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Journal Article

The Interplay of Ethnographic and Archaeological Knowledge in the Study of past Human Subsistence in the Tropics

David R. Harris
The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Vol. 12, Ethnobiology and the Science of Humankind (2006), pp. S63-S78
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3803979
Page Count: 16

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Topics: Plants, Tubers, Phytoliths, Food crops, Ethnography, Crops, Starches, Grains, Archaeology, Tropical rain forests
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Since scans are not currently available to screen readers, please contact JSTOR User Support for access. We'll provide a PDF copy for your screen reader.
The Interplay of Ethnographic and Archaeological Knowledge in the Study of past Human Subsistence in the Tropics
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Abstract

Much of what is currently known or believed about how humans procured and produced food in the past stems from ethnographic and historical evidence of the subsistence practices of foragers and farmers. It is often difficult or impossible to relate archaeological evidence directly to the ethnohistorical record, although these two very different sources of data potentially complement each other. The potential of such complementarity is now being enhanced by the use of novel techniques, such as parenchyma, phytolith, and starch-grain analysis, for identifying fragmentary and amorphous organic remains retrieved from archaeological deposits, and by the use of the AMS (accelerator mass spectrometric) radiocarbon method to date very small samples, such as single seeds. More conventional ethnoarchaeological methods, by which field evidence of subsistence-related structures is compared with information derived from ethnographic and historical accounts, also continue to yield valuable insights into past food procurement and production. In this essay, the reciprocal relationship between archaeobotanical and ethnohistorical data is exemplified by examining (a) recent applications of novel analytical techniques in investigations of the antiquity of root and tuber cultivation in the American, African, and Southeast Asian tropics, and (b) the use of more conventional methods in the study of past forager subsistence in tropical northeastern Australia. / Une grande partie de nos connaissances ou croyances actuelles sur la manière dont les humains se procuraient et produisaient leur nourriture dans le passé provient d'indices ethnographiques et historiques liés aux pratiques de subsistance des cueilleurs et des agriculteurs. Il est souvent difficile, voire impossible, de corréler directement les indices archéologiques aux observations ethnohistoriques, bien que ces deux source de données très différentes soient potentiellement complémentaires, ainsi que le met aujourd'hui en lumière l'usage de nouvelles techniques telles que l'analyse des parenchymes, des phytolithes et des grains d'amidon, qui permet d'identifier les résidus organiques fragmentaires et amorphes retrouvés dans les fouilles archéologiques, ou encore la spectrométrie de masse par accélérateur au radiocarbone qui rend possible la datation de très petits échantillons tels que des graines isolées. Les méthodes ethnoarchéologiques plus classiques, qui consistent à comparer les indices de structures liées à la subsistance retrouvés sur le terrain avec les informations tirées des sources ethnographiques et historiques, continuent cependant à apporter une contribution précieuse à l'étude de la production et de l'obtention de nourriture dans le passé. Nous donnons ici des exemples de l'interaction entre les données archéobotaniques et ethnohistoriques, en examinant (a) des applications récentes des nouvelles techniques d'analyse dans l'étude historique de la culture des racines et tubercules dans les régions tropicales d'Amérique, d'Afrique et d'Asie du Sud-Est, et (b) l'utilisation de méthode plus conventionnelles pour étudier la subsistance des anciens chasseurs nomades du nord-est tropical de l'Australie.

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