Archaeological theory: progressive-evolutionary and scientific evolutionary

Addressing the question of culture change, the progressive-evolutionary approach interpreted archaeological data within schemes that have dominated much of anthropology. These schemes placed cultures on a scale of linear, progressive development from “primitive” to “sophisticated”, or “savage” to “civilized”, with the culture from which the interpreter came usually seen as the apex of evolution. A certain teleological movement of the world and of societies is assumed with values assigned to the various stages of progress. More modern nomenclature has assigned terms that are not as value-laden, such as the stages of band, tribe, chiefdom and state. Many studies of state formation or debates on whether archaeological remains accord better with those of a chiefdom or of a state are based on this approach. While it may be popular in a world in which the myth of progress is pervasive, the progressive-evolutionary approach is at best a mistranslation of space into time. It can distort the interpretation of the archaeological record by not recognizing the particularity of a time and place and imposing a foreign scheme on it.
The approach also included ethnographical analogy and a comparison between different cultures. I think that those tools can aid in the interpretation of archaeological data and history writing, but that they require a different theoretical base than that provided by progressive-evolutionary anthropology.

While the progressive-evolutionary approach had its roots in a wider anthropological context, evolutionary archaeology is focused on archaeology and the explanation of artefacts. It does not share the concept of progress, instead concentrating on change in the archaeological record. Like processual archaeology, it seeks to make archaeology more scientific, but applies scientific principles more rigorously to its theoretical underpinning. It is the application of the new synthesis of (biological) evolutionary theory to archaeological data. It explains artefacts through the notion of descent with modification. While it sees archaeology as a historical science, including time in its explanations, it rejects any association with history, because history is seen as a retelling of the past in contemporary language, while archaeology should be scientific and provide an objective explanation of artefacts independent of the scholar or audience. While it sees artefacts as the products of a culture and therefore can make limited deductions about the culture that produced them, it does not attempt to relate artefacts back to people or lifeways. This would require the use of inferences and the move beyond strictly scientific method. Evolutionary archaeologists aim to explain variation in the physical and relative spatial characteristics of artefacts and archaeological features, not the past as such.

Evolutionary archaeology arrives at explanation deductively through the testing of hypotheses based on its overall theory of evolution as applied to cultural artefacts. Rejecting the artefact types established by culture history, classes are defined through paradigmatic classification. Data are collected and classes are established based on the defined problem. While the adherence to theory among evolutionary archaeologists is admirable, it does not lead to a better knowledge of the past, but rather to irrelevant explanations within that particular theory. Evolutionary archaeology is an example of the extreme results that are reached if scientific theory is rigorously applied in a discipline to which it is not suited. The illusion of its practitioners of providing objective explanations through such an approach makes them blind to the many interpretive choices and subjective influences present in any knowledge, and particularly in archaeology.

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