Please join us for a workshop designed to be an opportunity for graduate students and faculty to discuss any unconventional source we are working on with people from various disciplines, including the four of us and two external commentators. Unconventional sources can be as varied as oral history, oral traditions, historical linguistic reconstructions, photographs, artifacts, maps, paintings, landscape, climate data; anything that goes beyond written documents. We hope to provide a forum to discuss problems, issues, and questions that arise when working with non-textual evidence.

The commentators will be:

Kathryn de Luna, Associate Professor, Department of History, Georgetown University

Eleanor Harrison-Buck, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of New Hampshire

The workshop will take place on Tuesday May 1st, 2-5pm, in the Scheldon Scheps Memorial Library, Room 457, Anthropology Department, at Columbia University.

It will be the final event of our workshop series Undocumented Stories: Writing Africa and the Americas Across Disciplines.

To participate please contact graduate student rapporteur Evin Grody, at, with a couple of sentences about the source you would like to discuss.

Additional information about the event and the series available here.



Akin Ogundiran, University of North Carolina – Charlotte

6.10pm-8pm, 26 October 2017

Anthropology Department – Sheldon Scheps Memorial Library, Room 457 Schermerhorn Extension


In this presentation, Ogundiran uses a suite of sources–archaeology, oral traditions, and historical linguistics–to make the case for a deep-time history of the emergent principles that defined the Yoruba as a community of practice between ca. 300 BC and AD 1200.  Yes, it is another story of “being and becoming” but his collage of narratives and structural analyses offers ideas and conclusions that are different from the canonical stories of origins that currently dominate Yoruba historiography. Here, Ogundiran focuses on four principles that he considers most important in shaping the long-term Yoruba historical experience: (1) the ilé (House) as the building block of social organization; (2) the dyadic ìlú/oba-aládé (urban/divine kingship) as the model of political culture and ideology of governance; (3) the institutionalization of gendered duality as the epistemological framework for constructing social order; and (4) the quest for immortality through ancestral veneration. The regional and sub-continental contexts in which these core principles unfolded will be emphasized throughout. This study is the first of a nine-chapter book manuscript on the long-term history of the Yoruba community of practice from 300 BC to AD 1830. It offers a fodder of contemplation regarding how the ancestral Yoruba expanded from their Niger-Benue Confluence homeland to become, within about a thousand years, the largest cultural/language group in West Africa south of River Niger. The study also raises questions about the social experience of time and the implications for writing about time and periodization in African historiography.

Please email Evin at for the pre-circulated paper.


Akin Ogundiran earned his Ph.D. in archaeological studies at Boston University. He is also a graduate of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife and University of Ibadan, both in Nigeria. He is currently a Professor of Africana Studies, Anthropology & History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte where he also serves as chair of the Africana Studies Department. His research interests privilege archaeology, material culture, and historical ethnography, as well as embodied practices, orality, and mythos to understand the long-term multiscalar networks that framed community, household lives, and cultural formations in the Yoruba world in continental, global, and Black Atlantic contexts. Most of his previous archaeological research projects have focused on the emergent communities at the periphery and frontiers of hegemonic states. He has also collaborated on projects that examine the archaeology of modernity in Atlantic Africa and the African Diaspora. He is completing a book manuscript on Yoruba cultural history and is leading a long-term interdisciplinary field project that is examining the political economy, settlement ecology, and cultural history of the Old Oyo Empire in West Africa. Dr. Ogundiran has received support for his research from many sources including the Social Science Research Council, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, National Endowment for the Humanities, Dumbarton Oaks, and the National Humanities Center.

Additional information about this workshop series may be found here.


Elizabeth Ellis, New York University

6.10pm-8pm, 14 September 2017

Anthropology Department – Sheldon Scheps Memorial Library, Room 457 Schermerhorn Extension


During the Revolutionary Era, the Lower Mississippi River Valley underwent not only a political upheaval but also massive social and economic changes. In the 1760s the region was an Indigenous dominated borderland with a sparse and dependent French colonial population. While the Choctaws were by far the most powerful polity, no single nation dominated the region and many small nations such as the Tunicas, Biloxis, Houmas, and Pascagoulas thrived by leveraging diplomatic relationships and taking advantage of the fluidity of this borderland. However, by the 1790s waves of Spanish and American settlement had transformed the region into a nascent plantation economy. This paper examines the impact of this geopolitical transformation on Indigenous polities during the decades following the American Revolution.

By comparing the actions and discourses of Native individuals from large nations with those of smaller Native polities, it becomes clear that, while these Indigenous communities were all striving for autonomy, they envisioned very different futures and kinds of relationships with this onslaught of non-Native newcomers. This paper concludes by investigating the sudden disappearance of smaller nations, like the Tunicas, Biloxis, and Pascagoulas, from diplomatic records during the 1780s, and challenges the standard narrative that posits population collapse and community decline as the explanation for this archival silence.

Pre-circulated paper here.


Elizabeth Ellis is an assistant professor of history at New York University. Liz’s current book project investigates the histories of Louisiana’s small Native American polities during the eighteenth century. Her work analyzes the ways these nations shaped European colonization efforts and influenced the lives of all of the inhabitants of the Lower Mississippi Valley. Unlike many of the larger Indian nations of the Southeast, these “petites nations” did not coalesce or confederate into larger polities during the eighteenth century. Rather, these nations sought alternative military, diplomatic, and economic strategies that would allow them to simultaneously preserve their autonomy while wielding sufficient regional influence to protect their homelands and communities. Her work examines the interactions among these petites nations, including the Chitimachas, Tunicas, Bayagoulas, Houmas, Ofogoulas, Tensas, and Biloxis, and their relationships with larger Native polities and the French, Spanish, British, American, and African peoples who settled in Louisiana. Prior to joining NYU, Liz was the Barra Postdoctoral Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.


Additional information about this workshop series may be found here.


Adria LaViolette, University of Virginia


The eastern African coast is best known for its scores of second-millennium Swahili ‘stonetowns’, still visible on the landscape as ruins or indeed as thriving towns into the modern period. The cities have overshadowed the study of Swahili rural life, and how rurality responded and reformulated in the context of urban transformations after AD 1000. To contribute to redressing that imbalance, we focus here on villages ‘in their own right’, research carried out as part of two related projects in the northern part of the Pemba Island, a heartland of the Swahili coast. Here we feature two smaller village settlements, early Kimimba and later Kaliwa, contextualizing them within their urbanizing landscape. By focusing on the archaeology of villages, we are able to say something about the changing nature of rural life on Pemba; indeed, excavations at each tell us about coastal life in ways either not known before, or that complement the scant village-based work from other Swahili regions. How different were villages from each other before the emergence of urbanism on Pemba? How do settlement characteristics of the rural sites compare with those of the urban centers? What types of relationships occur between town and country? And, what was life like in these villages, and how did that change over time? We hope that studies such as this can encourage others to seek out and excavate village sites, and to increasingly include ‘the hidden majority’ in the Swahili story.

Pre-circulated paper available here.


Adria LaViolette is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Virginia.  She received her BA in Archaeology at Yale University.  After completing her PhD at Washington University in St. Louis based on research in Mali, she moved to the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to teach archaeology.  Since then she has been conducting archaeological research on the Tanzanian mainland coast and on Pemba and Zanzibar islands, at Swahili urban and rural settlements.  Dr. LaViolette is working on a monograph on northern Pemba (with J. Fleisher), and is beginning a project on Portuguese/Swahili interactions in Zanzibar (with N. Norman).  She is co-editor (with S. Wynne-Jones) of the forthcoming Routledge volume The Swahili World, and is Editor-in-Chief of the African Archaeological Review.

Additional information about this workshop series may be found here.

Burkhart: “Indigenous History in Christian Texts: Nahua Plays and Pictorial Catechisms”

Louise M Burkhart, University at Albany, SUNY

6pm-8pm, 10 April 2017

International Affairs Building – ISERP Conference Room 270B (directions here).


Nahuas living under colonial rule produced a huge trove of documents in many genres, divided by scholars into a “mundane” or “notarial” corpus, including annals, wills, primordial titles, and other materials, and a religious or doctrinal corpus. Historians have worked primarily with the former, but religious texts also inscribe historical statements. This presentation will highlight two colonial religious genres: catechisms presented in a reinvented pictographic writing and religious dramas that stage biblical or hagiographic stories as Nahuatl-language community theater. Both genres undermine colonizing discourses by asserting a competence as Christians generally denied by Spanish authorities, promoting an indigenized Christianity, and aligning Nahua communities with divine authority. In this historical imaginary Nahuas retain cosmic centrality and fidelity to their forebears, sidelining the role of Spanish colonial agents.

Pre-circulated paper attached, also available here


Louise Burkhart is professor and chair of the department of Anthropology at the University of Albany, SUNY. She is the author of The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (1989), the multivolume Nahuatl Theater (2004-2009), and Painted Words: Nahua Catholicism, Politics, and Memory in the Atzaqualco Pictorial Catechism (2016) among many other books and articles. Through her work, she investigates the ways in which indigenous Mexicans experienced, engaged with, and manipulated the Christian texts and teachings introduced under Spanish colonial rule, focusing primarily with materials in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language. Her latest research examines pictographic inscriptions of Nahuatl-language Christian doctrine, debunking the conventional view of these texts (known as Testerian manuscripts) as early missionary tools, by arguing that later-colonial native elites invented these new forms of writing for the purpose of political legitimation.

Bender Shetler: “Creating Regional Continuity through Gendered Historical Network Memory”

Jan Bender Shetler, Goshen College (IN)

6pm-8pm, 11th November 2016

International Affairs Building – ISERP Conference Room 270B (directions here).


This session will center around Chapter 1 of a larger book manuscript under review with University of Wisconsin Press: Women in Africa and the Diaspora Series now entitled Connecting Communities: A History of Gendered Social Network Memory of the Mara Region, Tanzania, 1880-present which explores the history of women’s narratives about the past rooted in the core spatial images of widespread regional networks. My previous work, Imagining Serengeti, primarily employed men’s ethnic accounts rooted in specific places.  This chapter employs a range of methodologies (linguistics, ethnography and oral tradition) to understand a region with a diverse range of language groups, lineage patterns and cultural norms, which nevertheless shares underlying regional understandings that made sustained interethnic interaction possible. In exploring the various forms of women’s historical memory in ancestral names, objects, life stories, customary knowledge and “gossip” I argue that women regularly marrying across these boundaries over the last millennium forged and maintained community connections through historical memory. Women sustained these networks because they needed them to get their work done as strangers in a new community, or to seek aid in times of famine or crisis. They learned many of these stories from their grandmothers in whose home they slept until they married. Grandmother’s stories gave them both the knowledge of their networks as well as instructed them in the importance of maintaining these networks both for their own wellbeing and that of their communities. Women’s memory, though in diverse forms, was critical to the unfolding historical process of creating an interacting region.

Pre-circulated paper attached, also available here.


Jan Bender Shetler is a professor of History and chair of the department of History and Political Science at Goshen College. She is the author of Imagining Serengeti: A History of Landscape Memory in Tanzania from Earliest Times to the Present (2007) and the editor of Gendering Ethnicity in African Women’s Lives (2015) among many other works. Her research has focused primarily on the history of northern Tanzania where she explores questions around oral traditions, social identity, memory and the environment. Her current research examines in particular the issue of gendered memory and how gender practices shape the transmission of knowledge and the creation of social networks.

Ortman: “Discourse and Human Securities in Tewa Origins”

Professor Scott Ortman, University of Colorado Boulder

Sept. 26, 2016  – 6pm-8pm


For the Archaeology of Human Experience to have an impact on public policy, archaeologists need to identify what contemporary society values were, determine the extent to which ancient societies provided these values, and examine what it was that enabled certain societies to provide them better than others. I develop a case study of this approach focusing on the famous “collapse” of Mesa Verde society and subsequent formation of ancestral Tewa society in the 13th century C.E. I translate the archaeological record into measures that reflect the United Nations Development Programme’s dimensions of human security to show that ancestral Tewa society eventually met basic human needs better than Mesa Verde society had done. I also present archaeological, linguistic, and cultural evidence that argues the ultimate driver of enhanced security was conceptual change during the migration period. This example suggests ideas play important roles in structuring behavioral habits and thus long-term social outcomes.

Pre-circulated paper attached here.


Professor Ortman’s work focuses on historical anthropology, or the integration of theory and data from many fields to understand the long-term histories of indigenous peoples. He is especially interested in the causes and consequences of major transitions – periods when new societies formed, old ones collapsed, or new scales of organization emerged. As examples, he has investigated Tewa Pueblo origins in the Northern Rio Grande region of New Mexico; the growth and collapse of villages in the Mesa Verde region of Colorado; and more recently, the accumulation of social complexity on a global scale. He is currently working on the Neolithic Revolution in the U.S. Southwest in collaboration with Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and the CU Museum of Natural History, the emergence of towns in the Tewa Basin, and complex systems approaches to human societies in collaboration with the Santa Fe Institute. Since 2003 Prof. Ortman has been involved with the Village Ecodynamics Project, a multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional collaboration that investigates long-term human-environment interactions in the U.S. Southwest. Prior to coming to CU, he was Director of Research at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado, and an Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute.