Book review. Recent studies in Australian palaeoecology and zooarchaeology: A volume in honour of the late Su Solomon edited by Jillian Garvey and Judith Field

19th December 2012

Edited by Jillian Garvey and Judith Field, Maney Publishing, Leeds, 2011, Environmental Archaeology Special Issue Volume 16 Number 2, ISSN 14614103; 17496314

Reviewed by Joe Dortch
Eureka Archaeological Research and Consulting Centre,
The University of Western Australia,
Crawley WA 6009, Australia

The papers in this volume, influenced to varying degrees by the work of the late Su Solomon, an innovative taphonomic thinker in Australian archaeology, reflect increasing diversity in the broad field of environmental archaeology. Papers range widely, across eastern and northern Australia and across the Pacific to Mexico. The common thread is palaeoecological or zooarchaeological research by Australian-based researchers.

Following the editors’ introduction to Solomon’s work and her most significant contributions to the discipline, the paper by Lopez et al. neatly combines archaeological, palaeopathological and isotope studies of Mayan human remains to show that Mayan social class in the Chiapas region correlated with better dental health and the proportion of protein in the diet. This is confirmation of a regional trend. However, differences between the study site, a small city with better access to protein from wild resources, and the larger centres like Copan, suggest a kind of edge effect, as in larger cities even more powerful elites actually may have had less access to protein.

No zooarchaeology volume would be complete without experiments. Zooarchaeology is a field where researchers have excellent opportunities to explore relationships between contemporary people, animals and ecosystems in order to better understand past interactions. The first paper presenting experimental zooarchaeology is by the editors and Aboriginal collaborators Cochrane and Boney, working near the well- known Cuddie Springs archaeological site in the north of semi- arid central New South Wales (NSW). Here, emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) are a regular feature of the landscape and prized for their meat. It is clear that the particular cultural value of emu meat means that there is a wealth of Aboriginal knowledge and terminology concerning butchery, processing and use. The lack of cutting or breakage of the bones of even a prized animal is an important reminder that we should not expect such evidence in archaeological contexts; moreover, the presence of dangerous spicules in emu femora means consuming marrow from these large bones is not an option, and helps answer Solomon’s question about why so few cracked emu long bones occur in archaeological sites.

The next paper by Fillios continues zooarchaeological experimentation with a comparison between scavenger behaviour in the same Cuddie Springs region and in temperate NSW on a similar latitude. This indicates that differences between the two are not as great as might have been thought, and that the accumulating agents are probably more important. Although the present sample is too small to be conclusive, this study is part of a continuing continent-wide comparison which will be valuable because there are so few taphonomic studies of Australian conditions.

In the third set of experiments presented, Westaway’s offerings of dead pigs to captive crocodiles provide data on the types of punctured and scored bones that may be recognised archaeologically, and so help distinguish human and crocodile contributions in bone accumulations in tropical and sub- tropical regions. These data have wide potential use throughout the regions of Sunda and Sahul that were first traversed by early and late humans. Again, this paper is part of continuing research that will broaden, in this case, to include feeding experiments by a variety of crocodilians to assess the impacts of different feeding behaviour.

Faulkner’s paper, featuring archaeological rather than experimental data, notes that in northern Australia throughout the late Holocene, regional and local environmental changes are broadly reflected in the chronological sequences of shell middens. The shellfish that Aboriginal people gathered were generally dominated by a single species according to what was locally available, suggesting shellfish procurement was a highly flexible practice.

The paper by Robins and Robins presents an innovative study of ants as agents of bioturbation, inspired by discovery of intrusive materials in a well-stratified and not obviously disturbed deposit in southeastern Queensland. Their observations of a sand-filled ant farm conducted over 26 months showed considerable vertical and horizontal movement of experimental modern artefacts. This work highlights the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration and well-designed experimentation. Archaeologists need to be aware of issues of scale: some of these disturbance effects may not matter for traditional studies of large, less mobile objects such as macrofossils and the larger flaked stone artefacts, but more technical analyses based on sand grains, microdebitage, microfauna, molecular remains, etc, will need to allow for such impacts.

Martin’s paper on Aboriginal earth mounds on the Murray Riverine Plain completes the volume. These mounds provide evidence of plant processing and consumption (through macrofossils and impressions in clay), of hearth firing and re-firing, and faunal remains and macroscopic charcoal. The excellent preservation of all these materials in these deposits, comparable to rockshelter and midden deposits, allows Martin to examine Aboriginal exploitation and management of wetland areas, and points to a highly rewarding study region, since there are all too few site types that offer both good preservation and wide regional distribution.

These eight papers are too few in number to adequately represent the current range and diversity in Australian zooarchaeology and palaeoecology, but they do showcase some of the exciting new research in this field, and provide a useful guide to the wider literature. Besides several new approaches to the traditional areas of diet and economy, this volume also shows that zooarchaeology and palaeoecology have great potential to contribute answers to major research questions for the region, from the first human occupation of the continent, to the nature of the deposits we study and the human influence on the Australian landscape.

Joe Dortch
Book review. Recent studies in Australian palaeoecology and zooarchaeology: A volume in honour of the late Su Solomon edited by Jillian Garvey and Judith Field
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