LR Binford on cultural evolution

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Lewis Binford from Wikipedia

When a leader in a field dies, it’s appropriate to take a look at her/his legacy. In April 2011, archaeologist Lewis R. Binford (b. 1931) died. His most comprehensive book was the 2001 Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets (published by the University of North Carolina Press), a 500+-page volume examining the process of cultural evolution (how cultures or societies change over time), using the transition from hunting and gathering to more sedentary forms of subsistence as a case study.

Subsistence is a key issue when you consider how people lived in the past. When you contemplate the lives of peoples who lived in prehistoric Georgia, we are at a disadvantage because our personal perspectives are derived from living with our food most commonly obtained from the abundance of well-supplied grocery stores (even if we have big gardens and livestock).

Hunter-gatherers are peoples who are nomadic and on the move, not constantly, but frequently—not daily, or perhaps weekly, and usually at least seasonally. Hunter-gatherers obtain their food by hunting and gathering—almost always getting more of their calories from the latter—and not from farming or horticultural activities. Hunter-gatherers eat wild foods, even if they return to certain trees, groves of trees, or particularly lush clusters of plants or spots with especially good hunting (e.g., watering holes).

One of the lingering issues in archaeology regards the transition from hunting and gathering to more sedentary forms of subsistence. This is a huge change, and involves more than how people obtained their food.

Two subjects that are commonly introduced in discussion of this transition are environmental change and population pressure. Environmental change refers to climatic shifts, which would have changed the distribution and assortment of species that were available in a geographic area. Obviously, this would have changed the subsistence base, and thus, whether the area was more impoverished or more lush, the peoples living there would have changed their lifeways in response to changes in food availability. Population pressure refers to an increase in population such that the same resources are sought by more people. Researchers commonly say that under these conditions people begin to intensify their subsistence practices, so that they can reduce risk and have access to more food. Horticulture and agriculture (farming) are forms of intensification.

Binford Constructing Frames of Reference cover

Back to Dr. Binford—buried on page 466 of Constructing Frames of Reference, he notes:

It is not uncommon for archaeologists to argue that an observed change in the archaeological record could be a response to environmental change or population pressure. When these alternatives are appealed to, the term stress model is frequently used to label the argument…. I have tried to develop argument that exposes the explanatory poverty of the population pressure argument by focusing on the process of intensification, in which increases in population density are only one component. Arguments that focus exclusively on population pressure stress food shortages and overexploitation of the food supply, but it should be clear that the packing argument points to limitations on mobility that create population densities that force hunter-gatherers to intensify. Overexploitation of the food supply is conspicuously absent in my argument.

By “packing argument,” Dr. Binford is referring to a complex proposition that he develops in the book. By packing he refers to the density of peoples across a territory. A single group requires a certain territory to accomplish minimum levels of subsistence. The territory needed depends on the resources available. Food resources may be more scattered or more clustered. Dr. Binford marshals considerable data and many examples of how actual hunting-and-gathering peoples reacted to what he calls packing. The reactions are various, and the variety must be explained adequately if we are to understand the process of cultural evolution.

This story is just a bit about Dr. Lewis R. Binford and about the ideas he researched, presented here to suggest ideas for you to research and contemplate.

Read an obituary of Dr. Binford on the Southern Methodist University website here. Read his Wikipedia entry here; the photograph above of Dr. Binford also is from Wikipedia.