California Archaeology

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Course Number: 
MWF 9-10

The purpose of this course is to provide an introduction to the Native peoples of California from an archaeological perspective. The course examines the development of diverse Native Californian societies over the last 13,000 years or more. The study of Native California offers an exceptional opportunity to examine cultural elaborations and societal diversity that are unique to this area of the world. California is at the epicenter of current research on the rise and diversification of complex hunter-gatherers. This course is designed to examine various issues about complex hunter-gatherers employing case studies from California’s rich archaeological record.

We begin with a brief overview on the history of archaeology in California that considers the field methods, chronologies, and research problems of archaeologists working in the state for more than a century. As part of this historical perspective, we discuss the foremost issues and challenges facing archaeologists working in the state today. We then consider seven major research issues that archaeologists are (or should be) addressing in California today:

1) Paleoenvironmental diversity and change. Archaeologists have devoted considerable time to the study of California’s paleoenvironment, and how environmental conditions have changed and fluctuated over time. A significant issue currently being debated by California archaeologists is the degree to which significant cultural transformations (depopulation, rise of chiefdoms, etc.) have been influenced by major changes in environmental conditions (El Nino events, droughts, etc.).

2) The peopling of California. Significant questions are now being addressed about the peopling of the Golden State: When was California first settled; how was it settled: what is the archaeological evidence for the earliest sites; and what were the life ways and settlement practices of these earliest peoples?

3) Origins of sociopolitical complexity. In addressing the issue of the rise of complex hunter-gatherer societies, we will focus on the south coast of California where archaeologists have examined temporal developments among the Chumash and Tongva people. This overview considers the hallmarks of hunter-gatherer complexity, temporal trends that led to Late Holocene developments, and various models that have been proposed to account for the rise of chiefdom societies characterized by powerful chiefs, craft specialists, and religious leaders.

4) Hunter-Gatherer landscape modifications. A significant issue in California archaeology is understanding how and why hunter-gatherers created extensive mounded landscapes. We will examine the archaeological characteristics of large mounded sites and various interpretations that have been proposed about the function and significance of these mounded places.

5) Resource management practices. Some scholars argue that Native Californians managed the natural landscape through various cultural practices (prescribed burns, pruning, seed sowing, etc.) in order to augment the diversity and quantity of economic plants and animals. However, there is some debate about the degree to which Native Californians employed management practices to transform local environments. We consider this debate and examine the current evidence for resource management practices by California hunter-gatherers.

6) Land of paradise? Criticisms have been recently raised about the long held idea that California was a primordial paradise for Native people. We consider these arguments and examine evidence for resource intensification that involved increasing harvesting pressures on big game resources and other large food packages.

7) Why No Agriculture? Finally, we examine why most Native Californians did not practice horticulture that involved the raising of plant domesticates, such as corn, beans, and squash. Outside the southern deserts, Native Californians remained “hunter-gatherers.” But there is some debate about whether we should consider the economic practices of these hunter-gatherers as some kind of “proto-agriculture.”

Course Requirements: Two midterms and a final exam will be required. No term papers. There are no GSI sections in this class. The two midterm exams will count for 50% of the grade. The final exam will count for the other 50% of the grade. No make-up exams will be given. The only exception is when a valid doctor’s excuse is presented to the instructor.

Required Readings: The required textbook for the course is: Kent Lightfoot and Otis Parrish, “California Indians and their Environment: An Introduction,” University of California Press, Berkeley, California (2009). Additional book chapters and articles are also assigned for specific lectures, as outlined below. These readings will be available from the Anthro 122F Bspace web site.