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Ethnoarchaeology

Ethnoarchaeology, a subfield of archaeology, is the study of contemporary cultures in order to interpret social organization within an archeological site. Traditionally, archaeology has been concerned with the identification, classification, and chronological ordering of remains. Archaeologists were able to describe a civilization according to its artifacts, but not to fully understand its culture. Archaeologists viewed artifacts as a means of adapting to an environment. Ethnoarchaeologists view artifacts as a possible means of communication or expression, and factor random human behavior into their models. In the last few decades, archaeologists have widened their perspective and adopted the methods, and the insights, of a variety of related scientific disciplines. Combined with traditional research methods, along with theoretical models and research methods borrowed from and shared with anthropologists and ethnologists, archaeologists have reconstructed various cultural activities from the past.

In his excavations of certain European sites of Paleolithic hunters-gatherers, the archaeologist Lewis Binford was puzzled by the fact that the remaining animal bones found on several sites showed significant variations in their assemblages. Were there cultural, or even particular, reasons for these variations? Binford therefore decided to turn to ethnology and study how a contemporary, hunter-gatherer culture kills animals and disposes of the remains. As reported in his 1978 study Nunamiut Ethnoarchaeology, Binford observed that a modern community of Nunamiut Eskimos left bone assemblages similar to those found on Paleolithic sites. This study might not provide an exact parallel for the prehistoric hunter-gatherers, but Binford could conclude that there were certain functions or actions that may be shared by all hunters and gatherers. Binford could also conclude that in both cultures, the variations in behavior reflected by the different manners of disposing animal remains, most likely pointed to the intrinsic variability of human behavior, and were not the result of cultural changes.

Ethnoarchaeologists explore how conscious and subconscious human behavior imposes itself on a culture's external, material world. The Garbage Project of Tucson, Arizona, is a good example. Organized by William L. Rathje, the Garbage Project involved collecting and sorting trash from a certain section of the city and a survey of its inhabitants was conducted. The inhabitants were questioned about, for example, what they buy, how much of a certain product they consume, and what they throw away. The garbage was carefully sorted in a laboratory, classified, identified, and compared with the survey. Using traditional archaeological methods and ethnoarchaeological models, project workers learned that what people say they do does not correspond to what they actually do. Of course, when studying an ancient site, archaeologists can only interpret cultures by what actually remains at a site—they cannot question the inhabitants about how artifacts were used. By studying the pattern of consumption in a modern urban environment, ethnoarchaeologists can deduce that prehistoric urban human behaviors were similar.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical Background