Identifying Low-Level Food Producers: Detecting Mobility from Lithics

By Holdaway, Simon; Wendrich, Willeke et al. | Antiquity, March 2010 | Go to article overview
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Identifying Low-Level Food Producers: Detecting Mobility from Lithics

Holdaway, Simon, Wendrich, Willeke, Phillipps, Rebecca, Antiquity


Ideas regarding human development from the Pleistocene through the Middle and Late Holocene are changing due to new data and interpretations. Instead of a single transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist, adaptation to social, cultural and natural circumstances is now conceived as non-linear and more variable than proposed in the classic nineteenth- and early twentieth-century studies. Societies may occupy a middle ground practising 'low-level food production' with methods of sustenance that are qualitatively different to either hunting or agriculture (Smith 2001). Smith distinguishes between low-level food producers with and without domesticates. Those with domesticates have economies where these contribute less than 30-50 per cent of the total annual calories (Smith 2001: 27), while societies without domesticates tended non-domesticated plants or reshaped the environment to enhance the productivity of selected species (Smith 2001: 29). The movement within the middle ground of Smith's model is expected to be conceptually nonlinear (Smith 2001: Figure 7). Low-level food-producing groups differ from both hunter-gatherers who, while also demonstrating a variable socio-economy, occupied environments characteristic of the late Pleistocene (Richerson et al. 2001); and from agricultural societies which had typically more than a 50 per cent dependence on domesticated plants and animals.

These groups developed an extremely successful set of socio-economic solutions that persisted for long periods of time in a wide range of environmental contexts, yet they have been less recognised, perhaps because fewer suitable ethnographic analogies exist (Smith 2001: 33-4). Archaeologists, therefore, face a methodological challenge. Botanical and faunal remains are an obvious focus of study, but a lack of preservation of organic remains is a limiting factor. Conventional approaches to the typological definition of societies do not deal with low-level food production societies at all.

Tracking low-level food-producers

An alternative is to move away from a typological definition and focus on how these societies dealt with a commonly shared set of problems, using the assemblages that are available. If the artefacts can be related to the degree of mobility within a society, this opens the way for a productive form of cross-cultural comparison. In this paper, we outline an artefact-based approach to determining mobility, a criterion that is thought to shift dramatically between hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies but has a high degree of variability in low-level food production societies (Andrefsky 1994; Torrence 1994; Close 1996, 1999).

Mobility can be measured in a variety of ways (Wendrich & Barnard 2008), but as Close (2000) points out, many archaeological studies focus on patterns of movement or mobility strategies rather than assessing actual indications of movement. The level of generalisation that results is an impediment to cross cultural comparison (Holdaway & Wandsnider 2006), reducing explanations to ineffective or overly simplified statements. The alternative is to study the actual record of individual movements possible through the use of long distance refits (Close 2000: 52). Refits measure actual rather than potential mobility and make it possible to determine what was moved and the route taken. Close (1996) was able to consider lithic material recovered from an entire survey area at Bir Safsaf because the conditions lent themselves to the identification of small, single component assemblages with numerous refits. Some artefacts were deposited by people moving through the area while others were moved within the 15[km.sup.2] surveyed.

Despite its analytical utility, refitting has significant methodological problems. Studies often indicate what was refitted but rarely if ever indicate what was not refitted (Close 2000). It is hard to obtain quantitative estimates of the proportion of an assemblage that can be refitted because the ability to 'see' refits is dependent on the observer.

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Identifying Low-Level Food Producers: Detecting Mobility from Lithics


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