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Journal Article

Niche construction theory in Archaeology: a critical review


Spengler,  Robert N.
Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Max Planck Society;

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Spengler, R. N. (2021). Niche construction theory in Archaeology: a critical review. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 28(3): s10816-021-09528-4, pp. 925-955. doi:10.1007/s10816-021-09528-4.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0008-B9D6-6
Over the past decade, niche construction theory (NCT) has been one of the fastest-growing theories or scholarly approaches in the social sciences, especially within archaeology. It was proposed in the biological sciences 25 years ago and is often referred to as a neglected evolutionary mechanism. Given its rapid acceptance by the archaeological community, it is important that scholars consider how it is being applied and look for discrepancies between applications of the concept. Many critical discussions of NCT have already been published, but most of them are in biology journals and may be overlooked by scholars in the social sciences. In this manuscript, my goal is to synthesis the criticisms of NCT, better allowing archaeologists to independently evaluate its usefulness. I focus on the claims of novelty and differences between NCT and other approaches to conceptualizing anthropogenic ecosystem impacts and culture-evolution feedbacks. I argue that the diverse concepts currently included in the wide-reaching purview of NCT are not new, but the terminology is and may be useful to some scholars. If proponents of the concept are able to unify their ideas, it may serve a descriptive function, but given that lack of a testable explanatory mechanism, it does not have a clear heuristic function.