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The last hunter-gatherers of Muge (Portugal): the origins of social complexity

Funding: Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia - PTDC/HIS-ARQ/112156/2009

Mesolithic prehistory has been one of the main topics of pre-historians. The main reason is that it is a period of major economic, technological and social change, marking the end of the last hunter-gatherers of Western Europe. The case of Portugal, and more specifically of the Tagus valley with the shellmidden sites of Muge, seems one of the most interesting regions to study this transitional phase from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists. It is clear that the Muge shellmiddens correspond to a new adaptation after the long term Paleolithic economy that lasted well into the Holocene in Portuguese Estremadura. Estuarine resources seem to have played a very important role in the local diet, as a specific adaptation of new environmental conditions resulting from the Flandrian transgression. Increased marine and estuarine biomass during the Atlantic period may have been the result of the the 8.2 K cold event (Grafstein et al., 1998; Barber et al., 1999), with the collapse of the Hudson Ice Dome causing a freshwater cold pulse that reached the coast of Portugal (Soares, 2005), and likely the Tagus and Sado estuaries (Bicho et al, in press). This highly productive environment made possible the consolidation of an economic and social system of Complex Hunter-Gatherers. The reason for this designation is that of a clear tendency for sedentism, sometimes year-around camping, as well as for a beginning development of social complexity, but not political, of the human society. It is said that the richness of aquatic resources made possible the long term settlement, usually restricted in size, frequently marked by a logistical mobility pattern, diverse site function, including burial grounds in or nearby the most important sites. This seems to be the situation of the Muge archaeological complex, with new data coming from a recent project and reanalyses of old data suggesting the presence of incipient social complexity based on interspatial site organization and inter- and intra-burial organization (Bicho 2009; Gonçalves 2009), evoking the situation of the Mesolithic burial grounds of Oleni Ostrov (Price and Jacobs, 1990; Jacobs, 1995; Popova, 2001) among other sites of the same chronology.


Due to its complexity, diversity of artifact assemblages, excellent faunal and human bone preservation, and evidence for multiple site function, Cabeço da Amoreira, in Muge, is an ideal opportunity to study the emergence of social complexity in Mesolithic complex hunter-gatherers. FCT funding will support excavation (at least 15 weeks with 20 people) of the site of Cabeço da Amoreira (Muge), radiocarbon dating, isotopic and DNA analysis, material analysis (lithics and fauna, including raw material provenience), and analysis of human burial contexts and patterns, to examine the emergence of social complexity of the last hunter-gatherers of the Tagus valley. Our goals to understand and define the appearance of social incipient ranking and complexity are to examine: a) Subsistence strategies and site function and its relation to social changes; b) Differential distribution among population of prestige items, recognized through the study of burial intra- and inter-spatial patterning; c) Changes and evolution in technology, based on raw material exploitation, reduction sequences and use wear, and its direct relation to spatial organization and diachronic transformations, as well as to social prestige and distribution; d) Cultural and physical alterations in the local population, based on DNA and diet that will provide information on direct genetic links between skeletons.