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Date(s) - 29/10/2015 - 30/10/2015
All Day

St Catherine's College, University of Western Australia

Wenner-Gren 2015 Workshop

Organisers: Martin Porr and Jacqueline Matthews

This small invitation-only workshop has been generously funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and will be held at the University of Western Australia in late October 2015.

Workshop Introduction:

The level of interest in human origins research in both academic and public circles has been growing substantially through time. However, critical postcolonial approaches have yet to impact research on human origins, despite making significant theoretical and methodological contributions to other areas of archaeology. It appears therefore timely to take on the challenge of critically reflecting on human origins from a postcolonial perspective, particularly given that the study of human origins has increasingly significant implications for the relationship between Western and Indigenous knowledge systems and can have substantial impacts on the identity of Indigenous peoples.

Since the beginning of academic archaeology and anthropology, human origins have been approached and defined in various ways. The respective narratives that have been produced over time are a product of a complex interplay between historical traditions, political configurations, methodological developments and the dialectical interpretation of archaeological as well ethnographic evidence. Over the last few decades, a widely accepted narrative of human origins, the processes of dispersal, and universal features of humanity and its underlying causes has been emerging that is spatially dominated by Sub-Saharan Africa and temporally by the idea of a global increase in ‘complexity’.

The current narrative of human origins largely contradicts Indigenous views regarding the ‘origins’ of humans and what it means to be human. Indeed, Indigenous views and perspectives are typically absent in the literature on deep time human origins. This situation is particularly unfortunate, because human origins research produces and re-produces supposedly fundamental and universal aspects of the human condition and consequently contributes to a universal definition of humanity and human nature with little critical reflection.

Many of the central elements and approaches involved in the study of human origins have been subjected to a wide range of criticisms and challenges in other fields of archaeology and related disciplines. A number of authors have drawn attention to the problematic history of universal definitions of humanity, which were to a large extent constructed in the context of colonial encounters with, for example, Indigenous Australians. Furthermore, the idea of a universal human nature, which implicitly informs most narratives of human origins, has been rejected widely as a reflection of Western essentialism with no biological basis. Similarly, ideas about the mechanisms of biological evolution and transmission processes are very restrictive and guided by assumptions that appear to be culturally specific to the Euro-Western experience. Finally, the relationship between genetic information and the identity of a human being receives very little critical attention and seems again to refer back to a Western and ultimately colonial understanding of the human being with some worrying links to discredited ideas about race.

With this workshop we hope to break new ground by bringing together a multi-disciplinary group of experts from a range of relevant fields to critically examine different facets and potentials of a decolonisation of approaches to human origins research.

Sessions and Speakers

For session descriptions and the abstract listing for each session please follow the links provided in the session titles.

Session 1 – Definition of the human and its colonial legacy
Emeritus Professor Iain Davidson (University of New England)
Associate Professor Debra Judge (University of Western Australia)
Professor Kay Anderson (University of Western Sydney)

Session 2 – Representation and narratives of human origins

Dr Ursula Frederick (University of Sydney)

Associate Professor Sven Ouzman (University of Western Australia)

Session 3 – Origins in deep time: Historical legacies and approaches in a ‘modern’ world

Emeritus Professor Robin Dennell (University of Sheffield)

Dr Christine Hertler & Dr Miriam N. Haidle (Universität Tübingen/Senckenberg Forschungsinstitut und Naturmuseum)

Dr John McNabb (University of Southampton)

Session 4 – Time and origins

Associate Professor Martin Porr and Jacqueline Matthews (Universität Tübingen/ University of Western Australia)

Professor Jo McDonald & Professor Peter Veth (University of Western Australia)

Professor James Leach (CREDO-Aix/Marseille University-EHESS/University of Western Australia)

Session 5 – Social construction of genetic facts
Professor Jonathan Marks (University of North Carolina at Charlotte)
Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith (University of Otago)
Dr Joe Dortch (University of Western Australia) and Dr Craig Muller (University of Copenhagen)

Session 6 – Ethics and a postcolonial future?

Professor Benjamin Smith (University of Western Australia)

Professor Ian McNiven (Monash University)

Professor Lynette Russell (Monash University)

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