Select Page

Big Histories, Human Lives

Tackling Problems of Scale in Archaeology

Edited by John Robb and Timothy R. Pauketat

We may be due an Ice Age any day now as the earth wobbles through its complex long-term cycles of axial tilt, precession, and eccentricity. Not only are these cycles—on the scale of hundreds of thousands of years—poorly understood, but they intersect with other trends that could have an equally massive effect on our planet. It does not take an Ice Age, however, to change our lives; we are so accustomed to our present-day situation that even shorter term, relatively small changes may create havoc. Such fluctuations, no matter what their size, must be understood at broad scales of analysis similar to those contemplated in this book for human history generally. Big Histories, Human Lives is a re-theorizing of scale and change in human history as they are related to the big picture—the relationships between time, the environment, and all of human experience on earth.

The contributors consider something archaeologists seldom think about: the intersection of micro-scale human experience with large-scale and long-term histories. Did history unfold in different ways for different people? What are the central historical processes behind such unfoldings? How are we to understand these events and their relevance to us today?

2013. 296 pp., 15 figures, 8 maps, 1 table, notes, references, index, 6 x 9

Contributors: Clive Gamble, Chris Gosden, Michael Heckenberger, Scott MacEachern, Timothy R. Pauketat, Susan Pollock, John Robb, Kenneth E. Sassman, Ruth M. Van Dyke

Download an excerpt.

“Since the 1980s, archaeologists have struggled with growing, impressive bodies of data about long-term social change and outmoded theories used to explain change. Under criticism by postprocessualists and others, grand narratives of change were questioned and even the idea of having grand narratives was rejected. This occurred especially in the demolition of neo-evolutionist theory (of stages and levels), which created a kind of theoretical anomie. This book is a call to restore grand narratives of change, and the authors are determined to put human beings—who were effectively ignored in systems theories, environmental determinist theories, adaptationism, and functionalism—as central actors in their own histories. Archaeologists: this way forward.”
—Norman Yoffee, Senior Fellow, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University

“Through vivid and thought-provoking examples, the volume’s various authors demonstrate how the archaeological, anthropological, and historical examination of past human societies has many lessons of direct and immediate relevance to people in the modern world. It also recasts the focus of scholars from these disciplines in turn, arguing that there are bigger problems and better ways of examining them than the approaches many have chosen.”
—David G. Anderson, University of Tennessee, author of Climate Change and Cultural Dynamics: A Global Perspective on Mid-Holocene Transitions

“This highly provocative book breaks new ground in examining the articulation between the longue durée and short-term, small-scale human experiences. A stellar group of scholars re-energize our thinking about long-term history without losing sight of microscale events and human lives. The authors experiment with multiple, innovative theoretical approaches in a series of case studies that will be of great interest to any scholar grappling with the investigation of humans in deep time.”
—Kent G. Lightfoot, University of California, Berkeley


  1. From Moments to Millennia: Theorizing Scale and Change in Human History
    John Robb and Timothy R. Pauketat
  2. Bundles of/in/as Time
    Timothy R. Pauketat
  3. Deep Time, History, and the Human-Hominin Imagination
    Clive Gamble
  4. History in the Body: The Scale of Belief
    John Robb
  5. The Fractal Landscape: An Archaeology of the Body in Amazonia
    Michael Heckenberger
  6. Time on the Timeless Continent: History and Archaeological Chronologies in the Southern Lake Chad Basin
    Scott MacEachern
  7. Commensality, Public Spheres, and Handlungsräume in Ancient Mesopotamia
    Susan Pollock
  8. Drowning Out the Past: How Humans Historicize Water as Water Historicizes Them
    Kenneth E. Sassaman
  9. Ritual, Timelessness, and Lived Experience in the Pueblo World
    Ruth M. Van Dyke
  10. Long-Term History: A Short Response
    Chris Gosden
There are no working papers for this book at the present time.