, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp 227-280

Complex Hunter–Gatherers in Evolution and History: A North American Perspective

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Abstract

A review of recent research on complex hunter–gatherers in North America suggests that age-old tensions between evolutionary and historical epistemologies continue to cultivate progress in anthropological understanding of sociocultural variation. Coupled with criticism of the evolutionary status of ethnographic foragers, archaeological documentation of variation among hunter–gatherer societies of the ancient past makes it difficult to generalize about causal relationships among environment, subsistence economy, and sociopolitical organization. Explanations for emergent complexity on the Pacific Coast that privilege environmental triggers for economic change have been challenged by new paleoenvironmental findings, while hypotheses suggesting that economic changes were preceded by, indeed caused by, transformations of existing structures of social inequality have gained empirical support. In its emergent data on mound construction apart from significant subsistence change, the southeastern United States gives pause to materialist explanations for complexity, turning the focus on symbolic and structural dimensions of practice that cannot be understood apart from particular histories of group interaction and tradition. Taken together, recent research on complex hunter–gatherers in North America has not only expanded the empirical record of sociocultural formations once deemed anomalous and/or derivative of European contact but also has contributed to the ongoing process of clarifying concepts of cultural complexity and how this process ultimately restructures anthropological theory.