Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Good, the Bad, and the Fishy

The Good:

Allen, Melinda S. 1992. “Temporal variation in Polynesian fishing strategies: The Southern Cook Islands in regional perspective”. Asian Perspectives 31(2): 183-204.

I found this week’s task to be challenging, not only with choosing a good anthropological article but also with choosing a bad one. For a good article I thought of a couple which I have recently read and enjoyed greatly. The difficulty in choosing one resided in their differences in strengths; style and content to be specific. While one thrived in a certain aspect, the other impressed me in a different manner. I have chosen an article by Melinda Allen on the temporal variation of Polynesian fishing strategies. I remember reading this article last term and thinking it was incredibly well-written, as well as informative.

Summary of article:

This article provides a detailed analysis of the temporal patterns and variation in prehistoric fishing methods of Eastern Polynesian sites, which are then compared to trends in Western Polynesia. Archaeological evidence for prehistoric fishing strategies consists mainly of fish hooks, which is thus the focus of Allen’s study. The article is structured to first provide the reader with background knowledge to research approaches and theoretical perspectives. Then the broad-scale patterns of fishing technology are described and related to two primary raw materials which vary by region. This pattern is applied to her case study in the Southern Cook Islands where she thoroughly analyses the archaeological evidence, as well as the relationships with ethnographic patterns and fish ecology. The patterns and results from the case study are then applied to the broad patterns in Polynesia. I thought this particular structure was well organized and effectively applied, especially with such an abundance of interpretations on a large geographical scale.

Content, theoretical approach, and overall style:

Although there is much discussion on archaeological evidence of Polynesian fishing practices, regional variability, and the incorporation of a case study, this article successfully avoids becoming a descriptive site report. The data is present, but so are detailed interpretations and theoretical arguments. It is not a simple “here is my data and that is that” piece, Allen does not just lay out her evidence. And as she discusses approaches and arguments of other researchers, she avoids creating a synthetic article with no firm position. She is clear about her theoretical approach and the selected concepts (derived from Darwinian evolution) which she applies to her analysis and interpretations.

Her study applies a regional perspective and her specific case study came from the Southern Cook Islands, which is relatively close to my area of study Tonga. She uses a comparative analysis which I think is incredibly important when looking at temporal variation across a large geographic region. By adopting this method she is able to pick out similarities and differences, and reveal patterns which lurked under the variation. As a result, relationships are identified between developments in technologies with sociopolitical and other subsistence activities.

There are a number of articles which I admire for their content, such as the relevance to my interests and especially if the volume of useful knowledge is substantial. This is exactly what I received from Allen’s article: historical, physical, theoretical context, variability in archaeological evidence, and variability in hypotheses of patterns in data. Perhaps the greatest strength of this article is Allen’s style of writing. It is eloquent and comprehensible, something which is important for a student (like myself at the time) who is first reading about this specific type of research. I found that even with an abundance of variable data and regional patterns, she was able to effectively connect everything, creating an overall fluid piece of writing.

The Bad:

Colley, Sarah M. 1987.Fishing for facts: Can we reconstruct fishing methods from archaeological evidence?”. Australian Archaeology 24: 16-26

Summary of article:

I had some difficulty selecting an article which I considered bad. At first I tried to remember those which were too descriptive and made little-to-no arguments, but most of what I have read somehow made worthy claims and supported them with evidence. Instead I have picked an article which may work to a certain extent, but its style and structure failed in a certain way. Colley’s article discusses how archaeologists can reconstruct fishing practices from archeological evidence and the limitations that exist from this method. Her argument is that fish bone analysis holds the greatest potential for reconstructing prehistoric fishing practices. Now while I agree with her argument and the types of evidence she presents, it is her presentation (or lack of) that I find to be the weak point of this article.

Style, structure, and lack of certain content:

I have to admit this entire article is not ‘bad’, there were parts of it which I found useful but that was because I was very selective of what I needed from it. Yet after reviewing this article again I thought of how her overall style and structure were not entirely impressive. Colley’s writing style is incredibly concise and because of this it was lacking of substance in numerous areas. I would have appreciated further contextualization of the main issue and a writing style which was a bit more engaging. Her tone was rather objective and the structure consisted of numerous small paragraphs which, to me, seemed like they lacked fluidity.

Since it was published in Australian Archaeology, I assumed it was tailored for South Pacific regions, especially since the case study she provides is from Tasmania. Unfortunately, Colley does not make any clarification of regional specificity in her article and provides no discussion on whether these analytical connections may be universal. Perhaps a brief mention of similar or different patterns in other places around the globe would have sufficed. Otherwise the reader is left to wonder if fishing strategies are the same in other areas, or whether bone morphology and depositional effects on tropical fish are similar to those in completely different environments.

The title itself appears to be universal as well, suggesting her arguments and evidence, everything from fishing gear to types of prey, are applicable anywhere around the world. The question: “can we reconstruct fishing methods from archaeological evidence?” should warrant decently lengthy discussions in my opinion. Yet her analysis is minimal and the general feeling is that more could have been said. I would have appreciated something more along the lines of a synthetic piece, or an in-depth review of similar archaeological studies. Colley’s piece is short and slightly underwhelming, for this reason I would have suggested that she narrowed down her title so that it is made clear it applies to a specific region in the world and some information may not be covered.

I would also like to note that the article consists of numerous figures and tables. If separated from text I would estimate these figures comprised half of the paper. While some are useful to her discussion, others appear to be used to fill up space as Colley only makes a brief yet unnecessary mention of them (Figure 1 for example). In summary, I think Colley’s intentions were to be concise and simply provide ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘maybe’ answers to her questions, as well as a case study example to support her argument. Yet I was left wondering why she would write in such a brief manner for an issue which could have developed a substantial discussion. In comparison to Allen’s piece which touches on similar themes, I see a clear distinction in style, structure, and substance. Nevertheless, Colley’s article likely works for some people, I believe she wrote this article for a specific yet small audience. As I said, I still found it useful for the brief facts, but I was left fishing for more.


Environment and Archaeology in 3 Journal Articles

I tried to find three articles which touched on a similar theme. Since my research will be looking at anthropogenic impact on local marine environments, specifically resource depression, I read one article that discussed contemporary archaeological perspectives on historical ecology and two articles which focused on the relations between archaeological fields and studies in global change.

Article 1: Anderson, A. (2009). Epilogue: Changing Archaeological Perspectives upon Historical Ecology in the Pacific Islands. Pacific Science, 63(4), 747-757.

Confession: this article is not from an anthropological journal however it explicitly discusses archaeological perspectives, it was published in the Pacific Science journal because it relates to multidisciplinary research. Anderson’s main argument is that the current perspectives and understandings in regards to anthropogenic impact on the Pacific environments are changing from the main viewpoints of the late twentieth century. Specifically, research focus was on the historical significance of humans shaping the island ecosystems, and now Anderson suggests the emphasis is shifting to other new topics. He describes how recent research approaches to historical ecology have become more complex because certain topics and issues which were grazed lightly before are being closely investigated now. Anderson makes this point clear in his discussion on the emerging interest in past natural disasters:

Today, however, as environmental catastrophism gnaws at the foundations of philosophical uniformitarianism and confidence wanes in the efficacy of technological, not to mention financial, instruments for the alleviation of environmental disaster, the time is ripe for serious consideration of these.” (Anderson, 2009: 750).

Although not explicitly stated, I believe a number of other issues are gaining interest for researchers as a result of contemporary environmental concerns such as sea level rise, climate change, or overexploitation of resources. The three new thematic emphases in the Pacific are: biological invasions, landscape history, and behavioural ecology. The skeleton of the article was thus shaped around these emerging topics of interest and Anderson appeared to be speaking directly to archaeologists and researchers of related fields. Throughout the article Anderson mentioned recent findings which have contrasted past generalized notions or flat out rejected specific hypotheses. By highlighting these instances, he acknowledged a rise of divergence and disagreements aimed at established and widespread generalizations.

I found this article to be informative and useful for my current and future work. Since my research focus is on resource depression and anthropogenic impact on the environment, it is beneficial for me to understand how archaeological perspectives have changed in recent years. I would like to know where research emphasis is situated in the field and how it may influence the placement of my own work. While knowing that archaeological perspectives have recently changed was valuable, it was also a relief to be reassured that earlier emphases still remain important. I was worried that Anderson was going to suggest that certain topical areas I plan to touch on are no longer of interest or significance. Basically he argued that the nature of archaeological perspectives and approaches of contemporary researchers will provide us with a richer and more complex understanding of historical ecology in the Pacific. Yet on a final note, I would have preferred some further discussion or personal input from Anderson on any relations between current research emphases in historical ecology and concerns of modern anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic impact on island and coastal environments. Fortunately in the next two articles I get what I asked for.

Article 2: Hardesty, D. L. (2007). Perspectives on Global‐Change Archaeology. American Anthropologist, 109(1), 1-7.

I would like to begin this part by stating that I was excited to find this article because I have had trouble trying to explain to others, and conceptualize to myself, how my research in historical ecology and resource depression can specifically relate or apply historical knowledge to contemporary issues. In a number of case studies and syntheses I have read lately I often come across brief statements like: “archaeological/zooarchaeological research can provide us with historical knowledge that may be applied to contemporary environmental problems”. However this is mainly where that discussion ends, there is no explanation of how these connections can be made or any detailed examples given. I am left to just believe the authors or look elsewhere for the answers. This is why this article (and the third article) caught my eye, because its entirety focused on this notion.

What is “global-change archaeology”? After a quick google scholar check I realized Hardesty may be the only researcher combining these two terms, nevertheless the concept is pretty self explanatory. The emerging field does exactly what I have mentioned earlier, it “appl[ies] historical knowledge of past human–environmental interactions to the understanding of contemporary environmental problems and management and planning for future sustainability” (Hardesty, 2007: 1). Although Hardesty incorporated his interpretations of various theoretical influences, he did not provide his own arguments. The main argument I could pull out of the article was for the importance of global-change archaeology which was explicitly stated by being given its own heading: “Why Global-Change Archaeology?”. However this argument did not resonate throughout the other parts of the article and was simply confined to its own small section. Even at the end of  the article when Hardesty could have reminded the reader once again of the importance of the field, he chose to discuss the field’s directions instead.

There was little to no fluidity among the various headings, information was sectioned and placed under such topical divisions without smooth transitioning. On the other hand, the information was situated strategically so that the reader first understands what ‘global-change archaeology’ is, what it contributes, and where it stands in relation to other fields such as environmental archaeology and political ecology. Then there was a brief discussion on methodology and its interdisciplinary nature, and finally a discussion on the theoretical relations focusing on agency and history. There was no personal engagement in the article and the author’s voice was rather objective. I believe the reason for this was because of the location of the article in the journal. It was the first article of the issue and thus acted as an introduction for the subsequent papers. Hardesty drew upon examples from case studies in the same issue to support and form his piece. I thought this strategy was effective to encourage the reader to continue reading about global-change archaeology or related research.

After reading through the first couple of pages I realized that the narrative style was incredibly descriptive, and the majority of the article was dry. Do not get me wrong, it was informative and I did learn a lot. Because this piece was rather descriptive I believe Hardesty wanted to take a neutral position to gain as large of an audience as possible. Especially since the issues are global and the field is interdisciplinary, Hardesty’s intentions were first and foremost to educate. For this reason I enjoyed the article, its strength was its content. However for someone who has no interest or use for the goals of global-change archaeology, the structure and narrative style would likely have bored them.

Article 3: Amorosi, T., Woollett, J., Perdikaris, S., & McGovern, T. (1996). Regional zooarchaeology and global change: Problems and potentials. World Archaeology, 28(1), 126-157.

This article discussed the research approach of applying data from regional zooarchaeology to global change investigations. It focused on the problems zooarchaeologists face in multiple stages of the research process and whether their data can be of productive use to researchers involved in global change programs. My first thoughts were that this article was going to be structured as such: the status of zooarchaeology, issues in research that may limit the adequacy of zooarchaeological data for global change investigations, possible solutions to problems and a silver lining. However I was interested to see that the introduction was relatively brief and the remainder of the article’s discussions intertwined problems and solutions together while being separated by specific topics such as sample size or quantification issues. The negative aspect of this article was in fact the negative aspect of the structure, specifically the headings. To clarify, the headings signified ‘problems’ and not one stated something like ‘solutions’ or ‘potentials’. So if someone were to lightly skim this article they may think the authors were criticizing zooarchaeological contributions to global change research. ‘Potentials’ is in the title so I think one of the concluding sections should have had a more optimistic heading.

The authors incorporated selected examples from two geographical regions into their article, yet instead of placing them under their own isolated headings, they were integrated into the topical discussions which I found refreshing. Normally when an author states: “we will discuss these issues then present some case studies or examples”, I am accustomed to reading the descriptions of said case studies one at a time then learning of their significance either at the end of each narration or in the discussion section of the article. In that situation I often skip much of the descriptive background of the case studies and skim for the significance. However the authors of this article selected and presented the importance of these examples throughout their discussions and with minimum background noise. I found that this structure helped their argument and the fluidity of their narrative.

The narrative style was partly subjective, the authors belong to a research group which is affiliated with the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization so they took a hopeful position for the incorporation of zooarchaeological data into regional perspectives on environmental change. They also included numerous personal opinions and judgements throughout the article, such as arguments for better approaches and methods. Like mentioned in the Hardesty article, the field of research in global change is multidisciplinary, so although this article is primarily intended for zooarchaeologists it can speak to researchers of related fields focusing on the same questions. The authors wanted to advocate for the incorporation of zooarchaeological data so they took an honest approach and described in detail the current problems but also the potential usefulness of the field.

I found this article incredibly valuable not only for my research but on a personal level as well. As I have stated earlier, I am interested in how historical knowledge in my field can assist with contemporary issues, therefore while Hardesty article spoke about global change and archaeology, this paper went a step further specifically to zooarchaeology and showed me exactly where my research interests can go.

Review of an annual review

A review of the annual review “Peopling of the Pacific: A Holistic Anthropological Perspective” by Patrick V. Kirch

For this week’s blog I went specifically to the regional area of my studies, and I was between two reviews of interest. One is called “Archaeology in Oceania”, written in 1978 by Jeffrey Clark and John Terrell. The second is “Peopling of the Pacific: A Holistic Anthropological Perspective” written by Patrick V. Kirch in 2010. I selected this second review not only because it is more recent, but also because I am a big fan of Kirch.

From the title of the review you can recognize that Kirch supports a holistic approach and the integration of various research methods from multiple subdisciplines in anthropology. This review summarizes the recent (the last 30 years before 2010) advances in archaeology, bioanthropology, and historical linguistics which have analyzed migrations, colonization, and interactions in Oceania. Oceania can be divided into three distinctive cultural subregions: Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. However these divisions were subjected to racist prejudices in the 19th century so scholars have suggested alternative categories of Near Oceania (Western Oceania, closer to Australia and Southeast Asia) and Remote Oceania (Eastern Oceania, the remote islands as far out as Hawaii and Rapa Nui). Remote Oceania/Polynesia has been the focus of Kirch’s own work where he has written numerous publications from ethnographic field studies to historical syntheses of the earliest known Polynesian ancestors, the Lapita peoples.

Kirch begins his review by discussing the earliest (and still present) problem of Pacific anthropological research: origins. Historical questions were initially investigated by ethnologists yet over time the interest shifted to archaeology, linguistics, and eventually bioanthropology. The structure of Kirch’s review is then sectioned by subdisciplines where he discusses their earliest approaches, research developments since that initial period which have answered numerous questions of the chronology of origins and colonization, and the recent advancements in methodology. In this part of the review Kirch highlights the correlations between evidence of different subdisciplines, indicating that when applied together the two subfields can strengthen each other’s theories and arguments.

The evidence is complex and at first glance it seems like an overload of information. I would not recommend someone who knows nothing about Pacific anthropological history to start their literature review with this article. Perhaps one of Kirch’s other works instead such as On the Road of the Winds (which is an excellent historical narrative) where he eases into each field of research instead of cramming the major points into a 10+ page review. Nevertheless, Kirch performs well at structuring his synthesis so that initially the reader feels up-to-date with the recent advancements in each subfield, then all of the evidence is collectively applied to the grand narrative, the movements and settlements of Pacific peoples. This second half of the review is broken down into the differing Oceanic regions, and the sequences of narrative are overall chronological, starting from the Pleistocene epoch to the period of contact with the Americas.

Kirch supports the creation of homologous histories in the Pacific yet at the same time does not ignore the regional, cultural, linguistic, and genetic complexity. His other synthetic publications have utilized broad perspectives to narrate long-term histories by also incorporating smaller-scale regional variability to contribute to his comparative analyses. Broad and wide-spread knowledge is exactly what the reader receives in this review and at times it is easy to forget that these histories range over numerous islands separated by ocean and go back as far as the Pleistocene epoch. I was truly impressed how Kirch could summarize into eleven pages these major events in migration and settlement, as well as how he synthesized the significant developments from three subfields. I myself found it incredibly challenging last term when I wrote a 20 page literature review on Pacific archaeological history and my geographic and temporal frameworks were much smaller!

Another reason I admire Kirch is his narrative, because if you stop to think, the colonization of the Pacific Islands consisted of impressive seafaring journeys and what a better way to describe such journeys than with creative narratives. Kirch is remarkable at situating the reader in the Pacific Islands and producing vivid imagery. He himself grew up admiring the islands (born in Hawaii), and his lifetime experience and appreciation for the places and peoples emerges through his narratives. He is a great storyteller and unfortunately the reader does not get to experience it much in this article. It is one thing I dislike about this review, the lack of his creative voice. I understand that someone writing an annual review, especially one that encompasses such a large time span and region, would run into the problem of limited space and would need to reduce their description and detail. Yet although this review is rather descriptive, it still does tell interesting stories of human career and paints a ‘picture’ (Kirch’s imagery, see annotations) of Pacific history.

I admire this review because Kirch not only uses this opportunity to exhibit the numerous contributions to the ‘origins question’ from recent years but also effectively argues for the multidisciplinary approach by presenting and connecting findings from all three fields. I have not read many annual reviews of anthropology so I am unsure whether authors are encouraged to make arguments or simply synthesize past research. Since 2010, there have been a number of studies in the Pacific which have applied multidisciplinary approaches to investigate large questions, not necessarily of origins since it has been a debatable topic for some time, but of mobility, subsistence, and social stratification. Kirch himself has collaborated with other researchers from varying fields (ethnographers, linguists, zooarchaeologists, geologists to name a few) to address the deep time problems of Pacific human history. So as Kirch sums up towards the end of his review, a number of research questions have been answered about Pacific island history, but many more remain.

So to summarize, what works for this review is such:

  • His perspective, broad yet diverse, holistic and integrative
  • His confidence in recent advancements and paths of future research
  • His argument for a multidisciplinary approach as a methodology for historical reconstruction and answering the big questions

And this is what may not work so well:

  • A lot of summarizing and a lot of information to absorb (may not work for some readers, although it supports his argument on multidisciplinary research)
  • Lack of creative narrative (which is more of a personal critique because I am so accustomed to Kirch’s other publications)



Kirch, Patrick V. 2010. “Peopling of the Pacific: A holistic anthropological perspective”. Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 131-148.


Buckley, Hallie R., Rebecca Kinaston, Siân E. Halcrow, Aimee Foster, Matthew Spriggs, and Stuart Bedford. 2014. “Scurvy in a tropical paradise? Evaluating the possibility of infant and adult vitamin C deficiency in the Lapita skeletal sample of Teouma, Vanuatu, Pacific islands.” International Journal of Paleopathology 5: 72-85