Debate Magazine

Places of Many Generations

By Cris

Over at Nautilus, Jude Isabella talks to archaeologist extraordinaire Margaret Conkey about her efforts to dispel the idea that Paleolithic humans were cave people. I love this lede:

It was the 18th-century scientist Carolus Linnaeus that laid the foundations for modern biological taxonomy. It was also Linnaeus who argued for the existence of Homo troglodytes, a primitive people said to inhabit the caves of an Indonesian archipelago. Although troglodyte has since been proven to be an invalid taxon, archaeological doctrine continued to describe our ancestors as cavemen. The idea fits with a particular narrative of human evolution, one that describes a steady march from the primitive to the complex: Humans descended from the trees, stumbled about the land, made homes in caves, and finally found glory in high-rises. In this narrative, progress includes living inside confined physical spaces. This thinking was especially prevalent in Western Europe, where caves yielded so much in the way of art and artifacts that archaeologists became convinced that a cave was also a home, in the modern sense of the word.

Preservation and selection biases have long been problems in archeology. Caves are rich sources of both biases: they offer ideal conditions for preservation and are relatively easy to find. As a long-term consequence, our portraits of Paleolithic life are often cave-caricatures. For decades, Conkey has resisted the temptation to strike it data-rich in caves and has instead been surveying open air landscapes, places where Paleolithic humans probably spent most of their time.

Though we cannot know the significance of these landscapes or places for Paleolithic humans, we do know that hunter-gatherers are very much rooted in place and that their worldviews are profoundly shaped by spatial orientation. Conkey knows this too:

How would you define home?
Home is a place or places on the landscape that you are somehow connected to. It’s also a conceptual and symbolic notion as to where people are from, where they relate to, and where certain important aspects of their lives take place. Home is a place where you reconnect with people or memories. We found that some of our sites were revisited for thousands of years, again and again. On the same sites, we found artifacts that are characteristic of Neanderthal populations of the Middle Paleolithic era, and artifacts that are characteristic of modern humans from the later, Upper Paleolithic era. We call these sites “Places of Many Generations.”

“Places of Many Generations” is right. There are of course living peoples who have similar attachments to place, space, and land. These attachments and orientations generate worldviews that can be difficult for outsiders to comprehend. They can in fact be disorienting, which I count as a good thing.


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