Human Origins Leiden

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Burning the Land: An Ethnographic Study of Off-Site Fire Use by Current and Historically Documented Foragers and Implications for the Interpretation of Past Fire Practices in the Landscape

Research Area: Uncategorized Year: 2015
Type of Publication: Article
Journal: Current Anthropology Volume: 56
Number: 3 Pages: 299-326
Archaeological indications for off-site burning by late Pleistocene and early Holocene hunter-gatherers present intransigent interpretive problems; by contrast, burning practices by recent hunter-gatherers are well documented. Here, we present a systematic global inventory of extant burning practices—including the reasons for burning and the environmental setting of firing activities—and also discuss their visibility in the archaeological record. This inventory is based on ethnographic and historical texts. In historical times, off-site fire was used for a wide range of purposes, irrespective of age and gender, with significant advantages for its producers. While the reasons given for burning can vary between individuals, in the longer term, many hunter-gatherer firing practices created more mosaic types of environments than would have occurred naturally. The historical visibility of hunter-gatherer burning activities contrasts with the relative invisibility of such practices in the contemporary archaeological record, highlighting the difficulty of analyzing past use of fire. On the basis of its ethnographic importance, we suggest that diverse off-site fire use is as old as the regular use of fire. New multiproxy data from well-sampled sequences, analyzed at a local scale, is needed to test this hypothesis.
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