Coastal subsistence and settlement systems on the northern Gulf of Mexico, USA
Hadden, Carla Jane Schmid
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This research presents a synthesis of the zooarchaeology and site seasonality data for the northern Gulf of Mexico from the Late Archaic through Woodland periods (ca. 5000 B.C. to A.D. 1100). Three questions are addressed: (1) Was the coast occupied on a seasonal basis? (2) Were there one or many coastal subsistence strategies? (3) Were coastal economies and ecosystems stable over the scale of millennia? Archaeological data suggest the coastal zone was not wholly abandoned during any season of the year, although sites varied throughout the year in terms of population density, intensity of site use, or intensity of fishing and shellfishing efforts. There were at least three patterns of animal exploitation on the Gulf Coast: specialized estuarine shellfishing, generalized estuarine fishing, and generalized marine shellfishing. Specialized estuarine shellfishing, a pattern focused on intensive exploitation of oysters, was an early and long-lived adaptation to highly productive salt marsh habitats. Subsistence strategies diversified during the Woodland period, shifting from intensive exploitation of salt marshes to extensive exploitation of an array of estuarine and marine habitats. Marked variability among contemporaneous sites over small geographic scales suggests that coastal dwellers had access to different resources by virtue of their proximity to habitats and resource patches, perhaps reflecting cultural attitudes towards access rights, ownership, and territoriality. Different resources also required different procurement techniques and technologies, and had different potential uses. These distinctions likely influenced the formation of place-based social identities, as well as involvements in local and regional exchange networks. Pre-European fisheries exhibited mild symptoms of decline, but persisted for thousands of years nonetheless. People were potentially impacting Gulf Coast fisheries from the beginning of human history in that area. However, measures of fisheries health indicate that the rate of decline of modern commercial fisheries is over a hundred times faster than in traditional subsistence fisheries.