Understanding Variability and
Change on the Mining Frontier
The mining rushes and subsequent mining created and transformed a series of mining frontiers in Nevada and the American West. They varied in detail but shared many social and cultural patterns that reflected similar environmental adaptations. They exhibited flexible and quickly changing social formations and sociotechnical systems, rapid environmental change and the formation of distinctive landscapes, and an island structure that best describes the geographical and ecological characteristics of mining frontiers in the American West and elsewhere. Starting with the premise that the mining frontier is a unique environmental setting, evolutionary theory offers a significant approach to understanding variability and change in mining-related settlement-systems, social networks, and sociotechnical systems (Hardesty 1985a, 1985b, 1986c).
The mining frontier as an ecological theater has two distinctive characteristics. First, it is a network of islands. Second, the theater is marked by boom-bust cycles. At the level of individual mining district islands, boom-bust cycles are usually tied to the geological vagaries of the ore body. At the level of island networks, however, the boom-bust cycles are best viewed as correlated episodes or “punctuations” of world-system technological or economic changes (Hardesty 1985a: 215). How miners coped with boom-bust cycles, on the one hand, and with the island structure of the frontier, on the other, is therefore of substantial interest within the interpretive framework of evolutionary theory.
How evolutionary mechanisms and processes work on mining frontiers is illustrated by Patrick Kirch’s (1980, 1997) model of cultural adaptation on islands. The model makes four assumptions: (1) human behavior is expressed in some way in the archaeological record, (2) human behavior is variable, (3) the behavioral variants are reproduced differentially, and (4) adaptation occurs as those behavioral variants that cope with the