Hunter-Gatherer Subsistence and Settlement in Northwest Europe

By Donahue, Randolph E. | Antiquity, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Hunter-Gatherer Subsistence and Settlement in Northwest Europe


Donahue, Randolph E., Antiquity


RAYMOND R. NEWELL & TRINETTE S. CONSTANDSE-WESTERMANN. Late glacial--early postglacial hunting strategies and land-use practices in the Swabian Alb and surrounding regions (southwestern BRD) (Making Cultural Ecology Relevant to Archaeological Research IV). xviii+249 pages, 134 figures, 85 tables. 1999. Assen: Van Gorcum; 90-232-3437-5 hardback fl 125.

RUTH CHARLES. Late Magdelenian chronology and faunal exploitation in the north-western Ardennes (BAR International Series 737). iv+246 pages, figures, tables. 1998. Oxford: Archaeopress; 0-86054-930-5 paperback 33 [pounds sterling].

PENNY SPIKINS. Mesolithic northern England: environment, population and settlement (British Archaeological Reports British Series 283). xii+150 pages, 63 figures, 5 tables. 1999. Oxford: Archaeopress; 1-84171-006-7 paperback 24 [pounds sterling].

MARC DE BIE & JEAN-PAUL CASPAR. Rekem: a Federmesser camp on the Meuse river bank (Archeologie in Vlaandered Monograph 3, Acta Archaeologica Lovaniensia Monograph 10; 2 volumes). 592 pages, 123 figures, 154 maps, 115 plates. 2000. Asse- Zellik: Instituut voor her Archeologisch Patrimonium; 90-7523-013-4 (ISSN 1370-5768) hardback 122.71 [euro].

The 1980s saw a rash of important studies both in hunter-gatherer theory and on Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology that incorporated a variety of new and innovative approaches. During the 1990s, many Palaeolithic and Mesolithic studies investigating subsistence and settlement strategies were under way. Publications of these studies have been appearing since the late 1990s. Are they meeting the challenge? Below are brief reviews of four books that approach late glacial Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology in very different ways.

Palaeolithic to Mesolithic in the Swabian Alb

The intriguingly titled volume by Raymond Newell & Trinette Constandse-Westermann attempts to reconstruct settlement and subsistence strategies and characterise their differences from the early Magdalenian to the early Mesolithic of the Swabian Alb, Germany. The volume is predominantly a multivariate analytical investigation of data from 77 caves and rock-shelters collected by Eriksen (1991). Their analyses focus on the faunal assemblages recorded from 32 sites, data which Eriksen collected but did not include in her analysis. The authors claim that their results show culturally relevant changes through successive periods of the later Palaeolithic with substantial differences in land use practice between the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic.

Underlying their multivariate approach are numerous assumptions, which are not made explicit. Variations in excavation techniques, sampling strategies, and taphonomic processes for each site require the authors to demonstrate and not assume the comparability of the data. Greater consideration is also needed in the manipulation of data into dichotomous variables for the production of similarity matrices and for deciding how such variables should be weighted. One must equally question the validity of inferring settlement-subsistence strategies for four of the seven cultural periods, which are based on only one or two sites.

The volume needlessly and endlessly attacks Eriksen (1991), literally from the first paragraph to the last. This is seriously distracting to the reader and quite unprofessional. It is equally surprising and somewhat contradictory that these authors on one hand consider Eriksen's analysis so seriously flawed, yet on the other are so willing to use her data almost unquestioningly.

The authors could have devised testable hypotheses derived from their ethno-archaeological analogues, thus allowing for a deductive approach encompassing more powerful, yet simpler, statistical techniques. They could leave the multivariate approaches for what they do best: interrogate the data for patterns. Instead, the result is itself an untested model that conforms to Eriksen's data.

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