SAS Bulletin
Volume 19 Number 1/2 January /June 1996

Book Reviews

Paleonutrition: The Diet and Health of Prehistoric Americans. K.D. Sobolik. Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Occasional Paper 22, 1994. 321 pp., 55 figures, 29 tables. $36.00 (cloth); $30 (paper).

Reviewed by Lucinda McWeeney, Peabody Museum, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520 USA

Paleonutrition, published in the Occasional Paper series, is produced from the Visiting Scholar Conference held annually at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. The 19 chapters present diverse approaches to the science of archaeology and the interpretation of paleonutrition, incorporating studies from North, Central, and South America. Each chapter in this well-edited volume presents clear figures and tables followed by its own set of references cited.

In order to present the interdisciplinary nature of archaeology and the potential and the limitations for interpreting paleonutrition, the volume is divided into five sections discussing: (1) indirect studies: paleoethnobotany and zooarchaeology; (2) coprolite studies; (3) bioarchaeology; (4) integrative studies; and (5) summary and conclusions.

The "Indirect Studies" section (meaning studies producing indirect nutritional information) discusses the weaknesses and strengths related to collecting and analyzing macro botanical and faunal samples. Included in this section are the methods developed during the last 30 years for recovering plant and animal remains. Now that the biological remnants are available, modern analytical techniques are applied to expand the interpretations of food remains found at archaeological sites. The development and intensification of agriculture provides a prime example of how the identification of food remains, along with carbon isotope analysis, can contribute to our knowledge of past cultural processes (chapter 1). The lower Illinois and central Mississippi river area discussed in Chapter 2 has benefited from extensive floral and faunal analyses. However, after two decades of collecting baseline data it is time to incorporate refined climatic variables and site selection processes into the shifting consumption patterns. For instance, a warmer, drier mid-Holocene Period may have necessitated abandonment of intermittent and shallow basin water sources. In exchange, the selection of more reliable rivers and lakes would lead to the larger nutritional contribution drawn from a wider selection of aquatic plants and animals.

Chapter 3 discusses the incorporation of small mammals into the diet of agriculturists. However, it is important to note that the use of intensive recovery techniques in the Southwest is documenting the extensive use of small animals as far back as the Paleoindian Period. Obviously, an increasing number of archaeologists are practicing more thorough excavation and screening techniques in order to supply more diverse dietary and nutritional data on prehistoric populations.

Chapter 4 demonstrates the use of floral and faunal ubiquity percentages to interpret subsistence and social stratification at Mayan sites. However, Crane and Carr stress that this approach requires a large data base to produce valid evidence of temporal and social change. As the authors suggest, the method requires the "integration of all available evidence" to reconstruct the prehistoric diet.

Gummerman (chapter 6) extends the use of dietary resources in determining cultural specialization, exchange, and status by comparing the Chimu and Wanka from Peru to the Aztecs in Mexico. He coaxes critical values from the subsistence data and combines the results with community organization and individual roles within the systems.

Sutton presents alternative sources for dietary information in chapter 7. He reports on the discovery of animal and plant protein on milling stones and other tools. Omitted from the discussion is a new technique available to archaeologists that has frequently been utilized by wild life specialists the retrieval of hair, which can be recovered during the flotation process. Hair can be identified and radiocarbon dated to establish the variety of animals that were available for consumption.

The section on "Coprolite Studies" provides a different approach to obtain direct nutritional data. In chapter 8, an experimental study to determine the method of food preparation used the scanning electron microscope (SEM) to record the external microstructure on corn kernels found in coprolites. Modern specimens prepared using a variety of methods were compared to the prehistoric kernels to suggest what nutrients would have been consumed.

With welcome relief, Cumming's chapter (9) provides the first measure of nutritional values, including vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes, contained in the biological specimens represented by the identified pollen and macro fossil dietary remains. She relates the archeologically obtained data found in the coprolites to symptoms of disease caused by nutritional deficiencies, and in the process validates the ability of archaeologists to correlate interdisciplinar y scientific studies to produce meaningful cultural nutrition data. Bryant (chapter 10) attributes the distinction to Eric O. Callen for introducing human coprolite analysis into archaeology.

The "Bioarchaeology" section includes numerous examples of how we can obtain nutritional information from archaeologically retrieved materials. Powell and Steele (chapter 12) describe how human dentition and wear gradients can provide indicators for the types of foods consumed. However, the number of caveats, small sample size and their temporal extension into the Holocene for their "Paleoindian" component detract from their results. An over-generalization of radical climatic fluctuations and changing environments during the late-Pleistocene when Paleoindians populated North America provided an incomplete "framework" for making comparisons between Paleoindian remains dating to the Early Holocene and Archaic populations. Their dental analysis methods may be appropriate, but their environmental foundations were inaccurately laid.

Bourque and Krueger provide an excellent synopsis (chapter 13, p. 206) on the valuable use of isotopic analyses on bone to assist in dietary reconstruction. Reed stretches the application of stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios to recognizing social status, sex, and age in Copan (chapter 14). Larsen and Harn (chapter 15) followed by Armelagos (chapter 16) address what can be learned about nutrition from hard tissue (bone) pathology. The "Integrative Studies" section demonstrates how an amalgam of resources can substantially contribute to our knowledge of prehistoric health and diet as well as social and cultural processes.

Paleonutrition: The Diet and Health of Prehistoric Americans is an exemplary volume of collected essays on how to determine and assess foodways and health for prehistoric populations. The first few chapters imply that it may be unrealistic to obtain food values from a biased recovery sample and then to equate that sample with an understanding of paleonutrition. However, by the end of the volume, the potential is clear; we can obtain nutritional information if we employ the multitude of described scientific techniques. This book will be of great value for paleoethnobiology courses and introductory method and theory courses covering floral and faunal analyses for archaeology.

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