Books Reviews

The Story of Food in the Human Past: How What We Ate Made Us Who We Are
By Robyn E. Cutright

This fascinating study surveys the role of food over the past four million years of human prehistory.  The author, Robyn Cutright, an anthropologist at Centre College, develops three major themes concerning the role of food.  First, humans are the product of evolutionary development molded by nutritional requirements and available foods.  We are omnivores and generalists and proved to be adaptable to a changing environment.  Second, humans are cultural eaters, and we must learn what and how to eat.  Cuisine is intensely social, leading to ritual and political meals in addition to everyday meals.  Meals are shaped by class, by conquest, and political strategies.

The third theme concerns how archaeologists have used food to understand the human past.  New technologies such as ancient DNA analysis, stable bone isotopes, phytoliths, and carbon dating are giving us unprecedented data on the human diet.  The long development of human food covers the use of fire to cook and the importance of the domestication of plants and animals to enhance the human diet and change how societies are organized. Case studies over the eons illustrate these developments.  She concludes, “We are what we ate.”

University of Alabama Press, 2021, 296 pgs., illus., $80 cloth, $35 paper, $35 ebook;

Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas
By Jennifer Raff

Forty years ago, most archaeologists were pretty sure they had discovered how the Americas were colonized.  Around 13,200 years ago, native Siberians crossed the then-dry Bering Sea to Alaska. (Sea level had dropped up to 400 feet during the Ice Age.)  While the passage to the south was blocked by an ice wall some two miles thick, an ice-free corridor opened allowing them to reach the Great Plains.  From there they quickly spread throughout both North and South America.  They are known as the Clovis people, after a town in New Mexico where many of their distinctive fluted points were discovered. No known sites predated the Clovis.

Too easy.   Beginning in the 1970s, armed with improved dating technology, archaeologists began to find sites that convincingly pre-dated Clovis—Meadowcroft in Pennsylvania, Cactus Hill in Virginia, Paisley Cave in Oregon, and Buttermilk Creek in Texas.  Most convincing was the site of Monte Verde in Chile that produced a good date of 14,600 years ago, predating the earliest Clovis site by 1,400 years. Since land passage from Alaska to the south was still blocked by glaciers, archaeologists theorized the First Americans must have traveled along the Pacific Rim by boat.  The initial debates were ferocious, but as evidence mounted the Clovis-first school gave way to an earlier migration story.

In this highly readable account, Jennifer Raff recounts the debate of the past thirty years on who were the First Americans and how and when they came to the New World.  Raff, of the University of Kansas, has dual Ph.Ds.  in anthropology and genetics and skillfully uses both to document the latest evidence of this migration.  DNA tediously gathered from ancient human remains as well as modern Native Americans unequivocally ties them to Asian ancestors and points to a more complex migration than previously documented. Collection of DNA evidence is complicated by the lack of very early human remains and by the resistance of modern Native Americans to this research based largely on earlier insensitivity to Native concerns by non-Native scientists.  Raff details her attempts to include Indigenous people in modern research and the dividends that it pays.

Origin is an outstanding history of the most recent research and controversies of the peopling of the Americas, the most contentious debate in American archaeology today.  Written for the lay person, it is enhanced by copious illustrations and by sidebars that explain historical threads as well as technical issues.  This is a field of study in archaeology, genetics, linguistics, and other disciplines that is rapidly evolving, and Raff is the first to admit that it is unlikely to be the last word.

Hatchette Book Group, 2022; 368 pgs., illus., $30 cloth, $15 ebook;

The Architecture of Hunting: The Built Environment of Hunter Gatherers
By Ashley Lemke

This groundbreaking study focuses on the architecture—including blinds, drive lanes, animal corrals, and fishing weirs—hunter gatherers used to increase their success beginning at the end of the last Ice Age, some 14,000 years ago.  Many of these structures are massive in nature, employing dozens of people to construct, maintain, and operate. That required a level of organization and sophistication often underestimated by archaeologists.

The author, Ashley Lemke, an archaeologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, has produced a comprehensive study of this important phenomenon.  This book has two parts.  The first surveys ancient hunting architecture around the world across a broad spectrum of cultures, time, geography, and environments.  Similar strategies are often used in far-flung places to hunt many species including bison, caribou, guanacos, antelope, and gazelles.  Rather than operating solely in small, mobile bands, many hunter gatherers came together in complex groups to produce this architecture and to harvest large quantities of game and fish.  Some of these structures are massive wooden fences or stone walls two or three miles long in the shape of a letter V that concentrated prey into a small area where dozens, or even hundreds, could be killed to feed a large group of people.

The second part of this book focuses on the author’s research in and around the ancient Great Lakes, particularly the Alpena-Amberley Ridge, which is now under eighty to 120 feet of water in Lake Huron.  After the glaciers retreated, from about 10,500 to 8,300 years ago, this ridge was dry land some nine miles wide and seventy-five miles long, covering about 617,000 acres.  A team from the University of Michigan has been surveying the Alpena-Amberley Ridge for the past decade using both remote underwater technology and scuba diving surveys.  Preservation of both wooden and stone hunting architecture in the lake environment is outstanding, and the team discovered numerous hunting structures aimed at harvesting large numbers of caribou.

These hunting constructions include blinds, V-shaped drives, corrals, and other features, many organized in very complex configurations that would require many people to operate.

These structures support the growing realization that hunter gatherer societies were much more complex than archaeologist have hitherto acknowledged.  When you add this information to the recognition of large hunter gatherer communities like Poverty Point in Louisiana, a new picture begins to emerge.

Texas A & M University Press, 2022; 270 pgs., illus., $65 cloth,

People in a Sea of Grass: Archaeology’s Changing Perspective on Indigenous Plains Communities
Edited by Matthew E. Hill, Jr. and Lauren W. Ritterbush

This volume surveys recent developments in the archaeology of the Central Plains covering cultural traditions of the Woodland-era Kansas City Hopewell, late prehistoric Plains traditions, and ancestral and early historic Wichita, Pawnee, Arikara, Kanza, Plains Apache, and Puebloan migrants. In this sometimes harsh and often productive environment, Native peoples thrived for some 14,000 years, creating complex societies which evolved over the past 2,000 years that are covered by this study.

Ten scholars contributed twelve essays covering a myriad of topics that benefit from new research. Several major themes emerge. To what extent were plains people influenced by groups to the east and the west of the Great Plains? What was the impact of trade with faraway groups? What was the role of agriculture on the plains and how did it develop? These topics and more give a new and better understanding of life on the Great Plains over the past 2,000 years.

— Mark Michel

University of Utah Press, 2022; 224 pgs., illus., $60 paper; $48 ebook;