A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
On September 19, 1997, the New York Times announced the discovery of a group of earthen mounds in northeastern Louisiana. The site, known as Watson Brake, includes 11 mounds 26 feet high linked by low ridges into an oval 916 feet long. What is remarkable about this massive complex is that it was built around 3400 B.C., more than 3,000 years before the development of farming communities in eastern North America, by hunter-gatherers, at least partly mobile, who visited the site each spring and summer to fish, hunt, and collect freshwater mussels.
The Times was amazed. Watson Brake, it wrote, "challenges traditional ideas about early American cultures and suggests that pre-agricultural, pre-ceramics hunting societies were more socially complex than previously thought." Most people think of hunter-gatherers as small bands of people roaming the landscape in search of food, incapable of such ambitious projects, but over the past two decades archaeologists have learned that many hunter-gatherers did the same things that only agricultural societies were supposed to have done. They built large buildings, had big settlements with permanent chiefs, developed elaborate artistic and technological traditions, made war, and managed their land to get as much food out of it as possible. In short, they were socially complex.
The discovery of complex hunter-gatherers, a kind of society and economy now virtually extinct, is one of the major archaeological advances of the last two decades. As a discovery it is not widely appreciated, but it shows us that the range of human social and economic organization was much greater in the past than we had once thought. And it forces us to rethink fundamental questions, such as why plants and animals were domesticated and why inequality developed in human society.
Kenneth M. Ames, professor of anthropology at Portland State University, is senior author with Herbert Maschner of Peoples of the Northwest Coast, Their Archaeology and Prehistory (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999). The author would like to thank William Marquardt, Ofer Bar-Yosef, and Junko Habu for their assistance in the preparation of this article.