Hunter-Gatherer Ecology

AP450 – Spring 2005 COURSE OUTLINE

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Week 1: Why Study Hunter-Gatherers?

What is the relevance of studying "stone-age peoples" to today’s society? Wouldn’t our time be better spent worrying about the more immediate problems of global population growth, pollution and humanly induced environmental change, terrorism, genocide, and AIDS? The first week introduces the perspective that almost all aspects of the "nature of human nature," the physiological, psychological, technological, sociological, and the ideological have their foundations firmly established in a hunter-gatherer way of life. We will discuss some of the differences in "top-down" vs. "bottom-up" approaches to understanding prehistoric human behaviors.

Week 2: Changing Perceptions of Foraging Peoples

Nobel Savages or brutal primitives? Short nasty, brutish lives or the original affluent society? The first ecologists – wasteful exploiters? Philosophers, colonial administrators, missionaries, anthropologists, and the general public have all propagated a variety of views of life "in a state of nature." Changing characterizations of the differences between peoples who subsist largely through consumption of wild food products and those who are use other, more intensive modes of food production have been central to many trends in the development of contemporary world views. Readings and discussion this week focus on some of the causes and consequences of the mutable perception of foraging peoples.

Week 3: Behavioral Ecology

There has long been an interest in the relationships of humans to their environment, although at any given time, the views of what those relationships are have not been always been in agreement. There can be little doubt that a variety of cultural and ecological factors influence human societies through a complex series of interactions. The approach of behavioral ecology, which seeks to understand how evolutionary processes help to shape the diversity of human cultures, is presented as one strategy for trying to learn about the linkages between environment and society.

Week 4: Quaternary Environments: Conditions and Resources

Understanding some of the variation in the physical, climate, and social environment through the Quaternary, which encompasses most of the last 2 million years, provides one set of important boundary conditions for investigating hunter-gatherer societies. Both the recent global patterns of hunter-gatherer/ environmental interactions and the methods for reconstructing the longer-term paleoecological relationships are discussed.

Week 5: Case Studies I: A Kaleidoscope of Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways

After having spent several weeks talking about foraging societies in the abstract, we will now spend some time looking more closely at the lives of hunter-gatherers. Ethnographies will be reported on and discussed through a series of in-class presentations. The case studies reviewed provide a general body of information to help understand the questions being addressed by behavioral ecology.

Week 6: Foraging and Subsistence I: Diet Breadth

Why are some potential foods sought, processed, and consumed and others ignored, or used to a lessor degree? Investigation of the costs and returns of searching for and preparing food items provides one way to characterize differences in hunter-gatherer diets. This week, the diversity of hunter-gatherer diets is highlighted and diet-breadth models that attempt to recognize general patterns in the complexity of human foodways are examined.

Week 7: Foraging and Subsistence II: Patch Choice

Another set of conditions that need to be considered in modeling hunter-gatherer subsistence patterns are the nature of resource distribution and what factors may condition a group’s decisions on the sequence, duration, and intensity of exploitation. The constant flux of resource costs and benefits are emphasized.

Week 8: Midterm Exam

Week 9: Foraging and Subsistence III: Risk

Since no place is completely unchanging from season to season or year to year, there is often a good deal of unpredictable variation in environmental factors that directly affect hunter-gatherers. Dealing with these risky conditions can lead to a diverse set of solutions based on food storage, mobility, sharing, raiding, or trade.

Week 10: Group Size and the Organization of Labor

Hunter-gatherer groups exhibit a wide range of sizes and group size may vary considerably throughout the year. The relationships between structure of resource availability labor requirements, social obligations, and reproductive needs are discussed. Factors that may influence population stability or growth are reviewed.

Week 11: Spatial Patterns of Foraging Peoples I: Lifespace Scale

For the last twenty years the variation in hunter-gatherer use of space has become increasingly important to prehistoric archaeology. This week we will be reviewing information on the spatial structure of activity space (ca 1-100 m2) and living site space (ca 100-10,000 m2) and discussing what this may tell us about the organization of foraging behaviors. We will include comments on the methods and role of middle range techniques of ethnoarchaeology.

Week 12: Spatial Patterns of Foraging Peoples II: Landscape Scale

Hunter-gatherer use of space at larger spatial and temporal scales is considered. Factor that condition mobility, migration, length of occupation, repetitive occupation, and site placement are reviewed.

Week 13: Modeling Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Systems

What are the prospects and potentials of applying what we’ve learned about the ecology of recent hunter-gatherers to the archaeological investigation of prehistoric human paleoecology? How does behavioral ecology differ from ethnographic analogy? Have we escaped the "tyranny of the ethnographic record" or are we still trying to do "ethnography with a shovel"? What are the major weaknesses and strengths of contemporary methods and models? In what ways does a better understanding of hunter-gatherer ecology influence the way archaeological field studies are conducted? What issues are in most need of immediate research?

Week 14: How do we help, how do we learn?

Although we’ve spent most of the semester talking about hunter-gatherers or foraging peoples as if they live in isolated, "window on the past" worlds, this is not the case. There are a number of important issues relating to how contemporary groups of people whose modes of subsistence are markedly different from our own are viewed by western society. During the last class period we’ll re-examine ideas of adaptation/exaptation, culture, ecology, diversity, and the rights of indigenous peoples today.

Week 15: The Origins of Food Production

Why aren’t we all still hunter-gatherers? What are some of the factors thought to be of primary importance in the shift from foraging to food production? What are some of the advantages and disadvantage of food production?