The Eastern Archaic, Historicized

Article excerpt

The Eastern Archaic, Historicized. KENNETH E. SASSAMAN. Altamira Press, Lanham, 2010. xx + 274 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN-13 978-0-7591-0679-6.

Reviewed by Victor D. Thompson

Gross explanations of process are often, usually by necessity, an oversimplification of what is really going on behind the scenes or beneath the surface. While helpful in the abstract, such explanations can fail to account for the ultimate inner workings of a given phenomenon. This is not to say that such explanations are inherently wrong or are not applicable, but that in explaining process, all the deft events and actions that bring such things into being are masked. Sometimes, when such obscured attributes are unmasked, they are revealed. to be the primary drivers of change and action. In his book The Eastern Archaic, Historicized, Kenneth Sassaman attempts to unmask and reveal the inner workings of Archaic peoples, much of which, he argues, is obscured by normative thinking regarding the archaeology of this time frame.

At the core of Sassaman's argument is the belief that there is more cultural diversity within the founding populations of North America than is currently recognized by archaeologists. Following from this is an undervaluing of the role that "intercultural encounters" had in "shaping the direction and pace of Archaic culture change" (p. xvii). In order to take this perspective, Sassaman must assume that the histories of Archaic peoples were filled with repeated and various lifealtering events, such as migration, abandonments, and demographic change, among others (p. xviii). Thus, for Sassaman, there is no one Archaic world but, rather like Braudel, there are many Archaic worlds that are in constant flux in terms of making and remaking.

Is there justification for assuming the multiculturalism among Archaic peoples and such concomitant processes of ethnogenesis and the like that Sassaman posits? My feeling is that such a premise should be widely accepted among most Archaic researchers. Certainly, Sassaman has, in numerous book chapters, and now in the Eastern Archaic, fleshed out his thoughts on how we should conceptualize such phenomena. And as he points out, the "evolutionary validity" of ethnographic hunter-gatherers as pristine isolates is now patently false (p. 11). The question is, why do we not see more written about such issues? Indeed, these topics pervade the archaeology of Puebloan societies of the American Southwest and are beginning to be more common among Mississippian period scholars. The answer to this, as indicated by Sassaman, owes to the theoretical dominance of environmental and evolutionary thinking in Archaic research.

Sassaman's response to this lack of appreciation for the cultural diversity of Archaic societies is that we must historicize our archaeology. What he means by this is that we must consider and focus on history as an "ongoing process of making culture through social interactions" (p. 5). This is not to say that environmental issues and drivers such as climate change are not important to understanding both general and specific patterns during the Archaic (p. 192). However, for Sassaman, the environment is just one of many factors and not an end explanation of culture change (p. 192), a sentiment that most subscribers to environmental archaeology would agree with in practice and principle.

After laying out his theoretical outline, Sassaman goes on to put his ideas into practice. Early in the volume, he engages in an exercise in heuristic modeling of Archaic ancestries. I think that some will question the validity and usefulness of this model (Figure 2.2.). In fact, Sassaman admits that while certain aspects of his model are testable, it is unlikely that archaeologists will be able to trace any one specific ancestry line proposed in the model (p. …