Social Archaeology

Date: 1980
Owner: Getty Images
Source Type: Images


In the early twentieth century, Latin American archaeology was dominated by foreign adventurers like Hiram Bingham (see Scientific Expeditions topic) who excavated the region's ancient treasures with the goal of arriving at empirically-devised facts about pre-Columbian cultures. This kind of archaeological positivism, though, has come under attack by social archaeologists, a school that argues that archaeology--like all other sciences--is necessarily contingent on political and personal influences that prevent results from being purely "scientific." Since the mid 1970s, Latin Americans have been some of the leading advocates of this line of thought that was first articulated by Peruvian archaeologist Luis G. Lumbreras in his 1974 La Arqueologia como Ciencia Social (Archaeology as Social Science).

Latin American social archaeologists have embraced the fact that science and society inevitably overlap and have tried to use both the practice of and knowledge produced by archaeological projects to benefit their communities. Social archaeologists consider a dig itself is part of the historical process, one that can play an active and positive role in a regional history too often characterized by (neo)colonial domination. Furthermore, social archaeological projects often try to develop local communities that, in more traditional forms of archaeology, are either ignored or actively exploited. For example, the Programa Cochasqui in Ecuador uses an excavation to improve local agriculture, health care, and economic conditions while preparing local indigenous people to take over operation of the site in the future.

Social archaeology is in many ways a reaction to the United States' dominance--political, scientific, economic--of "peripheral" regions. Scientists and social scientists in countries like Ecuador are at a distinct disadvantage to those from the U.S., who have superior access to grants, professional possessions, and scholarly resources. Thus U.S. archaeologists are in a better supported position to do work in Latin America and, more importantly, influence how archaeology is done there. By creating their own school of archaeology, Latin Americans have been able to reify trends in Latin American social science and have done much to forestall U.S. hegemony in this field. Social archaeologists have also made a considerable splash in the field at an international level while helping local communities develop resources and a sense of their own place in history.

Reference: Benavides, O. Hugo. "Returning to the Source: Social Archaeology as Latin American Philosophy." In Latin American Antiquity, vol. 12, no. 4 (Dec., 2001), pp. 355-370.

CITATION: Wiltsie, Gordon. "Cerra Victoria, Vilcabamba Range, Peru." 09 Aug 2004. National Geographic/Getty Images, Image #51786057.