Identifying and Explaining Intensification in Prehistoric Fishing Practices II: Determining What to Measure and Figuring Out What It Means.

In the previous post in this series, I suggested that we needed a way to take observations on archaeological data like fish bone and to determine what those observations implied about how hard people worked. The intellectual machinery used for this transformation is called middle-level theory by archaeologists. Well-justified middle-level theory is essential for archeological interpretation. It directs attention to the kinds of observations that archeologists need to make, and it makes those observations meaningful. For these reasons, I will dwell extensively on the development of some appropriate middle-level theory for the identification of intensified fishing.

Middle-level theory can come from a variety of places. Sometimes archaeologists can conduct experiments to understand what kind of material will be left as a result of particular activities. Historic or modern observations on people engaged in daily activities similar to those activities expected to have occurred in the past are often another useful source. Such observations will be important for the interpretation of fish bones. Middle-level theory can also come from established physical principles. I will also call upon a few physical principles to interpret the fish bones examined in this study.

An ideal source of middle-level theory would be data on the return, in calories, for finding, capturing, and processing different fish species. Fish bone in an archeological collection could then be sorted by their return rate and the effort expended to capture such fish could be quantified. Unfortunately, no comprehensive database of such return rates exists. Ethnographic and archeological data from my study area indicate that fishers took a wide variety of fish from a range of habitats using several different types of gear. The ethnographic data does not provide any basis for quantifying return rates. Experimental evidence on return rates would also be very difficult to acquire, given the large number of fish, habitats, and gear involved. Ethnographic evidence from elsewhere indicates, however, that gear type varies in terms of the amount of work required to manufacture that gear. Hook and line or spears are much easier to make than nets, for example. Sorting and quantifying the amount of fish represented in an archeological collection by the type of gear used to catch them would provide an indication of the effort expended to catch fish. This is the approach that I chose. In the next post, I will describe the methods that I used to determine the type of gear employed by fishers to take the fish in my archeological assemblages.

© Scott Pletka and Mathematical Tools, Archaeological Problems, 2009.

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