Long-Term Hunter-Gatherer Land Use in Central North Dakota: An Environmental Analysis

Article excerpt


Time-averaged deposits characterize a substantial portion of the archaeological record in the northern Great Plains and contain significant information regarding hunter-gatherer land use over long periods of time. This paper explores the research potential of time-averaged deposits in a portion of central North Dakota, focusing on hunter-gatherer land use for approximately 2,700 years. Using non-site methods, the intensity of temporally extensive place use, or persistence, is assessed according to the spatial and compositional structure of surface features, and this distribution is evaluated according to subsurface deposits. While this study suggests that highly persistent places tend to be located near wooded areas, relatively far from wetlands, in slightly higher elevations, and where good views are available; these variables in themselves do not sufficiently explain the variation in long-term settlement persistence found throughout this portion of central North Dakota.

Keywords: landscape archaeology, prehistoric land use, time-averaged deposits, stone rings, North Dakota

Prehistoric hunter-gatherers of the northern Great Plains have been characterized as being highly mobile, moving great distances in pursuit of resources necessary for survival (Frison, Toom and Mainfort 1996). Archaeologists have long recognized that as groups move across the landscape, for whatever reason, certain places will be reused repeatedly, which result in time-averaged (Stern 1994), or palimpsest (Binford 1983) deposits. The ontological nature of time-averaged deposits depends on many factors, some of which include (1) the frequency of use events, (2) the duration of use, (3) the kinds of activities that have taken place at a particular locale, and (4) different geomorphic processes operating throughout space and time (see Wandsnider 1992). Experience has shown us that a good portion of the archaeological record in the northern Great Plains is characterized by time-averaged deposits (see Deaver 1989; Deaver et al. 1999). Such deposits are often thought to have limited research potential, but only if one assumes the goal to be reconstructing prehistoric life ways or synchronic settlement systems. With this goal in mind, Pompeii-type assemblages, or the "remains of a once living community stopped, as it were, at a point in time" (Ascher 1961:324), are typically preferred, and in cases where Pompeii-type assemblages are not available, the task of archaeologists is often seen as removing the distorting effects of time's arrow, so that short-term ethnographic reconstructions might still be made (e.g., Davis 1983; Oetelaar 2000).

While Pompeii-type assemblages might be seen as more appropriate for reconstructing short-term behavioral events, this type of assemblage is rarely encountered, and as articulated by Binford (1983:239-240) over twenty years ago, "if we hold out for the very few sites where we may 'recognize' undistorted 'analytical units,' then we will have very few remains from the past with which to work. The challenge is how to use the 'distorted' stuff, not how to discover the rare and unusual Pompeiis." While several archaeologists have responded to this challenge and have focused on the research potential of time-averaged deposits (e.g., Holdaway et al. 1998; Schlanger 1992; Smith and McNees 1999; Wandsnider 2003), archaeological method and theory regarding this important matter remains highly underdeveloped, particularly in the northern Great Plains. Rather than seeing time-averaged deposits as being limiting, some have suggested that these deposits contain significant information regarding long-term hunter gatherer land use, and that this type of information is not contained in assemblages that have resulted from single use events. For example, Holdaway and Fanning (2003:2) suggested that "palimpsests are not only desirable, but also necessary, since without the accumulation of materials from multiple behavioral episodes there will be no patterns to analyze. …