Arid Paradises or Dangerous Landscapes: A Review of Explanations for Paleolithic Assemblage Change in Arid Australia and Africa

  • Hiscock P
  • O'Connor S
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"An inspection of archaeological studies from the arid and semi-arid regions of Australia and sub-Saharan Africa reveals very different images of the human occupation of each continent. Since the human history of each landmass is obviously distinct, many aspects of these images of the human past may reflect divergent cultural processes being played out in dissimilar arid environments. Such arguments fail to explain why the archaeological record in each continent displays parallel patterns, and discount fundamental questions about our characterization and explication of archaeological changes in the two continents. For example, in both Africa and Australia ancient humans employed a particular technology that involved backing of flakes to produce distinctive and regularly shaped stone implements that we will call backed artifacts. (The term microlith has often been used for these forms but is applicable only to small size variants.) In both continents this technological behavior has been present for extended periods of time, but was emphasized in some periods but not in others. Rather than presume these parallel patterns must be unrelated or are uninteresting, this chapter examines the explanations that have been offered for the periodic emphasis on backed artifacts by archaeologists exploring the human history of these two continents. Our examination reveals that the formulation of seemingly similar themes of archaeological change has been radically different in each continent, and we employ that insight to both evaluate the viability of various kinds of explanations and to demonstrate that the inferred histories of humans in each landmass are founded on different images of human life in deserts." [p. 58] "Are the dissimilar pictures of African deserts of abundance and Australian deserts of danger reflections of genuine environmental differences?.... As Gould (1991:16) points out, differences in physiography and rainfall predictability in the two continents underlie divergent images of their deserts.... rainfall in the Western Desert [of Australia] is not only lower than that for the Kalahari, but also extremely unpredictable.... There may therefore be an empirical basis for the images of deserts generated on each continent, although the complexity of socially mediated economic strategies makes any simple equation of environmental characteristics and social or economic hazard difficult.... Comprehending in more detail the environmental and social contexts of technological change in each continent, and testing models of the prehistoric past against the archaeological rather than modern cultural evidence, will be one path forward in exploring not only the differences in ancient desert life between Australia and southern Africa but also the similarities. This quest should form one agenda of the research programs on each continent, and as we have demonstrated in this chapter archaeological model building will benefit by moving away from local scales of explanation to a broad intercontinental comparative approach." [p. 73]

Author-supplied keywords

  • Archaeological change
  • Assemblages
  • Backed artifacts
  • Paleolithic studies
  • Sub-saharan africa

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