Posted by: Johan Normark | March 29, 2009

Ethnographic analogies in archaeology

A common method in Mayanist studies is that of analogical reasoning in order to explain past human beliefs, practices, social- and political organizations. The use of analogies in archaeology has been debated, particularly in American archaeology that has a long tradition of analogical reasoning. Mayanists use both general comparative and direct-historical analogies. General comparative analogies are less common than direct historical ones in Mayanist studies, but they do appear, such as in models on socio-political organization. Here we have seen analogies with galactic polities of South-East Asia and Greek city states.

Prudence Rice suggests that the best analogies are the direct-historical ones since they show continuity and relies on Darwin’s descent with modification instead of orthogenetic evolution. It is argued that one should work back from known historical periods. Mayanists therefore frequently employ ethnographic or ethnohistoric analogies to explain patterns seen in the archaeological record. This is the clearest example of how the “Maya culture” is seen from an arborescent, ontogenetic and organismic perspective. It is like an organism evolving from one origin and it is the same essential “Maya culture” in the past as in the present. Analogical reasoning is no clearer than in two volumes on cave archaeology, edited by James Brady and Keith Prufer. Although they state that caution should be taken with analogies, their statement is only an attempt to justify their extensive reliance on ethnography in interpreting the archaeological record. The picture shows traces of contemporary use of the rejollada at Chanmahas near Ichmul: three wooden crosses and a pila (metate) near a small water pool (behind the photographer).

Crosses and metate at Chanmahas

Crosses and metate at Chanmahas

By expanding the area of analogies (both spatially and temporally), researchers can always find an analogy suitable for their objective(s). If a suitable analogy is not found in the lowlands, then one can always turn to the highlands in Guatemala and Chiapas, or if this does not work, one can search elsewhere in Mesoamerica or even in the American Southwest (which sometimes is included in Greater Mesoamerica). This is the arborescent logic where everything can be traced back to the master-signifying Maya or Mesoamerican culture. However, such approaches are right in one way, there are no cultures isolated from a wider world. Not only did Spanish colonialism affect the indigenous peoples of the Maya area, so did the presence of Olmecs, Teotihuacanos, and Aztecs. Thus, instead of talking about possible Maya/Central Mexican hybridization as has earlier been the case with the site of Chichén Itzá, we could talk about homogenization of certain activities and materialities, for example through a religious-political “Quetzalcoatl-cult” network. However, it is one thing to map historical continuity and similarities of certain phenomena and another thing to rely on a general Maya or Mesoamerican culture to explain these similarities.

Hodder has argued that some analogies are more valid than others, but there is little foundation for such an argument. A greater knowledge of ethnographic studies and Colonial period sources does not always give more knowledge of Prehispanic social formations. For example, Richardson Gill uses Colonial and modern analogies to explain how drought affects communities and he projects these explanations on the “Maya collapse.” He fails to acknowledge the impact of the Spanish congregation politics, Catholic doctrines, new biota, enforced changes of marriage customs, etc. These Colonial changes affected settlement and water conservation strategies during droughts. In an area only 7-30 km east of Lake Chichancanab, where Terminal Classic droughts have been detected, there is a great discrepancy between Colonial and Prehispanic settlement indicating that the Colonial analogies used for droughts have substantial flaws. Thus, both direct historical and general comparative analogies give an aura of static social formations. How long does a cultural tradition actually exist (and do they really exist other than in culture-historical models)? Analogies are easy ways to fill the past with some content, but all such interpretations begin in a transcendent level far from materialities.

I admit that we probably can never do archaeology without some form of direct-historical or general comparative analogy since we use basic analogies when we identify material forms (to separate an axe from a hammer by relating them to similar forms elsewhere). But this can also be explained by past individuals’ cognitive capabilities to create similarities rather than there being a transcendent culture behind the similarities. Further, we always encounter the archaeological context with a baggage of earlier knowledge and experience that make us automatically distinguish forms. But why should we only use analogies known from historical sources or from ethnography? This usage probably has to do with the “prehistoric” appearance of ethnography itself. Much of ethnography has described vanishing ways of living often believed to be under the threat of modernity. These ways of living are often considered to be more relevant to archaeology than studies focusing on “societies” similar to the ones that the majority of archaeologists come from. This also affects one’s choice of theory. For example, why is Bourdieu often considered being a more relevant source than Giddens in archaeology? Has it to do with the fact that Bourdieu made ethnographic work among the “traditional and conservative” Kabyle in Algeria and that Giddens focuses on a “modern and progressive” capitalist society? Whatever the answer is we might just as well use general analogies from our own social formations, such as when Fahlander discusses the distribution of air-conditioners within a modern settlement to problematize the archaeological suppositions concerning the spatial distribution of materialities.

Therefore, I believe that ethnographic and ethnohistoric analogies may be useful in one way: in pointing out flaws of assumed facts rather than to support them. Even if the analogies are used as cautionary tales they are usually included in an archaeological study to support a plausible explanation. Researchers mainly use ethnography when it is believed to support their interpretation, not otherwise. As mentioned, it is common to use ethnographic analogies in cave studies. Current cave use and meaning is used to interpret past cave use and meaning when it suits one’s preconceived understanding. Thus, analogies for the role of caves in cosmology are abundant  but when one is to explain the presence of female burials in caves few researchers use analogies with contemporary people. Apart from the fact that people no longer are buried in caves, there appears to be gendered distinctions in the use of karstic features that makes direct analogies with past cave use problematic. In some contemporary Kekchi communities, women of a certain age tend not to enter caves because fertile women are believed to be threats to the fertility of the mountain-spirits. In some ethnographic studies in the Yucatec area, men enter the earth to collect sacred cave water and women get water from the sinkholes without entering the earth. Apparently women usually do not enter caves today but there are Prehispanic female burials in some caves. Such inconsistencies in the use of analogies are common. If the contact with the Spaniards changed burial customs and gendered use of caves has changed since the Terminal Classic then other activities may have changed as well.



  1. You have a great articles for history. We are nonprofit organization were submit your article into database for use in education. Thanks.

  2. You are welcome to use the texts.

  3. Your perspective on analogy would be much better informed if you had looked at Alison Wylie’s work. She suggests that analogic reasoning is fundamentally human so you really cannot easily escape it. Thus, a “scientific” hypothesis is simply an ethnographic analogy drawn inexplicitly from your own Western subculture. Now why is this superior to one drawn from the non-Western culture that is actually related to the civilization that we studying? At the very least, an explicit analogy is far more open to critique. I am not saying that there are no problems with analogy but you appear to be blissfully unaware of the problems with your own reasoning. I find that dangerous.

  4. I am completely aware of problems inherent in my own reasoning and I have read Wylie. There are no fool-proof methods and theories. What I argue against in Mayanist use of analogies is precisely that assumption that you make in your comment, i.e., that the usage of analogies from a non-Western culture are better than using Western ideas. Archaeology and anthropology are Western disciplines filled with non-Western ideas and concepts, we tend to publish in a non-Maya language (Spanish or English), dichotomies between nature and culture are Western dichotomies, etc. I can give more examples of how a supposedly “essential” Mayaness, that prevails from the past to the present that is necessary for analogies, rests on Western traditions. My most recent posting on creativity in anthropology indicates better where my ideas come from:

  5. Johan, when you accuse me of assuming “that the usage of analogies from a non-Western culture are better than using Western ideas”, my answer is “guilty as charged” when we are referring to analogies drawn from Maya ethnography for use in Maya archaeology. In the last chapter of Stone Houses and Earth Lords, I point out a number of very specific instances where I feel that the uncritical application of Western ideas has distorted our perception of Maya religion and cosmology. It is not, however, my intention to fight with you on this. We will simply agree to disagree. I’m pleased to see that you will be in Sacramento. Let’s get together and talk caves.

  6. I am sorry if it sounded like an accusation, that was not the intention. When I have discussed these issues without specific examples I have been criticized for creating a straw man argument. Hence I have turned to discuss specific examples that relates to my earlier and current studies. I mentioned Kathryn Reese, David Freidel and Travis Stanton in my causeway article in CAJ. For my current research on settlement strategies in relation to climate change and water I have mentioned Gill, Lucero, and cave research (since the settlements surrounding caves of the Cochuah region primarily were occupied during “dry periods”/droughts). My use of French philosophy (as Steve Houston labels it here: is simply a way to draw more attention to material patterns rather than the meaning that these objects and patterns may have had (which they for sure had). I think Holley Moyes study of the Late Classic drought cult is an excellent example of how patterns can be detected without relying on the ethnographic record. Ritual practices may be long lived but their meaning most likely changes. I know it is tempting to use ethnography (I have done so myself) but I do come from another archaeological tradition than most Mayanists (something pointed out in Steve’s article). Over here in Sweden most of us are critical of projecting later textual sources or ethnographic studies on archaeological data, particularly in regard to the pre-Christian era. I also think that Nielsen and Reunert’s article in Antiquity on the Mesoamerican multilayered universe and William Hanks recent book “Converting Words” shows how far reaching the reducción was.


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