My research develops an archaeological theory of the environment centered on how landscapes and materials are integral to political life, in particular the constitution of authority. Prevailing political theories from Hobbes to Habermas are rooted in philosophical traditions that exclude much of the physical environment from discussions of conflict and cooperation. Focusing on human needs and governmental strategies, they cast landscapes and things in secondary roles—as resources, stages for action, or symbols that mask "true power." In contrast to this "disenchanted" Western tradition, my archaeological work on the Inka Empire and Spanish colonialism in South America (1350-1750 CE) draws on an Indigenous American perspective on politics to assemble a previously hidden history of a world in which materials not only responded to human authority, but were themselves authorities with essential social roles. This research reveals that politics occurs not only in the plaza or palace, but in the practices by which people shape, pay homage to, and raze an environment that grounds (and creates grounds to challenge) the institutions of a community and the inequalities of a state. At present, I am engaged in archaeological and historical ecological research that not only centers on these themes, but also, more specifically, counters scholarly visions of power as viewed from the top-down with a close perspective on the places and practices that constitute social authority from the ground-up. One project, which has emerged from my earlier work on Inka state formation, inquires into the practices by which Inkas and others interacted with the nonhuman authorities of their landscape -- mallkis (mummies), apus (lords) and wakas (person-places such as mountains, boulders, buildings and springs). Concentrating on the situated conflicts by which people came to defend their landscape against the intrusion of the state, I call attention to how places can serve as powerful vectors of social change, especially during social and environmental crises when people within small-scale communities seek to declare their authority and defend their autonomy. The research contributes an archaeological perspective to critical social theories that describe "authority" as an always-contested and always-situated relationship in which social differences are created, reproduced, or fractured in particular settings and circumstances. While this work focuses on the power manifested in the physical environment, my second project examines how people without power—forcibly resettled mitmaqkuna workers—built community under colonial oppression. It centers on Rumiqolqa, a massive labor colony in Cuzco, Peru where people quarried stone for Inka and Spanish regimes. This three-year project is affording a "trans-conquest" view of the practices by which Andean people of diverse background withstood successive waves of colonialism as they banded together, created new socio-economic ties, and drew on their diversity to empower their community. International collaboration and community engagement are central to this research. To this end, I am currently working with the indigenous community of Ollantaytambo, Peru to develop an augmented and virtual reality “digital museum” application that both demonstrates and celebrates what is unique about their “living” Inka town and landscape. As a teacher, I draw on the interdisciplinary approaches and cultural experiences that animate my research. My teaching philosophy is built on the premise that my role as a professor at a research university entails a responsibility to establish ways for students to participate in intellectual debate and scientific discovery. Though many students will not pursue a professional career in archaeology or ecological anthropology, all of them will be exposed in life to claims about the materials, discourses, and concepts that structure our social and physical landscapes. Accordingly, I strive to provide students with the critical and methodological tools not only to evaluate narratives about nature and environmental history, but also to create new knowledge that will rewrite these narratives to help build a more equitable and sustainable world.
- Environmental Anthropology and Landscape Archaeology
- Political Theory
- Andes, Amazon, Mesoamerica
- Indigenous politics in the Americas
- Political Ecology
- Archaeology of religion, magic and ritual
- Material culture