Stratigraphic and spatial variability in shell middens: microfacies identification at the ethnohistoric site Tunel VII (Tierra del Fuego, Argentina)

  • Ximena S. VillagranEmail author
  • Andrea L. Balbo
  • Marco Madella
  • Assumpció Vila
  • Jordi Estevez
Original Paper


Based on ethnographic accounts from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, functional areas have been identified within Fueginian shell middens. In this context, archaeological microfacies acquire a functional meaning when the microscopic record is compared to information gathered from ethnology, macroscopic observations made during excavation, and experimental modern analogues. All these lines of evidence were combined for the first time at Tunel VII, an eighteenth/nineteenth century shell midden occupied repeatedly by Yamana people, the last hunter–gatherer–fisher groups of the Beagle Channel. The sampling strategy involved three sets of samples: (1) two stratigraphical columns taken from the hut “entrance” and from a portion of the shell midden (i.e., the surrounding refuse shell ring), (2) thin sections from five hearths representing successive phases of frequentation of the hut, and (3) experimental burnt valves of Mytilus edulis, the main malacological component of the site. Comparison of microfacies from groups (1) and (2) provided microscopic indicators to distinguish between shell dumping areas and occupation surfaces. Comparison of microfacies within columns from group (1) allowed recognizing periods of site abandonment and periods of more intense/longer site frequentation. The experimental samples from M. edulis served as a reference to characterize the five central hearths in terms of maximum burning temperatures reached. Different burning structures were correlated to the season of hut frequentation and to their location (and function) within different portions of the hut. The intra-site micromorphological comparison strategy within a well-documented ethnohistorical context provides valuable indicators for the identification of functional areas in archaeological contexts when ethnographical information is not available.


Geoarchaeology Micromorphology Microfacies Yamana Intra-site analyses Beagle Channel 



The authors would like to thank FAPESP (Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo, process no. 08/51264-0) for financially supporting Ximena Villagran’s doctoral research and to Bank Santander for allowing her 2010 research stay at the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, Milá y Fontanals Institution (IMF/CSIC). Special thanks go to Paulo Giannini (Universidad de Sao Paulo), Ivana Dragicevic (Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona), Rosa Maria Poch (Universidad de Lleida), Ester Verdún (Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona), and Myrian Alvarez (Centro Austral de Investigaciones Científicas).


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© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ximena S. Villagran
    • 1
    • 4
    Email author
  • Andrea L. Balbo
    • 2
  • Marco Madella
    • 3
  • Assumpció Vila
    • 2
  • Jordi Estevez
    • 4
  1. 1.Institute of GeosciencesUniversidade de São Paulo (IGc/USP)São PauloBrazil
  2. 2.Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, Institución Milá y FontanalsSpanish National Research Council (IMF/CSIC)BarcelonaSpain
  3. 3.ICREA, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, Institución Milá y FontanalsSpanish National Research Council (IMF/CSIC)BarcelonaSpain
  4. 4.Department of Prehistory, Facultad de Filosofía y LetrasUniversidad Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB)BellaterraSpain

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