Lecture 8: Archeology and Paleoanthropology Methods


  • Paleoanthropology is the study of ancient human ancestors, specifically hominins which are extinct ancient human ancestors (except modern humans).
  • Multidisciplinary
  • Corresponds with geology and geography disciplines.
  • Process
  • Reconstruct Human Ancestor Behaviour and Ecology
  • Methods
  • Dating - Large time scale and few fossils to work with. Includes chronometric and relative dating.
  • Environment - Studying the environment hominins lived in is important because it tells us how they lived, where they lived, etc.
  • Taphonomy - It is the science of studying fossils and artifacts and how they came to be and the place they are in now. (How materials came to be buried and were later disturbed).
  • Anatomy/biology of hominins
  • Behaviour/Culture - Were the injured taken care of? etc.

  • Paleoanthropology studies hominins before us, while archeology studies only our species.

Archeology and Archaeological Research Methods

Definition - Archeology is the study of the human past through material remains which tell us how we actually lived.

  • It comes from European traditions and history, while North American archeology is associated with ethnology and anthropology, not much history.
  • We're interested in the long term, large scale pictures.

Research Objectives

  • To describe the past - who, when, where (specifics)
  • To analyze and reconstruct past life ways (were they mobile or settled in one location, did they live in a city or village, were they hunters or gatherers? etc) - what (behaviour)
  • Everyone was a hunter gatherer before, only later did we start living in big groups and ate a lot of domesticated food. We are currently adapted to the changes of eating domesticated food, so we know we're flexible in terms of being social, the environment, etc.
  • To explain past events and directions - how, why (trends, causes)

Research Design (Scientific Method)

  • Collect background information (generation of hypotheses)
  • Create research design (formulation of hypotheses)
  • Field and lab research, analysis (testing)
  • Conclusion, publications (disapprove, support)

Data Gathering

  1. Survey - Walking across a landscape or remote sensing to find out what's there, to find a good place to excavate (usually by stripping off landscapes in big areas or just by using small brushes in caves for precision), and to gather landscape information (where settlements were located, how many used the land, etc).
  2. Excavation - Digging up a site. When this occurs, the site is destroyed, so it is important to record everything even if it's not part of your research. You also have to preserve the collection and field notes for future generations to study when there is better technology.
  3. Collections and archives


Sites - Places where people dig up significant things, ex. a caste, village etc.

Artifacts - Portable objects made or modified by humans, ex. a bracelet made with shells.

Ecofacts - Natural objects, ex. plant remains or animal bones.

Features - Objects that are a human modification of a space or landscape, used for walls, pits etc. They are non portable, ex. a modified tree trunk.

Context - the spatial and temporal location of an artifact, feature or site in association with other remains. Very important.

Chronology and Dating Methods - when?

1. Relative dating: provides a relative sequence for materials, not assigned an age or number.

  1. Stratigraphy - Studying sequential layering of deposits to get an idea of their chronological association.
  • Principle of association: If two items are found in the same layer and depositional unit, they were in existence around the same time so they are around the same age.
  • Principle of superposition: More recent deposits are younger than the older under.

b. Other methods

  • Index fossils/ cross dating seriation/ topography

2. Chronometric dating: Provides an estimate in actual years or intervals of time based on the chronometric calendar. Done using radioactive materials, which naturally decay over a period of time.

  1. Radiocarbon dating (C14, good for 40,000 years ago to present, organic material including charred wood, bones, shells etc.) and AMS (good for 60, 000 years to present, volcanic ash, igneous materia): Most common.
  2. Potassium-Argon (K-Ar) and Argon-Argon (Ar-Ar)
  3. Dendrochronology - Tree ring dating, most accurate.

3. Summary of archeological dating

  • Use both relative and chronometric
  • Use multiple dating techniques to cross check
  • All share an archeological problem - relevance: what is the relationship between what you are dating and what you want to date?

Data Analysis - what?

  1. Typologies (plus comparison and context) and classifications are used to compare data and sort and process it so that we can understand it and look for patterns.
  2. Physical and chemical examination
  3. Specialists

Data Interpretation - Analogies

  1. Ethnoarcheology (ethnology, text): using analogies to interpret patterns. Using the present to understand the past, ex. how people behave and perform traditions today.
  2. Experimental archeology: Reinterpreting how people lived to try to understand them


Writing Up/Publication of Findings

Note Created by
Is this note helpful?
Give kudos to your peers!
Wanna make this note your own?
Fork this Note