What is Convergence in Archaeology?



The concept of convergence isn’t a new one to the multiple fields of science. In it’s most basic definition it describes the tendency of unrelated species to evolve superficially similar characteristics to deal with similar environmental issues. One of the best examples of this are wings.

Bats have wings, as do birds, some lizards, and even some squirrels, not to count all flying insects in the world. These different types of wings are all understood as being wings despite their uses. Some are true fliers, some glide, some are purely for show. However, they are all wings that were evolved by each individual species independently of any other.

The concept of convergence can be applied easily to other field of science unrelated to biology. It’s even apt to say that an idea like convergence was developed or observed in nearly every field of science, and we’ve just grouped all those ideas under the umbrella term “Convergence” making this all very meta.

How does all this apply to Archaeology?

Well, in archaeology we also recognize the phenomenon of convergence in cultures both prehistoric and modern. Perhaps one of the most recognizable example of this is pottery.

The invention of pottery is a step most prehistoric cultures made in their cultural and social development. I say most because there a a few that skipped this step and found inventive ways of using baskets and animal skins to serve the same purpose as pottery. That said, many prehistoric American cultures can be identified simply by the manufacture and decorative practices of their pottery. It is reliable enough that rough dating can be done based on the type of pottery found.

The same can be said about stone tools. Most prehistoric cultures figured out a way to shape stone into useful objects. Again I say most because there are some that used bone, bamboo, and other perishable materials instead. However, a majority of cultures moved through a stone age in reliable enough ways that the tools they left behind can be roughly dated by type and production technology

The development of these essential skills occurred at different times in different places by different people. Their development and use is so ubiquitous, that it is obvious that they were developed independently by different cultures. No one in archaeology argues that these skills were created by one supreme uber group and then disseminated through the ranks of humanity. Even the fringe groups tend to leave stone tools and pottery alone.

This trend doesn’t hold when it comes to more seemingly “advanced” skills or objects like written language, art, and megaliths.

I say seemingly here because the fringe tends to give more weight to these aspects of culture over what might be considered “everyday” aspects like tools and pottery. The fringe tends to focus on things that stand out, and that tends to be art, giant structures, and written symbols. This is folly, as the development and mastery of skills like tool making and pottery is hardly simple and is always a marker of culture. That said, let’s delve into the convergence of written language, art, and megaliths.

Written Language and Symbolism:

One of the things I see the fringe try to do is focus on prehistoric symbols, especially those used in pro-writing. Things like spirals, crossed circles, and other universal symbols. They try to use the appearance of these symbols in developing cultures all over the world as evidence of contact between them or of the presence of an uber culture. There is no reason to ever assume this, and trying to do so ignores the cultural implications of said symbols. What a spiral means in proto-Chinese is not what it means in proto-Navajo for example.

But there are always exceptions to the rule. So what happens when two symbols share a similar meaning?

This is still not a reason to assume anything other than convergence. It isn’t difficult to understand that two cultures, trying to describe the same thing, might come up with a like symbol to do so. Take for example, times when a supper nova was observed in the prehistoric past. Many (most?) cultures saw it and recorded it. Many of them used similar symbols to represent a bright, sun-like, light burst at night. Is that because aliens ran all over the world and taught the various cultures how to draw a super nova? No. It means the various cultures exposed to a similar event used similar imagery to record it.

Keep in mind that when we talk about ‘similar symbols’ we mean they have strong like characteristics. It doesn’t mean they are identical. Even when it comes to simple shapes like spirals and quartered circles, there is always variance in the form. Which only further supports the idea of convergence, as they are similar but not exactly the same, serving the same purpose, in slightly different ways.

Art and Imagery:

Most of the explanation in the Written Language and Symbolism section serves here as well. Humans, for the most part, try to replicate what they saw in nature. So for nearly every culture to have objects and images that represented recognizable animals, items, and people, is simply common sense.

Things get interesting when artistic style and interpretation comes into play. Here we begin to see stylized representations of nature, and this is where the Fringe begins to have issues. Stylized figures of birds, insects, and humans that archaeologists recognize due to the study of the related culture, get turned into fanciful jet planes, space ships, and alien men (always men) by the Fringe.

The problem the Fringe runs into is they are attempting to validate a biased idea and interpret stylized objects without understating the culture that they came from. In a void of information any conclusion can be drawn, and often is. This isn’t how archaeology works though.

Archaeologists can spend years, sometimes decades, familiarizing themselves with a culture and using that knowledge to decipher the art they find. This often includes speaking with the living decedents of a culture to understand something about how their ancestors perceived things. This way, we can form the best ideas about the art and imagery, using the best information available.

Now, all that said, there are often overlaps in imagery and art from one culture to the next. Again, it’s best to consider convergence as an explanation first, since many times it’s an attempt to recreate what is being observed in nature. Even in the instance of stylized art, it is best to consider convergence before trying to create an elaborate explanation to tie two unrelated cultures together based on one image or art object.

The other pitfall to avoid here is one the Fringe often fall into, and that is to rely on your own personal interpretation of aspects or characteristics of an object or image. Just because you personally see something that makes a figure look “Asian” or “Caucasian” doesn’t mean those characteristics are actually there. Such observations are completely subjective and often times driven by reasoning that has no place in archaeology.

Structures and Megaliths:

All of the arguments in the previous two sections hold here, and here is where we most often see the Fringe arguing for dissemination when what we’re actually seeing in convergence in a larger scale.

The most popular example of this is pyramid. The Fringe seems to love pyramids. The problem here is that what is structurally and archaeologically called a pyramid may not line up with how the Fringe wants to think of a pyramid.

A pyramid is a description of a type of structure that is cone shaped or often shaped with four sides and a flat bottom.  It is probably one of the most basic and structurally sound shapes you can build.

This is why we see this shape all over the world with a huge range of variation. From stepped pyramids, to truncated pyramids, to earth mounds, to the ‘true’ pyramids in Egypt, the term pyramid covers a variety of structures. As the shape, style, and purpose of these structures vary depending on the culture who built them, this is clearly a case of convergence. They are all similar in shape, hence the use of the term ‘pyramid’ to describe them, but their overall construction is different enough for even the untrained eye to see.

There are Always Exceptions.

Said exceptions only help prove the rule however. When we do see clear evidence of the sharing of or development of cultural traits, it helps us understand the cultures better.

Let’s look back at the basics, pottery and stone tools. We can, and do, find evidence of the development of techniques that lead to a new and different form of a tool or new and different shape of a vessel. We also see all the transitional forms moving from the ‘original’ form to the ‘new’ form. This means we can see the development of the technique in the culture that is developing it.

We also often see a jump in forms or decoration, especially but not exclusively in pottery. This sudden jump often indicates a marriage into a culture from an outside one, or direct trade between the two. In the case of marriage the tool or vessel maker often brings their own cultural techniques with them and in the case of trade the better item is often favored over another.

Both cases often serve the same purpose. We humans are practical creatures and we tend to change production habits in favor of easier and more durable techniques. We are also visual creatures, and we tend to pick the prettiest techniques as well. Hybrid forms are often observed and show how one culture is assimilating the techniques of another in over of their own.

The point here is, when one culture influence another, we usually see it in the archaeological record. When this evidence is missing and the traits being compared are different enough to be noticeable, we should always error on the side of convergence. As Dr. Mullins says, think Horses not Zebras (unless maybe you’re in the plains of southern Africa, then it’s probably ok to think the opposite).

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Categories: Archaeology, Concepts and Themes | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “What is Convergence in Archaeology?

  1. busterggi

    “This trend doesn’t hold when it comes to more seemingly “advanced” skills or objects like written language, art, and megaliths.”

    Just a few observations – written language does seem to develope if a society requires a sufficient amount of record keeping (not needed when you trade a goat for a bundle of wheat but when dozens of these are traded between two parties…), art is in the eye of the beholder & is highly culturally specific (all cultures develope some forms of art but there is no reason why all would be the same) and megaliths are also pretty standard when an organized society gets large enough though admitedly not universal.


    • Sorry, I’m not sure what you’re arguing here. It seems that you’re saying that society size is the same as cultural complexity. Though they tend to correlate, they are not the same. I agree with your points, but I’m not sure how they are counter to the quote you selected out. Can you clarify?


      • busterggi

        The exceptions you mention pretty much cover what I mean – correlation =/= causation but it can get darned similar looking results. It wasn’t to counter you, just an observation – must be feeling chattier than usual today.


      • Ah ok, I apologize for my confusion. Chat away!


  2. Excellent article on this particular subject. As always I very much enjoyed it.


  3. busterggi

    Unless that hurt was from laughing too hard I appologize.

    Liked by 1 person

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