Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA) in the Stone Age

From The Independent (UK daily newspaper) dated Wednesday 11th December 2013
Stone Age Brits were past masters at choosing the perfect ‘des res’, according to new research carried out by archaeologists.
Their investigations have revealed that, 300,000 years before the emergence of anatomically modern humans, prehistoric Britons were selecting their domestic real estate with tremendous care.
Nutritional and security considerations appear to have been the main criteria, according to the new research carried out by scholars at the University of Southampton and Queen's University, Belfast.
A survey of 25 major British and north-west French sites dating from 500,000 to 200,000 years ago has revealed that early humans – members of the now long-extinct species Homo heidelbergensis – predominantly chose to live on islands in the flood plains of major rivers. They avoided  forests and hills – and the upper and middle reaches of river systems,  and their estuaries.
It is the first ever detailed interdisciplinary investigation  into early humanity’s home location preferences. The degree to which they preferred to  choose just one specific type of location has surprised the archaeologists.
Full story is here.

The article continues to describe some of the common aspects of those village sites:
  • good water supply;
  • somewhere that cereals can be found;
  • convenient for hunting animals;
  • convenient for fishing;
  • safe from surprise attack.
The way that the story was written made both Tina and I think that the writer had chosen an anachronistic way of picturing the situation.  So, here is the scenario: the tribal leader of Homo heidelbergensis gathers members of the tribe around him (assuming male dominance) and asks them:
"We have five possible sites for our village.  Please will you help me choose the best one?  I need some answers to help me perform my MCDA.
  • On a scale of one to ten, how do you rate each site for water supply?
  • On a scale of one to ten, how do you rate each site for finding cereals?
  • On a scale of one to ten, how do you rate each site for hunting?
  • On a scale of one to ten, how do you rate each site for freedom from attack?
  • On a scale of one to ten, how do you rate this idea of MCDA?
  • Who taught you to count up to ten anyway?
  • On a scale of one to ten, how do you rate each site for  leaving evidence for 21st century archaeology?
  • Why am I using the word multi-criteria, when it is derived from a language that hasn't been invented yet?"
Somehow, I don't think that is what really happened in the Stone Age.  The tribes used a different problem solving approach.  They used heuristics.  A site was used, and if they liked it, they stayed there.  If they found somewhere better, they moved.  Gradually, they would settle in a site for long enough to leave evidence of their occupation for modern archaeologists to find.  The same process of adaptation of the location of a village site has happened over and over again over the millennia.  In terms of the age of the human race, the concept of having a fixed site is comparatively recent.  Our ancestors were nomadic.  Ful stop.

And, with a sideways look at another story from history, I started to think of the early colonists of North America.  The Pilgrim Fathers survived, partly through the help of local Indians, who had - presumably - used the same heuristics to find where to live through their knowledge of the territory around Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Other early colonists may not have survived long enough to acquire that essential local knowledge.

It also makes one think about those works of science fiction and fantasy where colonists arrive at a new planet and start to settle in.  For the sake of the plot lines, everything usually goes well from the outset.  But those colonists have come from a society which has lost the expertise about site selection that Homo heidelbergensis possessed.  That would be a gap in their knowledge, one that heidelbergensis took generations to refine.

Nonetheless, I still like the idea of MCDA hundreds of thousands of years ago.


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