Review of Structured Worlds: The Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherer Thought and Action by Aubrey Cannon (ed.)

09th May 2013

Structured Worlds coverStructured Worlds: The Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherer Thought and Action by Aubrey Cannon (ed.)Equinox Publishing, Sheffield England, 2011, ISBN 9781845530808, 212 pp.

Reviewed by Colin Pardoe

Visiting Fellow, The Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia

The volume aims to examine ‘integrated relationships among people, landscapes, places, animals and ancestors’ (p.4). The editor speaks of ‘the sense of identity, purpose, values and well-being that comes from knowing one’s place in relation to others and to a continuum of existence in space and time’ (p.5). I’m starting to get worried. There is an unvoiced stress on holism rather than reductionism. I’m thinking ‘what’s wrong with reductionism?’ On the first page we come perilously close to the investigation of what people were thinking—‘patterns of thought’. I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of these peoples’ lives; truth to say, I don’t actually care what they were thinking. But actions speak louder than words in the archaeological record and so we come to a book decoding the murmurs of hunters (hunter-gatherers, gatherer-hunters, forager-gatherer-hunters) of the northern latitudes.

Some parts of the various introductory sections illustrate the agony of academia, or perhaps the ecstasy of the social theorist. We have constructed oppositional frameworks as a means of learning and discourse—environment vs culture, technology vs arts, thought vs action—all well-known to the old Marxists, of course. Such methods have served us well in politics, law and science. So is this a volume redressing supposed excesses of environmental determinism and technological constraint, or should one give oppositional perspectives the flick as annoying affectations that detract from the main event?

The focus of most of the authors is particularistic: the histories of single groups of people. The universal humanism of processualism becomes a backdrop against which these histories are played out. And yet there are universalist themes lurking. Mobility is addressed, but in a rather apologetic manner, where people choose to move around, rather than being required to in the effort of making a living and a future for their group. So we learn the following …

In the introduction Cannon is of the view that out of evolutionary and ecological underpinnings we will produce ‘diverse, nuanced and insightful’ histories of hunter-gatherer groups. Pleasingly, he also guides us through his conception of the volume, its themes and structure.

Jordan describes how Siberians conceive of parts of their economy through religious understanding that links them to their ecology and each other. There would appear to be material evidence amenable to the study of people who are no longer with us, although the ethnoarchaeological enterprise engaged here by Jordan does not show that. These Siberians have an integrated cosmology of religion and economy. Straw men and women abound here, but the intent is to use economic activity (‘mobility patterns and resource exploitation’) as a jumping off point for the examination of ‘hunting ethics, expressions of northern ideology and evidence for sacred landscape geography’ (p.29).

The model set out by Fuglestvedt has the Norwegians becoming ‘enclosed’ or ‘encircled’ by landscape and society. So far, so good. Population perspectives are paramount and the individual will conform. As a colonising organism, they have a settling-in period (‘pioneer time’), after which they are confined by the two constraining structures of landscape and society. This is interpreted using those wonderful concepts of animism and totemism married to the powerful thinking-cap rubric of territoriality. Inclusion-Exclusion models of territoriality would seem appropriate here. The author avoids the ‘Australian Model’ of totemism, although is happy enough to embrace structuralist understanding (and post-structuralist pre-understanding).

On the northwest coast of North America, Cannon shows that the classic anomalous population of forager-gathererhunters apparently chose to maintain low population numbers and density—contra all of biology, as noted by the author. So it appears that living standards needed to be maintained, they lived in the best address and that their place was ordained by their ancestors/gods. Again, so far, so good. And then comes the fall, ca 500 BC. Now I didn’t raise the Garden of Eden metaphor but, since the author did, we might quibble over our world views. I find the world of then to be difficult, often uncomfortable, stability hard-won and success parlous. Every bumper crop is a time to thank the powers-that-be, eat well and party hard. Every drought is a time to be endured. It seems to me that one should examine residence, population and territory against environmental reconstructions before averring that perception and belief are essential. Such approaches are becoming increasingly common with greater use of long-term climate trends (in Australia, for example, see Williams et al. 2010 and Veth et al. 2011), analysis of radiocarbon dates based on probability distributions rather than point estimates (Williams 2012), and larger data sets resulting from decades of archaeological investigation.

Personally engrossing, the chapter by Oetelaar and Oetelaar on landscape and territory on the high plains of northern North America brought a sharp nostalgia. Added to this was a strangespatial confusion where I felt that I was reading a landscape interpretation eerily Australian, perhaps brought about by halfremembered recollections of my youth. In 1971 I was working on an excavation of a bison jump kill site, then later studying the skeletal biology of a group buried along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River (Adams 1976; Millar 1981). These memories were mashed up with various themes in the chapter that had informed my own path—distribution of people across the land, territoriality and, for me, gene flow. The intense nostalgia of reading about the landscape where I was learning my archaeology and biological anthropology was something to wallow in, but not to bore the reader with.

The detailed mapping of tribal territory from historical and archaeological information is used in this chapter to show how making a living requires some distillation of historical experience (the victors—those groups which continue down the ages—distil and re-tell history, perhaps in a shape that the cultural ecologist in me would now gloss as the Dreaming). It also requires a good map of the territory as a basis on which to make decisions that will determine the success of your group.

Mobility of the Marginal among Eskimos is another lesson in the importance of education for when the going gets really tough. Milne sets stone tool use within the low density landscape, but the emphasis is very much on the latter, with the former making only a short appearance near the end of the chapter. The compression of lithic data and analysis into one table left me hungry for further landscape-based description. The author interprets the distribution of lithic items and their density. The continuity of some particular places can only be determined by many extrinsic factors that must be learned and either relearned or passed along. The seasonal landscape is seen to be as important as the geographic one.

Give me a map of distributions in the archaeological or biological record and I’m happy. The chapter on Mesolithic Wiltshire in southern England by McFayden should have been a high point for me. Call me an anti-social archaeologist and you will understand my need to skip pp.118–122. If I were to put on a post-structural hat, then I would make two points:

i) Social connections of the archaeologists cited may be elucidated by first name usage—friendly, but clubbish. If we want to examine academic bloodlines, perhaps we should start our own Debrett’s.

ii) As in Australia, the data being examined are not flint scatters; they are flint concentrations. The author shouldn’t feel bad about this one. I have been putting our membership on notice about the embarrassingly sloppy terminology that pervades our discipline. Concentrations of lithic items, otherwise known as ‘artefact scatters’ or ‘open sites’, are not the result of scattering of objects, except in the very local sense of being scattered by the plough. These objects were brought together into a concentration at a location that we may now think of as a site. They are mainly the result of individual actions over millennia, providing information on the ubiquity of occupation. They have not been scattered in the wilful sense of the term.

In Janik’s chapter of ethnographic analogies based around the forager-gatherer-hunters of northern Europe, we have an analysis of nut eating and dog burial. This one I understand and I expected that it would have one of my favourite topics—the ranking of peoples and societies based on the differentiation between those who bury dogs and those who eat them. Although these two data sets are interpreted as examples of cultural choice, by the end of the chapter it appears to me that similarity and difference have become entangled with scale effects. Regional patterns break down when comparing sites within regions or individuals. So why critique large scale analogies?

Instead of cultural choice driving the archaeological record, here we have those same northern European forager-gatherer-hunters used in the battle against unilinearity. Once more, so far so good. If I read the author, H. Knutsson, correctly, we are both universal humanists. We seem to share interests in the twin themes of the distribution of people (here examined as the distinction between sedentism and mobility) and burial customs. And then we appear to become mired in problems with ethnographic analogy. In taking issue with the analogies and discussion of burial and territoriality, I kept coming back to a concept that for a long time has been rattling around in my head: mobility.

Who would have picked figurines and settlement structures in an essay on the Jomon of Japan by Matsumoto? This feels more like a restaurant review—there is a pleasant tang to the presentation of seemingly disparate sets of data. Each analysis on its own offers up a depth of interpretation with a disarming clarity of prose. So far this is my favourite description of a structured world.

Still with the Jomon, the final contribution by Kaner examines the lifespan of built structures. Based on an ecological background, this study of the building and abandonment of settlements rejects what appears to be a straw-man unilinealism that is nowhere to be encountered in evolutionary theory. The occupational histories of specific structures and their settlements—construction, use and abandonment—became enthralling (nerd alert: I also read medieval economic history for fun). I wanted to examine the distributional features of the two detailed tables and set these against long-term climate patterns, but I suspect the author has done this already.

If you were interested in hunter-gatherer archaeology in the northern latitudes, you would probably buy this book. The contributors are generally like-minded and, for the most part, illustrate their pieces with relevant data. Having sport with specialist lithic studies is shallow and immature, of course, but the position of stone tools as minor components of the total archaeological record is underscored by the variety of data examined throughout the volume. The ethnoarchaeological flavour will be well-known to Australian archaeologists, with the long history of such studies here.

As a population biologist, I apply a similar analytical approach to my archaeology; hence my interest in the relations between populations mediated through gene flow, the nature of territoriality as a natural concomitant of gene flow, and the nature and distribution of the archaeological record across the land. So no surprises that I am a purely processual dinosaur and universal humanist.

This is not to discount a phenomenological approach, which I might coarsely define as culture as lived experience. We need all kinds of investigations to get a more rounded view of the past. The fact that these are often dichotomised (naturwissenschaften vs geisteswissenschaften, culture historical vs processual, generalising vs particularising) should be of no account except to identify fellow travellers and the direction of research. The success of universal humanism, which highlights the consistent features of our species, is balanced by investigation of the unique nature of each culture—similarity and difference or diversity and unity.

Based on the title, I originally thought the volume would be right up my alley. On closer inspection I started selfishly to think that there might be little of direct use for my own investigations. Then, wandering by the theoretical window through which the contributors were observing the hunter-gatherer life and having a look over their collective shoulder, I thought, who knows, I might learn a thing or two. Having then read the book in some detail, I did, with the authors providing much food for thought. For my own selfish interest, the volume set me to think some more about some of my favourite topics: similarity and difference, territoriality, the distribution of people. It also set me to thinking that some of our analytical concepts, such as mobility, need attention. So I found this volume to be a welcome addition to the study of hunter-gatherers.


Adams, G.F. 1976 The Estuary Bison Pound Site in Southwest Saskatchewan. National Museum of Man Mercury Series, Archaeological Survey of Canada 68. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada.

Millar, J.F.V. 1981 Mortuary practices of the Oxbow Complex. Canadian Journal of Archaeology 5:103–107.

Veth, P., P. Hiscock and A.N. Williams 2011 Are tulas and ENSO linked In Australia? Australian Archaeology 72:7–14.

Williams, A.N. 2012 The use of summed radiocarbon probability distributions in archaeology: A review of methods. Journal of Archaeological Science 39:578– 589.

Williams, A.N., S. Ulm, I.D. Goodwin and M. Smith 2010 Hunter-gatherer response to late Holocene climatic variability in northern and central Australia. Journal of Quaternary Science 25:831–838.

Colin Pardoe
Review of Structured Worlds: The Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherer Thought and Action by Aubrey Cannon (ed.)
June 2013
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