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The Scandinavian Connection: The Roots of Darwinian Archaeology in 19th-Century Scandinavian Archaeology


Felix Riede

University of Cambridge, GB
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‘Evolution’ is without doubt one of archaeology’s favourite, most used and perhaps most overused words. However, ‘evolution’ comes in many guises and it is only really in the last ten years that an explicitly Darwinian approach to the archaeological record has begun to emerge. Today, the number of papers using Darwinian Theory grows almost exponentially, reflecting perhaps the current popularity of applying Darwinian Theory to human behaviour, including culture, in more general terms (Aunger 2000; Barrett et al. 2002; Laland & Brown 2002; Mesoudi et al. 2004; Ziman 2000). The field has developed its own technical jargon (Hart & Terrell 2002) and enjoys increasing public funding. Here is not the place to list, let alone discuss the entire corpus of works (but see and Instead this brief papers attempts to address some historical aspects of Darwinian thinking in archaeology. Although there is considerable diversity within this Darwinian or Evolutionary Archaeology (EA), this paper will focus primarily on its two most vocal American proponents: Michael J. O’Brien and Richard Lee Lyman. In a long series of publications they have not only put forward a “radically empiricist” (Shennan 2002a: 255), yet eminently workable Darwinian approach to artefact analysis, but they have also traced the intellectual ancestry of EA back to a number of key figures in early 20th century Americanist archaeology (Lyman et al. 1997b; Lyman & O’Brien 1997, 1999, 2000a, 2001, 2003, 2004; Lyman et al. 1997a, 1997b; Lyman et al. 1998; O’Brien et al. 2005). Despite the impressive amount of scholarship that has gone into these works and the exemplary publication strategy, which has been instrumental in promoting this particular approach, their version of the history of archaeology can be criticised as the writing of “partial histories” (Murray 2002a: 234). As Murray (2002a) has noted such histories are commonly used by archaeologists to justify their particular approach and to lend gravitas to a new method by linking it to some venerable founding father of the discipline. In this spirit this paper takes issue with O’Brien & Lyman’s history of EA, first and foremost on the basis of additional archival evidence that demonstrates that not only vague references to Darwin’s theory of descent with modification, but indeed explicit consideration of the application of Darwinian Theory to archaeological material go back as far as 1884 in Europe.
How to Cite: Riede, F., (2006). The Scandinavian Connection: The Roots of Darwinian Archaeology in 19th-Century Scandinavian Archaeology. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology. 16(1), pp.4–19. DOI:
Published on 22 May 2006.
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