Palaeolithic Perishables Made Permanent

By Soffer, O.; Adovasio, J. M. et al. | Antiquity, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Palaeolithic Perishables Made Permanent

Soffer, O., Adovasio, J. M., Illingworth, J. S., Amirkhanov, H. A., Praslov, N. D., Street, M., Antiquity


Reconstructions of prehistoric lifeways have always been based on insights gained from the study of durable materials made of stone, ivory, antler and bone. This is especially true as one moves back in time and considers the Pleistocene archaeological record. The resulting scenarios stand in stark contrast to the ethnographic and ethnohistorical evidence which shows that perishable organic technologies employing wood and plant materials form the vast bulk of hunter-gatherer material culture, even in arctic and subarctic environments (e.g. Damas 1984; Helm 1981). Such a dramatic inversion between what has been observed among hunter-gatherers in historic times and reconstructed from prehistoric times suggests either a major discordance between what people did in the remote and recent pasts, or serious problems with reconstructions of past lifeways.

Archaeologists working with materials recovered from environmental contexts exhibiting optimal preservation have amply documented the lack of discordance between the material culture of archaeological hunter-gatherer cultures and those of ethnographic modernity. Taylor (1966: 73), for example, notes that in most dry caves, fibre artefacts outnumber those made of stone by a factor of 20. Croes (1997: 536) reports that wet sites often yield inventories where more than 95% of prehistoric material culture are made of wood and fibre. Collins' (1937) previous research supports these findings on sites in the Alaskan permafrost. These observations not only confirm Clarke's (1968) hypothesis that what was preserved in the Old World archaeological record constituted only c. 15% of what was actually used, but also demonstrates that this proportion can be even lower.

The observed disparity between prevailing reconstructions and actual ethnographic practice clearly results from a number of factors, among which preservational bias, inadequate recovery techniques and basic unfamiliarity with perishable technology figure most prominently. That evidence of perishable technologies can escape devastating post-depositional factors was amply demonstrated in recent excavations at the late Pleistocene wet sites of Ohalo II in Israel (Nadel et al. 1994) and Monte Verde in Chile (Dillehay 1997). The inadequacy of recovery techniques employed at most Pleistocene sites -- most notably the very infrequent use of flotation techniques as well as simple inattention to the presence of charred organics -- was dramatically demonstrated by the recovery of charred plant remains at Dolni Vestonice II (Mason et al. 1994), El Jyjo (Freeman et al. 1988) and Meadowcroft Rockshelter (Stile 1982).

Extensive research on textile impressions in fired clay from the Gravettian-age sites of Dolni Vestonice I, II and Pavlov I has documented the existence of a sophisticated and diverse textile and cordage technology in Europe by c. 28,000 BP (Adovasio et al; 1996; 1998; 1999; in press; Soffer et al. 1998; 2000a). The presence of these impressions in Upper Palaeolithic Moravia raises the question of whether weaving and basketmaking were unique to the Pavlov culture, or whether these perishable technologies were present elsewhere in Eurasia. We have already presented iconographic evidence for these technologies outside Moravia (Soffer et al. 2000b; in press). Here we report on new and direct evidence that shows that perishable, plant-fibre-based technology exists across Upper Palaeolithic Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.

As many scholars have observed, the wealth and diversity of perishable implements, which probably existed in Upper Palaeolithic--Palaeoindian times, as well as the past failure to recognize these items, strongly biases the understanding of these economies and technologies and conceals the inventories made and used by the majority of late Pleistocene people -- namely women, children and older individuals (Adovasio 1999; Adovasio et al. in press; Adovasio & Hyland 2000; Conkey 1991; Kehoe 1990; 1991; Owen 1996; 1999; in press; Soffer et al. …

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