Before Farming

Specialisation & diversification

a tale of two subsistence strategies from Late Glacial Italy

Before Farming (2009), 2009, (3), 1–29.

Abstract

This paper provides a critical commentary on the definition and use of the notions of subsistence specialisation and diversification, the ways they can be applicable and meaningful in studying past subsistence strategies, and assesses their past reality drawing on examples from Late Glacial Italy (14,700 – 11,500cal BP).

The discussion of subsistence specialisation focuses on the definitions that have been proposed and the relationship between specialisation as ‘narrow-focused activities’ and a faunal assemblage dominated by a single prey species. The separation between these two notions, of past activities and an archaeological measure, is proposed so as to make the concept of specialisation better defined and thus more useful. The concept of subsistence diversification is discussed next. As similar theoretical and methodological issues pertain to both concepts, the discussion concentrates on the increase in broad spectrum exploitation widely held to have occurred during the Late Glacial. Differences in the characteristics, timing and causes of this increase, as proposed by various researchers, caution against the necessary expectation of such an increase during the new environmental conditions of this period.

An examination of faunal assemblage diversity, both in terms of the whole range of prey exploited and of ungulates specifically, from sites across the Upper Palaeolithic of Italy illustrates that during the Late Glacial there was a wider variability in subsistence strategies. It is within this context that the increased focus on specific resources, both ungulates and small game, has to be viewed. Based on a case study of subsistence and mobility patterns in northeast Italy it is argued that a narrow focus on the hunted species need not imply a similarity in the character of these sites, nor a narrow focus of on-site activities.

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Phoca-Cosmetatou, Nellie