Practice and history in archaeology: An emerging paradigm

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A new paradigm is emerging in archaeology herein dubbed 'historical processualism'. A review of three contemporary approaches to the study of the past - neo-Darwinism, cognitive-processualism, and agency theory - suggests that the standard notions of 'behavior' and 'evolution' are being replaced in archaeological explanations by 'practice' and 'history'. Behavioral analogies, commonly used to construct inferences about 'why' cultures changed, are problematic. In their place, archaeologists should substitute the study of cultural practices - what people did and how they negotiated their views of others and of their own pasts - as these were and are the actual processes of cultural change. The emphasis on practice entails the elevation of historical explanations, in the process altering the questions that archaeologists ask and the data that they must gather to address those questions. The importance of this paradigmatic shift is exemplified by contrasting contemporary explanations of Mississippian pottery and political change in the pre-Columbian American midcontinent.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)73-98
Number of pages26
JournalAnthropological Theory
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2001


  • Agency
  • Archaeology
  • Cahokia
  • History
  • Mississippian pottery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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