We all have to sharpen our critical thinking. Today, I explore my challenge to decolonize how I think about Indigenous methodologies in contemporary archaeology and anthropology. What are my knee-jerk assumptions to new intel, and what do they represent?

Reading Time: 13 minutes

In a world of significant scientific illiteracy, it’s easy to point fingers at “the other side”. Religious extremists, and the politicians who leverage them for power, are a serious problem. But what habits have we formed, and what narrative structures exist in our media, that only make things worse? Today I interrogate my own weaknesses, by sharing my ongoing struggle to decolonize my supposedly empirical thinking around archaeology and anthropology.

And yes, I know, “decolonize” is a loaded word. Many like to believe that science, as a process or a body of knowledge, isn’t subjective. But I use the term with precision, because I’m quicker to dispute certain Indigenous methodologies than mainstream Western equivalents, even when the underlying complaint is the same. It’s an understandable bias for a group species, but also one to be overcome, if I really want to be more humanist in my thinking about the world.

A lifelong love of the story of “us”

I was a precocious twit as a kid. For the summer before grade seven, I set myself a personal research project: learn everything we knew at the time (1997) about the history of the human species. I wanted to get the chronology straight, to learn about my distant ancestors and how they moved through the world. This project was also informed by my reading of Jean M. Auel’s wildly popular Earth’s Children series, which imagined the world of co-existing early modern humans and Neanderthals. I wanted to know how much Auel had “gotten right”, and where the realism ended.

I grew up in a fortunate era for hobbyist studies. The dawning World Wide Web, which brought recent genetics research to my fingertips, also changed how I viewed science. Science didn’t just sit on a page. It was a process: an unfolding series of discoveries that yielded hypotheses, which yielded predictive models (theories). And those models had to withstand further discoveries, the next rush of new data, or be discarded.

By the time Bryan Sykes published The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science that Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry (2001), which traces human migration through a matrilineal gene, I was both excited by the new genetic data in the first half, and fully aware that half of Sykes’ work was speculative. He was storytelling from existing fact, trying to make the next best-educated guess until more facts came along.

That grounded approach would serve me well, especially when surrounded by many who didn’t understand the “narrative” component in scientific research. Even at university, budding scientists would sometimes bristle at the idea that there was anything subjective in how they chose their research, talked about it, or came to initial conclusions about it. And I understood their fears, because much of our culture has indeed weaponized “subjective” to mean “inconsequential”.

But it’s also counterproductive to accept the accusation as fact.

Many scientists, of course, understand historiography: the making of history, and its biases. Because of scientist-writers like Stephen Jay Gould, Rachel Carson, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Sabine Hossenfelder, we have healthy storytelling about science storytelling. And we know that, when we overlook the role of narrative in scientific progress, we’re most vulnerable to its biases. That’s when we risk leaving key intel out.

Which is the weakness I slip into, when it comes to Indigenous methodologies.

Embracing changes in the story of us

The story of “us” has been in routine flux as hypotheses emerge, hold forth, and expire under the weight of new data. In the mid-80s, the “Out of Africa” theory for modern human migration (between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago) gained its first robust DNA evidence, which connected genetics research with paleogeography and -demography to map migration pathways. At the time, research also hinted a recent bottleneck in our species’ population size. (Well, okay, around 75,000 years ago. When talking about evolutionary history, “recent” is still a long time).

But this wasn’t the first migration of hominins out of Africa. Archaeology marks a far earlier dispersal of Homo species at around 1.8 million years ago. And after that? We have evidence of major swings in population size, possibly tethered to 40,000- and 100,000-year glacial cycles. And all of this evidence muddies the waters for contemporary researchers. Was it us making and leaving behind the tools and art we find at dig sites? Or some other hominin? And for how long? Did we always make new sites when we migrated? Or did we take over existing sites, further confusing the timeline of our expansion relative to species come before?

The sheer fluidity of early hominin migrations meant that related research required a hugely interdisciplinary approach. Genetics, archaeology, and anthropology’s many subdisciplines, all working together to corroborate or dismiss new working hypotheses.

Which was certainly productive! For instance, that species bottleneck event? Cool story, but it didn’t hold up. Genetic, anatomical, and archaeological analyses in the late 1990s and early 2000s gave us multiple population crunches and expansions, but no corroborating evidence that a single supervolcano utterly depleted human numbers. And in the wake of that theory’s decline? We now have a range of competing hypotheses about human migration. Each explains different parts of the current material and genetic record, but none quite has the whole locked down. (The work goes on!)

We also routinely find evidence of new subspecies, and signs of advanced behaviors not inherently from modern humans, that transform existing timelines. And the whole concept of a cleanly divided “tree of life” has undergone significant revision: Sometimes to accommodate concrete challenges, like gene flow across lineages. Sometimes to tackle conceptual problems, like the misleading idea that a species with a longer branch is “more evolved” than one that broke off earlier and then stayed relatively constant, perfectly adapted to its ecological niche for eons or millions of years.

So why do Indigenous methodologies “feel” different?

On paper, then, it should be a no-brainer to accept that interdisciplinary studies would incorporate Indigenous methodologies. After all, hasn’t this whole topic required multiple fields to work together to confirm or discard existing hypotheses?

But as much as I’ve followed with great relish the rise and fall of different hypotheses in Westernized disciplines… I hit a block, at times, when it comes to Indigenous methodologies. Why? Because many aspects of Indigenous thinking around archaeology challenge a fundamental tenet in all these other pursuits. Some Indigenous methodologies, that is, push back on a common understanding of positivism. That’s the idea that we should only accept that which can be concretely, scientifically verified.

And like ever so many secular folk forged in the mines of quick-witted atheist debate? I love positivism. Love it to bits.

So when I’m presented with Indigenous stories purportedly carried forward in oral tradition for thousands of years? I struggle to value them as much as I would in archaeological evidence. And even when archaeological evidence arises that corroborates sections of oral tradition? Like megafaunal remains in a time and place that, until recently, scientists insisted could not have been hunted by humans? I retain my skepticism about the oral tradition. I’m quick to assume that more recent generations told stories around fossils, just as stories emerged around dinosaur bones.

But even if this skepticism is sound on its own (i.e., it’s good to consider alternative explanations), it still exists within a subject position. Namely, there’s a time and a place when I use it… and plenty of times when I don’t. I know full well, for instance, that the latest science news usually hasn’t gone through replication studies. But has that stopped me from sharing the latest cool thing I read? Like the nifty case of a sub-atomic particle that isn’t the weight it’s supposed to be? No. Not as often as it should.

Why not, though? Why do I embrace the thrill of certain tenuous claims, and have my skepticism on such high alert when it comes to others?

This is the part I need to decolonize, in my thinking on anthropology and archaeology.

The problem for our sciences is a problem for our storytelling in general. How do we develop narrative that honors evidence without overlooking the places where evidence has been erased?

The case for a lighter touch around positivism

Indigenous archaeologists have good reason to resist a traditional understanding of positivism. When a scientific field is established by colonizers, it’s informed by the colonizer’s stories, biases, and intentions. This was certainly the case for archaeology and anthropology, which developed alongside centuries of colonizer destruction of Indigenous sites, including recent demolitions for a border wall.

These scientific fields aren’t just historically white-Western by demographic. They’re also haunted by whole eras of Christian- and European-Enlightenment-informed racism. Modern critics of Western archaeology and anthropology thus also include many African American researchers, for whom the struggle is not just historical, but also of the present moment. (Another post, another day, on the return of racialized sciences, and the dangerous subjectivities that come with them.)

The problem is that strict positivism is easily weaponized wherever it emerges. Strict positivism affects our adversarial legal system, with its notorious problem of determining culpability in competing personal accounts. And it affects our written histories, especially around massacres that the perpetrators alone survived to record.

But there’s an added defect built into archaeology and anthropology, because these fields are already limited by the impermanence of most human objects. Since very little can survive degradation over these time scales, we are already dealing with incomplete data sets. And then, to have those limited artifacts further destroyed under political agendas? How much more careful do we have to be, when deciding how complete a picture of early history scientific positivism can ever yield?

The problem for our sciences is a problem for our storytelling in general. How do we develop narrative that honors evidence without overlooking the places where evidence has been erased?

When you live among people who don’t value your sacred sites, it’s difficult to preserve what remains after centuries of invasion. So even if Indigenous scholars, after years of struggle, now find themselves at the table of Western archaeology and anthropology? That table has already been set in favour of Western narratives. The evidentiary bar for dismantling a status-quo story remains incredibly high.

Following more than the evidence at hand

For an example of the alternative, let’s move away from North America. I’m going to dreadfully bungle a beautifully written article, Jude Isabella’s “Declared Extinct, the Yaghan Rise in the Land of Fire,” to highlight a few key points for any attempt to decolonize our scientific thinking.

In this piece, we learn about the Yaghan, an Indigenous group at the southern tip of South America. Their terrain is under Chilean nationality today, but once spanned Tierra del Fuego, along a channel named after The Beagle. One Yaghan has endured the direct consequences of a common Western treatment of Indigenous groups: as either entirely wiped out or frozen in time. Tourists and journalists have pestered Cristina for years because of her presumed status as the last of her kind. Only recently have other Yaghan come out of hiding. They’re simply human beings with deep cultural heritages. And they’d like to live in the world today without being assailed by gawkers.

Well-intentioned vs. well-effected archaeology

Since the 1970s, archaeologists have been reclaiming Yaghan history from highly prejudiced accounts by European voyagers. At first, these researchers followed “shell middens”: refuse heaps from past eating, which sometimes contained far more. Artifacts in them helped mark the movements and practices of ancient Yaghan. And at the time? This was revolutionary. This research alone illustrated a much more mobile, dynamic, and cultured people than the one found in Western stories.

But as the current generation of archaeologists realized, a strictly positivist approach still led to significant gaps. The research logic, for instance, seemed to go that if you found artifacts in shell middens, you had a marine people. And so, you kept looking for shell middens to learn more about the marine people you’d already decided they were.

The paradigm shift came from a Norwegian who visited the region. Because he’d grown up with a different landscape, his views on archaeology differed. And he noticed the many muddy flats, the drumlins, that this region also contained. Excellent possible meeting grounds! So he started digging there, and quickly found evidence of settlement, which opened new chapters in this Indigenous group’s history. But why wouldn’t he? Why had previous research been consigned to ancient garbage mounds?

It wasn’t a scientifically neutral choice, either. The problem with shell middens? The earth reclaims them from the bottom up, as acidic groundwater decomposes the deepest shells. So if you simply studied that one type of site? You’d never get a full accounting of the Indigenous group’s timescale in the region. You’d always assume, based on positive evidence, that they were a more recent addition to the land.

And yet, the choice to study shell middens and reclaim Yaghan history was a good one. Well-intentioned. In principle resisting Western bias. Still, it was incomplete without someone suggesting research in places where evidence hadn’t already emerged. But did that suggestion really need 40 years, and a fluke Norwegian, to emerge?

Or could a more integrated, Indigenous-led effort have prompted this shift sooner?

Back to North America

Similar biases, well-intentioned and otherwise, play out around the Clovis site. Clovis is an archaeological find in New Mexico from the 1930s, which initially suggested a first people some 11,000 years ago in the Americas. Radiocarbon dating then shifted the timeline to 13,200 years at the outside. But the first impressions formed around fluted tools at this site? Oh, those took far longer to shake.

The working hypothesis among white-Western archaeologists was of a monoculture that spread rapidly across the continent. When I first learned about the Clovis people, it was in relation to the end of North American megafauna. Remember those nifty giant critters, all of which were rapidly wiped out? We had three hypotheses for their loss: the Big Chill (climate change), the Big Ill (a disease that somehow took out only the big mammals), and the Big Kill (early paleolithics, “Clovis”, hunting new prey to extinction).

But it really shouldn’t have taken researchers like Dr. Paulette Steeves, a Cree-Métis socio-anthropologist born in the Yukon and now working in Ontario, to question the conclusions drawn from initial findings. As she notes in an article for Archaeologies:

The Clovis First hypothesis had people moving across vast distances so rapidly that “there is no analogue anywhere in human history or prehistory for such rapid movement” (Dillehay 2000:5). A problem with the hypothesis of the Clovis hunters chasing mega fauna through glaciated mountains and across the Great Plains is that the “Clovis People” never existed beyond the wildest imagination of the archaeological mind.

The fluted Clovis tool technology did exist. Fluted tools have been found at sites dating from 13,200 to 10,900 calBP throughout North America. Clovis fluted technology which is unique to the Western Hemisphere (Bawaya 2013:5) represents an example of a lithic tool type used to support an archaeological cultural construct which generalizes the entire Western Hemisphere into one theorized culture (Dillehay 2000:27)[. H]owever, one tool type does not define a culture. Joseph Trimble had argued that

“An ethnic gloss presents the illusion of homogeneity where none exists, and therefore may be considered a superficial, almost vacuous, categorization, which serves only to separate one group from another” (Trimble 1991:149).

Anthropologists discuss cultural groups through their distinctive economies, cultural practices, material remains, and so much more than one type of stone tool. Archaeologists know this yet there remains a deafening silence of non-critique on the decade-long acceptance of the Clovis People whose apparent cultural attributes were defined by one tool type.

“Decolonizing the Past and Present of the Western Hemisphere (The Americas),” Archaeology (2015, 11:1)

In other words, the application of a simplistic scientific positivism allowed early researchers to focus on a single finding, the fluted tools, and apply it to the maintenance of a preceding story. After all, it was obvious to them that there couldn’t have been earlier peoples. How fortunate, then, that this tool-type offered a way to essentialize all other continental sites within that existing story. Even the ones so far away that monocultural migration would have been atypical, at best, in hominin history.

Not starting from neutral: A weakness in positivism

Pre-Clovis sites were contested until recently, despite researchers like Dr. Steeves gathering records from across the continent. Now, though, the date of first arrival has shifted substantially. And yet, even as more robust findings emerge, you can see the scientific debate embedded in them. For instance, in a 2020 article describing two studies pushing back the timeline to a whopping 30,000 years ago, you get this nugget:

“These are fascinating studies,” said William Harcourt-Smith, a paleoanthropologist at Lehman College and the American Museum of Natural History, both based in New York City, who wasn’t involved with the research. “It’s now very clear that modern humans were in the Americas far earlier than we used to think. There have been other sites and scholars suggesting this, but it is rigorous studies like this that really seals the deal.”

Livescience, July 22, 2020

Obviously, I agree that the studies in this article are compelling evidence. Oh, do they ever satisfy my positivist-leaning brain! But these “rigorous studies” were never combatting a neutral scientific baseline. Rather, they’re dispelling an entrenched idea based on a narrow reading of the Clovis site. An alternative reading, for instance, could have been healthy “Yes, and” curiosity. Researchers finding a site older than anticipated could have asked how much further back artifacts here might go.

But they didn’t, because the positivist approach doesn’t exist in a vacuum. People use it. People with pre-existing stories of human progress, who are working as best they can, with the prejudices we all have, to incorporate new data into familiar stories. At least, until those familiar stories finally break under the weight of new material data.

So what next?

Oh, and did I say that 30,000 years was our new date?

Well, not exactly. Yes, recent paleodemographic data still sets a more recent date for population explosions in North America (13,000 years ago). Meanwhile, many baseline sites now occupy a 16- to 30,000-year range. But also, a construction site in San Diego revealed evidence of hominins interacting with mastodons some 130,000 years ago. This extreme date is, of course, a site of contention, precisely because an extraordinary claim like this requires extraordinary evidence. And yet, the evidentiary problem is twofold: First, this was a construction site. As such, researchers have to separate recent human activity from their interpretation of older residues. And second, a key bit of evidence, the presence of collagen, might not be retrievable after all this time. So, the positivist verdict on this data is going to be a while off, at best.

But that’s not really my problem, is it? I’m just a hobbyist observer. My problem arises as someone striving to be more humanist in their critical thinking. Someone who wants to be a better ally to Indigenous peoples, and also wants a way of navigating the evidence that satisfies a desire for everything to fit neatly on an empirical level.

Luckily, the problem isn’t as Herculean as it might first appear. Because when I say that I need to decolonize my approach to Indigenous methodologies? What I mean is that I have to be better at recognizing that these methodologies aren’t actually challenging the science. Remember? That big ol’ supposedly neutral bag of natural facts?

No, Indigenous storytelling traditions, and collaborative research processes that honor the people who live on lands of trauma, are really operating in conversation with our stories. Euro-Western stories, the likes of which shape our initial impressions of all new data. Our storytelling is what inclines us to lean into the data we “like”. It’s what encourages us to build new evidence into existing beliefs. It’s what gives us knee-jerk reactions to the possibility of whole new stories in their stead.

And no, it’s not pathological to belong to a storytelling tradition. It’s part of being human to come from a specific context, infused by its cultural narratives. The problem only arises when one storytelling tradition tries to present itself as objective fact. When it weaponizes the results of its past violence, like the eradication of other groups’ material records, to dismiss stories that don’t meet its level of positivist truth.

To decolonize my approach to Indigenous archaeology and anthropology, I simply need to do a better job of remembering the stories that we’re always telling. Scientific positivism is a worthy and vital approach to studying the world. But archaeology and anthropology built solely on what we happen to stumble upon will always favor incurious and conservative readings of the natural world. The leap to new discovery, new knowledge, along with the reclamation of old knowledge lost along the way, requires an ability to look beyond strict positivism, and to ask what ways of looking we’ve ignored, in favor of what’s already in our hands.

It’s ongoing work, this matter of avoiding knee-jerk reactions, checking personal and cultural assumptions, and cultivating curiosity in lieu of overconfidence.

But the history of us, for all of us, surely deserves no less.

Further resources

For those interested in the messiness of scientific process, I highly recommend David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree. It illustrates how individual scientists’ eccentricities and popular fortunes complicated our development of theories around the tree of life.

Meanwhile, George P. Nicholas has a summary for Oxford Bibliographies of leaping-off points for further research into Indigenous methodologies. Some are by white authors, but Sonya Atalay’s “Decolonizing archaeology,” in American Indian Quarterly (2006, 30:3–4), offers a collection of Indigenous articles, and Joe Watkins’ “Through Wary Eyes,” for the Annual Review of Archaeology (2005, 34), negotiates the complexity of identifying indigeneity. Nicholas’s Being and becoming indigenous archaeologists also offers a booklength set of reflections by Indigenous authors in the field.

I also quite enjoyed this Harvard Law Review analysis, “Rethinking Protections For Indigenous Sacred Sites” (February 10, 2021), which explores legal challenges for ancient North American sites, both for archaeological and for current Indigenous uses.

Dr. Paulette F. C. Steeves’ latest book is The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere (2022). For the video-lecture inclined, you can watch her presentation for The Archaeological Conservancy. For podcast-listeners who enjoy a bit of satire, I recommend SRSLY WRONG’s recent interview with Dr. Steeves. And the 2015 article I referenced above, “Decolonizing the Past and Present of the Western Hemisphere (The Americas)” in Archaeologies, is free to read.

Lastly, I suspect that many here have already read David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). But if not, I highly recommend this overview of how European ideas about early human history emerged from clear sociopolitical contexts, and what those contexts overlooked. I’d just quibble over the “New” in the title. This history is only “new” inasmuch as we’re currently pushing past a story we’ve enforced for centuries. If we now have to struggle with the messiness of alternatives in contemporary archaeology and anthropology, it’s only because we’ve taken our own mythmaking for granted for far too long.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.