9. Discussion

Of course, the three scale domains of human knowledgeability identified here are simplifications and, to a degree, heuristics. In reality there is a continuum of process scales at work in human social and cultural worlds, and the hierarchical levels within a system are analytical abstractions rather than actual real-world entities. Nevertheless the idea of the hierarchical knowledge system captures important general properties of practice in terms that encompass, but go beyond, their conceptualisation in social theory. As such the hierarchical approach offers invaluable insights into the historical processes that underpin modern human behaviour, understood as it is in palaeolithic archaeology as the persistence and accumulation of innovation and the appearance of symbolic material culture. It complements and deepens the trend towards casting modernity as an emergent property of social, demographic and ecological processes rather than as a behavioural phenotype enabled by a heritable genotype found only in Homo sapiens. By locating the central issue of the social transmission of knowledge and practice in a wider theoretical context, it liberates problems such as Neanderthal symbolism in the Chatelperronian of the Grotte du Renne, and the apparent absence of symbolism in the early Homo sapiens occupation of Niah Cave, from special pleading and permits such issues to be understood in terms of general principles.

One might object that the approach developed here is reliant upon an inexorable acceleration through palaeolithic time in the rate of the social transmission of knowledge and, therefore, in turn, on inexorable demographic expansion; in which case, it does not escape the pitfalls of priorism, reductionism and teleology identified in current demographic models of modern human behaviour. To some degree the hierarchical approach must appeal to a trend towards more rapid social knowledge transmission if the (uneven) trend in the later Pleistocene towards cumulative innovation and symbolic material culture is to be explained. However, it need not be inexorable or unidirectional, and it need not rely on population growth. Understanding palaeolithic social knowledge transmission in terms of metapopulation structure permits an understanding of how the social transmission of knowledge can be enhanced even if regional and/or local population numbers fall, providing countervailing factors such as migration, territorial range, logistically organised mobility and environment are sufficiently strong (Hopkinson 2011). Indeed, it should be noted that, although the focus here has been on scale domains of knowledgeability understood as hierarchical levels within a system, one could equally conceive of the individual, the local population and the metapopulation as scale domains within a hierarchically organised social system. There is therefore potential for future research in which the hierarchical approach developed here is combined with hierarchical analysis of social-demographic scales as exemplified in Powell et al. (2009) and Hopkinson (2011).

An example of this might be the effect of sink-source ecological dynamics (Pulliam 1988; 1996). Within a metapopulation range some tracts of the range are likely to be more resource-rich than others. Subpopulations in the richer areas will persist longer, fission more frequently and produce more emigrants than subpopulations in more marginal tracts; subpopulations in those marginal regions, on the other hand, will be more prone to extinction and population will be maintained there through individual migration and subpopulation fissioning from richer areas. Yet it is in marginal areas that advantageous novel practices will offer the greatest selective advantage, and in richer areas that they will offer the least. Paradoxically, those subpopulations most likely to adopt novel practices are those that are least able to act as sources from which they can disseminate through the metapopulation since population movement is from the richer tracts and towards the marginal tracts. But a catastrophic transformation in environment (and Pleistocene climate in temperate regions could rise by as much as 8° or 10°C in as little as 10 years (Dansgaard et al. 1993; Grootes et al. 1993)) could reverse the position. Subpopulations with relatively high endemic levels of novel practices would then be 'exporting' individuals and daughter subpopulations to the formerly richer tracts, rapidly carrying their innovations with them. In this case an acceleration in the dissemination of novel practices through a metapopulation can occur without any reference at all to changes in gross population numbers or to increased size or packing densities of subpopulations.


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