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date: 24 June 2022

Shell Middens and Coastal Prehistorylocked

Shell Middens and Coastal Prehistorylocked

  • John ParkingtonJohn ParkingtonUniversity of Cape Town
  •  and Ruan BrandRuan BrandUniversity of Cape Town


Shell middens, the residues of shellfish gathering, consumption, and disposal in the past, have attracted the attention of archaeologists for more than one hundred and fifty years. Although there has been a tendency to view these sites as simply waste heaps, it is increasingly clear that this is usually not the case and that, sometimes, spatially meaningful arrangements of domestic debris of all kinds (fireplaces, artifacts, cooking and sleeping areas) are recognizable if excavations are sensitive enough. Some issues are as relevant and as intransigent as they have been from the beginning: Are they really food waste or could they be natural shell accumulations? Were people living at these sites or are they simply large piles of waste resulting from shell processing? In what ways and how fast did the middens accumulate? How are shell middens related to other archaeological sites inland, contemporary but without shell food waste? Because shell middens are found on all continents except Antarctica and throughout the Holocene time period (the last twelve thousand years), the literature on their excavation and interpretation is enormous and illustrates that archaeologists worldwide engage similarly with counting, measuring, weighing the shellfish, and associated faunal and artifactual remains from these sites. Often, the research involves developing proxies for the kinds of invisible but interesting aspects of the lives of the shellfish gatherers, such as: How many people lived here? How long did people stay at this site? Why did they come when they did and leave when they did? Where else did people live? While Holocene shell middens are ubiquitous, it is also clear that Pleistocene shell middens, while fairly widespread, are found more commonly in coastal areas where early modern humans have dispersed early in their migrations across the globe. It is likely that these traces, in Africa, in Europe, in island South-East Asia and Australia, and along the shores of western North America mark the routes whereby our earliest modern human ancestors peopled the world.


  • Archaeology

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