Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

10.3: Activity 2 - Reconstructing Diet and Subsistence- Comparing Foraging and Farming

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Jenna Santy, University of California, Santa Barbara

    The two data sets provided for this activity are based on actual archaeological excavations and have been modified for the purposes of this activity (see the citations for more information). Each data set contains information about plant and animal remains found in an archaeological assemblage—one from the Owens Valley in eastern California and one from Veracruz, Mexico. The two sites date to about the same time period.

    The study of archaeological plant remains is called paleoethnobotany and the study of archaeological animal remains is called zooarchaeology. For this activity, you will compare and contrast the two data sets and make some inferences about how the residents of each site made a living. Here’s a big hint: one group obtained much of their food from farming and the other did not.

    Online Resources:

    • Google Maps or Google Earth

    Use Google Maps (or Google Earth) to look up Bishop, California, and then zoom out so you can see both the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west and the White Mountains to the east.

    Next, look up Lago Catemaco in Veracruz, Mexico, and zoom out so you can see the Gulf of Mexico to the northeast.

    Site 1: INY-1384

    An ancestral Owens Valley Paiute site located near Bishop, California, at the foot of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, near McGee Creek, and south of the Owens River. The assemblage was radiocarbon-dated to 1750 +/– 40 BP (AD 160 to 240) and came from a single excavated house deposit that included four associated features.

    Site 2: Bezuapan

    A terminal formative period Olmec site located in Veracruz near the Gulf of Mexico, along the Bezuapan River in lowlands near the Sierra de los Tuxtlas Mountains, and west of Lago Catemaco. The assemblage was radiocarbon-dated to 1790 BP +/– 80 years (AD 80 to 240) and came from two partially excavated house deposits and three associated features.

    What was the environment like at each site when it was occupied? How are the sites’ environments different?

    The data sets (provided at the end of this activity) represent spreadsheets of subsistence data, one from each site, that contain data on plants and animals, providing a relatively full picture of the resources the residents of the sites at the time used.

    This is a relatively full picture but not a complete picture. Why not?

    What is preservation bias, and how does it skew our interpretation of these assemblages?
    Hint: be sure to read the following important notes.

    Important Notes:

    • All of the plant remains counted by the paleoethnobotanists are carbonized (charred, burned) because other types of plants were not preserved.
    • Think about the process by which food becomes burned. In what context or during what activities do you think the plants were burned? Have you ever accidentally burned something? What were you doing?
    • Most of the identifications include the genus and species name (the genus name is capitalized and the species name is lower case). When you see Genusname sp., only the genus of the specimen could be identified. It can be difficult to tell several different but closely related species apart.

    Go to and search for “Chenopodium.” Be sure to limit the search county to Inyo and check the “Native to California” box.

    How many species (including subspecies) of Chenopodium are there in Inyo county?

    “Taxa” is the plural version of taxon, and both are inclusive terms that can be used to refer to families, genuses, and species. For example, if three specimens are identified to the species level, two to a genus, and one to a family, six taxa are represented. There are eleven plant taxa represented in INY-1384 and seven in Bezuapan.

    After reviewing each data set, answer the following questions.

    Question for INY-1384 and Bezuapan

    How many animal taxa does each assemblage have?

    Questions for INY-1384

    1. What is the most abundant plant taxon? What is the most abundant animal taxon?
    1. What environments (mountains, deserts, rivers, lakes, etc.) did the animal resources come from? Are they the same environments as the site or would the occupants have had to travel some distance to hunt them?
    1. What environments did the plant resources come from? Are they the same environments as the site or would the occupants have had to travel some distance to gather them?
    1. The data set labels some of the faunal remains as “unidentified.” What might make bones unidentifiable?
    1. Several Cyperus tubers were found. What is a tuber? (Check Google if you don’t know and be sure to cite the source of your answer.) List one example of an edible tuber.

    Questions for Bezuapan

    1. What is the most abundant plant taxon? What is the most abundant animal taxon?
    1. What environments (mountains, deserts, rivers, lakes, etc.) did the animal resources come from?
    1. Are any of the plants familiar to you? Which ones? How do you obtain those plants to eat and how are they produced?
    1. How do you think the residents of Bezuapan obtained most of their plant resources? Do you think they had to go far to get them?
    1. How do you think the residents of Bezuapan obtained most of their animal resources? Was it in the same way they obtained the plants?

    Comparative Questions

    1. Plant parts found by paleoethnobotanists are not necessarily the parts of plants that were used by site inhabitants; archaeologists can find only what is preserved. When humans use nicotine (even today), what part of the plant is used?
    1. What parts of plants were found at INY-1384?
    1. When humans eat avocados, what part of the avocado do they primarily consume? What parts of avocado plants were found at Bezuapan?
    1. Gophers of different types were found at INY-1384 and Bezuapan. Do you think that the inhabitants at those sites hunted gophers or did their remains wind up in the archaeological deposits in some other way? How?
    1. Some of the plant and animal taxa found in the assemblages were not used for food. List two of the taxa that probably were not eaten.
    1. Were any resources found at both INY-1384 and Bezuapan? If so, which ones?
    1. Are there differences in how the occupants of INY-1384 and Bezuapan obtained their plant resources? How about their animal resources? Who were the farmers and who are the foragers?

    INY-1384 Data Set

    Taxon Common name Classification Part Count Note
    Achnatherum hymenoides rice grass aquatic plant seed 2
    Artemisia tridentata big sagebrush valley floor bush seed 60
    Chenopodium sp. goosefoot valley floor / disturbance plant seed (achene) 28 Ever heard of quinoa? Same genus, different species!
    Helianthus sp. sunflower valley floor / foothill plant seed (achene) 1
    Mentzelia sp. blazing star valley floor plant seed 5
    Scirpus sp. tule aquatic plant seed (achene) 5
    Eriogonum sp. wild buckwheat valley floor / foothill bush seed (achene) 2
    Fabaceae bean family ? seed (bean) 50 only identifiable to family level
    Nicotiana sp. nicotine disturbance plant seed 12 probably non-food
    Pinus monophylla single-leaf pinyon pine mountain slope tree nutshell 38 pine nuts are a staple, seasonal food source
    Cyperus esculentus yellow nutsedge aquatic plant tuber 6
    Animals all remains are bones
    Catostomidae sucker family fish 5 probably Catostomus fumeiventris, Owens sucker
    Siphateles bicolor Owens tui chub fish 3
    unidentified fish fish 12
    Callipepla sp. Quail bird 1
    Mareca strepera Gadwall duck bird 3
    unidentified bird bird 6
    Thomomys sp. pocket gopher small mammal 2
    Lepus californicus blacktailed jackrabbit small mammal 18 3 burned bones
    Sylvilagus sp. cottontail rabbit small mammal 6
    Antilocapra americana pronghorn large mammal 6 also called pronghorn antelope
    Ovis canadensis big horn sheep large mammal 2 lives in Sierra Nevada mountains at high altitudes
    Odocoileus hemonius mule deer large mammal 5 2 burned bones
    unidentified large mammal large mammal 23 6 burned bones

    Bezuapan Data Set

    Taxon Common name Classification Part Count Note
    Zea mays maize field crop kernel 184
    Phaseolus vulgaris common bean field crop seed (bean) 3
    Phaseolus coccineus scarlet runner bean field crop seed (bean) 24
    Persea americana avocado tree crop pit (fragmented) 492
    Pouteria sapota sapote tree crop pit (fragmented) 130
    Opuntia sp. prickly pear other fruits seed from fruit 1

    O. fig-indica

    Psidium guayana guava other fruits seed from fruit 1
    Animals all remains are bones
    Cichlasoma sp. Mojarra fish 4
    Bufo sp. toad amphibian 23
    Staurotypus triporcatus Mexican giant musk turtle reptile 2
    Cairina moschata Muscovy duck bird 2
    Meleagris gallopavo Wild turkey bird 4
    Orthogemoys hispidus Hispid pocket gopher small mammal 1
    Didelphis sp. opossum small mammal 4
    Dasypus movemcinctus nine-banded armadillo small mammal 3
    Sciurus sp. tree squirrel small mammal 3
    Sylvilagus sp. cottontail rabbit small mammal 4 1 burned bone
    Canis familiaris domestic dog medium mammal 18 2 burned bones
    Tayassu tajacu collared peccary medium mammal 2
    Odocoileus virginianus white-tailed deer large mammal 10 3 burned bones


    • Basgall, Mark E. and Michael G. Delacorte.
    • 2012. Middle Archaic Cultural Adaptations in the Eastern Sierra Nevada: Data Recovery Excavations at INY-1384/H, INY-6249/H, INY-6250, and INY-6251/H. Report on file at Caltrans District 9, Bishop, CA.
    • VanDerwarker, Amber M.
    • 2006. Farming, Hunting, and Fishing in the Olmec World. University of Texas Press: Austin.