Key Series: Philosophy of History, Anthropology and Critical Geography

[Publisher’s Note: A special note of thanks to Dennis McCormick, whose donation helped fund the publication of this article.]

By Martyn Hudson


‘I pass through time, through silences, as formless worlds pass through me’
-Fernando Pessoa

The emergence of the social sciences was at once enmeshed in ideas of social progress and the civilising process and obsessed with the archaic origins of human civilisation. The idea of prehistory often signified a savagery and barbarism that had been left behind rather than an intimation of something new. The development of the idea of the social in both Marx and Durkheim led both to understand historical development in terms of, respectively, social conflict and integration; and later, scholars have often used their work to understand ‘primitive societies’. A large part of the later work of Marx, for example, was concerned with modelling the development of these primitive and pre-capitalist social formations, specifically in his ethnological notebooks. Yet, in different ways the study of prehistory has been more influenced by the precise material methodologies of archaeology and by comparative anthropology rather than sociology per se. In fact the merger of spatially distributed, comparative anthropological accounts and archaeological method has accounted for the development of what we might call ‘Social Prehistory’ – the social history of prehistoric societal forms in the general absence of written records. This can be seen, for example, in the obsession with the anthropology of ritual forms and in the archaeological excavations of ritual landscapes.[1] The same can also be said for understanding household rituals and units anthropologically and archaeologically. Sociology as a specific set of epistemological approaches and methodologies has not been central to the study of specifically ‘social’ prehistoric formations. How then can a historically attuned sociological practice attend to the material socialities and cultures of the prehistoric? This becomes a more urgent question in the light of the prehistoric origins of current geological debates about the Anthropocene and the future socialities of human beings. That indeed is the starting point of critical elaboration; but, the social world of prehistory offers us something additional – perhaps new ways of thinking through epistemological, ontological and political quandaries that can only be rethought by observing the origins and emergence of human cultures or at least what we have come to learn about them. The emergence of pastoralism, agricultural industry, and the social networks and cultural and physical migrations and dispersions of the Neolithic revolution are beginning to be seen as the first step towards the novel geological epoch of the Anthropocene; that moment where global humanity is signalled in the geological record.[2] The mastery of and extraction from nature has its first adventure in what would become the Empire of Neolithia.[3] Understanding Neolithia means elaborating not just what humanity might have once been or even what the concept of human might have entailed but also understanding the crossroads that new forms of human beings and new social and machinic relations have brought us to – and all the better to think about the new social worlds and encampments we might now want to inhabit. Understanding human origins elucidates our own world.[4]


Jim Crace in his fictional rendition of the emergence of Neolithic social forms also creates a fictional epigraph at the opening of the book. This conceit of the counterfeit ‘excavationist’ Sir Harry Penn Butler reads:

I asked my boys to search and sort the flints in the spoil heap by the mine. They had high hopes of finding implements, a broken arrow at least. All they found, in fact, was the skeletal lower arm of a child. Marks on the hinge joint suggested that it had been removed by surgery of some kind. We sent the bones across to Carter for some tests – and then we entertained ourselves that night, in the darkness of our tents, inventing reasons why the arm was there, and what the fate had been of the child’s other bones.[5]

One of the intriguing aspects of this, as it begins to situate and contextualise the story to come, is the reconstruction of the lost worlds of the Neolithic through its fragmentary remains. Like the mythical Zadig one reconstructs the entire being, the world, the story from the remnant, the abstract from one of its essential units.[6] It is the method of excavation of strata, of the sedimentary detritus and material objects of the past.[7] Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks in their critical theoretical work on theatre and archaeology have uncovered the stratified, epistemological significance of this in their own ‘blurred genre’ of archaeological and dramaturgical practice. Pearson and Shanks argue that the ‘site-specific’ discourse of archaeology has to attend both to the sedimentary remains but also the phenomenology and experience of the qualities of those domains.[8] Of course the dearth of fragments and nature of the ephemeral event lie at the heart ofarchaeological interpretation. They argue for the performativity of archaeology at the same time as making a parallel between the detritus that performance leaves behind and that which is left behind in the material traces of the past and ‘unwritten happening’.[9] Much like their notation of the invention of ‘Celtica’[10] so we can attempt to reconstruct, narrate, and re-examine our imaginary ‘Neolithia’ through its remains. But these remains are not isolated units with which we can somehow imaginatively rebuild cultures – they are part of assemblages and collages of ‘data’ materialities. Further, excavation can give us some sense of playfulness. For Pearson and Shanks:

Disruption, cutting and juxtaposition make of this poetics or discourse an unstable set of links between images, words and concepts and the material world, between signifiers and signifieds. Things and words and images can always be disengaged from their meanings and inlayed into new combinations. This disassembly should be constant. The discovery of new insight depends on a nervous novelty which avoids the setting of montages into accepted equations and identities…collage maintains an ambiguity of presence and absence, the presence of fragments of absent items being referenced.[11]

The collaging and reassembly of the data through empirical association, logical linkages, conceptual alignment and creative elaboration[12] need not do violence to the data, or present new assemblages which are not made possible by the materiality and structure of the data itself, but it does offer us ways of rethinking both prehistory and our current social and ecological dilemmas. In fact, the method of speculation and imaginative construction and reconstruction is central to archaeological material practice – archaeology can re-order and re-engineer – ‘When a building collapses, the order of its construction and interior spaces disperses’.[13] Cultures and collectivities leave residual fragments that are even more tentative than physical structures, as Pearson and Shanks note:

An artefact, as is accepted, is a multitude of data points, an infinity of possible attributes and measurements. Which ones are made and held to constitute its identity depends conventionally upon method and the questions being asked by the archaeologist. But we also hold that the artefact is itself a multiplicity. Its identity is multiple. It is not just one thing. The artefact does not only possess a multitude of data attributes, but is also itself multiplicity. We come to an object in relationships with it, through using, perceiving it, referring to it, talking of it, feeling it as something. This as is vital. It is a relationship of analogy – as if it were something. And it is always ironically something else – our references to the object are always metaphorical.[14]

The question of finitude and interpretation is of course contested but the idea of the material artefact as a multiplicity is decisive for delineating the kinds of narratives that can be extracted from it rather than interpretively imposed upon it. The material provenances of artefacts and their landscapes remain critical for understanding prehistory generally, and Neolithia specifically, but aside from archaeology they also help us to speculate about the consequences of those earlier human cultures. What Pearson and Shanks call the ‘interrupted practice’ of landscapes, in which human cultures once existed, point to the kinds of entrances, exits, thresholds, incidents, crises and ruptures in those landscapes[15] and the kinds of abysses and fractures that have emerged in our socialities and ecologies as a consequence of the human excavation of nature, which can also be reflected upon in our own excavation of those cultures of excavation and extraction. Of course Neolithic cultures are temporally distant from us even when many of us perhaps still live amidst the landscapes and the detritus of those cultures.

But if we can attend to Jim Crace again; ‘We entertained ourselves that night, in the darkness of our tents’. The excavators of cultures are encamped in darkness upon the landscape in which other tents in darkness once sat; this reminds us not of distance but of proximity. Across the vast historical and prehistorical spaces of human collectivities the distance separating us from the Neolithic is minimal, our landscapes are similar, our genetic identities more or less the same, our rituals comparable. Critically, we inhabit the same geological post-glacial epoch of the Anthropocene, an epoch which has been accelerated by the profound technical developments of modernity and its engines of accumulation, but which has its origins in the encampments of the agricultural landscapes of Neolithia.[16] The world of Neolithia inhabits us as we still inhabit that world that has inscribed its patterns of extraction on the earth.

3. Observing Neolithia

How can we then articulate something about our civilisation and ecological predicament through the disarticulated bones and remnants of those atavistic cultures – those fragments that have literally been disembodied? Have we, as Olaf Stapledon once said, ‘misconceived our whole existence’?[17] The prosthetic, industrial Neobiota of the human has extended itself globally and into the very inscription of the geological record. Classical social theory has rarely looked at the question of prehistory as prehistory rather than as arguments for something else.[18] Marx and Engels were of course an exception to this, although their historical judgements were invariably incorrect and their evidence base, taken from contemporary anthropologists and historians, irredeemably flawed. But they did have a significant insight that human collectivities were essentially based on what Marx called the material appropriation of the laboratory of nature.[19] For Marx, in the Grundrisse, the tribal communities of prehistory were the first precondition for that experimentation with nature and its appropriation – he notes that understanding human history is explicitly akin to palaeontology.[20] Situated as they were within prehistoric landscapes that would soon be subjected to accumulation, the imaginaries of what Marx calls ‘blood, language, custom’ would define the material collectivities of the generic species-being of humanity.[21] It is the practice upon that landscape, ritually and in terms of agricultural extraction that would define the gradually accumulative power of new class collectivities, marking out the earth and even peoples, for themselves. For the first time the world becomes marked, enclosed, and subject to ownership. For Marx – ‘Among nomadic pastoral tribes – and all pastoral peoples are originally migratory – the earth, like all other conditions of nature, appears in its elementary boundlessness’.[22] The Neolithic revolution and dispersal marks the terminus of that boundlessness in human populations and the nascence of the Anthropocene domination of a bounded earth, of the camps and Empire of Neolithia.[23]

To illustrate the idea of the human as it emerges in prehistory (if we can at all think of the human as a concept in that context)[24] is also to think about the human relation to other entities, beings and species.[25] Studies of iron age culture and its settlements have pointed to the critical role that animals have played in burial practices and the ways in which disarticulated remains are combined with animal bones to create post-mortem hybrid beings, perhaps as decommissioning rituals for houses.[26] The idea of the household unit, its wider settlement and landscape and its socialities, has formed the basis for understandings of the spatial patterns of global prehistoric communities.[27] These have been studies specifically related to comparative anthropological accounts of the development of social forms and relationships[28] adding that comparative and metaphorical dimension to the material detritus of excavation.[29] Understanding those landscapes also means attending to other aspects of cultures beyond the immediately material as in the work of Steve Mills on auditory Neolithic landscapes.[30]

The question of social households and their relation to social landscapes of prehistory and the material laboratories of those collectivities from which they maintained themselves[31] has been an important focus of archaeology; generating more generalizable social theories of development has not – largely because of problems of extrapolation from paucities of evidence. One of the most significant journeys over recent years in theorising the Neolithic has lain in the work of Julian Thomas, in his observation of the ‘archaeology of difference’. Examining the material cultures, pottery, mortuaries, monuments of the Neolithic he has constructed new archaeological and anthropological rethinking of landscapes and cultures.[32] But his work is, to use again a too often used concept, a history of the present, enmeshed as it is in questions of modernity that are brought to bear on prehistory and vice versa.[33] Understanding the multiple modes of death illustrates not just the ritual aspects of landscapes, but the very essence of human sociality.[34] It may be that those ritual and extractive landscapes were the source of the revolution of the Anthropocene because of their very sociality; in fact, some commentators have seen the development of accumulation, evolutionary success and technological development in the formation of ‘ultra-socialities’ emerging in prehistoric collectivities.[35]

The question of ultra-socialities is decisive to our contemporary landscapes, ecologies and collectivities because of the very idea of ‘blood, language, and custom’ emerging from tribality and its domination of bounded earth. Ultra-socialities encage and enmesh the social individual in camps of refuge, imprisonment and accumulation. The survival and success of contesting camps revolves around how far the collectivity can act as an engine or machine for extraction, accumulation and cohesion. The boundlessness of the world disappears as the earth becomes the material laboratory for the sustenance and the ideological and physical empire of its dominant castes and classes. The enclosure of the earth is the extension of the Empire of Neolithia. The extractive revolutions and camps of the Neolithic often contained aspirations towards the extinction of nomads, hunter-gatherers and transhumants who are not part of settled humanity. Some of those camps become the embryonic cities of the historic world. The emergence of the technics and technosphere of the Anthropocene as a consequence of the dispersal of Neolithia and its subsequent civilisations across the earth now becomes a moment of accounting and redress, if we are not (and we may be) too late.[36] If we are truly serious about a planetary humanism that can mitigate both the worst excesses of humans upon the planet and humans upon themselves then we need, to paraphrase Olaf Stapledon, to ‘reconceive’ our whole existence.

That relation between the individual entity of the human and the abstract historical, geological, and ultimately, planetary forces have to be resituated, if only for the moment within the pirate utopias of one or two camps of us. Stapledon talks about this as the relation between ‘Stars’ and ‘Vermin’.[37] For Stapledon – ‘No visiting angel, or explorer from another planet, could have guessed that this bland orb teemed with vermin, with world-mastering, self-torturing, incipiently angelic beasts’.[38] Struggling to defy the boundlessness of the earth and ultimately the far stellar reaches of universes the vermin bind themselves – to production, extraction, mastery, and god-like status. But for Stapledon, there are some comforts in this moment, two lights for guidance:

The first, our little glowing atom of community, with all that it signifies. The second, the cold light of the stars, symbol of the hypercosmical reality, with its crystal ecstasy…Strange that in this light, in which even the dearest love is frostily assessed, and even the possible defeat of our half-waking world is contemplated without remission of praise, the human crisis does not lose but gains significance. Strange, that it seems more, not less, urgent to play some part in this struggle, this brief effort of animalcules striving to win for their race some increase of lucidity before the ultimate darkness.[39]

In fact, the capacity to observe, to understand, to play and experiment, to map our labyrinths, is itself a victory against darkness. Vermin carries viruses and we have seen this to terrible effect. The Human Neobiota has tracked species to extinction in its relentless attempt to extend and replicate itself and the geological epoch of the Anthropocene is a testament to those viral humans. But lucidity is a virus too, as is ludicity – our capacity to play, experiment, revel and feel joy. The lucid and the ludic elements of humanity will be at least one of and not the least of the viruses that we bequeath to the earth, or to the memory of us after our extinction.


[1] See Miles Russell, Monuments of the British Neolithic: the Roots of Architecture, (Stroud: Tempus, 2002).

[2] Martyn Hudson, ‘The Anthropocene and a critical theory of machines’, Heathwood Institute and Press, September 2015,, accessed 28/09/2015 and see Christopher Smith, Late Stone Age Hunters of the British Isles, (London:Routledge, 2002).

[3] I use this term to denote the cultures and peoples of the Neolithic revolutions and its effects and of course there is no evidence to support any idea that these peoples considered themselves to be humans per se.

[4] See Tim Ingold, ‘Between evolution and history: biology, culture and the myth of human origins’, in Wheeler, N. and Ziman, J. (eds), The evolution of cultural entities, (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2002), 43-66.

[5] Jim Crace, The Gift of Stones, (London:Secker and Warburg, 1988), epigraph.

[6] For a wider discussion of this see my The Slave Ship, Memory and the Origin of Modernity, (Farnham:Ashgate, 2016).

[7] See Lynn Meskell, ‘Introduction: Object Orientations’, in Meskell, L. (ed.) Archaeologies of Materiality, (Oxford:Blackwell, 2005), 1-17, for phenomenologies of archaeological objects.

[8] Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks, Theatre/Archaeology, (London:Routledge, 2001), xiii, xvi. See also Michael Shanks, Experiencing the Past: On the character of archaeology, (London:Routledge, 1992) and Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley (1992) Re-Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice, London:Routledge, 1992).

[9] Ibid, 9.

[10] Ibid, 118.

[11] Ibid, 52.

[12] Ibid, 52-53.

[13] Ibid, 93.

[14] Ibid, 99, and see also Martyn Hudson, ‘Archive, Sound and Landscape in Richard Skelton’s Landings Sequence’, Landscapes, 2015, 16(1), 63-78 which uses Pearson and Shanks on data for understanding contemporary archival landscapes.

[15] Ibid, 125.

[16] See A.B. Knapp and W. Ashmore, ‘Archaeological Landscapes: Constructed, Conceptualized, Ideational’, in W. Ashmore, and A.B. Knapp, (eds) Archaeologies of Landscape: Contemporary Perspectives, (Oxford:Blackwell, 1999), 1-30, for the idea of constructed archaeological landscapes.

[17] Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker, (London:Millenium, 1999), 1.

[18] See James A. Bell, Reconstructing Prehistory: Scientific Method in Archaeology, (Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 1994), 293 for a discussion on prehistory, Weber, Marx and methodological individualism and W.A. Longacre, ‘Changing Patterns of Social Integration: A Prehistoric Example from the American Southwest’, American Anthropology, 1966, 68:1, 94-102, 94, on Durkheim and social integration.

[19] Karl Marx, Pre-capitalist Economic Formations, trans. Cohen, J., London:Lawrence and Wishart, 1964), 67. This is a selection from the wider text available in the Grundrisse.

[20] Ibid, 140.

[21] Ibid, 68.

[22] Ibid, 88.

[23] See also Kevin B. Anderson, ‘Marx’s Late Writings on Non-Western and Precapitalist Societies’, Rethinking Marxism, 2002, 14:4, 84-96 and Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies, (Chicago:Chicago University Press, 2010). These are largely commentaries and elaborations upon Marx’s ethnological notebooks, see Karl Marx, The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, translated and edited with an introduction by L. Krader, (Amsterdam:Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, 1974). See also the outstanding Franklin Rosemont, Karl Marx and the Iroquois, (New York:Red Balloon Collective, 1992).

[24] See Tim Megarry, Society in Prehistory: The Origins of Human Culture, (London:Palgrave Macmillan, 1995) for a discussion of the idea of human culture and the social world.

[25] Giorgio Agamben, The Open; Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell, Stanford:Stanford University Press, 2004) and Donna Haraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’, Environmental Humanities, 2015, 6, 159-165. For an analysis of the social role of cattle in the Neolithic see Julian Thomas, ‘In the Kinship of Cows: the Social Centrality of Cattle in the Earlier Neolithic of Southern Britain’, in Parker Pearson, M.(ed) Food, Culture and Identity in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, (Oxford:British Archaeological Reports/Archaeopress, 2003), 37-44.

[26] See Miles Russell et al, ‘The Durotriges Project, Phase one: an interim statement’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, 2014, 135, 217-221 and ‘The Durotriges Project, Phase Two: an interim statement’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History & Archaeological Society, 2015, 136. No pp. See also from the same project Karina Gerdau-Radonic et al, ‘Death Ways of the Durotriges: Dealing with the Dead in Late Iron Age and Early Roman Dorset’, in European Association of Archaeologists, 10-14 September 2014 Istanbul, Turkey and Paul Cheetham et al, ‘Digging the Durotriges – life and death in late Iron Age Dorset’, Current Archaeology, 2013, 281:36-41. I’d like to acknowledge Carmen Thompson for directing me to the information on the Durotriges project.

[27] See E. Kofi Agorsah, ‘Evaluating spatial behavior patterns of prehistoric societies’, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 1988, 7:3, 231-247 for an African context to prehistoric spatialities.

[28] Tim Ingold, ‘No more ancient; no more human: The future past of archaeology and anthropology’, D. Shankland, (ed.), Archaeology and Anthropology: Past, Present and Future, (London:Berg Publishers, 2012), 77-89.

[29] Ole Gron, ‘A method for reconstruction of social structure in prehistoric societies and examples of practical application’, in Ole Gron, Ericka Engelstad, and Inge Lindblom, (eds) Social space: Human Spatial Behaviour in Dwellings and Settlements, Proceedings of an Interdisciplinary Conference, (Odense:Odense University Press, 1991), 100-117.

[30] Steve F.Mills, Auditory archaeology: understanding sound and hearing in the past, (San Francisco:Left Coast Press, 2014) and ‘Sensing the place: sounds and landscape perception’, in D.W. Bailey, A. Whittle and V.M. Cummings (eds) (Un)settling the neolithic, (Oxford:Oxbow Books, 2005), 79–89.

[31] Rachael Harkness, ‘On Stone Houses and the Co-Creation of Worlds and Selves’, in S.G. Souvatzi and A. Hadji, (eds), Space and Time in Mediterranean Prehistory, (London:Routledge, 2014), 64-83 and S.G. Souvatzi, A Social Archaeology of Households in Neolithic Greece: An Anthropological Approach, (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2008). See also the forthcoming from Julian Thomas, ‘House societies and founding ancestors in Early Neolithic Britain’, in Renfrew, C., Boyd, M. and Morley, I.(eds) Death Rituals, Social Order and the Archaeology of Immortality in the Ancient World, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[32] See specifically Julian Thomas, The Birth of Neolithic Britain, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) and Understanding the Neolithic, (London: Routledge, 1999).

[33] Julian Thomas, Archaeology and Modernity, (London:Routledge, 2004).

[34] Julian Thomas, ‘Death, identity and the body in Neolithic Britain’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2000, 6: 603-17.

[35] Peter J. Richerson, and Robert Boyd, ‘The Evolution of Human Ultra-sociality’, in Eibl-Eibisfeldt, I. and Salter, F. (eds), Indoctrinability, Ideology, and Warfare: evolutionary perspectives, (New York: Berghahn Books, 1998), 71-95.

[36] See the work Alexander M. Stoner and Andony Melathopolous, Freedom in the Anthropocene: Twentieth-Century Helplessness in the Face of Climate Change, (New York:Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), which addresses, through a reading of Adorno, questions of fear, insecurity and collapse and Paul Alberts, ‘Responsibility Towards Life in the Early Anthropocene’, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 2012, 16:4, 5-17. Also see Christian Schwägerl, The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How it Shapes our Planet, (Santa Fe:Synergetic Press, 2014).

[37] Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker, (London:Millenium, 1999), 180-201.

[38] Ibid, 9.

[39] Ibid, 254.

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Martyn Hudson

Martyn Hudson

Martyn is a critical theorist and sociologist. His book on slave cultures and capitalism is forthcoming from Ashgate press – The Slave Ship, Memory and the Origin of Modernity (2015). He has published widely in sound studies, critical theory, history and cultural landscapes. He is a refugee rights activist and works with a number of organisations such as Music Action International and the Rohingya Survival Foundation and is a researcher at Newcastle University, UK.
Martyn Hudson

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