns that can be seen when humanity is
viewed from multiple temporal and geographic scales.
The course presents an overview of prehistoric
archaeology, its basic concepts, methods, and key assumptions. By prehistoric archaeology
we are referring primarily to the archaeology of peoples without written records. For the
most part, such peoples did not live in cities, did not produce spectacular monumental
architecture, and did not leave massive amounts of treasure. The time period
covered by prehistoric archaeology varies in different parts of the world in the
Near East prehistory ends several thousand years ago; in some parts of the Amazon Basin,
the Arctic, and other remote areas, there are still peoples living a
prehistoric lifestyle. Archaeology is one of the ways that we can learn about
the diverse lifeways of peoples who have not left written records. In this class
well address a series of questions such as: What are the goals of contemporary
archaeology? How can we learn about the past by studying the contemporary archaeological
record? What types of information can be gained from archaeological research? What are the
unique problems and potentials of archaeology for the study of human behaviors? In
answering these questions, we have several goals that wed like to achieve during
The class provides a basic
overview of the principles of chronological analysis determining how long ago
events happened; determining the sequences of events and changes in the past; evaluating
issues of contemporaniety, tempo, and duration of culture change. Developing cultural
chronologies has traditionally been one of the fundamental, primary research activities of
archaeological research. Students are introduced to a variety of methods to determine
chronological sequences including; radiocarbon and other radiometric dating methods,
stratigraphic analysis, dendrochronology, index fossil comparison, faunal correlation, and
seriation. The range of human experiences covered in the class span the last 3 million
years and include a variety of topics that are key to understanding what it is to be
human. The first of these key topics is investigation of the nature of behaviors of our
earliest tool using ancestors. What factors favor increased reliance on technology? How is
technological change related to biological change and cultural changes in our species and
what are the similarities and differences of a technological/cultural mode of adaptation
to the adaptations used by other species? How had the human species used cultural
adaptations to expand its home range into nearly every conceivable environment from tundra
to tropical forest? The second key topic relates to questions of the causes and
consequences of the shift from a mobile, egalitarian hunting and gathering way of
life to a sedentary, food-producing non-egalitarian mode. The shift from a hunting and
gathering life to a settled, agricultural life beginning about 10,000 years ago is one of
the most far-reaching, influential changes that has taken place in the human experience
and set in motion a series of systemically-linked changes that led to the third key topic
of the introductory class: the appearance, spread, and diversification of complex,
hierarchical, state-level sociopolitical societies over the last several thousand years.
- Provide an introduction to the temporal and geographic diversity of prehistoric human
- Develop an understanding of the potentials of archaeological research
- Gain an appreciation for the interdisciplinary nature of archaeological investigations
- Introduce you to alternate ways of learning about people not by what they write,
say, or do, but from the material remains they produce, use, and eventually discard.
- Highlight concepts of the inter-relationships between humans and the environments in
which they live.
A second level of traditional
archaeological research (following the development of cultural chronology) had been the
reconstruction of past lifeways. Components of this reconstruction includes an
introduction to methods for answering the following questions :
A central theme of an Introduction
to Prehistory is the concept that archaeology does not "discover" the past, but
interprets or reconstructs the past based on the analysis of contemporary observations.
Archaeology is in a unique position to present students with an appreciation of the
impacts of different perspectives or paradigms on our reconstructions of the past
depending on the context archaeological interpretation can be undertaken as a social
science, a humanity, or a natural science. Each approach would examine different
components of the archaeological record and focus on different interpretative goals.
Within the discipline there are a number of differing interpretative perspectives that can
produce a diverse series of reconstructions of what the past was like. One perspective
gives interpretative priority to relationships between the basic biological processes of
subsistence and reproduction as conditioning factors in structuring social and ideological
realms. Another perspective gives interpretative priority to the unique characteristics of
human thought, communication, and symbolizing as factors for understanding cultural
variability. Recently, much greater concern has been given to attempts that also seek to
integrate the perspectives on indigenous peoples into the interpretation of the past.
- How to link interpretations of behaviors to the physical clues preserved from the past.
- How to reconstruct the physical, climate, and biological environments in which the event
- How to think about examining human behaviors at different temporal scales
minutes, days, years, decades, generations, centuries, millennia.
- How to interpret material remains in terms of the behaviors that created them
- How to reconstruct broad patterns of human cultural change in terms of both regional and
- How to interpret plant, animal, and artifactual remains in terms of past subsistence
practices, resource sharing, storage, trade and exchange.
- How to document and correlate multiple data sources archaeological remains,
paleoecological indicators, and for the most recent time periods written records and oral
- How to maximize the information derived from archaeological research while minimizing
the destruction of this unique, non-renewable source of information.
Introduction to Prehistory first
addresses issues of the similarities and differences of human adaptive systems to that of
other species. The study of our remote past gives students a clearer perspective on the
place of humans in the global ecosystem. Second, many of the problems facing us today
over population, resource depletion, or intra-specific violence (homicide to
warfare) all are the result of long-term trajectories of change. Study of human
prehistory helps students to think about the differences between seeking immediate,
proximate causes and looking deeper for the less obvious, ultimate causes. Finally, the
class gives students a much better understanding of the global patterns of human
The class requires use of a
variety of core competencies; exams include written components that make use of abilities
to write clearly; readings and lectures do not cover the same sets of materials
students must be able to read the texts critically and formulate questions to aid in their
comprehension. Applications of quantitative analytical methods are reviewed. The global
nature of archaeological research requires that many of the examples of sites or
innovative approaches discussed in class and the texts were written in another language
and students are given concrete examples of the importance of language competencies as
requisite research skills for anthropology. Finally, the multidisciplinary nature of
archaeology fosters an awareness of the importance of gaining a background in a diverse
set of social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities.