What Makes for Good Anthropological Writing?

For this week’s blog post I have been challenged to discuss what makes an academic anthropological article both succeed and fail through a critical analysis of two articles: one strong and one weak. This is a fairly open-ended and subjective question which I do not believe can be justified with a simple response. Thinking back to what I have learned in Dr. Roddick’s class thus far, I would expect a successful academic journal article to be strong in a number of aspects such as content, voice/style, and structure. These categories are deliberately general in order to acknowledge that there is considerable variation regarding what may be considered ‘successful’ in each.


I would expect that the referenced material is up to date and does not limit itself to classic ‘influential’ work but additionally incorporates, or at a minimum acknowledges, alternative, contemporary material. I would not, however, expect the content to include an argument or an opinion as, for example, annual review papers do not necessarily make an argument (although perhaps implicitly by controlling what research they reference as important) but are arguably successful papers nonetheless. In addition, I have read some of my colleagues’ blog posts this week and noticed some discussion regarding theory selection as important to a successful article which I would like to address further here. With regards to my first point regarding content, I would expect that whatever theoretical perspective the author chooses, they use up to date material and at a minimum acknowledge other relevant competing arguments and models. I would not, however, label an article a failure because they are simply choose a different theoretical perspective than my own. If there is anything we have learned thus far, it is that it is okay to challenge the dominant way of ‘doing’ anthropology.


I would expect that a successful article to be written both clearly and concisely with an intended audience in mind. Considering this, I think the use of ‘in-the-know’ language is neither a strength nor weakness as long as it is used appropriately considering the reader. As this assignment asks us to specifically discuss academically oriented articles I am assuming that the intended audience is academic. In this case, I would expect the correct use of meaningful anthropological jargon, used clearly and concisely, to be a feature of a successful article. I would also expect that there is considerable flexibility regarding what is considered ‘good’ anthropological style. I think there is value to both imitating, to a certain degree, the writing style of influential authors, such as Levi-Strauss or Louis Binford, and challenging the canonical with experimental style such as Kristen Luker.


I would expect similarly as with voice that a successful article moves clearly and smoothly through their points while keeping the audience in mind. Once again, considering the subjectivity of this criteria I acknowledge that there exists considerable successful variation regarding how to go about this. One might stick the traditional, canonical, narrative which, considering archaeology for example, tends to be structured chronologically over time, or innovate with alternative narrative structures that, for example, may be more free-flowing, introspective, or novel-esque in structure. 

Additional Criteria 

In addition to my own criteria, I include here a number of article review questions proposed by Rex, a SavageMinds.org user and author, in the blog post Questioning Collapse that I think will be useful for highlighting a successful paper. These, modified by the author, include: How does the article address the social effects of their research and its accuracy? How is the article influenced by the cultural background of the author? How well does the article stand up to scholarly scrutiny? How well does the article reach the intended audience? These are general, yet strong questions because they are flexible, allowing for a multitude of responses.


Once I developed these measures for identifying successful anthropological articles, I headed to the academic database: Google.Scholar to actually find some articles to review. I used keywords relevant to my research such as ‘hunter-gatherer’, ‘paleoethnobotany’, and ‘New World’ to initiate the search and made particular use of the ‘cited by’ function to access a list of all known publications, with links, citing the particular source. My rationale for this is deceptively simple. Articles that have been cited many times are more likely to be considered successful articles than those that have not. However, it is more complicated because there are a number of factors one must be aware of such as date of publication, publishing medium, publishing body, and nature of the article (i.e. annual review, case study, etc.). For example, if you were to compare an article published in 1970 to one published in 2015, it would not be unusual for the 1970 article to have garnered more references. This does not necessarily indicate that it is more successful, but may rather reflect that it has simply accumulated more references by virtue of time. In addition, the nature of the publishing journal itself will affect an articles dissemination to broader audiences. For example, a small anthropological journal, such as Vegetation, History, and Archaeobotany, would likely reach a smaller audience than, for example American Antiquity. Furthermore, the content of the publication is also important for accumulating references. For example, publications that address broad, over-arching subjects are more likely to be cited than those that focus on specific case studies because they are more likely to fit many frames of research. Finally a reference does not always equal appraisal. In other words, an article may have been cited many times but the content of such citations is not always positive, but sometimes scathing and critical.


Considering this, I selected two articles for this week’s review. The first is “Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy”, written by Cordian et al., published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The second, which I found via the ‘cited by’ list from Cordian et al.’s article, is “Hunter-gatherer Nutrition and Its Implications for Modern Societies”, written by Brent Kious, published in Nutrition Noteworthy.

The Successful

Cordain, L., J. B. Miller, S. B. Eaton, N. Mann, S. HA Holt, and J. D. Speth
2000  Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71(3): 682–692. 

Keywords: hunter-gatherer, diet, ethnography, subsistence, nutrition, plant, animal, macronutrient energy estimation

The main purpose of this article is to discuss how nutritionists and anthropologists reconstruct hunter-gatherer diet via the archaeological record. Because hunter-gatherers do not exist uninfluenced today, reconstructions of diet rely on indirect measures such as ethnographic analogy. As such, Cordain et al. combine ethnographic data with nutritional information to estimate hunter-gatherer plant and animal macronutrient intake requirements. Their results show that hunter-gatherer consumption choices are largely dependent on protein intake. Whenever possible, hunter-gatherers prioritized the consumption of much animal-protein until they encountered the ‘maximal protein ceiling’: the point after which excess consumption of animal-protein would results in an illness known as “rabbit starvation” (688). Cordain et al.’s main conclusion regarding hunter-gatherer diet is that, although exceptions exist, animal based protein tended to be universally preferred over plant based carbs. Relevant to modern societies, the nutritional trends discussed may lead to a better understanding of modern chronic diseases in Westernized societies.

I argue that this is a successful anthropological article for a number of reasons. First, I encountered the article not only because it paralleled my research interests, but because Google.Scholar’s ‘cited by’ function showed that it had been referenced on 651 separate occasions. Upon further inspection, it would appear that this article garnered so many citations because it addresses broad issues (i.e. diet) relevant to a multidisciplinary audience. Comparatively, a specific case study would likely be pertinent to a much smaller niche audience. Regarding content, this article is successful at referencing both classic and contemporary material on the topic, thus demonstrating an awareness of both influential and modern interpretations. Although this paper is undoubtedly based on an explicit argument, it is not my intention criticize of the chosen stance but, rather, to identify that the argument was well-informed and cited with up-to-date relevant information. Regarding voice/style, I felt that article was written clearly and concisely while attempting to be translatable to their intended audience: anthropologists and nutritionists. As the intended audience is cross-disciplinary, I thought that, for the most part, the article did a good job avoiding field specific language and jargon that would have made interpretation difficult for either party. For example, I had a bit of trouble unpacking some of the nutritional language regarding hunter-gatherer macronutrient intake in the methodology section which was likely intended for clinical nutritionists. Regarding structure, Cordain et al. adhered to the typical academic/scientific structure or narrative, not surprising considering that the intended audience is academic. They made good use of accurate headings and, in my opinion, transitioned well from one section to the next. Overall, I think this is a successful anthropological article for a number of reasons, the most prominent being that it reached its intended audience well. 

The Less than Successful

Kious, B. M.
2002  Hunter-gatherer Nutrition and Its Implications for Modern Societies. Nutrition Noteworthy 5(1). 

Keywords: Hunter-gatherer, nutrition, subsistence,

The main purpose of this article is to identify factors relating diet and activity to the the onset of chronic and degenerative diseases in westernized societies, such as diabetes mellitus and hypertension, through comparison with hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Kious argues that this is a viable comparison because we, as humans, are still “genetically adapted” to this form of existence. Since little data is available from prehistoric hunter-gatherers, data from modern ethnographic “tribes” (1) was substituted because their ways of life have not changed according to the evolutionary standard. According to Kious, the results show a link between the onset of major diseases and divergences from ethnographic accounts of hunter-gatherer diets. The major contribution of this study is to suggest new ways to improve the health of patients in industrial regions through nutritional and behavioral recommendations.

This is a great example of how inter-disciplinary research can go awry. I would by no means suggest that it is a failure but would call it less than successful for a number of reasons. Regarding both content and voice/style, Kious’ use of outdated anthropological language and theory throughout the article reveals either his lack of knowledge regarding contemporary anthropological theory, or a refusal to acknowledge it. For example, his reference to hunter-gatherer “tribes” (2) shows that he is not aware that no subset of credible anthropology uses that terminology. For the most part, the term ‘tribe’ was replaced with ‘ethnic group’ in the mid-late 20th century. Additionally, his reference to “civilized behaviors” (abstract) as reflecting modern industrial societies implies that hunter-gatherers, as the antagonists in this comparison, are uncivilized. Once again, this use of language shows that Kious is not up-to-date with current anthropological conventions. Furthermore, his firm evolutionary theoretical stance reflects a similar problem. By assuming that modern ethnographic accounts of diet have remained unchanged from those of pre-historic hunter-gatherers is to ignore the influence of modern historical processes on contemporary groups. The real problem here, however, is not that Kious took an evolutionary stance, but that he did not consider the modern critiques of his perspective. None of this is terribly surprising considering the Kious’ academic background is rooted in psychiatry. Finally, regarding structure, I thought that Kious had taken enough of a beating. The typical canonical structure does its job of presenting the material for an academic audience well, but wins no awards for creativity.


I think that a real strength of this exercise, which I elaborated upon when I opened, was not so much the article reviews themselves but, rather, the process of developing a criteria for critically engaging with an article. Although somewhat crude or rudimentary in its early inception, I think it helped me engage the articles better because I had specific things to look for. In addition, I read Beatrice’s blog post Hunter-Gatherer Ritual, Mobility, Settlements – Reviews of Very Different Academic Articles, prior to writing my own and picked up a small token of insight. In her conclusion she commented that some opinions that she initially thought were strong unraveled under closer inspection and, in the process, she was able to identify the author’s conscious choices and individual style. I had a similar experience during my own review of Kious’ article. At first the argument looks strong until a picked out a few choices of language (i.e. tribe) which seemed to spark a critical nerve in my brain, allowing me to identify additional issues. I could that Kious wanted to use evolutionary theory because it provided a tangible way to address his research questions via universals.

– PaleoBaron


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.


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