Defining a Contemporary Landscape Approach: Concluding Thoughts

By Feinman, Gary M. | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Defining a Contemporary Landscape Approach: Concluding Thoughts


Feinman, Gary M., Antiquity


In the above papers, two of the participants begin by quoting the cultural geographer Carl Sauer. From my perspective, the recognition given to Sauer by DUNNING and his colleagues as well as GARTNER is timely and important, since it reminds us that the long-term interplay between humans and their environments has long been a central concern in geography as well as archaeology. My comments here endeavour to reflect upon and address that general theme towards framing a coherent landscape approach in archaeology. In so doing, space does not also allow for a detailed commentary on each of the articles that compose this section.

For my own principal study region (Oaxaca, Mexico), 29 years have passed since Ronald Spores' (1969) seminal publication in which he outlined the prehispanic construction of lama-bordo agricultural systems in the Mixteca Alta in the Oaxaca highlands. The use of the lama-bordos required intentional stimulation of erosion. Stone and rubble dikes were constructed and designed to trap water and eroding soils as they descended the natural drainage channels that extended from mountains to the valley floor during heavy summer rains. These stone dikes were i to 4 m high and could be tens (even hundreds) of metres long. Following several years of runoff, the lama-bordo terrace systems accumulated sufficient soil to form level and rather fertile plots that returned significant yields. Spores also noted that the lamabordo systems appear to have remained productive during the later part of the prehispanic sequence, as long as the terrace walls were kept in place and carefully maintained. However, with post-contact demographic collapse and changes in tribute patterns, work and land-use patterns were disrupted. The continual labour necessary to rebuild and maintain these

agrarian features was lost and massive unchecked erosion precipitated, which was hastened by grazing and the intentional removal of the natural vegetation. The heavy erosion that today still scars the Nochixtlan Valley and other parts of the Mixteca Alta was the consequence.

In many senses, Spores' (1969) classic article foreshadows directly the convincing analyses of parallel findings presented here by ERICKSON for Bolivia and FISHER for Patzcuaro. In both cases, the most serious landscape upheavals occurred with population decrease and political decline rather than with demographic growth. But remembrances of the studies of Sauer and Spores also raise other more challenging issues. For example, what exactly is meant by a landscape approach? What, if anything, do the diverse set of papers in this collection share theoretically? What have we learned since the prescient works of Spores and Sauer?

Let me endeavour to begin a dialogue by addressing my own rhetorical questions. One thing that clearly has changed over the last three decades is the suite of methods and techniques that we can employ to examine a dynamic environment. These procedures include AMS dating and a wide array of sediment analyses, as well as other geoarchaeological techniques that were not available to Saner or Spores. These methods allow for the evaluation of environmental evidence at a level of detail and precision that was unavailable to earlier scholars. Yet these innovations are present in only some of the above papers. In and of themselves, these new methods and procedures (no matter how significant they may be) do not alone define a new landscape approach. Nevertheless, as we see in several of the articles, the application of these new methods and procedures for analysing the environment can provide important new data for archaeology when they are explicitly marshalled to address anthropological questions.

Perhaps more significantly, the majority of the studies in this collection appear to represent a theoretical response and challenge to the catastrophic and environmental deterministic thinking that has endured in the archaeological literature for at least a century (e. …

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