In the early days of anthropology, indigenous concepts of animating essences and the cross-cutting nature of the life-force, expressed in such terms as hau and mana, were front and centre in the ethnographic literature (e.g. Mauss 1954; 1975; Malinowski 1922; 1936; 1948). Branded as ‘mystical’, ‘primitive’ and ‘unscientific’ for more than a generation, however, such potentially key conceptual sites of alterity have only recently begun to be revisited and recuperated within anthropology and in other fields such as material culture studies and cognitive sciences. The articles in this special issue of CAJ consider what archaeology might contribute to the general theoretical discussion on animism and alternative ontologies. As a set, they offer a diversity of perspectives on how the recognition of animism as a prevalent theme within contemporary indigenous worlds can affect archaeological analysis and interpretation. They also offer ideas about how attending to the significance of such concepts may provide new analytical purchase on alternative ontologies and ways of constructing, dissolving, or transforming traditional dichotomies that continue to powerfully shape our worlds.