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  • IntroductionTops of the World (TOW): The Dawn of a Concept
  • Hans Peter Blankholm, Juan Barceló, Jordi Estévez, and Bryan C. Hood

It was at the 1998 Computer Applications in Archaeology (CAA) conference in Barcelona that we first met—Juan Barceló (the CAA organizer), Jordi Estévez, Assumpció Vila, and Hans Peter Blankholm. We did, of course, know of one another’s work, but had never before had the opportunity to sit down and discuss topics of mutual interest— the archaeology of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego and comparative Arctic, Subarctic, and Subantarctic prehistory.

As it was, Assumpció, Jordi, and Juan had for more than a decade been actively involved in Tierra del Fuego’s hunter-gatherer archaeology and had conducted several research projects and excavations in America’s southernmost archipelago together with an Argentinean research team. The main aim of this ethno-archaeological research was to test and develop new theoretical and methodological approaches to hunter-gatherer archaeology. Hans Peter, working on northern Fennoscandian Subarctic hunter-gatherer archaeology, had also for some time been looking into the prospects of comparative analyses with similar areas in southern South America.

During this first meeting, common points of view on a series of issues arose. We were really surprised about the similarities of the landscapes at both extremes of the World and struck by the astonishing parallels and differences in the social and technical strategies of the first indigenous societies in these extremes. We agreed that a series of fundamental archaeological questions must be answered considering as a whole both geographical extremes: why, how, and when did people venture into those parts of the world? Why did people migrate to the cool climates in the Arctic, Subarctic, and Subantarctic so soon after the last deglaciation? How did they manage and how did they organize successful strategies to survive?

Readers of this journal are familiar with the long history of comparative anthropological and archaeological research on cultural variation in the northern circumpolar zone. Lacking archaeological data, early studies were based on an anthropogeographic adaptive perspective combined with diffusionist principles in historical ethnology. Scholars constructed speculative historical sequences using the geographical distributions of ethnographic [End Page 1] material culture (e.g., Birket-Smith 1929; Hatt 1914, 1916; Steensby 1917) or focused on the environmental basis of ethnographic cultural variation (Bogoras 1929). Those working within the kulturkreislehre framework believed there were deeply layered historical connections between the Eskimos and European Paleolithic peoples; Knud Rasmussen (1929) proposed an international research project on the subject. As more archaeological data came forth, prehistoric circumpolar cultural similarities were attributed to diffusion processes (Gjessing 1944). For the culture-history approach of west European continental archaeology, the hunter-gatherer societies of the Arctic, Subarctic, and Subantarctic were analogues used to illustrate the way of life of the different Palaeolithic and Mesolithic cultures (e.g., Lothrop 1924; Sollas 1911), although the significance of such comparative studies was limited by a failure to provide any explanation for or understanding of the similarities and differences.

The modern circumpolar comparative approach crystallized with the integration of cultural ecology and neo-evolutionism in the 1970s (Fitzhugh 1975). Similarities among northern cultures were seen as the result of convergent adaptations to similar environmental variables, and maritime adaptations provided the foundation for social elaboration. Later, Sutton (1982, with comments) transferred a similar logic to the Subantarctic zone of offshore New Zealand and Patagonia, suggesting that the cultures of this area shared a common adaptation type. Other scholars see the study of northern Arctic regions as a valuable laboratory for studying the flexibility of hunter-gatherer adaptations without the implicit evolutionary assumptions of progression towards agriculture (Rowley-Conwy 1999).

The overall trend in “circumpolar” archaeology has thus been predominantly “boreal-centric.” But as with global climate changes, all the questions broached in our initial meeting cannot be adequately explained without considering the phenomena on both “tops of the world”; the global human endeavor of adapting to the cold regions requires a long-term comparative research perspective on similarities and differences between both boreal and Subantarctic regions.

Moreover, another important issue emerged in our first meeting. The high sensitivity of the Arctic, Subarctic, and Subantarctic ecologies has made these...


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