Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherers

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Papers should be formatted in American Antiquity style (headings and references cited). Students should plan to cite the most relevant primary literature in their paper.

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This assignment asks you to imagine that you are a professional archaeologist who has excavated an important hunter-gatherer site. Your job now is to make sense of your excavated materials. The best archaeological research seeks to explore how the archaeological materials came to be positioned as found and to address wider questions about ancient human organization. Research questions can be developed about subsistence behavior, mobility strategies, technological decisions, and many aspects of social relationships. Once we have our questions in mind we can then develop ideas about what the answers might be. The latter are called hypotheses or statements describing or explaining the actions of past occupants. In order to test hypotheses we then need to develop ideas about how they might be reflected in the archaeological record. To accomplish this we rely upon frames of reference, which consist of a series of statements about patterns of behavior and their implications for patterning in the archaeological record. Thus, in normal archaeological practice we develop alternative hypotheses about ancient cultural behavior followed by test expectations: “if this hypothesis (i.e. cultural behavior) then this pattern is expected in the archaeological record.”

Your test expectations (frames of reference) should tell you what data are needed from your archaeological site for evaluation of alternative hypotheses. For example, you are studying mobility type (other choices could be subsistence strategies, social status relationships, ritual behavior, etc.). Your frames of reference will take the form of test expectations for archaeological signatures of residential base versus logistical camp or non-camp field location. This will point you towards specific data needed to confirm one or the other. As discussed in class, measures of mobility type might include presence or absence of residential features, diversity in prey items and lithic tools, and formation of midden deposits. Then you just need to collect and evaluate archaeological data. What are the characteristics of the site? Do they match any of your expectations for alternative interpretations? Are there patterns that call for other interpretations than those you were expecting?


Pick out an archaeological data set. Ideally, this will be an excavation report of
a hunter-gatherer site. There are many choices in the Mansfield Library.

Briefly describe the site in terms of context, dating, and basic cultural materials.

Develop alternative hypotheses and test expectations (your frames of reference)
regarding the specific set of cultural practices you think should be reflected in the site data.

Determine which alternative hypothesis gives you the best understanding of your
site. Depending upon your site and research focus, this may require that you examine various archaeological data sets: spatial arrangements of features and artifacts, variation in faunal remains, form/function of lithic artifacts, etc.

Write a 12-15 page (20-25 pages for grad. students) archaeological study in three parts. (1) Describe your archaeological data set. (2) Describe your hypotheses and test expectations (or frames of reference). (3) Review your archaeological data to evaluate alternatives for interpretation. How well do your site materials match predictions of your frames of reference? Draw general conclusions regarding your site and the utility of your frames of reference for archaeological use. Did they help you interpret your archaeological site? Explain.

Papers should be formatted in American Antiquity style (headings and references cited). Students should plan to cite the most relevant primary literature in their paper.

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