Portrait of Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison, 1837-1921

The Eolithic Controversy as a Problem in the History of Science, and of Archaeology in Particular: an approach from cognitive anthropology

Principal Investigator: Roy Ellen
Researcher: Angela Muthana
Grant dates: 2007-2008
Funding: British Academy
Partners: Maidstone Museum

An ‘eolith’ is a piece of chipped flint which has the appearance of having been worked by a human. When they were first discovered in the mid-nineteenth century they were thought to be examples of early human tools, and were used as evidence for the existence of humans in Europe before the beginning of the Pleistocene era, more than 1.8m years ago. Today eoliths are generally thought to be naturally occurring geological debris, but collections of them still exist in many local and national museums.

The early acceptance of eoliths as man-made is surprising, given that the Victorian scientific establishment had earlier dismissed the idea that hand axes could have been made by humans. This project will look at why they were so readily accepted, and will document the ‘eolithic controversy’ between 1860 -1930, as doubts about the authenticity of eoliths grew.

One way of understanding the controversy is by using the methods of ‘cognitive anthropology’, the study of cultural cognition. Every human society has its own unique way of organising or understanding its environment, and cognitive anthropologists attempt to understand the thinking of a society by examining how they do this. It has shown that we contrast and exaggerate in order to create difference between objects and clusters of evidence in the natural world. Categories are formed as we identify foci and establish boundaries. Imagination plays a part in this, drawing on reserves of memory and socially distributed information.

When it comes to scientific innovation there’s a danger that the imagination can lead to an overoptimistic interpretation: agreed and disputed data can become mixed (‘faction’), and fantasy and deliberate falsehood may be included in order to produce convincing narratives. The data and narratives surrounding the eolithic controversy provide an excellent example of this: the invention of eoliths arose in part because it satisfied a requirement of a particular way of thinking. Once arguments in favour of a theory had been accepted, the default ‘mindset’ became one of disproving evidence that eoliths were not human fabrications.

In retrospect, the debate was important as it was conducted at a time when the ground rules of Pleistocene geology and archaeological interpretation were being established, and the controversy determined the limit of what was scientifically credible.

The project describes surviving collections of eoliths and associated archives in museums in southeast England. It provides an historical account of the emergence of the debate until its demise, comparing existing secondary accounts with first hand accounts of those who took part in it, and noting how successive prehistorians and curatorial staff have handled the problems posed by eoliths. More innovatively, it uses the conceptual tools of cognitive anthropology, including sorting tests, to compare the intuitive classifications of students with the expert classifications of professionals and those embedded in the literature and in museums.

We will continue to add to this web page publications and online resources derived from the project as and when they become available.

Bibliography of published works relating to the Eolith Controversy

Benjamin Harrison archive at the Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery

Publications

Muthana, Angela, Ellen, Roy (2020). The Great Eolith Debate and the Anthropological Institute. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, 30 (1). pp. 1-11.

Ellen, R. and A. Muthana (2013). An experimental approach to understanding the ‘eolithic’ problem: cultural cognition and the perception of plausibly anthropic artifacts. Lithic Technology 38 (2), 109-123.

Ellen, R. (2013). ‘These rude implements’: competing claims for authenticity in the Eolithic controversy. Anthropology Quarterly 86 (2), 445-480. [Special Collection Laying claim to authenticity: anthropological dilemmas, ed. D.Theodossopoulos].

Ellen, R. (2011). The eolith debate, evolutionist anthropology and the Oxford connection between 1880 and 1940. History and Anthropology 22 (3), 277-306.

Ellen, R. (2011). The place of the eolithic controversy in the anthropology of Alfred Russel Wallace. The Linnean 27 (1), 22-33.

Ellen, R. and A. Muthana (2010). Classifying ‘eoliths’: how cultural cognition featured in arguments surrounding claims for the earliest human artefacts as these developed between 1880 and 1900. Journal of Cognition and Culture 10, 341-75. pdf