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Globalization in Prehistory: Contact, Exchange, and the “People Without History”

April 2020 (124.2)

Book Review

Globalization in Prehistory: Contact, Exchange, and the “People Without History”

edited by Nicole Boivin and Michael D. Frachetti. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018. Pp. xviii + 343. $125. ISBN 978-1-108-42980-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

To what extent is the term “globalization” applicable to the study of the historic, and prehistoric, past? How did “invisible peoples”—Eric Wolf’s people without history—contribute to processes of globalization in the past? What are the types of proxies or material correlates deployed by researchers to investigate these contributions? And last but not least, how can we get beyond the urban and imperial biases that have been the mainstay of much previous research on past globalizations? These are four key methodological concerns addressed in this edited volume. Its 12 chapters consist of papers presented at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Honolulu. The volume spans 343 pages and includes 53 figures and an index.

In their introduction, the editors explain the rationale for the aforementioned concerns and how these are addressed in the succeeding chapters. What animates their presentation is a vision of a more inclusive approach to research on globalization in the past—an approach that considers the contributions of hunter-gatherers, nomads, maritime navigators, and other mobile and small-scale societies in which local self-rule persisted, to various extents, despite the predations of urban and imperial powers.

For the term “globalization” to be applicable to the study of “people without history,” Eurocentric and hierarchical notions of political economy implied by neo-Marxist and World Systems theorists must be set aside. This point is explicitly urged by Ursula Brosseder and Bryan Miller (164), but all the contributors to this volume would likely agree. As a way forward for investigations of such peoples, these two, along with Peter Hommel, make the case for approaches based on examination of nets and networks. Ioana Dumitru and Michael Harrower agree with this approach, though they also deploy notions of chaîne opératoire and entanglement in their case study of long-distance trade in copper and obsidian. Ian Lilley channels Ino Rossi’s notion of cultural globalization—as distinct from political and economic—as a way to analyze the contributions of invisible peoples to precolonial globalization.

With regard to how the “people without history” contributed to the advance of globalization, three takeaways from this volume stand out. The first is a point emphasized by nearly all contributors, namely that the “people without history” were active participants who had significant agency in the unfolding history of past globalizations—a reality all too often overlooked by much received scholarship on the topic. Second is that the “people without history” contributed their largely unacknowledged “local knowledge.” This theme is repeated in many chapters of this volume and is especially well illustrated with regard to the hunter-gatherers of South Asia discussed by Kathleen Morrison. Their knowledge of medicinal botany and forest products provided the hidden foundations for European colonial expansion in this part of the world and beyond. Tim Denham makes a similar point with regard to the use and dispersal of gourds, rice, and areca palm throughout Southeast Asia during the Holocene. A third way in which the “people without history” contributed to globalization was through their prowess as masters of both maritime and desert transportation. While Robert Carter provides an example from the “watercraft revolution” (66) of the sixth–fifth millennium BCE along the Persian Gulf, Yitzchak Jaffe and Rowan Flad offer a case study of river navigation from Gansu, China, also going back to the fifth millennium BCE. Tom Hoogervorst and Boivin offer a third example from premodern Maritime Southeast Asia. Along these same lines, Eivind Seland examines the contribution of nomads traveling the Syrian desert by camel to the flourishing trade networks between the Persian Gulf region and the Mediterranean.

One of the most fascinating and helpful aspects of the volume under review is the wide range of proxies deployed by its team of contributors as a means to “materializing globalization” (6). These include ceramics (Hommel); boat remains (Carter); animal and plant remains (Denham); burial traditions (Frachetti and Elissa Bullion); site survey remains (Jaffe and Flad); prestige goods (Brosseder and Miller); caravan inscriptions (Seland); aromatic tree products and historical linguistics (Hoogervorst and Boivin); copper and obsidian (Dumitru and Harrower); spices and forest products (Morrison); trade pottery (Lilley); and—potentially the most tricky of all—mythic pathways (Edwin Wilmsen).

Perhaps the most important contribution this volume makes to theorizing globalization as long-term cultural process is its insistence that the “people without history” have cultural, political, and economic agency as well as material and cultural legacies that have contributed in significant ways to the unfolding of globalization despite not having an urban, state-level, or imperial political center. The volume thus contests the urban, statist, and imperial bias of much received scholarship on the deep-time history of globalization. And, as already indicated, in various ways its contributors offer significant insight into the nature of this agency through documentation of the accumulated legacies of local innovation where particular technologies and cultural practices are concerned. To the examples already noted can be added the emergence of pottery production among preagricultural hunter-gatherers and its spread throughout Eurasia (Hommel); the spread of ideologies relating to burial practices throughout Asia (Frachetti and Bullion); the spread of particular prestige goods throughout Eurasia (Brosseder and Miller); the development of ships for long-distance river navigation by craftsmen of Southeast Asia (Hoogervorst and Boivin); the mastery of copper and obsidian manufacturing by local metalsmiths from Oman and Ethiopia (Dumitru and Harrower); and last but not least, the incorporation of critical local knowledge as a means to European colonial expansion (Morrison). The point of all of these examples is to emphasize the many ways in which the “people without history” were in fact integral, if unacknowledged partners in the multi-millennial project we today have come to call globalization. In the eyes of this reviewer Globalization in Prehistory offers a long overdue corrective to much received theorizing about globalization in the premodern past.

Oystein S. La Bianca
Andrews University Institute of Archaeology

Book Review of Globalization in Prehistory: Contact, Exchange, and the “People Without History,” edited by Nicole Boivin and Michael D. Frachetti
Reviewed by Oystein S. LaBianca
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 2 (April 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1242.LaBianca

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