From the late 1940s, the sciences began to make an impact on archaeology, from physics (radiocarbon dating) to chemistry (mineral characterisation) and from anthropology (understanding health through skeletons) to botany (looking at plant food remains). Often forgotten today, the 1950s saw a fundamental change in the way archaeologists worked.

Ecological-functionalism: a ‘forgotten paradigm’

During the 1940s and 1950s, a new approach to archaeology began to develop under Julian Steward in the USA. Both were interested in exploring the environment of early humans and their work marks a major break with traditional Culture History. Indeed, it was Clark’s work, summarised in his important paper “The invasion hypothesis in British archaeology”, rather than the work of the ‘New Archaeologists’ of the 1960s that demolished the idea of diffusion as the principal agent of change in the past (not that you would know that from reading the work of ‘New Archaeologists’); he even went so far as to characterise this type of explanation as “neurosis”. The influence of structuralist-functionalist anthropologists such as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown was also evident in the new ideas.

Steward’s approach was essentially evolutionary and in this, he combined his anthropological and ethnographic training with an interest in archaeological fieldwork. His main fieldwork took place in the Midwestern and South-western USA, where archaeological research could be combined with ethnographic fieldwork. His ‘cultural ecology’ proposed that although there were generally applicable evolutionary sequences operating throughout human history, local sequences were the result of adaptations to regional environments and that groups occupying similar ecological niches would develop similar cultural traits (albeit overlain by historically specific characteristics).

There are characteristics of Steward’s ‘cultural ecology’ that prefigure many of the interests of the ‘New Archaeologists’. He took an overtly systemic view of society, believing that although the ecological aspects were of greatest importance, as they determined the subsistence basis of a society, there were also important economic, political and symbolic systems at work. Each of these systems could be regarded in purely functional terms: each was seen as an adaptation to environmental conditions. Leslie White traced the development of diffusionist models of explanation, setting them against the earlier evolutionary models and suggesting – if not in so many words – that a new paradigm could be dated to the closing years of the nineteenth century.

Ideas cross the pond

The Americans Steward and White were major influences on the English Grahame Clark. Already, in his work on Star Carr during the late 1940s, Clark was looking at the way in which the Early Mesolithic population of this seasonal camp had adapted to and exploited their environment. This ecological perspective was a characteristic of Clark’s work that became a major (if not overriding) concern of processual prehistorians and it derived directly from Steward’s outlook. Clark believed that the main concern of human societies is to maintain their existence against a changing environmental background and that this was the main driving force behind social change. The strongly functionalist viewpoint in both Steward’s and Clark’s work was carried over – virtually without acknowledgement – into the ‘New Archaeology’.

Ecological-functionalism influenced the later writings of Childe, who abandoned his earlier, explicitly ethnic-based views, and developed his Marxist perspective to examine the contradictions inherent in society and how the control of knowledge influenced social evolution, in this way prefiguring Foucault. Nevertheless, Childe’s fieldwork experience was limited and he remained essentially a typologist to the end, a contrast to Clark, who has been regarded as one of the pioneers of environmental archaeology.

Perhaps one of the most influential concepts to come out of ecological-functionalism was Christopher Hawkes’s ‘ladder of inference’, which Clive Gamble has more recently reinterpreted as an onion. We prefer to think of it as a greasy pole! According to this model, archaeology is better equipped to study certain aspects of the past than others; techniques of production would be the easiest inference, followed by subsistence economies, then social/political institutions, with religious institutions and spiritual life the most difficult of all. From this, Hawkes reasoned, it is precisely those features that make humans different from other animal species that are the most difficult for the archaeologist to interpret.

The reason that we have labelled ecological-functionalism a ‘forgotten’ paradigm is that the ‘New Archaeologists’ of the 1960s, drawing upon anthropology and General Systems Theory, set up the straw man of a diffusionist culture historian as their principal opponent, failing to take into account the work of the previous generation. In the late 1950s, during a series of public lectures for the University of Birmingham, Glyn Daniel had already used the early dating of Mexican maize cultivation provided by radiocarbon to argue in favour of independent development as a major explanation for change in the Old World. The prehistorians among the ‘New Archaeologists’ were attacking a form of prehistory that was already passé. There is a sense of injustice in the failure of the ‘New Archaeologists’ to acknowledge their debt to the ecological-functionalism of their teachers and their absorption of the work of economic prehistorians such as Eric Higgs.

The contribution of ecological-functionalism

It was within the ecological-functionalist framework that archaeological theory first started to be discussed explicitly and an awareness of the limitations of Culture History was expressed. There were also important methodological lessons: the careful recovery of environmental evidence (even animal bones were not regularly collected at this time!) and an appreciation of the need for quantification, both aspects of Clark’s excavations at Star Carr that stood out as exceptional for many years.