Maturing Human Minds and Early Subsistant Technoevolution: A Synopsis

9 Pages Posted: 17 Oct 2012

See all articles by Wendell H. Oswalt

Wendell H. Oswalt

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Department of Anthropology

Date Written: July 15, 2012


Without exception, people throughout the world depend on evolving nonsomatic forms to obtain food on a reliable basis. This is a cultural universal. But there is no word in English to identify the process or the associated artifacts. My proposal was subsistant, “a technological form used to obtain edibles on an immediate or delayed basis” (e.g., Oswalt: 1973, 24). The word was stillborn and a comparable concept has yet to emerge. So why has this term not been adopted? In fact, why have “subsistants” not become an anthropological subfield of study? This has long puzzled me, especially since the social science community has an ever-expanding interest in the lives of our Homo ancestors.

To address these questions, a brief overview of artifact studies in the relatively recent past is fitting. With the rise of modern anthropology in the late 1800s, the evolution of material culture became a prominent research subject. One major pioneer was Augustus Lane Fox (1827-1900) whose extensive personal artifact collection included commonplace archaeological and ethnological examples. His goal was to formulate an evolutionary classification to trace “... the succession of ideas by which the minds of men in a primitive condition of culture have progressed from the simple to the complex, and from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous” (Lane Fox: 1875, 294). Acceptance of his goal diminished shortly after he established it, but it reemerged in the 1950s and continues into the present.

From another anthropological perspective, artifacts are neglected. Michael Brian Schiffer (1999, 5) emphasized “... material culture studies are largely marginalized in the major social science disciplines. This can be easily shown by a perusal of prominent literature in psychology, sociology, and anthropology.” However, he also stated that, “... all studies in the social and behavioral sciences ought to attend diligently to artifacts. Evidently, this is not happening - even in sociocultural anthropology.”

Thus, the importance of material culture and artifacts may be seen as existing in stark contrast to the attention actually paid to this anthropological subfield of study. In fact, only a very few researchers endeavored to catalog the fundamental elements of material culture and provide a plausible explanation for the increased complexity found in the empirical, archeological record. Yet, I thought that such a foundational theory that included both aspects was well worth investigation and postulation.

Keywords: Subsistant, Paleolithic, Foragers, Aboriginal

Suggested Citation

Oswalt, Wendell H., Maturing Human Minds and Early Subsistant Technoevolution: A Synopsis (July 15, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Wendell H. Oswalt (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Department of Anthropology ( email )

Los Angeles, CA 90095-1553
United States

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