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.


A Review of a Review

This week’s blog feels like a challenge to do something new and unexpected. We have been asked to find a literature review article pertinent to our research and analyze its strengths and weaknesses. Essentially, which you may have guessed by this week’s title, I am writing a review of a review. The first challenge was to choose an article that parallels my research interests. I thought back to the discussion we had in our class last week about Luker’s “bedraggled daisy” (2007: 81), a term she uses to refer to what is essentially a Venn diagram of our research frames – the things that our case study is about. The point of the bedraggled daisy exercise was to find the points of intersection between our research frames. I considered my research frames, such as Archaic Period, paleoethnobotany, and Andes, and the points of intersection that I identified during the exercise last week. What I quickly realized was that there was not, or I was having trouble finding, a literature review that closely paralleled my points of intersection. I needed to reduce the specificity of my search. What I then encountered however was that, although there more choices, finding a contemporary article would became challenging. I looked very hard for a review of current Archaic Period research but was largely unsuccessful. There was an abundant supply of articles available but most were pre-twenty-first century so I grudgingly decided to fight the urge to chase that rabbit and pivoted my search. I ended up with is a paleoethnobotany focused literature review article titled “New World Paleoethnobotany in the New Millennium (2000–2013)” by Vanderwalker et al., published in the Journal of Archaeological Research. I would have liked to find an article that met my research interests to a greater degree of specificity but, nevertheless, this article situates itself at the point of intersection between a few frames such as paleoethnobotany, foodways, and social organization while mentioning on other frames such as hunter-gatherers and the Andes. As such, I hope my review of this review will provide some useful insights relevant to my research.

The main purpose of this article is to evaluate the current state of paleoethnobotany. Vanderwalker et al. discuss “advances in methods, ancient subsistence reconstructions, the origins and intensification of agriculture, and how plants inform on issues of political economy and identity” (2015: 125). They emphasize methodological developments in the realm of phytoliths and starch grains, their contribution to a better understanding of early domestication and the transition to food production, an increasing use of complex quantitative techniques (i.e. multi-discriminate variable analysis), and, in general, more nuanced interpretations of plants that address issues of gender, identity, and ritual practice in the realm of social archaeology. Vanderwalker et al. organized the paper thematically as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Advances in methods focusing particularly on the ongoing development of microbotanical analyses.
  3. Reconstructions of subsistence practices
  4. The origins and intensification of agriculture
  5. The role of maize (Zea mays)
  6. How plant data are used to understand ancient ritual practices
  7. The intersection of plant foods with politics and identity
  8. Conclusions and Future Directions

The structure of this article was well laid out in my opinion. Vanderwalker et al. began very generally by defining paleoethnobotany and laying out the key issues, then worked these down into specific categories and case studies, and concluded with a summary and future directions in research. As this article contains a lot of information on a diverse range of subjects, breaking down the key issues into specific sub-headings was particularly useful. Vanderwalker et al. made no insights regarding the structure, yet I found it clear and logical to follow. Creighton Avery, in her blog post “A review of a review: Bone Morphologies and Histories (Agarwal, 2016)” reviews the article “Bone Morphologies and Histories: Life Course Approaches in Bioarcheology” by Sabrina Agarwal. She comments that Agarwal’s review in successful in part because focuses on summarizing key conclusions instead of overwhelming the reader with details. I felt that this was also a particular strength of the Vanderwalker et al. article discussed here.

As Luker (2007) pointed out, literature reviews are incredibly useful because they reference the influential and frequently cited literature on that particular topic. Essentially, in this particular age of “info-glut”, literature reviews find the needle in the haystack so you don’t have too. “New World Paleoethnobotany in the New Millennium (2000–2013)” does just that. Vanderwalker et al. laced the article with references to key publications from categories as straight-forward as “methods” to as abstract as “identity” (see below for a full list).

A particular strength of the Vanderwalker et al. piece is that it does not simply conclude with a summary, but rather with a “future directions” section. Concluding in this way answers the “so what?” question by providing stimulus for future research necessary to move key issues in the discipline forward. Although I would have liked to find a review article that connected with more of my research frames. I was still able to tease a number of citations relevant to New World Archaic Period studies that I think will be particularly useful for my research.

Searching through review articles was an enlightening exercise and I imagine that I will be searching for and using many more in the future.


Vanderwalker et al. Sub-headings: advances in methods, taphonomy, data recovery and extraction, plant identification and quantitative analysis, experiments in ancient food processing, reconstructing ancient subsistence economies, plant food processing, preparation, and cooking, domestication, cultivation, and agriculture, indigenous domesticates, the spread of garden crops, maize cultivation, agriculture and mixed economies, ritual uses of plants, feasting, mortuary and internment rituals, caves as ritual spaces, political economy, labor, and domestic practice, gender, identity, culture contact, and future directions.


Agarwal S.C.
2016  Bone Morphologies and Histories: Life Course Approaches in Bioarchaeology. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 159: S130-S149.

Luker, K.
2008  Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: Research in an Age of Info-Glut. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

VanDerwarker, A. M., D. N. Bardolph, K. M. Hoppa, H. B. Thakar, L. S. Martin, A. L. Jaqua, M. E. Biwer, and K. M. Gill
2015  New World Paleoethnobotany in the New Millennium (2000–2013). Journal of Archaeological Research 24(2): 125–177