Niche Construction Theory and the Investigation of Late Palaeolithic Broad-Spectrum Diets

21st April 2013

Adriana Basiaco

 BA(Hons), School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, October 2012

Optimal foraging theory (OFT) has been used by many archaeologists to explain the changes seen in hunter-gatherer diets during the late Palaeolithic in the Mediterranean Basin. Hunter-gatherers generally switched from a narrow resource base to one including a wider array of previously unexploited resources, i.e. a ‘broad-spectrum’ diet. From an OFT perspective, it is argued that hunter-gatherers were forced to expand their dietary breadth due to a decrease in the availability of the highest-ranked resources. Associated resource intensification is viewed as further testimony of rising resource pressure in the increasing absence of more desirable species.

Recently, niche construction theory (NCT) has been offered as an alternative theoretical framework to OFT. NCT describes a process whereby hunter-gatherers deliberately altered the environment around them to orchestrate desired changes in their surrounding habitat. Should NCT be incorporated in Palaeolithic studies, it must be shown that such environmental alteration is directly and demonstrably connected to expanding dietary breadth and intensification behaviours. An evidence-based relationship between niche construction and Palaeolithic broad-spectrum trends, however, is yet to be demonstrated in the literature, and my thesis provides an initial starting point in this regard.

A critical review of the niche construction and broad-spectrum literature was conducted to explore the likelihood of evidencing niche construction practices in the archaeological record and to explore how NCT might directly challenge established OFT interpretations of existing faunal data. This review suggests that the explanatory potential of NCT for understanding Palaeolithic subsistence behaviour is limited by the oft-invisible nature of niche constructing practices geared towards wild resources in the archaeological record. It is also revealed that NCT is not yet able to provide an alternative explanation for emerging resource intensification associated with broad-spectrum trends beyond a simple rejection of OFT.

Adriana Basiaco
Niche Construction Theory and the Investigation of Late Palaeolithic Broad-Spectrum Diets
June 2013
Thesis Abstracts
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