Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?

An interesting article here from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In short, archaeologists working in Australia are questioning whether reconstructions based on studies of modern aborigines are really applicable to people living on the continent tens of thousands of years ago.

Ethnographic parallels are used all the time in archaeology. Few archaeologists were raised in agrarian or pastoral societies with low technology, so studying traditional societies is a good way to learn about aspects of pre-modern life that we otherwise would remain ignorant of. Anthropological study can also tell us much about the relationships between people and the objects they use that otherwise would be impossible to reconstruct from the archaeological record.

But how reliable is this methodology? Australia would seem to be an ideal case for its application. After all, when Europeans first discovered the continent, the inhabitants were living in a manner that seemed particularly 'primitive,' with no agriculture (with a few exceptions), use of metals, or permanent architecture. They also had a cultural memory that, in their belief, stretched back millennia. On the other hand, human cultures are never really static, nor has the environment of Australia remained unchanged for 40,000+ years. Of course, "change" is a relative term -- particularly given the rapid rate of cultural and technological change in the developed world. I invite any readers to share their thoughts in the comments.

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