Gesturing Beyond Bones: Proposing a Decolonised Zooarchaeology

This is the text from a talk I gave at the Approaches to Decolonising Research event organised by the Decolonising the Curriculum Working Group at Liverpool John Moores University. If you’re interested in reading the talk that formed the basis of this one, you can find that transcript here.

A proposed framework for moving towards decolonisation (from the original presentation).

The call to decolonise archaeology is perhaps as old as the discipline itself, born as soon as colonised peoples began to fight back against the colonisers who intended to loot their land and culture. But the push for decolonising the theory and practice of the discipline from within is somewhat more recent, having become a topic of broader interest during the past few decades. Much has been done with regards to moving away from Eurocentric, white perspectives of archaeological theory and practice which perpetuate colonialist thought by embracing Black and Indigenous approaches to archaeology (Smith and Wobst, 2005; Atalay, 2012; Schmidt and Pikirayi, 2016; Battle-Baptiste, 2017). The emergence of community-based archaeology has encouraged the development of more ethical and equitable partnerships and relations between archaeologists and Indigenous communities (e.g., Byrne, 2012; May et al., 2017), as well as the “braiding” of local and academic knowledge to develop more holistic and inclusive interpretations of the past (Atalay, 2012, p. 27).

With the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, the push for decolonising archaeology has only intensified.  Groups such as the Society of Black Archaeologists, the Indigenous Archaeology Collective, and the European Society of Black and Allied Archaeologists have formed to support and encourage the work of Black and Indigenous archaeologists. This has also led to a long overdue reckoning of the racial dynamics of archaeology, including the continued lack of diversity within the field and the need for a commitment to anti-racism and anti-Blackness (Franklin et al., 2020; White and Draycott, 2020; Brunache et al., 2021; Flewellen et al., 2021).

Although the decolonisation movement continues to expand within archaeology as a whole, there has been very little work done in the subfield of zooarchaeology from a decolonial perspective. This is somewhat understandable; zooarchaeology, as the study of animal remains in the archaeological record, is sometimes seen as disconnected from the study of human culture, and thus not likely to be seen as something in need of “decolonising”. And yet, adjacent fields such as animal studies and natural history studies have begun to develop a long body of literature and research dedicated to applying decolonial theory. This includes the vital work that Indigenous scholars have done in “Indigenising” these fields, particularly in re-examining human-animal relations from an Indigenous perspective (Todd, 2014, pp. 218–219). There has also been a movement within natural history studies to recontextualise research within the colonial context from which they derive from; this has also been reflected in recent work being done in decolonising natural history collections, such as the powerful “Displays of Power” exhibition at the Grant Museum of Zoology.

This is not to say that zooarchaeology is completely devoid of research that engages with colonialism and decolonisation; on the contrary, zooarchaeological analysis has been used to examine colonialism within the archaeological record (e.g., Kennedy and VanValkenburg, 2016; Delsol, 2020; Wallman, 2020), with more recent research grappling more explicitly with decolonial theory as part of interpretation and application (e.g., Moss, 2020; Van Litsenburg, 2021; Gruntorad, 2021; Laurich, 2021). But compared to the amount of decolonial interventions in archaeology as a whole, this critical perspective is lacking within zooarchaeology.

In 2019, I originally posited my own hypothetical approach to a “decolonised” zooarchaeology (Fitzpatrick, 2019). My interest in decolonial theory was inspired by my own personal struggles as a Chinese American woman attempting to make space for myself and my work in British archaeology as a graduate student; this was unsurprisingly difficult in a field where 97% of its practitioners are white. In understanding that I was working in a discipline not meant for myself, I recognised the need for dismantling these limitations and expanding beyond the white, Euro-Western notion of archaeological practice and theory.

As I begun to train as a zooarchaeologist, I noticed how much of the literature was focused on very utilitarian interpretations of faunal remains; in some ways, there is some sense to this, as domestication and subsistence through the consumption of animals make up a significant amount of the zooarchaeological record. However, this is not the only relation that humans had with non-human species, and to narrow this relationship to a purely utilitarian standpoint is reflective of a Euro-Western perspective. Indeed, social zooarchaeology was developed to work against the assumption that human-animal relations could only be representative of such utilitarian motives, and further explore the way this relationship could be interpreted by looking at the use of animals in ritual, symbolism, and companionship in the past (Russell, 2012).

This connects to a broader attitude of anthropocentrism that is prevalent within zooarchaeology; again, this is unsurprising, as the discipline is often defined as utilising animal remains to develop an understanding of human life in the past (Albarella, 2017, p. 4). Such anthropocentrism has also been connected to the Euro-Western, settler-coloniser understanding of human-animal relations that has often been at odds with Indigenous perspectives (Belcourt, 2015, pp. 4–5). Overton and Hamilakis (2013) have proposed using social zooarchaeology as a means of decoupling the subfield from this perspective by adopting philosophical approaches such as Cary Wolfe’s “zoontology” (2003, pp. x–xiii) and the post-humanist analyses of interspecies relations and interactions by scholars such as Jaques Derrida (2008)and Donna Haraway (2007) in order to examine non-human lives as sentient beings with autonomy and agency in the past.

Zooarchaeology has also be used to perpetuate other Euro-Western binaries that are not universal; this includes the view that nature and culture are opposed to one another, as well as humans and animals. It is through these dichotomies that exploitation and domination are rationalised (Hovorka, 2017, p. 388). Similarly, when invoked in zooarchaeological interpretation, we continue to perpetuate an anthropocentric idea that human-animal relations have always been grounded in domination and commodification of one species over another.

My proposal for a decolonised zooarchaeology focused on decentring these Euro-Western perspectives, moving away from utilitarian, anthropocentric approaches to interpretating the zooarchaeological record that perpetuated Euro-Western binaries that likely did not even exist in the past. We could instead broaden our conceptions of non-human experience in the past, and further expand and enrich our understanding of human-animal relations without burdening our interpretations with the need to reframe them within our limited concepts of functionality and practicality, or by insisting on an anthropocentric focus. It would necessitate a massive restructure of zooarchaeological theory and practice, but it also had the potential of being a powerful shift in interpretation and understanding.

Since I originally posited these ideas in 2019, much has changed; with the global pandemic, the continuation of colonial violence is laid bare, as systemic racism is further invigorated by governments more concerned with collapsing capitalist systems and the Global South is completely abandoned by countries hoarding vaccines in the Global North. At the start of the pandemic, we saw the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement, which ultimately set off a wave of institutional level “equity, diversity, and inclusion” initiatives, often under the guise of “decolonising”; although it was (and still is) hoped that many of these initiatives, regardless of the actuality of their sincerity, will make way for tangible change in academia, some have already proven to have been performative in nature. For example, in 2021 the University of Leicester was accused of using its “decolonising the curriculum” initiative as an excuse to remove modules in medieval literature and English language and make 145 staff members redundant (Regan, 2021). More recently, three Cameroonian academics were blocked from entering Germany to present their research on artefacts from Cameroon than are presently part of the Bavarian Royal Collections (Hickley, 2022).

Against this setting, it is unsurprising that there has been further discourse surrounding the current status of the decolonisation movement in the academy. Similar to the critiques of the sudden popularity of EDI work in neoliberal institutions, scholars well-versed in decolonial theory and praxis have noted that decolonisation has been emptied of its radical potential for performative purposes (e.g., le Grange et al., 2020; Opara, 2021); instead, it has turned into what Foluke Adebisi (2020) refers to as a “tick-box exercise” that does not actually disrupt “hierarchised epistemic hegemonies”.

Despite the popularity of Tuck and Yang’s (2012) Decolonization is not a Metaphor, we continue to see the term used more metaphorically as it gets watered down and deradicalised through misuse. Decolonisation has, ironically, become colonised, particularly by scholars from the Global North who have not truly engaged with decolonial work from the Global South and continue to misuse these theories outside of the original Indigenous and African frameworks. This leads us to echo a question posed by African scholar Chisomo Kalinga: “Who is decoloniality for? The coloniser, or the colonised?” (as quoted in Pai, 2021).

Another specific critique of “decolonising” within the academia has revolved around the imprecise use of language. The misuse of the terminology by those in the Global North has further compounded the misunderstanding that decolonisation is a synonym for the broader “social justice” movement within academia, thereby disengaging the concept from its origins as a force of resistance against colonisation (Kalinga in Pai, 2021). And as Jairo Fúnez reminds us (2021), by decoupling decolonial theory from its origins among scholars in the Global South in order to refigure it as a digestible concept within the Global North, we risk equally decoupling it from its associated ethical and political commitments.

In revisiting the idea of decolonising zooarchaeology today, my own opinion has changed. That is not to say that I am against the idea of decolonising zooarchaeology; on the contrary, I still think it is something to aspire to. But I struggle to truthfully see myself or my work as actively decolonising, and I believe that to call it such may unintentionally lend itself to the reactionary movement that aims to dilute the word. That call for a precision of language by decolonial scholars and activists is a powerful one that we must heed, even if it requires some difficult self-reflection and introspection of our own work and where it truly lies – if at all – within the paradigm of decolonisation.

Today, I have begun to experiment with situating myself and my work as moving towards decolonisation, following Nayantara Sheoran Appleton’s suggestion that academics not ready to decolonise instead focus on planning how they will do so in the future, providing the time and space necessary to properly engage with prior and current work. Similarly, I do not think of my prior or current work as “decolonising”; rather, I instead view it as part of the progression that will eventually lead to decolonisation. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either – indeed, as many scholars have pointed out, decolonisation is not a single event; it is a complex process that will be painful and push us beyond the colonial limits that some have become accustomed to and comfortable within, as well as necessitate many academics to relinquish their power and privileges to those who have been marginalised and harmed by our work. In moving towards decolonisation, I now place emphasis on developing meaningful support for accountability, on dismantling power dynamics within community engagement, and on examining the usefulness of archaeology as a tool for supporting the sovereignty of Black, Indigenous, historically looted, and otherwise marginalised communities over their land and culture, as well as increasing their autonomy over research and knowledge production and dissemination.

For zooarchaeologists intent on decolonising, perhaps the best way forward has already been demonstrated in recent work by zooarchaeologists such as Moss (2020) and Gruntorad (2021) in citing the usefulness of zooarchaeological research for Indigenous food sovereignty. Utilisation of applied zooarchaeology has already merited some success in modern day conservation efforts (e.g., Wolverton and Lyman, 2012; Nagaoka et al., 2016); similarly, we could apply zooarchaeological analysis and interpretation to supporting Indigenous land and resource sovereignty and decolonising conservation and wildlife management. Beyond this movement to action, I still maintain that my original proposal has some merit as part of an agenda towards decolonisation; again, it may not be decolonising work in of itself, but the decentring of Euro-Western, anthropocentric perspectives of non-human species can help further develop a foundation of theory upon which a decolonising form of zooarchaeology can be built.

By adopting a framework of moving towardsdecolonisation, I believe that archaeologists can continue to do vital work in recognising harmful practices and developing sustained and tangible means for repairing relations and holding ourselves and our research accountable, while also staying vigilant of falling backwards into performative acts of “decolonisation”, which actively hurts the movement under the guise of performative progressiveness. Remaining in a phase of moving towards decolonisation means that archaeologists are aware of our positionality towards the cause, relinquishing space to those actively decolonising theory and practice, but also continuing to support the movement through adjacent acts of change, such as diversifying our curriculum and developing meaningful relationships with marginalised peoples who were once objectified and harmed by our research.

This follows a recent proposal from Schneider and Hayes (2020) which posits that perhaps the way to decolonise archaeology is to decentre it; in this framework, archaeologists are actively encouraged to refrain from assuming and encouraging the centring of Western epistemologies as being vital to decolonisation, and instead consider how we can use the tools and resources granted to us due to our place in Western hierarchical power structures to support decolonial work outside of our institutions.  In moving towards decolonisation, we create the spaces necessary to dismantle surviving colonial structures and nurture a form of archaeology that is actually radical, liberatory, and decolonial. It is work that is vital to ushering in decolonisation, even if it isn’t exactly an act of decolonising.

That all said, I still do not know if archaeology can truly “decolonise”, especially from within these institutions not only located in the Global North, but from within the heart of a dying Empire as well. Perhaps the only way we can truthly decolonise is by destroying these remnants of colonialism and rebuild from the ashes. But what is not “decolonising” our work is ignoring the decolonial struggles that exist outside of the walls of the academy, nor is it “decolonising” to ignore or superficially engage with the work of writers and scholars from the Global South, extracting their labour and knowledge for academic gain. Not only do we do a disservice to and potentially harm others through this misuse of terminology, but we also provide ample space for the movement to be further watered down into performative, shallow-level acts of respectability and reformation, instead of an act of radical transformation.

As academics (and more specifically, as archaeologists), we need to be honest with ourselves in our intents to decolonise, and whether we are truly doing decolonial work. There is nothing wrong with not doing decolonial work yourself, and indeed, it would make for a more ethical approach to research if academics were more honest with their positionality and their place within the greater geopolitics of knowledge production and appropriation. But we cannot become complacent, either, and ignore the necessity for decolonisation in our current world. We have a moral imperative to work towards decolonisation in the ways that we can, through meaningful and proactive action and change. But at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to be tools of neoliberal and neo-colonial institutions through the appropriation of radical, liberatory work. Decolonisation necessitates a re-examination of ways of doing, and perhaps for academics, that also includes ways of doing decolonisation.

To conclude, I want to reiterate that this should not be taken as a damnation of the decolonisation movement in academia, nor as a warning against taking on decolonising work. Instead, I hope this is seen as a reminder that decolonisation is not an academic fad, or a buzzword that can be simply slotted into your next project or publication. It is a process of decoupling from and ultimately dismantling the colonialist structures upon which all of our research has been built. We can join the struggle with intention and critical re-examination of ourselves and our work, or we can co-opt it through carelessness and appropriation. It is imperative that if we choose to move, we move with purpose and as decolonisation transforms our understandings of knowledge, we transform with it as well  – otherwise we risk perpetuating the same harms that necessitated the decolonisation movement to begin with.   


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