Coles, B.J. 2006 “Beavers in Britain’s Past” WARP Occasional Paper 19. Oxford: Oxbow. x+242 pages, 158 illustrations; ISBN 978-1-84217-2261, paperback £40. Reviewed by Felix Riede, University College London
Bryony Coles’ Beavers in Britain’s Past is an enjoyable read, yet the reader’s satisfaction must no doubt pale in light of the author’s: for Bryony Coles, now Professor in Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Exeter, beavers and their material traces have been a research focus and a passion for over twenty years now, and this book is the culmination of the ‘Beaver Works Project’. Beginning with the recognition of wood artefacts on the Somerset Levels, which had evidently been shaped by the European beaver Castor fiber (Coles & Orme 1983), this inter- and multi-disciplinary project – appropriately funded by the AHRC, NERC, the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy – involved a great deal of archival detective work and fieldwork, which could perhaps best be described not as ethno-archaeology, but rather as ‘etho-archaeology’. As Coles (p. ix) reflects, this “project…was neither straight archaeology nor ecology nor history” and so it will appeal to a wide audience.
The volume is structured into thirteen chapters, comes with five useful, data-rich appendices, as well as a solid bibliography and index. It is richly illustrated throughout, although some of the images lack in resolution. The few scattered typographic or type-setting errors do not distract from the overall intellectual as well as production volume, whose availability as a paperback will surely promote its wide distribution amongst archaeologists, and perhaps even beyond to conservation ecologists and historians.
Beginning with a review of general beaver behaviour (Ch. 1), the monograph presents the results and archaeological implications of detailed fieldwork on European Castor populations in France (Ch. 2 and 3). This sets the stage for the re-examination of what Coles calls the ‘beaver record’ and its relation to the ‘human record’, from the Late Glacial to the recent past (Ch. 4 to 12). Several points are worth highlighting here. Beavers are associated with human occupation from quite early on (there are beaver bones at Boxgrove in association with H. heidelbergensis, and at Pontnewydd Cave where H. neanderthalensis remains were found). Although Coles is rightly cautious about necessarily linking these remains directly with human exploitation of beavers at these times, it makes clear that environs attractive to early hominins overlapped substantially with those of beavers. From the Late Glacial and certainly from the Mesolithic onwards, this association becomes more strongly expressed. Beaver bones and traces of their activities are found, for instance, at Star Carr, but also at sites beyond the shores of Britain, such as Stellmoor in Germany (Bratlund 1999), or Bromme in Denmark (Mathiassen 1948). Could it be therefore that, as Charles (1997) suggested, the exploitation of animals other than large herbivores and for purposes other than basic subsistence played a role in the pioneer human re-colonisation of these northern landscapes, and in structuring their settlement patterns? The use of beaver fur for clothing, of beaver meat as a delicacy, but also of the beaver sacs (glands which produce castoreum, a secretion used in territorial marking) for medicinal purposes is well attested for later periods and may well have been a pull-factor for human colonisation. The close association between Castor and Homo continues but the later chapters in a way make for sad reading. They chart how the demographic and ecological balance between beavers and humans shifts and how the latter increasingly encroached upon the vital environs of the former, resulting in their final – but later than commonly assumed – extinction in Britain during the recent past. Interspersed with a useful and critical chapter on beaver place-names and their use and utility in historical ecology, there are many fresh insights and much data to be found here.
The concluding chapter (Ch. 13) sums up the implications from this sustained and so far unique research project. There are obvious lessons for field archaeologists here as beavers are yet another agent to consider when reconstructing the taphonomy and history of a site, especially in a wetland context. Through her work, Coles has single-handedly raised awareness of this amongst practitioners. In addition, beavers produce artefacts that are on first glance may be confused with humanly-made stakes, and in fact Coles (p. 200) suggests that “[m]aybe beavers do have material culture” and that “archaeology has tended to downplay the potential sophistication of the behaviour of early humans as animals, and also the complexity of the practices of non-human animals” (p. 201). These are interesting suggestions, but here Coles does not go far enough. The presence of material culture in non-human animals is today a vigorous research field (e.g., Avital & Jablonka 2000; Fragaszy & Perry 2003; Reader & Laland 2003). In fact, Dawkins (1982) argued a long time ago that beaver dams and lodges are their extended phenotypes, analogous to human material culture. Also, beavers have of course long been considered as ecological key-stone species, but, more recently, these effects have been formally integrated in the niche construction framework (see Odling-Smee et al. 2003), which recognises and analytically grapples with the ecological engineering behaviours such as beavers (Wright et al. 2002), but also humans (Laland & Brown 2006; Laland et al. 2000; 2001). Therefore, if this project was to continue, it would be highly desirable to integrate the rich data presented here with the sophisticated models now used by ecologists, and to collect both modern as well as ancient DNA evidence for the history of beavers, much like it has been done for many other European mammals (Hewitt 1999; 2004). Studies about the past of Castor could then further inform the debate about its future (Boogert et al. 2006). Re-introduction programmes are currently being implemented in England and Wales, and, perhaps of greatest interests to readers of this journal, soon also in Scotland (see www.scotsbeavers.org).
Beavers in Britain’s Past will be a handy and useful resource for many years to come, and hopefully it will stimulate another wave of research on the beaver as well as perhaps other similarly overlooked animals. This book is the result of a wholly novel and intellectually wide-ranging research programme whose results are presented with eloquence and, indeed, humour, making it deeply fascinating and satisfying reading for archaeologists, ecologists and historians alike.
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