Review of ‘Desert Peoples: Archaeological Perspectives’ edited by Peter Veth, Mike Smith and Peter Hiscock

01st June 2006

Basgall book review cover AA62Desert Peoples: Archaeological Perspectives edited by Peter Veth, Mike Smith and Peter Hiscock. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2005, x+308 pp., ISBN 1-4051-0091-5 (pbk).

Mark Basgall

Archaeological Research Center, California State University, Sacramento CA 95819-6106, USA

Desert Peoples assembles a diverse set of papers intended to provide a global, comparative perspective on problems in the archaeology of deserts. Although the focus of most contributions is archaeological, ethnographic and historical elements can’t help but play a central role in many of the important debates examined in the volume. Likewise, despite the best efforts of the editors, some parts of the world are clearly better represented than others; the arid lands of central Asia and the Near East are not covered at all and there is only a single paper on North America. Serving in some sense as an informal mate to the more uneven (and considerably more costly) book, The Archaeology of Drylands, which dealt with agricultural societies, this volume is concerned mainly with the forager peoples that have occupied arid environments around the world.

The volume opens with a wide-ranging essay by Smith, Veth, Hiscock and Wallis that outlines the intent and structure of the collection. Deserts are recognised as unpredictable ecological systems with a complex mode and tempo that imposed all manner of economic and social constraints on human populations. Differing widely in respect to relative aridity, and in the temporal and spatial distribution of plant, animal and material resources, the nuances of particular arid environments shaped the subsistence practices, settlement patterns, technologies and social relationships of both resident and transient occupants. Long-term climatic changes also have fundamental implications, having altered the marginality quotient of specific areas at crucial times in the past; on-the-ground conditions have clear consequences for efforts to model colonisation events or shifts in the stability and intensity of land-use patterns. The fundamental message of the introductory essay is that our preconceptions of what deserts are and how people would have coped with such environments have too often been normative and monolithic.

Subsequent papers are organised into three groups. Part I ‘Frameworks’ asks just how variable human strategies were for dealing with arid environments. Widlok looks at how changing perceptions of hunter-gatherer societies, and their place in history, have influenced the development of anthropological theory. Providing a useful analysis of the so-called ‘Kalahari debate’ and its deeper implications, he then examines the value of reflexive and inflective approaches in understanding the nature of forager societies. Archaeologists, especially, will continue to rely at some level on ethnographic analogues, but we need to understand all that brings with it. The next two papers take a macro-level comparative perspective, using culture-historical data from different parts of the world to look for common processes. Hiscock and Wallis examine the environmentalcontext of desert colonisation in Australia and Africa, working the notion that the initial penetration of such environments occurred during periods of more favorable conditions; corollary to this is the idea that many archetypal features of desert adaptations reflect adjustments to increasing aridity rather than pre-existing strategies. Data from Africa are certainly less resolved than those for interior Australia, but there do appear to be parallels in the two records. Hiscock and O’Connor are in search of explanations for pulses in backed artefact use in the same two areas, critiquing current models that attribute the proliferation of such artefacts to emergent cognitive abilities or stylistic expressions that accompanied periods of enhanced social interaction. They clearly prefer an economic argument of the sort Hiscock has championed in Australia, relating the peak in backed artefact production to demands of tool stone conservation related to provisioning costs and risk minimisation. While I surely favour the last model, as an American monitoring the vast increase in citizens who adhere to biblical views of creation, I’m not altogether convinced that human populations never show cyclical changes in evident cognitive capacity.

The four papers in Part II ‘Dynamics’ are concerned with long-term, diachronic patterns among desert societies and how these relate to changes in environmental and social conditions. Bird and Bliege Bird examine data from Australia and the Great Basin of North America in terms of variability in sex- based foraging strategies. Largely a primer on several optimal foraging models, this reviewer is not entirely convinced that the theoretical perspective offered in the paper really sheds that much light on the issue at hand. Is demonstrating that some body of ethnographic/archaeological data looks consistent with one or another evolutionary construct really a true ‘test’ of the hypothesis if alternative economic and social explanations are not explicitly examined? There are surely commonalities in the organisation of subsistence activities among a range of desert peoples, but the same labour allocations and foraging choices are duplicated among most simple societies. Veth next explores the relationship between periods of aridity, levels of mobility, and patterns of risk minimisation among late Pleistocene foragers in the Western Desert. He proposes an index of subsistence stress based on the relative extent of animal bone processing that, while simple, seems effective and correlates well with environmental conditions. Still more compelling is his effort to measure levels of residential mobility using a range of archaeological signatures (e.g. intensity of stone reduction, proportions of local and exotic tool stone etc). One might certainly quibble with just how diagnostic any one of these measures is on its own, but that’s not the point; taken together, as convergent evidence, the larger body of data makes a strong case that mobility was high during these initial periods of desert colonisation.

McDonald’s paper is among the more innovative and intriguing contributions to the volume, looking at variation in arid zone rock art and how spatio-temporal distributions of stylistic elements can be used to augment and enhance our understanding of prehistoric occupation patterns. We know that aspects of social interaction/integration waxed and waned over time within particular areas, but these relationships are difficult to measure from the vantage of basic settlement geography and standard utilitarian assemblages. Borrero contributes one of two papers dealing with foragers in the South American deserts. Focusing on Patagonia, he summarises data that suggest drier environments were colonised after more mesic habitats west of the Andes, arid regions evidently offering reduced foraging potential, greater water constraints, and requiring populations to surmount the high mountains. The occupation lag was, however, comparatively short, in the order of two or three millennia.

Part III of the volume, ‘Interactions’, provides a more varied set of papers that aim to examine factors beyond the environment that shaped desert societies, with an emphasis on the effects of social configurations and group interactions. Thackary summarises information on the Late Stone Age (LSA) archaeology of southern Africa, providing a systematic review of the environment and culture history of this interval. Perceived disjunctions in the timing of major technological and environmental shifts prompt her to look toward social and historical factors. Przywolnik contributes one of the more effective regional treatments in the book, examining long- term changes in the occupation history of coastal northwest Australia in the context of foraging patterns and patterns of social interaction. Again, employing rock art as an important adjunct, she argues that more extended, intensive occupations during the early Holocene were followed by a hiatus in regular coastal use as mangrove habitats disappeared in the mid-Holocene, to be eventually replaced by a pattern of more short-term, specialised coastal use in the late Holocene era. Reflecting a dynamic response to social and environmental factors, this reconstruction provides a significant contrast to models that promulgate a directional trend toward sedentism, social elaboration, and increased cultural complexity in later Australian prehistory.

In another paper that takes on cultural developments in the Kalahari, Sadr reviews important data bearing on the interaction of foraging and non-foraging populations in the recent archaeological record. Inter-group interactions were clearly complex, in some cases showing relatively rapid assimilation of hunter-gatherer groups when Early Iron Age farmers arrived in the area, with more indirect and less dramatic effects in out of the way places. It seems clear that at least some LSA foragers were practicing a mixed herding/gardening economy in the Kalahari even before alternative economic systems seriously penetrated the region. M. Smith’s effort to integrate linguistic and archaeological information bearing on the spread of Western Desert languages is among the most ambitious and stimulating in the volume. Attempts to articulate these two disciplines to resolve common culture-historical concerns have proven difficult in virtually all areas it has been attempted and arid Australia is no exception, where it is hard to derive a common frame of reference, chronological milestones, and a set of signatures against which both dimensions might be calibrated. Recognising the danger in simply juxtaposing archaeological and linguistic sequences, Smith recommends a search for more inclusive semantic and lexical changes rather than terms for specific artefact types. One might also suggest the need to proffer some substantive advantage that language spreads might accrue, whether these are due to diffusion or active migration and population replacement.

The final three papers are the most idiosyncratic. The contribution by Santoro, Arriaza, Standen and Marquet on the coastal Atacama Desert suggests there was a lag in the occupation of this area relative to the more productive Andean uplands. An extremely impoverished area biotically, resources were confined to the immediate littoral zone and a relatively few, scattered oases associated with coastal drainages. Populations in the region show increasing sophistication in the use of maritime resources, with a regional mortuary tradition in place by c.8000–7000 BP. A. Smith explores the spread of pastoral societies in arid North Africa, where there appear to be continuities with predecessor foraging peoples. Technological parallels and common settlement geography suggest that herders likely emerged from earlier sheep hunters. Finally, Paterson explores the ways in which Aboriginal groups in Australia interacted with arid land pastoralists during the early historic period. Once the domain of written sources and oral accounts, recent attention to the archaeological record portrays a more varied and dynamic set of relationships and interdependencies.

This is an important volume. By bringing together archaeological studies from around the world, and from a host of time periods, it provides an easily accessible set of materials that demonstrate just how variable arid regions are/ were and how forager populations in these areas confronted similar yet different environmental/social constraints. The range of the collection is perhaps best exemplified in the comparative reach and theoretical breadth of the studies. By my way of thinking, too many recent treatments of hunter-gatherer societies adhere to narrow evolutionary perspectives that work best when applied to relatively mundane aspects of resource provisioning, patch choice, and the like. This draws attention away from some of the broader patterns and processes of prehistory – elements that may in the end have roots in fitness and reproductive success, but which haven’t yet been effectively reducible to such measures.

One thing that emerges from the volume is marked differences in the intellectual traditions and quality of data available for disparate parts of the world. As a group, the Australian papers are probably the most successful, due in part to the amount of recent work on this subject there but also to the focused and theoretically informed nature of the research. Many of the more compelling studies in the volume take a grand comparative perspective, whether at the regional, inter-regional, or cross-continental level, and this still seems an incredibly useful way to uncover broader adaptive processes. Basic pattern recognition remains a crucial first-order step in archaeological inquiry. To be sure, specialists from one area may have less familiarity with the details of others. This comes through in some papers in Desert Peoples, where cited literature is out of date, but it hardly negates the broader contrasts being attempted. It can be hoped that researchers from one part of the world will be prodded by some of the approaches advocated in another region to examine their own records from a similar vantage. In this era of regional and topical specialisation, which often leads to parochialism, the editors of this book can take great satisfaction in having provided a venue for looking at the big picture.

Mike Basgall
Review of ‘Desert Peoples: Archaeological Perspectives’ edited by Peter Veth, Mike Smith and Peter Hiscock
June 2006
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