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 Presentation

Continuing in the spirit of reviews, this week’s challenge was to review a presentation. I considered those I had seen the past, such as guest-lectures at universities and presentations at conferences, but settled on a YouTube link primarily for accessibility. This allowed me to revisit the presentation on my own time and pick out details that may have been missed during the live performance. I contemplated reviewing a presentation by Jared Diamond considering our classes recurring discussion on his controversial, yet undeniably effective, methods of reaching the public. However, I decided it would be more beneficial to review a presentation that more closely paralleled my specific research objectives and, quite frankly, didn’t annoy me as much. I sifted through a few examples by highly esteemed authors in my field (i.e. Mark Aldenderfer, Tom Dillehay) and settled on a presentation by Anna Roosevelt called New Light on the Peopling of South America, presented at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History’s Archaeology Lecture Series in 2012. I chose Roosevelts presentation because it is situated nicely in the context of my research. The primary focus is on current models of the peopling of the South America and many of the examples discussed overlap with the local spatio-temporal context of my project (i.e. Quebrada Jaguay, Quebrada Tacahuay, Guitarrero Cave and other Pleistocene and Early Holocene dated sites in the south-central Andes).

Similarly to my previous reviews posted here, my review involves a summary of key points, an assessment of the content, style/voice, and structure, and a short discussion regarding the value of the presentation to my specific research.



Anna Curtenius Roosevelt is an American born archaeologist who specializes in the study of human ecology and evolution. She is primarily known for her work over the past twenty-five years on Paleoindian archaeology in Brazil’s Amazon Basin for which she is credited with the discovery of Monte Alegre, the oldest known Paleoindian site in the Amazon Basin (~10,000 – 11,000 c. B.P.) (Roosevelt et al., 2002). Recently Roosevelt has expanded her research to preceramic sites in the Congo Basin of the southwestern Central African Republic.

In case you were wondering, yes, she is related to former president Theodore Roosevelt. She is his great granddaughter.


The main purpose of Roosevelt’s presentation was to discuss models of the peopling of the Americas in light of new archaeological evidence. These hypothesize the timing and route/s of entry by people into the most recent geographical expansion of our species. Roosevelt shows that many long held assumptions regarding the canonical ice-free-corridor and ‘Clovis first’ models have recently been overturned by new archaeological evidence and advances in methods. Some of the key points include: Paleoindians were not exclusively highly-mobile big-game hunters and were likely not responsible for the extinction of megafauna in the Americas, there are now many examples of Paleoindians living sedentary or semi-sedentary lifestyles and practicing broad-spectrum subsistence strategies in diverse environments, many early dates are less secure than previously thought, and there is no concrete evidence of a ‘pre-Clovis’ culture. Regarding the timing and routes of entry, it is currently commonly accepted that people first entered North America via Beringia, the now drowned landmass that connected modern day Siberia to Alaska, after which they dispersed throughout the continents through a combination of the coastal migration and ice-free corridor models by at least 12,000-13,000 c. B.P.


Roosevelt did an excellent job referencing up-to-date material and presenting both mainstream and alternative theories on the topic. I am always leery when an author/s avoids competing arguments but Roosevelt was indiscriminate in her discussion. I chose this presentation partly because I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable on the subject matter and could do some personal fact-checking throughout. That being said, I noticed a few hiccups. For example, when discussing ‘pre-Clovis’ alternatives Roosevelt commented “So, were going to take a look at South America and I promise you will see no fluted points and there will be no Clovis points and I’m not hiding anything from you” (0:29:51). This is simply not true, Klink and Aldenderfer (2005) reported the discovery of fluted fish-tail points throughout the Andes several years before her presentation. In addition, after discussing Kennewick Man and problems with interpretations based on skeletal morphology she argues, based on skeletal morphology, that skeletal remains from Palli Aike in Patagonia were “definitely Amerindian” (1:29:40). Regardless, according to my knowledge the majority of her examples appeared accurate.

There was perhaps a slight over-emphasis of the importance of her own work in the Amazon Basin. This is understandable as she has a somewhat implicit obligation for the self-promotion of our own research. That being said her research undoubtedly provides important evidence informing contemporary models but perhaps not to the degree she suggested.


Roosevelt presented well for an academic audience. She was professional, well-spoken, and provided slides that complemented her narration nicely. I personally dislike it when slides contain an overwhelming amount of text and generally prefer supplemental figures and images that contextualize the content. To be honest, this is also an opportunity to inject some eye candy. She lightened the mood on the odd occasion with a joke or personal account and kept the audience on their toes with a chance question. Additionally, in the subsequent discussion Roosevelt addressed a very nitpicky question in a very professional manner, it was an instructive demonstration.

However, probably due to her extensive knowledge on the subject Roosevelt went down a few rabbit holes and ran short on time. I feel a more formal conclusion that summarized key points and provided direction for future research would have improved her presentation. This also meant there was not adequate time for discussion yet the audience unfortunately did not appear very engaged anyway. Roosevelt’s lack of experimentation with alternative presentation styles earned her no creativity points but she nonetheless executed a fairly standard long-form lecture presentation.


Unsurprisingly, Roosevelt’s entry point was to discuss the current debate regarding where and when people first arrived in the Americas. Although her presentation was primarily focused on the colonization of South America, the generally accepted origin point of all Americans is Beringia. As such, this is a common point of entry for all discussions regarding the peopling of the Americas regardless of the geographic context (i.e. South, North, or Central America).

The general flow of ideas followed a geographic North to South gradient starting at Beringia and ending at Patagonia. As she moved through regions she discussed key evidence and assumptions contributing to the development of colonization models. Although she adhered primarily to a North to South geographic gradient, for the most part she presented her evidence chronologically and historically. Her slides acted as headers for her discussion topics and provided a smooth means of transition from one idea to the next. Although the kept to her itinerary quite closely at times, as I pointed out earlier she also diverged from the subject matter and elaborated on sometimes distantly related personal experiences throughout.


I found this presentation valuable to my project for a number of reasons. First, because the subject matter closely paralleled my research interests I was able identify how my work is situated in and contributes to literature and debate. For example, I know my research is critical for studying Paleoindian subsistence which closely parallels the central theme throughout the presentation that Paleoindians were not solely specialized big-game hunters but also practiced broad-spectrum subsistence strategies. My paleoethnobotanical research at the Cuncaicha Rockshelter in southern Peru has the potential to contribute valuable information to this debate. In addition, she discussed sites important to the local spatio-temporal context of my research (i.e. Quebrada Jaguay, Quebrada Tacahuay, and Guitarrero Cave) that were both entertaining and informative.

Second, there was much to learn from Roosevelt’s presentation style and behavior. As I discussed earlier, she did a good job of incorporating personal experiences and jokes into her discussion that lightened the mood. In addition, she occasionally directed a question towards the audience to keep them engaged. However, I think this is perhaps more appropriate in a lecture compared to a conference format.


Klink, Cynthia, and Mark Aldenderfer
2005  A Projectile Point Chronology for the South-Central Andean Highlands. Advances in Titicaca Basin Archaeology 1: 25–54.

Museum of Natural and Cultural History
2013  New Light on the People of South America. Electronic document,, accessed March 6, 2017.

Roosevelt, A. C., J. Douglas, and L. Brown
2002  The Migrations and Adaptations of the First Americans: Clovis and pre-Clovis viewed From South America. The First Americans: The Pleistocene Colonization of the New World 27: 159–236.

A Review: Part 2

The challenge for this week’s blog post it to find, annotate, and review three articles from anthropological journals. For obvious reasons, I have selected articles I think will be pertinent and helpful to the writing of my final paper for this course which I discussed earlier in the blog post “Reflections on Archaeological Theory” published here. One of the goals of my writing project is to review contemporary literature in the spatio-temporal context of my research, the early Archaic Period of the south-central Andes, to see how authors today are, or aren’t, challenging the “canonical” ecological narrative. As such, I have chosen three recently published journal articles that deal with early hunter-gatherer studies, two of which focus on early Paleoindian sites in south-central Andes, encompassing various frames of my research. These include “Entrenched Disbelief: Complex Hunter-Gatherers and the Case for Inclusive Cultural Evolutionary Thinking” (2016), by Arnold et al., published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, “Cordage, Textiles, and the Late Pleistocene Peopling of the Andes” (2011), by Jolie et al., published in Current Anthropology and “Terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene Fishing Strategies at Quebrada Jaguay and the Ring Site, Southern Perú” (2016), by Reitz et al., published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. As I have been reading a number of broad theoretical papers and reviews lately, the two articles that deal with a similar context of my research, Jolie et al. and Reitz et al., are case studies. I specifically chose these in order to explore how some of the contemporary concepts and approaches I have reviewed are being put into practice.

Arnold, J. E., S. Sunell, B. T. Nigra, K. J. Bishop, T. Jones, and T. J. A. B. Bongers
2016  Entrenched Disbelief: Complex Hunter-Gatherers and the Case for Inclusive Cultural Evolutionary Thinking. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 23(2): 448–499. 

Keywords: sedentism, agriculture, complex hunter-gatherer, political complexity, sociopolitical, cultural evolution, model, emergent complexity,

The main purpose of this article is to critique agriculture-based models which argue that the adoption of domesticates was necessary for the development and emergence of political complexity. Arnold et al. argue, using a number of examples documenting “… politically complex hunter-gatherer (CHG) societies… ” (488), that reliance upon agriculture, or any specific subsistence intensification (i.e. fishing, herding, etc.), was not necessary for the emergence of social and political complexity. In addition, they identify a number of individuals that were seminal to the development of such models which today continue to position intensification as foundational to everything complex. In an outright rejection of these interpretations, Arnold et al. offer a new model to give structure to the discussion of cultural evolution that excises intensification a necessary to social and political complexity. The key tenants of their new model are that it is inclusive (i.e. encourages discourse of all societies), nonprogressive (does not emphasize change, improvement or “progress”), and works in any spatio-temporal cultural context. Arnold et al. argue that any and all sociopolitical contexts and issues can be discussed via consideration of seven particular platforms. In no particular order, they include agency and authority, social differentiation, participation in communal events, organization of production, labor obligations, articulation of ecology and subsistence, and territoriality and ownership. To demonstrate their model, the authors re-evaluate case studies that have been used to argue for intensification-based models and show that, rather than diet, the organization and integration of labor was critical to the emergence of political complexity.

This article presents the most forward argument out of all the papers this week. It is an outright attack on intensification-based models of emergent political complexity while providing and demonstrating, in my opinion, a strong theoretical and practical alternative. Although the article is focused on breaking down intensification-based models, the real triumph was that it demonstrated how to look for and identify social and political structure in hunter-gatherer societies. This is valuable and pertinent to my writing project because I am interested in exploring, from a human-centric perspective, ancient social and political economies in deep-time and Arnold et al. essentially provide here a model/framework from which to do so.

Jolie, E. A., T. F. Lynch, P. R. Geib, and J. M. Adovasio
2011  Cordage, Textiles, and the Late Pleistocene Peopling of the Andes. Current Anthropology 52(2): 285–296.

Keywords: Guitarrero Cave, Pleistocene, gender, textile, cordage, Andes,  

The overarching issue being addressed in this article is how and when humans colonized Andean South America. Jolie et al. note that this is poorly understood because of a number of controversial archaeological dates and uncertainty about the constraining influence of environmental factors, such as the presence of glaciers in the highlands during the Pleistocene. This paper specifically addresses this issue through a re-evaluation of woven textiles and cords recovered from Guitarrero Cave (2580 masl), a high-altitude late Pleistocene dated archaeological site in the Peruvian Andes. The direct dating results reported by Jolie et al. show that the textiles and cordage are the earliest in the Andes dating to ~12,000 B.P., in part revising Guitarrero early controversial dates. Jolie et al. argue that the textiles, cordage, and “additional evidence for plant processing and fiber-artifact construction suggests a women’s presence among these earliest foraging groups” (285). The competing argument is that environmental conditions and the effects of hypoxia limited occupation of the highlands to small groups of male foragers until ~11,000 B.P. when evidence for permanent highland settlement emerges (285). However, Jolie et al. argue if women were responsible for the textile production and plant-processing evidenced at Guitarrero Cave, as ethnographic data would suggest, they were likely present among foraging groups in the highlands up to a millennium earlier than previously argued. In summary, the authors’ results refine our understanding of the timing of high-altitude colonization of the Andes, illustrate the diversity of technological adaptations that made high-altitude colonization possible, and may indicate the gender of the people who produced said technologies.

This journal article is valuable to my reading project and my M.A. research for a number of reasons. First, it contains a fantastic summary (with key references) of early Archaic Period south-central Andes “canonical” literature and arguments. In addition, there is an abundance of relevant paleoethnobotanical information and references relating to the analyses of botanical remains recovered from Guitarrero Cave and other early Andean sites, many of which are considered the earliest wild plants in South America. Second, this article critically addresses a number of current issues in the study of early Archaic Period peoples of the south-central Andes that intersect with studies. Specifically, the overemphasis of environmental and biological factors as constraining the initial settlement of the high-altitude Andes. Finally, I found this paper to be a great example of how to put a human-centric perspective into practice. In my opinion, Jolie et al. successfully manage to interpret potential early Archaic Period identity, a notoriously difficult endeavor, using ethnohistoric analogy – a strategy I am currently considering. 

Reitz, E. J., H. E. McInnis, D. H. Sandweiss, and S. D. deFrance
2016  Terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene Fishing Strategies at Quebrada Jaguay and the Ring Site, Southern Perú. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 8: 447–453.

 Keywords: Americas, coast, maritime, strategy, social economy, economic economy, subsistence, agency, south-central Andes, Pleistocene, Quebrada Jaguay, Ring Site

In this journal article Reitz et al. argue that current discussions regarding the peopling of the Americas tend to presume that early Paleoindian peoples preferred terrestrial over marine resources and reference “simple models” that assume universal subsistence strategies and stark dichotomies “fail to capture the richness of human solutions to life on this, or any, coast” (447). Using Louis Binford as their entry point, they summarize, discuss, and provide relevant literature for the opposing arguments regarding the importance of marine resources for to early Paleoindian peoples (447). The authors compare and contrast two archaeological sites, Quebrada Jaguay and the Ring Site in southern Peru, to inform their argument. Reitz et al. employ zooarchaeological analysis to show that, although marine resources were central to the economies of each site, slightly different strategies were practiced at each location regardless of their close proximity to each other and access to similar resources. Based on this evidence, they argue that “[p]eople at these two sites made distinct economic decisions, using similar marine resources in dissimilar ways” (448). Reitz et al. argue that this unequivocally shows that maritime resources were adequate to support human life as early as the late Pleistocene and that we must now consider the diversity of ways in which people “met the challenges of coastal life” (448).

This journal article is valuable to my writing project and M.A. research for a number of reasons. First, although making a general argument about the peopling of the Americas, Reitz et al. focus on the spatio-temporal context of my research; late Pleistocene cultures of the south-central Andes. The sites discussed in particular, Quebrada Jaguay and the Ring Site, are intimately interconnected with my research location, the Cuncaicha Rockshelter. Second, my paleoethnobotanical M.A. research at Cuncaicha hopes to contribute to a better understanding of ancient social and economic organization and Reitz et al. argue that the inhabitants of the sites discussed made distinct localized economic decisions. I think the real value for this argument came from the zooarchaeological analysis. At a glance it would appear that Quebrada Jaguay and the Ring Site are fairly similar in that they both show evidence for a maritime subsistence strategy, but when you analyze the localized contextual details (i.e. zooarchaeological and paleoenvironmental analyses) important distinctions appear. What does this say about the social and political structure/organization of these groups? Finally, the authors also touch on the fact that seasonality and population density data from the sites discussed is needed to determine “the role of these sites in a regional social and economic network”. This is relevant as my research at Cuncaicha, specifically the identification of plant taxa and the relevant maturation data, will provide some of the needed data to infer seasonality data for Cuncaicha. This is a good example of a departure from the “canonical” ecological rut in that it challenges arguments that downplay the importance of human agency or use “simple models” that strip early Paleoindian peoples of their rich complexities.

To include a few quick concluding notes, an interesting issue I found with all of these journal articles that I did not notice when I began is that because they are so recently published they have cited by relatively few. As such, it is difficult to gague the reception of these papers among the academic community of the discipline at this particular point. Nonetheless, I look forward to using the annotations and reviews presented here to aid in the writing of my course paper and thesis.


Reflections on Archaeological Theory: Hunting and Gathering in the Andes

A question I am frequently asked by my colleagues, mentors, and supervisors is: What theoretical perspective or stance have you chosen for your research? Personally, I have had a difficult time answering this question and, as such, have chosen this writing opportunity to tackle this problem. I would like this project to serve as a chapter or, perhaps more appropriately, a section of my thesis. Before addressing this further, I think now would be the appropriate time to describe my research interests.

Broadly put, I am interested in what has been referred to in the literature as (take note of the terminology and language) ‘hunter-gatherer’, ‘Archaic Period’, or ‘pre-ceramic’ archaeology in the Andes of South America. Temporally, this genre of archaeology extends from the arrival of the first migrants at the end of the last glacial maximum, at approximately 16,000 B.P. (years before present) to approximately 3,000 B.P. when subsistence activities and settlement patterns are observed to have changed markedly from that of ‘hunter-gatherers’ (llamas et al. 2016; Dillehay 1992). In the south-central Andes, many authors have argued that this was characterized by an increase in resource intensification (i.e. seed grinding) and a drastic reduction in residential mobility (as Louis Binford would have put it) (Aldenderfer 1989; Dillehay et al. 1992; Núñez 1983; Santoro and Nunez 1987; Willey 1971). The majority of archaeological investigations of this spatio-temporal context have focused on a number of common themes such as mobility, resource intensification and specialization, and behavioral and technological adaptations (Aldenderfer 1989; Dillehay et al. 1992; Núñez 1983; Santoro and Nunez 1987; Willey 1971; Sandweiss 2008; Rademaker 2014).

The information presented here is primarily derived from archaeological, ethnographic, ethnohistoric, and ecological sources, most of which was published throughout the mid-late 20th century, a period which featured the rise of the theory of New Archaeology (or what is now referred to as processual archaeology). This has profoundly influenced what I refer to as the regional ‘canonical’ literature, or the officially recognized standard in the region (Luker 2008). The desire for a more ‘scientific’ archaeology led to the heavy use Darwinian theoretical models such as cultural ecology or human behavioral ecology. A key characteristic of which is the employment of concepts such as variation, adaptation, and natural selection to the study of human culture, specifically in relation to the environment. This can be seen quite clearly in the literature by the type of questions asked and the language used. For example, a frequently addressed question is that of mobility and the language used to explore it includes concepts such as ‘site-catchment analysis’, ‘seasonality’, and  ‘transhumance’. Even one of the most commonly used terms, ‘hunter-gatherer’, is itself defined as a subsistence strategy involving the employment of ‘hunting’ and/or ‘gathering’ adaptations. I argue that these examples show how language is embedded or coded with a distinct theoretical meaning.

A major criticism of cultural ecological or human behavioral ecological approaches is that they often present overly reductionist explanations of human behavior. A cultural ecological approach is understandably attractive because it claims to use a ‘scientifically’ derived framework and empirical data to explain culture. However, human behavior is rarely, if ever, quantifiable or linear. This is not to argue that Darwinian or cultural ecological approaches are ‘wrong’ or ‘invalid’, but that they are not the only way of constructing scholarly knowledge of the past. I would agree with cultural ecological theory in that people were intimately connected to the environment but would disagree with arguments that imply this as the single way of presenting archaeological knowledge. It is not my intention to blindly adopt a ‘canonical’ theoretical perspective but to, rather, think critically and develop my own particular angle. I intend to consider aspects of other theoretical perspectives (that certainly have issues as well), such as interpretive archaeology which include concepts such as ‘social actors’, ‘agency’ or Bourdieau’s ‘habitus’ in their language (Gero and Conkey 1991; Hodder 1990; Johnson 2011; Spector 1993; Thomas 1996; Tilley 1996; Zvelebil 1996), in order to discern a theoretical perspective for my own work.

Pluciennik’s words echo my thoughts “… most archaeologists have always acknowledged that their discipline overlaps both sides of the 19th-century divide between the natural and the human sciences and that many of its techniques and specialisms are based on indisputably “hard” science” (1999: 659-660), and “… the most productive means of analysis of archaeological—and other—texts will be themselves either variable or a mix of approaches” (674).

As such, this writing project will entail critical engagement with the ‘canonical’ Darwinian and alternative theory of the south-central Andes, such as interpretive or post-processual (Gero and Conkey 1991; Hodder 1990; Johnson 2011; Spector 1993; Thomas 1996; Tilley 1996; Zvelebil 1996), through a literature review. This will involve the reading and annotating of journal articles, books, book chapters and other relevant forms of literature followed by the writing of an essay addressing which theoretical perspective/s I will use for my research. As I addressed in the prior blog post, in order to improve my writing workflow I have elected to break this project into small, easily digestible, chunks. As such, I have developed a timeline with planning and writing deadlines to keep myself on track. I also intend on including at least three peer revisions per draft. The timeline is as follows:

8-9 March 23 2nd DRAFT COMPLETE
11-12 April 6 FINAL PAPER DUE


Aldenderfer, M. S.
1989  The Archaic Period in the South-Central Andes. Journal of World Prehistory 3(2): 117–158.

Dillehay, T. D., G. A. Calderón, G. Politis, and M. C. Beltrão
1992  Earliest Hunters and Gatherers of South America. Journal of World Prehistory 6(2): 145–204.

Gero, J. M., and W. Conkey (editors).
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