In this dissertation I evaluate different hypotheses regarding human-environment dynamics in the Mesoamerican neotropics during the Preceramic period (ca. 11000-7400 cal B.P.) by examining the largest extant faunal assemblage dated to this time. The Preceramic was characterized by major climatic and ecological changes following the end of the Pleistocene, including the extinction of megafauna and the expansion of tropical forests. This period ended with a series of behavioral adaptations suited to this transformed landscape such as increased territoriality, sedentism, agriculture, and domestication. Three hypotheses have been proposed to explain these dynamics: the Broad-Spectrum Revolution hypothesis suggests post-Pleistocene resource uncertainty and unpredictability pushed foragers to reduce their mobility and expand their diet, particularly in marginal areas people had been driven to occupy as population sizes increased in the region. The Plant Food Production hypothesis posits that a decline in high-ranked resources (i.e., megafauna) following the end of the Pleistocene pulled foraging populations towards food-producing behaviors centered on plants. The Niche Construction hypothesis predicts that human-environment dynamics at this time changed in contexts of environmental abundance and not depletion, as foraging groups settled particularly productive environments and expanded their diet and modified their surroundings to maximize the productivity of these landscapes.
For my research I analyzed a large faunal assemblage and sediment samples obtained from the El Gigante rockshelter, a multi-component site located in the highlands of southwestern Honduras occupied episodically between 11,000-980 cal B.P. My results show that the shelter’s initial occupations (ca. 11,010-9550 cal B.P.) were characterized by a narrow diet focused on the consumption of a limited number of animal resources, namely deer, and some plants. This 1400-year period of little behavioral change was likely the product of relative climatic stability aided by the unique physiography of the highlands of southwestern Honduras. Over time, deer became scarce on the landscape and El Gigante’s inhabitants began overhunting this resource and heavily processed what prey they captured for obtaining marrow and fat. Consequently, the shelter was largely abandoned for 1400 years, with the exception of a few episodes of intense activity centered on the consumption of plant resources. This shift suggests plants, rather than animals, might have been what attracted populations to occupy the shelter during this time. These behavioral patterns continued to intensify during the subsequent phase of occupation, the Middle Marcala (7610-7430 cal B.P.). The rockshelter was occupied either longer or more intensively, bones were more heavily broken and processed, and the plant component of the diet continued to expand as the faunal component contracted slightly.
By focusing on the role that animals played during this key period of transition in Mesoamerica, my dissertation expands our understanding of the processes behind Preceramic adaptive changes, which predated experimentation with plant cultivation and extended far back into earliest Holocene. It also advances our knowledge of Preceramic lifeways and how these shaped major economic and social changes over time in Mesoamerica and beyond.
Christopher I. Roos
Kenneth G. Hirth
Karen D. Lupo
David J. Meltzer
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Figueroa, Alejandro J., "The Zooarchaeological Dimension of Preceramic Human-Environment Dynamics in the Highlands of Southwestern Honduras" (2021). Anthropology Theses and Dissertations.