Sunday, February 8, 2015

Hybridity within the Archaeological Record

            Based on Edward Said’s characterization of colonialist thought in Orientalism and Matthew Liebmann’s definitions of postcolonialism in the introductory chapter of Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique, the primary difference to me between these two paradigms is the tendency to dichotomize versus hybridize the cultures of colonizer and colonized.

            According to Said, encounters of Western colonists with “the Orient,” which he defines in this book as India and the Levant, caused them to assert their distinctive Western-ness. Of course, the distinction of “Western” is vague and arbitrary and, by definition, can only be made relationally; something/someone can only be “Western” with respect to something/someone else. Therefore, “the Orient” is a concept developed by Western colonists as a foil for themselves. It existed only as an Other by which they could define the Self. Orientalism as a field of study, then, is problematic not only because of the outright racism expressed in some of the literature, but because it is inherently Eurocentric. Indian and Levantine cultures are studied as a means by which “the West” can be understood rather than as an end in of themselves. Said expresses the positive feedback cycle that dichotomization initiates:
            When one uses categories like Oriental and Western as both the starting and
            the end points of analysis, research, public policy…the result is usually to
            polarize the distinction – the Oriental becomes more Oriental, the Westerner
            more Western – and limit the human encounter between different cultures,
            traditions and societies (45-6).

            However, the act of colonizing did the exact opposite; rather than isolating the cultures of “East” and “West,” it brought them into constant contact. To me, refutation of this binary in favor of cultural interaction is one of the most important contributions of postcolonalism. Liebmann identifies this “investigation of hybridity in the constitution of postcolonial cultural formations” as one of the three major tenets of this theoretical framework (4). I am interested in how the archaeological record can be used to explore this notion of hybridity, which Liebmann defines as “the new, transcultural forms produced through colonization that cannot be neatly classified into a single cultural or ethnic category” (5). Thus, the whole is greater than the some of its parts and, as Liebmann emphasizes, these parts can be in constant conflict, resulting in instances of anticolonial resistance.

            A zooarchaeological study I am currently working on can be used as one lens through which hybridity can be identified archaeologically. The site of Dixon, New Mexico was first occupied by the Spanish in 1725; however, it had been inhabited by the Tiwa people for centuries prior to European arrival. The entire assemblage is believed to date from the post-colonial period, and yet there is evidence of traditional indigenous hunting techniques occurring contemporaneously with traditionally European domesticates such as sheep, goat, cattle and pig. It is unclear whether or not the coexistence of these two distinct subsistence strategies is due to Spanish appropriation of indigenous techniques, indigenous appropriation of Spanish domestication, or cohabitation, as all have seemingly occurred at other Spanish colonial sites in the area; likely, it is a combination of the three. Regardless, each is a form of hybridity that can be explored within a postcolonial theoretical framework.

            This is just one of the many ways in which archaeology can be used in combination with postcolonial theory to identify instances of hybridity and reconstruct the history of colonization in a non-binary fashion. In fact, in the second chapter of Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique, Liebmann identifies additional material examples of hybridity from the Spanish colonial Southwest, focusing on the fusion of Catholicism with Puebloan traditions. All of these remarkable histories of confluence and conflict, much more interesting and varied than the colonial “East” versus “West” archetype, would be missed if not for the rejection of these binaries by postcolonial theory.


Liebmann, M. and Rizvi, U. Z., eds. 2008. Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique. Lanham, MD: 
            AltaMira Press.
Said, E. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Random House. 

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