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date: 26 November 2020

Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Innovations

Abstract and Keywords

For a number of reasons, hunter-gatherers have generally been regarded as rather timeless and unchanging societies, lacking an inherent capacity for innovation and transformation. Consequently, cultural developments impacting on foraging societies have often been traced back to external sources, and not linked to the internal dynamics of hunter-gatherer societies. This section draws on a wide range of archaeological case-studies in order to undertake a fundamental critique of these assumptions. Chapters examine the active and innovating roles played by prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies in a wide range of important cultural developments, including the transformation of humanity into a fully technological species, the appearance of early religion, and the emergence of socio-cultural complexity. They also explore the central roles played by hunter-gatherers in the invention and dispersal of pottery, early elaborations in mortuary behaviour, the rise of coastal adaptations, and the initial domestication of plants and some animal species.

Keywords: Hunter-gatherers, innovation, internal dynamics, pottery, domestication, technology, religion, complexity, mortuary behaviour, coastal adaptations


This part of the handbook focuses on the theme of long-term cultural innovation among prehistoric hunter-gatherers. This is an important topic because, for a variety of reasons, forager societies of the prehistoric past and more recent ethnographic periods have tended to have been regarded as possessing an inherent capacity for transformation and change. Innovations have been traced back to external influences and sources, and not linked to the internal dynamics of hunter-gatherer societies. Chapters in this part aim to redress this balance through a critical review of current archaeological evidence.

The roots of this thinking can be traced back to much older traditions of hunter-gatherer research. As discussed in detail in Part I, the emergence of the concept of hunter-gatherers as a distinctive kind of society had close links with notions of ‘unilinear’ or ‘stadial’ social evolution (see Barnard, Pluciennik, Part I, for more details). Economic and technological criteria were widely employed in the later nineteenth century to order the world’s different populations into general schemes of ascending social progress. This perspective on cultural diversity was based on some deep assumptions: foraging was regarded as being an inherently less advanced way of life than agriculture, and hunter-gatherers tended to be cast as a conceptual ‘base-line’ for general development, while Western civilization was regarded as the pinnacle of human cultural, technological, and moral achievement. Coupled to this was the implicit belief that hunter-gatherers were relatively simplistic, lacking any internal capacity for innovation or cultural complexity. It was widely thought that further progress could only come from more advanced societies, but not from within hunting and gathering bands, who were widely perceived as being culturally moribund, and trapped within an earlier stage of outmoded cultural development.

Franz Boas’s reaction to some of the increasingly racist formulations of social evolutionary thinking was to emphasize the inherent capacity for richness and complexity in all non-Western cultures, for example in kinship, ritual activities, and linguistics. In addition, (p. 586) he had already undertaken extensive ethnographic research and fieldwork among different hunter-gatherer communities (see the main introduction to this handbook by Jordan and Cummings), and was therefore sceptical on basic empirical grounds that the world’s enormous cultural diversity could ever be condensed into such an abstract and highly uniform sequence of categories. His overarching conclusion was that each human culture should be approached and understood in its own unique terms (cultural relativism), because each was a product of very specific constellation of highly contingent cultural and historical factors (historical particularism).

These Boasian perspectives on cultural diversity went on to form a dominant strand in anthropological thought (and have close links to post-processual and interpretive archaeologies—see the main introduction), although neo-evolutionary ideas surfaced again in the mid-twentieth century in the work of V. Gordon Childe, Leslie White, and Julian Steward, with a renewed concern for understanding general patterning in human development and social organization. Childe was interested in using archaeological evidence to reconstruct how human cultures had gone through a series of revolutionary changes, such as the Neolithic transition to agriculture (Childe 1929). White (1959) was more interested in developing generalized schemes of evolution, and argued that human societies could be envisaged as forming elaborate thermo-dynamic systems. New kinds of technology enabled higher levels of energy to be captured from the environment, and this led to new stages of human development, for example, from hunting and gathering, which involved human muscle power, through to the initial use of domestic animals and plants, and later to the exploitation of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, which laid the foundations for industrialization, and finally to the nuclear age. In contrast, Steward’s cultural ecology (1955) differed significantly in that it offered an alternative, ‘multilinear’ and more ecologically focused perspective on the evolution of human foraging cultures—the main concern here was to explore to what extent historically contingent adaptations to broadly similar local environments might generate common structures in hunter-gatherer social organization (see the main introduction to this handbook).

Given the enormous intellectual legacy of these earlier perspectives, this part of the handbook aims initially to stand back from these older research traditions. Social evolutionary thinking, in particular, tended to regard foragers as a rather uniform and timeless category of society, thereby stripping them of any inherent capacity for cultural advancement or technological creativity. Instead, the goal of this introduction is to take the ‘long view’ by critically reflecting on diverse archaeological evidence for processes of innovation within prehistoric foraging societies, exploring both the specific outcomes, and also some of the longer-term legacies generated by these changes. Adopting a more explicit focus on these internal innovation processes is especially important because it is now becoming clear that many major developments in human culture, technology, and social life occurred first among hunter-gatherers;, that is, long before the rise of agricultural economies and settled urban life. Such fundamental transformations include: the cumulative transformation of humans into a fully ‘technological species’; the emergence of art; the rise of social complexity; and also the development of various other practices and technologies, ranging from the invention of pottery through to elaborations in mortuary behaviour, and the rise of coastal economies. Finally, it was hunting and gathering societies in different parts of the globe who took the first steps towards the active management, cultivation, and then full domestication of diverse suites of wild plants and animals. Over time, these initial steps led to the emergence of fully agro-pastoral farming economies, but paradoxically, also led to the eventual demise of hunting and gathering as humanity’s main mode of subsistence.

(p. 587) For coherence, chapters in this part are organized along a broadly chronological sequence, reflecting the general temporal trends in the emergence and global dispersal of these key developments and innovations. More generally, each chapter investigates the prehistory of a specific innovation or cultural development, highlighting the enduring legacy of hunter-gatherers through to the present day. A final discussion returns to some of the themes raised at the start of this chapter—if prehistoric hunter-gatherers were relentless innovators, then how best can these dynamics be researched and understood? Can a concern with identifying general patterns in human cultural development be balanced alongside an interest in understanding the particularistic details of specific local sequences? How is the agency of prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies best studied, and how does localized social action contribute to long-term cultural transformation?

Key Innovations

The Transition to a Technological Species

In the first chapter in this part, Kuhn and Clark focus specifically on tracking major changes in stone tool technologies. Their broader concern, however, is tracing the rise of humans as a fundamentally technological species, reliant more than any other on material culture. Analyses of stone tool technologies are important because they form the first evidence of human technological abilities. Humans are not unique in using technology, but they do so to a degree unmatched by any other species—this is the same for forager bands as well as for urban dwellers. How and why humans became such a fundamentally technological species is one of the key questions in palaeoanthropology. One of the primary ways this question can be addressed is through the study of stone tool technologies.

Kuhn and Clark start by reviewing general long-term trends in the development of new kinds of stone tools and associated production techniques. One recurrent theme is the striking time lag between the first appearance and wider uptake and adoption of many new developments, a pattern also identified in other innovations such as cultural complexity, pottery, and the use of various domesticates (see Hommel; Hayden; Harris, in this section of the book). The general trend appears to indicate that new ideas tend to ‘bump along’ until subject to wider uptake, perhaps as their full advantages become fully realized, or whenever social and economic factors are more conducive to adoption among the wider population. All this directs attention to the crucial role of social learning and cultural transmission in generating many of these wider patterns in cultural development (see Garvey and Bettinger, this volume, Part I; Eerkens et al., this volume, Part VII).

Also notable is the rise of parallel developments in stone tool technologies across different regions of the globe, and the growing diversification in tool-kits and components, most often for processing the resources from prey, as well as just bringing down game. In many cases, there were different ways of making equivalent tool products, again highlighting the replication of distinct technological traditions through localized social learning networks. This also generates insights into contingent historical and demographic processes, rather than just simple or relatively automatic adaptive responses to local environments per se. Other technological trends include increased evidence for transport of tools, probably (p. 588) reflecting the desire to keep technology at close hand, and perhaps indicating the growth of a more general reliance on technology for daily survival. The increased use of hafted points and other multi-component artefacts underlines a growing complexity in technology and greater investment in manufacture. Sourcing and manipulation of the stone elements in these tools now formed only one part of a much longer operational sequence, which now widely involved the use of mastic substances, which also had to be collected, prepared, and applied.

In the Upper Palaeolithic, the spread of Homo sapiens into Eurasia, and the coeval dispersal and proliferation of blade technologies was certainly a major threshold in the use of new kinds of material culture, but this was only one element in a much wider trend towards growing technological elaboration. For example, it is true that there were some remarkable elaborations in the art of stone knapping and in composite tool manufacture at around this time. However, the biggest technological ‘revolutions’ in this period involved substantive changes in the working of ‘new’ kinds of materiality, such as hide, bone, antler, shell, and soft stone—there is substantial evidence for the production of elaborate tailored clothing and even the growing use of material culture as a media of communication in art and personal adornment. These changes marked a further shift towards humans becoming a fundamentally technological species, surrounded by an increasingly rich and diverse repertoire of material culture that was becoming central for subsistence, but also for other domains of social and cultural life.

More generally, the study of stone tool technologies highlights that the skills and cumulative stocks of knowledge required to make specific kinds of artefacts must have been acquired through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social learning, rather than forming a direct and simple reflection of innate cognitive capacities. Understanding variability and change in the production of stone tools—and other technologies appearing around the same time—therefore requires closer consideration of how this kind of cultural information was acquired and passed on. Archaeologists are just starting to explore the learning processes by which technological expertise was transmitted over generations, as well as the conditions that might favour persistence, elaboration, or even the eventual loss of this kind of knowledge within populations. More work on social learning and the dynamics of cultural transmission will undoubtedly generate new insights into some of these general patterns of technological transformation over the past 2.6 million years (and see Eerkens et al., Part VII, this volume).

Art for the Living

Lewis-Williams undertakes a thoughtful exploration of the main factors triggering the earliest appearance of art, which he argues was closely linked to the coeval emergence of religion. He defines ‘art’ as the deliberate manufacture of images. It is therefore image-making that makes his conceptualization of art distinct from a more general capacity for aesthetic appreciation (e.g. symmetrical hand axes) or symbolic expression (e.g. use of red ochre in ancient deposits). Most archaeologists now agree that art was integral to the business of living, but this is complicated by the fact that not all prehistoric societies made art. In order to try and understand the earliest origins of art, he therefore looks at what is currently the oldest evidence for image-making: the engraved pieces of ochre recovered from Blombos cave (p. 589) in South Africa, which date to 72,000 bp. Importantly, Lewis-Williams argues that the nature of this evidence also points to the coexistence of some form of religion at that time.

Some of the richest evidence for prehistoric art comes from Europe, although the evidence from Blombos cave in Africa indicates that production of art was probably a much more widespread phenomenon. However, evidence for very early art does tend to occur more frequently in Europe, and so Lewis-Williams centres his main analysis on this corpus of material. The Upper Palaeolithic art of this region consists of portable objects, cave paintings and engravings, painted and engraved geometric signs, and some engraved images of animals outside of caves. In Europe, the earliest appearance of art dates to the Aurignacian (45,000–35,000 years ago), and consists primarily of finely carved ivory figurines and pendants, along with the newly discovered parietal art at Chauvet cave in the Ardèche. It is clear that there was more to this art than just a utilitarian or purely decorative function: very specific animal species are repeatedly represented in the art recovered from broad geographic regions, and this seems to indicate that the appropriate subject matter of the art was established well before people starting making specific images. Making deeper interpretive sense of the art is extremely difficult, and this rich body of evidence has been approached by archaeologists in very different ways. Early studies drew heavily on ethnography, often citing Australian accounts of image-making among Aborigines. By the mid-twentieth century the theory of structuralism began to influence rock art interpretations. Of particular note was the work of Leroi-Gourhan, who suggested that a series of binary oppositions can be identified in the symbolism of the images, reflecting underlying cognitive distinctions between notions of male and female.

Lewis-Williams develops an alternative ‘neurological’ theory about the early production of art, and starts with the assumption that individuals in Upper Palaeolithic communities must have had broadly the same mental capacities as modern humans. He then suggests that it is important to differentiate between intelligence (as outlined by Mithen 1996), and the more general human capacity for consciousness, on which he places greater emphasis. This is due to the fact that there are intergrading states of normal human consciousness, ranging from being alert and focused, through to day-dreaming, and eventually to deep slumber. However, this spectrum of normal consciousness can be broadened further to include altered states of consciousness—these can extend from very mild symptoms through to some more extreme forms of experience. For example, when people are in these altered states of consciousness, they often experience mental visions (vivid hallucinations of various sorts).

It was the experiences of these altered mental states, Lewis-Williams argues, that were central to the first production of artistic images, and by the same token, to the origin of religion, which also drew upon this ‘ecstatic’ component of human consciousness. He suggests that the production of art was an attempt at ‘fixing’ the content of these personal visions into material forms, allowing the experiences and insights to be communicated to others who had not participated in the altered states of consciousness. Lewis-Williams is not arguing that the cognitive hard-wiring of people’s brains forced them into the production of images; he is quite clear that the earliest production of images must have been socially situated—for example, many early examples of art appear to be concentrated in difficult-to-access locations such as deep caves, which may have allowed access to only a few ritual specialists, perhaps accompanied by new initiates. Understanding the motivations for the earliest production of images is extremely challenging, but Lewis-Williams’s neurological approach does (p. 590) offer one way of investigating the origin of both art and early religion in these Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer societies.

The Rise of Social Complexity

The first two chapters in this part examine earlier phases in the transition of humans into a fundamentally ‘technological species’, with capacities to create—but also the need to rely on—a remarkable variety of material culture, ranging from more functional tools through to elaborate art. These earlier transformations appear to have played out within the behavioural settings of small-scale hunter-gatherer communities, who, in all likelihood, remained egalitarian societies lacking pronounced differences in social status, and with little in the way of archaeological evidence for the presence of private wealth or accumulation of prestige objects. In many ways, these early shifts constitute the antecedent cognitive and cultural foundations for a series of later cultural changes. Hayden identifies the onset of an entirely new phase in global human development—the establishment of cultural complexity. Long assumed by social evolutionary thinkers to be a defining achievement of agricultural societies, it is becoming increasingly clear to archaeologists that fundamental shifts in social relations were already well underway among earlier hunter-gatherer societies long before the onset of the transition to farming or the rise of urbanism. Hayden argues that it was probably the internal socio-political dynamics of earlier hunter-gatherer communities that went on to trigger these later socio-economic developments, a process explored in more detail later.

During the Upper Palaeolithic, there is increasing evidence for the emergence of new kinds of socio-economic relationships, but only in some hunter-gatherer communities. These early developments appear to gather pace and become much more widely established with the start of the Holocene. More generally, these transformations in social relations appear to be caught up with the coeval emergence of a series of other technological, economic, and cultural innovations, all of which are considered in more detail in the following chapters. As a bold attempt to critically synthesize the general patterning in diverse archaeological datasets, Hayden’s chapter is therefore of central relevance to this whole part of the handbook, because it attempts to set out a general conceptual framework for making sense of these wider global trends. Importantly, it integrates a concern with understanding the underlying local socio-political processes, but also highlights the role of distinctive environmental contexts in which most of these cultural developments appear to become highly concentrated.

But what is—and what is not—cultural complexity? Hayden contrasts his approach to older Boasian traditions of research (see above and also the main introduction). As examined at the start of this chapter, Boas rejected nineteenth-century social evolutionist thinking on both moral and empirical grounds, and wanted to demonstrate that all non-Western populations—many of whom were hunter-gatherers—had the capacity to exemplify cultural attributes and behaviours that were as rich and elaborate as those of Western societies. In this sense, Boas was interested in highlighting the inherent cultural sophistication—i.e. ‘complexity’—of all human cultures, for example, in dance, kinship, art, language, and other cognitive and social attributes. Hayden argues that this Boasian perspective on cultural diversity represents a staunch form of cultural relativism; that is, it assumes that each culture is unique, and cannot be placed within any general schema of development.

(p. 591) Hayden challenges these assumptions by drawing attention to the abundant archaeological evidence that now indicates general patterning in long-term cultural developments through time. These patterns, he argues, represent ‘major evolutionary changes’ in some of the most basic underpinnings of human cultural and social life, the most fundamental transformation being the emergence of a new kind of complexity. Cultural complexity in this sense is not about being inherently ‘complicated’ in art, kinship, or ritual practice, as was argued by Boas, but is something very different. For Hayden, the onset of cultural complexity is linked to the breakdown of an older, more resolutely egalitarian mode of social relations.

When discussing this kind of cultural complexity, archaeologists generally refer to the presence of hierarchical social, economic, and/or political structures, for example, the control of labour and resources beyond the immediate family. But how do these new kinds of relationship become established? Hayden argues that it is important to define and then differentiate the main features of ‘egalitarian’ societies and ‘trans-egalitarian’ societies. He suggests that (a) egalitarian societies lack private ownership, prestige goods, pronounced socio-economic differences, and economically based competition, but do emphasize sharing and equality. In contrast, (b) trans-egalitarian societies still lack formal social stratification but do exhibit growing evidence for private property, production of reliable economic surpluses, use of prestige objects, and the establishment of significant socio-economic differences. In fact, the obligatory sharing that characterizes true egalitarian societies (together with minimal private property or ownership of resources) is antithetical to the production of prestige items or accumulation wealth for personal use and display. In this way, the rise of social complexity must be linked first to the breakdown of these earlier egalitarian social relations, and also to the coeval emergence of trans-egalitarian social dynamics, which would, in turn, initiate the eventual shift towards more entrenched forms of socio-political stratification. Understanding exactly when, where, and why such trans-egalitarian societies first emerged is therefore key to Hayden’s analysis, and also to understanding the onset of general changes in human social life.

So when does this particular form of complexity first emerge? Hayden notes that these developments cannot be linked to simple changes in human cognition—anatomically modern humans emerged around 90,000 years ago, but there is no substantive evidence for cultural complexity for another 50,000 years. Only around 40,000 years ago do the first coherent indications of cultural complexity enter into the archaeological record of the Upper Palaeolithic. These early developments appear to be concentrated into some very specific, highly productive environments, and are far from a universal phenomenon. A more widespread trend towards increasing social complexity can be noted for the Mesolithic, but this time the most intense developments are primarily focused on the exploitation of different sets of ecological resources. He argues that this is an ‘amazing pattern in cultural evolution’ and one that demands a full explanation—archaeologists should therefore attempt to make interpretive sense of these general patterns, and should not be content with a more descriptive and particularistic treatment of unique local settings, or a concern with the lived experience of the past (see the main introduction).

In the Upper Palaeolithic, most of these developments appear to be centred on the hunter-gatherer groups inhabiting rich glacial parkland environments characterized by abundant megafauna. Many such areas contain initial evidence for the first use of prestige objects, early cave art, hints at seasonal sedentism, and also indications of long-term (p. 592) storage. There are also preliminary suggestions of the opening up of inequalities in personal and family wealth, as indicated by lavish adult and adolescent burials. Later phases of the Upper Palaeolithic witness additional growth in the circulation of portable wealth and other prestige items. There are stronger hints of substantially higher population densities in certain resource-rich areas, with coeval ownership of the most productive extraction points. It becomes evident that these prehistoric societies were increasingly able to provision themselves with enormous economic surpluses, much of which must have been subject to seasonal storage and later redistribution. The period is also marked by the creation of fabulous cave art. All these lines of evidence point emphatically to the rise of completely new kinds of social and political complexity that had never before existed. Such developments stand in stark contrast to the kind of simple sharing out of scarce resources within egalitarian bands that appears to characterize the archaeology of earlier periods. Importantly, the trans-egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies who were at the vanguard of the shift towards increasing social complexity were concentrated in rich ecological ‘heartlands’—such developments were likewise absent from egalitarian forager populations inhabiting more marginal areas, a phenomenon that persisted through to historic times.

Important regional changes to these general transformations were triggered by the climatic ameliorations that marked the terminal Pleistocene. The main locus of cultural development shifted away from the glacial parklands of Europe, and became increasingly focused on the exploitation of new kinds of resources in the early Holocene, driven on by the relentless socio-political demands for production of surpluses. The parallel development and uptake of new technologies (harpoons, leisters, fishhooks, nets and sinkers, basket traps and weirs) during the Mesolithic was linked in many areas to intensified exploitation of aquatic species, especially fish and shellfish, whose mass harvesting and storage opened up new reservoirs of food through systematic exploitation of species that had hitherto been used on a more opportunistic basis (see Wickham-Jones, this part). In the Near East, similar developments involved the emergence of new tool-kits for the mass harvesting of seeds. These wider developments, in turn, were linked to growing concentrations of population in resource-rich areas, and coeval developments in permanent settlements, as well as the rise of special locations for funerary and ancestral feasting rituals.

From Europe, the Near East, Siberia, China, Japan, and well beyond, many early Holocene hunter-gatherer societies bear all the classic archaeological hallmarks of emergent cultural complexity, but only those occupying the most ecologically productive environments. A string of other innovations, including very early uses of pottery, elaborations in mortuary practices, and perhaps also the first steps towards deliberate management and eventual domestication of wild plants and animals also appear to be caught up in the internal socio-political dynamics that characterize these early trans-egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies (see chapters by Harris; Hommel; Nilsson Stutz; Outram, in this part).

Pulling together a remarkable array of global data, Hayden concludes that increasingly competitive use of abundant ecological resources led directly to the rise of new forms of cultural complexity. At the same time, this new capacity for cultural complexity was highly contingent upon the characteristics of local environment, as well the ability of hunter-gatherer groups to invent and deploy technologies that could generate reliable surpluses in food supply. Absolutely central to this process of emerging complexity was the agency of specific individuals (‘aggrandizers’), who sought increasingly to acquire and control these surpluses for their own political advantage and personal self-advancement, as (p. 593) well as the labour, technological facilities, and resource extraction points that underpinned the local economy. These relentless dynamics set the hunting and gathering world on edge, with a relentless political demand for the production of surplus generating ever more complex and competitive socio-economic systems. Importantly, this conclusion suggests that the rise of trans-egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies from the Upper Palaeolithic onwards marks one of the most fundamental watersheds in human socio-political relationships. In contrast, earlier social evolutionary thinking had predicted that shifts towards new kinds of social life would only emerge with the onset of agriculture. Interestingly, many other attributes that have traditionally been associated with the rise of farming societies—from increasing sedentism through to the invention of pottery—are now known to have emerged first among hunter-gatherers, and were very possibly linked to the shift from egalitarian to trans-egalitarian societies that Hayden traces.

Further Innovation Dynamics Among Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers

Building on some of the insights derived from Hayden’s global overview of the rise of cultural complexity, the next set of chapters focuses on a range of more specific innovations that were appearing among many prehistoric hunter-gatherer populations at around the same time.

Hunter-Gatherers and the Emergence of Pottery

The emergence of pottery is investigated by Hommel. His starting point is the observation that in western Europe, the invention of pottery has generally been associated with the Neolithic transition to farming, and the spread of this ‘package’ of traits into new areas. However, Hommel cites growing evidence that pottery emerged first among Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, and that it has its own complex technological history that is entirely distinct from that of plant and animal domestications, and the rise of farming (Jordan and Zvelebil 2009; Rice 1999). Exactly how and why pottery first emerged within a foraging lifestyle—rather than a farming economy—therefore becomes an intriguing research question.

Hommel notes that the general use of clay has a much older history than the appearance of the first ceramic container technologies. Very early clay ‘cultural’ objects include models, figurines, and other items, all of which hint at a much more widespread and artistic use of wet clay in many Upper Palaeolithic societies. The increasing use of deliberately fired clay in the production of figurines also forms part of a wider trend towards increasing manipulation of different kinds of raw material, the cumulative development of knowledge, and the invention of new kinds of technology. However, the widespread fired-clay figurine tradition of the Upper Palaeolithic is unlikely to have led directly to the invention of ceramic container technologies. Instead, Hommel links the earliest origins of pottery to older ‘soft’ container technologies, noting the similarities between the ‘additive’ craft of weaving baskets and (p. 594) the building in of new strips of moist clay when coiling a pot. Even the production steps in the manufacture of early slab-build pots may have had broad conceptual similarities to the assembling of boxes or other kinds of soft containers from bark sheets or rawhide. This building and assembling of clay containers is therefore a very different technological exercise to the ‘subtractive’ craft of producing lithic artefacts by chipping, flaking, and polishing away surplus material to generate a finished artefact. Moreover, the frequent textile impressions commonly found in many early pottery traditions suggest that basketry, matting, or netting was also being used to support or mould the damp clay. In fact, the symbolic and cognitive associations between basketry and pottery may go much deeper. Many later hunter-gatherer pottery traditions, e.g. in the Japanese Jomon (see Habu 2004), appear to have deliberately incorporated stylized designs from organic container technologies such as basketry and wooden boxes, long after pottery-making had itself become well established as a distinct craft.

So where, when, how, and why did the earliest pottery emerge, and what relative advantages did pottery provide? The first pots may have emerged from the use of clay-lined baskets, as noted above, or even from clay-lined cooking pits; clearly, these societies were already familiar with the firing of clay to make cultural objects. As a result, the initial—and perhaps even accidental—integration of this knowledge with existing ‘soft’ container technologies may not have represented such a major conceptual breakthrough. Whatever its early origins, the appearance of pottery appears unlikely to have been linked to the development of new cognitive capacities, as human populations were already working with many other complex multi-component technologies long before the first evidence of pottery. Early uses of ceramic containers are probably best seen as evidence for the integration of older skills and insights into a new kind of cultural knowledge (Hayden 2009), albeit a set of technological practices that had to become properly ‘embedded’ within hunter-gatherer social life before it was able to persist over subsequent generations.

The world’s earliest examples of ceramic containers are found in the Old World, especially in East Asia (Japan, China, and in the Russian Far East), where a widespread suite of hunter-gatherer early pottery traditions became well established in the Upper Palaeolithic. This appears to have been followed by a second independent emergence of pottery in sub-Saharan Africa, again among hunter-gatherers. By the early-to-middle Holocene, use of pottery had spread into new regions within a few millennia, generating a widespread ‘horizon’ of early pottery traditions that spanned Eurasia and also embraced many parts of Africa (Gibbs and Jordan 2013; Jordan and Zvelebil 2009). In its earlier phases, it is clear that these early pottery traditions were associated exclusively with hunter-gatherer societies, but in later periods, pottery became increasingly associated with new forms of plant and animal management. In other words, although initially a hunter-gatherer innovation, the later history of pottery becomes increasingly caught up with the rise and dispersal of agro-pastoral farming economies.

In the New World, the basic spatio-temporal patterns in the first emergence of pottery are highly complex: there appears to be an independent origin centre in South America, plus another in south-east North America. In later periods, pottery traditions are adopted by maritime hunter-gatherers in Alaska. Knowledge of the craft appears to have spread across the Bering Strait from Siberia, with the ultimate source of these northern traditions being the early pottery technologies of East Asia, discussed earlier.

Beyond the identification of these general spatio-temporal patterns, much more regional work will be required to clarify the specific relationships between the many different early-pottery traditions, as well as the timing and directionality of the later dispersal (p. 595) and uptake sequences. Importantly, however, Hommel also emphasizes that pottery must also have spread via local cultural choices, for example, the decision to invent, adopt, or adjust the new technology within particular social, cultural, and ecological settings. More generally then, it is clear that pottery was a ‘socially constituted’ technology, and that its wider uptake was not inevitable, but was highly contingent upon being attractive—and also acceptable—to the traditions and lifeways of local forager communities.

In considering the possible attractions of early pottery, Hommel highlights some of the basic roles that early pottery might have performed, perhaps triggering its initial invention, as well as its wider adoption into hunter-gatherer lifeways. These range from practical benefits for diet and health, through to use in ritual activity and in symbolic display. For prehistoric foragers, clay cooking pots must have had many basic attractions, including preparation of nutritious soups and also weaning foods (also see Jordan and Zvelebil 2009), but perhaps one of its key attractions was in processing seasonally abundant resources. In part, this may link the more widespread uptake of early pottery with the rise of the new ‘aquatic’ economies that were flourishing at the start of the Holocene (see Hayden; Wickham Jones, this part). More generally, Hommel concludes that despite the enormous regional variability in styles, most of the earlier hunter-gatherer pottery traditions tend to appear in contexts where they could, as a new technology, improve nutritional capture and minimize time invested in subsistence.

This broadly adaptive ‘economic intensification’ argument appears to successfully account for the wider take-up of pottery among early Holocene hunter-gatherers (Jordan and Zvelebil 2009). However, the early phases in the emergence of pottery in East Asia are more intriguing. Many sites in China, Japan, and the Russian Far East with very early evidence of pottery tend to indicate rather minimal use of a few vessels over many generations, not the kind of sudden ‘explosive’ take-off that might be predicted by the kind of more adaptive argument outlined above. At a more general level, this pattern might be linked to Kuhn and Clark’s observation of how lithic innovations patterns emerge first on a very limited scale, tending to ‘bump along’ for extended periods, followed later by a much wider uptake across populations. This brings us back to the general theme of social learning and cultural transmission in the spread of new traits within and between populations (see above, and Eerkens et al., Part VII). In the case of pottery, these earliest phases of ceramic innovation may have closer links to the prestige technology arguments of Hayden (2009). Here, it is predicted that earliest use of pottery takes place among trans-egalitarian hunter-gatherers, and was linked to the production of desirable substances such as fats, oils, and intoxicants, which were then served within the competitive and politically charged settings of reciprocal feasting rites (see above, and Hayden, this part). To date, these ideas remain as working hypotheses, and more local work is required to explore them further.

More generally, much more empirical work will be required before archaeologists fully understand how and why this important new craft came to be embedded so widely within the lifeways of prehistoric foragers. It will be important to identify the range of foods cooked in these very early vessels (Craig et al. 2013), the specific design features and technical attributes of early pottery, and also the extent to which pots were moved around the landscape by people during the seasonal round, or the degree to which they were made and cached locally. Long assumed to be a Neolithic farmers’ technology, it is now abundantly clear that the invention and earliest use of pottery was a purely hunter-gatherer innovation. Its emergence among prehistoric foragers also marks yet another phase in the cumulative shift towards humanity becoming a fundamentally ‘technological species’.

(p. 596) Coastal Adaptations

In the next chapter, Wickham-Jones examines evidence for the rise of ‘aquatic’ economies among prehistoric hunter-gatherers. As discussed by Hayden, these water-edge adaptations appear to have provided the behavioural contexts in which many other innovations emerged or were elaborated, ranging from the first pottery through to intensifications in the long-term use of mortuary sites (see Nilsson Stutz, this part). Identifying exactly when coastal resources first became of such central important is, however, highly challenging due to the major rises in global sea levels in the later Pleistocene and during the early Holocene. The archaeology of many ancient coastlines, estuaries, and major river systems is now simply under water, and thereby inaccessible to research, adding major preservational bias to the study of early coastal adaptations.

These challenges aside, the emergence of coastal economies appears to follow a similar picture to that of pottery and other hunter-gatherer innovations—there is some initial evidence for very early and perhaps incidental use of aquatic resources in the Palaeolithic, followed by a much wider uptake, which becomes particularly marked in the Mesolithic societies of the earlier Holocene. For example, early coastal sites in the western Mediterranean date back to 200,000 bp; sites in South Africa, where birds, shellfish, and sea mammals were being exploited, date as far back as 100,000 bp. In Australia and Melanesia, similar kinds of evidence extend back to 35,000 years ago. The Palaeolithic colonization of remoter islands provides indirect evidence for the existence of ocean-going watercraft as well.

In contrast, evidence for the first fully adaptive reliance on coastlines appears only around 10,000 years ago (or at least the evidence becomes clearer at this point); that is, at the start of the Holocene. Extensive reliance on coastal resources has yet to be identified prior to this period, though more research will probably push this date backwards in time. Whatever the exact date for the first initiation of this trend towards increasing use of aquatic ecotones, it is clear that by the early Holocene, coastlines, estuaries, large inland lakes, and major river systems were starting to replace the rich parklands of the Upper Palaeolithic as the main epicentres for the development of new kinds of socio-cultural complexity. In the Mesolithic, these dynamics appear to have been underpinned by the dispersal of new technologies such as fishing gear and pottery, which facilitated the extraction and storage of increasingly reliable—and politically controllable—economic surplus from highly productive aquatic ecosystems (see Hayden, this part). In general then, Wickham- Jones notes that the increasing importance of coastal economies facilitated several other coeval developments, including major increases in the concentration of archaeologically ‘visible’ sites, both for routine dwelling, and also for a range of other more ritualized purposes, such as burial sites, which themselves became the focus of long-term elaborations in mortuary activities.

Cosmology and Hunter-Gatherer Mortuary Behaviour

The treatment of the dead (mortuary behaviour) provides archaeologists with important information about how prehistoric communities viewed their place in the world (cosmology). Nilsson Stutz traces the development and elaboration of this kind of cultural behaviour among prehistoric hunter-gatherers. Indeed, acknowledgement of the loss of (p. 597) individuals through death is expressed in specific behaviours in living apes, including chimpanzees, and so this kind of behaviour may have appeared very early within the hominin lineage. However, evidence for a more structured and symbolic treatment of the dead gradually increases in the Middle and especially in the Upper Palaeolithic. In general, Nilsson Stutz argues that these changing trends in mortuary behaviour express a gradual shift away from a more individualistic, emotional response to the death of close kin, towards a set of more culturally learned mortuary practices, which express and reproduce a wider set of cosmological ideas. As with many other innovations reviewed in this part of the handbook, there appears to be a qualitative shift in the Upper Palaeolithic towards a more elaborate set of practices associated with interment of the dead, which becomes much more pronounced in the Mesolithic. Moreover, interment of the dead becomes increasingly associated with particular places in the landscape, whose significance clearly endures over multiple generations. In turn, these developments may be linked to new kinds of territoriality, and the intensification of symbolic attachments to focal places in the landscape. These trends are also global, with clear evidence for elaboration of mortuary activities among Natufian hunter-gatherers of the Near East in the terminal Pleistocene, and further fluorescence in mortuary activities across Siberia (e.g. around Lake Baikal), the Russian Far East, Jomon Japan, in Mesolithic Europe, and beyond. These developments are often associated with a greater reliance on aquatic resources (see Wickham-Jones, this part), and may be associated with the ritual and political dynamics that these new kinds of economic strategy had generated (see Hayden, this part).

Nilsson Stutz also undertakes a deeper review of research into hunter-gatherer mortuary activity in the Baltic region of northern Europe. Here, concentration of burials in one place over time is not an entirely new phenomenon, but the Mesolithic marks an intensification of this trend, and appears to be caught up with increasing population densities, supported by intensive exploitation of aquatic resources. Illustrating this general trend are the world-famous hunter-gatherer burial complexes of Olenii Ostrov in Karelia, Zvejnieki in northern Latvia, Vedbaek and Skateholm in Sweden, and many others (e.g. see Zvelebil 2008 for a comprehensive inventory of Mesolithic cemeteries in northern Europe).

Earlier interpretations of these burial complexes tended to focus on two contrasting themes—for example, the identification of the ‘horizontal’ structuring of hunter-gatherer social relations, such as gender, age groups, and other social identities—but also an interest in understanding the ‘vertical’ structuring of society in terms of ascribed social status, ranking, and emergent social stratification. In fact, research into Baltic mortuary practices was instrumental in the ‘discovery’ of complex hunter-gatherers in the early 1980s (see the main introduction). Later, it became increasing apparent that the prehistoric reality may have been even more intriguing that these basic horizontal/vertical distinctions. O’Shea and Zvelebil (1984), for example, identified that at least seven different independent social variables appeared to have been structuring the materials recovered from graves within the Olenii Ostrov cemetery. Similar insights are now appearing from analysis of the extensive datasets from the Lake Baikal cemeteries (Weber et al. 2010). Both sets of regional insights underline the difficulty in ‘mapping’ relatively straightforward notions of social identity, or relative status, onto cemetery populations. As a result, Nilsson Stutz suggests that these hunter-gatherer ‘cemeteries’ are perhaps better understood as focal points for the performance of elaborate ritual practices associated with the reproduction of prehistoric cosmologies.

(p. 598) Nilsson Stutz argues that the form and content of these practices can best be approached as a kind of social-symbolic ‘language’. This reflects—and also actively expresses—both general understandings of death and ideas about the appropriate treatment of particular deceased individuals. Together, these might require the community to engage in consumption of food and drink at the graveside, produce specific mortuary artefacts to be interred with the corpse, or perhaps undertake other ritualized acts and gestures, such as symbolically shooting the cadaver with arrows after it has been placed in the ground. Importantly, it is this kind of active collective participation in the negotiated performance of ritual practice that sustains more general cosmological ideas about the world, but also generates such variability between different mortuary events, as well as longer-term transformations between generations. Nilsson Stutz argues that when these kinds of theoretical perspectives are creatively combined with detailed archaeological datasets, then the specific form and content of prehistoric world views can be carefully reconstructed. For example, she cites Zvelebil’s (2008) comprehensive analysis of hunter-gatherer world views in the Mesolithic of northern Europe, which integrated interpretations of mortuary data and rock art sites with ethnographic parallels from hunting cultures in Siberia. Clearly, a similar kind of interpretive approach could be expanded to other areas with a rich hunter-gatherer mortuary archaeology, such as Lake Baikal, the Russian Far East, and Jomon Japan—this is certainly a rich direction for future research.

Nilsson Stutz also highlights the importance of new work that examines the role of burial complexes as enduring places within a wider web of interlinked sites that together make up a cultural landscape, and questions whether it remains useful to continue applying the concept of ‘cemeteries’ to the hunter-gatherer archaeological record. This is linked to an equally important question about death and commemoration in Mesolithic societies—if only a very small fraction of the wider prehistoric population were actually interred in such places, how were other individuals treated after death, and how were these other practices linked to the performance and reproduction of prehistoric cosmologies? Members of the wider population may have been subject to other ‘culturally appropriate’ treatments such as boat burials, cremations, and exposure to the elements. Given the overarching emphasis on studying cemetery sites, the circulation and deposition of disarticulated human bones has long been overlooked, but may have been highly significant in expressing deeper notions of kinship, ancestry, and prehistoric personhood (also see Conneller 2006).

Together, these different strategies associated with adjusting to the physical loss of an individual from a living community, as well as in dealing with the inherent materiality of human death, must have constituted a diverse and highly contingent repertoire of mortuary practices that were central to Mesolithic cosmologies. Clearly, much more research will be required before the full significance of these wider practices can be fully apprehended by archaeologists, but the initial results from the Baltic appear highly promising, and underline that similar work could be done in other world regions. Finally, in stepping back from her detailed review of recent work on the Baltic Mesolithic, Nilsson Stutz concludes that there have been some general changes through time in the ways in which hunter-gatherers have treated their dead, but within these broader patterns, perhaps the most important threshold was the emergence of persistent places in the cultural landscape that went on to became the focus of repeated mortuary and commemorative activities over many generations.

(p. 599) Steps Beyond Hunting and Gathering: The Domestication of Plants and Animals

The final chapters in this part focus on the role of prehistoric hunter-gatherers in initiating two crucial innovations in subsistence—the increasing management and cumulative domestication of specific kinds of plants and animals. Together, these changes led to the eventual emergence of agro-pastoral farming economies, whose wider dispersal and relentless uptake triggered the eventual replacement of hunting and gathering as the primary form of human subsistence in almost all areas of the contemporary world.

In reviewing the domestication of plants, Harris argues that the process is both simple and also extremely complex. In a basic sense, hunter-gatherers intervened in the reproduction of wild plants that they procured for food and other uses, and began a process of domestication that led in many parts of the world to agricultural systems that were based on varied assemblages of crops. This profound economic transformation began around 12,000 years ago and resulted in a relentless loss of plant biodiversity, as an ever-expanding human population became increasingly reliant on a food supply drawn from fewer and fewer staples. In this way, prehistoric hunter-gatherers started a process of change that eventually went on to fundamentally reshape human relationships with the natural world.

Harris also notes a more general conceptual problem in studying this process—given the kinds of progressive social evolutionary thinking noted at the start of this chapter, hunter-gatherers, by definition, formed a distinct stage of human existence, and have generally been viewed as being pre-agricultural populations who subsisted on wild resources and made no use of domesticated plants. These assumptions tended to discourage research into the study of domestication as a long-term process of innovation. Understanding these earlier changes is important because they substantially pre-date the eventual dispersal of ‘packages’ of staple framing crops, as well as the initial domestication of individual plant species.

Much foundational research into plant domestication was done by botanists and geneticists, and after the 1950s and 1960s, by environmental archaeologists. By the end of the twentieth century there was a prodigious literature on crop domestications and the origins of plant-based agriculture. Much of this later work highlighted the myriad ways in which ethnographically documented hunter-gatherers actively managed and deliberately manipulated wild plant communities. Similar kinds of intervention by prehistoric hunter-gatherers appear to have resulted in the eventual domestication of wild species, which went on to become staple crops. Although there is now general consensus that prehistoric foragers were developing new kinds of relationships with different species of nuts, roots and tubers, seeds of grasses, and other herbaceous plants (forbs), there is also growing appreciation that this led to a wide range of highly contingent outcomes, ranging from diverse but sustainable strategies of wild plant management, through to intermediate subsistence systems, and only in some cases, to full domestication of staple crops and a deeper reliance on agriculture.

Harris emphasizes the importance of this relentless local variability and contingency in early human–plant relations—globally then, it is essential to grasp that there have been many different prehistoric transitions to agriculture, and that none of them were somehow automatic adjustments, or indeed inevitable outcomes, as social evolutionary thinking might have predicted. In total, there appear to have been about ten different regions in (p. 600) which the wild ancestors of modern staple crops were first domesticated, but even within these regions of early crop use, there are often smaller sub-regions that were the focus of more localized domestication processes; for example, millets were independently domesticated in northern China, and rice in southern China. In other areas, clusters of different crop species were domesticated in tandem. Over time, there also appears to have been a ready exchange in the use of almost all these early domesticates within and between different regions of the Old and New Worlds, adding further local complexity to the wider global process.

The move towards this greater general reliance on domesticated crops was certainly not a rapid shift: different ‘packages’ of crops formed very slowly, with new elements being added episodically, either via new phases of local domestication, or via the introduction of new crops from other areas. In general, this cumulative move towards greater reliance on domesticates tends to be reflected archaeologically in a protracted transition from broad-spectrum foraging, through intermediate subsistence systems, and only then to full reliance on agriculture (see Part V on the persistence of hunting and gathering). It remains a major challenge to track all this archaeobotanically, and much more work will be required before it is possible to understand even the most basic patterns in many regional sequences. Further research is also required to understand the human significance of these major subsistence transformations as they played out in different parts of the world (see Pluciennik and Zvelebil 2008). Beyond the contingency and complexity of these local trajectories of change, the cumulative global pattern is simple: increasing human dependence on an ever-narrower range of domesticated plants to satisfy basic dietary needs for carbohydrates, fats, oils, and other nutrients. This new kind of highly focused economic existence stood in stark contrast to the enormous diversity of plant foods exploited by broad-spectrum hunter-gatherer systems and other intermediate subsistence systems.

How did plant domestication actually come about? Harris highlights active manipulation and intervention by early hunter-gatherers in the life-cycles of plants, often to ensure availability and increase yield. Such strategies may have included burning, tilling, weeding, planting, sowing, irrigation, and drainage. In turn, this direct human intervention must have led—but only in some cases—to morphogenetic domestication of some species, particularly those that were inherently storable, as well as those that responded quickly to such manipulation through substantially greater yields, including grass and forbs seeds, roots, and tubers. Ultimately, only a very narrow range of wild species were ever domesticated, and Harris highlights that this process tended to occur in, and reinforce, the ecological and cultural settings that favoured sedentary rather than seasonally mobile settlement. Thus, it was some 12,000 years ago that our hunter-gatherer ancestors began the first steps along the pathways to plant domestication, generating ‘an innovation of unparalleled magnitude in human history’.

In the final chapter in this part of the handbook, Outram completes exploration of the wider theme by investigating the domestication of animals, and reflects on the role of hunter-gatherer societies in initiating these processes. He notes that animal domestication is both older and also more recent than the domestication of many plant species. The domestication of dogs was clearly a very early hunter-gatherer innovation. In later periods, there may also have been a direct domestication of wild horses by hunter-gatherers in the steppes of Central Asia, which he explores in his central case study. Reindeer also appear to have been independently tamed and domesticated by hunter-gatherers living in several different parts of northern Eurasia, but this complex topic requires much more research.

(p. 601) More generally, Outram concludes that by far the majority of animal domestications post-date plant domestications. Why might this be the case? It may be lack of suitable animal species in many areas, but Outram argues that availability of fodder may also play a crucial role in the timing and onset of the process. Stocks of animal fodder are a common by-product of plant-based agriculture, and the manure produced by the animals that were sustained by this extra plant matter may have then been used to fertilize crops and improve yields. Concurrently, these animals also provided food and other secondary products, such as wool and milk, as well as traction. More generally, animal domestications were also symptomatic of a cultural shift, where greater interest was taken in sustaining the welfare of living animals, rather than in procuring carcasses of dead animals through hunting, especially if the secondary products of captive herds were highly valued. Thus, the initial emergence of plant agriculture may have resulted in widespread land clearance, generating new supplies of fodder that could have been used in some environments to facilitate year-round husbandry of tamed and then fully domesticated livestock. In contrast, such limiting factors may have been absent for control of steppe-adapted horses or the loose husbandry of northern reindeer, and are, of course, irrelevant to the domestication of dogs.

In conclusion, most animal domestications were undertaken by early agriculturalists, through there are some exceptions to this trend. Whatever the exact local sequence, the increasing integration of domesticated plants and animals into early agro-pastoral farming systems went on to have enormous implications for hunter-gatherers worldwide (see Part V).

Conclusion: Innovating Hunter-Gatherers, Local Histories, and Long-Term Outcomes

This introduction started with a brief overview of some of the main theoretical perspectives in hunter-gatherer research, ranging from the different strands of social and (general) neo-evolutionary thinking, the interest in multilinear evolution that was central to Julian Steward’s cultural ecology, through to the historical particularism and cultural relativism of Franz Boas. The legacy of this older work remains central to the study of hunter-gatherers, and all of these theoretical perspectives continue to structure contemporary scholarship and debate. The more recent archaeological materials and interpretations reviewed above—and presented in more detail in the following chapters— also continue to highlight some of the major tensions between these different approaches. Viewed against this theoretical background, they identify remaining gaps in understanding, but also signal new areas for potential integration, where fresh research and synthesis might productively proceed.

The Legacy of Social Evolutionary Thinking

One of the key problems with early social evolutionary thinking—and to a similar extent, some of the later general evolutionary thinking of Childe (1929) and White (1959)—was that (p. 602) hunter-gatherers were regarded as a specific type of society. Generally then, hunter-gatherers were implicitly presented as lacking an internal capacity for innovation and change, until that is, they had ascended towards another economic or technological stage of development. Clearly, based on material reviewed here (and throughout the following chapters), these assumptions can be challenged—in fact, the relentless internal social, political, economic, and technological dynamism of prehistoric hunter-gatherers was a central driving force in some of the most important cultural transformations to affect global humanity. In this way, all chapters in this part of the handbook serve to emphasize the role of prehistoric hunter-gatherers as the ‘great innovators’.

Importantly, the chapters also underline that fundamental changes in human existence were already well underway long before the rise of agro-pastoral farming and the emergence of the ‘Neolithic Revolution’. Clearly, prehistoric hunter-gatherers were not culturally ‘stagnant’ or lacking in capacities for innovation and change—far from it. From the rise of entrenched social inequality, through to the invention of art, pottery, and other new technologies, as well as the establishment of farming economies, prehistoric forager societies were at the forefront of initiating these long-term cultural transformations.

Deeper analysis of the internal dynamics of hunter-gatherer lifeways, especially during the crucial terminal Pleistocene and early Holocene transition, could therefore be argued to represent one of the most fundamentally important periods of human prehistory. Developments in this crucial period certainly exerted a profound influence on later phases of global history, and the legacy of these changes continues to structure human existence through to this day.

Identifying General Patterns in Cultural Evolution

So where do these comprehensive archaeological insights into innovating hunter-gatherers leave social evolutionary thinking? Is it better to adopt a focus on understanding the particularistic features of specific local cultures, as Boas might have advised? Or can ‘stadial’ notions of human development be rehabilitated into contemporary scholarship? One of the key archaeological challenges to cultural relativism and historical particularism (and indeed to post-processual archaeology and its interpretive offspring more generally—see the main introduction) is that there are clearly some very striking general patterns in long-term, cumulative, cultural evolution, though these need not (and should not) necessarily be viewed in terms of ‘progressive’ changes in the older social evolutionary sense.

Evidence of these general patterns being played out in different parts of the globe can also be used to refute the Boasian assumption that all cultures are inherently unique. In a similar vein, when stripped of all their racist implications, the older general schema of prehistoric ‘stadial’ evolution were not empirically ‘wrong’ in their broad outline. For example, there are some common global trends in the main sequences of culture change: key lithic innovations pre-date the rise of pottery, pottery pre-dates farming, and most prehistoric foragers eventually went on to adopt some form of farming in more recent periods. In other words, despite the inherent flaws in early manifestations of social evolutionary thinking, it is clear that hunting and gathering—when viewed narrowly as a form of economic adaptation—were eventually overtaken by the cumulative historical transformations that had been unleashed earlier in prehistory.

(p. 603) Perhaps the main shortcoming in this kind of stadial view of cultural evolution was that foragers were generally denied a capacity for internal change—a flawed assumption that is confronted throughout this part of the handbook. Given this current re-evaluation of archaeological evidence, one of the most fundamentally important thresholds in human cultural development now appears to be the breakdown of an older egalitarian social order, and the rise of trans-egalitarian societies, though this rupture did not correlate with the onset of Neolithic farming economies: the key shift is within the hunter-gatherer mode of existence, and not at the threshold between foraging and farming. Humanity has clearly gone through some broad developmental stages, though older social evolutionary thinkers appear to have placed the boundaries at the ‘wrong’ juncture (though given the contemporary eighteenth- and nineteenth-century obsessions with the moral and economic obligations of farming, enclosure, and landscape improvement, this was perhaps understandable—see Barnard; Pluciennik, Part I). More importantly, this realization renders the renewed study of socio-political dynamics within earlier hunter-gatherer societies all the more important.

Studying Long-Term Process

Identifying the structure and content in such general patterns also opens up the potential for comparative analysis between specific historical contexts, with the higher goal of understanding the particular processes that generate such cultural regularities. For example, a cross-contextual approach to the study of this patterning indicates that early hunter-gatherer societies—from the Baltic, through to the Near East, Siberia, Japan, and well beyond—were all starting to exhibit similar sets of traits that reflected growing differentiation in personal wealth and status, increasing storage, and politicized control of resources, from the Upper Palaeolithic through to the early Holocene. Of course, the specific cultural details varied enormously between these regions, but this general pattern remains fast, and demands an explanation.

How best to develop this kind of enquiry? A second important point is that these general patterns were not evident in all areas of the prehistoric world. They are highly concentrated in certain, highly productive environments, such as glacial parklands during the Palaeolithic, and later, in rich aquatic ecosystems during the Mesolithic. One of the key insights from Steward’s cultural ecology was that local adaptations are highly contingent, but that different environments can shape the general direction of different trajectories of development. This seems to be the case here—understanding the impacts of human–environment relations is important, and adds a further analytical dimension to much of the patterning that has been noted above, whether in the rise of social complexity, the emergence of pottery, or initial steps towards domestication, especially of plants. All develop in settings with very similar sets of environmental characteristics but, equally, tend to be absent in more marginal ecosystems.

Clearly, environmental factors appear to structure many of the broader patterns of cultural innovation, affording complex local intersections of opportunity and also constraint, especially during phases of major climate change. This is not about asserting simplistic environmental determinism, but something more subtle and pervasive. The economies and communities that became established in these kinds of highly productive ecosystems did (p. 604) appear to generate dense seasonal concentrations of people, intensive patterns of interaction, and new kinds of politicized activity, all of which become central themes in the rise of almost all the innovations explored throughout this part of the handbook.

Understanding Hunter-Gatherer ‘Agency’

One of the key problems with cultural ecology was that it tended to focus on group-level patterns of adaptation; that is, it tended to view populations as being in equilibrium with their environments and local resources (see the main introduction). Often absent from this kind of study was the role of individuals in generating new patterns of behaviour. It is here that Hayden makes an important step by situating a sense of ‘agency’ between communities and their resources, thereby attempting to explain long-term change, and not just to describe basic patterns of adaptation. In his analysis, it is the highly visible strategizing of ‘aggrandizer’ individuals that appears to take cumulative developments into new directions, but these strategies only work in the context of rich ecosystems, where there are abundant resources. They are also historically contingent upon the groups possessing the required technologies to sustain surplus production over the longer term. Hayden’s approach therefore represents a fusion of some of the key ideas in cultural ecology, along with a more resolute concern with the political economy of feasting and the impacts of aggrandizing behaviours in small-scale societies. Hayden terms this approach ‘political ecology’, and in his analysis of the emergence of trans-egalitarian societies, it is persuasive, though its links to other kinds of cultural innovation remain less clearly articulated.

Other authors also consider the role of ‘agency’ in generating long-term change, but adopt a slightly different, albeit complementary, focus. For Hommel, this involves understanding localized cultural choices in the uptake and modification of new technological traditions, though not necessarily by ‘aggrandizers’, but by individuals in the wider community. Nilsson Stutz adopts an even broader treatment of agency in generating both localized variability and also long-term change, and views Mesolithic mortuary practices as a set of contingent performances associated with ensuring the appropriate treatment of specific individuals and their material residues. These individual events must have been negotiated and highly improvised activities, at times perhaps dominated by the narrow concerns of some individual strategists in hosting ancestral feasts for political gain, but also motivated by more humble concerns generated by the need to grieve, and also to adjust to the loss and departure of a valued (or perhaps despised) member of the community. All of this creativity and cultural pragmatism builds on older traditions and stocks of knowledge, and thereby feeds into larger patterns of long-term transformation. History is therefore a cumulative process—many technological innovations also relied on older insights, skills, and understandings, the fusion of these generating new phases of development. The emergence of pottery through integration of older ‘soft’ container technologies and the knowledge of how to fire clay is a good example of this. It is also clear from many chapters that such a diverse suite of innovations (in stone tool types, pottery, plant and animal domestications) could only spread within specific kinds of historically contingent social networks. As a result, understanding human agency also involves the study of specific social learning processes, which go on to structure the long-term dynamics of cultural transmission, a general theme also considered by Eerkens et al. in the Part VII.

(p. 605) Perhaps most importantly in the study of hunter-gatherer agency, it is clear from the case studies that individuals and communities would not necessarily have fully understood or foreseen the long-term implications of the minor shifts in their local routines or the pursuit of specific personal or political goals. Probably the best illustration of this is the domestication of plants discussed by Harris—minimal daily or seasonal adjustments and interventions in the life-cycles of wild plant communities eventually went on to have outcomes of global importance, though none of the individuals involved in the early stages of this process could have known or anticipated this.

Understanding exactly how these types of highly localized and contingent adjustments lead to long-term culture change brings the discussion back to the importance of developing particularistic—though not necessarily culturally relativistic—insights into local contexts and sequences. At the same time, they also highlight the importance of maintaining a comparative perspective and an appreciation of long-term and global patterns in cultural evolution (see Cannon, Part I).

Further work on the prehistory of all these hunter-gatherer innovations should therefore engage creatively with the challenges of balancing analytical scale with questions of long-term cultural process, as well as maintain a concern with understanding the intersections between situated social action and wider environmental contexts. Older traditions of hunter-gatherer research continue to provide useful concepts to work with, but much new analysis remains to be done. In conclusion then, relentless innovation is one of the absolutely definitive features of prehistoric hunter-gatherer lifeways, but to fully understand these processes and their cumulative outcomes, it is important to situate these dynamics back within localized historical trajectories in order to fully understand their context of operation.


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