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The Role of Adaptation in Archaeological Explanation

  • Michael J. O'Brien (a1) and Thomas D. Holland (a1)

Adaptation, a venerable icon in archaeology, often is afforded the vacuous role of being an ex-post-facto argument used to "explain" the appearance and persistence of traits among prehistoric groups—a position that has seriously impeded development of a selectionist perspective in archaeology. Biological and philosophical definitions of adaptation—and by extension, definitions of adaptedness—vary considerably, but all are far removed from those usually employed in archaeology. The prevailing view in biology is that adaptations are features that were shaped by natural selection and that increase the adaptedness of an organism. Thus adaptations are separated from other features that may contribute to adaptedness but are products of other evolutionary processes. Analysis of adaptation comprises two stages: showing that a feature was under selection and how the feature functioned relative to the potential adaptedness of its bearers. The archaeological record contains a wealth of information pertinent to examining the adaptedness of prehistoric groups, but attempts to use it will prove successful only if a clear understanding exists of what adaptation is and is not.


La adaptatión, un venerable ícono en arqueología, desempeña a menudo el papel huero de argumento ex post facto utilizado para "explicar" la aparición y persistencia de rasgos en grupos prehistóricos—una positión que ha obstaculizado seriamente el desarrollo de una perspectiva seleccionista en arqueología. Las definiciones biológicas y filosóficas de adaptación—y por extensión, las definiciones de lo adaptado—varían considerablemente, pero todas ellas difierenpor completo de las habitualmente empleadas en arqueología. La conceptión predominante en biología sostiene que las adaptaciones son características que fueron moldeadas por selección natural y que incrementan la adaptatión de un organismo. De este modo las adaptaciones se distinguen de otras características que pueden contribuir a la adaptatión pero son el resultado de diferentes procesos evolutivos. El análisis de la adaptación procede en dos etapas: la primera, demostrar que una característica se encontraba bajo selectión; la segunda, demostrar cómo funcionaba la característica en relatión con los estados adaptativos potenciales de sus portadores. El registro arqueológico contiene abundante informatión pertinente para examinar la adaptación de grupos prehistóricos, pero los intentos de utilizarla solo tendrán éxito si se comprende claramente qué es y qué no es adaptación.

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