Rethinking Binford's Utility Indices: Interpretive Problems in Northern Environments and Their Pleistocene Analogs

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John D Speth


One of Binford's most influential contributions was his development of utility indices—rankings of ungulate body parts according to their meat, marrow, and grease value. Binford's immediate objective was to model the butchering and processing decisions made by Alaskan caribou-hunting Inuit. Ultimately, his goal was much broader—to use these models as a means to better understand the way Eurasian Middle and Upper Paleolithic hunters dealt with reindeer, caribou's Old World cousin. The original models were excessively complex and subsequent studies have simplified several of them. Important as these modified versions may be, the improvements mostly address technical and methodological issues, and miss a fundamental interpretive problem. Both Binford's original Modified General Utility Index (MGUI) and the more streamlined Food Utility Index (FUI) place the upper fore- and hindlimbs among the highest-ranking anatomical units, in large part because of the mass of muscle tissue associated with these areas of the carcass. But traditional northern foragers, including Binford's own Nunamiut informants, considered muscle meat (i.e., "steaks") as dog food or white man's food. In other words, Binford's interpretation of his utility indices was not a close reflection of Nunamiut food valuations but more than likely a projection of Western, and his own, food preferences. What traditional northern foragers most valued in the limbs was their fatty marrow content, not the lean muscle. A more realistic ranking of body parts, though far more difficult to operationalize in an archaeological context, would look more like the following: most highly ranked would be the back fat, fat on the neck and rump, fatty tissue surrounding the intestines and internal organs (kidneys, liver, etc.), and marrow. Also highly ranked would be the fattiest meat cuts, especially the tongue, ribs, and brisket. The brain, though rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, is less easily assigned a rank. It is clear that in many ethnographic and ethnohistoric contexts, the head is considered a very desirable food. However, in numerous ethnohistoric accounts the brain was not eaten, but was used instead to soften and tan hides. Hides for clothing, shelter, and equipment were also highly ranked, though their value fluctuated according to the hunting group's changing needs. Bone grease, like hides, at times was also important, but because its extraction required considerable time and effort, it is difficult to assign an across-the-board valuation. And finally, the parts that most often occupied last place among Indigenous hunters were the lean muscle masses, their use limited by physiological constraints to the amount of protein an individual could safely consume and metabolize on a daily basis. As a consequence, interpretation of cutmarks is less straightforward than zooarchaeologists commonly assume. An abundance of such marks on meaty limb elements does not necessarily indicate that hunters were after the meat. Instead, the cutmarks may be the incidental byproduct of having to dismember the limbs and remove the muscle in order to get at the marrow. In support of this view, marrow indices are often better predictors of bone transport than heavily meat-biased indices such as the MGUI and FUI.

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