The Structural and Functional Complexity of Hunter-Gatherer Technology

Abstract

The complexity of hunter-gatherer technology has been measured by counting artifact parts or production steps. There are a variety of alternative approaches to the measurement of artifact or system complexity. If technological complexity is assumed to reflect the complexity of the problem (or amount of entropy reduction) that the artifact is designed to address, the most appropriate measure of technological complexity is functional design complexity, which entails application of the entropy formula from information theory to the making and using of an artifact and the results obtained by its use. Functional complexity is related to structural or hierarchical complexity, because the entropy formula can be represented as a hierarchy (or step-by-step reduction of entropy) and the functional differentiation is related to the structural differentiation of an artifact. Another approach to hunter-gatherer technological complexity entails definition of a class of “complex artifacts” on the basis of general design characteristics (e.g., incorporation of moving parts). The most structurally and functionally complex artifacts are those that possess multiple states, either through changes in the physical relationship between parts (or sub-parts) during use or through structural differentiation. Although functional complexity is difficult to measure, structural or hierarchical complexity may be measured—and multiple-state artifacts may be counted—with adequate ethnographic and archaeological data on hunter-gatherer technology.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The algorithm for effective temperature (ET), which reflects the duration and intensity of the growing season, was developed by Bailey (1960, 4): ET = 8 T + 14 AR / AR + 8, where T is average annual temperature and AR is the average annual range of temperature.

  2. 2.

    Torrence (2001, 79) concluded that “the level of risk increase(s) toward the poles because the availability of food decreases with longer winters and there are fewer alternative resources because species diversity has an inverse relationship with latitude. Latitude is therefore a useful proxy measure for severity of risk.”

  3. 3.

    Read (2008, 606) measured complexity in hunter-gatherer technology by applying Oswalt’s (1973, 37) distinction between “simple” and “complex” (i.e., mechanical) to artifacts, rather than subsistant/technounit counts.

  4. 4.

    In counting technounits for clothing in two Inuit groups, Oswalt (1987, 89) notes that “garments often had numerous tus (technounits) unrelated to the protective needs because of the attention paid to design amplification, meaning tu elaborations beyond basic structural requirements.”

  5. 5.

    Lee (1979, 141) observes that “great care is lavished on sanding and polishing them to an ultrasmooth finish that is admired by other men.”

  6. 6.

    Time and energetic costs have been measured in some cases, however. Winterhalder (1981, 81–83) estimated net acquisition rate in kilocalorie per hour for various categories of prey (e.g., stalking moose versus snaring hares) among the Cree (eastern Canada), while Lee (1979, 274–275) estimated time (in minutes) invested in making various types of subsistants among the Ju/‘hoansi (southern Africa).

  7. 7.

    As already noted, Oswalt (1973, 33–34) did not count non-functional parts or multiple, functionally undifferentiated parts as separate technounits (and did not count non-functional parts, at least in the context of food-getting technology).

  8. 8.

    Chimpanzees exhibit a simple technological network of materials and artifacts; for example, a small branch or twig is used for both termite-fishing and ant-fishing (McGrew 2004, 111–114).

  9. 9.

    In his survey, Oswalt (1976, 135) noted that “simple untended snares never included more than six parts, exclusive of guide fences,” and Wadley (2010, 179) described the technology of snares and traps as “relatively simple.”

  10. 10.

    The use of fish weirs and traps may be tentatively inferred from the high 15N values—suggesting high consumption of freshwater aquatic foods—found in human bone from Europe and Siberia dating as early as 45,000–35,000 cal bp (Richards et al. 2001; Fu et al. 2014).

  11. 11.

    For example, Osgood (1940, 227) reported that at least 5 days were required to make an Deg Hit'an dog salmon trap (“three or more days to split enough fish trap sticks for the trap, another day to make the trap, and still another to make the fence which blocks the fish from passing”).

  12. 12.

    Contrast for example, the extensive illustration (and supporting detailed written description) of Deg Hit'an material culture in Osgood (1940) with the account of Upper Tanana material culture in McKennan (1959), who did not include a single illustration of a snare, trap, or weir-trap system.

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Acknowledgment

The authors are grateful to Ian Gilligan and several anonymous reviewers for their comments on two earlier drafts of this paper, which significantly improved the final version.

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Hoffecker, J.F., Hoffecker, I.T. The Structural and Functional Complexity of Hunter-Gatherer Technology. J Archaeol Method Theory 25, 202–225 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-017-9332-4

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Keywords

  • Technological complexity
  • Hunter-gatherers
  • Information theory