The Social Anthropology of Human Origins

Social Anthropology and Human Origins By Alan Barnard Cambridge University Press, 182pp, £48.00 ISBN: 9780521765312 Published March 2011

Review originally published in the Times Higher, 14th April 2011

The study of human origins has, apparently, a big problem. A massive unspoken problem, lurking like a veritable herd of elephants in the room. Or to use a metaphor more appropriate to Alan Barnard’s ‘Social Anthropology and Human Origins’, a cowering social anthropologist under the bed. Except when the problem is analysed the only issue with human origins is that a social anthropologist thinks that it should have more social anthropology in it (find me a subject area that doesn’t apply to!). Barnard’s aim is to start a discussion about the role that social anthropology should play in human origins. He suggests that as the largest sub-group of the discipline it should be a relatively simple task to shine the light of social anthropology on our evolution to correct the errors made by all those cold, clinical scientists. As a final coup de gråce, after a very selective review of some of the more recent human evolutionary literature, he concludes that we need to reclassify human origins as a sub-field of social anthropology. Please excuse me if I don’t jump up and shout hooray this suggestion, but at the same time don’t think I have an axe to grind with social anthropology – as part of the RAI team I’ve worked on designing an anthropology A-level which combines both social and biological themes to celebrate what we share as a subject while enjoying the differences of opinion and approach. Barnard argues that the traditional methods employed by biological anthropologists are not good enough to explain our evolution, as they do not take in to account the social or cultural aspects of our evolutionary journey. I find myself at loss to reconcile this statement and others like it with the subject I am part of. The study of human origins is no longer the preserve of ‘us’ biological anthropologists: we collaborate with geneticists, climate scientists, primatologists and archaeologists and ecologists to do just that.

Barnard’s approach is to suggest that the application of lessons learned from social anthropology could improve the depth of human origins as a field. A laudable intention, but with a fatally limited scope which Barnard inadvertently points out at the end of chapter three when he states that social anthropology can not really offer anything for the study of species other than Homo sapiens – and of course we only form only a small part of the evolutionary story of hominins.

This book and the thesis it presents unwittingly portrays social anthropology as a subject that is crying out from the wilderness in search of modern day relevance – yet nothing could be further from the truth. Anthropology is a vibrant subject that has multiple applications across a wide spectrum. The lack, or perceived lack, of social anthropological ideas in human origins is the product of the nature of social anthropological study, based as it is on the often solo participant observation method of study. While this is a point that Barnard concedes it really only makes the conclusion of his book all the more galling for the huge range of scientists working in the field of human origins

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