Friday, March 5, 2010

Commentary on Kim 2010

Kim, Jangsuk
2010 Opportunistic versus target mode: Prey choice changes in central-western Korean Prehistory. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 29:80-93.

The most recent edition of JAA has an interesting article on the application of prey choice models in Korea. Kim contrasts concepts of targeted vs. opportunistic hunting. Basically, he's arguing that decision making is heirarchical, and some higher-level decisions will affect prey choice, in ways not traditionally accounted for by prey choice models. Some foraging trips/economies may therefore be targeted - with foragers setting out to meet a particular by bringing back a particular resource - while others are opportunistic - with foragers taking any acceptable resource that they encounter.

This issue is particularly important, IMHO, for the study of agricultural societies. Too much of the development of models of hunting has been in the hands of archaeologists whose primary focus is on hunting and gathering societies. For much of the prehistoric world, wild resources were important in agricultural societies as well. Yet, agricultural labor needs and agricultural settlement patterns greatly affected hunting patterns. Garden hunting is only one part of this phenomenon. For example, agricultural societies may be limited to valleys, where irrigation is possible. The species of wild animals available in those valleys, however, may be quite different from what would be available to foragers living in surrounding mountains or deserts or dry plains. Long-distance trips for hunting species in such environments would likely be targeted, yet also limited by seasonal labor constraints.

Kim also makes the argument that prey choice models are less the ideal tools for studying human behavior because they are ecological (focusing on short-term responses to environmental conditions), not economic (with a recognition that human foraging involves planned behaviors aimed at supplying a perceived demand, embedded withn a particular social context.) I have to disagree with this. Actually, I think most prey choice models are economic models mascarading as ecological. Essentially, the models used by behavioral ecologists are rational choice models, straight out of the field of economics. Although the concept of natural selection is often invoked, the connection between prey choice models and any measure of reproductive fitness has always been tenuous. The fitness argument is, in fact, often irrelevant. Fitness is clearly not the only - possibly not even the primary - force behind many foraging decisions, and concepts of efficiency and optimality do not need to invoke fitness to be relevant.

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