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10.4: Activity 3 - Subsistence Signatures

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    Jason Edmonds, Cosumnes River College

    In this activity, you are acting as an assistant professor of archaeology, and you have just been invited by a colleague to participate in a symposium she is organizing for the Society for American Archaeology meeting in the spring. The symposium is titled “From Foragers to Food Producers” and deals with the shift from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists. You have been asked to present a talk on distinguishing between foragers who intensively use wild plants and agriculturalists who actively cultivate plants to produce food. As luck would have it, you recently returned from surveys at two of your research locations and have two site cases that will work well for the symposium.

    Unfortunately, you will only have time to present one of them.

    Your instructor will assign you a site to work on—the Ricegrass site or the Hester site. Read the summary of the sites provided at the end of this exercise.

    1. Determine whether the occupants at your assigned site were hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists using the following list of signatures of hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists and how the evidence relates to subsistence strategies.
    Signature evidence Hunter-Gatherer Agriculturalist
    Ceramic form X
    Groundstone technology X
    Hunting tools X X

    Were the occupants of your site hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists?

    1. Create a table like the one above and list at least 5 kinds of signature evidence from the site you were assigned that support your case for the occupants being either hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists.

      For each piece of evidence, indicate whether it suggests hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists, or both. Some kinds of evidence are ambiguous. It is fine to include that evidence, but it should not dominate your table. You need to make clear distinctions between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. Though the table above lists only 3 examples, your table must include 5 kinds of evidence. The table must be included in your write-up, which is explained in the next step of the activity.
    2. Briefly discuss your conclusions about the site in two pages or less, double spaced. This paper should include the following sections:
    • Introduction: Briefly describe the site and set up your argument regarding evidence that the site was occupied by hunter-gatherers or by agriculturalists.
    • Body paragraph 1: Explain some of the archaeological signatures typically left by hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists.
    • Body paragraph 2: Apply the signatures you explained to your site in light of the evidence indicated in your table and include the table in the paper. Were the inhabitants hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists? What evidence supports this and why?
    • Conclusion: Summarize your arguments and list three additional kinds of analyses and/or fieldwork you would like to conduct in the future to verify your conclusions. Briefly explain why each additional exploration would be useful (what new information it would reveal).
    • Archaeological Evidence Relevant to Subsistence Strategies

    Archaeological signatures of hunter-gatherers

    • Relatively small sites that likely were inhabited only briefly or seasonally

    o Site deposits are only minimally altered by human activity

    • A relatively large variety of site types and functions within a local area
    • Hunter-gatherers did make pottery and generally used it for cooking rather than for storage

    o Their cooking pots usually had a V-shaped cross-section, wide at the top and narrow at the base

    o Their pottery vessels were sometimes cached/stored for use in following years

    • Cooking and processing features located in communal areas

    o Food shared as a communal resource

    • When present, groundstone tools are often simple and expedient
    • Structures were generally small and relatively ephemeral
    • Typically very few or no differences in the distribution of artifacts and raw materials among structures

    Archaeological signatures of early agriculturalists

    • Relatively large sites that indicate year-round occupation
      • Site deposits are often heavily altered by human activity
      • Sites more commonly include human burials
    • Habitation sites are often located near permanent water sources
    • A smaller variety of site types in a local area with certain parts of the landscape sometimes relatively abandoned
    • Relied heavily on use of pottery and typically made finely crafted vessels for a variety of functions, including cooking, storing, and serving
    • Food processing, cooking, and storage features located within individual houses
      • Food was a private, household resource
    • Groundstone tools were used to process plants and were highly refined and curated
    • Structures were relatively large and longer-lasting
    • Households differed in terms of size and access to prestige or luxury goods

    Archaeological signatures that are ambiguous with respect to subsistence strategies

    • Both hunter-gatherers and plant agriculturalists hunted wild game so the presence of hunting tools and faunal remains is not a reliable indicator
    • Likewise, both groups engaged in long-distance trade so the mere presence of non-local materials likely is not related to subsistence strategies