Thursday, November 15, 2007

Fighting the tyranny of the ethnographic record!

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
In a short paper, R. Lee Lyman (U Missouri) shows how archaeological data can help flesh out ethnographic observations. I make a big deal about this because archaeologists dealing with prehistoric hunter-gatherers have often been accused of being interpretively 'railroaded' (not to say tyrannized) by the ethnographic record of extant hunter-gatherers (Wobst 1978).

What Lyman does in this paper is actually pretty straightforward, methodologically speaking. Briefly, having shown that the size of lower first molars can be used to distinguish males from female mink, he looks at the sex ratio seen in Mustela vison remains from the Cathlapote and Meier sites, both of which are late-prehistoric(ca. 1400-1800 AD) sites located in the Wapato Valley (in Oregon and Washington). Citing Buskirk and Lindstedt (1989), Lyman argues that "linear trap sets produce a more even sex ratio[i.e., between 1:1 and 2:1, for males], whereas traps placed in a grid catch more large-bodied individuals, typically males" (2007:92). This pattern is the result of sex-specific behavioral patterns. In his archaeological sample, the male:female ratio is at least 3.67:1 and at most 8.33:1, depending on how stringent one is with their sex-id stats. This suggests, then, that late-prehistoric foragers probably disposed traps in a grid rather than linear pattern.

This is where it gets especially neat. Since Franz Boas long ago wondered "How far can archaeological methods supplement ethnological information?" (1902:4), Lyman concludes:
Locations of traps used to take small mammals have, so far as I am aware, not been reported in the ethnographic literature for the Pacific Northwest. The archaeological data for mink recovered from sites in the Wapato Valley suggest that indeed archaeological data may supplement ethnographic data, because mink demography suggests traps were distributed in a grid-like pattern. (Lyman 2007:94)

In other words, rather than place them, say, only along waterways, late-prehistoric hunters of the Wapato Valley most likely set their traps all over the region's marshy lowlands. Given that the sites in question can be linked to the "Northwest Coast Culture Area" and given that ethnographic information available for groups derived from this culture area indicates that they trapped small mammals without specifying how that was done, this study provides a good instance of archaeological data (albeit informed by mammalogy) informing ethnographic observation. This is elegant corroboration of what Guenther (2007:374) terms "an ongoing, mutually strengthening partnership between the two disciplines [archaeology and ethnology], in their study of foraging societies."


Buskirk, S. W., and S. L. Lindstedt. 1989. Sex ratio biases in trapped samples of mustelids. Journal of Mammalogy 70:88-97.

Guenther, M. 2007. Current issues and future directions in hunter-gatherer studies. Anthropos 102:371-388.

Lyman, R. L. 2007. Prehistoric mink (Mustela vison) trapping on the Northwest Coast. Journal of Field Archaeology 32:91-95.

Wobst, H. M. 1978. The archaeo-ethnology of hunter-gatherers or the tyranny of the ethnographic record in archaeology. American Antiquity 43:303-309.

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