Books Reviews

Native Intoxicants of North America
By Sean Rafferty

An intoxicant is a mind-altering substance that is mainly derived from plants, and it is toxic. A nearly universal human trait is the use of intoxicants to experience altered states of consciousness (ASCs) for religious and recreational purposes, cognitive enhancement, strengthening group identity, reproductive success, and food. They have been widely used all over the world for thousands of years in virtually every culture.

While studies of intoxicant use in other parts of the world are fairly common, it has not been extensively studied in North America. This volume focuses on intoxicant use by Native Americans north of Mexico from the earliest Native settlement to the present. It is the first comprehensive study of ASCs use in the region. The author, Sean Rafferty, is an archaeologist at the University of Albany.

This survey begins with an interesting overview of the use of intoxicants in rituals, medicine, and recreation. The presence of intoxicants in the archaeological record is difficult to find—botanical remains do not preserve well, and few scholars have looked for them. This may be changing as improved trace element analysis is showing great promise in detecting chemical residues in vessels and other artifacts.

The core of this book focuses on four classes of intoxicants: hallucinogens, stimulants, alcohol, and tobacco. Every aspect of these chemicals is examined from their natural occurrence and properties through their use by different societies over time. Hallucinogens include red “mescal” beans (no relation to mescal liquor), peyote, datura or jimson weed, psilocybin, and amanita species. These are most often associated with religion and rituals, like shamanism. Rock art is thought by many archaeologists to be inspired by hallucinogens, and Rafferty incudes a chapter examining this topic. Interestingly, current evidence of alcohol use is limited to the more recent Southwest.

In a society obsessed by the use of intoxicants, this is a timely study of practices commonly occurring since humans first arrived in North America. Rafferty rightly argues that intoxicant use is a glaring omission in the study of prehistoric societies. New interest and better scientific techniques can close this gap. This is a fascinating study of a long neglected topic that will interest a large body of scholars and readers.

University of Tennessee Press, 2021; 294 pgs., illus., $60 cloth or ebook;

Climate Chaos: Lessons on Survival from Our Ancestors
By Brian Fagan and Nadia Durrani

As the world struggles to cope with human-caused climate change that threatens modern society, Climate Chaos surveys climate disruptions over the past 30,000 years and how they affected ancient cultures. Noted archaeologist Brian Fagan and his colleague Nadia Durrani examine the archaeological record to give us valuable insights on how climate change has shaped history and what this teaches us about the current crisis.
Fagan, an archaeologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Durrani, who edits Past Worlds magazine, are uniquely suited to explore this complicated and divisive topic. During the past fifteen years, Fagan has written a series of books about the impact of ancient climate change on human civilizations and how they were affected by the Little Ice Age, El Niños, and rising sea levels.

This story begins at the beginning of the late ice age, some 30,000 years ago, when much of the earth was covered by glaciers and so much of the earth’s water was isolated in ice and snow that sea levels dropped by more than 300 feet. Despite severe weather, humans, who had recently migrated out of tropical Africa, adapted to the cold and survived. By 15,000 years ago, the ice was retreating, and by 10,000 years ago the last ice age was at an end. Human populations exploded as modern civilizations developed in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Climate instability did not end, but instead moved into a more localized and limited time frame. The resulting wildfires, megadroughts, cataclysmic cyclones and floods, decades-long heat waves, and sudden regional ice ages catastrophically affected even the most advanced cultures of their time. The authors mine the archaeological record to bring us a number of case studies documenting the disastrous effects of climate on ancient Egypt, Rome, Angor Wat, and others. In the New World the Maya declined, and important centers like Chaco Canyon in the Southwest and Cahokia in the Mississippi Valley collapsed, in large part due to climatic events.

The thesis of Climate Chaos is that we can learn from past climatic events to better cope with the contemporary crisis. The authors leave us with six lessons about adapting to climate change gleaned from past experience. They challenge the world to use these lessons to deal with the current global condition. Climate Chaos is a very thoughtful and readable commentary on perhaps our greatest contemporary challenge.

Public Affairs, 2021; 352 pgs., illus., $27 cloth, $19 ebook;

The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere
By Paulette F.C. Steeves

This volume examines in depth the peopling of the Western Hemisphere from an Indigenous point of view. The author, Paulette F.C. Steeves, is Cree and Metis. She grew up in British Columbia and earned her Ph.D. from SUNY-Binghamton. In this thought-provoking treatise, she challenges conventional archaeological beliefs that Native Americans first arrived in the Americas no more than 15,000 years ago and totally rejects the Clovis-first theory. Instead she makes a case for a much earlier migration 60,000 years ago, and likely more than 100,000 years ago.

She offers a stinging critique of Euroamerican archaeology as being colonialist and racist, saying it ignores Indigenous narratives of movement and ways of knowing, and consequently is blind to evidence of earlier migrations. Instead she relies on Indigenous oral traditions, archaeological evidence, and different ways of doing archaeology. She has compiled an impressive database of Paleolithic sites to buttress her case.

This volume challenges conventional archaeological wisdom from a number of perspectives and is certain to stimulate much discussion not only about the peopling of the Americas, but also the ethnocentrism of modern archaeology.

University of Nebraska Press, 2021; 326 pgs., illus., $65 cloth;

Learn more about Dr. Steeves’ work in our recent Virtual Lecture here

The Calf Creek Horizon: A Mid-Holocene Hunter-Gatherer Adaption in the Central and Southern Plains of North America
Edited by Jon C. Lohse, Marjorie A. Duncan, and Don G. Wyckoff

Six thousand years ago, a distinctive culture emerged in the Southern Plains of North America covering Oklahoma, most of Texas and Kansas, and parts of Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Colorado, and Louisiana, in all some 500,000 square miles, one of the largest post-Paleo cultural regions in the Americas. It is most characterized by distinctive bi-faced spear points used to hunt buffalo. In the book, fifty scholars contribute twenty-two chapters on the various aspects of this important culture. The Calf Creek complex was only recognized in the 1960s, and knowledge of its extent and importance has spread rapidly among Plains archaeologists.

This volume brings together much of that knowledge. It is lavishly illustrated with 431 color and sixty-six black and white photographs. There are also thirty-seven maps and seventy-two tables. The editors have produced a very impressive publication that provides in depth information on an important part of our archaeological legacy. —Mark Michel

Texas A&M University Press, 2021; 900 pgs., illus., $95 cloth;