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Lewis Binford and the Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherers: Questioning Some of His “Law-Like” Generalizations

Friday 6 March 2020
Van Steenis
Einsteinweg 2
2333 CC Leiden

Lewis Binford had a huge impact in the 1970s-1980s on Paleolithic archaeology, and his influence is still very pervasive today. He had a phenomenal talent for seeing patterns—most often ones that he discerned in the ethnographic or ethnohistoric realm—which he then projected into the Paleolithic record expressed in the form of “law-like generalizations.” His concept of “embedded lithic procurement” is a classic case in point: “…raw materials used in the manufacture of implements are normally obtained incidentally to the execution of basic subsistence tasks.

Put another way, procurement of raw materials is embedded in basic subsistence schedules. Very rarely, and then only when things have gone wrong, does one go out into the environment for the express and exclusive purpose of obtaining raw material for tools” (1979). This concept has achieved the status of gospel in Paleolithic stone tool studies, and serves today as the standard basis for identifying annual foraging ranges in the Paleolithic record.

Paleolithic archaeologists treat embedded procurement as though it is an established fact or truth, even though (1) it was based on only two weeks of superficial observation among the Alyawara in Australia in 1974; (2) the idea was immediately rejected by a number of leading Australian ethnologists; (3) it has almost no support beyond Binford's 1974 observations anywhere on the globe in the ethnographic or ethnohistoric realm, while direct procurement of toolstone by special task groups is far more widely documented; and (4) it has almost never been seriously questioned over the intervening decades by Paleolithic archaeologists. Binford’s concept of logistical mobility is equally suspect, as is the putative link between bifacial technology and mobility. In this talk, I will examine several of Binford’s law-like generalizations, suggest reasons why they are problematic, and underscore the need for Paleolithic archaeologists, on their own, to turn to the ethnographic and ethnohistoric realm, the place where Binford’s generalizations arose, and begin to critically reevaluate some of these “gospels according to Saint Binford.”

After this lecture, John D. Speth will deliver the Faculty Lecture.

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