Of Science & Stories

Michael Wilcox, a Stanford University archaeologist, has a new book that takes a fresh look at the Pueblo Revolt. A university press release captures some interesting themes of Wilcox’s post-colonial work in the Southwest, such as this quote directly from his book:

Archaeologists and anthropologists have imposed disease, demographic collapse and acculturation as explanations of discontinuity and cultural extinction. Almost universally written from a European perspective, the mythologies of conquest have helped render Native Americans invisible.

Part of what’s bugging Wilcox is also the focus of a new volume of essays (by a number of scholars, including Wilcox), that challenges the research behind Jared Diamond’s popular and influential tome, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. It so happens that just yesterday, Rex over at Savage Minds covered this renewed debate in a detailed post.

Not having read either of the newer books, it’s impossible for me to offer any informed comment on them. But the Stanford piece quotes some provocative Wilcox statements, such as this one at the end:

I may be critical of archaeology, but what I am saying is that it makes sense to do work that is responsive and includes the opinions of indigenous populations. The more that archeologists and Native communities work together, the better things get. I really want this field to do well, and I believe it can be much better. It has to because stories of the past matter.

On this, he’s likely to get little argument from southwestern archaeologists, as many have become increasingly receptive to Native American concerns and oral history. But there’s something about that last sentence–because stories of the past matter–that might set off alarm bells in some quarters. Because, in fact, there are points where science and tribal stories of the past collide.

It’ll be interesting to see how Wilcox and his colleagues reconcile the tension between science and oral tradition. As my recent piece on the contested Navajo history in the Southwest suggests, science can be trumped by the politics of this newfound, well-intentioned sensitivity.

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