Identifying the factors that drive the variation in technological complexity among traditional societies is important for understanding human evolution. With respect to hunter-gatherers, the leading hypothesis focuses on environmental risk. It argues that risk affects toolkit complexity in such a way that high-risk environments lead to complex toolkits while low-risk environments result in the opposite. This hypothesis has been supported in analyses involving worldwide and continental samples of hunter-gatherers. However, Collard et al.’s (2011) test of the hypothesis using data from the Pacific Northwest failed to support it. For my thesis research I revisited Collard et al.’s study and sought to determine why their results departed from those of the worldwide and continental studies. My study had two parts. In the first, I replicated Collard et al.’s (2011) analyses with a larger dataset. The results of the analyses were largely consistent with those obtained by Collard et al. (2011): I found that the toolkits of the Coast and Plateau were not significantly different despite clear risk-relevant environmental differences between the sub-regions. However, I also found a significant positive correlation between some toolkit variables and the number of salmon species, which is not consistent with the risk hypothesis. In the second part of the study, I approached the evaluation of the risk hypothesis from a different direction. Specifically, I examined the correlation between the average complexity of the tools used to hunt a given species and estimates of the risk involved in capturing that species. I found that species that are difficult to capture and/or have restricted seasonal availability are associated with more complex tools, which is consistent with the risk hypothesis. I conclude from these two sets of results that commonly-used environmental variables like Net Primary Productivity and Effective Temperature are too coarse to accurately characterize the impact of risk on the toolkits of hunter-gatherers at a regional level. I also conclude that the richness and complexity of the toolkits of hunter-gatherers in the Pacific Northwest are not solely affected by risk. Other variables are important and require further investigation.
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Thesis advisor: Collard, Mark
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