Uniformitarianism and prehistoric archaeology

22nd May 2014

David W. Cameron


Many archaeologists call on the use of uniformitarianism in order to invoke a ‘scientific basis’ for their use of ethnographic analogies to help explain the archaeological record. This paper argues that analogies, as used by most archaeologists, cannot be subsumed into an overall principle of uniformitarianism. This is because the principles within uniformitarianism, as used in geology and physics, are quite distinct from analogies as used by most archaeologists. While substantivism is testable and methodological principles are necessary if we are to make any meaningful statements about our data, associative uniformities are often not testable and may hinder our ability to make meaningful statements about the past. In order to identify and present testable hypotheses for the archaeological record, archaeologists need to distinguish between methodological, substantive and associative uniformities. Most archaeological interpretations that are based on ethnographic analogies are based on associative uniformities which may not be refutable. In order to test the archaeological record we must invoke refutation and not confirmationism, as confirmationism is incapable of identifying behavioural anomalies within the archaeological record.

*Note that an abstract was not included with this paper, and so the introductory paragraph has been included here instead of the abstract.

Cameron, D.W.
Uniformitarianism and prehistoric archaeology
June 1993
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