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Spring 2007


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Prehistory can be investigated in a variety of settings ranging from remote sites to specially constructed field research facilities.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.


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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 we’ll 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 we’d like to achieve during this semester:

    • Provide an introduction to the temporal and geographic diversity of prehistoric human adaptations
    • 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.

   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.

   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 :

  1. How to link interpretations of behaviors to the physical clues preserved from the past.
  2. How to reconstruct the physical, climate, and biological environments in which the event took place.
  3. How to think about examining human behaviors at different temporal scales – minutes, days, years, decades, generations, centuries, millennia.
  4. How to interpret material remains in terms of the behaviors that created them
  5. How to reconstruct broad patterns of human cultural change in terms of both regional and global interactions.
  6. How to interpret plant, animal, and artifactual remains in terms of past subsistence practices, resource sharing, storage, trade and exchange.
  7. How to document and correlate multiple data sources – archaeological remains, paleoecological indicators, and for the most recent time periods written records and oral histories.
  8. How to maximize the information derived from archaeological research while minimizing the destruction of this unique, non-renewable source of information.

  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.

  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 adaptation.

   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.