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This article emerged as the human species collectively have been experiencing the worst global pandemic in a century. With a long view of the ecological, economic, social, and political factors that promote the emergence and spread of infectious disease, archaeologists are well positioned to examine the antecedents of the present crisis. In this article, we bring together a variety of perspectives on the issues surrounding the emergence, spread, and effects of disease in both the Americas and Afro-Eurasian contexts. Recognizing that human populations most severely impacted by COVID-19 are typically descendants of marginalized groups, we investigate pre- and postcontact disease vectors among Indigenous and Black communities in North America, outlining the systemic impacts of diseases and the conditions that exacerbate their spread. We look at how material culture both reflects and changes as a result of social transformations brought about by disease, the insights that paleopathology provides about the ancient human condition, and the impacts of ancient globalization on the spread of disease worldwide. By understanding the differential effects of past epidemics on diverse communities and contributing to more equitable sociopolitical agendas, archaeology can play a key role in helping to pursue a more just future.
In recent years, the archaeology of Native American sites in colonial contexts has increased our understanding of how indigenous communities persisted in challenging times. Greater attention to practices helps to create a more enriched picture, especially when set in the context of food and consumption. This article considers shellfish remains excavated from three households on the Eastern Pequot reservation, located several kilometers Inland from the Connecticut coast in southern New England, to explore the role that shellfish gathering played in eighteenth-century subsistence and social practices in Native New England. Household variability in the specific species and quantity consumed, as well as disposal methods, provide insight into internal community decision making. Moreover, eighteenth-century reservation demographics strongly accentuate the role of women in the provision of these foodstuffs and in maintaining cultural connections to the coast and other off-reservation communities. Practices of gathering and consuming shellfish thus provide vectors of change and continuity in Native American communities of colonial New England, showing how these practices represent not only connections to a deeper past, but also ongoing and even resurging practices to engage with a colonial present.
Giovanna Vitelli (this volume) offers interesting perspectives on the archaeological study of Indigenous people in colonial contexts. She does so through a commentary on my recently published (Silliman 2009) article in which I outlined a perspective on practice and memory that has helped me interpret the ways that Indigenous communities can persist between the dichotomies of change and continuity. I offer here some clarifications and engagements with her comments.
Robert McGhee (2008) recently argued against the validity and viability of Indigenous archaeology based on claims that untenable “Aboriginalism” supports the entire enterprise. However, he mischaracterizes and simplifies Indigenous archaeology, despite the wealth of literature suggesting that such community approaches have had and will continue to have great value for method, theory, rigorous interpretation, and political value in archaeology.
The archaeological study of Native Americans during colonial periods in North America has centered largely on assessing the nature of cultural change and continuity through material culture. Although a valuable approach, it has been hindered by focusing too much on the dichotomies of change and continuity, rather than on their interrelationship, by relying on uncritical cultural categories of artifacts and by not recognizing the role of practice and memory in identity and cultural persistence. Ongoing archaeological research on the Eastern Pequot reservation in Connecticut, which was created in 1683 and has been inhabited continuously since then by Eastern Pequot community members, permits a different view of the nature of change and continuity. Three reservation sites spanning the period between ca. 1740 and 1840 accentuate the scale and temporality of social memory and the relationships between practice and materiality. Although the reservation sites show change when compared to the "precontact baseline," they show remarkable continuity during the reservation period. The resulting interpretation provides not only more grounded and appropriately scaled renderings of past cultural practices but also critical engagements with analytical categories that carry significant political weight well outside of archaeological circles.
What has frequently been termed “contact-period“ archaeology has assumed a prominent role in North American archaeology in the last two decades. This article examines the conceptual foundation of archaeological “culture contact” studies by sharpening the terminological and interpretive distinction between “contact” and “colonialism.” The conflation of these two terms, and thereby realms of historical experience, has proven detrimental to archaeologists’ attempts to understand indigenous and colonial histories. In light of this predicament, the article tackles three problems with treating colonialism as culture contact: (1) emphasizing short-term encounters rather than long-term entanglements, which ignores the process and heterogeneous forms of colonialism and the multifaceted ways that indigenous people experienced them; (2) down-playing the severity of interaction and the radically different levels of political power, which does little to reveal how Native people negotiated complex social terrain but does much to distance “contact” studies from what should be a related research focus in the archaeology of African enslavement and diaspora; and (3) privileging predefined cultural traits over creative or creolized cultural products, which loses sight of the ways that social agents lived their daily lives and that material culture can reveal, as much as hide, the subtleties of cultural change and continuity.
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