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

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).
1991  Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hodder, I.
1990  The Domestication of Europe: Structure and Contingency in Neolithic Societies. JSTOR.

Johnson, M.
2011  Archaeological Theory: An Introduction. John Wiley & Sons.

Llamas, B., L. Fehren-Schmitz, G. Valverde, J. Soubrier, S. Mallick, N. Rohland, S. Nordenfelt, C. Valdiosera, S. M. Richards, A. Rohrlach, M. L. B. Romero, I. F. Espinoza, E. T. Cagigao, L. W. Jiménez, K. Makowski, I. S. L. Reyna, J. M. Lory, J. A. B. Torrez, M. A. Rivera, R. L. Burger, M. C. Ceruti, J. Reinhard, R. S. Wells, G. Politis, C. M. Santoro, V. G. Standen, C. Smith, D. Reich, S. Y. W. Ho, A. Cooper, and W. Haak
2016  Ancient Mitochondrial DNA Provides High-Resolution Time Scale of the Peopling of the Americas. Science Advances 2(4).

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

Núñez, L.
1983  Paleoindian and Archaic Cultural Periods in the Arid and Semiarid Regions of Northern Chile. Advances in World Archaeology 2: 161–203.

Rademaker, K.
2014  Late Ice-Age Human Settlement of the High-Altitude Peruvian Andes. Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte 23: 13.
Sandweiss, Daniel H.
2008  Early Fishing Societies in Western South America. In The Handbook of South American Archaeology, edited by Helaine Silverman and William H. Isbell, pp. 145–156. Springer New York.

Santoro, C., and L. Nunez
1987  Hunters of the Dry Puna and the Salt Puna in Northern Chile. Andean past 1: 57–109.

Spector, Janet D.
1993  What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village. Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul.

Thomas, J.
1998  Time, Culture and Identity: an Interpretive Archaeology. Psychology Press.

Tilley, C.
1996  An Ethnography of the Neolithic: Early Prehistoric Societies in Southern Scandinavia. Cambridge University Press.

Willey, G. R.
1971  An introduction to American Archaeology, Vol. 2: South America. Prentice-Hall, New York.

Zvelebil, M.
1996  The Agricultural Frontier and the Transition to Farming in the Circum-Baltic Region. The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia: 323–345.