December 1, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Archaeology Is Hindered by Evolutionary Assumptions

Why was a complex village uncovered in Uruguay called “unexpected”?  Peter W. Stahl (anthropology, Binghamtom U.) asks the question in the Dec. 2 issue of Nature:1

Evidence of unexpected complexity in an ancient community in Uruguay is a further blow to the conventional view of prehistoric development in marginal areas of lowland South America.
    Archaeological research often reveals unexpected results.  This is common in South America, especially when archaeologists venture off the beaten track to explore unfamiliar areas.  However, our surprise is also a product of our preconceptions.  Recent work in the lowlands of tropical South America clearly bears this out, with discoveries of prehistoric complexity in unforeseen places and/or times.  On page 614 of this issue, Iriarte et al. present another example of precocious development in a hitherto little-explored and under-appreciated area.  The authors refer humbly to their results as unexpected; but given the profusion of surprises elsewhere, why would they be unexpected in the first place?

The answer is that for over 60 years, archaeologists have been taught to think certain ways about marginal areas and primitive peoples.  They have been taught an “now-outmoded belief in cultural evolution, culture areas and trait diffusion; environmental determinism; a sketchy archaeological record; and an underestimation of the effects of European conquest on native populations,” Stahl claims.  Authorities like Julian Steward inculcated notions of slow urban development gradually creeping to outlying areas, and ‘traditional Indians’ living out their simple lives, surviving “relatively unchanged since deep time.”  Stahl takes issue with this, noting the number of contradictions with the evidence.  “Although few would buy into these ideas today,” he says, “Steward’s culture history has had an enormous impact on archaeological interpretation, both academic and popular.
    It’s hard to dislodge old myths.  Stahl is not surprised by the complexity of outlying villages, like the one by Iriarte et al. that showed:

a large formal village plan, consisting of mound and plaza features, at a time (more than 4,000 years ago) and in a place where conventional wisdom would not have expected them to exist.  Moreover, subsequent occupation, intentional remodelling, settlement planning and village size indicate both a permanence and a density of population previously unthought of for this area.  Innovative analyses of plant microfossils and starch grains extracted from stone tools yield evidence for the early exploitation of maize, squash, beans and root crops in an area that was long considered non-agricultural, at least for prehistoric populations.

It appears these people were doing what humans have always done: applying their brains and intentions to organize their lives with intelligence and skill.  This example “not only rejects much of the interpretational baggage carried by generations of archaeologists, but also exposes the potential for prehistoric culture in grasslands and wetlands, which were historically viewed as marginal areas,” he says.  In conclusion, he preaches, “Marginality and atrophied development are part of a flawed historic perspective.  Our expectations for indigenous achievements should be greater.


1Peter W. Stahl, “Archaeology: Greater expectations,” Nature 432, 561 – 562 (02 December 2004); doi:10.1038/432561a.

Who gave the scientific world an image of primitive man evolving in marginal areas, living hand to mouth with very slow cultural evolution?  Who portrayed the relatively recent cities as the places where the lights of humanity first went on, and progress slowly spread into the outlying areas?  Was it not the Darwinists in Victorian Britain, who tended to view themselves as the intellectually superior race?  The history of Darwinian racism and treatment of indigenous peoples is a shameful lesson that has no justification today, as Stahl points out.
    In contrast, Biblical creationists would see man as always fully man, endowed from the beginning with free will, language, culture and intelligence.  People groups spread rapidly over the globe after the flood, carrying a good deal of cultural memory with them.  Just because they didn’t always make pottery does not mean they weren’t good farmers or knew how to build complex villages.  Creationists would see a gradual degradation of ability because of sin, with occasional collective rises and falls of civilizations; there is also the counteracting tendency for technological knowledge to increase and accumulate over time.  Overall, creationists have greater expectations about indigenous achievements, and therefore are not surprised to find complexity in human cultures from the earliest times.  And that is exactly what archaeology shows: man is always fully man, capable of remarkable achievements, but needing salvation and escape from the “flawed historical perspective” of false teachers.

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Categories: Early Man

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