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Ethnoarchaeology is the ethnographic study of peoples for archaeological reasons, usually through the study of the material remains of a society (see David & Kramer 2001). Ethnoarchaeology aids archaeologists in reconstructing ancient lifeways by studying the material and non-material traditions of modern societies. Archaeologists can then infer that ancient societies used the same techniques as their modern counterparts given a similar set of environmental circumstances.

Ethnography can provide insights of value to archaeologists into how people in the past may have lived, especially with regard to their social structures, religious beliefs and other aspects of their culture. However, it is still unclear how to relate most of the insights generated by this anthropological research to archaeological investigations. This is due to the lack of emphasis by anthropologists on the material remains created and discarded by societies and on how these material remains vary with differences in how a society is organised.

This general problem has led archaeologists (for example, London [2000]) to argue that anthropological work is not adequate for answering archaeological problems, and that archaeologists should therefore undertake ethnoarchaeological work to answer these problems. These studies have focused far more on the manufacture, use and discard of tools and other artifacts and have sought to answer such questions as what kinds of objects used in a living settlement are deposited in middens or other places where they may be preserved, and how likely an object is to be discarded near to the place where it was used.

One good example of ethnoarchaeology is that of Brian Hayden (1987), whose team examined the manufacture of Mesoamerican quern-stones, providing valuable insights into the manufacture of prehistoric quern-stones. Many other studies have focused on the manufacture and use of ceramics, architecture, food, and other types of material culture. In the best cases, these studies have involved long term ethnographic fieldwork (for example, Herbich 1987, Kramer 1997, Deal 1998, Dietler & Herbich 1998, Longacre & Skibo 2000, Kohn 2010).


  • David, N. & C. Kramer 2001 Ethnoarchaeology in Action, Cambridge University Press.
  • Deal, M. 1998 Pottery Ethnoarchaeology in the Central Maya Highlands, University of Utah Press.
  • Dietler, M. & I. Herbich 1998 Habitus, techniques, style: an integrated approach to the social understanding of material culture and boundaries, in The Archaeology of Social Boundaries, M. Stark ed., pp. 242-273, Smithsonian.
  • Hayden, B. ed. 1987 Lithic studies among the contemporary Highland Maya, University of Arizona Press.
  • Herbich, I. 1987 Learning patterns, potter interaction and ceramic style among the Luo of Kenya. The African Archaeological Review 5:193-204.
  • Kohn, A. 2010 Of Bricks and Blood: Vernacular Spatial Practice and Social Relations in the City of LaPaz, Bolivia, PhD dissertation, University of Chicago.
  • Kramer, C. 1997 Pottery in Rajasthan: Ethnoarchaeology in Two Indian Cities, Smithsonian.
  • London, G. 2000 Ethnoarchaeology and interpretation, in Near Eastern Archaeology 63:2-8.
  • Longacre, W. & J. Skibo eds. 1994 Kalinga Ethnoarchaeology, Smithsonian.