Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology as Historical Process

By Dillian, Carolyn | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology as Historical Process


Dillian, Carolyn, Southeastern Archaeology


Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology as Historical Process. KENNETH E. SASSAMAN and DONALD H. HOLLY JR. (eds.). University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2011. viii, 341 pp., illus., maps. $60 (cloth), ISBNT3 978-08165-2925-4.

This book brings together a diverse group of scholars whose work focuses on overturning misconceptions about hunter-gatherers as "primitive" and as living in often isolated societies, instead stressing historical contingency and the material evidence of social and cultural change. Through studies that emphasize complexity, interaction, mobility, and innovation, the papers in this volume present a refreshing new view of hunter-gatherers on the North American continent. Though each chapter references a different geographic and cultural setting, consistent themes persist throughout the volume, which resulted from a productive Society for American Archaeology session and subsequent Amerind Foundation workshop for the participants. Consequently, this volume is a unified and holistic view of hunter-gatherer archaeology and historical process.

The volume is organized into three sections: Part 1, "Agents of History and Evolution" (4 chapters); Part 2, "The Sociality of Historical Practice" (4 chapters); and Part 3, "The Structure of Historical Process" (3 chapters). Also included are an introduction by Kenneth Sassaman and Donald Holly Jr., and a concluding chapter by H. Martin Wobst in which he offers a reflection on the past, present, and future of hunter-gatherer studies.

Sassaman and Holly preface the volume with an introduction to the main concepts that weave through the authors' diverse case studies. In this volume, historical contingency is paramount in understanding the hunter-gatherer past. Using components of agency theory and practice theory, the authors underscore lived experience as a transforming element of society. Specifically, Sassaman and Holly emphasize Pauketat's (Anthropological Theory 1:73-98, 2001) concept of "historical processualism" as an important central component of this volume. They state that historical processualism focuses on "the dynamic interplay between the actions people take and the structure that constrains and enables these actions" (p. 3) as revealed by the material remains of past cultures. Though the editors acknowledge that not all participants may feel that their papers are explicitly historically processual in nature, it does appear that none would disagree with the basic tenets of historical processualism as applied to hunter-gatherer studies.

In the first section of the volume, the authors focus on the way in which our interpretive perspective shapes an archaeological understanding of huntergatherers and advocate for more nuanced readings of the hunter-gatherer past. In essence, the development (and demise) of hunter-gatherer societies was based on a complex negotiation between individual actors, social groups, and the environment. This is not to say that simple environmental determinism is warranted but, instead, that the environment is one factor in a historical perspective on the hunter-gatherer past. However, through the meander of history, the back and forth between people, social groups, and the environment allowed hunter-gatherers to affect change, whether or not intentionally. This perspective is argued throughout the first section of the volume. For example, Hull employs an examination of site and obsidian debitage density to look at demographic change in the Sierra Nevada of California, advocating a shift in focus from hunter-gatherer writ large to small-scale communities, making it possible to examine individual men, women, and children as active participants in the creation and maintenance of community.

In the second section of the volume, the authors examine historical practice as a means of cultural production. Just as people today create monuments and provide selective remembering of past events (as I write this on the weekend of the tenth anniversary of September 11, this practice is all around me), huntergatherers similarly created places and structural linkages that were important in both the continuity and development of identity. …

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