I’ve finally got my hands on ‘Prehistory and Post-Positivist Science: A Prolegomenon to Cognitive Archaeology’ by David Whitely this week, and I wish I read it much sooner. It would have been fun on my MPhil course where much of the debate seemed to be about the great divide between Processual and Post-Processual archaeologies. I found that unsatisfying because the approaches I was interested in were those which were crossing between scientific and historical approaches. It seems I wasn’t the only one and David Whitley had been there earlier and written about it.
Whitley’s paper is interesting because he hits the gap between the empiricists and relativists in the centre. In doing so he argues that cognitive archaeology need not be subjective and relativist, that you can study it scientifically. Equally he shows that the abstract structures which processualists study, such as economic systems, are no more real that the ideas which cognitive archaeologists seek to study.
The examples he uses are studies of rock art. A lot of the material is African rock art which is a weak spot for me. He shows that analogical reasoning can be used to interpret Iron Age rock art, despite the fact that the people who created it were dead. This should be no great shakes to processualists or post-processualists who are happy using ethnographies for analogies. From this he moves to Palaeolithic European Rock Art, which is another weak spot for me, but perhaps fractionally less so. Here he cites work by Lewis-Williams and Dowson who show that there are cross-cultural similarities between peoples under the effect of hallucinatory drugs, and then go on to argue that the biological similarity of humans means that the same analogy can be applied back into the Palaeolithic. It means that a gap of 30,000 years of time doesn’t have to be pure guesswork. It’s bridged by ethnography and neuropsychology which lead to the same conclusion.
This justifies a provocative statement he makes, which is highly important in his other case study. After citing someone who is cautious of interpreting a rock art site because the site is a couple of centuries older than the historical record he notes:
My contention here is with the logic by which it is assumed that, since 200 years have passed, change has necessarily occurred, as if time itself was the cause of change. This, in other words, is a gradualist doctrine which mistakenly confuses the fact that because change occurs over time, time is somehow causally implicated in change.
He gives a couple of example citations I’ll need to follow up, because while he is literally right I’m not sure if it matters.
I would argue change is inevitable through errors in replication of culture. This may be in education of the next generation, or it may be a case of mis-remembering and so accidentally innovating. Add in the fact that people are reacting to a dynamic social environment anyway, and in reacting changing that same environment for other people, and change with time seems extremely difficult to avoid. I’m not sure if that negates his point or not. He argues that the process of change needs to be justified and in the light of evidence showing that things such as ritual are extremely resistant to change, change cannot be assumed and a mechanism has to be shown, By showing a mechanism I don’t prove him wrong as such, but from my point of view stasis is the anomaly which needs to be explained.
His other example does this admirably. It’s his own work on the Coso Range in California and shows what a huge problem lack of change is. Settlement in the Coso Range appears to have stabilised between 3,000 to 2,000 BC, and nothing much changed until the historical period. Settlement patterns remained the same despite changes in environmental conditions, and the changes observed in other peoples in the western Great Basin. He uses the rock art of the region, which is anomalous as the key to understanding the society. Because he rules out change as a necessity, he can use ethnographic interpretations of the rock art to build his model of society. For Whitley hunting in this region is closely related to shamanism, and prowess in shamanism was used to account for success in hunting and then in society. The shamanistic power structure was therefore self-reinforcing. It’s an interesting idea because his ethnographies are not merely applied to the rock art he’s been studying but also the society as a whole. The rock art is a trace of the worldview of the Coso peoples who observed their cosmos through the filter of their shamanistic beliefs. The mechanics of the world were buried beneath these beliefs and so it is only through cognition that the stability of the society can be explained.
I don’t disagree with this interpretation, I’m not sure to what extent it is post-positivist, relying as heavily as it does on ethnographic interpretation. Instead I’d argue his two examples compliment each other to show that cognitive archaeology can draw on scientific and historical methods and need not be hostile to either.
It is heavy going. His paper ‘Issues in Archaeoastronomy and Rock Art’ in the recent Oxford proceedings is much more accessible, but not as in depth. Putting the two together it’s clear his view of post-positivism isn’t just a conjecture he’s pulled from the air, but grounded in observation of archaeologists and current (or at least 20 year old) philosophical debate. I’ve got his new book on the archaeology of religion on order, so I’ll be really interested to see what that is like.
Photo Hand Prints (cc) Xipe Totec39.