Identity and Interdisciplinary Studies: a comparison of archaeological and bioarchaeological perspectives

Identity is a broad and encompassing topic that touches on every aspect of our lives, so it makes sense that anthropological engagement of identity takes many forms. This blog post looks at two of these engagements, archaeology and biological anthropology, to (1) see where differences and similarities lie in the investigation of identity, and (2) to explore if one sub-discipline really needs the other.

To do this, two articles were selected by specialists in the respective fields: Creighton, a biological anthropologist looking at Roman diet through stable isotopes, and Brett, a paleoethnobotanist exploring early hunter-gatherer diet, subsistence, and foodways in the south-central Andes. A brief description of the articles are presented below, as well as discussions on common threads and divergences between the articles.

Knudson KJ, Stojanowski CM. 2008. New Directions in Bioarchaeology: Recent Contributions to the Study of Human Social Identities. J Archaeol Res 16: 397-432.

Knudson and Stojanowski (2008) state that their paper has two purposes: (1) to review methodological improvements and new directions related to the study of identity in bioarchaeology, and (2) to outline the contributions bioarchaeologists have made to the study of identity in the past. Essentially: the how and the what of bioarchaeological investigations of identity. Before moving forward, however, it may be useful to include their definition of identities: “identities are the process by which the person seeks to integrate his [or her] various statuses and roles, as well as his [or her] diverse experiences, into a coherent image of self”.

The How: Studying identity comes with a whole host of methods in biological anthropology. This section, clearly designed for the biological anthropologist who wants to investigate identity, focuses on recent improvements, including new (and possibly more accurate) sex and age estimation methods, as well as advancements in paleodemographic analysis (demography, fertility, and mortality rates), biodistance analysis (population history and structure), biogeochemistry (paleodietary and mobility) and the incorporation of anthropologie de terrain for more properly understanding the burial process.

The What: Knudson and Stokanowski then go through the main questions that bioarchaeologists grapple with when looking at identity in the past. These include questions of health, disease and disability, gender, age, social identity (body modification), embodiment, and ethnic identity. These questions highlight that biological anthropologists need to employ a wide-range of methods to understand identity in a small way.

Jarvenpa, R., and H. J. Brumbach. (2014 ). Hunter-Gatherer Gender and Identity. In The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hubter-Gatherers, edited by V. Cummings, J. Peter, and M. Zvelelbil. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

The book chapter Hunter-Gatherer Gender and Identity written by Robert Jarvena and Hetty Jo Brumbach concerns the anthropological and archaeological study of gender and identity in hunter-gatherer societies. Its two main purposes are to review key themes in recent research on hunter-gatherer identity, specifically gender, and to explore avenues for future research. In the first half of the chapter, Jarvena and Brumbach outline contemporary themes including: (1) labour variability and flexibility, (2) household organization and activity areas, (3) tools and tool-kits, and (4) harvesting, processing, and asymmetries of power. I have provided a brief summary for each below:

(1)  Labour Variability and Flexibility: Recent ethnographic literature shows that men’s and women’s labour roles in hunter-gatherer societies are often more flexible and variable than rigid dichotomies would suggest (i.e. man the hunter, woman the gatherer).
(2)  Household Organization and Activity Areas: Although some gendered household organizational patterns and activity areas have been identified in the archaeological record, there is also evidence for commingling of men’s and women’s activity areas.(3)  Tools and Tool-Kits: Ascribing gender categories to artifacts based on simple hunter-gatherer gender dichotomies may be misleading. For example, despite the traditional association of hunting with men, recent ethnographic hunter-gatherer research has shown that women often integral to many aspects of hunting activities such as the skinning of hides, processing of meat, and preparation of foodstuffs. As such, we need highly contextualized ethnographic accounts of actual technology to make inferences about gender dynamics in the archaeological record.
(4)  Harvesting, Processing, and Asymmetries of Power: Similarly to the last point, recent ethnographic research has shown that women were involved, and vital, to the many aspects of traditionally perceived male activities such as the preparation and processing stages of hunting. Generalized male-female dichotomies about hunter-gatherers fail to address this point and thus, marginalize women in hunter-gatherer societies.

In the second half of the chapter, Jarvena and Brumbach transition from their discussion of recent themes to outline a number of directions for future research including (1) the sexual division of labour, (2) cosmological and sacred power, (3) gender and children, (4) alternative gender roles, and (5) political and colonial transformations of gender. I have provided a brief summary of each below:

(1)  The Sexual Division of Labour: The sexual division of the labour needs to be reconceptualized. As mentioned earlier, Jarvena and Brumbach advocate for fine-grained ethnoarchaeological investigations into contemporary hunter-gatherer men’s and women’s labour routines to illuminate additional continuities and discontinuities with traditional male/female dichotomies.
(2)  Cosmological and Sacred Power: We need additional research into hunter-gatherer relations with the sacred (i.e. spirits, place in the cosmos, etc.) that investigate gendered variability in the access, utilization, and display of sacred power. For example, recent ethnographic research has shown that in Chipewan society, men and women acquire sacred power differently.
(3)  Gender and Children: Jarvena and Brumbach note that although formative experiences during childhood are critical to the construction of gender roles in adult life, there remains to comprehensive studies on the topic in hunter-gatherer studies. Areas of potential future research interest include play activities, lore and games, miniatures and toys, and mentoring activities.
(4)  Alternative Gender Roles: They suggest that we need additional research into alternative gender identities, such as third- and fourth-gender personae for revealing new realms of expanding social possibilities and boundaries in hunter-gatherer societies.
(5)  Political and Colonial Transformations of Gender: Finally, hunter-gatherer studies would benefit from additional research into the influence of historical processes (i.e. political and colonial) on gender. For example, how might have gender ideologies been imposed on hunter-gatherer peoples by dominating political forces? How have they been resisted or accommodated?

Comments and Questions

Although the cross-cutting disciplinary theme discussed here is broadly ‘identity’, Jarvenpa and Brumbach’s chapter focuses primarily on gender. As such, our comparative discussion is in large part centered around that particular facet of identity. This is not to ignore other aspects, such as age, sex, and status for example, that are clearly important in bioarchaeological and archaeological investigations of identity but, rather, to address common ground between the two articles in sufficient resolution.

A key theme advocated by Jarvenpa and Brumbach was the need for hunter-gatherer studies to move beyond simple, rigid, gender dichotomies (i.e. man the hunter, woman the gatherer) perpetuated by the field’s long standing focus on men. Similar critiques have come forward in biological anthropology, but current methods are still entrenched in these binary divisions (for example, sex estimations place emphasis on male and female, and have little or no room to consider non-binary or gender nonconforming identities).

To move beyond this simplistic dichotomy, Jarvenpa and Brumbach cite ethnoarchaeology as a means to better locate women in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies because it involves interplay between various types of data (i.e. ethnography, ethnohistory, and archaeology). Although they don’t call for a use of ethnoarchaeology by name, Knudson and Stokanowski (2008) state that context is everything, and only by considering a broad range of contextual details, can the field of biological anthropology develop and grow. However, in both papers, it seemed that these were more words, than action. For example, in their discussion on the division between gender/sex, Knudson and Stokanowski briefly mention non-binary genders, but don’t really stress the importance of other lines of evidence (i.e. iconographic evidence of a third gender, oral traditions of berdache, etc.) for identifying non-binary genders, or for supporting the assumption of a male/female divide. Similarly, Jarvenpa and Brumbach frequently cite bioarchaeological studies in their chapter as contributing to our understanding of gender in hunter-gatherer societies yet were somewhat ignored in their suggestions for further research. Although they did not explicitly advocate for biocultural research in their conclusions, Jarvenpa and Brumbach clearly support the use of multiple interdisciplinary data-sets to build more nuanced interpretations of gender in hunter-gatherer studies.  While both papers, from different sub-disciplines support – and even call for – more interdisciplinary work, they seem somewhat narrow in scope.

To address the question posed earlier, “Does one sub-discipline really need the other?”, we  argue yes. Perhaps, the first step of interdisciplinary studies, is admitting you need it. While these studies argue that identity can only be approached through methods like ethnoarchaeology, or other interdisciplinary practices, it may be up to future generations of anthropologists to commit to this call, and put words into practice. Together, this makes research in identity very exciting, as new lines of evidence come together, new ideas, and new collaborations.

Identity is multifaceted, it makes sense that our analysis of identity would be the same.