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Prehistoric Migrations

Prehistoric Migrations

A blog dedicated to Neolithic and Bronze Age migrations in Europe

Review of Where Are We Heading?

Where Are We Heading? The Evolution of Humans and Things

By Ian Hodder (Foundational Questions in Science). Pp. xvi + 179. Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2018. $27.50. ISBN 978-0-300-20409-4 (cloth).

Where are we heading? Hodder’s first “popular” science book is a compact, challenging, and thought-provoking read, designed, like other volumes in the Foundational Questions in Science series, to examine philosophical assumptions undergirding research on important questions. Hodder’s book does not so much answer questions in this case as examine a long-term trajectory. Clearly, Hodder believes we are heading for the wall if the last 250 years of unchecked industrial growth are anything to go by, and we persist in our addiction to material goods and technological solutions at the expense of nature and fellow human beings. That is the distinctly Marcusian subtext of this book, whose tone is quite angry at times—more so than is common in archaeological literature—and deserves to be read as a warning that we cannot ignore the material impact of the things we produce. Or else we may find that “what we love will ruin us” (N. Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death [20th anniversary ed., London 2005] xx).

Hodder traces our addiction to “things” all the way back to the invention of fire, which bound us “in chains” like Prometheus, and even changed the shape of the human body. We think that we control technology, but it is technology that controls us, ever more present in our lives, complex and demanding. One of the recurrent themes of the book is the opposition between Homo faber and Homo sapiens, which serves to highlight our human condition as both tool makers and big-brain apes. I especially liked the comparison with American beavers—apparently one that was dear to our evolutionist forebear, Lewis Henry Morgan—who are capable of building elaborate river dams but cannot foresee the wider consequences of their actions. When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser undertook the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s, less immediate considerations came into play, such as the preservation of the Temple of Abu Simbel and other major historical sites. Archaeology, with its focus on intangible “heritage,” is a prime example of forethought (47–9)—an idea that had never crossed my mind but makes a lot of sense. The conclusion that “we need to be more sapiens and less faber” (147) will stick with the reader, although I find it somehow distractingly nonpolitical following a chapter on inequality and climate change.

Most archaeologists will already be familiar with Hodder’s concept of “entanglement,” which has been the subject of two of his recent books and provides again the central plank of his theory of things. The premises are quite simple: humans come to depend on things that come to depend on humans, hence creating cycles of dependence or entanglement that become intractable over time (79). By “things” Hodder means any humanly modified material or substance; the examples range from cotton to Christmas tree lights, cars, telephones, and opium. I think that few will dispute his assertion that human development is path-dependent and determined to an extent. His description of human experience reminds me of Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s novel (The Talented Mr. Ripley [New York 1955]), who kills to cover the tracks of his murders. Confronted with a monster of our own creation—global warming—we cannot help but come up with more terrifying solutions, such as “[factories pumping] sulphur dioxide through a fire hose up to zeppelins hovering sixty-five thousand feet in the air” (18).

Where I think archaeologists, if not the general reader, will be more circumspect is Hodder’s assertion that he is not simply rebranding the myth of “progress” with his theory of directional change or “evolution” (xi). True, his model does not imply progress farther down the road, but rather quite the opposite. However, in writing that there is an overall direction in human evolution toward more stuff, Hodder is following in the footsteps of other famous archaeologists, such as V. Gordon Childe who, in his seminal essay Man Makes Himself (London 1936), described the three “revolutions”—Neolithic, urban, and industrial—that still structure our understanding of the past. Childe at the time called “progress” the cumulative process of economic and demographic growth linked to regime shifts in production (1936, 2–16). This process did not make societies any more “progressive”: if technological change is directional, social and cultural values do the yo-yo.

Hodder’s focus on human production, as something that can be measured in terms of energy capture since the Neolithic era (fig. 1.2), invites the same criticism that was made to Childe in his time. Just because the Neolithic “revolution” looks exactly like our industrial revolution with its focus on technological production, one may not assume that all societies tend toward the same goal nor that “chain reaction” is the only metaphor possible to describe the development of human societies (C. Lévi-Strauss, Race et histoire [Paris 1961] 63). If anything, the last 250 years have been atypical within the general trajectory of human development by creating the illusion of a global society that aspires to industrial growth through the rise of machines, a typically Western phenomenon triggered by European colonialism in the 1700s. Hodder himself provides counterexamples, such as indigenous Australians who seemed content enough to live with less as long as they remained uncontacted.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Hodder’s latest book, however, is how he mythologizes the past through, as already mentioned, the simple dichotomy between sapiens and faber. Some will see this as returning to earlier themes in his career, such as the domus and the agrios of The Domestication of Europe (Oxford 1990), although he has interestingly shifted from an ideational model of interpretation to a material one. In the last 25 years, Hodder has championed at Çatalhöyük a form of archaeology that I would describe as clinical and largely no-nonsense. His refusal during this period to engage with the big narratives that have dominated prehistory since the 19th century, from the search for the Indo-European homeland to the grand sweep of the Neolithic revolution, has not always been appreciated for what it was: an effort, in my opinion, to escape the paradigms that have shaped our understanding of the past. This was hugely successful—revolutionary even—considering that a discipline like prehistory has been historically grounded more on myths than reality. Is the Çatalhöyük page turned? Are we back to square one?

At times, Hodder seems quite uncomfortable with a less scientific or simplified approach to prehistory, for instance in this statement: “Am I not in this book just providing an origin story that explains the rise of contemporary consumerism and capitalism? Undoubtedly the answer to this is ‘yes’. But I hope it will also become clear that my purpose in exploring this rise in materialism is critical” (31).

Let me say in conclusion that I enjoyed reading this book, which breaks with many of the conventions of recent archaeological scholarship to address some of the pressing (and depressing) issues that human societies face today. We need people like Ian Hodder to remind us that control of nature by understanding is the only viable course of action, wherever we are heading.

Maxime Brami
Palaeogenetics Group
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

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