The Mother of Invention

We’ve been trained and taught to think that tools and our dependence on material culture stems from a fundamental need for them in order to survive. This perspective fails to recognize other factors that influence tool use, creating a misleading picture when applied to the material aspects of culture. Recent studies challenge this idea that we depend on tools for survival. Dr. Kathelijne Koops of the University of Cambridge, Elisabetta Visalberghi, and Carel van Schaik challenge the assumption that necessity and survival are the “mothers of invention.” She and her colleagues argue that research into tool use by primates should look at the opportunities for tool use provided by the local environment.

Chimpanzee using a stone to crack open a nut

Chimpanzee using a stone to crack open a nut

Dr. Koops, Visalberghi, and van Schaik conducted studies of tool use amongst chimpanzees, orangutans, and bearded capuchins. The studies revealed that their tool use didn’t increase during times of scarcity, but rather tools were used when there were hard to reach and calorie rich foods available in the environment. This reveal challenges the held notion that necessity and survival governs the development and use of tools. Koops comments, “Our study suggests that published research on primate cultures, which depend on the ‘method of exclusion’, may well underestimate the cultural repertoires of primates in the wild, perhaps by a wide margin.” Their studies explain that opportunity, not necessity, governs tool use. This explicitly recognizes how the environment and landscape are influences on material culture. The previous model that defined tool use based on necessity illustrates tool usage solely dependent on survival, whereas this new model illustrates tool usage dependent on the environment and what the environment is offering the user.

This new model employs historical ecology, the anthropological paradigm that traces the dialectic relationship between human actions and nature. Using the historic-ecological perspective, it is established that the landscape retains the physical evidence of mental activities. In this case, the landscape retains the physical evidence of the development of material culture. Understanding tool usage in this way encourages us to view the environment as people centered, not environment centered. In viewing the environment as a landscape as opposed to an ecosystem, Dr. Koops, Visalberghi, and van Schaik recognize the dialectic relationship between nature and human behavior and how little or minor activities have major, lasting impacts on landscapes.

Their research can also help explain the development of tool use by ancient humans. Once we better understand tool use by ancient humans we can then focus on ways to encourage sustainable tool use by future users. Dr. Koops, Visalberghi, and van Schaik’s research can be applied to modern problems: by studying how primates use tools, it tells us how humans of the past have developed material culture and technology, and by finding the patterns of the past, we can apply them to the present. Their research can be used to find new ways of production, methods, practices, etc. for tool use that support a global effort towards sustainability.

Sources Used:

Sabloff, Jeremy A. “Chapter Three: How Can the Prospects for a Sustainable World Be Improved?” Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2008. Print.



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How far will human denial go?

Shored Up identifies the increasing crises of global climate change and sea level rise, and the equal threat of our society’s inability to recognize and react appropriately to such crises. People are attracted to water, so coastlines have become a prime source for development. Time and time again, as disasters strike coasts and nearly wash them clean, people run back to rebuild their homes. An example the documentary mentions is Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Long Island is extremely vulnerable to storms of any degree and each year New Jersey loses a half-foot of shoreline due to erosion alone. In 1962, the island received its first major catastrophe when the “100 year storm” hit. Once it passed over, people came back in, started constructing new homes, and implemented beach replenishment and nourishment programs. These programs are extremely expensive, short term attempts to elongate the coast, shedding light on the human denial of the power of nature and of climate change.


So, how does this relate to archaeology? Shored Up didn’t explicitly reveal any connections between climate change and archaeology, although it hinted at one. Footage took us into the personal accounts of families whose homes were destroyed and we watched them sift through rubble to find any significant remains. This in itself is a subtle form of archaeology, in which the victims are forced to sort through the matrix of debris to find any remaining valuables. As a response to such natural disasters, the field of disaster archaeology has recently emerged, which incorporates archaeological practices into recording and recovering evidence, including human remains, victim identification, disaster scene analysis, etc., from mass fatality disasters.


The major connection between climate and archaeology is that fluctuations in climate can tell archaeologists many things about the environment and culture of a location. The climate and environment govern human life, so when changes in climate occur, changes in culture occur. A perfect example that dictates this relationship is the Ice Age. During the Ice Age, glacial ace covered the majority of water and land, allowing only mostly megafauna and microorganisms to exist. When humans moved into North America and came into contact with such megafauna, they had to create large weapons to take down these monstrous animals for survival. Around 10,000 years ago, the ice began to melt, causing the megafauna to go extinct, which brought the shift to archaic culture. Archaic culture shifted towards smaller game and agriculture, and technology therefore changed to smaller tools to accommodate this shift. This example shows how culture is dependent on climate.

Archaeology can reveal how humans have either adapted to or denied the nature and climate of their environment. Like the humans of the Ice Age, we need to adapt to the circumstances of today. Shored Up encourages us to accept, not deny, climate change and the powerful force of nature, so that we can start coming up with and implementing long term, sustainable solutions to climate change and coastal disasters.

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Information Sources Used:

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2010. 202-03. Print. Pg 173.

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OUR Story, not HIStory: Taking Everyone into Account

Whenever I visualize what a typical archaeologist looks like, what comes to mind is a nerdy, white male, shovel in hand, wearing a sunhat and those pants that zip off at the knee. Although this image may be specific to me, I’m sure that many people’s visual representations of an archaeologist would share one aspect in common with mine: the male gender. Women have only fairly recently been admitted into the field of archaeology, yet, this imbalance in the field isn’t the only way in which women have been overlooked- ancient women themselves have been unfairly overlooked in archaeology, therefore being left behind in the archaeological record.

In the 1960s emerged feminist archaeology, which seeks the gendered experiences of the past through three objectives: first, to expose and correct the male bias in archaeology; second, to balance the imbalance of women’s professional participation in archaeology; and third, to spotlight the roles of women in the past. An archaeological site in Israel serves as a perfect example that incorporates these three objectives into its excavation.

Excavation at Tel Abel Beth Maacah began because it was referenced in the Bible and holds the potential to inform us about northern Israel during the Bronze and Iron Ages. In 2014, Dr. Naama Yahalom-Mack, Dr. Nava Panitz-Cohen, and Prof. Lauren Monroe (all female archaeologists) implemented the “Gender Agenda” program at the site. The “Gender Agenda” served to excavate with the sole purpose of identifying engendered activities such as locating cooking and grinding areas, ovens, pottery, etc. Students a part of the “Gender Agenda” program learned how to collect samples for micro-archaeological analysis that can be used for understanding diet, modes of economic production and how activities were carried out within the home sphere, and other aspects of daily life. Students also conducted an ethnographic study by visiting and interacting with local Arab women at the Center for Women’s Traditional Crafts in a nearby village. By explicitly searching for the physical remains of women’s day-to-day lives, the archaeologists behind the “Gender Agenda” validate the often-marginalized history of women in antiquity. Women’s history was often overlooked because their activities weren’t believed to have contributed anything important to the society since they served as rulers of the private, home sphere. The archaeologists at Tel Beth Abel Maacah recognize the contributions that women add to society through their search for engendered activities.

Students at Center for Women's Traditional Crafts in Arab village.

Students at Center for Women’s Traditional Crafts in Arab village.

"Gender Agenda" director Lauren Monroe with husband and son on site.

“Gender Agenda” co-director Lauren Monroe with husband and son on site.

Why is a focus on gender so important? Some argue that since gender assignments are untestable to a certain extent, then therefore gender is irrelevant in the archaeological record. This is not true. By analyzing and interpreting the gender roles established by a society we can get an overview of the social organization and structure of the society. Most importantly, we are acknowledging every person, rather than overlooking a group of people, and looking to understand their individual function within the society.


Additional Links:

Sources Used:

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2010. Print.