The microstratigraphic record of human activities and formation processes at the Mesolithic shell midden of Poças de São Bento (Sado Valley, Portugal)

Abstract

Shell midden formation is largely controlled by anthropogenic processes, resulting from human exploitation of aquatic resources. This makes shell middens archives of both human behaviour and palaeoenvironmental records. However, their often complex stratigraphy hampers the isolation of individual anthropogenic events. In the central/southern coast of Portugal, extensive inland estuaries were preferential settings for Mesolithic groups from c. 6200 cal BC. Here, we present a microstratigraphic approach to the shell midden of Poças de São Bento, one of the largest and best-known sites in the Sado Valley. The microfacies approach was based on sedimentary components, their abundance and arrangement, and post-depositional processes. Anthropogenic processes identified as tossing events and anthropogenically reworked deposits allowed inferences on spatial organisation, preferential refuse areas, occupational surfaces, and temporality of the occupations. The presence of calcareous pebbles in the anthropogenic, shell-rich sediments, together with foraminifera, presumably from the estuarine marshes, is compared with the regional geology, providing a hypothetical location of the shellfish gathering. The microstratigraphy described reveals a full internal dynamic in the formation of the apparently homogeneous shell midden layer. The human activities inferred at Poças de São Bento have many similarities with those reported for Cabeço da Amoreira in the nearby Tagus palaeo-estuary. This evidence points to the need for further micromorphological approaches in similar deposits. The study of shell midden formation processes, through integrative microcontextual approaches, plays a major role in understanding Mesolithic societies in the large early Holocene estuary environments of Atlantic Iberia.

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Acknowledgements

This research was possible thanks to a PhD scholarship Formación de Personal Investigador (BES-2012-053695) granted to CD by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. Fieldwork at Poças de São Bento and thin section production was conducted in the framework of “Sado-Meso” project, an international collaboration made possible by several projects over the last years: “COASTTRAN - Coastal transitions: A comparative approach to the processes of neolithization in Atlantic Europe” (HAR2011-29907-C03-00) (P.I.: PA) and “Co-Change – Coastal societies in a changing world: A diachronic and comparative approach to the Prehistory of SW Europe from the late Palaeolithic to the Neolithic” (HAR2014-51830-P) (P.I.: PA), both funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, and the project “Back to Sado: a case among the last hunter-gatherers and farmers’ societies emergence in the South of Portugal” (PTDC/HIS-ARQ/121592/2010) (P.I.: MD), funded by the Portuguese Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia. We would like to thank Luis Teira for the topographic and photogrammetric data production and edition for this work, and Monica Alonso for help in phytolith identification. A special thanks to Vera Aldeias for her comments on an earlier version of this paper; we are very grateful to her and Ximena Villagran for productive discussion on the thin section analysis and some of the ideas expressed in this paper. Finally, we are very grateful to the two reviewers for their comments that improve the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Carlos Duarte.

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Duarte, C., Iriarte, E., Diniz, M. et al. The microstratigraphic record of human activities and formation processes at the Mesolithic shell midden of Poças de São Bento (Sado Valley, Portugal). Archaeol Anthropol Sci 11, 483–509 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-017-0519-0

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Keywords

  • Mesolithic
  • Shell middens
  • Sado Valley
  • Micromorphology
  • Human activities
  • Formation processes