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  • Writer's pictureCassie Gordon

H+G DeepDive: The Nature of Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology — Ethnography & Ethnoarchaeology

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

This is the second in a series of twelve posts on hunter-gatherer archaeology (2/12).


While there are varying specific definitions of hunter-gatherers they are defined here generally by their mobility and forager subsistence derived from non-domesticated resources (Winterhalder 2001, p. 12). Bruce Trigger writes, “hunter-gatherer societies are mobile, and those who live in them have little opportunity to accumulate possessions (2003, p. 669).” It is widely accepted that before our agrarian ancestors settled into a sedentary lifestyle they lived an existence supported by hunting, gathering, and foraging. It is for this reason that living groups of hunter-gatherers are so fascinating to anthropologists and ethnoarchaeologists alike: they are a mirror to our past, seen as a way to better understand patterns and behaviours of early human cultures.

Ethnoarchaeological analogues are invaluable for interpreting the archaeology of hunter-gatherers. The ethnography of contemporary hunter-gatherers has informed archaeologists on the variability, and processes involved in the selection and formation of sites (for example, see behavioural ecology models proposed by Winterhalder & Smith 1981 and Smith & Winterhalder 1992). The crucial critique of ethnoarchaeological inference, however, is that the inherent nature of humankind is that it is inconsistent, constantly adapting, and ever-changing: unfortunately it is not as easy as simply transcribing data from the present onto the material traces of the past. Likewise, modern hunter-gatherer groups have had a long duration of social, political, and cultural development specific to their own environments and niches (not to mention that they are rarely, if ever, devoid of colonising influences).


It was in 1966 that Richard Lee and Irven DeVore organised the symposium Man the Hunter (1968) and demonstrated the value of anthropological applications to interpreting the recent and distant past. Along with others who presented at the symposium, of particular note was Lee’s work with the !Kung of southern Africa (pictured in Image 1, page over), and Marshall Sahlins’ theory of foragers as the original affluent society (see also Sahlins 1972). These men (and they were all men) challenged the ensconced notions of hunter-gatherers as deprived of luxury and persistently facing starvation. This comprehensive consolidation of ethnographic studies of hunter-gatherers established the foundation upon which future ethnoarchaeology would stand. At the symposium, and contributing a corpus of literature to ethnoarchaeological pursuits thereon, was American archaeologist Lewis R Binford. The statistical cross-cultural ethnoarchaeological work with the Nanamuit of Alaska by Lewis Binford (1983) has been instrumental (and under-applied) to the field.

Image 1: Some San Bushman, Indigenous to Southern Africa (source: Bradshaw Foundation 2011)

Ethnoarchaeology demonstrates the complexity that is intrinsic to the archaeological record. While computer-based predictive modelling can be constructive for archaeological theory the complicated and complex behavioural modelling that comes from ethnoarchaeology enables those in the field to identify archaeological traces where they may have previously been unobserved. Ethnoarchaeology also facilitates interpretation of meaning from the material traces with the benefit of insider knowledge (for example, see ethnographic work on Siberian reindeer ‘herders’ by Grøn 2005, 2011, 2018; Kroll & Price [eds] 1991 and chapters therein for interdisciplinary approaches to ethnoarchaeology; and Lane 2008 for the use of ethnography in landscape archaeology). It is also pertinent to note that in Australia it is indispensable to work with the traditional custodians when working on country. This not only benefits the working relationships between traditional owners and archaeologists, but also enhances cultural awareness and acumen. Lesley Head & Richard Fullagar (1997) demonstrated this with their work in the northwest of the Northern Territory in Australia. With the aid of ethnography and the insight traditional custodians afford, how can archaeologists measure the integrity of stratigraphic contexts for sites once they are located and identified? Is ethnography useful (or even plausible) when the scale of investigation extends beyond the characteristics of behavioural modernity and into the temporal territory of early humans in the Upper Palaeolithic?


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