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