Friday, March 26, 2021

Rocks Are Heavy

The study Rocks are Heavy: Transport costs and paleoarchaic quarry behavior in the Great Basin was referenced with admiration in a podcast I listened to this morning for reasons very dear to an aspiring Village Idiot.  It is an example of not overlooking the obvious, which the authors felt had become altogether too common in their branch of archaeology. I have not read the study, only the abstract, and am relying on the summary by the archaeologist being interviewed.

The behavior of the people at the quarry was measurably different from the behavior of what seemed to be similar or related people away from the site. The authors suggested that it might be the same people, acting differently in different circumstances, or that even if it was separate clusters of people, the variation might be best explained by circumstances, not diverse cultures or technologies.

If it's a good quarry, people likely came from miles around to use it. They could have adopted strategies of getting in quickly, grabbing a lot of usable rock while the rest of the tribe watched your back, and getting out of Dodge ASAP, chipping off pieces to make arrowheads and spear points at some remote location in safer territory instead.  But rocks are heavy, and that would reduce the number of points you could make from each raid on the quarry, so you would have to go back more often.  This might limit your range for hunting or foraging, as you couldn't get too far from that necessary resources.

If people recognised that there was plenty of rock to go around, however, they might adopt another strategy: everyone learns to get along while they are at the quarry. This would result in more trade, which reliably results in more prosperity for everyone. More marriage arrangements rather than abductions, more looking over the shoulder of those other guys to see how they cook things or make blades. People in the same area often have deeply related languages, and those would get more similar - or if languages were not mutually intelligible, simple shared vocabulary would be developed. 

Seasonality might be similar, so that multiple bands had similar times that were convenient to come to the quarry. Festivals might emerge, and possible alliances against outsiders would be easier to establish. Building projects for religious or economic purpose could become larger, more permanent.  Think megaliths, defensible walls, or temples. Small walled areas can be economic - trading areas that neither side can get an army into, which would make conflict less impulsive.

In short, culture changes because rocks are heavy. It is best not to draw conclusions too quickly about hierarchy, marriage, or mobility among sites within range of the quarry their blades come from.  Whether they traded for the points or untreated rock, or did a smash and grab for some stone cores, or met yearly and left lots of rock flakes behind while everyone was talking and partying.

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