Reconstructing Culture History
Archaeologists deal with time in many ways. This chapter begins with an overview of the practical methods of determining how old things are. It follows with a brief description of how archaeologists conceptually organize time and ends with an outline of world prehistory and early civilizations.
After studying this chapter, students should be able to
- describe the relative dating techniques outlined in the text, including the basic principle, applicable time range, and appropriate material.
- describe the absolute dating techniques outlined in the text, including the basic principle, applicable time range, and appropriate material.
- explain the concept of deep time, the use of epochs, and the major descriptive and analytical units in prehistory.
- outline human biological and cultural evolution over the past 4 million years.
- identify the earliest civilizations of the Near East, Egypt, the Indus Valley, China, the Mediterranean, Mesoamerica, and the Andes of Peru.
- define all the glossary terms found in the chapter.
absolute dating – Dating that provides specific dates or range of dates, in years. Examples of absolute dating techniques include dendrochronology, radiocarbon, and potassium/argon dating. (p.141)
Anthropocene – A proposed time period to describe the years in which humans have had a significant impact on the environment, observable in the geological record. There is no consensus on the validity of the term to describe geological time periods or when such a period began. (p.151)
archaeomagnetism – An absolute dating technique based on the knowledge that when heated to high temperatures, magnetic particles in clays and other sediments align themselves toward the North Magnetic Pole. In situ measurements of particle alignments are correlated with historical records of the location of the North Magnetic Pole. (p.148)
argon dating – Absolute dating techniques (potassium/argon and argon/argon) based on the rate at which potassium and radioactive argon change into stable argon gas. (p.145)
atlatl – A spear-thrower usually about a meter long, upon which the spear was laid to effectively increase the length of the arm to power the spear. (p.143)
bp or BP – Abbreviation for before present, which is taken to mean AD 1950; used to indicate dates in years before present when materials are dated by radiocarbon dating only. (p.147)
calibrated relative dating – A category of dating techniques that is a hybrid of absolute and relative techniques. (p.141)
carbon-14 dating – An absolute dating technique based on the known rate of decay of carbon in organisms, beginning at the instant of death. Also known as C-14 dating and radiocarbon dating. (p.146)
chronological sequencing – A category of relative dating methods that puts sites and objects in sequence. Includes stratigraphic dating, seriation, and terminus quem. (p. 141)
dating by association – Dating artifacts and sites by their association with other artifacts, ecofacts, or geological features of known age; a subcategory of relative dating. (p.141)
dendrochronology – Tree-ring dating. (p.145)
domestication – There is no consensus definition of domestication in archaeology, but at a minimum it means that plants and/or animals are under the control of humans. (p.160)
fluorine, uranium, nitrogen dating – A relative dating technique based on the premise that after the death of an animal, the relative amounts of fluorine and uranium in bone will increase and the amount of nitrogen will decrease. (p.143)
frequency seriation – An archaeological dating technique based on the relative frequency of certain artifact types; based on the premise that artifact types go through a period of acceptance, after which they flourish and then decline. (p.142)
horizon – A descriptive unit reflecting cultural continuity over a broad area, typically from several hundred to a few thousand years. (p.152)
Mesoamerica – Central America, including Mexico. (p.152)
monumental architecture – Large-scale construction of buildings, earthworks, and other large features. (p.161)
obsidian hydration – A calibrated relative dating technique, based on the knowledge that freshly exposed surfaces of obsidian adsorb moisture from the surrounding environments in measurable layers. (p.144)
phase – A descriptive unit reflecting cultural continuity in a region or subregion for a relatively short period (i.e., usually less than 2,000 years). (p.152)
Piltdown Man – Skeletal remains discovered in Piltdown, England, in the early twentieth century, purported to be a “missing link”; eventually revealed as a hoax through the application of fluorine, uranium, nitrogen dating. (p.143)
pithouse – Semi-subterranean dwelling, consisting of a large depression in the ground covered with an above-ground roof. The roof is usually supported by a log and pole framework and the roof itself is often comprised of bark and other forms of vegetation overlain with a layer of earth. Entrance may be through the side or top via a ladder. (p.153)
potassium/argon dating – An absolute dating technique based on the known rate at which potassium changes to argon in volcanic sediments. Often abbreviated as K/Ar. (p.147)
relative dating – Determining the relative antiquity of sites and objects by putting them in sequential order, but not assigning specific dates. (p.141)
sedentary – Settling permanently. (p.159)
seriation – Placing objects in chronological order based on their style (stylistic seriation) or relative frequency (frequency seriation). (p.142)
shaman – An individual with a perceived connection to the supernatural world. (p.158)
stratigraphic dating – A relative dating technique based on the knowledge that layers of sediments are normally laid on top of each other through time; based on the geological law of superposition. (p.142)
terminus ante quem – A relative dating technique in which the presence of an object of known age is used to infer that all other finds must be at least as old as that object. Often abbreviated as TAQ. (p.145)
terminus post quem – A relative dating technique in which the presence of an object of known age is used to infer that all other finds must be no older than that object. Often abbreviated as TPQ. (p.145)
terminus quem – Relative dating based on finding an object of known age and then inferring that other objects must be either older or more recent than that object. (p.141)
thermoluminescence – An absolute dating technique based on the premise that energy becomes trapped in objects when they are heated to very high temperatures. Reheating the objects releases stored energy in the form of light in a way that can determine the length of time since the object was originally heated. Most commonly used for dating ceramics, but stone tools have also been dated with this technique. (p.148)
tradition – A descriptive unit reflecting a pattern of cultural continuity over a broad area for at least a few thousand years. (p.152)
Archaeological Dating Methods
Brothwell, D.R., and A.M. Pollard, eds. 2001. Handbook of Archaeological Sciences. New York: Wiley.
Peregrine, Peter N., and Melvin Ember, eds. 2001. Encyclopedia of Prehistory. 9 vols. New York: Kluwer.
Peregrine, Peter N. 2001a. Archaeological Research: A Brief Introduction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Peregrine, Peter N. 2001b. Outline of Archaeological Traditions. New Haven, CT: HRAF Press.
Scarre, Chris, ed. 2013. The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Scarre, Chris, and Brian M. Fagan. 2016. Ancient Civilizations. New York: Routledge.
Eating Insects in the Past
Lesnick, Julie J. 2018. Edible Insects and Human Evolution. Gainseville: University Press of Florida.
The Laboratory for Tree Ring Research at the University of Arizona is well-known in the world of dendrochronology. Their web site is an excellent source for learning more about dendrochronology and includes exercises.
Olorgesailie is the only site mentioned in the chapter that is designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.