Reconstructing Ecological Adaptations
Studies of how people adapt to their environments have a long history in archaeology. Several important archaeological studies of an ecological nature were undertaken in the early twentieth century, and many archaeologists in the middle decades of the century were influenced by the development of cultural ecology – the study of the relationship between people and the natural environment. Ecological research became a focus of processual archaeology in the 1960s and has continued to be a mainstay of archaeological projects in the twenty-first century. The study of the interplay between natural environments and humans in the past is widely known as ecological archaeology, with major areas of interest including reconstructing paleoenvironments, settlement patterns, subsistence strategies, and diet. Archaeological investigations into each of these areas are outlined in this chapter.
After studying this chapter, students should be able to
- outline why and how archaeologists reconstruct palaeoenvironments.
- describe the four levels of settlement pattern and their significance.
- explain how archaeologists determine the season in which a site was occupied.
- explain how archaeologists estimate population size.
- describe the archaeological indicators of generalized foraging, specialized foraging, pastoralism, horticulture, and agriculture.
- explain how archaeologists distinguish wild from domestic varieties of plants and animals.
- identify the various ways archaeologists reconstruct diet.
- define all the glossary terms found in the chapter.
agriculture – A subsistence strategy characterized by the intensive cultivation of food plants, often involving the use of plows, draft animals, and irrigation. (p.176)
complex foraging – A subsistence strategy based on gathering and hunting a wide variety of plants and animals, but with a specialization in one type, leading to increasing social complexity. (p.174)
cultural ecology – Focuses on the relationship between people and the natural environment. (p.165)
culture area – Broad geographic area in which there are general similarities in cultures. There are 10 culture areas in North and Central America (Arctic, Subarctic, Northwest Coast, Interior Plateau, Great Basin, Plains, California, Southwest, Eastern Woodlands, and Mesoamerica). (p.172)
egalitarian – A level of equality where everyone has roughly equal status and access to resources. (p.174)
generalized forager – A person who employs a subsistence strategy based on collecting a wide variety of wild food resources, with no primary dependence on one kind. (p.173)
horticulture – A subsistence strategy based on plant cultivation with hand tools only. (p.175)
household archaeology – Focuses on individual houses, including physical characteristics, construction methods, and social uses. (p.169)
human waste – Biological waste of humans, including coprolites and cess. (p.179)
pastoralism – A subsistence strategy based on the herding of animals. (p.175)
seasonal round – Where people will be and what they will be doing within their traditional territory at various times of the year, following a schedule. (p. 171)
seasonality studies – Determining the time of year a site was occupied. (p.170)
site catchment analysis – Determining the source location of all material remains found in a site. (p.171)
site exploitation territory – The area habitually used by a group throughout the year; also known as traditional territory. (p.171)
specialized foraging – A subsistence strategy based on gathering and hunting a wide variety of plants and animals, but with a specialization in one type, leading to increasing social complexity. Also called complex foraging. (p.174)
Reitz, Elizabeth, and Myra Shackley. 2012. Environmental Archaeology. New York: Springer.
Subsistence and Diet
Outram, Alan K., and Amy Bogaard. 2019. Subsistence in Prehistory: New Directions in Economic Archaeology. New York. Cambridge University Press.
Hastorf, Christine A. 2017. The Social Archaeology of Food: Thinking About Eating from Prehistory to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Twiss, Katheryn C. 2019. The Archaeology of Food: Identity, Politics, and Ideology in the Prehistoric and Historic Past. New York: Wiley.
Reconstructing Subsistence and Diet
Brothwell, D.R., and A.M. Pollard, eds. 2001. Handbook of Archaeological Sciences. New York: Routledge.
Debunking the Paleo Diet is a 22-minute TEDx talk by archaeologist Christina Warinner. The video focuses on explaining the misconceptions about human diets in the past, and also explains how archaeologists make inferences about diet.
Where Did Humans Go During the Last Ice Age? is a four-minute animated video focusing on an archaeological site that is now on an island, but was a high point on a plain during the last ice age in Europe. The video shows how animal bones can be used to infer human activities.
What Can Diet Tell Us About Social Relations? is a four-minute animated video focusing on how diet reflects social relations in the prehistoric Wari culture of South America. The video shows how diet can be determined by analysis of stable isotopes in human bones and hair.