Pit cooking and intensification of subsistence in the American Southwest and Pacific Northwest

Pei-Lin Yu
Dept. of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University
July, 2006


Pit cooking leaves durable, measurable remains and is relevant to the study of resource intensification. This thesis examines pit cooking as a means to explore and quantify the initial conditions for two different modes of intensification: incipient Southwestern food production and semi-sedentized foraging in the inland Pacific Northwest. First, analytical tools for variability in pit ovens, and a model statement about the role of pit cooking in intensification, were drawn from an ethnographic frame of reference governing pit oven function, physical variation, and contexts of use. Using those tools, hypothetical statements were developed for the relationship between pit oven ooking, habitat variation, and subsistence intensification. Hunter-gatherer subsistence and mobility for the Basin and Range and Colorado Plateau provinces of the Southwest were modeled using Binford's (2001) environmental and ethnographic data base, and archaeological pit ovens and cooking sites were compared between the two Southwestern regions in order to test the hypothetical statements and evaluate the utility of the model. The study results show that pressure within the Basin and Range forager niche increased dependence upon wild food plants and pit cooking. Thus Basin and Range initial conditions favored rapid investment in agriculture. Colorado Plateau foragers had a broader subsistence niche in which pit cooked foods were among many options, and initial conditions favored adoption of agriculture as an adjunct subsistence strategy. Analysis of the same variables from the inland Pacific Northwest showed that pit-cooking was not a precursor to system transformation, but supported population aggregations in a socially complex, aquatically-focused foraging system. The study concludes that material traces of pit cooking vary in a predictable, measurable manner with the foraging system state. Pit cooking is a useful guide in making inferences about foraging systems, which are stable when subsistence is spread across multiple trophic levels and biomes, and more likely to undergo fluctuations leading to transformative change when subsistence is closely bracketed inside one trophic level, plants, within one biome, the terrestrial environment.