African Archaeological Review

, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 339–382 | Cite as

Constructing Community Through Refuse Disposal

  • Diane Gifford-Gonzalez
Original Article


Unlike archaeologists working in Europe, Southwest Asia, and North America, Africanists have been slow to explore links between culturally structured, everyday practices, and refuse disposal, remaining inclined to view all “midden” accumulations as undifferentiated deposits. However, African ethnographic cases and archaeological researches elsewhere demonstrate that such accumulations can be highly selective and culturally structured compositions. This paper reviews examples that have shown cultural structure in the disposition of spent items. It then explores African ethnographic and archaeological cases, one from Niger and three from East Africa, in which handling of culinary artifacts and products may reveal links between household and community through habitual acts of refuse placement.


Niger Kenya Trash Midden Disposal Structured deposition Zooarchaeology Practice theory 


Contrairement aux archéologues travaillant en l‘Europe, l’Asie du Sud-ouest, et en l’Amérique du Nord, les africanistes ont été un peu lents à explorer les liens entre les pratiques quotidiennes structurées culturellement et la deposition des déchets ; ils restent disposés à considérer des accumulations des dépôts comme les depositionsindifférenciés. Neanmoins, plusieurs cas ethnographiques africaines et études archéologiques d’ailleurs démontrent que ces accumulations des dépôts peuvent être sélectives et structurées culturellement. Cet article résume des exemples qui ont montré la structuration culturelle de la disposition des objets usés. Ensuite, il présent des cas africaines, deux ethnoarchéologiques et deux archéologiques, qui proviennent de Niger et de l‘Afrique de l’Est, où le traitement des outils et des produits culinaires peuvent révéler des liens entre les foyers individuels et leurs communautés, dans ses actes habituels de l’emplacement de déchets.



My main debts of gratitude are to the Dassanetch people of the Ileret settlement and the Maasai people of Olorgesailie, who allowed me to pry into their lives for a while. Research in Kenya was conducted with the permission of the Office of the President of the Republic of Kenya and under the sponsorship of the National Museums of Kenya. My research time in Kenya where the data cited in this paper were collected was supported by a grant to my advisor, the late Glynn Ll. Isaac, from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant. I am forever grateful to Glynn Isaac and to Richard E. F. Leakey for their encouragement and material support while I was at Lake Turkana, and to the Olorgesailie Prehistoric Monument for providing accommodation while I was in the field in the Kajiado District. Andrew Kilonzo, Jack Kilonzo, Loriano Kesia, and Mzee Kaniugi Ikenywa all helped me conduct fieldwork and facilitated good local relations. I thank the late J. Desmond Clark and Andrew B. Smith for their help and encouragement in working with the fauna from Adrar Bous. Kelley Esh, Jorge Martínez Moreno, Kathryn Twiss, Laura Scheiber, and Elizabeth Agrilla assisted me with data collection used in this study. My review of the history of thinking about middens and trash owes much to an excellent literature review by Martin et al. (2000), published in connection to their own work at Çatalhöyük. I am grateful for their inspiration. I thank Cameron Gokee and Amanda Logan for inviting me to participate in the SAfA session from which this special issue emerged, and for their attentive and critical reading of drafts of this paper, as well as editing the French abstract. I thank the anonymous reviewers for their sharp eyes and very apt queries: these have made this a better paper. Finally, I wish to acknowledge the influence of the late Bill Rathje on my thinking about choice, action, refuse, and archaeology.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of California - Santa CruzSanta CruzUSA

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