Exploring Texas Archaeology with a Model of Intensification

Article excerpt

A theoretically grounded model is used to map expectations for the locations of the earliest intensification across Texas. The absence of agriculture in much of prehistoric Texas versus the widespread adoption of farming in Mesoamerica is explored utilizing a theory of intensification recently proposed by Binford in Constructing Frames of Reference. Availability of either aquatic or high quality wild plant resources are expected to delay intensification on plants which might lead to agriculture. Hunter-gatherer population models suggest where intensification processes may occur early in prehistoric sequences. These models are compared with archaeological stable isotope and burned rock midden data from Texas which indicate hunter-gatherers on the Texas coastal plain made substantial use of aquatic resources and that burned rock middens likely reflect intensified use of wild plants. The temporal and spatial distribution of these strategies is consistent with the expectations of the models. This approach may have utility for exploring both the absence as well as the presence of agricultural adaptations through time; however, further research on resource distributions and archaeological indicators of intensification are needed.

Keywords: intensification, hunter-gatherer, agriculture, aquatic resources, Texas archaeology

A potentially rich pattern for analysis in prehistoric Texas is variability in the adoption of domesticated plants and intensification upon wild resources. Binford (2001) presents methodological tools archaeologists can use in their search for explanations of such patterns in the archaeological record and this study applies such an approach to Texas. Texas is of particular interest because of: 1) its transitional geography between major agricultural culture areas; 2) the generally slight role of maize in prehistoric Texas, excepting far western, northeastern and northern Texas; 3) the significant use of plant roasting indicated by the multitude of burned rock middens in western and central Texas; 4) the intensive use of a number of other key plant resources; and 5) the relatively early and intensive use of marine and freshwater resources along the Gulf Coastal Plain (Hard and Katzenberg 2008; Huebner 1994). These patterns contrast with the processes of intensification and adoption of agriculture in other areas. The prehistory of Mesoamerica, with its rapid development of agriculture, will be briefly referred to as a point of comparison.


Intensification is a widely recognized process through which more and more resources are extracted from smaller and smaller segments of the landscape through increased labor or capital investment (e.g. Binford 1999:6; Boserup 1965; Morrison 1996; Netting 1993). While the domestication and cultivation of plants is one obvious example which has received considerable archaeological attention, it is far from the only strategic shift in resource use which would be considered intensification. Intensification includes shifts in subsistence strategies in which more labor is invested in collecting and processing aquatic resources or plant foods. The process of intensification typically occurs as a response to shifts in the ratio between resource productivity and population demands. Examples include increased investment in fishing technology such as nets, weirs, or hooks; increasing the harvest of shellfish; or focusing on smaller prey size such that labor investment increases. Plant intensification may include pressing, leaching, grinding or parching nuts, collecting and roasting large quantities of plants, or utilizing greater quantities of small seeds, which take more work to collect and grind than previously utilized resources. However, since maize agriculture is one of the earliest and archaeologically the most prominent forms of intensification in the archaeological record of North America and Mexico, it is reasonable to begin our exploration with a brief survey of the use of maize in Texas. …