La gestión de los recursos minerales en las sociedades cazadoras-recolectoras, by Xavier Terradas
Treballs D’Etnoarqueologia, 4, CSIC, Madrid, 2001, ISBN: 84-00-06322-8

When critically applied to modern archaeology, anthropological studies can challenge the knowledge of past social structures, after the exhaustive and ordered organization of evidence collected in the field. To do this, social archaeologists must strive for an extended interpretation of the material remains and implement with theory the appreciation of forms, techniques, and other collected data Additional issues, about environmental and chronological contexts for example, have to be integrated in the investigation.

Such a methodology is the subject of study pursued by Xavier Terradas, whose research aims at the achievement of a theoretical-methodological model designed to reconstruct the social conduct, in prehistory, concerned with the production of lithic objects. Terradas works at the laboratory of archaeology of the “Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas” in Barcelona (Spain). His previous publications dealt with the traditional aspects of lithic production - likewise morphology and typology - and covered provenance studies as well as what was necessary for the exploitation of raw lithic materials. But, with respect to conventional studies, his focal point is shifted onto the socio-cultural information that goes beyond descriptive archaeology. This explains why the hunter-gatherer societies of the Yamana people, in the “Tierra del Fuego”, have frequently been addressed by Terradas as privileged subjects of investigation, for the insights they offer into life experiences. Yamana communities, which adapted to the exploitation of sea littoral resources, were observed and described in the XIX century by many travelers and ethnologists. As a result, a significant number of bibliographical sources is available, referring to their way of life and specific character.

Terradas focused on the hunter-gatherer ethno-archaeological contexts, in Argentina and Chile, with the intention of utilizing the historical data as elements in the validation of his socio-archaeological hypothesis. To accomplish this, a methodology suitable for any prehistoric society and geographical context had to be developed. As a result, the preliminary stages of the theoretical methodology are described in the present volume, collecting the materials of a PhD thesis discussed in 1996. The text tries to demonstrate that fruitful relationships are deducible by the integrated analysis of the remains of stone objects and the strategy in general adopted by hunter-gatherers to obtain stone materials and utensils.

In the “Introduction” (Chapter I), the author asserts that most of the so-called “ethnographic analogies”, used to assume social aspects of tool production inaccessible to direct investigation, they originate after the analysis of the finished products, without consideration that the same might be the outcome of different causes. In the best cases, ethnographic interpretations are used to complete the archaeological information, but in a complex manner that the author considers frequently ahistorical. Terradas explains that conventional studies of lithic resources in prehistory usually focus on the petrography and quantitative appreciation of the mineral resources, rarely entering the sphere of the social events concurrent to the exploitation of lithic resources. But, according to his rationale, for what concerns the production and reproduction of stone resources in prehistoric societies, the assessment of the technological improvements offers a clue also to understand how experiences were gradually accumulated and strategies implemented. As an example, the experience of the Tierra del Fuego has shown that technological changes are accepted more easily when they do not involve a reform in the social affairs of reproduction; when a reform eventually happens it involves social and economic rearrangement.

Unfortunately, the aspects relating to the modes of production and use of stone tools are not always considered worthy of evaluation and, in some cases, they are not even mentioned in the publications. In the specific literature, the accent is more frequently on the consequences of the processes (appearance) than on the explication of its causes (significance). This limitation is widely recognized, but not obviated, and it becomes complicated when only written sources are involved. However, modern approaches entrenched with analytical investigation can aim at clarifying the strategies of hunter-gatherers to supply raw matters and tools able to solve societal requirements.

Thus, the present volume attempts, preliminarily, to compare and contrast the trove of lithic records in archaeology with the scarce bibliographical references about the procurement of raw material and its transformation into consumer goods or utensils for further production. The idea is that any new result can contribute to reveal the series of sequential processes, which, starting from the obtainment of the rough pieces, led to the final transformed objects.

In the second part, “Revisión crítica de las distintas propuestas” (Chapter 2), Terradas tries to establish the place for his proposal within the current scholarship, through a critical revision of modern understandings of the topic. Among the most influent perspectives applied to study hunter-gatherer societies, is that of the French tradition within which an “archaeographic” construct is embedded within the empirical and cultural conventions typical of Structuralism. The author complains of a reduced appreciation of the theoretical approach, since the “archaeographic” view prefers a comprehensive description of the material remains integrated with a positivist context. The Anglo-Saxon school represents another standing outlook characterized by an explicative and inferential dimension, which after the insurgence of the “New Archaeology” generated a procedural-functional perspective (the “operative chain”).

The text, then surveys its own methodology; schematic diagrams and sketches help to clarify the conceptual frame, which develops around conventional steps, for example, of perception, recognition, decision and execution. The different segments of the productive process are characterized alternatively as production or use contexts. The modelling aims at the appraisal of the causal relationships of the lithic objects recovered in the archaeological contexts, as well as their historical distribution and singularity. In synthesis, according to Terradas, it is necessary to move the focus away from the lithic remains, as they cannot be considered the final subjects of knowledge. On the contrary they are the source of theoretical hypothesis on the social and economic dynamics in hunter-gatherers societies. Thanks to the specificity of the phenomenological manifestations of stone tools, a clear characterization of working development is accessible, beginning from the observation of the morphological modifications. Within the dynamics of lithic production, it is possible to spot the means by which social agencies were able to modify the working processes in space and time. The section closes with an analysis over techno-economical approximations, suggesting that the economic edges sovereign social features, outside the strict technical context.

The central passages of the book develop around the third section: “Construcción del modelo teórico, (Chapter 3). But, before starting the description of the theoretical model, the importance of the critical analysis is exalted citing K. Marx and F. Engels, from “The German Ideology”: “The real basis of any typology of society is its production route, the way in which men produce their subsistence goods. What men are coincides with their production: as much with the goods they produce as with the way they obtain it. That is why what individuals are depends on the practical conditions of their production” (p. 65, translated).

Subsequently, the text describes the categories, necessary to explain the internal links and the fundamental dynamics of the social processes. Terradas states: “ ‘social formation’ is an analytical category, which refers to all the elements exercising a strategic influence on social developments ... productive forces are the physical expression of productive processes, they need the co-presence of different necessary elements: people to exercise labour forces and production media, integrated with working instruments and natural resources” (pp.62-63, translated). Afterwards, the attention shifts onto the production of hunter-gatherer society.

The author repeatedly reminds us that his work does not begin after investigation of material or contextual evidence; instead, its development and its analytical procedure, although related to the investigation of stone artefacts, are mainly structured over more fundamental basic principles. For example: stone tool making can highlight the relationship among human groups and the environmental resources. The large scale productive chain can be outlined through the analysis of the labour forces, the objects, and the tools for working. The aim of the production can accurately be estimated along with the type of working processes and the analysis can be accompanied by the specific attention to the management of the mineral resources. The main factors regulating organization and administration in hunter-gatherer society are individuated in the social requirements, the availability of suitable stone/mineral resources, and the level of technological development necessary to solve qualitatively and quantitatively the demand for them. The determinant role, among them, is the request of lithic utensils, which is established, regulated, and determined in the context of the community. According to their capability to solve the common needs, it is possible to appreciate the social value of lithic production; capability itself depends on the level at which productive strategies adjust with requirements and satisfy them.

The text enters, subsequently, into consideration of prehistoric economics. If we consider that stone industry represents a satisfactory accomplishment of social needs in the hunter-gatherer society, it can be constructed as a process designed to minimize costs and maximize benefits, i.e. to increase the yield of the products. This tendency sets as its target the increase in efficiency of productive strategies and the establishment of the conditions optimal to realizing them. These considerations permit the explanation of the rationale of the global dynamics of the society under study and they are significant to reconstruct and characterize the practical strategies of lithic manufacture as well as the integration of the separate working processes. These perspectives cannot be separated from the other productive processes; once the possible coincidences and differences have been identified, the theory about the way mineral resources have been managed can be considered as a basic conceptual instrument in archaeology.

In the last pages, (Ch. IV: “Conclusiones”), a short summary closes the volume, before a valuable bibliographic list (Ch. V: “Bibliografía”). The reminder is that, as the book organizes and explains the rules concerning the collective management of stone tools in hunter-gatherer society, archaeological theory can positively challenge social relationships of communities in the Prehistory.

In sum, the volume appears as a preliminary exercise in describing the relationship between management and economy of mineral resources and prehistoric social typologies, The text suffers a little from the lack of a systematic structure to help the discussion along, but the critical revision of past proposals in the archaeology of hunter-gatherers is excellent. Nevertheless, it is successful in featuring the peculiar character and the social dynamics of the hunter-gatherer groups and, at a general level, it assists the assessment of the earliest community systems to supply and manage coarse rock materials. Thanks to its focus on social assumptions and the care in the reconstruction of the theoretical contexts of material-culture in Prehistory, the book is recommended to those concerned with education and study of social archaeology.

Enzo Ferrara,
Materials Department,
Istituto Elettrotecnico Nazionale Galileo Ferraris,
Torino (Italy)

Review Submitted: September 2003

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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