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.