In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnoarchaeology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Foundational Perspectives
  • Bibliographies
  • Film and Video
  • Journals
  • The Future

Anthropology Ethnoarchaeology
Kodzo Gavua
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0005


Ethnoarchaeology is the strategic gathering and studying of ethnographic data on human behavior and its ramifications by archaeologists, who train as ethnographers in order to address issues of concern to archaeological inquiry. It is a dynamic subfield of archaeology, whose practitioners seek, among other things, to deepen knowledge and understanding of the archaeological record, how this record can be better researched and interpreted, and how research results can be adequately explained. Archaeologists made attempts to explore prehistoric human behavior on the basis of ethnographic information during the 19th century, but ethnoarchaeology, properly so-called, developed into a subfield during the early 20th century. It gained prominence from the 1960s onward with the emergence of “new archaeology,” also referred to as “processual archaeology,” which stimulated the search by archaeologists for strategies by which they could scientifically study and explain the archaeological record objectively. Its scope broadened when “postprocessual” archaeologists, in their reaction processual archaeology, sought to explain material culture and its variability on the basis of intangible realms of behavior within changing historical and environmental contexts. A wide range of theoretical perspectives, hinging on the relationship between ethnographic data and the archaeological record, have influenced the interests, foci, goals, and methods of ethnoarchaeological research. Research activities vary, however, in relation to the local and regional cultural and environmental contexts of behavior and include actualistic studies of processes by which material culture is produced, distributed, consumed, and discarded; a combination of these studies with experimentation; reenactments of production processes; studies of site formation processes; and studies of material cultural variability. Today, the approach to research in the subfield is multifaceted, and practitioners continue to explore new ideas that may render it coherent. The subfield is, nonetheless, contributing immensely to the development and refinement of archaeological method and theory.

General Overviews and Foundational Perspectives

A major concern of ethnoarchaeology is how observations made among living societies can best be used to interrogate and explain the archaeological record. Pertinent to this concern is the relationship between behavior and the natural environment and the form, variability, and patterning of material culture. A number of perspectives shared in this regard at the early stages of the development of the subfield remain relevant to its research. The means by which ethnoarchaeologists connect the present to the past is called analogical inference. Efforts among researchers to render it reliable, or to seek alternatives to it, engendered theoretical frameworks that have influenced contemporary discourse and practice in the subfield. Binford 1978 introduces the “middle range theory” as a formal procedure of analogical inference making that would permit the establishment of an objective link between the present and the past, while Watson 1979 suggests the packaging of the results of ethnographic research into hypotheses to be tested in the archaeological record. These ideas and procedures are widely used but contested. Hodder 1982 offers an alternative to formal analogical inference making by suggesting relational analogy, which looks beyond empirical variables and recognizes subjectivity in linking the present to the past. Wylie 1985 is an insightful analysis of various standpoints on analogical inference in ethnoarchaeological research, which ends with a call for the establishment of general principles for connecting the present to the past. Gould and Yellen 1987 demonstrates the unreliability of analogical inference making by clearly showing that differential patterning of material culture occurs among similar societies that significantly vary in the way they exploit different environments. Stahl 1993 presents other reasons why researchers must be cautious in overly relying on (formal and relational) analogical inference making. In spite of the contentions, analogical inference remains ubiquitous to ethnoarchaeology, and continual efforts are made to improve and advance its application. Fewster 2006 is a good discussion of the merits of analogical inference and how it can contribute to social theory, while Normark 2009 dilates on how it can be improved through the expansion of its spatial and temporal realms.

  • Binford, Lewis R. 1978. Nunamiut ethnoarchaeology. Studies in Archeology. New York: Academic Press.

    This highly critiqued but valuable book recommends the middle-range theory as a guide to the use of ethnographic data in archaeological explanation.

  • Fewster, Katherine J. 2006. The potential of analogy in post-processual archaeologies: A case study from Basimane ward, Serowe, Botswana. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12.1: 61–87.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9655.2006.00281.x

    The article discusses a case study that uses a structural functionalist model to show how analogical inference making can contribute to social theory. Available online by subscription.

  • Gould, Richard A., and John E. Yellen. 1987. Man the hunted: Determinants of household spacing in desert and tropical foraging societies. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 6.1: 77–103.

    DOI: 10.1016/0278-4165(87)90017-1

    A comparison of two similar hunting-and-gathering cultures of different regions, to caution about anomalies that may arise in the explanation of the patterning of material culture on the basis of analogical inference. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hodder, Ian. 1982. Symbols in action: Ethnoarchaeological studies of material culture. New Studies in Archaeology. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Provides detailed analyses of how material culture and intangible behavior relate to present a nonmaterialistic approach to the study of material cultural variability.

  • Normark, Johan. 2009. Ethnographic analogies in archaeology.

    This article refers to studies conducted in Mesoamerica to show how analogical inference can be made useful to ethnoarchaeological research.

  • Stahl, Anne B. 1993. Concepts of time and approaches to analogical reasoning in historical perspective. American Antiquity 58.2: 235–260.

    DOI: 10.2307/281967

    The article cautions against the use of direct analogy in the interpretation of the past, because historical circumstances do influence changes in social conditions of people.

  • Watson, Patty Jo. 1979. The idea of ethnoarchaeology. In Ethnoarchaeology: Implications of ethnography for archaeology. Edited by Carol Kramer, 277–287. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    This widely critiqued but useful book chapter draws on early propositions of processual archaeology to recommend ways in which the results of ethnographic research can be packaged into testable hypotheses.

  • Wylie, Alison. 1985. The reaction against analogy. In Advances in archaeological method and theory. Vol. 8. Edited by Michael B. Schiffer, 63–111. New York: Academic Press.

    A prime source for understanding what analogy and analogical inference entail and how analogy can be refined to serve the cause of analogical inference and archaeological interpretation. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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