"Social Implications of Large-Scale Demographic Change During the Early Archaic Period in the Southeast"
I've loaded a pdf version of my 2016 SEAC presentation "Social Implications of Large-Scale Demographic Change During the Early Archaic Period in the Southeast" onto my Academia.edu page (you can also access a copy here). Other than a few minor alterations to complete the citations and adjust the slides to get rid of the animations, it's what I presented at the meetings last Friday. I tend to use slides as prompts for speaking, so some of the information that I tried to convey isn't directly represented on the slides. There's enough there that you can get a pretty good idea, I hope, of what I was going for.
I tend to be an introvert, which is one reason why it recharges me to spend time in my garage with just my scrap metal pile, the radio, and the rats. For me, conferences are a strange mix of intellectually stimulating and physiologically draining. I had to tap out of SEAC early Saturday afternoon: two and a half days of listening, thinking, talking, and interacting had worn me out.
Conference fatigue is one sign that you're doing it right. Another is leaving with more excitement and ideas than you walked in with. I can't speak for anyone else's experience, of course, but I saw some really interesting papers and talked to a lot of interesting people. A lot of the questions I'm interested in require information from a lot of different areas across large time spans, so I'm still in the process of working my way up the proficiency slope of Southeastern archaeology and learning as much as I can as quickly as I can. I apologize if I met you and you felt interrogated.
One of the major things I took home from this conference was that there has been an important broadening of enthusiasm for subjects that used to be considered bizarre, baseless, unscientific, and even too political for archaeology. I got the impression that talking about ritual, symbolism, and belief systems (hot topics for decades among those who focus on the materially-rich Middle Woodland and Mississippian "florescences" of the Eastern Woodlands) is now also quite common among those who work on the Paleoindian and Archaic periods. I saw numerous papers asking new questions about material remains, and they were fascinating.
The session that really brought the point home was a symposim titled "A Ritual Gathering: Celeberating the Work of Cheryl Claassen" (Session 3 in the program). Claassen, a professor at Appalachian State, has been pushing the boundaries of the archaeological conversation in the Eastern Woodlands for decades (you can see some of her work on her Academia.edu page). The papers in this session (many by her students) evoked responses in me ranging from "what a profoundly interesting thought" to "are you sure about that?" to "get off my case." It was great.
(As an aside, I wish that some of my friends on the "fringe" could have seen these papers. Perhaps if you witnessed a professional archaeologist discussing how the skeletal remains of immature bird wings in a feature were connected to the astronomical scheduling of seasonal ritual aggregation events, you'd have a better appreciation both for the kinds of questions that actual archaeology can address and the level of work it takes to convincingly address those questions. The claim that archaeologists are afraid to say anything new or different is preposterous.)
I want to state clearly that, in my opinion, the expansion of thought that was on display in the Claassen session is a positive thing with a lot of potential upside. As an advocate of a complex systems approach to understanding human cultures in the past, it makes perfect sense to me that ritual and belief are involved in both "bottom up" and "top down" aspects of human societies. I see no logical or analytical reason to assume that ritual and belief are epiphenomenal or unimportant compared to other domains of social, economic, and political life. It all matters, and it's all fair game for trying to flesh out the past as best we can and trying to explain, using all the tools at our disposal, how those societies worked and why and how they changed.
For me, however, my positive regard for the role of belief and ritual in human societies (and for the appropriateness of including it in our discussions) doesn't alleviate concerns about how we study it in the past tense. I know that I'm not alone here. I think several legitimate worries underlie uncertainties about both the approaches and the conclusions reached by those focused on belief and ritual.
One concern that's out there -- perhaps the major one -- is a feeling that the "ritual" people are jumping outside the established lines of scientific process in a way that undermines confidence in their conclusions. Talking with a few of my colleagues about this, I got the sense that people are not closed to the questions so much as they are skeptical of the methods (or the perceived lack of methods) used to address those questions.
I conceive of science as an inductive-deductive loop. On the inductive side, you create an explanation to fit a bunch of data. On the deductive side, you collect new information to test an expectation derived from your explanation. Ideally, the two sides of the loop are exploited together to create (eventually) a credible explanation that fits all the available information and makes further predictions about the world that are falsifiable but not falsified. As long as you get yourself into this loop, you're doing science. It doesn't really matter what the starting point is or where an idea comes from as long as you're willing to follow through and ride the inductive-deductive roller coaster around the track for as long as it takes.
Are there ways to skeptically evaluate ideas about Archaic ritual and belief systems and make sure we're utilizing the full power of the inductive-deductive loop? I'm sure that there are. What I'm less sure of, at this point anyway, is the presence of an appetite for the deductive side of the loop that matches the robust enthusiasm for climbing up the inductive side. No matter how interesting or appealing an interpretation is, you still have to put on the skeptic glasses and try to find the seams you can follow to figure out whether you're right or wrong.
The inductive-deductive loop is critical in archaeology because of all of our equifinality problems: there's usually more than one way something could have happened, so how do you know what the real cause was? You have to do the work to assemble independent lines of evidence, build theory, collect data, construct and test hypotheses, etc. You can't skip all that and just hug an assertion. Well, you can, but I won't buy what you're selling.
That leads me to a second concern: the burden of proof. Who's is it? Does it have to reside in one domain of inquiry, or is it the responsibility of the person making the claim no matter what the claim actually is? At one point in the session I heard the phrase "can you prove it's not a ritual assemblage?" I take the point of the question (which was used mainly, I think, to argue that we should always consider ritual as a possibility), but I'm uncomfortable with the notion that we should accept/assume that something is related to ritual unless we can prove it's not. I think we all realize that people's lives are often not partitioned neatly into "ritual" and "non-ritual" components, but that doesn't mean all activities should be presumed to be ritualistic in nature unless we can prove they're not. That seems to me to be out of bounds of the way good science is done. There has to be a positive case made for a claim, whether it's about ritual or not.
And that brings me to my third concern: the appeal to human "universals" to gird claims about past ritual behavior. Several times, in several different papers, I heard the assertion that all humans share a basic set of experiences in the material world and therefore all belief systems share a similar set of components tied to that material world: fire transforms, the sky is above and the earth is below, water goes down and smoke goes up, etc. This seems logical and may well be true (I haven't yet read through the arguments to evaluate them on my own). My concern is not that such universals don't exist, but that playing the "universal" card as the basis for analysis rather than an empirical problem may do two counter-productive things: (1) short circuit the inductive-deductive cycle by introducing a powerful, unvetted assumption; and (2) actually bland out the kind of contextual variability that could potentially be very interesting and analytically useful.
This last point is somewhat ironic. Many of the issues that the pursuit of ritual and belief articulates with have a particularly "post-processual" flavor. One of the main critiques leveled at the processual archaeology of the late twentieth century was that it didn't account for the meanings of objects in their contexts. Symbols and objects do not mean the same things in different cultures: context matters. It seems to me that by falling back to "universals" as explanation we're actually ignoring context altogether -- if something is present everywhere, what meaning does it actually have?
One of my professors at Southern Illinois University was fond of repeating the phrase "playing ethnosemantic tennis with the net down" (if my memory serves me right, he used the phrase in connection with criticisms of Claude Levi-Strauss). If we lay down a foundation of presumed "universals" and then build an analysis based on those, I worry that we're lowering the net significantly if not taking it down altogether. Opening things up is great for generating discussion and new approaches, but at some point the net has to go back up so we can have some mechanism for discriminating between credible and non-credible explanations.
I'm excited by what I saw and heard at SEAC. We've still got a long way to go to address many basic space-time issues for some of the questions that I and many others are interested in. That doesn't mean, of course, that we can't think about other additional things while that's going on. I bought Claassen's (2015) book Beliefs and Rituals in Archaic Eastern North America at SEAC. I look forward to seeing what's inside and comparing it to my own views and knowledge about the eastern Archaic. Nothing that I've said in this post should be construed as pointing at the content of the book, which I have not read yet. I anticipate the book will be a stimulating read. Should be fun!
Archaeological conferences serve several purposes. For me, there are three main attractions, all selfish: (1) meeting people; (2) learning about things I didn't know that I didn't know about; and (3) clarifying and catalyzing my own research. Conferences are fun, but they're also a bit mercenary -- I want something from them.
This year's Southeastern Archaeological Conference (SEAC) is in Athens, Georgia, which I hear is very nice. I put together a small symposium titled "Hunter-Gatherer Societies of the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene Southeast" (session 35 in the program). I originally wrote about the idea last April. We ended up with papers by seven presenters: Al Goodyear, Doug Sain, David Thulman and Maile Neel, Kara Bridgman Sweeney, Joe Wilkinson, Sarah Gilleland, and me. Here is the symposium abstract:
"Societies are groups of people defined by persistent social interaction. While the characteristics of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene hunter-gatherer societies of the Southeast certainly varied, archaeological data generally suggest that these societies were often geographically extensive and structurally complex. Patterns of artifact variability and transport, for example, demonstrate that small-scale elements (e.g., individuals, families, and foraging groups) were situated within much larger social fabrics. This session aims to explore the size, structure, and characteristics of early Southeastern hunter-gatherer societies, asking how patterns of face-to-face interactions at human scales “map up” to and are affected by larger social spheres."
I decided to use my contribution to think about the issue of a possible abandonment of the deep south during the later portion of the Early Archaic period. Here is the abstract for my presentation, titled "Social Implications of Large-Scale Demographic Change during the Early Archaic Period in the Southeast:"
"Previous studies of radiocarbon and projectile point distribution data have suggested the possibility of a significant shift in the distribution and/or behaviors of human populations during the later portion of the Early Archaic period (i.e., post-9000 RCYBP). This paper considers the evidence for an “abandonment” of large portions of the Southeast following the Kirk Corner Notched Horizon and explores (1) possible explanations for large-scale changes in the distribution of population in the Early Holocene and (2) how those demographic changes, if they occurred, might have articulated with social changes at the level of the family, foraging group, and larger societies."
I first became interested in the Early Archaic abandonment issue while reading Ken Sassaman's (2010) book Eastern Archaic, Historicized. Working on this presentation was fun because it forced me to try to think through some of the issues about how we would recognize a large-scale abandonment, what the abandonment process actually would have been like, and what the social ramifications might have been for the people and societies involved in that process. I'll tweak the presentation before I give it, but it's pretty close to done.
The first question is to ask is whether or not there was a large-scale abandonment of parts of the Southeast. On the surface (at least), I think the case is fairly compelling. Following the example of Faught and Waggoner's (2012) paper about Florida, I started compiling radiocarbon data from across the Eastern Woodlands to evaluate the idea. At 9,500 dates and counting, the radiocarbon database that I'm working on clearly supports the idea that there are far fewer than expected dates from 9000-7000 radiocarbon years before present (RCYBP) in the deep south:
A chi square easily defeats the null hypothesis: there just aren't as many radiocarbon dates from 9000-7000 RCYBP below the southern corner of South Carolina as you'd expect by chance. The pattern holds when you consider the number of dates during that period in the entire Atlantic Plain vs. the other major physiographic regions of the eastern United States (the Appalachian Highlands and the Interior Plains).
The idea of a large-scale abandonment is also consistent with the distribution of post-Kirk lobed/bifurcate projectile points, which (unlike Kirk), does not extend into Louisiana, Florida, and southern Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
If we presume that a post-Kirk abandonment/marginalization of the Atlantic Plain did occur, we can move on to the "why" and "how" questions. Regarding the "why" question: the limited environmental data I've looked at (e.g., the 1980 pollen core from White Pond, South Carolina) suggest that the period 9000-7000 RCYBP was one of significant change. Oak and hickory decreased and pine increased. In simplest terms, this shift may have been related to a decrease in mast production, perhaps affecting the density of white-tailed deer (probably the primary game species for early Holocene hunter-gatherers in the Eastern Woodlands).
But how would an abandonment actually take place? I can think of several ways that populations could shift out of an area. My gut is that an abandonment of the Atlantic Plain during the late Early Archaic would have most probably involved a contraction of populations into the Appalachian Highlands and Interior Plains. One of my favorite of Lew Binford's papers is his (1983) discussion of how hunter-gatherers often make extensive use of the landscape. Keeping his examples in mind, it's easy to imagine how "abandonment" could actually be the end result of a long-term process involving segments of the population getting "pulled in" to better quality environments in the course of normal decisions about movement.
Assuming population size stayed constant, this shift would have necessarily involved changes in mobility. If (based on Midwestern data) we assume that Kirk "bands" had a group mobility radius of about 200 km, there would have been room for about 18 such "bands" in the Eastern Woodlands. If you took that same population and crammed them into an area 33% smaller (i.e., the Eastern Woodlands minus the Atlantic Plain), the scale of group mobility would have to be reduced by 17% (mobility radius of 165 km) to keep everything else the same.
That level of population contraction would have almost certainly had ramifications up and down the levels of those post-Kirk societies. Residential moves would have decreased in frequency and/or distance, there may have been shifts in logistical vs. foraging strategies, and the lowered "cost" of maintaining extra-local inter-personal relationships may have de-emphasized gift exchange and inter-group marriage as mechanism for creating and maintaining distant social ties.
It's possible to develop a suite of hypotheses and archaeological expectations to evaluate the idea of a large scale abandonment.
Make no mistake: these are long-term propositions. My entire dissertation, for example, was focused on using a combination of modeling and archaeological data to try to understand how changes in patterns of variability in material culture were related to changes in the characteristics and properties of social networks. It's not trivia, and it's not easy.
For me, this presentation was a machine for thinking. I can't "prove" anything, but going through the process of committing to an idea and preparing a presentation has forced me to attempt to think through some complex, interesting issues. I'm hoping I'll get some good feedback on my ideas ("interesting" and/or "you're full of it"), which obviously involve an extensive geographic area that I make no claim to have mastered.
I also hope to take full advantage of my hotel and at least quadruple my supply of ink pens. Every little bit helps.
The annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) is in Orlando, Florida, this week, running from Wednesday through Sunday. I'm not giving a paper this time around (though I did just sign up to do a 3 minute lighting talk in the Digital Data Interest Group), but I'm looking forward to driving down and hearing about what others have been up to lately.
I'm also going to be asking around (and maybe, although I've never been very good at it, attempting to twist a few arms) to try to lock in some participants for a symposium I'm working on for the 2016 Southeastern Archaeology Conference (SEAC) meeting that will be held in Athens, Georgia, in October. Here is the draft of an abstract I wrote this morning:
Hunter-Gatherer Societies of the Early Holocene Southeast
Societies are groups of people defined by persistent social interaction. While the characteristics of the early Holocene (> 5000 RCYBP) hunter-gatherer societies of the American Southeast undoubtedly varied across time and space, archaeological data generally suggest that they were often geographically extensive. Patterns of artifact variability and transport, for example, demonstrate that small-scale elements (e.g., individuals, families, and foraging groups) of these Early and Middle Archaic societies were situated within much larger social fabrics. The goal of this session is to explore the size, structure, and characteristics of these early Holocene hunter-gatherer societies, asking how patterns of face-to-face interactions at human scales “map up” to and are affected by larger social spheres. Theoretical and methodological diversity are welcome, as is an interest in integrating various scales of archaeological data analysis.
I'm hoping this will appeal to a range of scholars, especially those who like to work on multiple scales and address difficult questions. Ideally, we can get a group of papers together that will be suitable for an edited volume. The first job, however, is seeing what kind of interest there is and who I can get commitments from. Everything will have to be decided and submitted by the end of August. If you read this and you're interested, please let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I've got several ideas for what I'll contribute to the session. Something related to Kirk is an obvious one, but I've also been spending more time thinking about the Early/Middle Archaic transition after reading Ken Sassaman's book. I'm wondering if we can: (1) use multiple lines of evidence to identify an abandonment of the Southeast during the late Early Archaic; (2) generate some explanations for that abandonment; (3) understand how social structure would have affected (and been affected by) whatever the causes of an abandonment were and whatever processes were in operation. And I'm also in the last stages of writing a new agent-based model that I'm going to use to try to attack the equifinality problem that hampers our ability to differentiate among group mobility, personal mobility, and exchange as mechanisms for the very-long-distance transport of stone artifacts.
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