The Drastic Harm of Undetected Biases

Archaeology techniques are constantly being changed in order to better represent human society. The most complicated process archaeologists struggle with is trying to discover what people were thinking and how that impacted their social norms. The presence of undetected biases can damage the interpretation of any culture. Nowadays, with such ingrained social norms as gender roles, it’s hard to interpret social hierarchy without bringing certain assumptions into play—we even forget cultures without these gender norms exist today.

Pictures that can be found of early hunting societies only include men.

In contrast, women are only depicted in nonviolent imagery.

Surprisingly, gender roles were really only established in Chiefdoms and States because specific roles would organize the community so that there wouldn’t be chaos. Smaller groups wouldn’t need to organize their society because there weren’t enough people to have unique roles.

To disprove these previous biases, archaeologists went to the origin of this assumption: our animal predecessors. Scientists previously used gender distinction as evidence for our biological differences, specifically male sexual aggression in baboons. However, as the author of Ungendering Civilization: Reinterpreting the Archaeological Record Pyburn explained, if one were to look deeper they would find that male dominance in the animal world is actually as complicated as the past gender roles that they were looking to understand. The problem was people would only ask questions that gave them the desired answers rather than looking further. Smuts (1987) said that “[baboon] females create and participate in social hierarchies and political scenarios”, a fact that painted a very different picture of our predecessors. Further, archaeologists looked into another previously assumed fact relating to the fatality rate of men vs women. Since nowadays that statistic is (somewhat) related to political dominance, it was assumed to be the same with baboons. In reality, archaeologists concluded that if it was about political dominance, it wasn’t the isolated variable.

Now regarding archaeological sites, feminist archaeologists looked to disproving assumptions before jumping to new conclusions so that these mistakes weren’t repeated. The three specific categories of archaeology made it easier for archaeologists to point out the issues with previous conclusions. They first attacked issues within ‘Cultural History’ and the chronology they used at the time which only dealt with the order of events and not social constructs. Instead of leaving that out however, archaeologists used to create a completely assumed social hierarchy. After expressing those errors, archaeologists looked at Processual archaeology which had a better approach but in their attempt to be explanatory, they did not fully understand the difference between social norms and biology—the social differences between male and female was still considered biology. Finally, Post-processual focused on the need for new ideas i.e old ideas we didn’t think existed. For example, difference between gender and sex, sexual orientation, and warfare are different depending on the culture. Although these are part of all cultures, it’s the assumption of unanimity that has slipped up archaeologists for hundreds of years.



Pyburn, K.A. Engendering Civilization: Reinterpreting the Archaeological Record.  Routledge: London, 2004.

Ardren, Traci. Studies of Gender in Prehispanic America. Published online: 9 September 2007. Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice. Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Image Sources

Further Reading

Rautman, Alison E. “Reading the Body: Representations and Remains in the Archaeological Record. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. p 283

Fulkerson, Tiffany J. Endangering the Past: The Status of Gender and Feminist Approaches to Archaeology in the Pacific Northwest and Future Directions.” Journal of Northwest Anthropology, 2017.



2 thoughts on “The Drastic Harm of Undetected Biases

  1. What is an example in which using a feminist archaeology approach changes the interpretation of the site? Is being a Feminist archaeologist being a good archaeologist, should archaeologists always approach a site without bringing their own assumptions?

  2. Augustin Fuentes’ response to the ‘Google Manifesto’ (posted on Moodle) is an example of using feminist archaeology to approach a site—or in this case an idea that stemmed from archaeologists’ previous approaches to a site. In the manifesto, it is stated that women are more open to feelings and more prone to anxiety than men. This statement comes from the assumptions of evolution: men were exposed to more environmental pressures while they were hunting so they evolved to become less emotional. Fuentes points out that the belief that only men hunted is wrong and was only ‘proved’ by people who had inherent biases about specific gender roles. It is impossible to completely erase all biases even with new methods like feminist archaeology. In order to create the most holistic view possible, each site should be studied with a variety of different methods.

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