Isotopic reconstruction of social networks in southern Africa: geochemistry, ethnoarchaeology, and recent prehistory

Project: Research project

Project Details


The importance of networks for human adaptation, cultural transmission, and expanding cooperation beyond the local group has been scientifically well-documented. Human social networks have facilitated the migration of humans out of Africa and into environments around the globe by mitigating social and environmental risks. By broadening spheres of interaction networks have contributed to the ongoing development and transmission of cumulative culture. The extent and configuration of networks can be traced through the movement of objects and ideas that are reflected in material culture. Archaeometric technologies have made great strides in tracing the movement of objects, however, determining what the results mean for past human social relations requires interpretation. This research will investigate to what extent the sourcing and movement of symbolic and utilitarian objects in the archaeological record can be used to reconstruct the extent, configuration, and density of social networks, and their relations to resources in the environment. This research, in the Kalahari and Namib Desert, will have three major goals: 1) the construction of radiogenic strontium isotope ratio landscape models to permit biogeochemical sourcing of ethnographic and archaeological symbolic items, 2) to determine if well-documented social systems of exchange among recent Ju/hoansi foragers are detectible from strontium isotope analysis of ostrich eggshell beadwork collected by anthropologists at the time of the ethnographic study (1950s-1970s), and 3) to explore the potential of isotope analysis of ostrich eggshell beads for uncovering past networks in the Namib desert over the last 4000 years when there was increasing aridity, intensified plant and animal exploitation, and greatly increased ritual activity.
Intellectual Merit
The behavioral questions addressed by this work will be: 1) Can the density of networks portrayed by the movement of symbolic and utilitarian items allow us to infer past social groupings that engaged in different levels of cooperation? 2) Can network density help identify clusters of local groups that pool risk and document the resource potential in the environment necessary to do so? If so, can network clusters be predicted from resource potential? 3) How do the sizes and configurations of cooperative groups and ties change with climate fluctuations and subsistence strategies? Matching a detailed ethnographic study of networks to the material record will allow us to address such relevant questions and develop methods and models to derive social information from the movement of artifacts. The synergy from combining decades of ethnographic research with long term archaeological studies in neighboring desert environments and cutting-edge archaeometric laboratory methods will overcome the pitfalls of the tyranny of the ethnographic record by comparing answers to the above questions across different environments, societies, and subsistence adaptations over time and space.
Broader Impacts
Strategies of the past to pool risk by storing it among social relations have shaped many aspects of Ju/hoan culture, such as high mobility, widespread sharing, and extreme egalitarianism, that create barriers to the adoption of new economic enterprises today. Understanding these barriers will help shape development efforts to shift to sustainable economic activities and shed the burden of poverty and racism.
The bioavailable strontium isoscapes constructed under this project represent a resource not just for other archaeologists and anthropologists, but also for wildlife ecologists, food scientists, and anti-poaching authorities seeking to determine the origin of plant and animal tissue. The plant and soil chemistry data collected will also facilitate complementary research by project personnel on the damaging phenomenon of bush encroachment of grasslands in the Kalahari. From an archaeometry perspective this project will conduct intensive method development on chemical diagenesis detection in ostrich eggshell, a hard tissue of archaeological relevance that has not been subjected to years of intensive scrutiny (cf. bone and enamel), which will prove important as future projects seek to apply strontium isotope provenience to OES objects. Furthermore, this work will continue to refine methods for minimally destructive in situ strontium isotope analysis with laser ablation. Lastly, this collaborative undertaking will support capacity building in the United States and abroad by providing training opportunities for students.
Effective start/end date8/15/207/31/23


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $189,272.00


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