Hunting for Hides: Deerskins, Status, and Cultural Change in the Protohistoric Appalachians

By Nassaney, Michael | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Hunting for Hides: Deerskins, Status, and Cultural Change in the Protohistoric Appalachians


Nassaney, Michael, Southeastern Archaeology


Hunting for Hides: Deerskins, Status, and Cultural Change in the Protohistoric Appalachians. HEATHER A. LAPHAM. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2005. xii + 184 pp., figs., tables, biblio., and index. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8173-1493-8; $29.95 (paperback), ISBN 0-8173-5276-7.

Reviewed by Michael Nassaney

Hunting for Hides is another welcome addition to the new scholarship that examines the ways in which native North Americans actively confronted and sometimes embraced the material and social opportunities afforded by entanglement with an expanding European economy (see also Kathleen Ehrhardt, European Metals in Native Hands, University of Alabama Press, 2005). In this book, Heather Lapham aims to evaluate how native peoples in the southern Appalachian Highlands participated in the deerskin trade by supplying hides to Euro-American merchants who came to rely on interior sources following the decline of deer populations in Atlantic coastal areas. It is not surprising that the demands of the leather industry, which led to the export of over 1 million skins from Virginia and the Carolinas from 1699 to 1715, began to have a profound impact on native primary producers even decades earlier.

Lapham begins her study, which is a revision of her dissertation completed at the University of Virginia in 2002, by discussing the relationship between economic intensification and cultural change. She contends that animal bones and mortuary remains can provide an entry point into understanding the consequences of the deerskin trade. Lapham employs anthropological theory to frame some general propositions pertaining to the sociopolitical conditions that obtain under culture change while being sensitive to the historical specificity of her case study. Some of this discussion, such as the theoretical background and the hunting for hides model, could have been developed more thoroughly in a separate chapter, but she does a good job of providing enough context to orient the reader. She uses her model to derive several explicit archaeological expectations regarding the frequency of animal remains, associated processing activities, and the distribution of prestige goods in mortuary context that are explored later in the book. The major premise is that economic intensification and the acquisition of new status symbols will be expressed in the faunal and mortuary records respectively.

The second chapter presents information on the sites selected for this study. Two precontact sites constitute a baseline from which comparisons can be made with the protohistoric Trigg site (ca. A.D. 1600-1650). Lapham does archaeology a great service by analyzing previously excavated assemblages, thus underscoring the enduring value of extant collections. She summarizes standard information on the methods of investigation (e.g., recovery techniques), site size, configuration, feature types, faunal and flora remains, and ceramic types. While most of this is useful background information, it is not clear how relevant the mostly typological ceramic data are to this study.

The methods of faunal analysis are discussed in chapter 3 with attention given to the relative merits of different quantitative measures, such as NISP, MNI, and biomass. The assemblages are generally comparable, though Lapham claims that little new information was gained by wet-screened materials from one of the early sites and therefore chooses to exclude those data. I don't think that this means that archaeologists should rely on dry screening through 1 /4-inch mesh. The rest of the chapter makes systematic comparisons among the three sites. Notably, there is evidence of increased utilization of deer during the protohistoric period, a slight increase in the harvest of other fur-bearing animals, and a decline in the use of bear. Changes in the frequencies of deer, beaver, raccoon, and fox are predicted by the hunting for hides model, though the decrease in bear bones remains unexplained.

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