Framing big questions in archaeology

3 minute read

Keith Kintigh and colleagues have a brief report in PNAS this week about “Grand challenges for archaeology”. They summarize a series of conversations and a small conference devoted to identifying “big questions” approaches to the investigation of prehistory.

This sort of meeting may rarely generate practical movement on particular empirical problems, but it does tend to identify common themes that can be addressed through improved data-sharing and gathering empirical data from multiple areas.

These challenges focus on understanding the dynamics of cultural processes and the operation of coupled human and natural systems, recognizing that humans—mediated by culture—both affect and are affected by their natural environments. The challenges addressed questions of emergence, complexity, demography, mobility, identity, resilience, and human–environment interactions. There is a notable lack of concern with the earliest, the largest, and the otherwise unique. They show an increasing concern with relevance to the contemporary world. There is no lack of regard for prehistory; the facts of the past provide the evidence that is essential to confront all of these questions. We harbor no illusions about the difficulties of addressing these classes of problems. Rather, we share a conviction that these are the domains in which the most important problems reside.

I think this provides an interesting mission statement for theoretical work in archaeology. The topics considered by Kintigh and colleagues tend to connect archaeology to important themes in the social sciences, and to big topics in human evolution. For example, we can consider the topics grouped under “movement, mobility and migration”:

C. Movement, mobility, and migration
 1. What processes led to, and resulted from, the global dispersal of modern humans?
 2. What are the relationships among environment, population dynamics, settlement structure, and human mobility?
 3. How do humans occupy extreme environments, and what cultural and biological adaptations emerged as a result?

These are clearly connected to the biological story of human evolution during the past 100,000 years. Historically, the relationship between archaeologists and biological anthropologists has been relatively unproductive, as the issues related to migration and material culture accompanying the origin and dispersal of modern humans have not been clearly related to population dynamics or biological features of Late Pleistocene humans. I think that we really need a better relationship between these two disciplines. A fuller consideration of population dynamics and its relationship to selection and adaptation would help to resolve some of the issues related to genetic data, and might indeed break through some old problems in the archaeology of modern human origins and dispersal.

Likewise on the topics related to human-environment interactions:

E. Human–environment interactions
 1. How have human activities shaped Earth’s biological and physical systems, and when did humans become dominant drivers of these systems?
 2. What factors drive or constrain population growth in prehistory and history?
 3. What factors drive health and well-being in prehistory and history?
 4. Why do foragers engage in plant and animal management, and under what circumstances does management of a plant or animal lead to its domestication?

Today’s archaeology provides some of the beginnings of answers to these questions, but much more remains to be discovered about these problems in a global or cross-regional framework. And they are huge problems. What led to the emergence of epidemic diseases in prehistory? Are those things related to the kinds of forces that lead to emerging disease today?

These are the sorts of questions that should help to frame the investigation of regional or local problems in archaeology. Archaeology is uniquely positioned to frame the interactions of humans and their environments in the past, giving a deep time perspective to these issues that today loom important. The factors that drove health and well-being in the past were preconditions for our current cultures. We are on a path that began in the distant past and has been shaped by the interactions of people long dead.


Kintigh, K. W., Altschul, J. H., Beaudry, M. C., Drennan, R. D., Kinzig, A. P., Kohler, T. A., Limp, W. F., Maschner, H. D. G., Michener, W. K., Pauketat, T. R., Peregrine, P., Sabloff, J. A., Wilkinson, T. J., Wright, H. T., Zeder, M. A. 2014. Grand challenges for archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (3), 879-880. URL