Tuesday, April 6, 2010

outside influences

Last week, several influential political bloggers were blogging about the 10 books that influenced them the most. The best summary is here, on The American Conservative.

Obviously, any list of my most influential books would focus on the venerable classics of environmental archaeology. But I started thinking about less obvious influences - those from outside archaeology altogether.

I teach certain courses (ecological anthropology in particular) that include all four subfields of anthropology. Personally, I see the four-field approach as largely a historical accident. After all, archaeology really doesn't have to be anthropology to be worthwhile, as is eminently clear if you look at the programs in Europe. (A friend of mine posted on facebook once that archaeology is misanthropy or it is nothing, which is a line I've added to my personal motto: "If I liked living people better than dead ones, I'd have been a cultural anthropologist.") Archaeologists share a history and body of theory with anthropology, but the same is true of geography. We take methods and theories from biology, geology, chemistry, etc., and nobody claims we should be a subfield of those disciplines.

Archaeology has to be one of the fields that borrows most heavily from outside its own discipline. So, in this post I want to share some of the non-archaeological books that have had the strongest impact on me and my research.

William L. Ballee, Ed.
1998 Advances in Historical Ecology. Columbia, New York.
I love Ballee's work. I can't pinpoint just one influence that this book has had on my research, since my research focus is on humanly-modified landscapes, which pretty much sums up the whole point of Historical Ecology. I was trained in Human Behavioral Ecology, and while I still use many of the techniques of HBE, I fell in love with Historical Ecology the first time I read this book. It has a depth and soul that is lacking in HBE (IMHO). This is an edited volume, with chapters that cover a wide variety of topics. I suppose it is cheating to list this book as one of my biggest non-archaeological influences, since some of those chapters are written by archaeologists (Bettinger and Roosevelt wrote incredibly interesting chapters on the Great Basin and Amazonia, respectively). Plus, Historical Ecology is an inherently archaeology-friendly field, given that historical data is frequently obtained through archaeology. Carole Crumley's work is indicative of the power of Historical Ecology in archaeology. I'm still claiming the Ballee book for this post, though, since Ballee himself is a cultural anthropologist.

Rea, Amadeo M.
1983 Once a River: Bird Life and Habitat Changes on the Middle Gila. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
1997 At the Desert's Green Edge: An Ethnobotany of the Gila River Pima. University of Arizona Press, Tucson
1998 Folk Mammalogy of the Northern Pimans. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Rea's an ethnobiologist and ornithologist whose work explores the dialectic between plants/animals and traditional agricultural societies in the desert Southwest. (Note that I hardly ever used words like "dialectic" in a non-sarcastic manner, but in this case the term is justified.) The most important influence Rea's work had on me was driving home the understanding of how deeply embedded all societies are in their environments, and how we interact with other organisms in a myriad of contexts. Since this is the case, it follows that remains of wild plants and animals can tell us something about all aspects of human society, from the economic to the social to the religious. These books are also beautifully written, a classic example of academic work that can find a wider audience.

Mintz, Sidney W.
1986 Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin, New York.

I love this book. While Rea's books show that communities are embedded in particular landscapes, and that the taxa of those landscapes permeate throughout the culture, Mintz's book looks at one species and shows how it is embedded in a vast social and political network, across space and time. He shows how something as fundamental and "natural" as food becomes enmeshed in the story of economics, power, colonialism, and religion over the last 400 years. Fascinating and, again, inspiring to think how much more than just nutrition information can be gained from a deeper understanding of the role of plants and animals in human societies.

Those are the books that come to mind off the top of my head. I'm sure there are a lot more. Anyone else want to chime in with their list?

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