Foraging and Farming in the Eastern Woodlands.
The book's 15 chapters are organized into three loose sections. In the first section, five chapters present broad overviews, or syntheses of regional information covering the period between about 6000 BC to AD 1300. Scarry has arranged these chapters chronologically; they range from examinations of archaeobotanical assemblages from eastern North America's first Late Archaic and Early Woodland gardeners (chapters 2-3), to the emergence of probable field agriculture in the Middle and Late Woodland periods (chapter 4-5), and ending with descriptions of differences between Mississippian period maize farmers (chapter 6). Two of the three chapters in the second section deal with the application of new techniques for looking at the process of plant domestication. The final section consists of six palaeoethnobotanical case-studies from prehistoric societies ranging from Central Ohio Valley Hopewell and Late Woodland populations (chapter 10), to late prehistoric Mississippian groups in central Alabama (chapter 11), Illinois (chapter 12), late prehistoric/protohistoric Oneota peoples of central Illinois (chapter 13) to historic Spanish plant usage in La Florida.
European scholars should find much of interest in the chapters in this book. Those researchers interested in Mesolithic and Bandkeramik interactions, and the ultimate transformation of foragers to agriculturalists in Northern Europe, the so-called Elm Decline, and methods for the analysis of archaeobotanical assemblages will find that these are all topics that can be explored through comparison with North American approaches to similar problems. Patterns of long-term wood exploitation from the Somerset Levels, England, is contrasted with two eastern North American contexts.
It is Scarry's introduction to the chapters, however, that provides a useful point of discussing the book. As someone who has toiled in the palaeoethnobotanical vineyards for some time, I sympathize with the lament that Scarry notes very early in her introduction. In spite of the fact that palaeoethnobotanical studies have contributed much to the understanding of the evolution of foodways in eastern North America, and have helped define eastern North America as a geographic area where agriculture developed independently of other centres of food production, Scarry, speaking for her colleagues (p. 4), notes a sense of shared frustration that
'...comes from the feeling that we are not being heard by the breeder archaeological community, or at least not being given adequate attention.'
While I share this general sentiment, Scarry and I differ in our views of its causes. Scarry lays the blame on a reluctance of eastern North American archaeologists to relinquish the long-cherished paradigm that societies in eastern North America were primarily foragers until maize introduced from Mexico became the dominant focus of subsistence economies between about AD 900 and 1000. To accept whole-cloth that large-scale farming of a trust of indigenous eastern plants supported Hopewell and various Late Woodland peoples in a broad belt of the Midcontinent would force a re-evaluation of settlement patterns and social relations.
The fact that most palaeoethnobotanical studies are, as Scarry laments (p. 4),
'...buried in appendices of reports or published as specialized articles that appear where only paleoethnobotanical initiates are likely to see them'
is the result of both the history of the study and interpretation of archaeobotanical collections as well as the narrow range of questions many practitioners attempt to answer.
Palaeoethnobotany as part of American anthropology is a comparatively recent phenomenon, spawned during the late 1960s and early '70s as part of the emergence of so-called 'environmental archaeology'. The first generation of analysts were more often than not botanists recruited by archaeologists to identify plant remains recovered from their excavations. The reports the botanists produced were included as technical appendices in some larger publication, and were often mere laundry-lists of the plants identified. The interpretation of their findings became the domain of the archaeologist, who simply noted the discoveries within the context of the site report.
As palaeoethnobotany has matured, anthropological archaeologists who are interested in the interrelationships between past plant and human populations have largely taken the place of the 'appendix specialist'. Most American palaeoethnobotanical studies are still included as appendices, but now they are being more fully interpreted by specialists who are trained first as anthropologists, and secondly as botanists. While these reports are more and more considered integral parts of archaeological research, the new generation of specialists are still labouring under the historical legacy of their first-generation predecessors.
Palaeoethnobotanists are partially to blame for the situation in which they find themselves. Too often the data they generate in their studies are simply elaborate technical reports, more detailed than the early laundry-lists, but still limited in their scope, and often narrowly focused on only the settlement which produced the assemblage. In order for palaeoethnobotany to assume a larger role in American archaeology, plant remains must be used to address questions of broader anthropological significance, and must be integrated with the traditional 'stones and bones' of prehistory. The greatest contribution of the study of botanical remains will come from palaeoethnobotanists who are also archaeologists.
The chapters in this book set out to ask some of these questions. With few exceptions, all look beyond the site, and many incorporate multiple data sets to examine questions ranging from the occurrence of regional diet patterns to the over-exploitation of firewood as a prime mover in the collapse of Cahokia, the largest centre in North America outside of Mexico.
There is much to admire in this book. Viewed from an historical perspective, Foraging and farming marks a point on the continuum of the evolution of a discipline.
C. WESLEY COWAN Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, Cincinnati (OH)
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|Author:||Cowan, C. Wesley|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1995|
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