A new paper addresses why hunter-gatherers moved their habitats to lower altitudes between 17,000 and 10,700 years ago in Cantabria, Spain,
Alejandro Garcia-Moreno. To see or to be seen… is that the question? An evaluation of palaeolithic sites’ visual presence and their role in social organization. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 2013; 32 (4): 647 DOI:10.1016/j.jaa.2013.03.003
“We discovered that the nomad hunters and gatherers that inhabited these lands between 17,000 and 10,700 years ago swapped caves and refuges in the middle of hillsides or at high altitude for others in the depths of valleys and at the bottom of hills,” explains Alejandro García Moreno from the University of Cantabria, the main author of the study.
The oldest sites tend to be located on conical mountains, such as El Castillo in Cantabria and Santimamiñe in Biscay. They stand out in the scenery; in other words, not only do they offer a good vantage point, but they are also highly visible themselves.
Over the course of the Palaeolithic new sites spring up, many of them in previously uninhabited caves and places of lower altitude. “From these caves they could not see as far, but the view would have covered a wider horizon,” the scientist expands.
But this was a period of great change – environmental and social. The northern hemisphere was coming out of a glacial age, nomadic hunter-gatherers were “settling down” and the age of agriculture was approaching. I can imagine that dwellings at lower altitude would have been more suitable for continuous occupation whereas the caves and grottos at high altitude were probably only occupied seasonally. They would also have been closer to patches of fertile soil and water sources where they could practice their developing competence at planting and growing things. A need for access to resources and greater space to satisfy the needs of emerging specialisations may also have driven the shift. But I suspect that it was also the time when interaction between different groups/tribes/clans started increasing – and when trading began to take off.
The author speculates as to the reasons for shifting down the hills:
Over this historical period, changes to climate and significant social transformations occurred. It was the end of the last glacial period, and new tools appeared, such as harpoons. There were also social, cultural and ideological changes, such as the disappearance of cave art.
The interpretation given by the authors of the recent article is that the preferences when deciding on a habitat could be based on two parallel reasons which are not mutually exclusive.
First, hunting large herds of animals – mainly doe – became less widespread. “Human beings were beginning to adopt a more varied diet, therefore it was not as important to guard their territory and keep watch for packs of animals; rather, they needed more direct access to a variety of resources nearby,” highlights García-Moreno.
The other explanation is a social one: it appears that at the end of the Palaeolithic period, human communities broke up and began to travel shorter and shorter distances in their nomadic movements; old contacts at great distances weakened.
“These issues of social organisation are difficult to tackle, as they do not tend to leave obvious material evidence behind. It is possible that the large sites that were very visible in obvious areas of the landscape began to lose their function as symbolic locations where different groups would meet, and because of this they chose other, smaller areas, of the kind we might call logistic, more practical,” the scientist concludes.
I have no doubt that such shifting of dwelling places would have been a matter of practical logistics. But I think it also signifies a shift from selecting a dwelling place primarily for safety and shelter, to selection criteria for the satisfying of new social needs (whether amateur agriculture or trade or for having semi-permanent dwelling places).
A case of using high places for security and lower places for social interaction.