Nineteenth-Century Apache Wickiups: Historically Documented Models for Archaeological Signatures of the Dwellings of Mobile People

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An important but challenging task of archaeology is the identification of ephemeral structures, especially those temporary shelters erected by highly mobile people. Since the first Late Palaeolithic structures were defined in the Chatelperronian Layers X-IX by Andre Leroi-Gourhan in the Grotte du Renne, France (Leroi-Gourhan & Leroi-Gourhan 1964) questions have arisen about their interpretation as cultural rather than natural features and their classification as houses rather than living surfaces (Gamble 1986; Kolen 1999). The identification of these shelters remains an important area of debate because of the implications of intentionally modified space and the 'making of place' by early humans, and for the origins of behavioural modernity (Zilhao 2006).

There are substantial differences in housing types between sedentary or semi-sedentary and highly mobile groups. Theoretical studies have examined the relationship between the character of structural remains and type and degree of mobility (Sahlins 1972: 33; McGuire & Schiffer 1983; Binford 1990; Diehl 1992; Smith 2003)--in general more mobile hunter-gatherers invest in less elaborate shelters (Upham 1994; Smith 2003: 163). Mobile people tend to build domed circular or semicircular rather than rectilinear houses (Robbins 1966; Whiting & Ayres 1968; Schiffer & McGuire 1983: 284; Binford 1990: 123; Diehl 1992). Houses reflecting high mobility also tend to be situated on the surface and have informal superstructures made of unmodified, easily obtained local materials (Binford 1990: 123, 126; Smith 2003: 172).

Highly mobile groups are known to have resided in the American Southwest, but until recently there has been a general failure to identify evidence of their residential sites and housing features. Even seventeenth-century Europeans in western North America noted that the natives had 'no houses, but only huts of branches' (Ayer 1965: 13), illustrating the way in which mobile group structures are devalued. Consequently, there has been either a general expectation that no structures will be found or a focus on inapplicable material signatures. The result has been that mobile group residential sites and their hut remains have defied recognition. The structures are difficult to distinguish from natural clearings or rock alignments because they represent the barest modification to the ground surface. Referred to widely by the adjectives 'enigmatic', 'subtle', 'unobtrusive', and 'ephemeral' such features often go unnoticed. Yet, as Binford (1990: 121-2) has observed: 'There are no known cases among modern hunter-gatherers where shelter is not fabricated in residential sites (anywhere that hunter-gatherers plan to sleep), regardless of the expected occupational duration, and only in rare instances are sites of any kind produced by hunter-gatherers where no shelter is provided by the occupants.' For this reason shelters should not only be expected on mobile group residential sites but they should be widely distributed. Moreover, these types of structures are commonplace and a routinely accepted feature type in the far western deserts in America (Rogers 1939:8) where archaeologists have learned how to distinguish them.

One reason for the failure to identify the shelters is that researchers have relied on historical analogies that are too broad. Housing correlates in one area (such as tipis on the Great Plains) are inappropriately applied in another (the mountainous Southwest) where social, natural and historical conditions differ and where differing types of mobility prevailed. Although Apache hut signatures in the American Southwest are difficult to recognise, do not meet accepted standards of classifications for 'dwellings', and often fall below the detection threshold, hundreds have now been identified (e.g. Seymour 2002, 2004). One of the most efficient ways to identify the archaeological traces of these structures, and so to begin addressing how mobility affects construction, is to use historical examples with specific known contexts. …