Acorn-Eating and Ethnographic Analogies: A Reply to McCorriston

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Joy McCorriston's paper in the march 1994 Antiquity, on acorn-eating and agricultural origins, used California ethnographies as analogues for the ancient Near East. This reply exploes some issues of analogy and explanation that g beyond the important specifics of the matter.

Determining acorn dependence

McCorriston's paper centres around the question of whether Natufian populations could have depended on acorns as a food resource, given the absence of direct archaeobotanical evidence. McCorriston cites two ethnographic examples of `foraging cultures' dependent on acorns - California and the Eastern Woodlands of North America, of which California offers the ecological analogy closer to the Near East. In the ethnographic literature, the role of acorns (and other wild plant foods) has been underemphasized in the Eastern Woodlands, and over-emphasized in California (Mason 1992: 62-3,72-3).

Should the Eastern Woodlands be characterized as a `foraging culture'? All the groups in this area that McCorriston cites were practising agriculture when records of them were made. Ethnographies of eastern North American Indians report reliance on cultivated maize, often stored in large quantities, with major contributions from other cultivated plants (mainly beans and various cucurbits), hunted animals and fish, but not on wild plants (see e.g. Trigger 1978. Use of wild plant foods was not stressed by early observers; others have noted that they were more important in the subsistence system than often portrayed (Feest 1978; Fenton 1978; Salwen 1978).

What is meant by `dependence', in the Eastern Woodlands, California, or the Natufian? Acorns are less emphasized in the Eastern Woodlands literature than are other wild plant foods whose harvest and processing involved relatively complex technology and sequences (e.g. hickory nuts, wild rice and maple sugar), but their use is, nevertheless, probably mentioned as often as that of hickories (e.g. Swanton 1946: 293, table 2). Acorns are emphasized as important during crop failures and other times of need (e.g. Driver 1953: Merriam 1918; Waugh 1916).

By contrast, California ethnography accords acorns the role of principle staple (e.g. Bean & Saubel 1972; Driver 1953; Heizer & Elsasser 1980). However, emphasis on an `acorn economy' has long been questioned (e.g. Bean & Lawton 1973); and others see California Indians as having a generalized subsistence strategy, using a diversity of foods (Heizer & Elsasser 1980; Hammett 1991).

In both California and the Eastern Woodlands, some peoples could reasonably be considered to have been dependent on acorns. Acorns took different places in subsistence both within and between the two regions. Acorns have been noted as a seasonal or `famine' food in many ethnographic or historical records world-wide (Mason 1992: chapter 3); such a characterization has influenced interpretation of their ancient role (Mason 1992: 189-90;1995). Acorn use in times of hardship does not make them unimportant (Mason 1992, 198); people using acorns on that basis could be as `dependent' on them as the California Indians, albeit in a different way. Only if the concept of dependence, is explicitly defined is it possible to look for its signature in the archaeological record.

Acorns and ecological analogies

The ecological similarities between California and the Near East may not suffice to permit generalized analogy. Characteristics both of acorns and of other resources may have differed. The yield of acorns is highly variable, both between and within species, and between different places and times (Mason 1992: 162-4, appendix 3). Areas with several different species of oak may be buffered against acorn crop failure (Basgall 1987; Mason 1995; McCarthy 1993); where only one or two species are found, individual trees may crop well in different years, resulting in a good crop every year (Parsons 1962; Smith 1929), or there may be widespread crop failure (Jones 1959). …