Thinking through story Archaeology and narratives

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DOI: 10.3828/hgr.2016.20
In this paper – which also serves as an introduction to this special issue of Hunter Gatherer Research – we concentrate on a number of aspects relevant to the relationships between archaeology and narratives, and also to the theoretical and methodological challenges of research involving hunting and gathering societies. We focus on the 'narrative turn', which became influential across a range of disciplines due to the shift it introduced from a story being the sole focus of analysis to 'the lamp by which other things are seen' (Kreiswirth 1994:62). Working with a narrative approach, we consider how archaeologists have framed the relationship between hunting and gathering people and their environments, and in contrast, discuss the ways that contemporary Indigenous people themselves explain these relationships and the importance of narrative in understanding such relationships. Further, we critically discuss the way narrative or storytelling has been positioned in human cognitive evolution and in establishing human 'uniqueness', highlighting some problematic ongoing trends in Western scholarship. these examples led us to question the relationship between knowledge, myth and reality, particularly in the context of the relationship between the Western academy and Indigenous knowledge. We close this paper by drawing together the implications for narratives of human evolution and hunter-gatherer archaeology. even though, or perhaps because, a narrative approach challenges the status quo we find that it offers many advantages to better understand the past and also to enhance reflexivity in the present.
Hunter Gatherer Research 2.3 (2016) © Liverpool University Press
ISSN 1476-4261 doi:10.3828/hgr.2016.20
Thinking through story
Archaeology and narratives
Martin Porr & Jacqueline Matthews
ink ing through st ory: archaeol ogy and narrat ives
Martin Porr, Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte und Archäologie des
Mittelalters, Universität Tübingen/Centre for Rock Art Research + Management,
University of Western Australia
Jacqueline Matthews, Archaeology, School of Social Sciences, University of
Western Australia
Abstract: In this paper – which also serves as an introduction to this special issue of
Hunter Gatherer Research – we concentrate on a number of aspects relevant to the
relationships between archaeology and narratives, and also to the theoretical and
methodological challenges of research involving hunting and gathering societies. We
focus on the ‘narrative turn’, which became inuential across a range of disciplines due
to the shift it introduced from a story being the sole focus of analysis to ‘the lamp by
which other things are seen’ (Kreiswirth 1994:62). Working with a narrative approach,
we consider how archaeologists have framed the relationship between hunting and
gathering people and their environments, and in contrast, discuss the ways that
contemporary Indigenous people themselves explain these relationships and the
importance of narrative in understanding such relationships. Further, we critically
discuss the way narrative or storytelling has been positioned in human cognitive
evolution and in establishing human ‘uniqueness’, highlighting some problematic
ongoing trends in Western scholarship. These examples led us to question the
relationship between knowledge, myth and reality, particularly in the context of the
relationship between the Western academy and Indigenous knowledge. We close this
paper by drawing together the implications for narratives of human evolution and
hunter-gatherer archaeology. Even though, or perhaps because, a narrative approach
challenges the status quo we nd that it oers many advantages to better understand
the past and also to enhance reexivity in the present.
Keywords: narratives, hunter-gatherer archaeology, anthropological archaeology,
human evolution, narrative turn
1. Introduction
e theme of narratives has become popular across a wide range of academic
disciplines in recent decades. From its traditional domain in literary studies,
it has increasingly been applied and discussed in philosophy, psychology,
social anthropology, geography and beyond. As an introduction to this special
issue of Hunter Gatherer Research, this article is not aimed at providing a full
assessment of trends related to narratives in disciplines that are most relevant to
research into hunting and gathering societies, particularly social anthropology
and archaeology. In fact, one could argue that these disciplines have moved
from the ‘narrative turn’ to concentrate now on turns to objects, materials and
ontology, which we will not be able to engage with in this paper. Rather, we
argue that, even in the light of more recent theoretical developments, narratives
are and always have been important, and that researchers interested in the
broad topic of hunter-gatherer studies should be engaging with narrative as a
serious topic of inquiry. In this spirit, we concentrate on a number of aspects
that are relevant to the relationships between archaeology and narratives, and
also to the theoretical and methodological challenges of research concerned
with hunting and gathering societies and which involves Indigenous people or
draws upon their knowledge and experiences.
In this paper, we use the terms ‘Indigenous’ and ‘hunting and gathering’ or
‘hunter-gatherer’ deliberately and separately. However, we are also aware of
the problematic tradition to equate indigeneity with any particular mode of
subsistence and its respective social theoretical and methodological orientations.
We tend to think that the theoretical distinction between hunting and gathering
and other kinds of societies is rather deleterious to a fuller and more balanced
understanding of these societies in the past and the present. So-called hunting
and gathering societies are as much structured by their particular subsistence
strategy as they are by ontologies or understandings of the world along
non-Western principles, with a particular emphasis on narratives to view and
express knowledge. We are therefore particularly mindful of the dangers of
epistemologically isolating hunting and gathering societies from the rest of
human societies and possibly implying that they are somehow closer to nature
and have to be understood accordingly (another major issue when Indigenous
peoples are regarded as ‘hunter-gatherers’). In fact, we want to specifically
draw attention to the importance of narratives as a challenge to such pejorative
treatment of hunter-gatherer and Indigenous peoples more broadly and explore
the importance of narrative equally for deep time contexts as well as reflexively
for archaeological research itself. We argue that archaeology still has much to
learn from Indigenous understandings of the importance of narratives and that
this is relevant for and applicable to archaeological research on hunter-gatherer
societies and human evolution. It appears that the value of such an engagement
has traditionally been underestimated and that exploring this theme draws
attention to a number of important issues of great relevance to the understanding
of archaeological evidence connected to hunter-gatherers as well as understanding
the practice of archaeological research. Such value encompasses the structure
and status of narratives in relation to social life, their relationships to an objective
reality and their entanglements with political power structures.
e collection of papers in this issue explores the ways that narratives in
the context of hunter-gatherer archaeology might be better theorised and
put into practice. ough many of the papers within this collection focus on
specific regions of the world and thus particular local narratives, we hope that
readers will identify broader trends and reconnect with the importance of
narratives both for practice and for the Indigenous peoples we work with and
whose history we work on. e contributions to this issue on the archaeology
of narratives are thus open to the challenge from our Indigenous collaborators
and fellow researchers and what they teach the broader academy about the
importance of story for engaging with material evidence of so-called hunter-
gatherers in the past.
2. Narratives and the ‘narrative turn’
Kreiswirth (1994) observed that around the 1970s and early 1980s a significant
change took place that affected a whole range of disciplines. He has termed this
development the ‘contemporary narrativist turn’, characterised by a ‘massive and
unprecedented eruption of interest in narrative and in theorizing about narrative’
(Kreiswirth 2000:295). At the most basic level, a narrative can be understood as
a rhetorical or communicative form that relates a number of events to each other
within a temporal framework, in the sense of a succession of events. e field
of narratology or narrative analysis primarily focused on literary theory and
materials but it has gone on to inspire engagement with narratives in a much
wider range of disciplines (see Kreiswirth 1994, 2000). During this time, ‘the
study of narrative was brought into connection with problematics of subjectivity
and identity, and attention was drawn to the way in which narratives shape our
relation to the world and to ourselves’ (Meretoja 2013:94).
Clearly narratives and stories have been the subject of inquiry and interest
since the first literary texts. However, before, the ‘narrative turn’ engagement
was typically restricted to the analysis of literary sources themselves and the
ways narratives could be distinguished from other forms of discourse, how they
were formally structured, how they changed over time and so on. While these
aspects and approaches have been further developed and refined over recent
decades, the formalisation of a field of narratology has facilitated and inspired
a much deeper and wide-reaching interest in narratives. is movement takes
us beyond literary and textual sources, to encompass aspects of ontology,
epistemology, politics, ideology and cognition. As such, narratives become a
theme and topic that crosses disciplinary boundaries and also larger academic
domains, such as the humanities, social and natural sciences. e spread of
narrative analyses in and across many disciplines is a reflection of the move
of the narrative theme from a specialised subject of inquiry to a complete and
multifaceted framework within which a whole range of phenomena can be
viewed and analysed: ‘story is no longer in the spotlight, but the lamp by which
other things are seen’ (Kreiswirth 1994:62).
Meretoja (2013, 2014) has proposed that the complex developments consti-
tuting the narrative turn can best be understood by distinguishing three
interrelated philosophical dimensions. First, authors have viewed the signif-
icance of narratives in epistemological terms and see them as a cognitive
mechanism, a crucial and fundamental vehicle for the organisation of
experiences and to make sense of the world. Second, narratives are given a
more fundamental significance and seen as reflective of ‘the ontology of human
existence and the ontological status accorded to human meaning-giving […]
We would not be human beings without engaging in a process of narratively
interpreting our experiences in the light of culturally-mediated models of
sense-making’ (Meretoja 2013:103). ird, both of these previous dimensions
have clear ethical implications in that they refer to the social construction and
dependencies of the world as well as related political interests and structures of
power. Narrative becomes a medium to either distort, manipulate or represent
reality (Meretoja 2016). ese aspects have to be taken into account when the
overall phenomenon of the narrative turn is considered and, subsequently, its
value for archaeology and in the context of research into hunting and gathering
societies evaluated. Kreiswirth (2000:297) has emphasised that the general
developments that constitute the so-called narrative or narrativist turn have to
be seen as being a part of an ongoing critical and self-reflexive assessment of
research paradigms and models of understanding. As such, the narrative turn
is also connected to the linguistic, rhetorical, interpretative and historical turns
that influence our understanding of the relationships between ‘the human’
and ‘the scientific’. e narrative turn has to a certain degree followed a logic
that took the focus of inquiry from a normative and static understanding of
human meaning making and moved it towards a more dynamic and situated
one. A ‘realisation, both in terms of linguistic and rhetorical inquiry, that
the production of knowledge was not universal and timeless but dependent
on certain kinds of historically specific communicative acts, hermeneutic
assumptions, and power relations brought issues of self-reflexivity and interpre-
tation to the fore’ (Kreiswirth 2000:299).
ere are several elements in this very brief introduction that have potential
relevance for archaeological inquiry and the issues discussed in the contributions
to this special issue. is assessment is probably not a surprise in the light of
the fundamental nature of the aspects that have been put forward and claims
of ‘the existential relevance of narrative for our being in the world’ (Meretoja
2013:94). In this contribution, it will not be possible to discuss all implications
of the complex developments outlined above. However, it appears that the
respective discussions are related to a range of issues that are of immediate
relevance to archaeology. Basically, the narrative turn is important because it
addresses our understanding of the relationship between human beings, the
structure of knowledge, the (material) environment and reality in a more general
sense. ese aspects are relevant both in terms of a conceptualisation of these
relationships in the past and in the present, both in the engagement between
Western researchers and Indigenous people as well as in relation to epistemo-
logical aspects of any scientific inquiry. In the following, we provide a range of
examples to illustrate areas in which we believe an engagement with narratives
appears to be important and valuable. ese relate to the conceptualisation of the
relationship between people and landscapes, the role of narratives in cognition
and human evolution, a critical assessment of the structure of scientific and
Indigenous knowledge and the relationship between the two.
3. Archaeology of landscape and the challenge of Indigenous narratives
A central element of archaeological practice and interpretation is the recognition
of the importance of spatial contextualisation of archaeological evidence to allow
reconstructions of past associations of artefacts, environments and features
(Trigger 1989). e study of hunting and gathering societies in archaeology has
long been heavily influenced by ecological approaches and respective method-
ologies that are borrowed from biological research. Accordingly, the relationships
between different entities (humans, animals, properties of the environment etc)
tend to be analysed in a mathematical fashion to allow calculations of effort,
energy expenditure, costs etc (Ingold 2000; Massey 2005). Nature, landscape or
the environment are consequently broken down into a geometric arrangement
of characteristics contained in a mathematical and continuous space. While it
is indeed one way to understand relationships between the so-called natural
environment and human activities, such approaches also ignore fundamental
questions such as, what exactly is the natural environment in this case and how
are the respective relationships conceptualised?
Many of the critiques of such Western characterisations make explicit
reference to the role of narratives in the relations between human beings
and the landscape. ese considerations draw heavily from the knowledge
and statements of Indigenous people and relate to the understanding that
the environment in which human beings (or any organism) exist and dwell is
never a neutral background. For example, Ingold (2000:189) has argued that
‘the landscape tells – or rather is – a story, “a chronicle of life and dwelling”’.
Engaging in this way with the ‘temporality of the landscape’ (Ingold 1993)
human beings continue to create their own intertwined stories, while reading
and interpreting the ones contained in the landscape, which are related to
them by others. Even though these aspects have been developed with reference
to general social anthropological and philosophical considerations, its logic is
deeply reflected in innumerable accounts of Indigenous conceptualisations of
and engagements with the ‘environment’ that have been widely discussed within
anthropology (Cruikshanks 2005; Descola 1996; Hastrup 2013; Kohn 2013).
Some of the most well-known cases are related by Indigenous Australians,
who are very much explicit in recognising that the ‘people’s history is written
in the land’ (Rose, D 1996). As Nganyinytja Ilyatjari, a senior Pitjantjatjara Law
Woman, told anthropologist Diana James in 1988:
We have no books, our history was not written by people with pen and paper. It
is in the land, the footprints of our Creation Ancestors are on the rocks. e hills
and creek beds they created as they dwelled in this land surround us. We learned
from our grandmothers and grandfathers as they showed us these sacred sites,
told us the stories, sang and danced with us the Tjukurpa (the Dreaming Law).
We remember it all; in our minds, our bodies and feet as we dance the stories. We
continually recreate the Tjukurpa. (quoted in James 2015:33)
James carefully explains the contrasting ways of knowing history that
Tjukurpa highlights and emphasises the importance of story and song, two
aspects that are often treated as non-factual in non-Indigenous contexts. ‘e
Indigenous history and creation ontology of Australia has been continuously
retold in story and song, and performed in dance passed down through
countless generations, before ever lines on a page tried to fence it into the
timeline of written history or authoritative text’ (James 2015:33). A key insight
from James’ (2015:35) work on Tjukurpa is the challenge it presents to scholars
reliant on written texts and Western frameworks of understanding history. She
emphasises the need to attune our senses to other ways of knowing history,
which links to the idea of establishing two-way thinking in these contexts (Porr
& Bell 2012).
e work of Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe scholar Vanessa Watts (2013)
has also been particularly influential in expanding our understanding of the
position of story in Indigenous thought. Watts provides an example of the
status of narrative in a non-Western, Indigenous context and here particularly
we focus on her criticism of how Indigenous creation stories and cosmologies
are rendered as ‘just’ stories in Western colonialist discourse. Watts (2013:22)
writes that: ‘Indigenous understandings are often viewed as mythic by
“modern” society, while our stories are considered to be an alternative mode
of understanding rather than “real” events’. What is achieved by doing this,
according to Watts, is not just the delegitimising of Indigenous stories but
it also makes ‘Indigenous peoples stand in disbelief of themselves and their
histories’. Watts (2013:22) continued to explain that the Indigenous framework
is not abstract, rather their stories are ‘a literal and animate extension of
Sky Woman’s and First Woman’s thoughts’. Watts (2013:26) highlights how
problematic it is that Indigenous cosmologies become examples of a ‘symbolic
interconnectedness’ or ‘a way in which to view the world’:
In an epistemological-ontological frame, Indigenous cosmologies would be
examples of a symbolic interconnectedness – an abstraction of a moral code.
It would be a way in which to view the world – the basis for an epistemological
stance. From a Haudenosaunee worldview, this is what happened. Further,
Haudenosaunee systems, peoples, territories, etc. are affected by this relationship
between the ree Sisters. It is more than a lesson, a teaching or even an historical
account. eir conscious and knowing agreement directly extends to our philos-
ophies, thoughts and actions as Haudenosaunee peoples. (Watts 2013:26)
Watts’ views are also elaborated by Jill Milroy, a Noongar Elder and academic
from Southwest Australia, in the following way:
My mother and grandmother always taught me about the importance of stories
in understanding and knowing and that it was through stories that we learn the
truth about the world. ey also taught me that it is not people who are the best
storytellers: the birds, the animals, the trees, the rocks and the land, our mother,
have the most important stories to tell us. ese stories exist in place, and by
‘mapping’ these story systems we fundamentally alter the way in which we can
‘know’ Country. (Milroy & Revell 2013:2)
ese examples not only emphasise the central position of narratives or stories
in Indigenous thought but also the intertwined aspect of stories with landscape
and the understanding of the environment in general (see eg McDonald & Veth
2011, 2013). Archaeology and Western science clearly continue to struggle with
the dissolution of the culture/nature dualism in understanding reality (Harrison
2015). Beyond the widely popularised image of Dreamtime tracks or ‘songlines’
in Western literature (cf Chatwin 1998), this understanding is more a reflection
of an ontology that recognises the dynamic, relational and intertwined character
of being that cannot be compartmentalised into different aspects (eg humanity,
nature, animals, the environment etc). It also emphasises the storied character
of life itself that continuously and irreducibly develops equally through space as
well as through time (Ingold 2015; Rose, S 2005). Accordingly, stories acquire
a profound significance that clearly links to the ontological dimension of the
narrative turn, which was introduced above (Meretoja 2014).
From an archaeological perspective, this orientation is indeed both a
potential and a challenge because it is clearly exactly these aspects that are
deeply intertwined in Indigenous thought with spatial aspects, places and
landscape, and yet the traditional approaches in our discipline do not typically
accept such knowledge. Clearly Indigenous creation ontologies are more than
‘make-believe’ or ‘dreams’ (as the term ‘Dreaming’ in the Australian context
has indeed suggested [James 2015]), as in many cases, these stories also contain
historical information. However, we need to be extremely careful that we do
not encourage archaeologists to set out to ‘prove’ such stories ‘right’ – indeed as
Watts (2013) illustrates, such attempts often end up missing the point of taking
story seriously at all. Corroboration from sources more traditionally acceptable
in non-Indigenous contexts, eg marine geography (Nunn & Reid 2016), can
indeed be useful in advocating for the overall importance of Indigenous stories.
ere is, however, a danger involved in seeking such forms of validity since they
might continue a pejorative treatment of story as something that is fictional
until proven otherwise by science and that might continue the authoritarian
approach that some Western academics take in thinking it is their place to be
arbiters of ‘truth’.
4. Human evolution and narratives
Given the above-mentioned importance of narratives or myths among
Indigenous people, it is probably not a surprise that there is also an interest in the
importance of narratives and the human ability for storytelling in evolutionary
frameworks due to previously pervasive primitivist discourses that connected
the two (Anderson 2007). In this section, we critically survey approaches that
focus on the importance of narrative for understanding cognitive evolution
or the origins of modern humans. Such ‘narrative’ approaches have gained
traction in the last few decades (see Gottschall 2012) and one of the most widely
known is Donald’s (1991) model of cognitive evolution.
According to Donald, ‘the modern human mind emerged over several
million years’ and went through three major cognitive transformations. ese
transformations supposedly produced three ‘uniquely human systems of
memory representation, and [] three interwoven layers of human culture,
each supported by its corresponding set of representations’ (Donald 1993:737).
e stages he proposed consisted of a ‘mimetic’ stage, followed by the addition
of lexical invention and a high-speed phonological apparatus, and, finally, by
the development of external memory storage and retrieval. Symbolic language
enters this model at the second stage and adds the element of storytelling.
Indeed, narrative thought is seen somewhat as an inevitable consequence
of language itself (apparently because of the supposed linearity of language)
(Donald 1993:745). He follows Dunbar’s (1993) suggestion that oral language
originally arose in social circumstances to describe other people’s actions
and remains – until today – focused on the human world, particularly on
relationships. Language itself evolved for Donald ‘primarily as a method of
modelling reality’, a process that is seen as the origin and justification of the
existence of ‘dominant myths of a society’ (Donald 1993:745). In this scheme,
language and myth became twin developments that allowed humans for the
first time to understand and represent phenomena in a temporal sequence.
erefore, the above-mentioned ‘standardised narrative versions of reality
acquired the important function to act as cultural transmission vehicles:
‘Mythic culture allows for the transmission of collective knowledge through
oral mythology and ritual. Great narratives could be constructed and passed on
as tradition’ (Menary 2007:132).
Donald’s understanding of the origins of the modern mind continues to be
influential in academic as well as more popular contexts (eg Gottschall 2012;
Renfrew 2008a, 2008b). is functional and systemic approach is supposedly
also compatible with a Darwinian explanation of human evolution. However,
Donald (1993) in fact does not make many references to adaptive processes
whatsoever. He rather stresses the assumed advantages of more recent
developments within his scheme as such and in terms of greater efficiency
and an access to greater amounts of and more complex information. It is also
noteworthy that he seamlessly switches between deep time and anthropological
or sociological contexts when discussing the character and significance of
narratives for human cognitive evolution. He is indeed very clear about his
assessment that ‘the most technologically primitive human societies’ reflect
‘the earliest form of integrative thought’, because of their ‘elaborate systems
of myth. He continues to argue that myths, as ‘socially pervasive constructs
continue to exert a major influence on the way oral societies – and indeed most
modern societies – are run’ (Donald 1993:745; emphasis added).
e value and ontological status of narratives are clearly quite dubious in this
model. ere is a notable contradiction to the earlier assessment that portrays
language and myth as an advanced cognitive device to model reality that must
have had some evolutionary advantage over earlier cognitive devices. However,
at the same time, this device is regarded as not much more than the source
of ‘socially pervasive constructs’, which implies that it is a lens that foremost
misrepresents reality and is open to manipulation within social contexts. It
is not entirely clear how these issues are tackled in modern societies, but it
appears that certain modern human minds are positioned as a more advanced
information processing device, because of the challenges of the amount and
variety of signs, symbols and artefacts that need to be understood and
mastered. ese allow the development of
metalinguistic thought skills that have been taught in Western academies
over the past few thousand years, moving from an early emphasis on oral and
narrative skills, toward visuosymbolic and paradigmatic skills. (Donald 1993:747)
It is notable that Donald, and related authors, tend to reproduce versions
of human evolution that reflect basic features of Western intellectual history,
which also formed the backbone of the speculative armchair evolutionistic and
racist schemes of the nineteenth and early twentieth century (Kuper 1988).
To give just one, perhaps lesser known example, Donald’s assessment of the
status of myths and narratives mirrors almost exactly the vision of one of the
founding fathers of German social anthropology, Leo Frobenius (1873–1938).
From early childhood, Frobenius was fascinated with non-Western cultures
and saw in them representatives of earlier stages of humankind’s history.
Following the German tradition, he was also inspired by the collections of folk
tales put together by the Grimm brothers and G Herder, who suggested that
all of humanity is united by an underlying mythological stratigraphy, which in
Europe can only be accessed through folk tales or Märchen (which were orally
transmitted and in danger of being swamped by modern education and writing).
is narrative stratigraphy supposedly formed the dominant mode of thought
in non-Western peoples. Following these traditions, Frobenius suggested that
human cultures develop like living organisms and that they grow, mature and
perish like individual human beings (eg Streck 2014).
At first glance not much seems to connect the strange, poetic and wildly
speculative elaborations of Frobenius with Donald’s highly technical approach.
However, as will also be discussed below, ideas about human evolution often
retain a surprisingly stable underlying logic, despite fundamental differences in
available data and empirical research results (Landau 1991; Stoczkowski 2002;
Strum & Latour 1987). Donald and later authors, such as Renfrew (2008b), are
not much interested in local and historically contingent advantages of particular
developments (eg the historical conditions of the origins of writing). Rather they
construct a grand evolutionary/historical narrative that appears to drive itself,
because of an assumed self-evident tendency of evolution that rewards greater
speed, sophistication and complexity and is particularly important in the realm
of cognitive information processing. e presentation of these processes as
automatic and self-evident resembles Frobenius’ vision of the growth of societies
through stages of infancy, youth and maturity. ‘Prehistoric’ and ‘preliterate’
or ‘mythic’ societies within these schemes represent quite openly stages of
humanity’s childhood and the myths and stories of these societies are also quite
openly regarded as equivalent to the stories and tales for children in Western
society. ey are furthermore represented as being opposed to ‘real’ written texts,
books and complex information processing technologies, which are presented as
mature, serious and grown-up. At this stage, the question clearly arises how one
can be distinguished from the other, which is, of course, related to the ontological
status of narratives and other forms of knowledge within these epistemological
schemes. is interpretative framework is driven implicitly by the assumption
about the impossibility of narratives to accurately represent reality in contrast
to ‘scientific knowledge’, which is supposedly universal not historically or locally
contingent. What stands behind these frameworks is the Western approach to
knowledge creation and representation that affords itself a superior access to
reality. In turn, other knowledge systems and life ways become either incomplete
or failed versions in this universal epistemological competition (Porr 2014).
More recent contributions that discuss narratives and storytelling in the
context of human cognitive evolution tend to be less dismissive about the
importance of these for the origins of modern thinking (Gamble 1999, 2007;
Gottschall 2012). Not surprisingly, however, many of these contributions
continue to view narratives within a functional or adaptive framework and in
comparable terms to the problematic approaches outlined above. To give just
one more recent example, Langley (2013:615) has argued that modern humans
can be characterised by a ‘meaning imbued (“storied”) landscape approach’
and distinguished from the Neanderthals’ ‘story-less interaction with the
environment’. According to this approach, storytelling is an integral aspect of
‘landscape socialisation’ in terms of ‘impregnating meaning into each location
and its resources resulting in the construction of rules and stories tied to each
specific site’ (Langley 2013:615). Narratives in this model do a remarkable range
of things for people, including regulating access to materials and locations of
social importance, allowing for the ‘easy dissemination of the accumulated
knowledge of that landscape’, and providing complex cultural meanings to
the environment, which supposedly ‘humanises the landscape for subsequent
human use’, ‘turns the wilderness into our friend or enemy’ and ‘allows us to
bond with our environment and make a wild landscape feel more like ‘home’’
(Langley 2013:615616).
Here, we do not want to elaborate on the various issues that can be raised
against the proposed argument; they would basically be similar to most critiques
of functional and adaptive interpretations of complex cultural phenomena.
However, it is notable that the author does not explain why (the dazzlingly
complex) cultural meanings or stories are in fact very adaptive and efficient ways
to achieve the proposed benefits (territorial and social delineation, information
transfer, emotional stability in the face of an apparently hostile wilderness).
A key contradiction here is that resources and their values are defined
externally to the stories and cultural meanings. e environment is viewed
as a given (a neutral background) and ultimately is external to human social
relationships. Cultural meanings or narratives are either attached to or made to
impregnate the resources or materials, but ultimately the environment and the
people remain fundamentally separate. In this way, the problems of Donald’s
orientation outlined above are unwittingly replicated in this evaluation of
stories and narratives within human cognitive evolution. ese characteristics
demonstrate an underlying epistemological orientation towards narratives
(Meretoja 2014), in which they are seen as cultural tools to communicate
information about social relationships and the environment, but, invariably,
reality and the respective values and resources are assessed separately and
according to different and supposedly more ‘objective’ standards.
5. Knowledge, myth and reality
e examples discussed above demonstrate some important underlying
issues related to fundamental questions about the relationship between the
environment, reality and the myriad of different cultural expressions that are
known historically and ethnographically. While the longevity of problematic
Western approaches to narratives, despite different research contexts and aims,
might be surprising in some respects, it can also be argued that they are in fact
related to long-standing attitudes about these relationships in Western thought,
which form the foundations of so-called modern science itself. For example,
Ingold (2013:734) recently drew attention to Francis Bacon’s passionate rally in
1620 against traditional ways of knowing, ‘that continually mixed up the reality
of the world with its configurations in the minds of men’. e latter supposedly
cannot be trusted in knowing the ‘world itself’ or ‘the reality of nature that can
be discovered only through systematic scientific investigation’. e authority of
science consequently ‘rests upon its claim to disclose, behind the home-made
“figments” that the imagination paints before our eyes, the facts of what is really
there’ (Ingold 2013:735). is argument also then implies that these two different
realms – the one of material, patterned, physical reality guided by universal
laws, and the one of imagination, story, narrative, fantasy – should under no
circumstances be confused. is ideology has not only become the foundation
of modern science, but also of modern Western thought to the extent that, ‘the
division of real life and the imagination into the two mutually exclusive realms
of fact and fable has become so engrained as to be self-evident’ (Ingold 2013:735).
e critique of this division draws attention to the fact that the assessment of
narratives is implicitly or explicitly entangled in the assessment of different forms
of knowledge, its (re)production and status in relation to ‘reality’ (Latour 1999).
ese are all aspects that can broadly be related to the ontological dimension
of the narrative turn and a more fundamental understanding of narratives
as irreducibly constituting reality (Meretoja 2014). In this understanding, a
separation of narratives and stories and the environment is simply not possible
and these relationships become all-encompassing. In a fascinating and passionate
exploration, Cohen (2015) elaborates on the many dimensions of the entanglement
of stone through human history. ese innumerable histories and entanglements
show the power of stories in structuring stone itself beyond dichotomies between
cultural/natural, human/inhuman, life/death and material/immaterial. Stories
and narratives shape stone into a myriad of substances and materials of potentials
and characteristics so much that they become indistinguishable. Stone has always
been bound up in knowledge and knowledge-making:
Stones are the partners with which we build the epistemological structures that
may topple upon us. ey are ancient allies in knowledge making. […] Stone
becomes history’s bedrock as lithic agency impels human knowing. Neither dead
matter nor pliant utensil, bluntly impedimental as well as collaborative force,
stone brings story into being. (Cohen 2015:4)
ese ideas show some reflections of Latour’s (eg 2005) actor network
theory and an emphasis on the active role of nonhuman agents in social life.
Accordingly, stone has to be regarded as an active component in the ongoing
and storied creation of human existence: ‘Stone does not carry story passively
forward, tractable surface for inscription. e lithic is tangled in narrative: prod
as well as hindrance, ally as well as foe, a provocative and complicit agency’
(Cohen 2015:12).
e fundamental character of stories for human existence has also been
stressed by Ingold from a different perspective. Critical of actor network theory (eg
Ingold 2008), he has developed a complex anthropological philosophy that focuses
on the dynamic characteristics of human beings, other organisms and materials
(Ingold 2000, 2011, 2015). Stories and storytelling are crucially important to
Ingold’s approach, as they allow one to move beyond a conception of reality that
is constituted of discrete entities with essential characteristics and toward a
recognition of its dynamism and relational character. is shif t of perspective is not
just an epistemological reorientation; it is the consequence of recognising reality
as a ‘lifeworld’ or ‘storied world’ (Ingold 2011:141–142). Accordingly, this shift has
fundamental consequences for understanding a vast range of concepts that are
crucially important for anthropology in a wide sense of the term. For example,
the term ‘culture’ has always been equally central and challenging for the anthro-
pological endeavour. Ingold suggests that rather than seeing it as a ‘received and
totalising system of classification’ it should be enlivened ‘by stressing its creativity
and open-endedness, and its relational constitution as an interweaving of stories’
(Ingold 2011:142). Ingold extends this understanding to a wide range of themes and
topics, including biological organisms and the nature of knowledge. Both of which
are clearly interconnected by processes of growth, movement and engagement.
Organisms consequently shape themselves and acquire knowledge along paths
of movement. is understanding is no doubt developed from engagement with
Indigenous people and detailed ethnographies, as Ingold illustrates with reference
to the Koyukon First Nations people from Alaska:
For the Koyukon, names are not nouns but verbs, and knowing is akin to
storytelling. e names that Koyukon people give to animals may be based on
descriptions of their behaviour, or Distant Time stories of world creation, or
riddles. In each case, to name the animal is not to affix a label to it but to tell its
story. Animals do not exist for the Koyukon; rather they occur, and life activity of
the animal and the telling of its story are alternative manifestations of the same
occurrence. (Ingold 2011:143; emphasis in original)
All of these considerations further emphasise that the characterisation and
appreciation of knowledge is profound in understanding different societies, their
practices and histories. Within social anthropology, there is little doubt that
views about forms of knowledge are of crucial importance and that they cannot
easily be separated from a whole range of profound epistemological, political,
legal and ontological issues (Leach & Davis 2012). is theme is also extensively
discussed in the context of ethnographic research with Indigenous people (eg
Brody 2001; Cruikshanks 1998; Willerslev 2007). As introduced in the section
on landscape narratives, it has long been recognised that stories of different
forms and character are of great significance for Indigenous ways of knowing
and, accordingly, a vast body of literature has developed since the origins of
academic anthropology in the nineteenth century. A lot of this literature has
been devoted to the recording, structural analysis and systematisation of
so-called myths. Some of the most influential anthropologists have particularly
concentrated on this aspect of cultural practice, possibly most prominently
C Lévi-Strauss (1963, 1987). It is of course not possible here to provide an
overview of the discussions surrounding myths in anthropology. We want to
draw attention to a more recent development connected to the ‘ontological
turn’ within social anthropology (Kelly 2014), which is related to a certain
degree to developments within the French social sciences, including authors
such as Descola (eg 2013) and Latour (eg 2013). ere are a range of important
and undertheorised elements contained in this intellectual movement that are
also significant for the wider concern with hunting and gathering societies,
human evolution and the understanding of Indigenous knowledge systems in
relation to scientific and anthropological inquiry (for elaboration, see critiques
in Todd 2016; Weismantel 2014). However, here we want to concentrate on one
aspect that is related to the reassessment of mythical narratives.
Viveiros de Castro has on several occasions provided a fundamental critique
of the foundations of the anthropological endeavour (eg Viveiros de Castro 1998,
2011, 2013, 2014). is critique has been developed with particular reference to
Amerindian case studies but has wider implications for the relational conceptual-
isation of Indigenous ways of knowing and their epistemological and ontological
dimensions (and, consequently, applies to concerns with hunting and gathering
societies in archaeology). In relation to the understanding of myth, Viveiros de
Castro equally criticises the structuralist approach as well as the cognitivist
stance. e former explicitly assumed that
myths do not say anything capable of instructing us on the order of things, on the
nature of reality, the origin of man or his destiny. Instead, […] myths do teach us
much about the societies from which they originate and, above all, about certain
fundamental (and universal) operative modes belonging to the human mind.
(Lévi-Strauss quoted in Viveiros de Castro, 2013:493; emphasis in original)
Despite many rhetorical differences, the cognitivist position can also ‘be
seen as a systematic elaboration of this attitude, which consists in reducing
Indigenous discourse to a set of propositions, selecting those that are false (or
alternatively, “empty”) and producing an explanation of why humans believe in
them, given that they are false or empty’ (Viveiros de Castro 2013:493; emphasis
in original). In both cases, myth is detached from (external) reality, whose
description and analysis remains the sole domain of Western science. Viveiros
de Castro’s alternative proposition can hardly be summarised in so few words
(see Viveiros de Castro 2014). However, to cut an incredibly complex story short,
for Viveiros de Castro the significance of Indigenous myths (and concepts) is
presented by their challenge to taken-for-granted ideas about the world – as long
as they are ‘taken seriously’ in the sense of suspending the desire to explicate
the other, which normally results in dissolving the other’s world ‘into either
the reality of our own world or mere fantasy’ (Candea 2011:147). According to
Viveiros de Castro, the supposed irrationality and factual inaccuracy of myths
cannot easily be swept aside with reference to equally supposed universal
categories and concepts about humans, animals, stones, plants etc. ey have
to be seen as philosophies in the full sense of the term (not just Indigenous
philosophies!). As such, they present radically different ways of being and
thinking about being human. In fact, what we take away from Viveiros de
Castro’s work is that when myth is transformed from a curiosity or residual
aspect of cognition from humanity’s childhood it offers a profound challenge
of the modern Western scientific project. Viveiros de Castro is very aware of
the political dimension of this shift that is only further enhanced through
anthropology’s historical dependence on European colonialism (see also Watts
2013). e project of ‘a theory of peoples’ ontological autodetermination’ and
anthropology as ‘the practice of the permanent decolonisation of thought’ are
only two sides of the same coin (Viveiros de Castro 2011:128).
6. Narratives of human evolution and hunter-gatherers
e insights in the preceding section on the importance of narrative and the
challenge of taking it seriously are relevant for any discipline that aspires
to understand human behaviour, particularly comparatively and cross-
culturally. Clearly, this includes an archaeological concern with hunting and
gathering societies and human evolution even though, of course, the direct
discursive/dialogical element is sometimes absent in these contexts. Although
anthropological and archaeological research have always been and remain
particularly close (Cummings et al 2014), at the same time, archaeological
studies and the study of deep time contexts have often been restricted to
relatively narrow theoretical orientations (Alden Smith et al 2011; Kuper &
Marks 2011). As we have outlined elsewhere, the impact of postcolonial and
comparable critical strands of social theoretical thought have so far made a
marginal impact on this field of research (Porr & Matthews in press). We regard
this as unfortunate because the critique of knowledge that has been raised in
this context also affects foundational concepts that structure the understanding
of human evolution and human origins (see also eg Marks 2015). is includes
fundamental dichotomies such as culture/nature but also problematic concepts
such as human nature, which reflect implicit philosophical orientations that
have been subjected to significant critique in other fields for some time (Gosden
1999; Lewens 2012; Porr 2014, 2015a).
We suggest that the concern with narratives and storytelling draws attention
to a number of important issues that are of great relevance to the archaeology of
hunter-gatherers in deep time as well as in more recent contexts. For example,
an emphasis on a storied nature of human being questions the essentialist
foundations of the current most widely accepted narratives of human evolution
that implicitly construct humanity’s becoming as a slow unfolding of an original
essence that is imagined according to modern rationalist values (Ingold 2004).
How could the cognitive evolution of humanity not be teleological when modern
Western thought is considered the most highly developed and most sophis-
ticated system facilitated by an ever-increasing array of complex technologies
that continuously expand the human mind in all directions? Within Western
taxonomic thought, these aspects are taken as self-evident and continue to
be uncritically replicated. While these issues are rarely reflected on in deep
time contexts, they are ideologically and logically connected to ethnographic
circumstances where Western and Indigenous world views clash and need to
be negotiated. e history of Australia alone provides myriads of examples that
connect the beginnings of European colonialism to the present day (Anderson
2007; Anderson & Perrin 2007; Doohan 2013; Suchet-Pearson et al 2013).
Like so many ubiquitous terms and concepts that structure our current
understanding of the variability of the human past and present, ‘hunter-
gatherer’ itself has a complex and historically contingent history. e most
recent understanding of hunter-gatherers is the product of 1960s anthropo-
logical fieldwork (especially Lee & DeVore 1968). It rests on a much longer
intellectual history that at least goes back to the mid-eighteenth century and the
use of economic categories (eg hunters, pastoralists, farmers etc) as reflections
of a universal history and ‘stadial schemes of human development defined by
subsistence categories’ (Pluciennik 2004:17). Of course, this history has been
far from clear-cut and unambiguous and the value of the category itself has
been controversially discussed in recent years (Barnard 2014; Pluciennik 2014;
Yengoyan 2004). However, despite these numerous critical developments, we
would argue that it remains a problem that they have not penetrated deeply into
a revision of more distant periods of the human past (Cannon 2014). With the
category of ‘hunter-gatherer’ itself being defined in economic terms and therefore
connected to a dominant Western perception of humanity’s history it is probably
no surprise that ecological/evolutionary approaches remain dominant within this
field. is situation persists in the face a general disciplinary diversification (see eg
Cummings et al 2014; Lee & Daly 2005) but also some significant contradictions
that exist within the dominant analytical framework in relation to evolutionary
and economic causalities (Ingold 2000). Despite significant developments in this
field, we largely agree with Cannon (2014:92) that a ‘post-modernist critique of
Western-based academic assumptions, including notions of objectivity and the
value of comparative analysis’ has ‘only slowly penetrated the domain of hunter-
gatherer research, especially in archaeology. We argue that these aspects require
further critical investigation because they point to some significant intellectual
influences that structure the perception and analysis of so-called hunter-gatherer
societies that remain so far largely unexplored.
Landau (1984) has provided an analysis of the ‘narratives of human evolution’
that not only aligns with the aims of the narrative turn but also stands as
a classic analysis of the underlying structures of anthropological writing.
Landau argued convincingly for general tendencies within palaeoanthropology
to frame seemingly objective processes of human evolution into structures
that are similar to European folktales. All of these appear to contain deeply
ingrained elements of ‘hero stories’, which ‘feature a humble hero who departs
on a journey, receives essential equipment from a helper or donor figure,
goes through tests and transformations, and finally arrives at a higher state’
(Landau 1991:x). An important conclusion of her analysis is that these narrative
structures in fact often contradict principles of natural selection and allow
authors to draw on causal/guiding forces outside of Darwinian evolution.
is observation then further explains the above-mentioned inconsistencies
within the dominant explanatory framework in hunter-gatherer archaeology.
In another important study, Stoczkowski (2002:188) concluded that authors of
human origins hominisation scenarios basically ‘make use of the elements of
a pre-existing conceptual heritage and switch them round, modify and enrich
them so as to construct narratives endowed with a “meaning” or a message
or a moral. In the event, the rules of the scientific game may be broken,
but the narration triumphs’. However, Stoczkowski also expands Landau’s
original analysis to encompass further historical and philosophical aspects.
He stresses that most accounts of human evolution/origins are based on the
implicit interrelated assumptions of environmental determinism, materialism,
utilitarianism and individualism (Stoczkowski 2002:16–17). However, at the
same time, these are invariably complemented by two conceptions that appear
to lead an autonomous existence within the narratives that are constructed
about humanity’s deep past: the ideas of a ‘hostile nature’ and a ‘weak
and suffering primordial man’. Stoczkowski (2002:18–19) calls these elements
‘mythical’ because their longevity can be traced back to Classical Greek and
Roman texts and they appear to be largely unaffected by empirical (archaeo-
logical or palaeoanthropological) facts and findings. We would argue that the
implications of these analyses and findings are still underappreciated today as
they appear to be responsible for the universalistic and teleological structure of
arguments about human origins/cognitive evolution and contradictions related
to essentialist assumptions about a range of aspects that we have outlined above
and elsewhere (eg Porr 2011, 2014, 2015b).
ese latter observations might again be related to the relative absence of
critical and reflective analyses in the field of hunter-gatherer archaeology and
human evolutionary studies. It needs to be stressed that this situation is not
matched by developments in the wider field of archaeology. At least since the
1980s a range of important critical contributions have been published (Trigger
1984, 1989), which have been further developed over the following decades
(Emberling 2016; Habu et al 2008; Mickel 2013). Here it is not possible to
evaluate all of ‘archaeology’s epic battles with storytelling and stereotypes’
(cf Mickel 2015) that are reflected in these contributions. We rather want to
draw attention to an aspect that was already observed by Landau (1991) in the
conclusion to her seminal contribution. Reflecting on the options for archae-
ologists in the face of her findings and an emphasis on producing more ‘popular
stories’ or providing ‘the raw material for more poetic conceptions’, Landau
suggests that archaeologists or palaeoanthropologists might follow anthro-
pology’s lead and become a ‘form of cultural criticism’ (Landau 1991:184–185).
is is a reference to the movement that quickly linked the ‘writing culture’
(Clifford & Marcus 1986) to the ‘anthropology as cultural critique’ (Marcus
& Fischer 1986) themes within social anthropology during the 1980s. e
recognition of the role of rhetoric, creativity and freedom in academic writing
logically entailed a new engagement with issues of responsibility on behalf of
the researcher and the basis of the construction of narratives and scientific
knowledge in general.
7. Conclusion
Developing a narrational archaeology is a vexed issue because of significant
disagreements about the benefits and dangers of narratives, the relationships
to an objective reality and their entanglements with political power structures.
ese elements are particularly significant for an archaeological concern
with hunting and gathering societies, human evolution and an archaeological
engagement with Indigenous people and their histories. Given the historical
and epistemological entanglements of archaeology and anthropology, these
aspects are intimately connected to questions about colonial narratives and
other related streams within Western thought and history (Said 1994, 1995;
Trigger 1984). Just like social anthropology, archaeology has to engage critically
with the representation of the Other in its discourses and the ethical issues
that go hand-in-hand with this (Fabian 1983). ese aspects refer back to the
status of Indigenous knowledge systems and their treatment within academic
frames of reference. However, we want to make clear a narrative perspective or
taking narratives seriously is not an automatic resolution to the epistemological
and ontological violence that non-Western societies regularly experience in
academic contexts. As Meretoja explains:
Narratives can enhance our capacity for both critical self-reflection and imagining
of others. At the same time, we need to remember that nothing in narratives
guarantees the actualization of this ethical potential. Narratives can just as well
be abused by framing them as an objective rendering of reality as such; in the
guise of the discourse of truth they can violently categorize people, reinforce the
repetition of harmful emotional and behavioural patterns, and shut down conver-
sation instead of opening it up. (Meretoja 2016:25)
With the above caveat, we argue that including narrative approaches in the
theoretical toolbox appears more valuable than ever, either as a heuristic device
to better understand the past or to enhance reflexivity in the present – or
perhaps even to dissolve the distinction between past and present altogether.
Finally, we feel that it is fitting to close out this paper on the importance of
narratives with a personal note and to introduce another key inspiration for
our interest in establishing an explicit narrative perspective in archaeology.
Hannah Rachel Bell had a long-term engagement with the Ngarinyin people
of the Kimberley and their philosophies of place, Country and the importance
of story. Hannah suggested that archaeology has much to learn from this and
proposed exploring the idea of a ‘narrational archaeology’ that engages with the
environment through story, fundamentally accepting that this engagement always
has an author and a perspective, a narrator. Hannah’s works are all testament to
her profound and unique contribution to thinking on this topic, especially her
book Storymen (Bell 2009), her collaboration with one of us (Porr & Bell 2012)
and the book that she inspired by renowned Australian writer Tim Winton
(2015), Island Home. Hannah, unfortunately, passed away on 21 October2015
and did not get to see the work she inspired come to fruition. is project has
been hers as much as it has been ours and we dedicate it to her memory.
8. Acknowledgements
is special issue and paper in Hunter Gatherer Research derive from a session
at the 11th Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS 11), held
in Vienna in September 2015. We would like to acknowledge Brenda Allen
(University of Auckland), Bryce Barker (University of Southern Queensland),
Jo McDonald and Peter Veth (both University of Western Australia), who were
unable to contribute to this issue but made important contributions to the
session. We would like to thank the HGR editors Graeme Warren, Louis Forline
and Larry Barham for their enthusiastic support and guidance on this paper as
well as the special issue overall. anks also to the two anonymous reviewers
who provided critical feedback on this paper. We as authors accept responsi-
bility for any errors that might remain within this contribution.
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  • ... The current key challenges for both disciplines are related to the epistemological negotiation of the re- lationships between storied (Aboriginal) knowledge and classificatory (Western scientific) knowledge and the development of interpretative frameworks that al- lows assessment of their respective ontological char- acteristics (Ingold 2011, 141-76;Porr & Matthews 2016). As outlined above, these aspects impact the un- derstanding of time, space, agency, materiality and so on, and are highlighted whenever a serious and sig- nificant engagement with Traditional Owners' views and perspectives is attempted (McGrath & Jebb 2015 and references therein;Porr & Bell 2012). ...
    ... (J. Oobagooma, quoted in Blundell et al. 2017a, 286) These significant and constitutional relationships are created and expressed by narratives and stories, which, accordingly, take on a central position in the expression and communication of knowledge-as op- posed to their marginal position in Western ideologies (Porr & Matthews 2016). For Aboriginal people and societies, story is crucial for all aspects of life and exis- tence. ...
    ... This is a world of engagement and interaction, and not one of separation and dissection. To be able to understand the status of story in relational ontology, one must ask what knowledge in a storied world is and how it can be developed, shared and accessed (Porr & Matthews 2016). These ideas have profound effects on the no- tions of representation and knowledge. ...
    Full-text available
    The Aboriginal cultural traditions of Australia, their histories, philosophies and characteristics, have fascinated and intrigued European observers and scholars for a very long time. This paper explores some implications of recent ethnographic information and engagements related to the themes of Indigenous rock art, knowledge and the understanding of Country in the Kimberley region, Western Australia, for the interpretation of archaeological evidence. It is argued that the Aboriginal understanding of cultural features and practices, rock art and the natural environment is best described within a framework of relational ontology. This orientation has important consequences for the conceptualization of a range of interrelated key themes, most importantly ‘space and place’, ‘story and narrative’ and ‘knowledge and representation’. Thus, the paper calls for the development of opportunities of intellectual engagement and exchange as well as collaborative and creative responses, which should also include new forms of expression in academic contexts that themselves reflexively engage with the limitations of writing and representation.