Culture-Nature in Archaeology: Prehistoric North America
Special Area Investigation Topic Statement
For my special area investigation, I will be connecting the topic of my website to my subject of focus as an archaeology graduate student: the prehistory of North American peoples. I will be looking at the archaeology of prehistoric North America with a focus on human relationships with the environment. This study will encompass various periods of North American prehistory, analyzing both how prehistoric Americans affected their environment and how the environment affected their cultures. To do this I will gather various archaeological and anthropological books, articles, and other publications related to this topic, from sources analyzing the migration patterns of the Clovis cultures and other Paleo-Indian groups to publications such as 1491 by Charles Mann which focus primarily on later, more developed chiefdoms and states and how they interacted with and altered their environments. Obviously, our understandings of human-environment relations in prehistoric North America have changed dramatically over the years. As such, I will make a conscious effort to focus on publications from the last twenty years or so.
As I read through the literature and research this topic, I will do so with an ecological perspective similar to that espoused by Julian Steward. I will try to view human cultures and societies as ecological agents while also recognizing that they can play an active role in environmental interactions, rather than just the reactive role espoused by theories of environmental determinism. The primary goal of this project is to use the archaeological record of prehistoric North America to show that human culture and the environment are inseparable entities, constantly affecting one another in various ways.
Special Area Abstracts
1) Fitting, James E. 1968 “Environmental Potential and the Postglacial Readaptation in Eastern North America” American Antiquity 33(4): 441-445.
In this article, James Fitting shows that attempts at a one-size-fits-all explanation of postglacial adaptation in eastern North America are insufficient. He argues that late and post Pleistocene eastern North America consisted of several environmental zones. There was an area near glaciers, an area of boreal forests, and a region of southern deciduous forests. Because of this variation in environmental zones, Fitting argues that we should be looking at prehistoric environmental adaptation on a more localized level. I find this to be a smart approach as it has become clear to me from other readings that one-size-fits-all policies or explanations tend to fall short.
Fitting begins by discussing the environmental potential of each of the above-mentioned zones and correlating this information with archaeological data. The periglacial zone, for instance, would have had large herds of game animals, thus influencing nearby societies to hunt often. At one periglacial site, Holcombe, projectile points make up over 25 per cent of the assemblage, indicating frequent hunting. The areas of boreal forests, however, would have been inhospitable for humans as they were lacking a large number of plant foods or game animals. The archaeological record confirms this, with archaeological sites being few and far between indicating low population densities.
Fitting’s convincing article falls into the trend of correlating paleogeographical data to archaeological data. As can be seen from later studies of similar topics, this trend continued in future research and continues to be an effective way of illustrating culture-nature relationships in the distant past.
2) Mandryk, Carole A.S., et al. 2001 “Late Quaternary paleoenvironments of Northwestern North America: implications for inland versus coastal migration routes” Quaternary Science Reviews20(1-3): 301-314.
The presence of humans at the Monte Verde site in Chile prior to the existence of the ice-free corridor on the Beringia land bridge has led to controversy among archaeologists. Either the ice-free corridor was available earlier than previously thought, or the first Americans used an alternate route. One hypothesis involves a coastal route of migration from Beringia to the Pacific Northwest. In this article, Mandryk compares this coastal route with the ice-free corridor to determine which would have been more viable for prehistoric migrations.
Mandryk synthesizes data from recent paleobotanical and marine geological investigations, a smart choice given the scarce archaeological record. According to these investigations, levels of prey biomass, harvestable production, and optimum yields would have been below what was needed to sustain populations in the ice-free corridor between 18,000 and 13,000 BP. This corridor was also blocked by glaciers until about 11,500 BP. The coastal route at this time had landscapes with sufficient habitats for a variety of flora and fauna. Geological data suggests that the coastal route experienced far less glaciation, with most glaciated areas being ice-free by 15,000 to 14,000 BP. By 12,000 BP, these areas were heavily vegetated.
The implication here is that the coastal route was more viable for migration than the ice-free corridor at the believed time of migration. This forces us to reconsider the likely migration routes of the first Americans. Mandryk’s choice to primarily use geological and botanical data also shows how interconnected human behaviors are with environmental factors.
3) Jones, Terry L. et al. 1999 “Environmental Imperatives Reconsidered: Demographic Crises in Western North America during the Medieval Climatic Anomaly” Current Anthropology 40(2): 137-170.
This article was published in 1999, when the field of archaeology was dominated by post-processual idea of cultural change via social conflict. Here, Jones et al. assert that environment has a vital role to play in cultural change and should not be ignored. They use late Holocene western North America as their example.
Jones et al. assert that during the Medieval Climatic Anomaly from A.D. 800-1350 there was a culture-changing demographic crisis across western North America. The paleoclimatic data shows that the period was characterized by droughts, increased temperatures, and decreased harvestable land. The authors claim that this led to a demographic crisis where societies competed for food and water. They test this hypothesis by observing archaeological data from four regions of western North America. The negative cultural changes found in each region correlate with the environmental conditions of the time. For instance, in the southern California coast the archaeological record shows signs of settlement disruption and abandonment on Santa Cruz Island. In central California coastal sites, obsidian frequency decreases after A.D. 1,000, indicating a disruption of trade. These are just a couple of examples.
I enjoyed this article because it brings the environment back into the discussion of cultural change. Post-processual were right to bring attention to topics such as inequality, gender, and power, but it came at the cost of topics such as environmental influence. Jones et al. refocus our attention without disregarding the post-processual arguments, helping to bring the field into a better state of balance.
4) Grayson, Donald K. and David J. Meltzer. 2003 “A requiem for North American overkill” Journal of Archaeological Science 30(5): 585-593.
The North American overkill hypothesis, famously espoused by Paul Martin, claims that human hunters were responsible for the extinctions of large mammalian species in Pleistocene North America. Grayson and Meltzer, in this article, claim that Martin’s argument is not backed by sufficient evidence.
Our authors show that Martin’s assertions are based on insufficient amounts of data. The acceptance of the overkill hypothesis, for instance, stems from a few sites where Clovis points were found with evidence of some big game hunting. Rather than regard these as specific instances, a unreasonable generalization was made that Clovis groups were expert big game hunters, legitimizing the overkill hypothesis. Another weakness in Martin’s argument is that the only extinct animals that we know were hunted by Clovis peoples were the mastodon and the mammoth, with only 14 sites representing this behavior. Dating data shows that, of the 35 extinct genera discussed, only 15 were around at the same time as Clovis peoples. Grayson and Meltzer point out several other aspects of Martin’s argument where he relies on insufficient data. While I largely agree with their argument, I do wish our authors had more data to counter Martin. This may have simply not been available.
If the overkill hypothesis is truly invalid, then it changes many contemporary perceptions of how humans interact with their environment. We often see humans and culture as something that dominates nature. This article, however, argues that such a claim is unfounded in much of human prehistory.
5) Denevan, William M. 2010 “The Prisine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82(3): 369-385.
Prehistoric America is often envisioned as a state of nature. This version of history, however, is a myth, and showing this is the goal of Denevan’s article. He starts by discussing likely Indian population numbers prior to European contact. Most researchers believe the population of the Americans was between 40 and 100 million prior to contact. Denevan trims this estimate down to between 43 and 65 million based on what he thinks are the most reasonable estimates. This is purely his own judgement, and I would encourage readers to not take the 43-65 million number as definitive.
For the remainder of the essay, Denevan describes how prehistoric Americans altered their environment. In his Vegetation section, for instance, he argues that Indian forest burnings for farming or game purposes shaped vegetation patterns as we know them today. Much of the plains and savannahs of North America, for instance, were shaped by annual Indian burnings over 5,000 years. In the Wildlife section, Denevan claims that such burning activities increased the range and numbers of animals such as deer and bison. Indians also altered the landscape through agriculture and the widespread construction of earthen mounds, roadways, and various types of settlements. Much of this article is descriptive, and I would have enjoyed some more hard data.
The vision of prehistoric America Denevan espouses forces us to rethink prehistoric culture-nature relations. Prehistoric peoples clearly were resourceful and inventive. They were not mere subjects of their environment. They were active, influential participants in the ecosystem.
Specialty Area Bibliography
Anderson, David G. 2001 “Climate and Culture Change in Prehistoric and Early Historic Eastern North America” Archaeology of Eastern North America 29: 143-186.
Chatters, James C. 1995 “Population Growth, Climatic Cooling, and the Development of Collector Strategies on the Southern Plateau, Western North America” Journal of World Prehistory 9(3): 341-400.
Denevan, William M. 2010 “The Prisine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82(3): 369-385.
Fitting, James E. 1968 “Environmental Potential and the Postglacial Readaptation in Eastern North America” American Antiquity 33(4): 441-445.
Grayson, Donald K. and David J. Meltzer. 2003 “A requiem for North American overkill” Journal of Archaeological Science 30(5): 585-593.
Jones, Terry L. et al. 1999 “Environmental Imperatives Reconsidered: Demographic Crises in Western North America during the Medieval Climatic Anomaly” Current Anthropology 40(2): 137-170.
Mandryk, Carole A.S., et al. 2001 “Late Quaternary paleoenvironments of Northwestern North America: implications for inland versus coastal migration routes” Quaternary Science Reviews 20(1-3): 301-314.
Mann, Charles C. 2011. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Books.
Meltzer, David. 1988 “Late Pleistocene Human Adaptations in Eastern North America” Journal of World Prehistory 2(1): 1-52.
Rodning, Christopher. 2010 “Place, Landscape, and Environment: Anthropological Archaeology in 2009” American Anthropologist 112(2): 180-190.