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The Quality of the Archaeological Record

Paleobiology struggled for decades to influence our understanding of evolution and the history of life because it was stymied by a focus on microevolution and an incredibly patchy fossil record. But in the 1970s, the field took a radical turn, as paleobiologists began to investigate processes that could only be recognized in the fossil record across larger scales of time and space. That turn led to a new wave of macroevolutionary investigations, novel insights into the evolution of species, and a growing prominence for the field among the biological sciences.

In The Quality of the Archaeological Record, Charles Perreault shows that archaeology not only faces a parallel problem, but may also find a model in the rise of paleobiology for a shift in the science and theory of the field. To get there, he proposes a more macroscale approach to making sense of the archaeological record, an approach that reveals patterns and processes not visible within the span of a human lifetime, but rather across an observation window thousands of years long and thousands of kilometers wide. Just as with the fossil record, the archaeological record has the scope necessary to detect macroscale cultural phenomena because it can provide samples that are large enough to cancel out the noise generated by micro-scale events. By recalibrating their research to the quality of the archaeological record and developing a true macroarchaeology program, Perreault argues, archaeologists can finally unleash the full contributive value of their discipline.

280 pages | 57 line drawings, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2019


Biological Sciences: Paleobiology, Geology, and Paleontology


"Perreault's review is thorough and salutary, usefully setting out the empirical basis for what is often assumed. . . . A call to focus on the macroscale is welcome; analyzing change over long timescales is a contribution exclusive to archaeology."

Susan Greaney | Times Higher Education

“For its critical analysis and corrective approach, this volume is to be commended… The Quality of the Archaeological Record presents a precise and critical commentary on archaeological interpretation that will be of value to students and professionals of archaeology alike.” 

Canadian Journal of Archaeology

“In this cogently argued book Perreault exposes the shaky foundations of many if not most archaeological claims about the past and proposes a new research agenda that plays to the enormous potential of the archaeological record to reveal large-scale patterns in space and time.”

Stephen Shennan, University College London Institute of Archaeology

“Archaeologists have long acknowledged that the archaeological record is not the same as an ethnographic record, yet they apply microscale, ethnographically based explanatory models and theories to the archaeological record. In firm but not shrill language, and by rigorous analyses of the influences of the generally low-scale resolution and dimensionality of the archaeological record, Perreault demonstrates the underdetermined nature (weaknesses) of much modern archaeological research and argues convincingly for ‘recalibrating’ archaeological methods and theories to the macroscale qualities of the archaeological record. This volume is among the top five must-read books to appear since the 1980s.”

R. Lee Lyman, University of Missouri–Columbia

“This book moves the epistemology of the historical sciences in general and archaeology in particular to a new level of sophistication. Perreault’s grasp of ‘nature’s messy experiments’ and his analyses of theories of verification are simply brilliant. His call for ‘macroarchaeology,’ or the search for macroscale phenomena in the archaeological record, optimistically defines our discipline’s future. This book should be mandatory reading for any serious theorist of cultural evolution theory.”

Charles Stanish, University of South Florida

“Perreault’s thesis is both apt and extremely important for archaeologists to address. Thoughtful engagement with it could transform the field, which would make this book the agent of transformation that it deserves to be and that archaeology needs.”

Michael J. Shott, University of Akron

Table of Contents


1 The Search for Smoking Guns
2 The Sources of Underdetermination
3 The Forces That Shape the Quality of the Archaeological Record, I: The Mixing of Archaeological Data
4 The Forces That Shape the Quality of the Archaeological Record, II: The Loss of Archaeological Data
5 The Quality of the Archaeological Record
6 Archaeology and Underdetermination
7 Taking Advantage of the Archaeological Record
8 Final Words
Appendix A. A Formal Model of the Effect of Mixing on Variance
Appendix B. Source of Time Intervals and Time Resolutions from Journal Articles

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