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E21: Ian Hodder: Where are we heading: The evolution of humans and things


You have been leading the excavation of Çatalhöyük (since 1993), which is one of the oldest known settlements. What’s the historical significance of this archaeological site? And how did your work at Çatalhöyük Influence your book?


It's a big very early settlement, and it was inhabited for about a thousand years. So one is able to see how societies changed over that period of time from about 7000 bc to about 6000 bc.

And of course, archaeologists have long had theories about why societies change and particularly about why they settled down. Çatalhöyük is important because it occurs in the neolithic period, which takes over from the long long period where humans moved around the landscape as hunters and gatherers.

There are lots of questions about why did we settle down, and why did we domesticate plants, and why did we domesticate animals, and what was the effect of that. What I realized at Çatalhöyük, and our very detailed excavations of this very well-preserved site was that in the day-to-day life of these people they were very caught up in things of a great variety. Particularly things made of clay, because there are no stones in this part of the of Central Turkey. So everything had to be made out of clay. But the clay is of a type that falls apart very easily. It’s very unstable. Throughout the life of the settlement you can see people trying to find solutions to the problem of how to build houses out of this type of material. What sort of technological solutions and cultural solutions, social innovations… And I realized that the house and all the other things like pots, and figurines, and stamp seals; all the other things made of clay are really like actors. They have a real role to play. The house decides to fall down and that's something it does on its own, and it forces humans to do something about it.

So it became more and more clear to me that humans were involved in a continual struggle with these non-human actors, which many people will know through the work of Bruno Latour. What I realized was that, as well as just being caught up in the things, that they became sort of trapped in them. That once you do one thing, that inhibits what you can do with other things. So obviously, if you put a house here, that has an impact on whether you can put the next house. You’re caught up in a in a sort of entanglement with things.

I think that's why Çatalhöyük meant so much to me. I realized, because I'm an archaeologist, and we’re digging up things, I don't get my attention distracted by the focus on humans and rituals. I focus on things very much, and that led me to see how very important, over the long term, things have been for humans.


Your book covers other types other theories before diving into your own theory of entanglement. However, you mentioned that these fail to address the topic of directionality. In what ways does your entanglement theory defers from these others, and ultimately addresses this topic of directionality?


One of the striking things when you're digging at Çatalhöyük is that, compared to us, they had very little things. And most of them were easily obtained from the local environment. Basically, you could put everyone's belongings onto a small table. They didn't use a lot of stuff, but they were using more stuff than people had done when they were hunter gatherers. Obviously when you're a hunter-gatherer, as we were for thousands of years before, you can't carry a lot of stuff around with you. If you go on through time, you just see we've accumulated more and more stuff.

The book sort of starts with some very stark examples of how much we've changed. At Çatalhöyük, when you were cutting the wheat to harvest, you had a small little piece of stone that you cut with. Nowadays, we have combine harvesters which are the size of my house, and there are huge warehouses with 800 thousand different parts for these combine harvesters, which are all produced globally, in different parts of the world. So, we we've got more and more stuff, and we become more and more entangled.

Another example is the car. The early use of the wheel was in very simple carts and wagons. Now, we have cars that have, perhaps, 20 to 30 thousand different parts which are manufactured all over the world. So, it's just very obvious that one of the main things that has happened over time, despite what your theoretical position is, is that we just have got more and more and more and more stuff. And we've become more extractive in terms of getting that stuff out of the environment.

You asked me what other theories were around; and of course there are many evolutionary theories that might explain this. There are the biological evolutionary theories which are based on darwinian theory. But in my view, there is no real consensus that darwinian theory produces directionality. Another set of theories are social evolutionary theories. But the trouble with many of them is that they seem to have some goal in mind; some teleology. They sound as if people know where they’re going, which is a problem since we can't really know where we're going.

And of course, the idea of progress has been a hugely problematic idea that has been rejected by many social scientists. So I felt the need to have some sort of theory that was not teleological but was directional. Of course, that's a very difficult balance to make. Not to be goal directed, but on the other hand to allow directionality.

The idea of entanglement is very very simple really. When we depend on things, these things depend on other things, which depend on us. So we get caught in a double bind. Not only do we depend on things, but we have to look after all the other things on which those things depend.

The most classic and easiest example is the domestication of plants. When people lived off wild cereals, wild plants of various sorts, they simply collected them, and processed them, and that was a fairly straightforward relationship. But once the plants had been domesticated, what happens is, the plants change genetically such that they can't reproduce themselves without human intervention. The domesticated plants need humans in order for them to be able to reproduce. That involves people, and much harder work, more labor. Preparing the ground, particularly winnowing, and sieving, and grinding, and processing. It may be initially an accident that people domesticated plants, but very quickly they get drawn into harder work, harder labor, and using more and more things, and ultimately of course combine harvesters in order to process the plants.

So there's no real goal here except just that humans depend on things. But it does end up being directional because we get drawn-in more and more to the lives of things that are always falling apart, or coming unstuck, or needing other things as they wear out. It's an inexorable process.


People began settling down between 12 thousand and 7 thousand years ago, which led to agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals, and ultimately to the accumulation of things. Prior to that, human ancestors lived in small mobile groups, and that was the norm for around 75 thousand years. So, we’ve seen a massive increase in technological advancement in a very short period of time.

Could one say that progress begets progress?


I think the the idea of progress is itself difficult. It's certainly true that we have made technological advances, and medical advances; and we can do great things like go to the moon, and so on. So there has been change. And you could call that an advancement, but people have increasingly realized that where we've ended up is not so wonderful. We are causing an enormous damage to the environment, there’s an enormous amount of inequality, and there's an enormous amount of violence.

There are many people who would argue that where we have ended up is not really progress, it’s a regression. That, in fact, there are aspects of life in the Paleolithic, when we were hunter gatherers, that are much better. For example, the whole relationship with the environment. Seeing the environment as something that we're in balance with, or the environment that has spiritual power. We’ve lost all those sorts of ideas, and as a result we treat the environment in a very brutal way. So I would resist talking about progress at all, which is one of the reasons I use the word entanglement. It's just as a less loaded concept.


You mentioned that one could place all the belongings of one an ancestor 30 thousand years ago onto a small table. Yet, today the average household has around 300 thousand things, much of them as a direct result of consumerism. How does your entanglement theory deal with consumerism?


My sense is that when people criticize modern consumerism and try to look at its causes, they tend to focus on the rise of capitalism. So they’re talking really about the last few hundred years. Of course, capitalism has played a major role in our increasing focus on consumer goods.

When I teach, I have some wonderful examples, wonderful graphs of the number of washing machines people have, or the number of vacuum cleaners, and all these sorts of household appliances. You just see this sort of massive increase in our dependence on these sorts of domestic appliances. So, I quite accept that the rise of capitalism has to be seen as a major part, as well as globalism, and the industrial revolution, and so on and so forth. These are all part of the process that occurred over the last few hundred years. However, I don't think that this drive towards more stuff is only associated with consumerism. I think it goes way back 10 thousand years or even longer. We have been in a long long slow process of increasing dependence and entrapment with things. And the reason why that longer-term view is important is that it suggests that the problem is much deeper than just capitalism.

That may seem a strange thing to say because it’s difficult to imagine anything deeper than capitalism, but I do believe the answer isn't simply in an economic system. It's very tied up with our own relationship with the world, and at a very deep level we have to re-evaluate the way we are in the world. So in my view, this longer term perspective suggests the problem is deeper than just solving the contemporary economic system.


Outside of the obvious benefits, technological advancements had also produced a series of unacceptable inequalities, and what you called unsustainable adaptations. What are these?


There are different aspects of what is unsustainable, but certainly, global inequalities are an example. I would argue that entanglement is a very clear part of that. That how entangled you are depends very much on your position in the social structure.

The elites tend to be much less entangled in the sense that they can much more easily buy themselves out of problems than people who are in poverty. The idea of the poverty trap, which many people have written about is for me an example of entrapment, which is part of entanglement. This notion of being trapped in poverty such that solving, for example one aspect of it, which might be income, doesn't really solve the problem. Because poverty involves so many different entangled aspects like education, and health, and so on. I see those as unsustainable inequalities that need to be addressed.

Other types of unsustainable things are the destruction of rainforests, the overgrazing with cattle; nowadays, the problems of supply chain and rare earths that are needed for computers, and so on and so forth. The main unsustainability is our impact on the environment, and I’m afraid that the entanglement view does suggest that we may not meet the targets that we ought to be meeting because we're so entrenched in our entangled ways of life. It's very difficult to change them.

My prediction would be that we will overshoot and that we will try to find more and more technological solutions which themselves have problems, in the continuing spiral that I talk about.


In your book you refer Ian Morris’s measure of social development which is focused around four different criteria: energy capture, organizational complexities of societies, information technology, and the capacity of war making. And you gave some stark statistics that showed a big disparity between geopolitical powers like the US, and other developing nations. You cited that energy consumption per capita is 3 times higher in the US compared to Bangladesh. So, what’s the role of geopolitics in social development and have these disparities creating silos of social development across regions?


The book Where are we heading? is based on another book called Entangled, which is about the relationship between humans and things. But I do think that it's very difficult to separate that relationship from the social, political, and ideological things. I mean “what is a thing after all?” I would certainly argue that government can be seen as a thing, in the sense that it has a certain structure, and it is material. I think it's very difficult in the end to separate the political, the social, the ideological, and the linguistic indeed, from the material. I try to resist that distinction.

Any sort of materialist would argue that politics is itself a material aspect of life, or it has material components which involve various sorts of entanglements. I would argue that politics is a particular way of organizing the material world. As such, there is an entrapment. That we get caught into certain ways of doing things, and that's one of the things that create these silos.

I mean, the idea of the nation state is an example of that. In a way, the nation state is just an idea; it’s a concept that people produce. But in fact of course, it's very very material, with hard borders, and so on and so forth. That material world entraps us into certain types of conceptions about the world, and we end up thinking that some things are right, and some things are wrong. That our way is better.


Let’s talk about the future outlook. The increase in energy use and overall consumerism has contributed to global warming. However, you argue that we attempt to address these issues are mainly focused around technology-centric solutions. You cited some examples, such as genetically modified crops, or petroleum-based synthetic fibers replacing cotton, or the invention of fuel efficient vehicles; all which seem interventionist approaches attempting to solve a problem. What have we collectively learned and is there a way to solve these problems without creating new dependencies or entanglements as you call them.


That's the key question. Some of the solutions to climate change are amazingly interventionist. One of them is for example to spray sulfur into the upper atmosphere which would really transform very much the world in which we live. It's very difficult to know what the consequences of that would be.

A lot of these issues have unintended consequences. It’s very interesting that humans are not very good at evaluating consequences down the road and the long term.

I've just been reading about the new strain of the coronavirus. In my view, that's an example of short-term thinking, in the sense that the rich countries thought that the solution to coronavirus was to try and provide vaccines for people in rich countries. But of course, that meant that you have a great proliferation of coronaviruses in poor countries, and that's a hotbed for new variants to emerge.

What we should have done was to vaccinate the whole world equally, but of course we didn’t. That's an example of entrapment. We’re entangled in a certain set of ideas and material interests. We looked after ourselves without thinking about other parts of the world.

So I do think that we're very bad at thinking about the long term, and thinking about the distant. I'm thinking for example of solar panels. That was great. Solar panels are great and that solves a problem, but then when you throw them away, you realize that they create more toxicity than nuclear waste. That’s why it's very difficult to change because we don’t have a good sense of what the unintended consequences will be. We're not good at that.

We can go on trying to find technological solutions, and that's what people have been doing for 75 thousand years. We can go on doing that. That’s what humans do. Or we can say "we need to change” and “we need to become different sorts of people”, and rather than put our trust in technological development, to try to find alternative ways of being.


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