Making Alternative Histories: The Practice of Archaeology and History in Non-Western Settings

By Bray, Tamara L. | Anthropological Quarterly, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Making Alternative Histories: The Practice of Archaeology and History in Non-Western Settings


Bray, Tamara L., Anthropological Quarterly


Making Alternative Histories: The Practice of Archaeology and History in Non-Western Settings. PETER R. SCHMIDT and THOMAS C. PATTERSON. Santa Fe NM: School of American Research Press, 1995; 272 pp. (paper).

This volume had its genesis in an advanced seminar convened at the School for American Research in 1992 by Peter Schmidt and Thomas Patterson. The purpose of the seminar was to consider how archaeology and other forms of historical research might be used to recuperate the histories of local peoples systematically erased or marginalized by the (neo)colonial state. Reflecting a commitment to the inclusion of different voices, scholars of various nationalities were invited to participate. As the editors note in their introduction, the seminar provided the opportunity for frank discussion about the frameworks that structure historical inquiry, methodological censorship and the constraints it imposes, and the political economy of scholarly research. In the resulting volume there is a clear shared recognition that the making of history is a political undertaking and that the emergence of alternative histories typically occurs under conditions of (neo)colonial domination.

Each of the chapters offers a concrete analysis and clear examples of the ways in which official histories underwrite state exploitation, undo historical consciousness, and undermine indigenous identities. In the Caribbean, Sued Badillo reveals how the systematic distortion of history has buttressed colonial subjugation and dispossession of native peoples since the sixteenth century. In East Africa, Schmidt discusses the pragmatics of archaeological research showing how and why the state (with the aid of foreign funding) coopts the potential of the discipline for reinscribing historical consciousness at the local level. In India, Chatterjee demonstrates through exegesis of historical works how received frameworks of inquiry structure and constrain the liberating potential of writing alternative histories. What is striking, and unifying, about this collection of essays is the degree of similarity in concerns with and strategies for the control of history across a wide range of contemporary political settings.

The essays are organized geographically. The three chapters that follow the Introduction are devoted to Latin America and the Caribbean. From here the reader moves to eastern North America, then onto a section on Africa containing four chapters, and finally to India. The book is capped by a discussion of the nature, instrumentality, and politics of history in the concluding chapter. Collectively, these essays make a valuable contribution to our understanding of the ways in which official histories have been used as instruments of the state and how the "making of alternative histories" is critical to empowerment and resistance.

Leading the first set, the Puerto Rican historian Jalil Sued Badillo offers an elegant demonstration of how and to what ends Caribbean states have controlled the production of historical knowledge, arguing that the recuperation of historical memory is crucial for overcoming the misrepresentations propagated by neocolonial governments and positively affirming the identity of the mestizo class. Iraida Vargas Arenas, a Venezuelan archaeologist, next discusses how the official history of the state, perpetuated through the educational system, undermines people's ability to challenge the status quo. She explains the concept of "social archaeology," developed in conjunction with Latin American colleagues, and discusses its potential for helping to revitalize community identity. Tom Patterson historicizes the rise and practice of archaeology in Mexico and Peru in a comparative analysis that highlights the political nature of archaeology and the nationalistic purposes it has served. …

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