Monday 20 February 2012

Child's Play ca. 11,500 BP

It's embarrassing to have to admit this, but it's always been difficult for me to 'keep up' with the world's archaeological literature. And for the past fifteen years or so I've been 'away' from the discipline to such an extent that each time I come across something I missed that's of rock-star status in my mind, my response is every bit as genuine as it would have been at the time, and excitement is hard to curb. This Past Horizons story popped up on the news ticker recently (tardily, because I widened its scope to include, among others, the term PaleoIndian [Don't ask me why I didn't start off with a comprehensive list of search terms. But if you do, I'd tell you that unless the term is one that's only used in the context of stories about our discipline, the ticker puts up some odd sorts of news. Example? Levallois brings up oodles of stories about a French rugby player! And if you do as I do, and spend time watching the stories come and go whilst eating breakfast, you'll know what I mean, even with carefully vetted search terms.] 

Credit: Ben A. Potter/Universty of Alaska, Fairbanks and Past Horizons

It's with great pleasure that I can now be excited publically about this research (alas, a year old), published in America's answer to Nature, Science. This is very cool news for the Palaeo-Indian archaeologists who read SA
     It tells of excavating a wood-framed house-pit (very much like the ones I mentioned in a recent post) that was occupied 11,500 years ago in eastern Beringia, at the time the world was awakening from the last big chill of the Pleistocene. It's not the first time that archaeologists have recovered archaeological remains in that part of the world, nor is it the first time they've found human remains of that antiquity in that biome. However, to my knowledge this is the first time that anyone's found good evidence of a substantial residential structure from that epoch--and a house-pit, no less! 
From Potter et al. (2011) Science 
Coming across this research is doubly cool for me, because one of my long-time interests is the cultural processes that can give rise to socio-economic inequality. It's why the Northwest Coast has always held a great fascination for me. There you have foragers in materially complex, stratified societies, living in huge villages--Chiefdoms, much like those presumed to have been in place in Europe at the time of Stonehenge.
     This Tanana River discovery is evidence of one thing. The people who built this structure were there to stay. They were not semi-nomadic like the ethnographic Inuit people of the high north latitudes. How can I say that? Well, I'll admit some might think it's a bit of a reach. But, practically speaking, pithouses are capable of sustaining a comfortable living space year 'round. There'd be no point in raising the roof on one of these structures if the people weren't sedentary. And, if sedentary, they were exploiting an ecosystem that provided abundant and predictable food sources year 'round. It would have been a perfect substrate for development of materially complex societies that would soon infiltrate the vast areas south of the ice sheets, and leave as their signature a symbol drawn from their recent cultural roots. I'm talking about the fluted points of the early PaleoIndian period in the lower 48 and lower, the ultimate expression of which was the Clovis 'point'.
Although it's to be found in various places on the web, I'm pretty sure that this was originally in National Geographic. However, in the present case I found this image at the University of Montana web site.
Something to chew on.