Desert Peoples: Archaeological Perspectives by Peter Veth, Michael Smith and Peter Hiscock

Eras Journal – Hardtke, F: Review of “Desert Peoples: Archaeological Perspectives “, Peter Veth, Michael Smith and Peter Hiscock

Peter Veth, Michael Smith and Peter Hiscock,
Desert Peoples: Archaeological Perspectives
Blackwell, Malden, MA., 2004
Isbn 1405100915

Desert Peoples: An Archaeological Perspective provides an overview and perspectives on the issues faced by hunter-gatherers in desert landscapes. It achieves this by setting the scene by reviewing the basic chronological, ethnographic and interpretive frameworks revealing the patterns of desert hunter-gatherer life. It then presents a series of chapters that focus on functionalist aspects and the dynamics of desert societies through patterns of economy and land use. To complement the functionalist aspects, the cultural, social and political factors are then examined to reveal how they shape desert societies. A key consideration in this book is the temporal and spatial variation across those places we refer to as “deserts”. In addition the chronology of desert occupation, the relative conditions of these deserts at the time of occupation and the coping strategies as evidenced through the material culture are reviewed in a variety of contexts – the majority being Australian with the remainder from Africa and the Americas.

The “Frameworks” section of the book provides a series of important chronological, interpretive and ethnographic frameworks revealing underlying patterns in desert life. The individual chapters deal with Australian and African desert societies. They serve to highlight the dynamics of continual adaptation in desert societies, how the interpretation of these dynamics can often be flawed, and what role ethnographic information has to play in these processes. Widlock (Chapter 2) contrasts the different anthropological approaches to desert hunter-gatherers, including the reflecting mode of research and the inflecting mode. This chapter is useful in bringing anthropological techniques to archaeology and forcing new perspectives.

The “Dynamics” section of the book provides an archaeological perspective on the long-term dynamics of desert societies over several millennia. Each of the chapters within this section looks at how groups have adapted to changing desert environments and how technological, foraging and social strategies were employed for survival and relative prosperity in the desert. To this end, Bird (Chapter 5) explores the evolutionary and ecological understandings of desert societies in the Great Basin, US, and Australia and shows that the economic lives of these desert hunter-gatherers are influenced by gender-linked foraging strategies. Veth (Chapter 6) examines the central role of the mobility and risk minimising strategies used by Australian Western Desert foragers, emphasising the role played by flexibility in mobility patterns as part of risk minimisation in Australian Western Desert foraging practices. McDonald (Chapter 7) looks at the role of art in examining changing mobility and territoriality as well as symbolising the adaptation of foragers to desert environments. Finally, Borrero (Chapter 8) examines how generalist hunter-gatherers turned to specialisation in the Patagonian cold desert environment in order to compensate for the lack of easily obtainable resources.

The “Interactions” section of the book is concerned with looking beyond the environmental factors shaping desert societies towards the social and political processes. Again this is explored with variations in the spatial and temporal settings. Thackeray (Chapter 9) explores the Late Stone Age of arid Southern Africa and how it sheds light on adaptive strategies to aridification and their relationship to ‘social stress’ and the choices people made as a result. Przywolnik (Chapter 10) demonstrates using the hunter-gatherers of coastal North Western Australia that the rate and direction of social evolution is often more complex than a simple progression towards increased sedentism. Sadr (Chapter 11) explores the interaction between the San and the Iron Age pastoralists and herders, postulating that one grouping became encapsulated in the other. M. Smith (Chapter 12), using Australian Western Desert language and archaeology, brings them together to demonstrate change in the region through population movement and a rapid colonisation of the Western Desert. Calogero et al. (Chapter 13) explores the evidence for interaction between different groups along the Atacama Desert coast. A. Smith (Chapter 14) explores pastoralists in the Sahara and how aridification could have led to a resurgence of religious beliefs. Finally, Paterson (Chapter 15) again examines interaction, this time between Australian desert indigenes and European pastoralists at the time of first contact.

This book is a very thought provoking and practical volume for world archaeology while providing a much needed focus and reference for those involved in desert archaeology in particular. The tension between notions of variability and notions of “universals” and their intrinsic relationship to “meaning” is a central problem in archaeology – with a current revival of the study of human universals. As such, this book is timely in its attempt to draw parallels between widely divergent regions of the globe (Australia, Africa and the Americas) sharing arid contexts as a common denominator. The patterns and structures that emerge out of the different case studies might be applied to other desert culture contexts, for example the consequences that arise when hunter-gatherer groups contact newcomer groups with more advanced technologies – as it was for the San and Indigenous Australians.

The introductions in each of the primary divisions of Frameworks, Dynamics and Interactions are useful in setting the scene for the case studies provided in the separate chapters and for drawing attention to the key driving themes in Desert Archaeology. The frequent references to anthropological approaches as well as to the hunter-gatherer communities that have been studied with both archaeological and ethnographic means forces new perspectives in a book targeted primarily at the archaeological community.

However, the book may have benefited from a more global and equally balanced coverage of desert communities (approximately half of the case studies refer to Australian contexts). I consider this lack of balance the only negative feature of an otherwise timely and important contribution to Desert Archaeology.

Fred Hardtke

Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University