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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Autobiographies and Interviews
  • Biographies and Appraisals
  • Obituaries and Tributes
  • Expanding the Scope and Scale of Inquiry

Anthropology Lewis Binford
David Meltzer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0102


Lewis R. Binford (b. 1931–d. 2011) was an American archaeologist who had a profound impact on the thinking and practice of archaeology worldwide. Binford held degrees from the University of North Carolina (BA 1957), and the University of Michigan (MA 1958, PhD 1964). From 1962 through 1968 he held multiple academic appointments, his brief stays a result of several factors, not least Binford’s powerful personality and enthusiasm for confronting archaeological orthodoxy. From 1968 to 1991 he was on the faculty of the University of New Mexico, after which he served as a distinguished professor at Southern Methodist University. He retired in 2003. In the early 1960s Binford issued a call for archaeology to become more anthropological and more scientific, and to seek the processes by which cultures adapted and changed. His efforts gave rise to the “New Archaeology” (later called “processual archaeology”), and in the ensuing decade it dominated discussions of archaeological theory and method. Although many shared the goals of the movement, differences quickly emerged as to how to achieve those goals. Binford himself grew disillusioned with what the New Archaeology was becoming, and with his own efforts to understand patterns in the archaeological record. How could one learn, from a static archaeological record in the present, about the dynamic systems that produced that record in the past? Archaeologists needed to develop a “middle range” theory, he argued, to learn from present dynamic systems and their material correlates, in order to infer past dynamics from present archaeological statics. Toward that end, he conducted ethnoarchaeological research to better understand how foragers adapted to a landscape, organized their technology, and targeted their prey. The research results, published rapid-fire in the late 1970s and the 1980s, caused a sea change in archaeological hunter-gatherer studies; introduced influential analytical measures for understanding how foragers procured, processed, and consumed prey; and helped tease apart the natural and cultural processes that affect material in a site. The effort, in turn, led Binford to question received wisdom about early human cultural evolution, most notably the role of hunting in human evolution. His ideas shook up paleoanthropology and were much debated in the 1980s and 1990s. So too were his ideas about an archaeological science. Post-processualists dismissed the idea that archaeology could be an objective science, arguing instead for a more historically constituted approach. These and other debates engaged much of Binford’s attention in his last decades, but throughout he continued his efforts to understand hunter-gatherer adaptations. Over his career he was the recipient of four honorary doctorates and multiple awards, including the Huxley Memorial Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, the Society for American Archaeology Lifetime Achievement Award, and election to the British Academy and to the National Academy of Sciences.

General Overviews

Binford was a charismatic and formidable presence, and a mesmerizing speaker. His contributions to archaeology had breadth and depth. They breathed life into discussions of archaeological theory and method; created a critical self-awareness about the nature of archaeology and what and how we can learn about the past; advanced our understanding of hunter-gatherers, ethnoarchaeology, zooarchaeology, and archaeological site formation processes; and sparked thorough vetting of our knowledge of human evolution. Binford did not have the last word on these subjects, but he often enough had the first word and, for that matter, a great many of the words in between (see Meltzer 2011, p. 4, cited under Biographies and Appraisals). In all these areas, Binford’s work was routinely original, often confrontational, and yet inevitably worth thinking about—even if one disagreed or was offended, which was usually the result as well. Those interested in pursuing Binford’s contributions can profitably begin with Binford 1983, along with the several volumes of his collected works (Binford 1972, Binford 1983, Binford 1989, all cited under Autobiographies and Interviews), which provide ready access to roughly half of his 150 articles, as well as to chapters from several of his twenty books. These books are also a handy roadmap to changes in his thinking over time. Binford’s influence spanned nearly five decades, though that influence diminished over time, particularly in his last two decades as others, building on or reacting to the foundation he had helped create, took archaeological theory and practice in different directions. Aggressive to the end, in Binford 2001 he expressed his disappointment that his vision of a science of the archaeological record still hadn’t taken hold. Still, much of character of archaeology today, certainly in America but also worldwide, reflects Binford’s profound impact. That impact is discussed in Hegmon 2003; O’Brien, et al. 2005 (cited under Biographies and Appraisals); and Trigger 2006 (cited under Biographies and Appraisals), which provide useful overviews of some of the changes that took place in archaeology through the decades of Binford’s professional career. VanPool and VanPool 2012 includes a number of the relevant articles published over that span. Hodder 2012 is a valuable compendium of theoretical set pieces on the contemporary state of archaeological theory as it stood five decades after the launch of the New Archaeology, a movement that, in Hodder’s words, made it possible “to exist in archaeology largely as a theory specialist” (p. 1).

  • Binford, L. R. 1983. In pursuit of the past: Decoding the archaeological record. London: Thames and Hudson.

    Transcribed from lectures given in 1980–1981, the volume captures something of Binford’s great abilities as a speaker. As a result, it is Binford’s most broadly accessible discussion of his views of the science of archaeology, the results of his ethnoarchaeological research and what he’s learned of hunter-gatherer adaptations, and his views of some of the enduring questions of prehistory.

  • Binford, L. R. 2001. Where do research problems come from? American Antiquity 66.4: 669–678.

    DOI: 10.2307/2694179

    Binford’s last article in American Antiquity appeared exactly thirty-nine years after his first in that journal (Binford 1962, cited under Foundational Works). He still felt the need to convince the archaeological community that the subject matter of archaeology is the archaeological record, and it is the analytical study of it—and the patterns evident in such a study—that identify problems warranting solution.

  • Hegmon, M. 2003. Setting theoretical egos aside: Issues and theory in North American archaeology. American Antiquity 68.2: 212–243.

    DOI: 10.2307/3557078

    Hegmon scans the landscape of archaeological theory at the outset of the new millennium, providing a very useful roadmap to the major perspectives—evolutionary, behavioral, processual-plus—and theoretical themes that marked the preceding decade. By the new millennium much of the explicit discussion of theory had died down, as American archaeologists expended more effort applying theory than just talking about it.

  • Hodder, I., ed. 2012. Archaeological theory today. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Hodder’s reader gathers many of the diverse threads that emerged in archaeological theory over the preceding decade(s), processual and post-processual alike. In that diversity of theoretical approaches, Hodder sees a healthy and important tension for the discipline of archaeology as a whole.

  • VanPool, C., and T. VanPool, eds. 2012. Readings in American archaeological theory: Selections from American Antiquity, 1962–2011. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Society for American Archaeology.

    American Antiquity was a bellwether of changes taking place on the theoretical landscape of American archaeology, and in this anthology the VanPools have gathered a number of the articles from that journal (including, naturally, many of Binford’s) that help track the changes that took place over the decades that coincide with Binford’s active professional life.

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