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Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Fishing Strategies

Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Fishing Strategies

edited by Mark G. Plew
ISBN: 0-9639749-1-2 (1996)
214 pp.
Cost $23.95

Purchase Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Fishing Strategies


In recent years archaeologists have begun to appreciate the greater variability of hunter-gatherer societies. Yet few have adequately explored the role and importance of fishing as an integral and dynamic part of such systems. In general, fishing has been treated as marine or riverine adaptation in which fish and fishing-related activities are analyzed in simple cost/benefit returns which evaluate the constraints of local or regional environmental conditions. Such analyses have been made possible by more detailed osteological analysis or attempts at quantification of fish remains as a means of assessing dietary contributions of fish in archaeological assemblages and in some instances their seasonal presence or use. Additionally, important considerations include the recognition of differential processing and preservation of fish remains in archaeological contexts and the role of taphonomic and site formation processes in the analysis of fish in archaeological contexts.

The description of fishing strategies in archaeological contexts seeks to address how and why fishing was carried out under certain conditions and in particular ways. It considers the interrelationship of fishing to the overall ranking of resources and evaluates the economic and social implications of using different types of fish in a particular way or during specific seasons. It also considers the extent to which fishing strategies serve as the basis for the development of specialized fishing communities and more complex hunter-gatherer fishing cultures. Description of fishing strategies also permits consideration of why fishing changed, remained stable for long periods or declined during short episodes.

Though many archaeologists have explained strategies as reflecting cultural adaptations to aquatic environments, some researchers have sought to explain the role of social factors in the emergence of fishing strategies. These explanations include physical risks to fishermen and the relative cost/risk/benefit of particular strategies to different members of a given group. Yet few researchers have attempted to articulate a broader context in which diversity in hunter-gatherer adaptations reflect multiple and competing fishing strategies and the extent to which varying strategies are seasonally, socially, or technologically based among foragers and collectors.

This volume contains contributions offering different regional perspectives on the diversity of fishing strategies. The strategies reflect organizational variability as well as organization reflecting ecological and social factors. Topically and theoretically, the papers broadly treat issues of microeconomic analysis, optimality, and middle-range theory. The papers in this volume offer a unique treatment of prehistoric fishing strategies current with themes in hunter-gatherer research by exploring the role of fishing in highly varied aboriginal societies. The temporal and geographic settings are equally varied and include western North America, Australia, Peru, and Egypt.

Northwestern North America has long been a focus of studies relating to the importance of anadromous fish. Cannon and O’Leary address issues of variability in the productivity and constancy of salmon fishing. O’Leary explores the relationship between the spatial and temporal distributions of salmon resources and the associated mobility strategies, group size and labor organization of the Southern Tutchone in Southwest Yukon. She demonstrates using data acquired for a specific salmon run over a period of five years that salmon utilization demanded an increase in group size, of logistical forays, and specialization in fishing/processing by task groups. She further demonstrates that portability and storage of dried salmon affected mobility decisions. In particular, the assumption that access to salmon assures its use and long-term storage is challenged, raising implications for the issue of “abundance”.

Cannon tackles the problem of fishing intensification in the Northwest. He argues that documenting the process of intensification requires recognizing scale and variability in productivity and its relationship to changing strategies of production. His thorough consideration of long, medium, and short term influences and consequences of salmon productivity provide for several possible scenarios of change and/or shifts in fishing strategies. From the archaeological evidence, a case is made for long-term consistency in production, challenging common perceptions of progressive intensification of the Northwest salmon fishery.

The issue of fishing intensification and specialization is also the focus of Sandweiss’s contribution in which he explores the development of fishing specialization on the Central Andean coast. While summarizing the development of specialized fishing communities over a period of 11,000 years he argues for the emergence of a separate identity for fishermen which developed in response to resource patterning. Geomorphic change is viewed as continuing to bring fishermen and farmers into closer proximity ca. 5000-6000 B.P. shortly before the appearance of the first complex societies of coastal Peru. Notably, there is inconclusive evidence of mobility among early fishermen, a critical element in assessing specialization. He also argues that the integration of fishing specialists in the polities of the latest pre-hispanic periods can be traced through the archaeological records of intervening periods.

Gould and Plew explore a similar problem on the Middle Snake River in Southwest, Idaho where ethnographic and archaeological models have presumed extensive reliance upon anadromous fish. They examine variability in tool assemblages in their assessment of fishing strategies. Specifically, they assess the degree to which specialized technological components were used to pursue specific prey. Their quantitative analysis indicates a relationship between tool frequencies and the prey types represented in seven archaeological contexts spanning the period A.D. 800-1800.

Notably, differential frequencies of the same functional elements are virtually the exclusive source of assemblage variability. The assemblages associated with the harvesting of fish and those containing tens of thousands of terrestrial animal remains vary only in the greater production of certain generalized tools. The production of tools was geared toward expedient manufacture of generalized items on an encounter-to-encounter basis as expected in situations of direct feeding, highly characteristic of foraging populations. Little evidence exists to support the logistically organized collector strategies depicted in the ethnographic literature. Salmon fishing appears to have become more optimal over time and a more specialized activity in very late prehistory.

On a somewhat more restricted level, Bowdler and McGann infer fishing techniques and seasonality from a study of otoliths from two sites in Shark’s Bay, Western Australia. The two sites provide archaeological evidence of the use of different species which are seasonally common. At one location they identify what they believe to represent the use of hauling or seine nets by large communal groups, harvesting to sustain significant numbers of people. This pattern required short-term intensive exploitation of ordinarily uneconomical hardyheads. In contrast, a second site represents a palimpsest of frequent visits by small groups over a wider portion of the year. The two sites are respectively characterized by varying degrees of density and areal circumscription. The large communal activities are represented by a dense and spatially restricted area while that at the Eagle Bluff site is sparser and more widely distributed. Though populations fluctuated seasonally, it appears that fishing was largely restricted to the winter months. A possible change in social organization between 6600 and 4600 B.P. may have lessened the need for seasonal aggregations of population. After 3000 B.P. following the demise of the Mangroves and a diminution in freshwater availability, the region appears less favorable for fishing activity.

Though some papers in this volume suggest variable importance of fish and fishing, Lindström demonstrates the great potential of fishing and the importance of highly varied strategies of procurement. Lindström evaluates cost-benefit data from a series of diet breadth models which suggest that Truckee River fish available throughout the Holocene were a cost-effective and nutritious resource, gathered in abundance with regularity and with acceptable procurement and processing costs. The results of her study indicate that fish represent a complex procurement system in which fish spanned the entire dietary spectrum and assumed variable ranks, depending upon circumstances of terrain, environment, biology, and capture method. Lindström’s notion of fish as a “multi-ranking” resource offers interesting insights to probable variations in fishing strategies.

The final chapter of this volume diverges to some extent from the direction of the other papers in exploring the important role of fish in ancient Egypt. In a comprehensive review, Brewer and Yokell discuss the role of fish as a primary resource from the Paleolithic through the Pharaonic period. The Paleolithic and Neolithic periods witness a shift from a few seasonally available taxa to year round exploitation of numerous species. Beginning in early Pharaonic times, which marks significant socio-economic changes in Egyptian society, fish served as a means of payment and reward as well as a revenue generating industry. At the same time, the habitat preferences and biological characteristics of fish became the basis for non-secular roles of fish particularly associated with the cyclical life-giving forces of the Nile. The important implications of the paper lie in its articulation of the non-secular role of fishes in Egyptian society. With an ever increasing awareness of complexity in hunter-gatherer societies it offers important insights into ways in which fishing strategies may be determined by a very wide range of social phenomena.

The papers in this volume address a variety of extremely important issues. Notable among these is the idea that spatial and temporal distributions of fish relate to mobility strategies, group size and labor organization. That the abundance of a fish resource does not assure storage in quantity is of importance and underscores the lack of archaeological evidence for fishing intensification in the Northwest. In turn, the lack of specialization in tool production in the southern Idaho Archaic has interesting implications regarding the role and nature of fishing in overall subsistence and for ways in which variations in mobility, group size and labor organization relate to variations in technology and spatial organization.

In general, the papers in this volume suggest considerable variability in fishing strategies reflecting the diversity increasingly seen among hunters and gatherers. Variable strategies reflect different and “multiple-rankings” in the use and reliance upon fish, the technology used to exploit fish resources, and the social and spatial dimensions of fishing activities. Though interesting conclusions are drawn by the authors, the questions raised by the papers provide an important basis for additional research and should serve as a means of beginning to explore and better relate the economic, social, technological, and perhaps the ideological basis of varied fishing strategies.

Table of Contents

  • CHAPTER 1. Introduction, By Mark G. Plew, Boise State University (1)
  • CHAPTER 2. The Structure of a Salmon Resource: The Southern Tutchone Fishery in the Southwest Yukon, Canada, Beth O’Leary, New Mexico State University (6)
  • CHAPTER 3. Scales of Variability in the Northwest Salmon Fishing, Aubrey Cannon, McMaster University (25)
  • CHAPTER 4. The Development of Fishing Specialization on the Andean Coast, Daniel H. Sandweiss, University of Maine-Orono (41)
  • CHAPTER 5. Prehistoric Salmon Fishing In the Northern Great Basin: Ecological Dynamics, Trade-Offs, and Foraging Strategies, Russell T. Gould, Southern Methodist University, Mark G. Plew, Boise State University (64)
  • CHAPTER 6. Prehistoric Fishing at Shark Bay, Western Australia, By Sandra Bowdler and Sally McGann, University of Western Australia (84)
  • CHAPTER 7. Great Basin Fisherfolk: Optimal Diet Breadth Modeling the Truckee River Aboriginal Subsistence Fishery, Susan Lindstrom, Truckee, California (114)
  • CHAPTER 8. The Role of Fish in Ancient Egypt, Douglas J. Brewer and Carol Yokell, University of Illinois (180)
  • CHAPTER 9. Foraging and Fishing, Robert L. Kelly, University of Louisville (208)
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