Relational Approaches to Past Hunter-Gatherer Worlds

Posted on April 8, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference, but this time – 2018’s:

Session Info

Over the past few decades there has been a shift in the way hunter-gatherer worlds have been studied. Whereas research throughout much of the 20th Century had an explicitly anthropocentric focus, concentrating on the economic relationship between humans and aspects of their environments, more recent work has considered the social interactions between hunter-gatherers and different species of plants and animals. Many of these studies have been influenced by anthropological accounts of animist ontologies amongst hunter-gatherer societies, where animals, plants and other aspects of the ‘natural world’ can be considered as persons capable of complex social interactions with humans and each other. Recently, however, aspects of archaeological theory have also begun to consider the relationships between human and non-human actors on a more equal footing, challenging the traditional anthropocentric perspective that has dominated our discipline.

The challenge facing the archaeological study of past hunter-gatherer societies is how to ground such ‘animist’ or ‘relational approaches’ firmly in the material evidence available to us rather than relying solely on ethnographic observations or abstract archaeological theory. To this end we invite contributions which seek to address this issues, and that take a relational view of past hunter-gatherer worlds based upon detailed studies of archaeological data sets.

Amy Gray Jones (University of Chester)

Nick Overton (University of Manchester)

Barry Taylor (University of Chester)

Introduction: A Relational Retrospective

In the past decade, archaeological studies of hunter-gatherers have increasingly challenged the applicability of modern Western worldviews within interpretive frameworks, and examined the role interactions and relationships with ‘nonhuman’ elements of their worlds may have played in structuring daily life. Studies have examined the potentially active roles animals, plants, landscape, materials and objects may have had in in hunter-gatherer lives, and how meaningful relationships with specific ‘nonhuman’ agents had the potential to greatly shape human actions, and the archaeological record. However, these studies have emerged under a number of different banners, including Anthrozoology, Symmetrical Archaeology, Relational Ecology, Social Zooarchaeology, Multispecies Archaeologies and Relational Archaeologies. This introduction will review these approaches, before turning to consider the potential for established a united banner under which hunter-gatherer interactions with nonhuman elements of their world can be examined through a ‘relational toolkit’, and some of the challenges such a project may face.

Amy Gray Jones (University of Chester), Nick Overton (University of Manchester) and Barry Taylor (University of Chester)

More than a Bead: A Relational Approach for Studying Palaeolithic Personal Ornaments

Palaeolithic personal ornaments are perceived as elusive objects, with debates surrounding whether they represent status, ‘symbolic’ behaviours, communication mechanisms, or merely embellishments. Fundamentally, these debates are limited by perceiving personal ornaments as static and isolated from hunter-gatherer lifeways. Recent relational theories surrounding extensions of the self (Malafouris 2004; 2008a; 2008b), human-thing entanglement (Hodder 2011; 2012; 2014; 2016) and meshworks (Ingold 2008; 2010; 2012) challenge this perception. These are influenced by anthropological and psychology analogies, but lack grounding in archaeological evidence. This research addresses these issues through developing a grounded relational approach which fully integrates different analogical, theoretical, and material-orientated approaches. This approach demonstrates these objects actively negotiate object-human-animal-landscape relations, and thus are intimately interwoven within the social fabric of past hunter-gatherer societies. This talk will present the approach and discuss its implications for perceiving personal ornaments as much more than just ‘a bead’, but relational agents within Palaeolithic social worlds

Izzy Wisher (University of York)

Relationality and Early Hominin Hunter-Gatherer Worlds: A Relational Exploration of Neanderthal Art

Relational archaeology is well established in exploring relations between humans (sensu stricto), animals, plants, and objects, particularly over the last 200,000 years. However, it is rarely if ever applied to early hominin species, who practiced different hunting and gathering lifeways for millions of years. Early hominins are liminal: not human, yet not-not human. However, they were certainly hunter-gatherers (sensu lato), making for a fascinating research landscape in which to explore relational archaeologies.The 21stcentury has seen a proliferation of publications detailing Neanderthal art objects. However, such objects are limited to being enlisted as evidence of symbolism or cognitive complexity. The richness of a relational approach is lacking. In this paper I experiment with a relational framework
8to explore Neanderthal art anew, using it to understand Neanderthal use of animal materials and as a window into the interspecies interactions these objects might have mediated, hinting at complex Neanderthal-animal-object relations.

Andy Needham (University of York)

Once Upon a Time in the Arctic: Object Itineraries and Social Relations as seen through Palaeo-Inuit Metal Use (AD 500–1300)

One of the first groups in the Eastern North American Arctic to widely use and exchange metal are known to archaeologists as Late Dorset (AD 500–1300). Paradoxically, metal remains rare in LateDorset archaeological collections. By examining the organic objects that may have supported metal blades, this paper will present proxy data for metal use from Late Dorset sites across the Arctic. Moreover, this paper will use these data to explore the ways archaeologically immaterial metal was mobilised to enchain social relations of the Late Dorset through space and, importantly, time. The constrained source regions for Arctic metal (northern Greenland and the Central Arctic) make it an ideal candidate for disentangling Arctic Human-Thing relations and the evolving itinerary of individual metal objects as they travel between regions, generations, and peoples. Ultimately, metal exchange may have been a means for the Late Dorset to create and maintain socio-cultural relations in a vast and sometimes isolating landscape such as the Arctic.

Patrick C. Jolicoeur (University of Glasgow)

Exploring a Relational Approach to Mesolithic Fishing

The sociality inherent in human-animal relationships is currently being addressed in hunter-gatherer archaeology, but social zooarchaeology and multispecies archaeology have thus far privileged the furry and feathery animals in their case-studies. In this presentation, fishbone, fishing gear and rock art imagery of halibut and halibut-fishing forms the empirical basis for exploring a relational approach to human-fish encounters in late Mesolithic Norway (6300–3800 cal. BC). Fish contributed considerably to Mesolithic subsistence in this region, but has been given little attention beyond its economic importance. A relational ideal-model is here suggested as a viable alternative to optimizing models.Such models have been considered problematic and the use of ethnographic analogy has been rejected by many Mesolithic scholars, who emphasize variability andthe unique potentials of the archaeological record.This paper arguesthat generalizing is unavoidable when addressing prehistoric sociality, and further maintains that ontological stability is fundamentally important for understanding past hunter-gatherer engagements with non-humans.

Anja Mansrud (Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo)

Mutual Becomings in Life and Death: Human and Non-Human Animals in the Mesolithic Danube Gorges

The post-Cartesian ‘Animal Turn’ marked a shift from anthropocentric attitudes to non-human animals as economic or symbolic resources to be exploited, to new understanding of interspecies relations as mutually impactful and inherently social. Borrowing heavily from ethology and relational ontologies, these approaches bear important implications for studies of prehistory and cultural contexts where hunting and fishing afforded particular forms of interspecies interaction. In this paper, I focus on disintegrated and reassembled human and animal bodies in the context of Mesolithic Danube Gorges, and insights they offer into new kinds of entities emerging post-mortem. However, even if death remains materialized and consequently more visible in the archaeological record, it is far from being the only event in human and non-human histories of engagement. The paper therefore considers not only structurally deposited animal remains, but also living animals as subjects and agents in shaping worlds populated by a multitude of beings.

Ivana Živaljević (BioSense Institute, University of Novi Sad)

Hunting Aurochs and the Making of a Significant Place

At Langley’s Lane, Bath and North-East Somerset, an aurochs was killed and primary butchery activities carried out at an active tufa spring. Some of the bones and butchery tools were deposited into the spring waters. Shallow pits were dug at the wetland edge and flint knapped. Later, as the spring became less active, faunal remains and lithics were again placed in its waters. Eventually, the spring dried up, its
9location now marked by a low white mound of tufa. Visits continued and a large pit was dug at the edge of this mound, a small stone platform laid, flint knapped and aurochs consumed.A relational framework incorporating animals, humans, substances and elements will be used to explore why this place retained such an enduring significance that extended over two thousand years.

Caroline Rosen (University of Worcester) and Jodie Lewis (University of Worcester)

Animism and Patterns of Economic Activity in the European Mesolithic

Ethnographic accounts of historic and contemporary hunter-gatherers show that economic decisions are often structured by cultural attitudes towards particular animals, plants, and places. These are underpinned by animist ontologies where entities other than humans are considered to be sentient and self-aware. Interactions between humans and these other-than-human persons are often articulated through prescribed forms of activity, including the careful treatment of animal and plant remains, the use or avoidance of particular places, and set ways of moving through the landscape. Drawing on data from across northwest Europe this paper argues that comparable sets of beliefs also structured patterns of economic activity, settlement, and mobility in the European Mesolithic, and that these can be identified though the analysis of artefact and faunal assemblages, and palaeoecological analysis.

Barry Taylor (University of Chester), Amy Gray Jones (University of Chester) and Nick Overton (University of Manchester)

When the Virtual becomes Actual: Indigenous Ontologies within Immersive Reality Environments

This paper considers the emergence of virtual reality (VR), charting the creation of new potentialities cutting across archaeological, computing, and indigenous ontologies. The increasing use of VR to create immersive environments in cultural heritage and archaeological sectors calls into question how differing ontologies—understood through differing relationalities across human and non-human kinds—interplay within such newly created experiential platforms. We argue that the immersive platforms are not just simulacra of the archaeological sites, but are novel and new entities in and of themselves. This occurs through a recombination and reappraisal of divergent ontologies; these new entities emerge in the process of questioning the analytics of animacy, vitality, and agency as experienced through new spatial and, with the diffusion of such technology, social relations. Here, we outline this process through exploring a newly created VR environment of a magnificent hunter-gatherer rock art site in Southern California. We then move to consider how new immersive entities create a space through which new ontological relations can be actualized.

David Robinson (University of Central Lancashire), Colin Rosemont (University of Oregon), Devlin Gandy (University of Cambridge) and Brendan Cassidy (University of Central Lancashire)

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