Logo IMG


The Legacy of Lewis Binford

Stephen Lekson

Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets. Lewis R. Binford. xx + 563 pp. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001. $75.

Farming is an unfinished experiment. For most of our time on Earth, humans and our hominid ancestors have lived by hunting and gathering nature's bounty—that is, by eating whatever we could find. Start the clock 2 million years ago, when our genus first appeared; we've been farming for less than 12,000 years. Fully modern humans have been farmers for less than one-third of Homo sapiens sapiens's checkered past on this planet. It's too soon to tell if this farming thing will work out: It's not natural.

To understand the natural history of humans, we must understand hunters and gatherers. Most of the hunting and gathering groups have disappeared into the archaeological past. So, we must understand how to understand ancient hunters and gatherers—how to, in the words of the title, "construct frames of reference" for the bones, stones, fire hearths and camps that constitute the evidence of humanity's first and longest way of life.

A fish drive . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Lewis R. Binford has devoted most of his busy professional life to the archaeology of hunting and gathering. Much of his work on ancient hunting and gathering was done by focusing on the present: He lived with Nunamuit reindeer hunters, learned from Australian elders, studied Bushmen and visited many of the fast-vanishing hunting and gathering groups in today's world. He also compiled thousands of ancient stories and historic reports of the hunting and gathering societies that existed before those groups were displaced by farmers. He compared and contrasted those accounts with a zealous attention to textual detail that could win the admiration of a French literary critic. His vast "data set" on modern and historic hunting and gathering societies constitutes one axis of his research. The other axis is spatial, geographic, natural: a second enormous "data set" of global environmental measures shown (by Binford) to be relevant to hunting and gathering lifestyles, both in the present and in the past. In Constructing Frames of Reference, Binford arrays the hunter-gatherer data set against the environmental data set in a series of "pattern recognition" experiments.

That process sounds relatively simple, but Binford brings to this exercise enormous erudition, scientific sophistication and a National Academy intellect. The result is a huge, dense and difficult book, replete with charts and graphs and closely argued text. Particular points are called out in numbered series of 11 "problems," 86 "propositions" and 126 "generalizations."

This is Binford's hunting and gathering masterpiece; he refers to it as his "hunting and gathering book." Future generations of students will probably call it the "hunting and gathering bible"—quoting "Generalizations, Chapter 7, Number 10" like preachers citing scripture. Indeed, let us now open our "hunting and gathering book" to Generalizations, Chapter 7, Number 10: "With only one exception, groups exploiting terrestrial plants and aquatic resources are characterized by a reversed ordination in population density, with 48.8 persons per 100 square kilometers for groups classified as fishers and 82.7 persons for terrestrial plant users." That bit is typical. This book is not for general or casual readers. Even the summary chapters are challenging. As Binford shows, there's nothing "simple" about hunting and gathering groups, and building the scientific apparatus to study them everywhere at all times is complicated indeed.

There is no point (and little hope) in trying to summarize the conclusions of a work this vast and encyclopedic. Different researchers will benefit from different aspects of the book. About one-quarter of American archaeologists study ancient hunting and gathering societies: They will read it all. Scientists interested in climate change may focus on Binford's models of human responses to environmental change over the past 40,000 years. Those interested in sustainability and development can use Binford's "generalizations" as baseline data for human societies, then and now. The "hunting and gathering book" is a rich reference, and—like many standard reference works—it will be read and used differently by every reader.

One of Binford's target audiences, of course, is the profession of archaeology, whether of hunting and gathering societies or high civilizations. "Archaeology" is done by professors and curators in art history, religious studies, classics, astronomy and a surprising number of other disciplines, but Binford's archaeology is part of anthropology. He sees anthropological archaeology as a young science, still developing properly rigorous methods for understanding the past. This book is presented as a weighty example of "analytical method for archaeological theory building," in which he (correctly) judges anthropological archaeology as deficient.

Binford dominated the 1970s and 1980s as our most forceful proponent of scientific archaeology. Most of the theoretical writing by other archaeologists during the 1990s was in reaction to or in support of that program. Some anthropological archaeologists, beglamored by the humanities and the arts, rejected Binford's call for science in favor of more humane, historical approaches. Other archaeologists tried to "do science"—and, notably, the most successful scientific archaeology is that which deals with hunting and gathering societies. A split developed within archaeology's ranks that mirrors similar splits in the larger discipline of anthropology and in other social sciences: postmodern (and now post-postmodern) scholarship versus science. It sometimes goes beyond polite debate. Old, distinguished departments of anthropology at major universities have divided themselves, rancorously, into separate organizations along these lines.

Binford offers Constructing Frames of Reference as a powerful response to those who claim that scientific archaeology is impossible or (worse yet) unnecessary. The book may not win back postmodern apostates, but it will renew the faith of archaeologists who were, under the onslaught of Science Studies and Culture Wars, losing their religion.—Stephen H. Lekson, Anthropology and Museum of Natural History, University of Colorado, Boulder.

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:


Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Of Possible Interest

Classic Book Review: The Piltdown Forgery, by J. S. Weiner

Book Review: Two Journeys Through the Human Past

Book Review: Bridging the Millennia

Subscribe to American Scientist