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  • Writer's pictureCassie Gordon

H+G DeepDive: Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology — Assessing the Integrity of Palimpsests & Ephemeral Sites

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

This deep dive series investigates how have archaeologists have established the stratigraphic reliability of hunter-gatherer sites and their deposits. I do this in bite-size posts by identifying some characteristics of hunter-gather archaeology and assessing the advantages, limitations, and future prospects for the field. To assess the limitations of establishing stratigraphic reliability, some case studies from Australia and an example from Africa are evaluated.

This is the first in a series of twelve posts on hunter-gatherer archaeology (1/12).

Introduction to the Series

Before the shift to agriculture at the start of the Holocene, some 12,000 years ago, humans subsisted off of a diet obtained by hunting and gathering foods. The Neolithic Revolution—coined by Australian-born archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe in 1950—is a term for the radical change in the way that humans interacted with and manipulated their environments, also known as the Agricultural Revolution (Childe 1936; Watkins 2009, p. 205). The eventual transition to agriculture as a primary form of subsistence necessitated increased sedentism: this social and economic change is marked in the archaeological record with an increased visibility of sites.

In a time before agriculture reigned our hunting and gathering predecessors had moved out of Africa, managed to colonise the planet, inhabiting most—if not all— of its environments, and yet the very nature of their lifestyle has meant that, ubiquitous as they were, the traces they left behind are at times ephemeral and, at others, palimpsest in nature. Both the ephemerality and palimpsest nature of hunter-gatherer archaeology pose significant challenges to archaeological method and interpretation. This essay outlines some of these challenges. The aim is to appraise the ways in which archaeologists have established the integrity of hunter-gatherer sites and their deposits by examining some examples from the African and Australian continents.

In the first section, this series addresses the establishment of hunter-gatherer archaeology within an ethnoarchaeological milieu. Secondly, this series presents my conceptualisations on site types for hunter-gatherer archaeology. I then review some of the ways that archaeologists determine the integrity of these sites. To address some of the various challenges and limitations that archaeologists face when doing hunter-gatherer archaeology, the chronometric dating techniques applied to the various sites in Australia and Africa are discussed in the form of case studies examined. Temporal scale is also considered as an influencing factor in stratigraphic reliability of hunter-gatherer archaeological sites throughout the examination of the case studies.

To follow this series with the next post, which looks at ethnography and ethnoarchaeology in a hunter-gatherer context, click here.


Please note that all references for this series can be found on the last post.

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