Investigating Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Identities: Case Studies from Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Europe, Edited by H. L. Cook, F. Coward, L. Grimshaw and S. Price
This edited volume emerged from two TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group) 2004 conference sessions (Hunter-Gatherers in Early Prehistory and Hunting for Meaning, and Interpretive Approaches to the Mesolithic). The volume seeks to address the issue of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic peoples, how they engage with each other and interact with their worlds, and how archaeologists can apply new perspectives and approaches to write people-centred social archaeologies for the pre-agricultural prehistoric periods. This is therefore a well-timed volume, given the recent interest in such approaches (eg, Gamble & Porr 2005; Conneller & Warren 2006), and the clearly ongoing nature of associated debates concerning both theoretical perspectives and their applications through the material record.
The volume can be effectively split into two halves (each with a brief introductory overview), with the papers by Grimshaw, Coward, and Riede addressing Palaeolithic issues, including the nature of the archaeological record for this period, through a series of theoretical discussions and case study applications. For the second half of the volume Cobb, Little, and Price turn to the Mesolithic, and in particular explore different methods and approaches for accessing the past experiences of Mesolithic individuals.
The Palaeolithic papers by Grimshaw, Coward, and Riede are all characterised by an opening discussion of relevant theoretical frameworks: Grimshaw evaluates social and biological models of population movements, Coward reviews notions of change, identity, and the four dimensional ecosystem, and Riede re-explores the post-processual criticism of ecological and evolutionary models of human behaviour. All of these discussions were interesting and rewarding, although I did feel that each of the three papers might have re-visited, in light of the case studies, their opening material more clearly in their concluding sections. Most encouragingly, each of the papers goes on to explore and test the theoretical frameworks against the material record of the Palaeolithic: regional-scale site data for MIS-11 and the early Upper Palaeolithic of Europe (Grimshaw), faunal data from the Middle Palaeolithic Spanish cave site of Amalda (Coward), and on-site (refitting) and offsite (location) data for the Late Upper Palaeolithic of southern Scandinavia (Riede). My personal favourite was Coward’s integration of GIS methodologies with faunal assemblage data and ethnographic/anthropological evidence of hunting practices, but all of the papers should be commended, not least for their honest and explicit acceptance of the limitations of the available data (particularly by Grimshaw). This is not to say that I found all of the three papers’ arguments totally convincing, but each of them showed a willingness to tackle difficult questions and themes through innovative methodological approaches and realistic uses of the available material evidence.
The Mesolithic papers by Cobb, Little, and Price were perhaps a slightly more disparate collection than the Palaeolithic offerings. Cobb highlights the potential for alternative approaches to the Mesolithic of western Scotland, drawing upon a variety of ethnographic accounts to consider issues such as person and place. I particularly enjoyed her critique of interpretations of middens as sterile, ‘smell-free’ features, although I felt that in parts the paper could have expressed more clearly the link between the key interpretive themes (eg, material culture and meaning, duality of land and sea) and those aspects of the material record against which they might be tested. Price picks up the challenge of linking theory and data through an interesting exploration of the perceptions and wider experiences of trees by the Mesolithic peoples of Scandinavia. In shifting away from solely economic and raw material factors Price highlights the symbolism (drawing upon a series of interesting ethnographic examples) and taxonomic definitions of trees, while not (sensibly in my view) ignoring their raw material properties and technological potential. In this latter regard it is encouraging here (as with many of the other papers, particularly in the first half of this volume) to see a clear link drawn between distinctive patterning in the archaeological record (eg, the repetitive production of canoes in lime) and the paper’s interpretive frameworks: such work is vital in supporting the pursuit of individuals, their lives and their experiences, in the archaeological past. In slight contrast to the other two papers Little provided an interesting and wide-ranging overview of Mesolithic landscapes in the northern Midlands of Ireland. Perhaps more explicitly than any of the other papers in this volume Little highlights the current biases in the data from the region, and it is encouraging to see her emphasise the importance of evaluating variable recovery and distribution of finds before turning to factors such as social topography. I was left a little uncertain as to how exactly those social themes might be pursued from the material record, although the discussion of ideological platforms, in particular, highlighted a potentially interesting avenue for research.
More generally it was perhaps unfortunate that a number of the speakers at the original conference sessions were not able (for a variety of reasons) to contribute a paper to the volume: while this is of course understandable it has resulted in rather a slim volume. It has perhaps also highlighted the issue of whether two, three paper sections were really appropriate in what was effectively a six paper volume. With specific regards to the two section overviews, I was not always certain whether these were intended as general discussion pieces (especially that by Coward and Grimshaw for the first section), or as a means of highlighting the unifying themes of the following papers: if the latter then I am not sure that this was always totally successful. It might perhaps have been better to simply acknowledge the diversity of ideas and approaches contained within the volume, and not impose an effectively chronological (Palaeolithic/Mesolithic) division.
With regard to the general presentation and look of the volume, there are a few small issues which (mildly) irritated this reviewer. Most important of these was the slightly unclear presentation of the volume: it was only half-way through that I realised that there were meant to be two sections (essentially split between Palaeolithic and Mesolithic). This should have been made much clearer in the table of contents and the first overview paper. Also of note was the quality of a number of the images, which should have been improved, and a series of typos and other presentational (especially white spacing) errors. One final, if perhaps minor, point: I did wonder if ‘Hunter-Gatherer Experiences’ rather than ‘Hunter-Gatherer Identities’ might not have contributed to a more descriptive title for the volume.
Overall however this is a very interesting volume, timely in its appearance, and a very encouraging statement as to the current state of hunter-gatherer archaeology as conducted through doctoral research in British and Irish Universities: it looks as though the future of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic research will be extremely interesting (and full of past individuals).
Dr Rob Hosfield
Review Submitted: December 2006
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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