SW Culture Area

Southwest Archaeology

Some resist this movement toward considering their subject as a humanistic science and want to restrict archaeological study to compiling trait lists of material culture and limit explanations to mere description of artifacts.

As graduate students in the 1970's we were discouraged from reading ethnographies of the descendants of the people who's remains we were studying and restricted to empirical description of tangible artifacts. The synthetic theory that could flesh out our interpretation of our findings to provide insight and deeper understanding of the human condition was disparaged as "soft science" and remained unarticulated and inchoate.

An excellent contrast of the two approaches can be found in University of Minnesota archaeologist Janet Spector's book, What this Awl Means, where she contrasts the description of an awl as a woman's working tool, the handle of which was etched in a way to keep a count of the things she manufactured for her family — the number of hides prepared and mocasins sewn, etc. It was a personal record of her achievements and of the sources of meaning in her life — an artifact understood and appreciated by her descendents (some of whom worked on the excavation crew) with the empiricist's approach that limited the description of the same awl according to its dimensions, composition, and use wear markings on its surface.

This limitation on the focus of archaeological science echoes a debate in geology that occurred in the 19th Century, highlighted by Charles Darwin:


Darwin On the Need for Theory

"About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours.  How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!"


 (Charles Darwin in F. Darwin and A. C. Seward, More Letters of Charles Darwin, London: Murray, 1903: 195 [1861]


The upshot of the debate is that we need synthetic theory to make sense of our subject matter. Culture areas are theoretical constructs which help us understand peoples and places. The debate over their boundaries and who and what get included and excluded give us insights and deeper understanding.


Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 9, Southwest, 1979. Alfonso Ortiz, vol. ed. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Armillas, P. 1969 The Arid Frontier of Mexican Civilization. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series II, 31(6):697-704.

Beals, R. L 1932 The Comparative Ethnology of Northern Mexico before 1750. Ibero-Americana 2.

Darwin, Charles 1903 [1861] in F. Darwin and A. C. Seward, More Letters of Charles Darwin, Murray, London.

Di Peso, C. C. 1974 Casas Grandes: A Fallen Trading Center of the Gran Chichimeca, vols. 1-3. Amerind Foundation Series No. 9. Amerind Foundation, Dragoon, Arizona, and Northland Press, Flagstaff, Arizona.

Kirchhoff, P. 1943 Mesoamerica: sus límites geográficos, composición étnica y sus caracteres culturales. Acta Americana 1:92:107.
1954 Gatherers and Farmers in the Greater Southwest: A Problem in Classification. American Antiquity 29:529-550.

Minnis, P. E.1989 "The Casas Grandes Polity in the International Four Corners". In The Sociopolitical Structure of Prehistoric Southwestern Societies, edited by S. Upham, K. G. Lightfoot, and R. A. Jewett, pp. 269-305. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.

Spector, Janet D. 1993 What this Awl Means. Minnesota Historical Society Press, Mpls. MN.

Culture Areas