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independent of the actions of individuals
Dialectical materialism
Each generation is formed by social and economic Techniques (substantive)
structures but at the same time modifying and
adapting to changing circumstances

Why technology changes
Karl Marx has undoubtedly had the greatest influence when it comes to
asking why technology changes for the reason that he set out two pathways
(Table 7.1). Either route produced the same result: by the application of
scientific knowledge through technology, humans were freed from
the enslavement of Nature (Tiles 2001:487).
Accordingly, the longest running historical project of humankind,
first set out by Plato and Aristotle, has been the pursuit of leisure in order
to cultivate the rational faculties. The agricultural metaphor is well placed
since for these Classical philosophers reason distinguished humans
from beasts and knowledge acquired through leisure distinguished the
citizen from the peasant.
When the order of change is fixed, as it is for a historical determinist
(Table 7.1), then so too is human nature with its wants and needs (for full
critique see Pfaffenberger 1992:496). Consequently, the history of technol-
ogy will be about devices that met those unchanging purposes and so
established direction. Such fixity can be found, for example, in the
universal mechanism of evolutionary descent with modification and
the demands this places on the acquisition of subsistence.
Stephen Shennan (2000:811) goes further, arguing that if archaeologists
are to explain change then they must view their data from the perspective of
a cultural ˜descent with modification™. Seen in these terms, selection
produces better artefacts and groups of artefacts, archaeological cultures,
for the task in hand; reproductive success (Dunnell 1978:199). The objects
that serve such purposes remain value-free and need no other reward for
162 Origins and Revolutions

a job well done than a historical nod of recognition. Stone tools, fire and the
wheel all stand simply as markers on the evolutionary journey.
The process works through incremental change long favoured by
pioneering archaeologists such as General Pitt-Rivers who saw a progressive
development in technology from crude to fine and simple to complex.
His Darwinian faith supported his political convictions since ˜the law that
Nature makes no jumps can be taught . . . in such a way as at least to make
men cautious how they listen to scatter-brained revolutionary suggestions
(Pitt-Rivers 1891)™. Thankfully in other circles these laws of progress have
long been laid to rest (Sauer 1952:3), and although the tempo of change
is also incremental in studies of cultural descent no historical goal
is attributed to technological advances (Shennan 2002).
Indeed, studies of cultural transmission foreshadow the dialectical
approach to technological change (Table 7.1) with its emphasis on response
and adaptation. But the difference is that with a dialectical standpoint
human nature is not fixed in the ways described above but dependent
on context. Here the emphasis moves away from devices and towards
techniques that comprise technological systems and technical practices
(Tiles 2001). With an emphasis on context, technical knowledge is no
longer something that is transmitted between generations. Rather it is
produced through social action that involves the relationships between
people and things as first laid out by Mauss (1936), and discussed
in Chapter 4. Social reproduction rather than reproductive success drives
the process. The common-sense, or instrumental, view of historical
goals for technology is replaced by a consideration of how it changed
both humanity and Nature.

Social technology
I would go much further. Histories of technology (e.g. Basalla 1988)
rarely draw attention to the link between technology and human identity.
When they do (e.g. Tiles 2001) the accounts are curiously free of either
a theory of material culture or an anthropological perspective on body
techniques and performance: in short, that thing called agency. Instead
of objects having inherent values they are, as we have seen (Chapter 5),
implicated as agents in networks of materiality (Gell 1998; Knappett 2005).
It is necessary to extricate ourselves from the tangled bank of rational
explanations that involve technology and turn instead, as I have
done throughout this book, to a relational understanding of those same
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 163

In my view any account of the prehistory of technology depends for
its form on an understanding of human identity, which is why I refer to
a social technology, that ˜universality of the process of simultaneous
embodiment and production of meaning by a technique (Lemonnier
1993:4)™. Techniques, as anthropologist Pierre Lemonnier points out, are
not something to which meaning is added. Instead they involve from
the start the incorporation of wider symbolic considerations precisely
because technologies are always social constructs (Tiles 2001:486).
Throughout Part II, I presented arguments and evidence to illustrate how
technology is actively involved in the construction of identity. This involved
a simple division of artefacts into containers and instruments in order to
bring out the metaphorical use of material culture to express hidden
processes that are understood through bodily experience, processes that
are doubly hidden because they are in the past and internal to the person.
These material metaphors were structured through the social practices
of accumulation and enchainment and the actions of fragmentation
and consumption (Table 6.2). The identities that emerge are not the
social labels of plant gatherer or ploughman, priestess or king, but rather
the negotiation through material relations of a once-inhabited space.
Moreover, this approach was taken to support my general proposition that
any study of change has to acknowledge the material basis of human
What follows is an account that develops my proposition about change
and identity. It will be familiar in places and yet unfamiliar as archaeologists
have generally adopted an instrumental approach because, like Gordon
Childe (Chapter 1), they follow Marx, changing hats as it suits them to
be either a historical determinist or a dialectical materialist (Table 7.1).
What I am suggesting needs neither revolutions nor origins to make
the subject of change explicable, only an assumption of relatedness and the
confidence that bodily experience is habitually expressed metaphorically
in a material world.

The technology of eats, roots and leaves
Hominins are not alone in defining their identity with technology either
as devices or as techniques that encompass skill and knowledge. Most
recently wild-living capuchin monkeys in Northeastern Brazil (Moura and
Lee 2004) have joined the technology club. They have been seen on an
almost daily basis using stones to crack open seeds and innovatively even
164 Origins and Revolutions

for primates, dig for roots and tubers. In evolutionary terms this discovery
is equivalent to a virus jumping between species. The New World-Old
World monkey split is a foundation event in the course of primate evolu-
tion and occurred some 30 million years ago. Until capuchins were
observed in the Caatinga dry forest the selection, manufacture and use
of a range of artefacts was thought to be exclusive to Old World primates
and in particular chimpanzees. The South American evidence from
a relatively small brained primate strongly suggests that tool-making and
tool-using is an ancestral hominid trait of some antiquity. While these skills
could have arisen at different times and places through convergent
evolution, they nonetheless dramatically point to material engagements
by hominids, not just hominins, in the construction of their worlds.
None of this is of course surprising. Instances of nest building, storing
food, amassing residues and selecting shiny objects is commonly found
among animals as diverse as birds, reptiles, mammals and insects and
comprise what John Odling-Smee (1993) describes as niche construction.
Animals fragment and consume on a daily basis while at the same time they
also accumulate and enchain themselves to others, often as a requirement
of rearing young.
But primate technology is treated differently because of their ancestral
relationship to ourselves. The iconic photo by Hugo van Lawick of a wild
chimpanzee using a termite probe caused a stir among archaeologists when
published in the 1960s. Although captive chimps had long been applauded
for their intelligence here was a wild animal showing unsuspected capac-
ities for problem solving. With one image the development in parallel
of tools and large brains that archaeologists had long championed was
called into question.
Forty years after Jane Goodall™s pioneering observations at Gombe,
and van Lawick™s photograph, no one doubts the technological capacity
of chimps that is now spoken of as material culture (McGrew 1992) and
compared to human culture (Boesch and Tomasello 1998). In addition,
despite the current lack of an archaeological record for chimpanzee
material culture, these contemporary observations provide many archae-
ologists with a starting point for the prehistory of human technology
(Davidson and McGrew 2005; Gowlett 2000; Schick and Toth 1993).

The standard view of technology
The first account of capuchin tool use by primatologists Antonio Moura
and Phyllis Lee (2004) also provides a characteristic explanation for
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 165

their presence. They suggest that the stone tools and termite probes were
developed by capuchins as a result of the dry forest environment they
live in. This environment is a hard one for a small monkey and time and
energy are at a premium. Any device that reduces the time spent in getting
food therefore stands a strong chance of being selected for and digging
for tubers with stones fits the bill. In short, tools provide a more secure
subsistence that has a direct benefit in terms of reproductive success
for both the capuchin individual and group.
This explanation nicely summarises what anthropologist Bryan
Pfaffenberger (1992:493À5) has described as the standard view of tech-
nology. What drives such a perspective is the principle that necessity is
the mother of invention. Pfaffenberger (1992:496) shows how this derives
from the modernist view that there are universal human needs À and
how better to demonstrate these than through the technological skills
of a wild primate who in the case of the chimpanzee also happens to be
a close genetic cousin (Marks 2002)? Primate technology, as Moura and
Lee show, is treated as comprising devices to satisfy needs, and for
hominids as different as capuchins and chimpanzees these are food and
sex. Hominins fare little better in most archaeological accounts. As
expressed by archaeologist Steven Kuhn (1995:16) the imperative is that
˜in order to bring technological data to bear on major changes in human
adaptation, it is essential to explore how toolmaking was related to
hominid subsistence behaviour™. Kuhn is writing about the Neanderthals
who were present when ˜modern™ humans arrived in Europe. The
controversy about the status of Neanderthals as artists, linguists and
morticians (d™Errico et al. 1998; 2003; Gargett 1989; Noble and
Davidson 1996) addresses our perception of their nature and needs.
Obviously, modern humans had symbolic and spiritual needs in
addition to food and sex. Allow these same needs to Neanderthals
through possession of ornaments, art and burials and the force of
Woolgar™s (1987:312) comparison of technological capacity and human
entitlement strikes home.
Pfaffenberger, however, is not much concerned with Neanderthals.
His target is the notion of universal needs and human nature that
technology serves. But if, as he argues, this is a false characterisation then
neither does technology meet universal needs nor is it a response to
necessity (Pfaffenberger 1992). We remain human even if we have not yet
purchased an MP3 player. Our technological identity is not determined by
our fixed, inherited needs. Our nature is no more hitched to the hunter™s
moon as it is to the farmer™s wagon or the metropolitan™s star.
166 Origins and Revolutions

table 7.2. A range of behaviours found across six populations of chimpanzees and
classified in terms of instruments (I) and containers (C)

behaviour Groups Communicative Groups Body-oriented Groups
with tool use present behaviour present behaviour present
Ant dip I 4 Missile throw I4 Fly whisk I 3
Honey dip I 2 Branch haul I2 Index hit I 1
Bee probe I 1 Stick club I3 Ground nest C 1
Leaf sponge C ? 4 Hand clasp I/C 3 Leaf napkin C 2
Marrow pick I 1 Leaf clip I3 Self-tickle I/C 1
Nut crack I 2 Play start I3
Pestle pound I 1 Knuckle knock I 1
Hook stick I 1 Leaf groom I3
Gum gouge I 1
Termite fish I 3
Algae fish I 1

Data from Boesch and Tomasello 1998:Table 1; McGrew 1992:Table 8.2.

Chimpanzee culture
Even chimpanzees do not have a universal technological nature. The
patchy distribution of widely recognised technological and cultural behav-
iours among six groups of wild chimpanzees spread across tropical
Africa (Table 7.2) appears to ape the archaeological definition of culture
as a polythetic set in time and space (Gamble 2001:Chapter 3). For
example, nut cracking is found in only two of the six groups because of
the availability of nuts, while ant dips are present in four (Boesch and
Tomasello 1998:Table 1) even though ants are there to eat in the other
two areas.
What is very apparent from Table 7.2 is the predominance of instru-
ments among the foraging and communicative behaviours. This point
has previously been made by primatologist Bill McGrew (1992) who
has commented on the lack of containers in chimpanzee technology.
As a result they cannot carry water at all and remain restricted in the
amount of food, fruits for instance, that can be transported. The closest
they get to a container is the use of leaves as sponges to soak up water
from small puddles that they otherwise could not drink from. Leaf napkins
are used to wipe parts of their bodies, often after sex (Goodall 1986;
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 167

McGrew 1992:187À8), so they form at best a very ephemeral wrapping
for the body. But when placed in another environment:
Chimpanzees spontaneously use containers in captivity, so their absence
in nature is not due to lack of intellectual appreciation of the principles
involved. Nor is the absence of the container due to lack of raw materials;
wild chimpanzees have access to leaves and suitable skins of animals.
McGrew 1992:115 and Figure 10.2

But how does such ˜spontaneous use™ by chimpanzees differ from the
family cat appropriating a cardboard box to sleep in, or a swallow building
its nest inside a barn? Chimpanzees might not fashion themselves
containers such as grass skirts or skin waterbags but like all animals they
inhabit their worlds and its varied affordances. We have no evidence to
suppose that they make any distinction between categories such as natural
and man made. Their individual identities are therefore contextual rather
than given by a roster of universal chimpanzee needs. What makes a
chimpanzee a chimpanzee is socially generated at the local level rather
than dependent upon some fixed universal nature.
Other animals, such as bees, might seem to lead to a different
conclusion. How for example could you be a bee without a honeycomb?
But the significant comparison is not that bees make honeycombs while
chimpanzees vary in their use of leaf sponges (four out of six groups in
Table 7.2), but that both cannot be separated from the environment
in which they live as bees and chimpanzees (Barrett and Henzi 2005). The
problem with studies of chimpanzee technology that regard it as cultural
because it involves social learning (Boesch and Tomasello 1998:592) lies in
their markedly determinist approach to the chimpanzees™ needs and hence
the emphasis on technological ˜solutions™ to environmental ˜problems™
(Table 7.2).
The standard view of those needs and the necessity of technological
evolution are well illustrated by McGrew (1992) who conceives of con-
tainers solely in terms of transporting food and water. In his opinion
containers are essential for a fully human society based on reciprocal
sharing and the division of labour. His study identifies the external function
of technology for a species but not the relations that are created through
materiality that I outlined in Part II. Consequently, my definition of
containers is much broader than McGrew™s. It would include those ˜nests™,
or rather sleeping pallets, that all great apes construct on a daily basis
(McGrew 1992:210) as well as the concave mortars which hold the nuts for
chimps to crack with hammers of wood and stone (ibid. 1992:Figure 7.7).
168 Origins and Revolutions

These examples of containers could be increased to include gestures
and movements that encircle and embrace but which involve no artefacts
other than the body and its corporal culture.

Ratchets and ships™ anchors
The chimpanzee evidence strongly suggests that a social technology of
instruments and containers, based on metaphors derived from the body,
is simply part of being a hominid. It is not something unique to hominins
or humans although our propensity to elaboration, what Danny Miller
refers to as the ˜sheer scale of the material world™ (Chapter 6), and its
continual re-interpretation most certainly is. How we got to this complexity
is explained by primatologists Christophe Boesch and Michael Tomasello
(1998:602) as the ratchet effect of cumulative cultural evolution. They give
the following example:
The way in which human beings have sheltered themselves has evolved
significantly over human history as individuals in particular cultures have
adapted their existing shelters to shield them from various aspects of the
weather (e.g. rain, cold, sun) and various types of predators and pests,
to provide themselves with privacy and protection from groupmates,
and so on.

The ratchet analogy is chosen since it is a device that keeps things
in place while the user prepares to advance them further. Shelter is never
abandoned as an idea but weather-proofing provides a spur to technological
advance. Their argument is therefore determinist (Table 7.1), based on
a common-sense view of how technology satisfies needs (Tiles 2001).
Furthermore, it derives its rhetorical force from the baseline it adopts
and where chimpanzee technology is set by the supposedly fixed nature of
their limited needs. But a ship™s anchor provides a better analogy than
a ratchet for the process they describe, and where a taut cable leads in
a direct, upward line from the deep of primate ancestry to the deck-side
complexity of human cultural life. The progressive nature of technology
is indeed, as Jones (2002:89) comments, one of the prime structuring
principles of Western capitalism.

Stone Age innovation
The standard view, that the history of technology satisfied universal needs,
has to be re-assessed by archaeologists. A decade ago Marcia-Anne Dobres
and Christopher Hoffman (1994:215À16) set out how the study of past
A prehistory of human technology: 3 million to 5,000 years ago 169

technology requires a simultaneous concern with social interaction,
the practical knowledge of techniques and the environment as well as
belief systems. They acknowledged the considerable difficulties facing
archaeologists interested in these aspects of technology that have since
been addressed in more detail (Dobres 2000; Dobres and Robb 2000a).
Technology could be used, they argued (Dobres and Hoffman 1994:216),
to understand both worldviews and systems of representation as well as
the dynamic nature of social production and reproduction. Sensibly at the
time they confined their agency-centred approach to the last 20,000 years,
leaving evolutionary issues to one side.
Re-assessing the standard view over a longer timespan needs to start by
according agency and the associated concept of hybrid culture (Chapter 4)
to all hominins as well as hominids such as chimps and capuchins.
This inclusivity acknowledges that technology is about more than problem-
solving and involves skills and identity. What this means in practice
is abandoning a strictly linear analysis of technology in favour of under-
standing change in terms of the social activities, relationships and tensions
involved in hominid and hominin involvement with the material world
(Dobres and Hoffman 1994:215).
John Troeng (1993) provides a valuable account of the standard view.
He has identified 53 technological innovations that occurred in worldwide
pre-literate societies. Writing is therefore absent from his scheme. Any such
list is necessarily selective and more recently Brian Fagan™s (2004:14) survey
covers seventy inventions over a slightly longer time-frame. The techno-
logical groupings of the two schemes are comparable but organised
differently (Table 7.3).
When presented as a timeline both studies show a compound increase
in terms of innovations and in Fagan™s case an exponential rise after
7,000 years ago. This ratchet effect would have an even greater impact if
the phenomenal diversity of artefact types made possible by the later
inventions À pottery or glass for example À were added to the charts. Either
way the result appears as an overwhelming endorsement for ratcheted
change and could, if wished, be used to explain the Human and Neolithic
Revolutions (Chapters 1 and 2).

Three movements in the history of technology
But what if we reject such a teleological approach to the history of
technology and analyse these same lists in terms of material metaphors?
I have done this in Table 7.4 for Troeng™s list, classifying the same
170 Origins and Revolutions

table 7.3. The history of technological innovations by major categories
(Fagan 2004; Troeng 1993)

Technologies Number of Technologies Number of
(Troeng 1993) innovations (Fagan 2004) inventions
Crushing 2 Hand-held artefacts 12
Stone 11 Shelter and subsistence 18
Bone 3 Transportation 11
Structures 2 Hunting, warfare and sport 10
Composite artefact 5 Art and science 14
Axe and adze 3 Adorning the person 5
Skin and fibre 4
Mineral 4
Aquatic resources 4
Plant resources 3
Animal keeping 3
Symbolic 4
Fire and containers 5
Totals 53 70

inventions as either containers or instruments, those material proxies for
the metaphors of bodily experience (Chapter 4). When the two proxies are
sorted on a timeline (Table 7.4) we see that a drift occurred from
instruments to containers as the dominant mode of innovation. For clarity
and yes, I admit, tradition™s sake, I have divided this huge timespan into
three, from the oldest stone tools in Ethiopia (Semaw et al. 1997) to the

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