Kultur, Zoologi og metafysisk spekulasjon

Palaeolithic Libido

In Arkeologi, Vitenskap on januar 26, 2011 at 3:13 am

‘Archaeology should always seek to extend the domain of their discipline’. This sentence sums up the oldest and most prominent dogmatism in archaeology. One way has been to combine archaeological and evolutionary ideas enabling new interpretations of the past. Unfortunately, recent attempts at this have forgotten its roots; have we forgotten about Freud?

No, thank you

Evolutionary archaeology – most Norwegian archaeologists gets the chills by even thinking of it. It either reminds us of the halfhearted references to Darwin made by the Swedish archaeologist Oscar Montelius, when working on his typological schemas over the Bronze Age. These attempts were so diffuse, even today no one agrees on what the deal was about. Or it gives associations to outdated world theories, popular within the field some decades ago. Evolution is clearly an Other within the Norwegian field.

I would say that the prejudice is rooted in at least three factors. One; evolutionary theory is usually applied in Palaeolithic studies, and Norway did not have a Palaeolithic period. Second; the theoretical debate over the last 30 years excluded it. And third; no one seems to understand what type of interpretation an evolutionary approach will make.

A Cognitive Paradigm

Most students in archaeology are taught the theoretical history of the field at an early stage in their education. We have the New Archaeology and the Processualists, then the Postprocessualist in the 80’s, and then it all got kind of hermeneutic and phenomenological in the 90’s, and the everything got mixed up. Maybe the motto today is ‘find your own philosopher’ (Svestad 2003)? Or perhaps we should all get symmetrical (Olsen 2010)?

Apart from this standard history, something else also happened in the 80’s. Within the Palaeolithic community, a cognitive perspective emerged out of the old processualism. This community has been a mixture of archaeologists, anthropologists and cognitive scientists (Mithen 2001:98). In fact, Lewis Binford, the godfather of the New Archaeology, was taught by Leslie White. White was among the greatest anthropological thinkers within Cultural Evolution after the Second World War. His writing inspired the also well known Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service, who developed the neo-evolutionary program that reached Bergen in Norway in the 70’s. White opposed the earlier progressivist theory of Herbert Spencer, Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward B. Taylor.

Robert D. Leonard has argued that none if the mentioned perspectives were rooted in rigorous Darwinian Theory (Leonard 2001:66). Even White said this himself back in 1959. As such, the new evolutionary archaeology of the 1970’s and 80’s was characterized as a ‘turn to Darwin’ (Leonard 2001). It opposed both the progressivist and Cultural Evolutionary theories.

You are here today because certain characteristics that your ancestors possessed were favorable in specific environments, and as a consequence your ancestors had more offspring than others who lacked those characteristics. That is natural selection. (Leonard 2001:68)

The American archaeologist Steven Mithen is another writer within this field. He has argued that archaeology should search for inspiration and interdisciplinary cooperation with the cognitive sciences and psychology (Mithen 2001). The evolution in evolutionary archaeology concerns the evolution of the mind. This is referred to as cognitive evolution. Today it is almost impossible not to find explicit – or traces of – this theory in articles about Neanderthals or early hominids. It is all over the place.

Palaeolithic sexual selection

In essence, Mithen argues, sexual selection concerns mate choice: Those individuals who possess characteristics which are attractive to members of the opposite sex will be chosen as reproductive partners; if those characteristics have some genetic basis they will flourish in future generations (Mithen 2001:104). For instance, this perspective has been used to explain the emergence of cave paintings and cosmic body-paint traditions in the Palaeolithic. Supposedly, there should be an artistic gene.

Acheulian handaxe


Mithen radicalizes this interpretation further by suggesting that a certain tool, namely the Acheulian handaxe, played a central part in Palaeolithic sexual selection. This answers frequently asked questions; why were some handaxes made too large for adequate manipulation? Why were so many discarded when in perfectly good shape?

… mate selection during the Middle Pleistocene was partly based upon the criteria of material culture. The ability to make a fine symmetrical handaxe displayed one’s ability at planning, one’s good health, one’s knowledge of resources – all features attractive to members of the opposite sex when selecting mates. (Mithen 2001:106-107)

Face the cultural – face Freud

First of all, Sigmund Freud did not write about prehistory or archaeology. But he did presuppose that people at all times had been dreaming and talking, like we do today. He held that the original meaning of all cultural phenomenon, even language, were mostly of a sexual nature.

Historical sources gave Freud the impression that dreams and dream interpretations were much higher held in ancient times. For instance, dreams had helped historical figures such as Alexander the Great, the great king of Tyrus, and both the Roman and the Etruscan people. Artemidoros of Daldis, who lived at the time of Hadrian, even wrote a whole book about dreams.

Through his psychoanalytic works, Freud noted that the symbolism found in these ancient dreams and myths carried the same meanings today. These myths stretched as far back as 2800 years BC (Freud 1917:126). For instance, the occurrence of water symbolized womanhood and birth. Several mythical persons were saved from drowning. This happened to Sargon of Avade, and the biblical Moses. Symbolically it says that ‘the person who picks someone up from water becomes their mother’. Water symbolizes birth as well as rebirth.

Another important source was to be found in language itself. For instance, the term ‘mother earth’ is not accidental. Freud argued that the specific uses of words and terms points to the historic or prehistoric origins. Earth and mountainous landscapes symbolized the woman. It is not random that in a story, Harald Fairhair left his home at an age of five, only to be raised in the mountains among various mythical creatures. The Otherness of this new mother was a prerequisite for what he was to be famous for. It was of course his new mother that gave him the task of becoming the first king of Norway.

How is it possible for such a distinct symbolism to stay alive in culture? Freud turned to the Swedish linguist H. Sperber in order to get an answer. Sperber had argued that the origin of language itself was of a sexual nature. The most original use of language was connected with calling upon sexual partners. As communities developed, sounds became connected to other enterprises. This made the common work within communities more bearable; because it was all associated with the words and sounds which had an original sexual symbolism. Over time, language has become more connected with everything but the libido. But the roots of language are nonetheless sexual in nature. And this is also manifested, both in everyday language and in dreams.

Now, let us go back to the Palaeolithic. Why handaxes? Freud argued that the historical symbolism of the male genitalia was tightly connected to pointy objects, especially weapons, including both blades and firearms. Evolutionary archaeology could not explain why the handaxe became the preferred object, but with psychoanalytic theory it becomes clear. Either the cultural conditions preceded the period, or maybe the Acheulian handaxe was the original event, constituting the blade as male libido in contrast to the female. It is also peculiar that the blades are formed as leaves. To Freud, the leaf was a clear symbol of male genitalia. In fact, if the archaeological interpretation is legitimate, this legitimizes the topicality of Freudian psychoanalytic theory.

The last and most interesting questions would be: How can evolutionary archaeology ignore the Freudian psychoanalytic theory? And why has it been ignored?


Freud, S. 1917: Psykoanalyse. Gyldendal.

Leonard, R. D. 2001: Evolutionary archaeology. In: Hodder, I. (ed.): Archaeological Theory Today. Polity Press.

Mithen, S. 2001: Archaeological Theory and Theories of Cognitive Evolution. In: Hodder. I (ed.): Archaeological Theory Today. Polity Press.

Olsen, B. 2010: In Defense of Things. Alta Mira Press.

Svestad, A. 2003: Finn din egen filosof. Universitetet I Tromsø.

  1. Wow, awesome blog layout! How long have you been blogging for?
    you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is
    fantastic, let alone the content!

  2. There’s certainly a great deal to know about this issue.
    I like all of the points you made.

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