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The Other World: Archaeology of Ancient America

Dean Snow, Pennsylvania State University, Visiting Scholar 2005–2006, Fall

The focus of my stay as senior scholar at Dumbarton Oaks has been the preparation of chapters having Mesoamerican content for my new book tentatively titled The Other World: Archaeology of Ancient America. The book is designed to cover the entire continent of North America, including nearby islands. This is a departure from tradition in the United States, where books claiming to treat the archaeology of North America invariably stop at the Mexican border and give scant attention to any sources written in languages other than English.

Most previous books have been written as culture histories, descriptive volumes that have tended to let the facts speak for themselves. The facts of North American archaeology are now so voluminous that this approach is both stultifying and unacceptably confusing. My solution has been to adopt evolutionary ecology as an explanatory framework, and to make minimum use of the now hopelessly complex time-space frameworks that archaeologists have traditionally used to organize knowledge. There are too many archaeological phases, pottery types, projectile point types, and regional sequences for the older approach to remain viable (if it ever was).

The book is traditional in its overall structure, consisting of fifteen chapters that begin with Eurasian origins and the spread of Paleoindians. Thereafter the book turns to a general coverage of the new adaptations brought on by the end of the Pleistocene and the emergence of modern climatic conditions. These changes contained the seeds of plant domestication, which ultimately fueled the rise of chiefdoms, states, and empires. The last two developed only in Mesoamerica, but their influences extended to the United States Southwest and the Eastern Woodlands. Plant domesticates spread northward, and physical remains such as ceramics, architecture, and luxury goods all show evidence that ideas spread with them.

I have been moving toward writing this book for four decades. Dumbarton Oaks has given me the time and resources to complete six (of fifteen) chapters and make significant progress on several more. This was particularly the case for all sections having anything to do with Mesoamerica, where the library collection at Dumbarton Oaks is unequalled. I have been able to discover and describe clear evidence of linkages between Highland Mexico and both the southwestern and southeastern regions of what is now the United States. It is also the case that fellows in residence provided me with many excellent ideas and helpful suggestions. I am very grateful to Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks for this opportunity.