Colonial perspectives about hierarchies of human worth and worldviews shaped the creation of anthropology, and modern archaeologists are grappling with this legacy. This unit encourages students to explore the impacts of colonialism on the discipline and consider how archaeologists are taking steps to decolonize their methods and theories.
Professor Talking Points:
- Colonialism is a process in which a colonizing nation/state dominates another and exploits it economically for the benefit of the colonial power. This process can involve the imposition of the colonizing body’s social, political, religious, and/or linguistic traditions, and uses force to maintain power and control.
- European colonization (from the late 1400s to the 1900s; see this timeline via Vox) also instated systems of hetero-patriarchy, specific forms of classism, capitalism, and racism—all of which were used to subjugate colonized peoples.
- Archaeology was instrumental in legitimizing scientific racism through pseudoscientific practices such as skull measuring.
- It also helped create narratives about the inferiority of colonized groups based on their ancestors’ material culture. Many sacred objects and remains currently in museums were stolen from burial sites that were desecrated during the colonial period. These items and remains were often displayed in ways that were horribly inappropriate according to Indigenous traditions and ethics.
- Today archaeologists are challenging the colonial roots of their discipline in order to create better, more equitable practices.
- There are a growing number of people of color in archaeology who belong to ethnic and racial groups that were colonized, and who bring new perspectives and demands to this field of study.
- Flewellen, Ayana Omilade. 2017. “Locating Marginalized Historical Narratives at Kingsley Plantation.” Historical Archaeology 51 (1): 71–87.
- Panich, Lee. 2013. “Archaeologies of Persistence: Reconsidering the Legacies of Colonialism in Native North America.” American Antiquity 78 (1): 105–122.
- Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society 1 (1): 1–40.
Student Discussion Questions:
- What are some of the harmful practices you learned about in these readings? How can you tell that they are colonialist in nature?
- How do colonialist mentalities about the inferiority of colonized people impact the way archaeologists interpret their findings?
- Why is it important to decolonize archaeology?
- What do non-colonialist perspectives bring to this field of study? What can researchers see when they decolonize that they otherwise could not see? Use the content of the readings to support your argument.
- How does repatriation and working with communities that were historically harmed by anthropology fit into efforts to decolonize the field?
- Have students search the internet to find historical and current examples of colonialist archaeology in practice.
- Article: Science’s “Caribbean Excavation Offers Intimate Look at the Lives of Enslaved Africans”
- TEDx Talk: Nikki Sanchez’s “Decolonization Is for Everyone”
- Video: Students on Ice Foundation’s “Decolonizing Archaeology”
Unit by Eshe Lewis (2020)