Finding a balance with ethnoarchaeology?

I’m finally attempting to informally put into words some of my musings, misgivings, methods and mistakes around ethnoarchaeology. Clever colleagues of mine have already articulated very well the many pitfalls on the subject of making use of ethnographic data in archaeological research. Here I will try to summarise some of my own thoughts and research around ethnoarchaeology, and make a case for how we might proceed.

During the first year of my PhD, the head of the department was on my review panel. I summarised my plans for experimental and artefact studies on the earliest weapons – wooden spears from Pleistocene sites in Europe, the earliest of which is dated to about 400,000 years ago. Clearly I had done a sub-par job of presenting the scope of my proposed research, and as a result I was advised to make use of ethnography.

The difficulty was that ethnographic analogies had already played a key role in evaluating early weaponry, but the data had been selective. In academic papers, descriptions of hunting strategies by recent ‘hunter-gatherers’ (a problematic term in itself), including Western assessments of their technologies, were frequently racist in nature. For example, some researchers had suggested that certain recent Indigenous groups did not have the cognitive capacity to craft more sophisticated weapons. In other papers, summaries of ethnographic data on spear hunting were missing information, potentially deliberately so in order to support a theory that early hunting technologies and strategies were inferior to later developments.

Seeing these problems, I aimed for a more comprehensive ethnographic literature review which would show the breadth and variety of spear use amongst different societies, and the effectiveness of these tools. Simultaneously, as I suspected that archaeologists and anthropologists often lack requisite ability to properly use spears, I designed experiments involving skilled participants. These included working with javelin athletes, military personnel, and martial arts practitioners as a means of better understanding how early spears may have performed.

A handful of subsequent papers that I published from the PhD research on the subject of spear throwing and spear hunting were dismissed by some, but arguments against my work were based on exactly the problems around expertise that I sought to confront. In criticising one of my papers in The Atlantic one archaeologist, who disagreed with my experimental findings on accuracy and impact energy of spears when thrown by javelin athletes, rather amusingly made my point for me by saying

“that he regularly takes his students into an athletic field and asks them to throw replica Schöningen spears at him. “If they hit me, I pledge to give them $20…. I’ve been doing this ‘experiment’ for 25 years, and I’ve neither got so much as a scratch on me nor parted with any cash. The spears come sailing in so low and slow I can usually just step sideways out of the way, bat them away with a stick, or if I am feeling really cocky, catch them in midair.”

Recent debates amongst Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeologists around ethnoarchaeology have rightly highlighted a variety of problems. First, the term ‘hunter-gatherers’ is based upon Western notions of how to categorise and rank different societies (e.g. Warren, 2021). Second, by cherry-picking specific examples of societies with a given behaviour or technology (rather than conducting wide-ranging reviews), we flatten the diversity of ways of knowing and being amongst recent and current small-scale societies, and we flatten the past (French, 2019). Third, we go along with concepts that are founded in racist ideas that recent and present-day peoples are ‘living fossils’. Lest you think this is an idea relegated to 20th century thinking, here’s a recent 2019 article in the magazine Materials World, stating that ‘The Ju|’hoansi San are living models of humanity’s history’.  (Yikes.) Rarely are analogues justified or discussed by researchers (Warren 2021). Finally the issues that may arise from biological and cognitive differences between ourselves and other species of Homo make ethnography even more complicated to navigate when exploring the deeper past (French 2019).

In the article ‘To Hell With Ethnoarchaeology’ Olivier Gosselain (2016) argues that ethnographic analogy is fundamentally flawed and makes a contribution to archaeology that is ‘hardly decipherable’. Meanwhile Charles Perreault (2019) suggests in The Quality of the Archaeological Record that both experimental and ethnographic analogies are of little use, and we should focus on the big data in the archaeological record. These researchers make excellent points that have often stopped me in my tracks. The issues are big, and they worry me too. So, how to proceed, given how much ethnography already underpins so many of our interpretations and assumptions?

In my opinion any hope of interpreting the archaeological record rather than just describing it, requires analogical reasoning. We just have to do so carefully, and with full acknowledgement of the limitations. I would argue that experimental archaeology remains our best tool. However, many experiments themselves also rely upon skilled use, and don’t usually manage to account for social worlds around tools. These skills and social contexts are what archaeologists lack (even if they’re self-trained or trained by other archaeologists who themselves were self-trained…this is not the same). Skills of researchers are almost certainly not equivalent to those of people making and using such tools in the past, and we should be admitting this in every experimental paper. How can we hope to set up experiments when any data underpinning the parameters we might set, even in controlled experiments, are themselves based on assumptions or under-skilled use?

I have tried to use ethnographic data conscientiously, by doing wide-ranging cross-cultural reviews. For example, my re-review of data on wooden spear use (Milks, 2020) shows that many societies used (and continue to use) such tools to successfully hunt a wide range of prey, and that skilled throwers are capable of throwing spears at significant distances. I have also discussed the racism underpinning Western assessments of these ‘simple’ spears.

Through emphasising the importance of skill and learning, I also try to show that we can do research that centres other experiences, other ways of knowing and importantly, skills that we ourselves are unlikely to have mastered. I discussed this in more detail in a short paper titled ‘Skills shortage: a critical evaluation of the use of human participants in early spear experiments’ in which I term experimenters’ inflated sense of their own abilities as ‘the replicator’s conceit’. Undoubtedly there is more work to do, and more pitfalls to consider.

I work with colleagues who I respect and trust to be ethical. We think carefully about sharing images of the people we work with. We designed new research from which we learn from people who currently hunt with spears. For example, by inviting BaYaka foragers to throw spears at a fixed target we can already see (before I’ve even finished analysing the high speed videos) that they outperform the javelin athletes from my previous experiment, which is no surprise really. My colleague Sheina Lew-Levy conducted focal follows of BaYaka adults and adolescents while they were teaching and learning spear hunting, and the results show us new things about how it is passed on within their society.

Does my acknowledgement that these studies are not intended as a direct analogy for Pleistocene hunting count as ‘analogy by subterfuge’ (as Warren puts it)? Yes, I suppose it does. But for me the knowledge gained from ethnographic observations, interviews, reviews and experiments helps us to expand the interpretative range, to illustrate behavioural variability, and to confront our own lack of experience and expertise.

In my view, ethnoarchaeological studies must at minimum be explicit that there is not one single way of interpreting the past. An ethnographic example, or even a handful of them, does not prove anything. But maybe we can turn ethnographic analogy on its head by placing in broad daylight the racism that underpinned the use of ethnographic examples in past publications. While we’re at it, experimental archaeology could do with a bit more humility, with an awareness that we are novices in terms of many technologies we aim to replicate. We are rarely going to be the best person to evaluate the objects, materials and people from the past. Perhaps that sense of humility can help us to be open to learning from others whose experience and expertise is greater than our own.


French, J. C. (2019). The use of ethnographic data in Neanderthal archaeological research. Hunter Gatherer Research, 4(1), 25–49.

Gosselain, O. P. (2016). To hell with ethnoarchaeology! Archaeological Dialogues, 23(2), 215–228.

Milks, A. (2020). A Review of Ethnographic Use of Wooden Spears and Implications for Pleistocene Hominin Hunting. Open Quaternary, 6(1), 79–20.

Perreault, C. (2019). The quality of the archaeological record. In The Quality of the Archaeological Record. University of Chicago Press.

Warren, G. (2021). Is There Such a Thing as Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology? Heritage, 4(2), 794–810.

Published by Annemieke Milks

I'm a Palaeolithic archaeologist with a passion for early weaponry, use of wood for tools and the origins of music.

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