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Our Global Neighbours # 3: Frontiers of Archaeology

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 02 Oct 2012

From the prehistory of primates to space.

Chimpanzee AA

Raphael Quinet © Creative Commons license Attribution ShareAlike

The Australian Museum has a long association with archaeology. It dates back to the late 19th century and the pioneering work of Robert Etheridge, followed later by William Thorpe and Frederic McCarthy. A good number of archaeologists work at the Australian Museum, including those who were trained but don’t labour specifically in the field of archaeology. For this reason it may be interesting to contemplate some new frontiers in archaeology. I would like to highlight two following examples.

The idea of human evolution from apes germinated in the footsteps of the 18th century taxonomic system in which the biologist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) placed humans and apes closely; as well as a more explicit assertion, in 1809, about primates in our ancestry by naturalist Jan-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). But it was probably the result of Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees in the wild and her influential book ‘In the Shadow of Man’ (1971) that inspired research into the culture of non-human primates. Such research provides precious comparative data for interpreting the deep past of human prehistory.

Now archaeologists and primatologists have begun exploring the prehistory of primates themselves. It is expected that the pattern of stone tool use – recognised mainly by the selection of stone, transport to activity sites and some modification by use – would vary across geographical space and time, revealing different cultural groupings, broadly similar to human cultural entities. Some sites in the Ivory Coast in western Africa show evidence and patterns of stone tool use by chimpanzees over 4,000 years ago. While the dates are so far modest, the prospect of studying the prehistory of non-human primates is truly exciting.

The article “Primate Archaeology” (below), co-authored by 18 researchers, is a useful reference, showing names of many people active in this field.

Michael Haslam, Adriana Hernandez-Aguilar, Victoria Ling, Susana Carvalho, Ignacio de la Torre, April DeStefano, Andrew Du, Bruce Hardy, Jack Harris, Linda Marchant, Tetsuro Matsuzawa, William McGrew, Julio Mercader, Rafael Mora, Michael Petraglia, Hélcne Roche, Elisabetta Visalberghi, Rebecca Warren. 'Primate Archaeology'. Nature, Vol. 460: 339-344, 16 July 2009.

At the other extreme, a past-focused and earth-bound discipline of archaeology seems unlikely to be probing into space above our heads. But it is probing above! Space archaeology is interested in human-made objects that are found in space. Through recording and studying artefacts such as spacecrafts, associated equipment and a vast array of debris abandoned on their orbits, it attempts to document some aspects of space exploration and preserve these materials as part of our cultural heritage. The space archaeology has been emerging for over the past 10 years. One of the good examples is the Lunar Legacy Project, set to document and preserve remnants of human’s landing on the moon in 1969.

And our own, Dr Alice Gorman at Flinders University in South Australia is among the internationally recognised leaders in this fascinating field. She is an author of a pretty readable blog.