Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets

By Shott, Michael J. | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets


Shott, Michael J., Antiquity


LEWIS R. BINFORD. Constructing frames of reference: an analytical method for archaeological theory building using ethnographic and environmental data sets. xx+563 pages, 151 figures, 60 tables. 2001. Berkeley (CA): University of California Press; 0-520-22393-4 hard-back $75.

Arguably the most prominent 20th-century American archaeologist, Lewis Binford secured his reputation by decades of vigorous research devoted to how the record formed and how thereby to learn about the past. His new book (CFR) has archaeological implications, pursued in passages on the Near Eastern and other Neolithic records, but is a detailed study of 390 ethnographic hunter-gatherer cultures. CFR takes the sound view that the range of documented variation holds clues to the transformation of past hunter-gatherers. Binford's 1978 Nunamiut ethnoarchaeology partly extended arguments about Paleolithic assemblage variation advanced in the 1960s. CFR is perhaps Binford's most sustained argument yet, extending his 1968 `Post-Pleistocene adaptations' on hunter-gatherer tendency to agriculture and social complexity.

Binford's familiar style has not changed. He remains fond of neologisms (scatterplots are `property space maps', regressions `relational projections') and retains his argumentative flair. Apart from the style, a book so ambitious and important deserved much better editing for organization and continuity, especially from a major university press. Figures carry much of Binford's argument, yet many comparisons are invited between figures that plot different variable ranges or that are cluttered by shading that hampers scrutiny. CFR includes several lengthy data tables, grist for many analytical mills. Yet some listed variables are not defined for 20 pages or more after tables' appearance and some not at all, so far as I could tell. I still do not know what table 9.01% `COMSTFUN' is. Throughout, Binford creates many codes, ratios and other legitimate variables but rarely reports them by case (e.g. his packing index). CFB's scope makes it difficult to report all variables by case, but appendices could list more of them.

A synopsis at once summarizes the argument and identifies editorial and analytical problems. Chapter 4 explores the complex ecological relationship between climate and biota, culminating in regression estimates of secondary biomass, itself figuring in chapter 6's baseline `terrestrial model' of diet and population. Such a baseline highlights the ecological character of aquatic resources which, to Binford, explain much of the evolutionary potential of hunter-gatherers. Chapter 5 gauges sample representativity. Obviously, cases are biased in geographic distribution but less severely and more subtly when viewed against ecological zones. Cases are few in arid habitats and some game-rich temperate ones where agriculture now dominates. Binford concludes that hunter-gatherers largely avoided deserts and that agriculture arose in game-, not plant-rich, habitats. Persuasive and original, chapter 5 nevertheless contains editorial glitches that foreshadow later problems. The same variable is labelled differently in figures 5.06 and 5.13; particular figure 5.06 cases are discussed at length in the text but not identified in the figure; one point there seems not to correspond to any pair of values in the accompanying table, another is identified by a label that appears nowhere in that table; slight differences between two figure 5.10 maps are exaggerated, the chief reason for preferring one its `greater correspondence [to] what I accept as true' (p. 148), and tables 5.04 and 5.06 disagree in area covered by two vegetation zones. Binford parses figure 5.06 to argue positive correlation between number of hunter-gatherer cases and proportional size of global vegetation zones. This exercise is not justified statistically and the overall relationship seems negative, not positive.

Chapter 6 presents Binford's terrestrial model linking food supply to hunter-gatherer population. …

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