Coping with Extreme Seasonality in Energy Resources

2.1.4 General Principles

Higher levels of risk are typical of more seasonally fluctuating environments, especially where winter conditions of darkness and extreme cold make hunting difficult and the option of constant mobility becomes extremely arduous. Midwinter sedentism is virtually obligatory in sub-Arctic and Arctic environ­ments, where food storage is not so technically difficult (stored food will not spoil in the freezing conditions), but where substantial quantities of food energy must be amassed if the group’s winter survival is to be safeguarded. HG societies in such environ­ments typically invest much energy in strategies that enable them to cope with extreme seasonality—in particular, mass harvesting and mass storage.

2.1.5 Mass Harvesting

To exploit seasonal gluts of animal food requires first an efficient technology and social organization, so that by a concentration of effort a huge surplus of food energy can be amassed. Hunting wild reindeer/ caribou, for example, requires leadership, communal effort, and the creation of decoys, barriers, and pitfall traps covering extensive areas, so that many animals can be killed during the window of opportunity that opens up during the brief period of migration in the fall. At Rondane in central Norway, wild reindeer were hunted on a large scale during the period 1000-1200 ad. On the high plateaus, large trapping systems were designed using 3-km lines of wooden stakes to guide the animals into a steep gully, where they could be slaughtered in a funnel-shaped corral. 0rnulf Vorren has found and mapped the remains of 1700 stakes, each supported on a cairn of stones and requiring timber to be transported from pine forests located at least 10 km away. It was obviously hard work to set up and to maintain this system, and the hunt needed the coordinated efforts of many people, but the reward was a large stockpile of meat and furs. When the snows came, this stockpile could be transported to winter base camps on sledges, using tame reindeer as draft animals.

2.1.6 Mass Storage

The limits to energy storage capacity have often been set less by people’s capacity to collect food than by their capacity to store it. For HG groups to take advantage of seasonal runs of fish, for example, they require large investments in weirs, nets, and traps, and these must be in place before harvesting begins. Equally important, however, are the investments in processing, transport, and secure storage of such foods. For groups such as the Chinook, Salish, or Kwakiutl, which occupy the big rivers of the north­west coast of North America, a heavy fall run of salmon represented a crisis of abundance. How much food could be stored depended mainly on the number of hands available for the work of cutting and skewering the fish, how many drying racks had been prepared in houses, the availability of fuel for smoke, and the number of containers available. Preserving food was largely women’s work, and the key role of women was reflected in contested rights over them, high bride prices, and the institution of slavery.

Not all fish keep equally well, and many salmon species cannot be preserved for the winter simply by drying. On the Columbia River, for example, the Chinook dried the filleted salmon and then pulver­ized it with berries. Tons of this preserved food was then stored in wooden boxes sealed with oil rendered from sea mammal fat. On the Great Plains, buffalo meat was prepared in a similar way with berries and grease to make pemmican, which, if made properly, could be stored for years, although most was consumed within a single year.

Techniques to preserve food energy, such as salting, drying, and smoking, all represent major investments. Like the technology of mass harvesting, these storage technologies represent forms both of stored energy and of social capital to provide the reserves without which winter survival would be impossible. A consequence of the investments in traps and storage is that a form of property is created by the group or individual responsible, and this property and the territories that serve as catchments (pastures, bays, rivers) may also be defended by groups against outsiders. In such circumstances, too, a more strati­fied and hierarchical HG society tends to emerge.

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