Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Evidence for Time Keeping Among Pre-Neolithic Hunter-Gatherers

Marnie Dunsmore
Conference presentation, ESHE 2014, Florence


This conference presentation synthesizes data from archeology, human ecology and ethnohistory to build a picture of time keeping among hunter-gatherer cultures of pre-Neolithic Northern Europe, Northern Asia and North America. Recent analysis of the pit alignment archeological site at Warren Field, Scotland, dated to 10,000BP, suggests that hunter-gatherers in Scotland were able to correct for the misalignment between lunar months and the solar year [18]. This ability, alignment to solar or stellar events using built structures, has been proposed as a hallmark of the cultural means to measure and maintain accurate time [11]. In North America, analysis of pit houses and stone wheel observatories shows that prior to European contact, hunter-gatherer groups were able to align built structures to the solstices, and to other events in the sky, and calibrate the observable lunar month to the solar year [13][24]. Evidence of counting is another important indicator of the potential to track time. For instance, to count days, and the length of the month, the Blackfoot are recorded to have used knot tying to mark off days from the new moon. Several important artefacts in France, including those found at L’abri Blanchard and at Bruniquel, also suggest that hunter-gatherers could count [18]. Some evidence indicates that hunter-gatherer groups maintained pictographic calendars recorded on various media, including birch bark and animal hide. The naming of months for seasonal hunting and gathering patterns is another indication of the longevity of time keeping: the naming of months in the calendar of Todja reindeer hunters of South Siberia, of the Ojibwe and of the Blackfoot, of Canada, reflect naming according to hunting and gathering patterns as they were practiced. Pictographic-mnemonic systems were also used to communicate information inter-generationally among elite groups. For instance, after eighty years, four independent Blackfoot Winter Counts, a pictographic-mnemonic system, recorded a meteor shower which occurred in 1833 with an accuracy to within two years [3].

Given this data, within this paper, a categorized framework is constructed to document and compare time keeping among different hunter-gatherer cultures. The key categories are: (1) solar alignment using built structures, (2) evidence of counting artefacts and counting customs, (3) use of pictographic calendars, (4) months named according to hunting and gathering functions, and (5) evidence of inter-generational communication using pictographic-mnemonic systems. Archaeological dates, specific cosmology and time symbols, and lithics associated with alignment structures or artefacts are categories that augment the framework. Finally, documentation of game (species, regional extinction dates, and migratory or non-migratory) are noted.

From the official dates available for man-made alignment structures discussed herein, it can be inferred that accurate monthly time keeping, to within several days of the solar year, was well established on the Northern Plains of North America by 5,000BP, and in Northern Europe, by 10,000BP. Using the information presented in this framework, it is possible to compare time keeping practices of these hunter-gatherer groups. The overall picture, in Northern Europe by 10,000BP, and in North America by at least 5,000BP, are of fully developed time aware cultures that could keep accurate time in order to coordinate their hunting and gathering strategies with the seasons.

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