Identifying and Explaining Intensification in Prehistoric Fishing Practices XII: Specific Hypotheses to Explain Variation in Net-Use

The previous post in this series presented some high-level theory that might account for variation in fishing intensification and, thus, net use. This theory will now be tailored for my study area to generate some specific expectations. As noted elsewhere, I will not be dwelling on the details of the site and study area except as necessary to explain how I arrived at particular predictions.

The archeological assemblages that I have been analyzing derive from a single shell midden site. The analyzed deposit ranges from 15 to 55 centimeters below the ground surface. The site was excavated in five-centimeter arbitrary levels. I have treated each arbitrary level as a distinct analytic unit, which seems reasonable as spatial analysis of radiocarbon dates and other chronologically-diagnostic artifacts show very little vertical mixing or movement of artifacts. Poor environmental conditions appear to have occurred during the time period in which three levels–located between 35 and 50 centimeters below the ground surface–were deposited.

The period is characterized by widespread drought. These conditions disrupted settlement at many other sites. My site is one of the few sites in the region to have been continuously occupied during the period. The site lies near the mouth of a creek, an important source of fresh water.

Marine productivity may also have declined during the period of poor environmental conditions. Paleoenvironmental data regarding ocean conditions are complex and not entirely consistent. Proxy data derived directly from archaeological sites within the region, however, shows that sea surface temperatures during the period of drought were unusually high. These conditions may have affected the distribution and abundance of fish.

A variety of social and economic responses to the challenges of the period of poor environmental conditions have been documented. Economic specialization in artifact production emerged at my site and across the region. Local manufacturers produced trade goods. In exchange for these goods, these specialists presumably received food and other items that could not be produced locally as easily. Fishers at my site may have responded by changing their fishing strategies. The number of fish caught by the site’s inhabitants seems to peak during the interval of poor environmental conditions before declining.

This observation is consistent with other faunal analyses of the site’s deposits, but it could be attributable to a number of different factors. The peak in density of fish remains could be due to an increase in population at the site during the period of poor environmental conditions. The site may have served as a refuge for groups from elsewhere in this period, since fresh water was more readily available at the site. The increase in the density of fish remains could reflect a more widespread emphasis on fishing by the site’s inhabitants as other foods normally taken by them became less abundant. It could be attributable to increased economic specialization. Fish may have subsidized on-site specialized artifact production. Workers at the site may have specialized in both artifact production and fish procurement, as the local inhabitants had comparative advantages in these activities and exchanged their wares and fish for other goods. The greater density of fish could also be due to some quirk of cultural transmission, as fishers made choices about the appropriate gear to use and effort to undertake based on the work being done by their neighbors. A more detailed examination of the data will allow these possibilities to be distinguished.

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

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