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Farming, Hunting, and Fishing in the Olmec World. By Amber M. VanDerwarker (Austin, University of Texas Press, 2006) 244 pp. $45.00

VanDerwarker has recognized that any tenable discussion on the relationship between the development of agriculture and the rise of sociopolitical complexity among the Olmec on the southern Gulf Coast of Mexico requires, as a base, direct archaeological data of what people ate and in what quantities. She approaches this sizable topic through models of agency and environmental circumscription, focusing on the [End Page 156] strategies of agricultural intensification and risk management evident at the small archaeological sites of La Joya and Bezuapan in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas of southern Veracruz, Mexico. Occupations at both sites spanned the Formative Period (c.1400 B.C. to A.D. 300), thus being contemporaneous with the larger Olmec centers in the surrounding lowlands.

That the Sierra de los Tuxtlas is a region of relatively recent volcanic activity guides VanDerwarker's discussion about the changing subsistence strategies throughout the Formative period there, as evident from her analysis of the faunal and botanical data. VanDerwarker argues that volcanic activity in the Tuxtlas during the beginning of the Early Formative Period (c. 1400 to 1000 B.C.) may have stimulated the aggregation of egalitarian populations into permanent settlements, as well as the adoption of a diversified subsistence strategy that included maize as a staple, and broad-scaled hunting and fishing. By the Late Formative period (c. 400 B.C. to A.D. 100), when settlement and social ranking in the Tuxtlas appeared for the first time, the subsistence strategy focused on intensive maize agriculture and selective hunting; fishing was marginalized. Such a strategy reflects a decrease in subsistence risk, which itself was likely stimulated by the aggrandizing desires of emerging elites, who may have sought to create an agricultural surplus to further their social and political aspirations within the community. VanDerwarker credits environmental instability (renewed volcanic activity) with increasing subsistence risk in the subsequent Terminal Formative period (A.D. 100 to 300). This risk is reflected in the further intensification of maize agriculture, as suggested by the appearance of field terracing and a return to diverse hunting and gathering strategies.

The outline of changing subsistence risk throughout the Formative Period is amply supported by the relatively small data set. The record of changing subsistence, and how it varies from that in the surrounding lowlands, is one of the most valuable contributions of the study. Although the models of social agency and environmental circumscription used to frame the discussion are useful in explaining these observed patterns, they also contain ample room for additional data and testing.

VanDerwarker is commended for producing a solid, clear, and concise study that is mercifully free of specialized jargon. Although her study would have benefited from a comparative analysis with other contemporaneous regions of Mesoamerica (a point not lost on the author), her detailed explanations of the quantitative methods employed and her logical application of them make this study approachable and valuable to both specialists and non-specialists. This book represents one of the first comprehensive studies of botanical and faunal remains on the southern Gulf Coast within an archaeological context, for any prehispanic time period.

Charles L. F. Knight
University of Vermont


1. Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s (Cambridge, Mass., 1996).

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