Integrated Contextual Approaches to Understanding Past Activities Using Plant and Animal Remains from Kala Uyuni, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

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Book Chapter

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Publication Title

Integrating Zooarchaeology and Paleoethnobotany: A Consideration of Issues, Methods, and Cases


For pragmatic reasons, separate specialists usually analyze plant and animal remains recovered from archaeological sites. Animal bones and charred plant remains are the products of very different organisms and tissues, fragment differently, and are identified using very different characters (see Peres, this volume; Wright, this volume). Even so, a primary concern of the Taraco Archaeological Project (TAP) has been to integrate these archaeobiological datasets to better understand aspects of ancient lifeways in the Lake Titicaca Basin of the Andes.
The collaboration between TAP zooarchaeologists and paleoethnobotanists has contributed to a greater understanding of the Titicaca Basin economy based on farming, pastoralism and fishing (Bruno and Moore 2008; Capriles Flores et al. 2007), as well as food practices (Miller et al. 2008). However, prior to exploring these broader cultural patterns we had to consider the depositional processes that produced the patterns we encountered in both datasets.
In the first stage of our research, Moore and Hastorf (2000) conducted a pilot study of flotation samples, in which plant and animal remains were compared, looking for coincidences and correlations in their attributes. Here, we establish a more detailed framework for recording burning, weathering, and disturbance of archaeobiological remains. In the contexts we examine from highland Bolivia, the only plant remains that preserve are carbonized. A detailed visual assessment of the remains themselves allows us to suggest a variety of contextual conditions associated with burning events. Similarly, bone fragments reflect their taphonomic history, including the intensity and timing of heat treatment. All bone fragments in midden are assumed to have experienced cooking. Much bone, even after cooking, has no visible signs of heat treatment, so it can serve as a record of activities where heat treatment was less intense, and where plant remians may be missing because of decomposition or no contact with fire.
With these two sets of observations, we approach each sample as a record of site activities including heat treatment, weathering, and post-depositional disturbance. For this phase of research, we used experimental and ethnoarchaeological observations to more tightly connect our archaeological remains with a possible prehistoric behaviors. These observations were made over a period from 1999 to 2006, including interviews with local residents, observations and excavations of abandoned and weathered structures and features, and experimental cooking and firing using traditional materials and features.
This approach offers specific evidence for the range of activities at archaeological sites and highlights the different pathways by which plant and animals remains are deposited. We argue that broader cultural interpretations of plant and animal remains should not be undertaken until the conditions of burning and differential preservation can be established for a particular site.


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