How good was the social life of the Palaeolithic?

The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe
March 2, 2001

As one archaeologist famously observed, later prehistorians have no hesitation in exploring the social relations of humans with each other, but Palaeolithic specialists instead study human ecological relations with hazelnuts. This reticence is surprising, given that the Palaeolithic saw the evolution of the human brain to its present form; the colonisation of much of the Old and part of the New Worlds by archaic human species; the rise and spread of Homo sapiens ; and many of the innovations we regard as characteristic of our species. As Clive Gamble notes, the few attempts at an explicitly social archaeology of the Palaeolithic have had little success, foundering "on the rocks of the earlier Palaeolithic".

Gamble attempts to redress this imbalance, challenging "the established view that the social life of Europeans over the 500,000 years of the European Palaeolithic must remain a mystery". The result is a weighty mustering and interpretation of the European Palaeolithic database. Archaeologists might be forgiven for thinking it is an updated version of Gamble's Palaeolithic Settlement of Europe (1986); it is not simply that. Three initial chapters discuss the history of social interpretation in Palaeolithic studies; problematise the role of the individual in society; and provide the fluctuating environmental framework against which Palaeolithic societies must be seen. Four subsequent chapters interpret the Palaeolithic record in social terms, using a vocabulary and methodology that Gamble has generated from primatological, ethnological and sociological studies.

Are such aims plausible when all one has at one's disposal are the stones and bones discarded by remote human societies? Gamble points to characteristic archaeological patterns across Europe that have been reproduced enough over the past century and more, to provide a convincingly robust platform for his particular reading of the data. Over the past decade and a half, archaeologists working with later prehistory and historical periods have attempted social archaeologies of the individual, and in this context Palaeolithic Societies represents the logical extension of such endeavours into the mists of the earlier Stone Age.

Gamble's working model of social organisation also follows current trends. He abandons a "top down" or "architectural" view of society in which individuals are seen as occupying a pre-constructed "building" of society and are recognised by their institutional roles within it. This is at least Gamble's unfair caricature, and he gives it too little critical evaluation to get to the thick of his preferred model, a "bottom up" view of society, in which individuals negotiate their relationships with each other, and from which society is generated "upwards".

The bulk of the book concerns Gamble's reading of half a million years of the European Palaeolithic. Although archaeologists cannot agree when Europe was first colonised by humans, they are united in believing it was late in comparison with other regions of the Old World. For Gamble this was facilitated by changes in the social lives of early humans, who utilised generic skills dealing with attachment to certain places and attention to individuals. For these societies the body was the prime resource for social interaction, and intimate social networks that grooming negotiated formed the context for the transmission of the technological processes that formed the mainstay of their survival strategies.

Life was local, with little formal structure evident at camps. But from 300,000 years ago, Gamble sees the rise of more socially complex societies. In these, the raw materials used to make tools begin to travel further, indicating to Gamble that social networks had widened. He suggests that objects began to have a social value; thus, "the objects individuals produced now carried the potential to represent the act". Neanderthal specialists might wonder how the generalised tool forms could have had more social value than the symmetrical hand axes made at Boxgrove, Sussex over 200,000 years earlier. In addition, the generalised and repetitive nature of Neanderthal stone-tool technology makes me disagree with Gamble's contention that "in this period there was no separation between object and person".

The book's final two chapters deal with the extinction of the last archaic humans -the Neanderthals - and the rise and spread of our own species: two events which may have been inter-related. This is arguably the strongest part of the book. Gamble suggests that Homo sapiens for the first time organised society on a truly extensive scale, employing the production and circulation of material culture to facilitate this. This is not surprising, given that modern human culture from around 35,000 years ago contains more robust phenomena such as deliberate burial and art, which may convincingly be said to have a social aspect.

This is recommended reading for students and scholars of all levels. But it is not a textbook; its agenda is to suggest a shift of paradigm to a social Palaeolithic. I am not convinced. The question remains whether we can do more with the Palaeolithic record than "just talking about calories and tool maintenance". The strength of the book lies in its challenge to what we can do with the Palaeolithic record, rather than the specific social model that it proposes.

Paul Pettitt is research fellow and tutor in archaeology and anthropology, Keble College, Oxford.

The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe

Author - Clive Gamble
ISBN - 0 521 65105 0 and 0 521 65872 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £65.00 and £23.95
Pages - 505

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